While Beyoncé, Drake, Kanye, Justin, and Adele vie for the top honour at this weekend’s VMAs, a crop of fresh talent will be waiting in the wings, eager to earn the show’s most coveted vote of confidence. Yep, we’re talking about Best New Artist.
This year’s five nominated acts all boast smash singles that you’ll instantly recognize, if you pay even the slightest attention to pop music. Before one of them takes home the Moonman for Best New Artist — a category previously won by One Direction, Lady Gaga, Eminem, and Nirvana, just to name a few — get familiar with this year’s contenders by taking a look back on their journeys to VMA fame.
Don’t call Desiigner a one-hit wonder. Sure, his debut single, “Panda,” has become one of 2016’s most ubiquitous smashes, but the Brooklyn rapper has been drawling catchy (albeit semi-indecipherable) hooks since way before he decided to compare BMW X6s to cute mammals.
Desiigner, born Sidney Royel Selby III, started singing in his school and church choirs when he was young, and rapping at age 14. Early songs like “Jackie Chan” and “Zombie Walk” proved what he could whip up behind the mic, but it wasn’t until “Panda” hit Soundcloud in December 2015 that the world started to notice.
The trap anthem caught Kanye West’s attention, who sampled “Panda” on The Life of Pablo and signed Desiigner to his G.O.O.D. Music label imprint. “Panda” immediately earned Desiigner comparisons to ATL rapper (and 2016 VMA performer) Future, but it’s also given him something Future’s never had: a chart-topping single.
Capitalizing on his newfound fame, Desiigner kept busy during Summer ’16, dropping his mixtape New English in June, debuting the track “Timmy Turner” in July, and converting non-believers into fans with his energetic, highly GIFable live performances. (I don’t know about you, but I have yet to see him sling his mic in the air and fail to catch it. SKILLS, I tell ya.)
Following Tove Lo and Icona Pop’s Stateside breakthroughs, Zara Larsson is the latest singer to carry the torch for the Swedish Pop Invasion. At just 18, Larsson is the rare child star who’s only gotten bigger and better over time. Her breakthrough in her home country came in 2008, when she won the Swedish version of Got Talent (this must-see video of her singing Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” was her crowning moment on the show).
After a few years on the grind — during which she scored three top ten singles in the U.K. and three #1s in Sweden — she shot to international fame with the breezy single “Lush Life” and her chart-topping collaboration with MNEK, “Never Forget You.” Now that everyone knows her voice thanks to those hits, she’s prepping her upcoming album, which she promises will arrive soon.
Calling Lukas Graham a “new artist” is a slight stretch, considering the pop-soul band has been together for five years and frontman Lukas Forchhammer is 27 (making him the oldest singer in this category by a few years). But the Danish four-man outfit had a long, winding road to global fame.
Lukas Graham’s 2012 debut album was a hit in their home country, and subsequent European tours made them a well-known live act across the pond. Their global debut, however, didn’t happen until late 2015 — butman, oh man, what a debut. Anyone who’s listened to the radio in 2016 can probably recognize the twinkling piano intro of their nostalgic hit “7 Years,” which quickly became a platinum-selling smash. It appears on the band’s self-titled American debut album, along with their most recent single, “Mama Said,” which sounds like the love child of Twenty One Pilots’s “Blurryface” and Jay Z’s “Hard Knock Life.” Sure, they may be the oldest of our Best New Artist nominees, but they really nail that whole “being young is hard and growing up sucks” feeling.
Tiller emerged in the spotlight shrouded in mystery, much like fellow enigmatic R&B faves The Weeknd and Frank Ocean. But it wasn’t long before the 23-year-old Kentuckian started to shed the mystique — and that’s a great thing, because the man we once called “the future of R&B” is as fascinating as the music he makes.
Tiller made his musical debut in 2011 with the mixtape Killer Instinct Vol. 1, but his breakthrough didn’t come until a couple of years later, when he shared “Don’t” on Soundcloud. At the time, Tiller was a relatively unknown singer-songwriter who made music in his bedroom and worked odd jobs in Louisville to provide for his new baby daughter. Scared and uncertain, he actually pulled “Don’t” from Soundcloud soon after uploading it, but fans who’d already heard it inspired him to reconsider.
Good thing, because superstar producer Timbaland caught wind of it and flew Tiller to Miami to work on new music. Another major co-sign came from Drake, who offered to sign Tiller to OVO Records. However, Tiller declined and instead released his debut album, T R A P S O U L, on RCA Records. The album instantly won over fans with its genre-blurring marriage of rap and R&B, paving the way for collaborations with DJ Khaled and The Weeknd, and making Tiller one of the most promising young artists today.
Out of all the Best New Artist nominees, DNCE have had the quickest rise to fame (their debut single isn’t even a year old!). But that’s what happens when you have a famous frontman (former Jonas Brother and Disney Channel star Joe Jonas) and one hell of a breakthrough song.
The funk-pop earworm “Cake By the Ocean” premiered in September 2015 as the season’s silliest song of the (late) summer, and launched DNCE into stardom. Jonas, drummer Jack Lawless, ever-cool guitarist JinJoo Lee, and eccentric bassist Cole Whittle wasted no time following up “Cake” with their four-track debut EP, SWAAY, last October. Since then, the band has collaborated with Hailee Steinfeld on the punchy pop ballad “Rock Bottom,” performed on Fox’s Grease: Live, and opened on Selena Gomez’s Revival Tour. All that before they’ve even dropped an album?! These dudes (and dudette) move quickly, folks.
Tune in to the 2016 VMAs, live from New York on Sunday, August 28, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.