The "slept on dilemma" is not unique to hip-hop. Look at any other creative endeavor, any other professional sector and you're likely to find the same phenomenon taking place: the systems that rank, confer, celebrate, and ultimately empower practitioners are always overlooking deserving individuals. However, in hip-hop the notion of the slept on artist has a unique quality. In hip-hop being slept on can ultimately lead to discovery as the culture places considerable value on unrelenting underdogs, and many practitioners and critics are always on the lookout for not only unknown talent, but enduring and unacknowledged talent. People love to root for an underdog, and in hip-hop people love to wield their knowledge of/connection to an underdog.

The internet has altered the way the underdog and their audience interact, but fundamentally the concept remains the same. Giving an artist their first big break is an honor to be pinned on one's sleeve. Being a dedicated fan of an artist "before they blew up," still holds major currency in the culture of music consumption. But none of that amounts to anything more than a feeling, an acknowledgment that you exist independent of the commercial and industrial avenues of the art and culture you are a part of. In spite of the fact that it's easier than ever to actually gain access to the music of such artists, it hasn't really changed much. Keeping up with underrated artists remains every bit as valuable as we realize that this concept is not a matter of access, but one of discerning signal from noise. Most people do have access, but the ability to discern signal from noise has not been made any more immediate by technology. Thus, in a time where underdogs are closer than ever to the surface, they're still every bit as dogged and under.

For the last 16 years of my life I have been so heavily invested in hip-hop music as a practitioner, a critic, and more recently a gatekeeper, that I've had the fortune to gain great perspective, and come into contact with many artists who are not receiving the recognition that their work merits. I always do everything I can to spread the word on great artists, not because I'm the ultimate authority, but because I'm fortunate enough to know a lot of great artists and I have some very effective platforms for sharing them with the public. So, without any further adieu, here are five brilliant artists making amazing work who you might not know about:


Left Leberra

Originally from Connecticut, Left is a consummate product of the internet era drifting through the United States living fearlessly, maintaining a unique perspective, and transforming his experiences into art. His songwriting ability reflects the kind of casual proficiency that defines cool; his sensibilities echo a keen awareness of the status quo and how to effectively short circuit it; the content of his work is a kaleidoscopic reflection of his deeply considered life experiences which venture far beyond the accepted or expected. Left is a curious dude who doesn't hesitate to make a joke at his own expense, and never ceases to keep things interesting.

Whether he is offering keen and sober insight on life's complications, comedic observations on the absurdity of our society, or recounting the improbable but authentic accounts of his life, Left is always busy doing something unexpected and insanely engaging. In short, Left is a spiritual mystic of the internet age who has developed a unique alchemical process that transforms his experiences to music that is at once catchy, and obscure. It's really easy to catch on to what Left is doing, and sing along. But the more you delve into his work the deeper it becomes and the more you realize that arriving at some conclusive, explicit, and finite summation of what you're experiencing simply isn't possible. Instead you are given a fecund mix of signifiers, references, observations, insights, and tales that serve as a masterful reflecting pool upon which to marvel at the grotesque beauty of our contemporary lives.


Tree

Recent years have found Chicago lauded not only for producing singular stars--think Kanye and Common--but for being a vibrant epicenter of hip-hop producing artists of broadly varied qualities who all excel in their unique interpretation of hip-hop. However, in spite of all the attention, the very obvious injection of capital on account of major labels and endorsements from big brands, Tree still remains under the radar for most. That is undoubtedly in part because Tree doesn't fit into any of the obvious categories. Tree's music doesn't reflect the kinds of values, experiences, or stylizations that are always already familiar to the listener. While he certainly departs from familiar territory--a vibrant life marked by the potent experiences that come with selling drugs and existing in a culture that survives and thrives outside of the laws and norms that dictate society--Tree does not relay familiar stories, and he doesn't deliver them in familiar packaging.

Tree is moreso a practitioner of a unique brand of contemporary folk music that relies on the tools and conventions of hip-hop than just another rapper. He doesn't rap over beats to make catchy songs, he pours his soul into producing beats, rapping, and singing in order to create works that amplify and reflect the complex nature of our contemporary existence. Tree might sing loudly about selling drugs, or doing dirt to get by, but it's always in service of a higher purpose, and always characterized by sagacious observations. Tree's music is not the creation of an ascendant avatar aiming at apotheosis through some almighty articulation of trends. Instead Tree offers up the recitation of spiritual songs intended to unite individuals by abolishing time and space, and elevate that congregation of individuals to a higher plane by challenging them to accept, understand, and ultimately transcend a broken reality rather than glorify it.


Sortahuman

Perhaps the most slept on artists I have ever met considering the amount of material they've released, the amount of top tier underground acts that name themselves as fans of Sortahuman, the amount of collabs that Supa does, and their proximity to nearly every act that's come out of the internet scene in the last 5 years. Sortahuman consists of Supa and Joeybagadoughnutz (and formerly Snacks). They have been at the epicenter of the internet hip-hop scene and the new underground for at least 5 years. They are located in Hunstville, Alabama which claims some of the contemporary underground's most influential artists as its residents, and Sortahuman's peers. Yet somehow Sortahuman has been 100% consistently overlooked.

They have yet to be featured on any of the major trend-setting blogs except for Mishka (Mishka released a Supa album, and he is also a featured blogger). However, in spite of the fact that they are criminally discriminated against by music journalists they're not sweating it. And that's because none of what they do is conceived with any notion of the machinations of a culture of trend-hopping, and page views. Sortahuman makes music for the future out of profound and thorough influences from the past. Their sound is entirely familiar to anyone who has ever listened to Southern rap, but you would be hard-pressed to find any clear antecedents to Sortahuman. This is two dudes with white skin, making music that is the result of their life experiences.

Supa and Joey are working class dudes with pretty chill lives who like to party with their homies, delve deep into esoteric music, films, thoughts, and books, play video games, and tell the truth. Nobody ever told them they should rap, nobody ever told them how to take the next steps, they've just been so inspired by life that they can't help but turn some of their extra energy into art. And that art consistently turns out expertly crafted, consistently hits marks that no one else is hitting right now, and consistently delivers on the articulation of classic sounds in a fresh and unique style for the times.


Alley Boy

Alley Boy is without a doubt the most widely-known artist on this list. He's been signed to Atlantic for a while, is regularly featured on many of the popular websites, and likely has a good PR team. Yet, in spite of all that he still finds himself amongst the ranks of a bunch of other rappers aspiring to transcend relative regional fame and name themselves amongst the artists of the year. I think one of the main reasons Alley Boy gets overlooked is because most of the people writing about him don't have the means to discern the nuances of his art. Because he raps about robbing, selling drugs, and various other nefarious activities people readily overlook the fact that he is entirely distinct from any other rapper who might be categorized alongside him.

Most rappers assume a personality in which they brag about the wonders of living outside of the law, and choosing their own terms for self-governance. Alley Boy recounts the often remorseful and painful aspects of being involved in a life lived on such massive terms alongside his nearly manic elations at tasking a 15-year-old with the murder of his adversary, and it all fits together naturally. For anyone with any degree of familiarity with a life lived outside the law there is something immediately evident about Alley Boy's art. It's not every day that you find someone who uses the terms of this type of life to achieve a transcendent state, and is able to channel their energy into such a refined and yet casual craft. You don't get the impression that Alley Boy is practicing his rap skills all the time, but the caliber of his cadences, and the refinement of his sense of rhythm suggests otherwise. He has a natural capacity for songwriting, and his works amount to a kind of hood Hunter S. Thompson returning from the edge with wild tales that remind you how wild life truly is.


Sole/Pain1

Sole is one of the OG architects of underground hip-hop. As a founder of Anticon he spent the late '90s and early 2000s contributing heavily to the creation of the distribution and touring networks that allowed underground hip-hop to become everything that came after him. Basically, there would be no internet scene without Sole. By contrast, DJ Pain1 made his name crafting meticulously rendered contemporary opuses for the likes of Rick Ross, Jeezy, and countless others from the pinnacle of commercially successful mainstream hip-hop.

In a fashion similar to Run The Jewels, and Piñata, Sole and Pain1 have begun creating a kind of music that never could have existed before. Sole's raps are an intricately woven hyper-intellectual discourses on contemporary protest, and life lived with extremely resolute intention to affect change and spread higher consciousness. Pain1's beats are the kind of hi fidelity exact renderings that create the pristine and resounding stages on which mainstream rappers reach massive audiences. 10 years ago this music probably couldn't have existed, but today it couldn't make more sense. The result of their work together is the kind of undeniable material that bears resounding significance to the citizens of our times. It's the stuff that you need to hear, the stuff that everyone should be talking about, but it's not trying to distance itself from the accepted terms of culture. Like a cocktail of probiotics, antioxidants, and vital greens hidden within a popular energy drink can Sole and Pain1 are turning the game on its head without denying anyone ample ground on which to shake their ass should they choose.