It’s no secret that talent and success aren’t always correlated, especially in the arts. Beyond the series of seemingly impossible coincidences required to get you discovered, there is also the issue of popular taste. For some artists, their musical direction is intentionally esoteric, with their cerebral lyrics that are impossible to remember or fully understand on the first listen through.
The following six artists all have under 200,000 monthly listens on Spotify, but have found success in niche groups, by working with other artists or under scrutiny of critics. They are listed here from most known to least known.
1. Kirk Knight
Kirk Knight is the most popular rapper on this list, currently clocking in 189,629 monthly listeners on Spotify. He is part of the hip hop collective “Pro Era,” a group that includes Joey Badass, Nyck Caution and CJ Fly, among seven other active rappers, all from New York City.
Kirk’s current level of fame is in large part derived from his collaborations with the most well-known artist in the collective, Joey Badass. His rapping style is not immediately impressive, and his flow and wordplay are often overshadowed by Joey on their tracks together, whether on “Late Knight Special” (Kirk’s debut album) or “ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$” (Joey’s most recent album).
However, Kirk’s strengths lie in his story-telling ability and his production. Not only has he had produced almost all of his own music, he has produced a significant amount of Pro Era’s music. His beats range from dark and gritty to fluid and trippy. His flow is melodic, easy to listen to and almost always focused on story-telling.
On top of all that, he pulls in incredible lyrical talents for his projects, including Joey, The Flatbush Zombies and Noname Gypsy, all of whom bring their A-game to every one of his songs. He is also not afraid to take risks, like in his most recent project “Black Noise,” which is an exclusively instrumental album that lays out a series of interesting and musically diverse soundscapes. His emergence from the shadow of his collaborators will be a sight to behold. Don’t miss it.
Blu is a rapper and producer from Los Angeles, and averages 166,970 monthly listens on Spotify. He may be the most impressive lyricist on this list. His late-’90s-style approach to flow and storytelling isn’t just exceptionally meticulous and well executed; it is extremely personal. His debut album, “Below the Heavens,” got him named HipHopDx’s Rookie of the Year in 2007 for the way it effortlessly depicts Blu’s struggle with poverty and deals with issues of family and work, romance and unexpected fatherhood, while also adding general existential ponderings for good measure. The debut also had the benefit of being produced entirely by the wildly talented Exile, giving the album a diverse but cohesive sound full of intricate instrumentals for Blu to destroy.
There is an issue with Blu’s career arc, however. His work with Exile is by far his best and most widely recognized material, despite the fact that he has released seven other albums since then. None of the follow-ups seem capable of touching the success of his first project, except for his one other collaboration with Exile, “Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them,” which they released in 2012. There is something almost problematic about how much music he has put out surrounding his two most successful projects, and their lack of popular appeal seem to drown the beauty of his peak performances. It’s too easy to let a masterpiece like “Below the Heavens” slip by unnoticed.
3. Michael Christmas
Michael Christmas is a very young rapper from Boston who has made his mark by being equal parts goofy, talented and nerdy. He began gaining traction when his music video for the song “Daily” started getting passed around the internet. The song reveals his artistic direction without showcasing his more impressive abilities as a rapper, namely, his brutal, comedic honesty. He raps about eating hot pockets, masturbating, playing Pokémon and watching Michael Cera movies. His album “Is This Art?” contains songs that tell stories, such as “What’s Happening” or “Daily,” but also songs that explore ideas and emotions, such as “Drunk” and “Taco Truck.”
He is not at all afraid to take musical risks, too. “Leonard Washington” is a perfect example of this, because the production is not only strange and occasionally hard to follow, it also changes dramatically from one moment to the next. There is a consistent stream of jazzy, bass-heavy influences throughout “Is This Art?” but each song has a slightly different approach from the last.
Some might perceive it as eclectic; others might see it as unfocused. It’s hard to tell when the artists himself refuses to take any of what is happening seriously. On that note, it is important to mention that Michael Christmas is legitimately funny, and occasionally hilarious. It is the dopey wit with which he explains his silly subject matter, and the low and thuggish delivery of that wit, that combines into something paradoxical and endearing. This kind of persona will not be for everyone, but he finds a vibe that no one else seems to quite have a grasp on and makes his home there.
4. Open Mike Eagle
Open Mike Eagle, who grew up in Chicago but is currently based in LA, is the epitome of alternative hip-hop. His sound is strange and his verses contain heavy influences from spoken word poetry and artists like MF Doom. His hip hop collective, “Project Blowed,” is essentially just an open-mic workshop for underground hip hop enthusiasts.
With a more monotone delivery and a surprisingly ambitious approach to rhyme schemes, his subject material seems to fluidly alternate between absurd and poignant. Check out this excerpt from his song “Dark Comedy Late Show” (which happens to be produced by the aforementioned Exile).
“You can watch us on the newsfeeds
Fucking y’all’s mornings up
Until America admits that it likes dogs more than us
And I can see the Super Bowls of the future:
The Ferguson Blacks vs. Missouri State Troopers
The Privacy Rights vs. the Personal Computers
Concussion Researchers vs. University Boosters
I graduated college, I purchased all the extra books
I’m supposed to be living in a house with a breakfast nook”
Claiming to go for absurdity to cover up his ineptitude at sarcasm, Open Mike Eagle seems to possess that ever-evasive “outsider” perspective where he can both be a part of the hip-hop culture and a pensive arm-chair critic, a member of the Ameritocracy and a frustrated victim of oppression and media sensationalism. Whatever your thoughts on his music, he is hilarious, honest and fascinating.
5. The Palmer Squares
It is with a heavy heart that I reveal to you that I have been lying about how many rappers are on this list. There are actually seven, because “The Palmer Squares” is the rap duo “Terminal Knowledge” and “Accumental.” However, these two have never made a project by themselves, so they are grouped together here.
Born and raised in Chicago, The Palmer Squares reflect the Chi-town influences of spoken word that we have seen in more famous artists like Noname and Chance the Rapper. They are also much more obscure than anyone else on this list so far. They represent the “YouTube rapper,” getting most of their initial internet fame from online cypher competitions like “So You Think You Can Rap” and “The Duke Westlake Cypher.”
If you look them up, it is easy to see why they haven’t ever made it big: They are aggressively white. From their delivery, to their clothing, to their references, to their prototypical “rap in the basement” type of cypher instrumentals, it is impossible to ignore. But if you push past this initial impression (or if this doesn’t bother you in the first place) and pay attention to their lyrics, the duo reveal themselves as geniuses. The rhyme schemes they employ are some of the most complex, tongue-twisting and meticulously constructed schemes that have ever been written. Here is a brief example from Accumental’s verse on their song “Unlistenable.”
“I’m never not ill, receiving Emmy nods for every set I’m on
And reading teleprompter like I’m Teddy Koppel
Bellyflopping off the top rope
It’s the anomaly, an oddity exotically professing proverbs
Hella proper, call shotty in a helicopter
Accmuntal hopping out the chopper like I’m Kevin Costner
Get baked smoking Betty Crocker
The blessed father of a demigod, watching How I Met Your Momma
See I was pouring Henny on her at the Benihana
Hosting barbecues with Jeffery Dahmer as the guest of honor
On strike like Keitel in Clockers
The confetti-poppin pettifogger
Still flexing with eleven dollars”
They may be extremely goofy, but their verses are filled to the brim with lines where every syllable rhymes, ridiculous vocabulary words, obscure references to television, radio, philosophy and drugs, as well as long stretches of alliteration that seem impossible. If nothing else, they are extremely impressive.
It is very fitting to end with Ka, because he is not only the least listened-to artist on this list, but the one whose lack of recognition is the most unfair. A producer and rapper from Brooklyn, Ka has spent his time refining his craft down to an extremely minimalist approach. The best example is his most recent album, “Honor Killed the Samurai.” The barren, snare-less production and his quiet, raspy vocals allow Ka to spin something vivid, reflective, deeply personal and overtly sociopolitical. This album made number nineteen on Rolling Stone’s Top 40 Rap Albums of 2016, received an impressive 8.0 from Pitchfork and earned an equally impressive 4.3 from HipHopDx.
Despite the consistent critical acclaim, Ka currently has 24,481 monthly listeners on Spotify. To some extent, it is easy to see why. His instrumentals are almost always in minor keys and possess low energy, his rapping is rarely technically impressive as far as speed or flow is concerned and his subject matter is dark and personal. However, his approach is nothing short of artful and precise.
The influence of the underground boom-bap culture he was a part of, the disappointment in witnessing the gentrification of Brooklyn and the inclusion of Eastern philosophy in his inner debates and sampling has made something beautiful and esoteric. It is inherently going to be over some people’s heads, or just be too somber and slow to engage the public at large. But until he gets more than just critics and hip-hop heads listening to his music, he will remain tragically and criminally slept on.