As recently as last December, rapper Post Malone was at risk of becoming a one-hit wonder. His breakout single, “White Iverson,” had made fans of Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller and sent him on tour with Justin Bieber, but with the release of his debut album, Stoney, fast approaching and no new songs connecting with listeners, the future looked uncertain.
Then came “Congratulations,” the LP’s fifth single that, when officially released in January, began to explode on streaming services. By July, the Quavo-featuring song had peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, and to date it has been streamed over 1 billion times across all platforms. It also cemented Malone as a legitimate force in hip-hop — so much so that in September, when he released “Rockstar,” the first single from his forthcoming album, Beerbongs and Bentleys, the track (featuring 21 Savage) reached No. 1 on the Hot 100, where it remained for eight weeks.
“The future is streaming,” says Malone. “Millennials in this day and age enjoy that easy and quick access — and streaming gives them what they want.”
In 2017, R&B/hip-hop established itself as the leading genre in the industry for the first time since Nielsen started tracking sales in 1991, outperforming all other genres, claiming 25.1 percent of total consumption and 30.3 percent of all on-demand audio streams. (The No. 2 genre, rock, accounted for 18.1 percent.)
It’s streaming that has increased the music industry’s revenue by double-digit percentage points for the first time in nearly 20 years: Seven of the 10 most-streamed songs in the United States in 2017 were rap songs, according to Nielsen Music, and they accounted for nearly 65 percent of the roughly 8.2 billion on-demand total streams.
For Apple Music head of artist curation Carl Chery, the latest metrics are an eye-opener to those in the industry who had once doubted hip-hop’s ability to move the needle. “My reaction when those conversations started happening was like, ‘Duh,’?” he says. “Hip-hop has been the most influential genre arguably in the last 20 years.”
The genre’s streaming success has helped mint a slew of new superstars: Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” reached No. 1 on the Hot 100, becoming the first song by a solo female rapper to top the chart in 19 years, while 21 Savage’s debut LP, ISSA Album, landed at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. Also, Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” reached No. 3 on the Hot 100, and Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3” peaked at No. 7.
The established stars played their parts in a major way as well: Drake and Kendrick Lamar, two of the industry’s most-streamed artists, accounted for the five biggest streaming weeks for albums in 2017, with Drake’s More Life logging 384.8 million streams for its songs in its debut week (the most in one week for an album’s songs), and Lamar’s DAMN. notching 340.6 million. Streaming has also catapulted unconventional artists like Uzi and Lil Pump into the spotlight. “They weren’t the norm of what was being played at radio,” says John Fleckenstein, executive vp at their label, RCA Records. “But now there is this -massive audience [through streaming] that can find stuff and take tests of it so easily.”
Hip-hop and R&B had long generated large streaming numbers, but “there used to be a much bigger gap between what was considered a streaming and traditional hit,” says Apple Music’s Beats 1 DJ Zane Lowe. “It’s why I say that 2017 is the year that streaming really arrived.”
In many ways, hip-hop fans were primed to stream. Free online mixtapes have long played a crucial role in a rapper’s fan base — by 2006, the RIAA estimated the mixtape economy was responsible for 30 million to 50 million sales a year. Tuma Basa, Spotify’s global programming head of hip-hop and curator of its influential Rap Caviar playlist, says, “Hip-hop has been the -dominant -culture for many years, but streaming has helped us measure it. A lot of those hidden markets are coming to the surface.”
Like many rap artists now seeing mainstream success, Malone began his career by posting music to SoundCloud. “The kids live online, so I knew that would be the best way to start, and plus, it’s free,” he says. The streaming service’s CEO, Kerry Trainor, says hip-hop culture yielded SoundCloud rap, because “it’s all about that incredible democratization where you can reach fans directly.”
“What you’ve got now is a distribution platform in streaming that can move as fast as these artists move,” adds Lowe. “There are no rules, and right now streaming is best built to handle a no-rules future.”
Maintaining hip-hop’s prominence on streaming into 2018, however, will require fresh thinking and continued diligence by the respective platforms. This past summer, Spotify launched a RapCaviar concert series hosting performances in the United States by top acts including Gucci Mane, Lil Uzi Vert and Playboi Carti. And in October, TIDAL held a large-scale benefit show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, with one stage exclusively dedicated to breaking new artists.
Of course, everything boils down to one essential approach, says Basa: “It’s all about staying on top of what’s hot.”