2. Aminé (74 points)
SOUNDS LIKE: A tropical block party thrown in a Northeast Portland parking lot, and the whole world is invited.
NOTABLE VOTES: Former WW music editor Casey Jarman, Tender Loving Empire co-founder Jared Mees, DJ Ronin Roc.
At this time last year, no one in Portland had ever heard of Adam Aminé Daniel.
No one who votes in the Best New Band poll, at least. In last year's issue, out of the 200-plus local music insiders who turned in ballots, only one voted for the then-21-year-old rapper, who goes by his middle name. A day after the issue's publication, Aminé uploaded a new song to Soundcloud, a bouncy, catchy, punch-line-peppered plea for love called "Caroline." By the end of summer, it wasn't just Portland insiders who knew his name. The whole country did, too—even though most still struggled to pronounce it.
Since "Caroline" dropped, Aminé has made bigger moves than any hip-hop artist in Portland history. As of this month, the single has sold nearly 656,000 copies and racked up more than 345 million plays across YouTube, Soundcloud and Spotify. In August, Aminé signed a deal with Universal subsidiary Republic Records, making him labelmates with the likes of Drake, Nicki Minaj and the Weeknd. A few days after the Nov. 8 election, he performed "Caroline" on The Tonight Show and appended a verse in which he took shots at Donald Trump, prompting The New Yorker to praise it as "bold." In December, he returned home to Portland for a sold-out show at the Roseland Theater, where he shouted out Benson High School in between guest appearances from Leon Bridges and Kehlani.
All of this seems to have come from out of nowhere. But for those who knew Aminé when he was just Adam Daniel, his success isn't as surprising as it seems.
"I sort of always paid attention to him because he's just a kid that I knew forever," says Ibeth Hernandez, owner of Portland hip-hop production agency Chapters Alumni and the lone "insider" to vote for Aminé in last year's poll. She was introduced to him by her younger sister, his classmate at Benson. Hernandez recognized his diligence early on, a commitment to progression and a true knack for rhyming. "I figured if he can get around the right people, he could really blow."
From a young age, Aminé understood something many of his peers, and even his predecessors, did not—that you don't have to blow up locally before exploding globally. According to Rob Stevenson, executive vice president of Republic Records, in their first meeting last year, Aminé told him, "I want my music heard all over the world."
"It's becoming the new paradigm," Stevenson says. "It used to be you had to speak to your local audience. Now you literally speak to the world. You put records out that break on the other side of the world and then come back."
Aminé's approach is rooted in the power of social media and simple branding. You can see it in the video for "Caroline," which he self-directed. It introduced a character—a charming young dude with an appetite for bananas, an obsession with Quentin Tarantino movies and a thing for the color yellow. Inevitably, it was that shrewd package that attracted Republic. "The ones that have a creative vision from start to finish and really know what they want, those are the dream artists to work with," Stevenson says.
But there's also an element to Aminé's sound that lends itself to globalization more than any of his Portland contemporaries. As a first-generation Ethiopian-American, his identity as a multicultural artist is at the forefront. His vibrant "Caroline" follow-up is called "Baba," which translates to "daddy" in Amharic, Ethiopia's official language; the outro is even rapped in his parents' native tongue. Maybe it's that cross-cultural reflex that allowed Aminé to resonate with such a wide audience while stunting his growth in his hometown, where tastes in hip-hop can run a bit traditionalist.
To be fair, though, Aminé hadn't been around much in Portland the past two years, bouncing between New York and Los Angeles. Few in Portland's tight-knit music community were closely connected to him before his rise. But in November, Aminé invited neo-soul hopeful Blossom and the Last Artful, Dodgr to sing backup for his national television debut. That gesture brought Aminé back into the heart of the city. It didn't matter who slept on his potential a year ago—he used this opportunity to represent the town where he grew up.
He's currently sequestered in the studio working on his major-label debut, which is slated to drop in summer 2017. Aminé is gunning to become Portland's first international hip-hop artist. It might seem like an impossible dream. But if there's one thing we've learned over the course of the past year, it's don't doubt this kid.