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 2021 for the rest of this week. At No. 7, we remember the year in Drake — who once again captured the music world’s attention, and rewrote chart history in the process.
On a random afternoon in late October 2020, Instagram user @champagnepapi posted a cryptic video to his account with a following of close to 100 million. In the clip, slow-motion shots highlight Drake, the most dominant rapper of the 2010s, recreating the covers of his previous full-length projects — this time with a heart shaved into his crisp lineup — as ethereal synths build out the mysterious tease. Its caption reads “CERTIFIED LOVER BOY.” The video ends with the words “JANUARY 2021” plastered across the screen in a stark yellow font.
But January 2021 comes, and the previously promised record is nowhere in sight. A knee injury has apparently halted the Toronto superstar’s plans to drop CLB on its original release date. “Start writing the best bounce back story NOW,” he remarked shortly after the injury occurred.
Billboard’s Greatest Pop Stars of 2021:
Introduction & Honorable Mentions | Comeback of the Year: Willow | Rookie of the Year: Olivia Rodrigo | No. 10: Bad Bunny | No. 9: Dua Lipa | No. 8: Justin Bieber | No. 6: BTS | No. 5: The Weeknd | No. 4: Doja Cat | No. 3: Adele | No. 2: Lil Nas X | No. 1 Taylor Swift
And what a bounce back this year ended up being for the artist born Aubrey Graham. A lacking-only-by-his-standards 2020 – where “Toosie Slide” off his Dark Lane Demo Tapes mixtape still debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and loose single “Laugh Now, Cry Later” peaked at No. 2 and hung around well into the new year — a debilitating knee injury and a delayed album release all posed daunting challenges, even for an artist whose every move has the potential to define the cultural zeitgeist at any given moment.
But it did not take that long to get people talking again. In early March, Drake announced and dropped the quick-hit Scary Hours 2 EP, a three-track warmup for CLB that included contributions from frequent collaborators Lil Baby and Rick Ross. And no better way to get the buzz back on your side than debuting all three songs in the top three spots of the Hot 100 – a first for any artist – with the blaring “What’s Next” leading the pack, a shot he even called with the song’s predictive boast, “I’m on the Hot One Hundo, numero uno.”
With CLB still in the oven, Drake carried the thunder of his early March splash back into the feature pipeline, popping up in seemingly every corner of the hip-hop world to keep his name floating around. Guest spots were granted to newcomers like Yung Bleu and Smiley, fresh-out-of-prison MC Drakeo the Ruler, and longtime friends like Migos. This made him a ubiquitous voice throughout 2021, no matter which corner of the hip-hop world listeners resided in. On top of that, Yung Bleu turned the success of “You’re Mines Still” into a breakout 2021 for himself — including a best new hip-hop artist win at the BET Hip-Hop Awards — a sign that a Drake verse still holds immense power in minting rap’s rising stars.
And that inevitability, commercial tenacity and perpetual dominance was honored in monumental fashion at the 2021 Billboard Music Awards, when he was named artist of the decade for the 2010s, accepting the award with friends, family and his son Adonis by his side. “I just know that I’ve spent an incalculable amount of hours trying to analyze all the things I did wrong, but tonight, for once, I’m sure as hell we did something right,” Drake remarked during his acceptance speech. He rented out the newly built SoFi Stadium to celebrate the accolade with family and friends well before any fan could step foot inside to watch a Rams or Chargers game there.
A career-defining achievement like Artist of the Decade could’ve been the apex of any other artist’s 2021, but Drizzy was just getting going. By the year’s halfway mark, Certified Lover Boy was still nowhere to be found, but his features streak kept him hot. “Solid” with Young Thug and Gunna off the YSL Slime Language 2 compilation album debuted at No. 12 on the Hot 100, while his assist on R&B riser’s Brent Faiyaz’s Neptunes-produced “Wasting Time” topped out at No. 49, Faiyaz’s highest-charting song as a lead artist to date. A surprise Young Money reunion with Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne on “Seeing Green” also became the highlight of Minaj’s Beam Me Up Scotty mixtape reissue, with the song notching a No. 12 Hot 100 debut.
While work on Drake’s sixth studio album entered the eleventh hour, the summer seemingly belonged to hip-hop world-swallower Kanye West as his lead-up to Donda spanned three stadium-sized listening parties across multiple months of drama, speculation and conversation. Amidst the chaos came the resurfacing of tensions between the two hip-hop titans, which had most memorably percolated back in 2018 following fellow GOOD Music lieutenant Pusha T’s diss track exposé of Drake’s hidden child. Text exchanges and home addresses hit social media in mid-August, nondescript video responses were posted, and the two once again found themselves at hip-hop internet’s center stage.
Kanye’s 10th studio effort arrived early on the Sunday morning following its final listening party in late August, and a cryptic SportsCenter tease set the long-awaited Certified Lover Boy for the Friday after. Deliberate or not, their close proximity in release dates naturally set the two up for critical and commercial competition, and fans took to forums and comment sections to take sides on the latest Drake versus Kanye bout. CLB tracks like “7AM On Birdie Path” seemingly stoked the feud’s flames: “And look at the heroes fallin’ from grace in their older ages/ If we talkin’ top three, then you been slidin’ to third like stolen bases.”
CLB was met with lukewarm critical reception from critics and tastemakers, but that lack of acclaim did not hinder its commercial prowess – the album spent five weeks atop the Billboard 200 albums chart, and “Way 2 Sexy” with Future and Young Thug debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100. Even more historically, a total of nine tracks occupied the top 10 spots in the week following its release, another first in a year that included many for Drizzy. Commercial numbers have always been Drake’s bag and CLB’s output was no different, helping him finish the year with 35 total songs charted on the Hot 100. And when all was said and done, the Kanye kerfuffle never escalated beyond a couple back-and-forth subliminals, both rappers coming out of the situation relatively unscathed.
Then, in mid-November, an apparent reconciliation with Kanye hit the internet, and the announcement of a “Free Larry Hoover” benefit concert followed – an agreement brokered by longtime music executive J Prince. Previous differences aside, Ye and Drake wound up performing at the sold-out Los Angeles Coliseum on Dec. 9 not only to an in-person crowd, but to millions of onlookers watching the show’s livestream and reviewing it in real time on social media. The former ran through a discography hits set, while the latter played a CLB-focused set, before the two came together to end the show with their stadium-fitting 2009 collaboration “Forever” – a properly communal ending to a drawn-out saga.
Drake ended 2021 once again at the top of the pack on Billboard’s year-end Top Artist Chart – his second time receiving the distinction, following 2018 – in large part due to the unyielding success of CLB and its many breakout cuts. The record notched a best rap album nomination while “2 Sexy” landed a best rap performance nod at the 2022 Grammys. Drake rejected the nominations, however: a sign not only of his long-contentious relationship with Music’s Biggest Night, but of how – after being certified the biggest artist of any stripe for an entire decade – being relegated to genre categories for an annual award likely held little appeal for him.
Despite whatever doubts lingered about his continued preeminence going into the new decade, 2021 ended for Drake as simply another headline-dominating year, with copious amounts of commercial success and more life lived until 2022. So it goes for The Boy.
Tomorrow, Billboard reveals our No. 6 and No. 5 Greatest Pop Stars of 2021, including a reigning champion in our series.