The best new artist winner of the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards may not be guaranteed future success, but it’s certainly one barometer of pop music’s future. This year’s slate is varied: two street rappers, two captivating R&B artists, a pop riser, and another artist from the Cyrus family are the nominees. Ahead of Sunday (when the VMAs air on MTV at 8pm ET), we run through who could take the honors previously awarded to the Eurythmics, Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana, Alanis Morissette, One Direction, Eminem, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, the Killers, and 50 Cent.
MTV VMAs 2017: Best new artist
This 23-year-old singer-songwriter co-wrote hits for Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, Selena Gomez, and Justin Bieber—all before releasing her debut single in January. The slow-burning, airy electropop cut “Issues” spotlights her emotive vocals and lyrical chops. And it’s amassed nearly 400 million plays on Spotify in just seven months.
“Issues” isn’t the most popular song she worked on—she co-wrote Bieber’s 2015 smash hit “Sorry,” among others—but it’s a sign of things to come. Other tracks off her debut EP Nervous System reveal her bold attitude (uber-catchy pop rocker “Uh Huh”) and her soulful heart (on the synth-tinged piano ballad “Worst In Me”).
With her pop songwriting background and initial success, Michaels is surely the safe choice for best new artist. She’s even performing during the main VMA show on Sunday. Regardless of whether she wins, you’ll be seeing her name again on the Billboard charts soon.
Young, smooth retro R&B cuts define Khalid, the rising artist who graduated from high school just last year. Kylie Jenner, who played his song “Location” on Snapchat on his graduation day, was instrumental to his initial success. His talent undoubtedly lines up with his fame: untarnished, silky songs tell of youth and love.
Despite timeless elements to Khalid, coming of age in the digital era means some electronic elements to his music. Synths play a prominent role in his songs, a la Frank Ocean. That hit Jenner found? It was written on an iPhone and uploaded to SoundCloud. And the songs themselves mention texting girlfriends and subtweeting on Twitter. “Falling in love in high school and falling out of love— it’s very digital,” Khalid told Rolling Stone.
Raw, controversial street rap is Kodak Black’s forte. “Yeah, project baby,” says the 20-year-old who grew up in the projects of South Florida’s Pompano Beach on “Conscience” (chart-topping rapper Future is here too). “These streets took my conscience.”
Painting Pictures, his debut studio album released in March, is colored by his time on the streets. Myriad drug, sex, and gun references fill the record, highlighted best on his dark, twice-platinum single about serving jail time (“Tunnel Vision”). It’s certainly biographical: The rapper born Dieuson Octave has been in and out of jail throughout his teenage years for armed robbery, possession of cannabis, and criminal sexual conduct. (Notably, he still has the support of Atlantic Records, which released the full-length while he was in jail earlier this year.)
The prolific, Drake-approved rapper has the ears of millions, regardless of whether a VMA win is in the cards. He just needs to stay out of legal trouble.
Yes, Noah Cyrus is Miley’s younger sister. At just 17 years old, she’s also a veritable pop riser in her own right. Down-to-earth vocals mesh with acoustic guitar on “I’m Stuck,” and her fervent spirit shows through big alt-pop production on “Make Me (Cry).” We’d much prefer if she’d stick to the former, but we expect that she’s exploring it all.
She’s set to break out this fall: She’s secured an opening slot on Katy Perry’s tour and her debut record NC-17 is likely on its way before the end of 2017. It sounds like it’ll have some diversity, featuring a country song and an “electronics-driven ode to adolescent apathy” according to a Billboard report.
The jury’s out on whether she’ll have even a fraction of cultural impact as her sister. She is trying to distance herself from Miley, though, telling Billboard “I’m doing my thing, and Miley’s doing hers.”
SZA is more than the bedroom R&B swooners that fill her debut full-length Cntrl. Soul permeates through the record, whether it’s the revealing, flowing “Supermodel,” or the unapologetic jam “Love Galore” (feat. Travis Scott). Themes of love run through Cntrl, but it’s a thoughtful (albeit sometimes unusual) sense of love.
“‘Supermodel’ is a personal goal. I wanted to just do like a stream-of-consciousness song from the top, to just freestyle something that flowed out of my body,” the artist born Solana Imani Rowe, who is signed to Kendrick Lamar’s Top Dawg Entertainment, told Vulture. “With ‘Doves in the Wind,’ I wanted to talk shit.’”
That’s pretty much what we thought when we heard Cntrl. We’re not sure if it’s enough to push the proverbial VMA best new artist envelope, but we’re sure that this isn’t the last you’ll be hearing of SZA.
“OOOUUU” broke Brooklyn rapper Young M.A. onto the national scene last year in a big way—and she did it without major music biz support. She self-released the single, which she calls a “feel-good record,” last year. Since, it’s been remixed by Nicki Minaj, French Montana, Jadakiss, and A$AP Ferg. Just five months after its release, she was already performing onstage at a Beyoncé stadium show in New Jersey.
“OOOUUU” is an ode to a living large. It’s representative of her 2017 EP Herstory, which finds her gulping down Hennessey, recounting her life on the streets, and dating women. Her gritty lyrics—she calls 50 Cent (who has also remixed “OOOUUU”) one of her inspirations—and her uncompromising attitude have propelled her forward.
She’s the cool, outspoken lady of the VMA best new artist nominees. She may be too provocative for MTV circa 2017, but she’s certainly an artist to watch.