Why Drake Managed to Rule Hip-Hop in 2014 -- Without a New Album or Hit Single

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Drake hosts the 2014 ESPYS at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on July 16, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.

The best rapper in 2014 didn't need a new album or hit single to prove his dominance. Drake's last LP, Nothing Was the Same, arrived in September 2013, but thanks to a stream of songs surprise-released online, carefully curated remixes, touring and big-time TV spots, there was no question he was hip-hop’s center of gravity this year.

Yes, Iggy Azalea's The New Classic was the top-selling rap LP released in 2014, and Nicki Minaj may outdo her when she unveils The Pinkprint on Dec. 15. But both were criticized by rap fans for blatantly aiming for pop audiences ("Pills N Potions," anyone?). Drake, on the other hand, batted near 1.000 with a remarkable string of six songs he surprise-released to SoundCloud during the year, accruing 83 million total clicks on the platform. "0 to 100/The Catch-Up," one of 2014's most memorable songs, hit No. 35 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is nominated for two Grammys -- a feat for a track with no real label push behind it.

Nicki Minaj Goes Dominatrix With Lil Wayne, Drake in 'Only' Video

Drake also has become rap’s hottest co-sign, with his guest spots helping lead nine songs to the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart in 2014. His verses on remixes of Tinashe's "2 On" and his OVO Sound signee I Love Makonnen's Grammy-nominated "Tuesday" boosted both onto the Hot 100. Drake's mere quoting of Dej Loaf's "Try Me" on Instagram led the Detroit MC to a viral hit and Columbia contract. And it's worth noting that Makonnen, Dej, Young Thug and most other notable 2014 rap rookies were blatantly inspired by Drake's Auto-Tune melodies and soft, spacey beats.

Meanwhile, according to Billboard Boxscore, Drake was rap’s second-biggest touring star in 2014 (behind only Jay Z) with the Drake vs. Lil Wayne trek and his solo Would You Like a Tour? outing. He also sold out his annual two-day OVO Fest in Toronto, and landed two well-received TV gigs, hosting Saturday Night Live and the ESPYs.

Drake’s next album, Views From the 6, is due in the spring, when he'll likely have competition from new projects from Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, who were quiet in 2014. But ask West, who admitted that Drake was the hottest rapper out to GQ in July: He and Lamar will be the ones with something to prove, not Drake.

This article first appeared in the Dec. 20 issue of Billboard.

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