Over a decade after Fish Scales rapped, “Man, it’s a new day, listen to the kids,” on Nappy Roots’ 2010 song “Be Alright,” the advice still rings true. While the 50th anniversary of hip-hop this month has celebrated many of its legends, the genre has proven that it has always been a young person’s game. The youngest rappers of all time have made indelible impacts on the culture in different ways. Take a look at how these artists came up at the earliest points of their careers, and were grabbing headlines before some of them were even a teen.
Thirty years ago, a 6-year-old Lil Bow Wow made his entry into the game, and got a big cosign from Snoop Dogg. The Doggfather featured the young rhymer on “Gz and Hustlas,” a song on Snoop’s 1993 album, Doggystyle. The moment was a launching pad for Bow’s success as a child rap star.
In 2016, Jermaine Dupri teamed with Lifetime network to produce the reality television series The Rap Game. Several winners were younger than 18, including Latto, who won the show’s inaugural season at 16 years old, and J.I. the Prince of N.Y., nearly winning the second season at 15 years old.
They say age ain’t nothing but a number, and never has it been more apparent than with these 20 artists. The rap game always inspired the future generations of rhymers to carve their own paths, like Nas, whose rise as a verbal assassin in New York began at 17 years old, to Chief Keef, who took Chicago by storm at 16, gaining the attention of artists like Kanye West.
Hip-hop is full of young, talented artists who earned the spotlight with a veteran’s touch. Here, XXL highlights artists who were making waves before the age of 18. Check out 20 of the youngest rappers to grab the spotlight in hip-hop history below.
LL Cool J is a hip-hop icon, multi-Grammy award winner, TV and movie star and an inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Before achieving these accolades, a 16-year-old LL was considered the future of hip-hop after signing with Def Jam in 1984, and releasing his first single, “I Need a Beat.” Equipped with a hard-hitting style rapping over aggressive beats, the Queens rapper rose to the forefront in the 1980’s rap landscape.
His raw brand of hip-hop mixed with a heartthrob charm were heard all over his debut album, Radio, in 1985. The project was culturally revolutionary, as the 17-year-old artist showcased his exuberance and bravado over solid beats. Radio, now considered one of the most significant albums in hip-hop culture, debuted as a commercial success, charting at No. 46 on the Billboard 200.
MC Lyte is regarded as a hip-hop pioneer for women rappers. She paved the way for the celebrated women rhymers of today. However, in the early stages of her career, the Brooklyn rapper was a hip-hop prodigy, noted for rhyming at the age of 12 and releasing her first single, “I Cram to Understand U (Sam),” in 1987 at 16 years old. The song tells the story of Lyte dating a character named Sam, who turns out to be addicted to crack cocaine.
Her flow, delivery and innovation as she crafts a captivating, cautionary tale that makes listeners hang on to every word led to plenty of praise for the track. MC Lyte would follow that single with her debut album, Lyte as a Rock, in 1988. The then-17-year-old became the first woman rapper in hip-hop to release a full solo album.
Special Ed’s debut in hip-hop was a unique experience. Singing with Profile Records at 15 years old, the rapper was considered so young that the signing had to be authorized by the courts. His debut single, “Think About It,” introduced the teen rapper to the limelight. A smooth guitar-riffed beat supported the solid rhymes he delivered on the 4-minute song. The single captivated audiences by placing No. 68 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
Ed would follow the single by releasing his debut album, Youngest In Charge, in 1989, on his 17th birthday. The album is highlighted by the rhymer’s versatile styles and shifty lyrics laced with fun punchlines to match his witty flows. The album peaked at No. 73. on the Billboard 200.
The legacy of Jermaine Dupri in hip-hop is celebrated for his knack for discovering talented youth. His skills in artist discovery culminated in the 1990’s hip-hop group Kriss Kross, who Dupri found at a clothing store in an Atlanta mall. The duo, Christopher Kelly, 11, and Christopher Smith, 12, released their 1992 debut single, “Jump,” an infectiously energetic pop-rap track that features one of rap’s all-time contagious hooks. The video introduced the rap game to one of the most unique dressing styles in hip-hop history: backward clothing.
The fun-loving single helped the duo earn their first chart-topping song, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The rap duo would follow up this success with the release of their debut album, Totally Krossed Out, in 1992. The LP sold 4 million units and reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Before the age of 16, Kriss Kross became a mainstream sensation, having their own video game, Kris Kross: Make My Video, and the release of their second album, Da Bomb, in 1993, which earned platinum status.
Before Nas’ debut album, Illmatic, was released in 1994, he was taking his talents to whichever stage he could perform on in New York City. The Queens rapper was a lyrical force as a teenager, and had both fans and music industry professionals paying attention to what the young gun was showcasing during hip-hop’s formative years. In 1991, Nas joined rap group Main Source for their song “Live at the Barbeque.” The lyrical moment would set the tone for the 17-year-old rapper’s critically acclaimed career, which was just beginning. His opening verse also proved he lived up to his self-proclaimed “verbal assassin” title. “Verbal assassin, my architect pleases/When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffin’ Jesus/Nasty Nas is a rebel to America/Police murderer, I’m causin’ hysteria,” he rapped.
About a year later, Nas would sign a deal with Columbia Records, his label home for many years. Under the moniker Nasty Nas, he went on to release the song “Halftime” in 1992. The track helped continue the momentum he had gained as a rising rapper to watch. While “Halftime” was part of a soundtrack for the 1992 film Zebrahead, it would later be included on his classic album, Illmatic.
Today, Lil Wayne is one of the greatest rappers of all time. However, in 1997, a 15-year-old Wayne was known as the youngest member of the Hot Boys, a New Orleans hip-hop group signed to then-independent record label Cash Money Records. The Hot Boys consisted of members Wayne, B.G., Juvenile and Turk. As the youngest of the group, Wayne helped contribute to their success, as their debut LP, Get It How U Live!, released in 1997, sold 400,000 units.
The group found their stride on their second album, Guerrilla Warfare, released in 1999, when a 17-year-old Wayne came into his own with show-stealing verses on singles like “I Need A Hot Girl,” and helping the group earn their first platinum album. Wayne’s days as a member of the Hot Boys laid the foundation for him to become the elite rapper of today.
Discovered by Snoop Dogg at 6 years old, Bow Wow’s career began on a hot streak. He appeared on the Doggystyle track “Gz and Hustlas” and The Arsenio Hall Show in 1993. At 13, Bow Wow would reach superstar status when he linked with producer Jermaine Dupri and released Bow’s first single “Bounce with Me” in 2000. This song would be the breakthrough single for the rapper’s debut album, Beware of Dog in 2000, debuting at No. 8 on the Billboard 200 and earning double-platinum status.
His impact on hip-hop was monumental during this time, as it coincided with the height of the countdown music video show 106 & Park, one of hip-hop’s most culturally defining platforms. Bow Wow dominated this age in rap, as the artist’s charismatic slick-talk on money and women helped his first 10 videos reach No. 1 on the show. Following his second album, Doggy Bag, in 2001, which also reached platinum status, the rapper began his successful transition into acting, appearing in films All About the Benjamins and Like Mike. Bow Wow released three albums and appeared in four films before turning 18.
Lil Romeo, the son of hip-hop mogul Master P, instantaneously impacted the rap game after signing to his father’s record label, No Limit Records, in 2000. Following this signing, the 12-year-old rapper released his first hit single, “My Baby,” which peaked at No. 3. on the Billboard Hot 100. Romeo delivered an adolescent, fresh-faced charm and matched this style with charisma. The rising rapper would follow up his lead single with his self-titled debut album, Lil Romeo. The effort debuted at No. 6. on the Billboard 200 and earned Romeo a gold plaque.
At this time, the New Orleans native was considered one of hip-hop’s youngest powerhouse, rapping about his life of being a millionaire before being hitting high school. Romeo would further cement his superstar legacy by becoming a double threat at 13 years old, dabbling in acting, earning a role in the 2003 dance film Honey and starring in his own Nickelodeon sitcom Romeo!.
Soulja Boy’’s digital impact changed the genre of hip-hop. At 16 years old, the Atlanta rapper became hip-hop’s most prominent digital marketer with his grassroots style of promoting his music. “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” was the first example of his work being celebrated. Using the peer-to-peer file-sharing platform LimeWire, Soulja Boy frequently altered his song data to match the names of popular songs, tricking users into hearing his material.
“Crank That” was officially released in 2007, a pop-rap song that features Soulja Boy showing listeners how to perform his “crank that” dance. An immediate hit happened and he earned major radio play as a result. Soulja Boy signed to Mr. Collipark’s ColliPark Music under Interscope Records, resulting in more benefits from the major label machine. “Crank That” landed at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and received multiplatinum status. At 17 years old, Soulja Boy dropped his debut album, Souljaboytellem.com, in 2007, featuring a number of fun singles like the club-ready song “Donk.”
Being the heir to hip-hop royalty is never easy, especially when your father is Rev Run from the iconic hip-hop group Run-DMC. At 14 years old, Diggy Simmons took on the challenge of living up to his father’s legacy by releasing his then-viral “Made You Look Freestyle” months after dropping his first mixtape, The First Flight, in 2009. Diggy’s rise to hip-hop mainstream was a combination of matching the hype of his family legacy and sporting a blitzing flow and complex rhymes usually reserved for veterans twice his age.
Diggy would follow up his debut tape with a second, Airborne, which features appearances from artists like Chris Brown and Lupe Fiasco. The young Simmons would earn more accomplishments, including being part of the 2011 XXL Freshman Class. By 16, Diggy released three mixtapes. His eventual album, Unexpected Arrival, arrived in 2012. The project peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard 200.
Lil Snupe entered the rap scene with a scenario that mirrors every artist’s dream: handing their favorite rapper a mixtape and receiving approval and appreciation. In 2012, a then-17-year-old Snupe gave his demo to Meek Mill, who was out in Louisiana on tour. Meek eventually signed Lil Snupe to his Dream Chasers Records. Snupe released his debut single, “Nobody Does It Better” featuring Meek Mill in 2013. Snupe’s ability to match Meek’s strong knack for crafting street-level hustler music is showcased.
The rising rapper followed up the single with the mixtape R.N.I.C. (Real N***a In Charge), in 2013. The 21-song project placed Lil Snupe as one of the best young artists in hip-hop due to his raw, honest delivery and songs that range from club bangers to ambition anthems.
How do you capture the attention of Kanye West and Jadakiss, plus fans from around the country? Release a genre-defining hit. A 16-year-old Chief Keef received national attention after he released “I Don’t Like” featuring Lil Reese in 2012. The drill song features Keef listing off everything he doesn’t like: snitches, reggie weed and sneak dissers included. The gritty anthem went beyond its regional reception thanks to the appeal of its bare-bones video.
Originally part of Chief Keef’s mixtape Back from the Dead, the single peaked at No. 73 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Love Sosa” and “Hate Being Sober” would follow on his debut album, Finally Rich, in 2012. Both tracks became surefire hits and hood anthems in Chicago and beyond due to Keef’s ability to craft songs that radiate rugged energy. Finally Rich peaked at No. 29 on the Billboard 200.
The career of XXXTentacion is one praised for his versatility in rap, emotional honesty in his lyrics and loyal fandom. XXXTentacion began his career in 2013, when the 15-year-old rhymer released “News/Flock” on SoundCloud, a series of vividly detailed stories delivered on a dark instrumental before transitioning to an Odd Future sample. While the song earned XXX a name in the hip-hop underground spaces, his career would reach new heights after the release of his critically acclaimed single, “Look at Me,” in 2015. Clubby bass line, rattling drums and an aggressive flow from the then-17-year-old rapper made the track soar.
The single earned the Broward County, Fla. rapper a genuine underground following, but many considered the song a sleeper track, as it eventually received millions of streams nearly two years after its initial release. “Jocelyn Flores” and Sad!” were among his standout tracks, which showcased incomparable songwriting and a unique approach to hip-hop by singing his lyrics. While the artist’s life was cut short, the rapper was able to craft three projects before the age of 18. XXXTentacion was considered one of the brightest stars of the SoundCloud era, landing a spot in the 2017 XXL Freshman Class.
Latto may be on her grown and sexy tip these days, but she was once a fresh-faced rising rapper. She got her start as a contestant on Jermaine Dupri’s reality television series, The Rap Game. Under the former stage name Miss Mulatto, the then-16-year-old rhymer was a standout artist in the field, utilizing an aggressive tone combined with a silky-smooth southern flow to craft verses far beyond her years.
The Atlanta native would leave the show as the winner of the inaugural season but later turn down the record deal that accompanied the victory. She elected to continue as an independent artist. Latto would use her televised victory as a platform to become a household name. She released her single, “On My Way,” in 2016, the debut single to her mixtape, Miss Mulatto.
J.I. the Prince of N.Y.’s introduction to hip-hop is a product of producer Jermaine Dupri. The young Brooklyn rapper rose to fame after appearing on Dupri’s reality television series The Rap Game in 2016. J.I. was 15 years old when he appeared in the show’s second season. He captured national attention with his versatility as a rapper and singer. Following his time on the show, J.I. released his first single, “No Static,” earning more than 300,000 views on YouTube and leading to the artist’s 2017 EP, Barely Famous. The project features three songs showcasing his distinctive flow.
This tape allowed the artist to receive attention from mainstream radio stations like Hot 97 and Shade45. However, the rapper would catapult to mainstream success in 2019, with his mixtape, Hood Life Krisis, Vol. 1, and the popular lead single, “Need Me,” an immediate hit that features J.I. rhyming over Mýa’s hit song, “Best of Me, Part 2.” The track earned the 17-year-old artist over 150 million views on YouTube at the time.
Lil Pump can be considered a prime beneficiary of the SoundCloud rap era. Beginning his rap career at 16 years old, the Miami rapper’s hypnotic style of chilled-out mumble rap earned a large following as he unleashed a host of music like “D. Rose” and “What You Gotta Say,” both of which feature hard-hitting beats, distorted 808s and a fun hook paired with money-talk verses.
While the two songs earned Pump millions of streams and mainstream recognition, the rapper’s peak occurred after the release of his hit single, “Gucci Gang,” in 2017. The repetitive and simple nature of the track didn’t deter listeners. The 17-year-old earned his first platinum song, which peaked at No. 3. on the Billboard Hot 100. Pump has always been a polarizing artist for his antics on social media and at-times comical approach to rap, but it only added to his star power.
Lil Tecca’s rap career is relatively new, being one of the few artists on this list born post-2000. The New York rapper’s first hint at mainstream success began at age 15 with his 2017 single, “Tectri.” While this single was not a standout among the rapper’s current discography, it helped shape the artist’s official lead single, “Ransom,” a track highlighted by Tecca’s laid-back, swaggering delivery, as he boasted about stealing his haters’ women and leaving his “opps on a banner.”
The single would propel Lil Tecca into mainstream success, landing at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and serving as a catalyst for his debut mixtape, We Love You Tecca, in 2019. Featuring LTecca’s production and melody-driven rhymes, the mixtape helped make the 17-year-old rapper a star for the next generation of hip-hop. The project earned Lil Tecca his first platinum project, with the debut mixtape reaching No 4. on the Billboard 200.
YoungBoy Never Broke Again
While today he’s known for his aggressive style and brash attitude, at age 16, YoungBoy Never Broke Again crafted his lane as one of Louisiana’s rap top prospects with the release of his mixtape, 38 Baby. The 2016 project features several hip-hop heavyweights like Baton Rouge natives Boosie BadAzz and Kevin Gates. While the tape would eventually reach gold certification, NBA YoungBoy would find his mainstream break at 17, when the Baton Rouge rapper would officially release his seventh mixtape, AI YoungBoy, with “Untouchable,” an inspirational rags-to-riches track that features NBA rhyming his life’s story over crisp 808s and steadied-piano notes. This single helped Youngboy continue his ascent to stardom, with the project peaking at No. 24 on the Billboard 200.
NLE Choppa was fresh air for the Memphis rap scene at 16 years old. The rapper earned his claim to fame after releasing “Shotta Flow” in 2019. The song received national attention for its raw depiction of rough-edged street life. Gangbanging, scamming and death aren’t the most positive topics, but that didn’t stop “Shotta Flow” from becoming an instant hit for the young rapper. He earned his first entry on the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 96 that year.
Following the viral hit, NLE Choppa would continue the momentum with the release of his debut EP, Cottonwood, in 2019. The 10-song track is highlighted by Choppa’s attacking flow and digestible hooks. Blueface appears on the remix to “Shotta Flow” while Meek Mill, shows up on “Cruze.” Combine his skills as a talented rhymer and energetic dancer with a signature move, and NLE Choppa was off and running as a rising star.
In what can be considered the TikTok generation, Luh Tyler ’s journey to hip-hop stardom came when the 16-year old artist released his now-viral song, “Law & Order,” in 2022. The single features the Tallahassee native rapping breezily over a sample flip of the theme song for the television show, Law & Order. The single achieved near-overnight success, growing substantially across social media, YouTube and streaming platforms. The song has since amassed over 11 million streams on Spotify.
The success of “Law & Order” also put eyes on his other tracks like “Jayda Wayda,” a dedication to the social media influencer of the same name. Luh Tyler released his debut studio album, My Vision, in 2023. His trademark effortless flow, rhymes about weed and women, and an incomparable swag proved he’s going place. Luh Tyler is the newest kid on the block to put an emphasis on lyrical creativity while still having a good time doing it.