For this year’s update of our ongoing Greatest Pop Star by Year project, Billboard is counting down our staff picks for the top 10 pop stars of 2022 all this week. At No. 5, we remember the year in Drake — who dominated headlines and made even more chart history with two very different new albums.
A warm embrace between Kanye West (now Ye) and Drake – two hip-hop titans who had been swapping diss verses and petty social media exchanges for months up until music executive J. Prince mediated a truce – cut through the brisk December night during last year’s sold-out “Free Larry Hoover” benefit concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum. While Ye ran through his greatest hits catalog, Drake completed his victory lap with Certified Lover Boy, his 10th Billboard 200-topping album (though one met with middling reviews), with its first-ever live performance. The concert, and reconciliation, wasn’t just monumental for either rapper or even the millions of fans who witnessed it in person or via livestream; it was monumental for hip-hop.
Billboard’s Greatest Pop Stars of 2022:
Introduction & Honorable Mentions | Rookie of the Year: Steve Lacy | Comeback of the Year: Sam Smith | No. 10: Nicki Minaj | No. 9: Future | No. 8: Jack Harlow | No. 7: Doja Cat | No. 6: Lizzo | No. 4: Beyoncé | No. 3: Taylor Swift | No. 2: Harry Styles | No. 1: Bad Bunny
Going into 2022, the 6 God still couldn’t be knocked from his pedestal, and he couldn’t be blamed for mostly just cruising at his high altitude through the year’s first few months. Guest spots on Gunna’s “P power” in January, which arrived a week later than its parent album DS4Ever, and Jack Harlow’s “Churchill Downs” in May helped elevate both Southern rap princes, which comes with the territory of a Drizzy co-sign. But it was the Louisville-bred charmer who was matching Drake’s “flows and the hoes and the packed out shows,” and seemingly coming for his title of rap’s heartthrob. Yet even without the heart etched into his hairline, Drake was still the same old lovelorn Lothario – and it showed on his verse from Future’s “Wait For U,” also featuring Tems, which became Future’s biggest-ever hit as a lead artist and Drake’s 10th No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in May.
By the year’s midway point, Drake eased off on the team efforts so he could focus on his own craft. On a random afternoon in the middle of June, Drake posted a shadowy graphic on Instagram with chrome, technicolor lettering that read “Honestly, Nevermind” – the title of his out-of-nowhere seventh studio album he was delivering the next day. Another surprise awaited its listeners once midnight rolled around: Drake had made a full-on dance album, alongside veteran house music producers like Black Coffee, Gordo (formerly known as DJ Carnage), Ry X and GOVI.
The set spurred mixed reactions from critics who weren’t convinced he pulled off house music, Drake purists who didn’t care for anything he did outside of rap, and those in between who found his stylistic departure refreshing. Regardless, Honestly, Nevermind became his 11th No. 1 album (though with an underwhelming-for-Drake 204,000 equivalent album units in its first week), and “Jimmy Cooks” with 21 Savage –- the only conventional rap song from the project -– became his 11th No. 1 Hot 100 hit (and record-extending seventh No. 1 debut), making him the first solo male artist to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and Billboard Hot 100 simultaneously twice, following his dual feat with CLB and “Way 2 Sexy” just the year before.
Statistically, Drake still proved he couldn’t miss – and that even if artistically his efforts weren’t to everyone’s taste, he still had his finger on the pulse of what’s hot, given who followed suit just one month later. In July, Beyoncé ushered a proper dance Renaissance with her own studio effort, one that was more celebrated by critics for its due diligence to the genre – and one that surprisingly featured a writing credit from one Aubrey Drake Graham on the track “Heated.” The Queen’s triumphant return outperformed Drake’s Honestly, Nevermind as Renaissance launched atop the Billboard 200 with 332,000 units – but with Drizzy’s imprint on her album, and his own dance album’s release a month prior, he clearly knew to get ahead of the curve.
Yet considering Honestly, Nevermind’s relative commercial disappointment, it didn’t come as a surprise when Drake went back to what he knew best and reconnected with two of his favorite collaborators. DJ Khaled tapped him and Lil Baby for “Staying Alive,” the lead single from his then-forthcoming album God Did with a questionable, semi-catchy interpolation of the Bee Gees’ 1977 smash by the same name. With “Staying Alive” debuting at No. 5 on the Hot 100, Drake racked up yet another Billboard chart record: He now held the most top 5 hits (30) on the chart, beating The Beatles’ mark previously held for 55 years. And only he could make such an impressive feat sound totally ordinary by writing “Ok I broke my records for the month now” over a screenshot of his latest accomplishment on Instagram.
While Drake was effortlessly rewriting Billboard’s record books, he wasn’t having that same kind of historic run with his live performances. In July, he announced October World Weekend – a precursor to his OVO Fest that he promised to bring “around the world in 2023 to mark its 10th anniversary” – which featured a Young Money reunion with Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne on the lineup. But the announcement of his COVID-19 diagnosis just hours before the YM trinity was set to take the stage postponed the concert by a week. And once the show did actually happen, it didn’t sustain the recovery he might’ve expected. He resumed the hype by announcing a solo SiriusXM concert at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in November, but Takeoff’s untimely shooting death on the first of the month dampened the mood and led to Drizzy pushing back the shows to the top of 2023.
But he came in strong during the fourth quarter of 2022 – taking a cue from the fact that “Jimmy Cooks” was the only real breakout hit from his Honestly, Nevermind set, and recording an entire album with his collaborator on that chart-topper, 21 Savage. The treacherous twosome embarked on the ultimate faux press run ahead of their collab project, Her Loss: a counterfeit Vogue cover that sparked a real-life lawsuit from Condé Nast; a Tiny Desk teaser NPR invited them to perform “forreal;” a deepfake interview on The Howard Stern Show; a Saturday Night Live performance of “On BS” that was, in fact, B.S.; and a COLORS performance that was too good to be true (because it wasn’t). Even though another COVID diagnosis (this time from his right-hand producer Noah “40” Shebib) hit Drizzy with another delay, he offset it with an explosive impact.
The release of Her Loss in early November was met with mixed reviews from critics and crowds, considering his controversial bars about Megan Thee Stallion and ex-girlfriend Serena Williams’ husband Alexis Ohanian – but regardless, Drake’s diehards were relieved to hear him rapping again following his dance album detour. Her Loss ended up becoming Drake’s gain, earning him his 12th No. 1 album (and 21 Savage’s third) with the year’s biggest week for an R&B/hip-hop set and the fourth-largest streaming week ever for any album, with 513.56 million total on-demand official streams in its debut week. Despite Taylor Swift maintaining her Hot 100 reign with “Anti-Hero” – much to Drake’s emoji-filled dismay – he still controlled eight spots out of the top 10, making him the only artist to have logged at least eight songs in the Hot 100’s top 10 twice, following his nine-spot takeover in September 2021 during CLB’s debut chart week.
Drake ended 2022 by consistently putting numbers up on the board and persisting as the most statistically untouchable rapper, proving that even his not-so-massive year is still bigger than nearly anyone else’s. He extended his reign on Billboard’s year-end Top R&B/Hip-Hop Artist chart for a seventh year (in large part due to CLB’s staying power), and even earned a new title when he also topped Billboard’s year-end Top Dance/Electronic Artist chart, thanks to the surprising-yet-not-surprising success of Honestly, Nevermind.
And even if he remained adamant in maintaining his grudge against the Recording Academy by not submitting any of his own music, his high-profile assists ensured he was still accounted for — as his verses on “Wait For U” and “Churchill Downs” earned him two Grammy nominations for best rap song, with the former also receiving a nod for best melodic rap performance, and his writing on Bey’s Renaissance secured him an album of the year nod. Even when you think he misses, The Boy still scores.