To recap the decade that was, Billboard is looking at one major theme from each year and explaining how it dominated that 12-month period. Below, we continue with 2018, a year where hip-hop’s growing popularity over the course of the 2010s culminated in a period where it reigned unquestioned as the most popular and important music in the country.
What a difference a half-decade makes. In 2013, hip-hop was in such a dire spot on the Hot 100 that there was a grand total of four rap top ten hits that entire year not made by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis or Eminem. In 2018, Lil Wayne scored that many in one week, off one album — and it wasn’t even one of his most popular albums, really. The rules had changed, of course, but so had the entire game: After an early decade in which turbo-pop dominated radio and the charts and EDM felt like the future of everything, hip-hop had grabbed the wheel, and now it was steering just about all of popular music.
To say that streaming changed everything would be a near-absurd understatement. With physical sales long dwindling, digital downloads sliding nearly as dramatically and radio still posting strong numbers but feeling increasingly slow and out of touch, by 2018, streaming was unquestionably at the center of the musical ecosystem, showing signs of growth and perhaps even outright prosperity around the corner in a way the industry hadn’t faced in at least 15 years. With spending barriers lifted and radio conglomerate approval no longer needed to mint hits, streaming’s rise gave arguably the purest, most accurate reflection of what listeners (particularly younger ones) actually wanted to listen to more than any other period in recent musical history. And what they wanted, particularly in 2018, was hip-hop.
THE 2010S WERE THE DECADE THAT…
2010: Turbo-Pop Ruled the Radio | 2011: Adele Revived the Music Industry | 2012: EDM Infiltrated Everything | 2013: Streaming Became Unignorable | 2014: Cultural Appropriation Dominated the Pop Music Discussion | 2015: Canadians Ran Popular Music | 2016: Every Major Album Release Was an Event | 2017: Latin Pop Took Over the U.S. | 2019: Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ Put a Bow on the Decade
The story told by Billboard‘s year-end streaming charts for 2018 couldn’t have been much clearer. Of the 75 titles on the year-end Streaming Songs chart, 50 of them were hip-hop songs (up from 40 the year before), including seven of the top 10. Of the 25 names on the year-end Streaming Songs Artists chart, 17 of them were rappers (up from 15 in 2017), while hip-hop artists also took eight of the top ten spots, and the entire top four. Meanwhile, of the 11 songs that debuted at No. 1 on Billboard‘s weekly Streaming Songs listing in 2018, only one was non-rap. It was a complete domination of the new landscape, and it was reflected in the Billboard charts on a weekly basis.
It helped, of course, that a new generation of stars had come into their own in recent years, and were ready to collect on their newfound status with major projects in 2018. The most exciting breakout rapper of the year before was easily Cardi B, a whip-smart reality TV alum with spectacular mic command and a sixth sense for self-promotion. Her debut single, rap radio neutron bomb “Bodak Yellow,” had bound to No. 1 on the Hot 100 in late 2017 and been dubbed an instant classic, making her upcoming Invasion of Privacy set the most anticipated debut LP of 2018. Invasion arrived in April, and was hailed immediately as a triumph, setting streaming records and charting all of its 13 tracks on the Hot 100. One of those, the Latin trap-flavored J Balvin and Bad Bunny collab “I Like It,” followed “Bodak” to the chart’s peak that summer, making Cardi the first female MC ever with multiple No. 1s — and she added a third by autumn with her guest appearance on Maroon 5’s pop radio smash “Girls Like You,” proving her crossover potential had no ceiling.
Joining Cardi in the Hot 100’s ruling class was Post Malone, a white singer-rapper from Texas with an absurd knack for crowd-pleasing choruses, a taste for sublime trap beats that were as melancholy as they were hellraising, and a voice that proved surprisingly resonant. Post had graduated to superstar status with the Hot 100-topping 21 Savage collab “Rockstar” in late 2017, followed to the apex the next spring by the Ty Dolla $ign-featuring “Psycho” — both of which were collected on sophomore set beerbongs and bentleys, which debuted to blockbuster numbers in April. Given his race, his musical roots in metal and his occasional tendency to put his foot in his mouth when talking about hip-hop and its culture, Post was a controversial presence at rap’s center, and discussions abounded about just how much at home he should feel or behave in his genre of choice. But attempts to write him off as a fluke or cultural tourist were disarmed by his consistency in producing undeniable (and increasingly genre-agnostic) smashes, and his generally chill vibe and enthusiasm for life’s simple pleasures won him more than friends than enemies, inside and outside the industry.
One rapper everyone could agree on in 2018 was Kendrick Lamar. Poetically minded and technically stunning, over the course of three major label LPs (2013’s cinematic good kid, m.A.A.d city, 2015’s expansive To Pimp a Butterfly and 2017’s resounding DAMN.), Lamar had grown into the most respected albums artist in hip-hop — and following the massive success of DAMN. and its Hot 100-topping lead single “Humble,” he was also one of its most popular. His follow-up to that album didn’t come in 2018, but something arguably more impressive did: the soundtrack to blockbuster superhero flick Black Panther was executive produced by Lamar, who also contributed to every track, including co-leading its singles “All the Stars,” “Pray For Me” and “King’s Dead.” The soundtrack was also a huge win, topping the Billboard 200 albums chart, scoring a Grammy nomination for album of the year, and showing that hip-hop’s best and brightest could now represent Hollywood at its highest levels of mainstream commerciality.
But once again, the biggest rapper of the year was inarguably Drake. Following his great escape act of 2015, Drake’s popularity continued to balloon over the decade’s second half, as both 2016 LP Views and its lead single “One Dance” would reign on the all-genre Billboard charts for double-digit weeks. By 2018, he was doing the same with singles that didn’t even really sound like singles: “God’s Plan” had no major chorus or instrumental hook to speak of, and might’ve registered as an album cut years earlier — but in 2018, it ended up the No. 1 song on Billboard‘s year-end Hot 100 listing, the biggest of Drake’s three Hot 100 No. 1 singles that year (“Nice For What,” “In My Feelings”).
It wasn’t all good news for Drake in 2018 — his new double album Scorpion debuted to mixed reviews, and he tapped out of a dramatic feud with veteran rapper Pusha T and his GOOD Music label head Kanye West after the two revealed he had hidden a son from the public, among other things. But Drake’s solution to everything was always just more success, and once “In My Feelings” had generated the year’s most viral dance challenge and helped him break the record for most weeks spent atop the Hot 100 in a calendar year — while Scorpion became the year’s best-performing set — it was clear he was not just the most untouchable rapper, but the biggest artist in popular music altogether.
Drake actually appeared on a fourth No. 1 single in 2018 as well, but his name didn’t appear in the credits — nor did any of the guests on Travis Scott’s Astroworld set, one of the year’s less-expected commercial behemoths. Scott, a former protege of West’s who had built a growing cult fanbase off his psychedelic-leaning albums and his incendiary live shows, officially graduated to hip-hop’s A list with the long-anticipated album, which hid its stacked guest list (Frank Ocean, Stevie Wonder, The Weeknd) on its streaming tracklist, forcing fans to listen and figure out its credits for themselves. Plenty of ’em did, as the album moved over half a million units in its first week, and produced the aforementioned Drake-featuring Hot 100 champ in “SICKO MODE” — a three-part prog-rap odyssey that would’ve been unimaginable as a radio single years earlier, but which got audiences so hyped with its unexpected beat switches and back-and-forth hooks that the pop world had no choice but to meet it halfway.
Rule-breaking was the name of the game for many of the fastest-growing rappers in 2018, many of whom had their initial breakthrough through the same user-friendly streaming platform, thus getting the entire scene dubbed “SoundCloud rap.” In 2018, 17-year-old MC Lil Pump had the shortest Hot 100 top 10 hit in 42 years with “Gucci Gang,” the most extreme example of how smashes in the streaming era were getting shorter and punchier, lest listeners have a chance to click away to something else. Singer-rapper Juice WRLD scored big with a poppier model of the emo rap that Lil Uzi Vert had crossed over the year before with the iconic “XO Tour Llif3,” even getting himself on top 40 radio with his No. 2-peaking, Sting-interpolating Hot 100 smash “Lucid Dreams.” Controversial rapper 6ix9ine circumvented radio altogether, building his stardom through the streets and the Internet with a series of aggressive, bullying rap anthems that dovetailed with IRL headlines about his growing gang involvement, and viral videos of him talking s–t and flaunting his success.
The artist who most defined both what fans loved and what critics hated about the SoundCloud rap moment was XXXTENTACION. The Florida rapper had broken out in late 2016 with the clumsily mastered, nauseously produced and lyrically aggro “Look at Me!,” puzzling the hip-hop establishment and electrifying younger audiences. Influenced by rock as much as rap, X’s success blended the most visceral and emotional parts of the two genres for a series of albums and singles that could be both frightening in their violence and soothing in their tenderness. His talent was prodigious, but his off-record behavior was disturbing, with the rapper admitting to nearly beating a gay juvenile detention cellmate to death as a teen and being accused of further horrific acts of brutality and abuse by his then-pregnant girlfriend, allegations that made some of the more misogynistic and threatening lyrics of his songs particularly hard to stomach.
Nonetheless, in 2018 XXXTENTACION was still one of the fastest-rising stars in hip-hop, as his sophomore album ? became his first set to top the Billboard 200, while its lead single — the highly melodic, self-pitying “SAD!” — also became his biggest crossover hit to date, making the Hot 100’s top 10. But debates over whether a young man of such heinous admitted and accused actions deserved a place in hip-hop’s star system — and what it said about us that he was being given one regardless — were rendered largely moot when he was shot to death at age 20 as a part of a robbery in his Florida home state that June. X’s premature death further cemented his legend in late-’10s youth culture, with countless rappers paying tribute to their slain peer throughout the year’s remainder, and “SAD!” rising to No. 1 on the Hot 100, the first posthumous chart-topper since The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems” over 20 years earlier.
While X and some of his SoundCloud brethren represented hip-hop at its most antisocial, another rising star was breaking new ground for conscientiousness at the Hot 100’s apex. Not that anyone would confuse Childish Gambino (a.k.a. multi-media superstar Donald Glover) and his totemic “This Is America” for a throwback to prime Common or Mos Def — “America” had more in common sonically with the twisted beats and elliptical rapping of the younger MCs who provided ad libs on the track (Young Thug, BlocBoy JB, Quavo). But thematically, both the song and its shocking, instantly iconic music video addressed topical concerns of gun violence and racial strife in a way that late-’10s audiences (and critics) had long been calling for popular music to do more of during such a turbulent time for society. Propelled by its video’s conversation-starting virality, “This Is America” debuted atop the Hot 100, and set new benchmarks for hip-hop at the Grammys the next February, becoming the first rap song to win either song of the year or record of the year — though Glover, long of two minds about his own mainstream acceptance, did not show up to accept the awards.
Though 2018 was unquestionably a triumph for hip-hop at all levels, it remains to be seen somewhat whether its dominance that year represented a peak not to be repeated, or simply the new normal. In 2019, the genre’s streaming supremacy lost its footing a little, as more traditionally pop artists found the oxygen to score major cross-platform hits. Meanwhile, death continues to rock the community and rob the culture of some of its greatest young talents: In the past two years alone, XXXTENTACION, West Coast hero Nipsey Hussle, tortured creative Mac Miller, emo-rap cult favorite Lil Peep and most recently Juice WRLD have all been lost prematurely. 6ix9ine got arrested, ending the decade in a suit in court, testifying against the gang connections who helped generate his initial infamy. Post Malone’s latest Hot 100-topping hit is more alt-rock (and adult contemporary) than hip-hop. Even Drake finally had something of an off year in 2019, getting booed as a special guest at fellow star Tyler, the Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw festival.
Still, even in a year where pop’s comeback is one of the biggest headlines, rap’s presence is undeniable. Not only did 2019 produce new stars for the next decade like DaBaby, Roddy Ricch and Megan Thee Stallion — the latter one of many female MCs who broke out in the past year, a long-overdue riposte to the industry norm, purposeful or not, of treating female stars as a one-at-a-time mainstream novelty — but its overwhelming influence could still be heard in chart-toppers by nominal pop acts like Ariana Grande, Halsey and Billie Eilish. What’s more, two of the year’s biggest crossover hits came from rappers whose multi-faceted talents, wide accessibility and general sonic diversity leave them arguably more at home in the pop world than the hip-hop world to begin with. But get into the thick of breaking down the distinctions between those genres and it all becomes increasingly meaningless anyway: In 2018 and beyond, it’s fair to argue that hip-hop simply is pop.
Next, in 2019: One historic hit’s journey tells us a whole lot about where we’ve been in this decade of popular music, and where we might be going next.