Cardi B’s first charting single, “Bodak Yellow,” took just six weeks to reach No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs chart, making it the fastest debut to top that chart since PSY’s 2012 viral hit, “Gangnam Style.” The song — whose 36.2 million U.S. streams pushed it to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 2 on Streaming Songs, behind the all-time record-breaking “Despacito,” in the week ending Aug. 17 — is the latest, and largest, triumph for Atlantic Records and its roster of next-generation MCs.
During the past 12 months, Lil Uzi Vert (whose “XO TOUR Llif3” peaked at No. 7 on the Hot 100), Kodak Black (“Tunnel Vision,” No. 6), D.R.A.M. (“Broccoli,” No. 5) and KYLE (“iSpy,” No. 4) have roared into the top 10, propelled by massive streaming numbers. And that’s just the young guns. Gucci Mane, Meek Mill and Kevin Gates helped Atlantic jump to an industry-leading 15.1 percent R&B/hip-hop market share in 2017 (through the week ending Aug. 10), up from 10.8 percent over the same period in 2016.
“That Cardi B song is everywhere, and it started because people just like it,” says Ibrahim “Ib” Hamad, Dreamville Records president and J. Cole’s manager. “Nobody can tell you what to like anymore. If people love a song, you’ll see those numbers.”
For the first time since Nielsen started tracking the music industry in 1991, R&B/hip-hop officially dominates all other genres, claiming 25.1 percent of total consumption and 30.3 percent of all on-demand audio streams — dwarfing the No. 2 genre, rock (18.1 percent). It is streaming that has increased the music industry’s revenue by double-digit percentage points for the first time in nearly 20 years, and it is streaming that is motivating labels to build out their hip-hop and R&B departments. In cultivating a deep bench of next-generation rap talent, Atlantic’s A&R team is leading the way into the future.
“I have a roster of about 64 artists now that I’m responsible for on the urban side,” says Atlantic Records president of black music Michael Kyser. “We have staffed up for it, A&R-wise, marketing-wise. I have one of the biggest promotion staffs in the business.”
“Streaming was just a big reveal of what was already happening,” says Ethiopia Habtemariam, Motown Records president and president of urban music/co-head of creative at Universal Music Publishing Group, who helped Capitol Music Group relaunch legendary West Coast hip-hop label Priority Records as a hip-hop distributor in June. “[But] I don’t think people were equipped to handle it. Now I see [companies] hiring a lot more people that come from the culture.”
In June, Capitol tapped super-producer Dion “No I.D.” Wilson as executive V.P. responsible for A&R and production, while the historically rock-leaning Warner Bros. Records brought in Def Jam marketing veteran Chris Atlas as senior vp/head of urban marketing. (In recent years WBR also signed joint venture deals with Mac Miller’s REMember Music and Drake’s OVO Sound.)
Meanwhile, this year, Republic has enjoyed Drake’s More Life and Post Malone’s “Congratulations”; RCA has dominated alt-R&B, with albums from SZA, Khalid and Bryson Tiller all peaking in the top four of the Billboard 200; Kendrick Lamar, Rae Sremmurd and Cole have led Interscope to an 11.5 percent R&B/hip-hop market share in 2017 so far, good for third behind Atlantic and Republic (13.6 percent); and Epic has four of the Streaming Songs chart’s top six with tracks from 21 Savage, DJ Khaled, Yo Gotti and French Montana.
“Hip-hop has been this big for a long time, but now people get to see it,” says Emagen Entertainment Group CEO Anthony Saleh, who manages Nas and Future.
Since the 1990s, the path to hip-hop stardom largely ran through mixtapes. By 2006, the RIAA estimated the mixtape economy was responsible for 30 million to 50 million sales per year, working out to an estimated $250 million underground industry, one the trade organization viewed as piracy. Eventually the model moved online, where rising and established MCs alike would give away downloads of their projects on sites like Datpiff and LiveMixtapes. (Meek Mill’s 2012 tape, Dreamchasers 2, the most successful mixtape in Datpiff history, has been downloaded 4.7 million times and streamed another 3.2 million times on the site, according to Datpiff.) But royalty-generating streaming services have made the free model all but obsolete. “Most of those listens [were] in the black market,” says Saleh. “Now everyone wants to be in the rap business.”
“We suffered from piracy, we suffered from the free model, and we weren’t demanding anything in return for our art,” adds Ghazi Shami, whose hybrid label/distributor EMPIRE earned six Grammy nominations this year for D.R.A.M.’s “Broccoli” (jointly released with Atlantic), Fat Joe and Remy Ma’s “All the Way Up” and Anderson .Paak’s Malibu. “Now there’s a new generation that says it’s okay to pay a subscription fee to Apple Music or Spotify.”
EMPIRE’s digital-first ethos has become a model for the industry, with deals that allow a label to give young acts a platform and support without a long-term commitment or investment. Priority’s relaunch is based on a similar idea, while labels like Interscope, Epic and Capitol have started focusing on joint ventures with independent labels and artists that offer distribution and major-label support when needed. (Interscope just partnered with LVRN, home to singer-rapper 6LACK; Capitol’s partnership with Quality Control includes Lil Yachty and, moving forward, Migos.)
“This structure is the future of the business,” says Habtemariam, who along with Wilson was brought in by Capitol chairman/CEO Steve Barnett to lead the label group’s surge in hip-hop. “Everyone will want the opportunity to be in business with someone from the beginning as a distributor and then connect the dots at a major level and be in a full deal with them.”
“Without the physical product being in the middle, you’re able to be a lot more nimble,” adds Saleh, who in March helped Future make history with back-to-back No. 1 debuts on the Billboard 200. That speed is a blessing and, potentially, a curse. Saleh says he’s “worried” that streaming-driven songs-of-the-moment could lead artists to focus on “quick noise” at the expense of a sustained career; Hamad says that can lead to artists being “not as realistic” in plotting tours. And the importance of playlists has, in some cases, changed what it takes to be successful. “The most exciting thing for me has always been the diversity of hip-hop,” says Shami. “I don’t want to lose that just because so-and-so has a song booming on a playlist and I can emulate it and get on that playlist.”
Still, the streaming-led R&B/hip-hop takeover is showing few, if any, signs of slowing. Total audio/video on-demand streams are on pace to top 500 billion for the first time by the end of this year, according to Nielsen Music. Thirty of the 50 slots on the Sept. 9 Streaming Songs chart are R&B/hip-hop tracks. And while 37 percent of music listeners used audio streaming services globally in 2016, that number rises to 62 percent among 16- to 24-year-olds, according to IFPI.
Meanwhile, Atlantic’s young MCs are finding success beyond playlists and singles: Kodak Black recently landed an album at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, and Lil Uzi Vert’s debut, Luv Is Rage 2, just opened at No. 1.
“This is how the kids consume music,” says Kyser. “Streaming has given these [artists] the opportunity to [move] a lot of records, to tour around the world and showcase their music.”
This article originally appeared in the September 23 issue of Billboard.