No genre is mightier than hip-hop in 2015.
Like Taylor Swift last fall, who switched up her sound and lapped her pop peers in year-end sales, rappers such as Drake and Kendrick Lamar have revitalized the industry with bold moves that fly in the face of traditional radio. With innovative styles that have paved the way for new artists, a timely new emphasis on social commentary, the muscle of social media and a mastery of the surprise release, rap’s surge has fans listening in big numbers.
Last week, Drake’s surprise If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late became the first album of the year to sell more than 1 million copies — on top of the more than 570 million streams it has accumulated across platforms since February, according to Nielsen Music. The Toronto native reached the milestone just days after Dr. Dre released his first album in nearly 16 years, Compton, which shocked music fans when it was announced last month and could sell as many as 300,000 copies in its first week, Billboard predicts.
Unsurprising, given how rappers have run the tables the rest of the year. Of Spotify’s 10 most streamed albums this year, seven are hip-hop, led by Kendrick Lamar (To Pimp a Butterfly), A$AP Rocky (At.Long.Last.A$AP), Meek Mill (Dreams Worth More Than Money) and Future (DS2). Each bowed at No. 1 and has sold more than 200,000 copies (or in Pimp‘s case, triple that).
Almost as impressive, three of 2015’s most streamed songs have also been rap, including Fetty Wap’s Trap Queen, Omarion’s Post to Be and Wiz Khalifa’s See You Again (a No. 1 champ for nearly three months on Billboard‘s Hot 100 singles chart). Factor in newcomers such as Silento (Watch Me) and T-Wayne (Nasty Freestyle), who have translated viral successes into top 10 hits, and hip-hop has rarely been more pervasive or diverse.
“What we’re hearing now is a whole range of styles,” says Erik Nielson, an assistant professor of liberal arts at the University of Richmond who teaches classes in hip-hop culture. “Some of the major players that have dominated for a number of years — Jay Z, Rick Ross and Lil Wayne — they’re less influential than they were. What you’re seeing in some sense is not so much a changing of the guard, because they’re still really important in the industry, but it’s opened up this space for a bunch of new acts to enter the scene.”
The movement also has paved the way for more experimental, incisive music this year as rappers become less reliant on radio singles and more invested in the art of the album as a whole. New releases from Joey Bada$$ (B4.Da.$$), Tyler, the Creator(Cherry Bomb) and Wale (The Album About Nothing) all started in the top five of the Billboard album charts, despite little promotion and no crossover hits.
Such was the case with Talib Kweli, who has released more than two dozen albums and mixtapes in over a decade, and opted for a surprise Twitter announcement last month with his compilation Train of Thought: Lost Lyrics, Rare Releases & Beautiful B-Sides, Vol. 1. Now with even more surprise and traditional releases in the pipeline, “that pipeline was getting clogged,” he says.
“Blogs that have normally moved on from covering an ‘old-school’ artist like myself — Fader, Complex, Pitchfork — all jumped on this album immediately,” Kweli says. “Instead of me hitting them weeks before, saying, ‘Hey, can you cover my stuff?’ they jumped on this tweet. Partially because it said it had Killer Mike and Kanye West(collaborations), and they just want hits for their blog. But it was interesting the album that I did the least marketing for, I got the most immediate press.”
The strategy has kept radio stations on their toes. With Drake and Dre’s surprise albums, New York’s HOT 97 was “discovering the music right alongside our listeners,” says the station’s program director, Pio Ferro. And with no direction from artists or labels, “it really is about the people behind the microphone saying, ‘Hey, this one is cool. What do you think?’ ”
Mastering the art of the surprise release is just one way that hip-hop has proven to be more radical than other genres this past year. Up-and-comers such as Young Thug and ILoveMakonnen have defied gender norms and sexuality labels. And not unlike the socially and politically conscious efforts of N.W.A and Public Enemy in the ’80s and ’90s, Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples and Run the Jewels have all been vocal about police violence in their music, which has struck a chord with fans after upheaval this year on the streets of Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo.
“The reason why lots of artists for a long time were recycling these themes of misogyny and violence was because the industry was convinced that was the formula for success, and I don’t think that’s ever really been true,” Nielson says. “The industry creates the conditions under which it’s been successful. Now, it doesn’t really matter as much what the industry thinks — it’s what the artists think.”
But where hip-hop still continues to falter is women. Former song-of-summer champion Iggy Azalea, once positioned as the genre’s new “it” girl, was met with a swift backlash this year after low-charting singles with Britney Spears and Jennifer Hudson, and a canceled tour. Other female rappers such as Azealia Banks and Angel Haze haven’t yet crossed over, in part because of severed label ties and outspoken Twitter scrawls. Which leaves Nicki Minaj — a six-time consecutive winner of the BET Awards’ best female hip-hop artist — as mainstream rap’s reigning queen.
And even despite her album The Pinkprint being one of the top-sellers of 2015 so far, she was still belittled by labelmate Drake about her boyfriend (and summer tour opening act) Meek Mill.
“It was interesting to see the way that Drake was seen as winning over Meek Mill by playing into some old misogynistic tropes, like, ‘Oh, your girl is the boss of this relationship,’ and ‘Your girl wears the pants, therefore, you’re less of a man,’ ” Gale says. “To see Drake, a man who’s been the model of this sensitive 2010s rap, going back to some of these old stereotypes and making fun of Meek for those reasons, is a little unfortunate.”
While Minaj embraces her sexuality and curvaceous figure (on display in her big-butt anthem Anaconda), not every female rapper is willing to strip down or compromise her sound for a poppier, more “male-friendly” audience.
“Major labels tend to have sort of negative or disparaging views of women as rappers, or want to pitch them into narrow roles, where they’re half-rapper, half-video vixen,” Nielson says. “I understand why female artists wanting to pursue their craft steer clear from all that, but now, as we see more artists leveraging all this new media, I’m concerned we’re not hearing from more women.”
Ideally, “as 2015 moves into 2016, we should start hearing from some of these female artists.” Nielson adds. “If we don’t, we should really start hitting the alarm button.”