In 2018, Nielsen Soundscan music industry year-end report confirmed that R&B/hip-hop was the most popular genre in America. Nine of the 10 most-consumed songs in the United States were hip-hop/R&B songs, and as streaming became the dominant way to consume music, eight of the 10 most-streamed artists were rappers.
This report focused on 2017, but the period between 2015 and 2018 was a crescendo for the genre. Established artists like Ye, Jay-Z and Lil Wayne had even more in the tank; younger stars like Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Nicki Minaj left their mark on culture; and rising stars like Pop Smoke, Juice WRLD, XXXTENTACION and Cardi B were already scoring RIAA plaques. Everything was pointing up.
Looking at the hip-hop landscape today, you might get a different feeling. Rap is still hugely popular, but its growth is slowing. Luminate’s mid-year report revealed that R&B/hip-hop still has the largest overall market share of any genre in the US at 27.6% – but that’s down from 28.4% from last year, even as it widened its lead at the top in terms of overall equivalent album units. The genre’s total on-demand streaming growth is up 6.2% in 2022, but that’s lower than the rate for the market as a whole, which is up 11.6%.
“I will say that I am worried”, says Carl Chery, creative director of Spotify and head of urban. Chery says he’s been worried about rap for the past year: “2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, those were magical years. My concern is that the magic is gone.
There are a variety of reasons why the genre’s future looks precarious. First, rap superstars like Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Post Malone are aging into a different chapter of their careers, less invested in chasing success. This year, Drake has given up on the dancefloor detour, Honestly it doesn’t matterwhile Kendrick made the very personal Mr. Morale and Big Steps and Post Malone released his darkest album yet, Twelve carat toothache. The albums debuted with respectable numbers, but slid down the Billboard 200 relatively quickly afterwards – and while each of their previous albums spawned Hot 100 topping hits (“God’s Plan”, “HUMBLE”, ” rockstar”), this time, of the three of them, only Drake’s “Jimmy Cooks” went to No. 1, where it lasted for a week. Message says Billboard earlier this year, “I don’t need a number 1; it doesn’t matter to me anymore, and at some point it did.
These artists carry even more weight because of rap’s second problem; a number of potential superstars died young. The late Pop Smoke, Juice WRLD and XXXTENTACION were three of the most important rappers of recent years, not just because they switched units, but because they were stylistic innovators. Their untimely deaths leave a void at the center of the genre – a void that has only grown wider with the further losses of Nipsey Hussle, Mac Miller, Lil Peep, King Von, Young Dolph and, most recently, PnB Rock.
“Unfortunately, we have these tragedies that don’t let these culture changers see their days and fulfill their purpose for the subgenre they’re taking over,” says Letty Houseboatwho hosts Power Mornings on Power 106 in Los Angeles “We didn’t just lose [XXX, Pop, Juice]he also stopped this wave.
Then there’s rap’s third problem: there aren’t as many exciting prospects among rap’s rookie class.
“In recent years, we haven’t seen so many new stars emerge,” says Chery. “[From 2015-2018], there were just a lot of guys that we were seeing seemingly come out of nowhere and become huge stars and post numbers that would rival the people who were established. We don’t really see that right now.
It’s not like we haven’t seen rappers in 2022 – artists like GloRilla, SleazyWorld Go and Yeat are talented and may have a bright future ahead of them. But with the exception of Yeat, their success is tied to hit singles and they haven’t established their true identities via full-length projects. While they performed impressively for newcomers, they didn’t hit the superstar-like numbers Chery refers to.
Meanwhile, some of rap’s most promising upstarts have seen their fortunes turn rapidly. DaBaby’s 2020 album, It’s baby’s fault moved 124,000 album-equivalent units in its first week; after a few underperforming projects rehashing the same formula, 2022 Baby on Baby 2 only moved 17,000 in its first week. Megan Thee Stallion won the Grammy for Best New Artist, but her Traumazine The album did fewer first-week numbers than its debut, and it failed to spawn any near-“Savage” hits. Roddy Ricch scored the last big pre-pandemic No. 1 hit with “The Box,” but his last single as lead artist, “Stop Breathing,” has yet to hit the Hot 100. One of bright spots of 2022 was watching Gunna rise from Young Thug protege to standalone star as his “Pushing P” became the kind of cultural meme rap routinely produces, but his achievement was overshadowed when he and Thug were arrested on a RICO load it can land them both in jail for years.
Some of this might have been unavoidable. In many ways, rap audiences were primed for the shift to streaming, which led to the genre’s over-indexing in its early years. “The movement of mixtapes out of the free music world of LiveMixtapes, DatPiff and blogs into monetized and proper releases was really essential,” says the founder and CEO of Signal Records. Jeff Vaughn, over the period 2015-2018. “You had this music consumption segment that had always flown under the radar, but now it was trackable, and there was money being made.”
As the pendulum swings the other way, the playing field begins to level out – as country, rock, pop and Latin catch up with hip-hop’s streaming advantage. At the same time, many artists in these genres – including this year’s most dominant artist, Bad Bunny – are now undeniably influenced by hip-hop, but their wins don’t count for hip’s market share. -hop.
Disruption has become the norm across all genres over the past couple of years. The biggest factor has been the COVID-19 pandemic, which has put the entire music industry on hold and hampered the momentum of countless careers. But there’s also the rise of TikTok, which has had a seismic effect on marketing – turning songs into viral sensations seemingly overnight and creating all sorts of hits, but few lasting careers.
“What I see is people sticking around for the bit of the song they like,” says Peniche. “They don’t want to hear the rest of the song that TikTok put in their head. You don’t even know if you’re going to like the full song or even the artist. You fall in love with the extract – but after that, what happens?
Peniche adds that things like TikTok have helped the evolution of radio’s role in music, from breaking hits to simply reminding people of their favorites. While TikTok has helped fuel 2020s rap hits like BRS Kash’s “Throat Baby” and Popp Hunna’s “Adderall (Corvette Corvette),” as well as more crossover-ready breakthroughs like Doja’s “Say So.” Cat and “What’s Poppin” by Jack Harlow, they can already see diminishing returns.
“There are these songs that are gaining traction on TikTok but they don’t go all the way,” Chery explains. “They’ll get a lot of streams on Spotify, maybe get added to big playlists, but they don’t go the distance.”
Chery also points out how TikTok has also helped keep older music, like J. Cole’s “No Role Modelz,” with consistent success. “The reality of the market now is, you’re not just competing against other new music, you’re competing against the best musical period of the past or present,” adds Vaughn. “In the meantime, you’re going to have a lot of first week sales in the 10-30,000 range. Until something changes, that’s probably the new business reality.
These days, YouTube and TikTok celebrities are vying for the attention of musicians, while today’s influencers can also turn off aspiring musicians. “People can now get rich from their bedroom,” says Peniche. “People can get rich playing Twitch games. Like, ‘Why would I be here hustling or going on the road for scraps if I can do something at home and get rich from videos TikTok?’ ”
Vaughn thinks the problem goes beyond TikTok, however: “Is there more competition for people’s time now than there was five years ago? Yes. are adults [labels’] is market share and influence declining relative to their ability to move the market? Yes. Is there more money, focus, attention, and people in the hip-hop space today than five years ago? Yes. So all of those things combined make for a very different landscape.
The pandemic has also upended the release schedule and forced concert cancellations. Cherry recalled a moment in 2021 when he asked two party promoters what the clubs sounded like. They struggled to come up with an answer besides Drake’s “Way 2 Sexy.” “When in hip-hop history did we have a shortage of club bangers?” Chery asked. “Never.”
Despite all these concerns, there have been positives this year. Future is having its biggest trading year yet, with its I never loved you album posting the best solo numbers of the first week of his career and “WAIT FOR U” becoming his first Hot 100 No. 1 as a lead artist. Lil Baby, Jack Harlow and Moneybagg Yo continue to be proven hitmakers. Rod Wave, Polo G and YoungBoy Never Broke Again are widely followed cult artists. Doja Cat, Lil Nas X and The Kid LAROI toe the rap and pop line, but put up big numbers with their albums and scored massive crossover hits on the Hot 100.
“Overall, I’m still incredibly optimistic about the art form,” says Vaughn. “He’s been there for 50 years, I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere.”
In the end, like Luminate notes the mid-year report, hip-hop is still No. 1. But the culture can’t afford to be creatively stagnant. To stay fresh, he needs to find a spark.
“I always worry about where it’s going,” Chery says. “But music is cyclical. I don’t think we’ll ever live in a world where hip-hop isn’t the most influential type of music and culture. That will never happen. Hip-hop will always be in that position where it just helps shape [culture] and make everything move.