Drake's 2018 Has Been Huge. But Is He the Biggest Rapper Ever?
Earlier this month, Drake’s latest album, Scorpion, become his eighth No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 albums chart. With 732,000 equivalent album units, it was the largest opening of 2018 and the biggest one since Taylor Swift’s reputation last year. Drake’s commercial run also ties him with veteran megastars like Kanye West, Kenny Chesney, Madonna, U2, and Eminem, who all also have eight No. 1 albums to their name (and share eighth place on the list of artists with the most No. 1 albums ever). He’s undeniably one of the biggest stars of his era -- but is Drake now also the biggest rapper ever?
The Billboard 200 chart ranks the most popular albums of each week based on a combination of traditional album sales, track equivalent albums (TEA), and streaming equivalent albums (SEA), accounting for the evolving methods of consumption for contemporary music. As such, being the biggest rapper in the game means something entirely different now than it meant 30 years ago, or even 10 years ago. Streaming has reshaped the landscape for artists and fans of popular music, and the kind of starpower that happens in the age of social media and 24-hour connectivity is a new kind of beast. Most significantly for hip-hop, rappers are among the biggest pop stars of the past two decades, and in the 2010s, that means a historically unrivaled level of cultural visibility. Drake has been the commercial king of the post-streaming era. How does that compare to his predecessors?
In the 1980s, being the biggest act in hip-hop meant standing at the forefront of a coming cultural revolution. In the middle of that decade, Run-D.M.C. became the first hip-hop act to go gold and platinum, as well as the first to be on the cover of Rolling Stone. More than anyone, the Queens-bred trio proved that hip-hop could be hugely viable as a commercial genre. With their groundbreaking success, Run-D.M.C. were harbingers for what was to come, knocking out MTV-friendly singles like “Rock Box” and “King of Rock” even before the chart-busting Aerosmith collab “Walk This Way” shot to No. 6 on the Hot 100 in the fall of 1986.
Along with The Beastie Boys and LL Cool J, Run-D.M.C.’s reign was an affirmation of rap music as a potent commercial force, though the Beasties had hip-hop’s best-selling album of the 1980s with 1986’s diamond-certified Licensed To Ill. Other platinum-sellers during that decade included Salt-N-Pepa, N.W.A., and Public Enemy, but the decade belonged to Run-D.M.C. in terms of album sales and visibility. However, even they didn’t dominate the pop charts in the way a hip-hop star can in the 2010s. Public Enemy’s singles that decade never reached Top 40; Salt-N-Pepa, which was obviously more of a pop act, “only” hit the Top 40 twice in the 1980s. (They’d do so five more times in the 1990s.) Drake has four Top Ten hits on Scorpion alone.
The 1990s began with the biggest commercial draws hip-hop had seen up to that point in pop-rappers MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. Both drew little critical acclaim and were derided in many purist circles, but the success of their respective diamond-selling 1990 albums, Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em and To The Extreme, put them in rarified air. As far as singles, Ice would only score one major pop hit, while Hammer would hit the top 10 five times in 1990 and 1991. But both, however, faded fast commercially within two years of their blockbuster albums. 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G. would go on to become the two most iconic rappers of the decade, with multiple platinum albums and several Hot 100-toppers between them. But both rappers’ recording careers were tragically cut short -- 2Pac’s lasted five years, Biggie’s lasted three -- by their respective murders.
Then there’s Snoop Dogg, who was arguably the most famous rapper in music following his smash 1993 debut Doggy Style. He dropped three more platinum albums between 1996 and 1999, but his late-’90s singles wouldn’t match his early success; he didn’t return to the Hot 100’s top 10 until 2003’s “Beautiful” -- almost a decade after he had hit it big with “What’s My Name” and “Gin & Juice.” As the ‘90s came to a close, DMX emerged as a commercial force. He released two multi-platinum No. 1 albums in 1998, and would release three more platinum LPs between 1998 and 2003. His singles, however, weren’t pop smashes -- X was a fixture on the hip-hop charts and a fixture on the Billboard 200, but he never even scored a top 10 hit on the Hot 100.
By the early ‘00s, hip-hop had become the center of youth culture in popular music, with rappers like OutKast, 50 Cent and Nelly becoming some of the best-selling stars in the industry. Eminem would become the decade’s top-selling and most commercially dominant rapper, with multiple No. 1 and a handful of Hot 100 top ten singles just in the period from 2000-2009. Still, the fact that a white artist became the most commercially dominant rapper of his era meant that Em’s influence would always come with a cultural asterisk that made it uncomfortable for many hip-hop fans to consider him the decade’s most definitive rap star.
Eminem’s success in the 2000s was rivaled by ‘90s holdover JAY-Z, who became one of hip-hop’s most influential artist of that decade -- both before his 2003 “retirement” and after -- with seven No. 1 albums, all of which reached platinum sales certification. Jay is the closest commercial precedent to Drake; he’s been a fixture on Top 40 for the better part of 15 years, and even his latter-day releases have sustained his run. (Jay also currently has 14 No. 1 albums to his name, the most of any artist in history behind the Beatles.) Most of the biggest rappers of the 1980s and 1990s saw their commercial peaks go into sharp decline after as little as a few years, but Jay’s longevity set a new standard. And it’s one that seems most similar to what Drake has done in recent years. Jay is one of the few guests on Scorpion -- given their respective legacies, that doesn’t feel incidental.
Another relevant benchmark for Drake’s 2010s success is Kanye West. Ye released four multi-platinum albums between 2004 and 2009, three of which peaked at No. 1. He also scored half a dozen top 10 hits during that stretch. But after the success of 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and 2012’s JAY-Z collaboration Watch the Throne, West’s has music became more experimental and less commercially viable. Top 40 singles aren’t really what West’s music is known for these days, though he’s still generated hits. In June, “Yikes” landed in the Top 10 -- though West himself has credited none other than Drake with writing the chorus.
Obviously, Em, Jay, and Kanye have sustained their commercial viability well into the 2010s. (Honorable mention goes to 2000s mainstay and Drake mentor Lil Wayne, who kicked off his hottest commercial streak in 2008 but has since been slowed down by a stint in prison, health problems, and some questionable artistic choices.) But since 2010’s Thank Me Later, Drake has been in a singular space: four multi-platinum studio albums, three mixtapes (including his More Life “playlist”) that have also crossed the platinum threshold, 20 songs that have peaked in the Hot 100’s top 10, and a mind-boggling amount of streams that consistently make him the most popular artist across platforms. In 2018 alone, Drake has scored two No. 1 hits that topped the charts for 19 weeks. Following Scorpion’s release, he snagged seven spots in the Hot 100’s top 10, breaking a record for the most simultaneous top 10 singles that was previously set by The Beatles, with five songs, in 1964. Drake also has a potential Song of the Summer on his hands as momentum grows for "In My Feelings," bolstered its viral accompanying challenge. Almost a decade after his debut studio album, Drake isn’t just sustaining his commercial run -- he’s only gotten bigger.
Sure, there are legendary rappers who have carved out a much bigger sonic and cultural imprint. There are hitmakers who created sounds that have defined the genre in a number of eras. Kendrick Lamar remains the creative standard by which most mainstream rappers are judged these days, and Future has been a major influence on so many rappers under 30 when it comes style and aesthetics. But the way that Drake has become an inescapable force in the game is unique. He’s most commercially dominant rapper of his generation, with a ubiquity that’s never been seen before in the genre’s history. You can attribute Drake’s success to a broad relatability; a near peerless ability to craft accessible singles; and a fusion of hip-hop, pop, and R&B that unites what were traditionally three very different audiences.
That he’s in the conversation for biggest rapper of all time shouldn’t seem like heresy, especially considering the history of other genres: Rock and R&B were both dismissed in their earliest days, only to become commercial juggernauts as the genres grew and matured -- and as the industry learned new ways to profit from them. The commercial success of James Brown and Motown in the 1960s broke new ground for R&B artists that made it possible for Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston to become pop superstars in the 1980s; Drake reaps similar benefits in the 2010s as a rapper who is now one of the biggest pop stars in music following decades of hip-hop climbing higher in popular music’s hierarchy.
The emergence of streaming means that audiences have access to Drake’s music in an immediate way that doesn’t require direct purchase, so even the curious listener contributes to Drake’s omnipresence as much as a die hard fan. The platform itself allows for major artists to rack up unprecedented commercial numbers. But the emergence of streaming didn’t just affect Drake, and he’s not the only artist who reaps the benefits. This isn’t just chance. You still have to have the music. And doing what Drake has done isn’t easy. He maybe just makes it look that way.