Not everybody is built to be The Next Big Thing. In hip-hop, artists have been devoured by expectations. From Bad Boy would-be star Shyne to battle rap casualty Canibus, the glare of the spotlight can burn some careers to a crisp.
The pressure to live up to the hype can be immense. But anticipation ain’t what it used to be. A buzz-generating write-up in popular magazine or a guest spot on a high profile album may have been enough to spark a fire back in the 1990s, but today an artist has to almost engage in a full-on media assault of guest appearances, mixtapes and indie videos just to get on the general public’s radar.
But despite the shift in approach, the results are the same; a fanbase that is whipped into a frenzy for an upcoming debut. We’ve seen it happen with several high-profile debuts in hip-hop over the years — most recently with breakout rapper Cardi B, who topped the Billboard Hot 100 last September with first single “Bodak Yellow,” setting her on a path to superstardom well before she got around to releasing her debut album.
With Cardi’s first LP, Invasion of Privacy, finally set to drop this Friday (Apr. 6), here’s a look at 10 of the most anticipated rap debuts throughout history.
10. Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy (2018)
She’s been the most talked about rapper of the past year. She scored a massive hit with “Bodak Yellow.” Her personal life is as inescapable as her media presence. Cardi B is one of hip-hop’s most unlikely success stories, having risen through the ranks of reality TV to become a legit phenomenon in music. But she’s done it in an age where cynics believe that any artist with a catchy single and a good backstory can generate headlines — think Bobby Shmurda or Iggy Azalea — but sustained success has proven to be elusive for so many of these one-time “hot” artists.
But Cardi doesn’t look to be a flash-in-the-pan. She’s appeared on massive hit singles like “MotorSport” with Migos and Nicki Minaj; and stole the show on Bruno Mars’ “Finesse” remix with her short opening verse. “Bartier Cardi,” her 21 Savage-featuring followup to “Bodak Yellow,” hit the top 20 of the Hot 100, and her latest single “Drip” is buzzing online. With her debut album set to drop, you couldn’t be in a better position than Cardi B right now. This is her moment; whether she makes the most of it remains to be seen.
9. Kanye West, The College Dropout (2004)
It’s one of hip-hop’s most famous underdog stories: Kanye had made his name as a producer out of Chicago, only to be stifled and shut down any time he tried to pursue a career as a rapper. Despite the lack of belief in his artistry, Ye’s sound had come to define early 2000s hip-hop, and Dame Dash eventually signed his hottest producer to a deal as an artist. And in 2002, Kanye almost died in a car accident following a late night studio session. While recuperating, and with his jaw famously wired shut, he would record a single called “Through the Wire,” and released it via his Get Well Soon mixtape in 2003.
The re-recorded version of the song became a smash that year, and Kanye followed it with “Slow Jamz,” a hit for Twista that also featured West and Jamie Foxx. “Slow Jamz” shot to No. 1 on the Hot 100 in early February 2004 — just as Kanye was releasing his forthcoming debut album for Roc-A-Fella Records. The College Dropout was released the same month, and debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, on the way to selling 4 million copies in the U.S. Third single “All Falls Down” would be released two weeks later, and became another top ten hit for Kanye, and fourth single “Jesus Walks” would peak at No. 11, all setting up Kanye for a solo career that ensured he would never again be dismissed as just a producer trying to rap.
8. Ice Cube, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (1990)
A rapper successfully launching a solo career after having leaving a hit group was still fairly uncharted territory in 1990. Ice Cube had bitterly exited N.W.A in 1989, and his label, Priority Records, didn’t seem all that enthused about his prospects without producer Dr. Dre. Cube recruited Sir Jinx and they flew to New York City, supposedly to work with producer Sam Sever, who’d just co-produced The Cactus Album by 3rd Bass. Instead, Cube opted to work with Public Enemy’s legendary producers The Bomb Squad. As N.W.A continued without him, Ice Cube crossed coasts and prepped his first solo release.
AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted wasn’t a huge pop crossover, in terms of airplay, but it announced that Cube was a force in hardcore hip-hop circles. The album would eventually sell over a million copies and break Cube free of the shadow of his former group. As N.W.A’s notoriety rose to cartoonish levels in the early 1990s, Cube became one of the more important rappers in music — and he parlayed that visibility into a high-profile appearance in John Singleton’s ultimately epochal coming-of-age drama Boyz N the Hood.
7. Nicki Minaj, Pink Friday (2010)
Nicki Minaj had been generating increasing word-of-mouth buzz ever since 2007’s Playtime Is Over mixtape. Affiliations with Debra Antney and Dirty Money, and an appearance on Lil Wayne’s “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” from his Da Drought 3 mixtape, had given Minaj a sizeable indie following; but it was the success of her Beam Me Up Scotty tape in ’09 that truly announced Nicki as an artist to be reckoned with. That same year, she signed with Young Money/Universal and hit the road with Wayne.
Nicki signed with Young Money, less than two months after the label landed another coveted rapper in Drake, and both would appear on “BedRock,” the We Are Young Money crew cut that would shoot to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the years leading up to the album’s release, there had been a noticeable lull in visibility for women in hip-hop, and Nicki had become just as known for her larger-than-life image as her music — it was all building massive interest in the newly minted First Lady of Young Money, particularly following her headline-grabbing appearance on Kanye West’s “Monster” in late 2010, a verse routinely cited as one of the greatest guest turns of the decade.
Minaj’s debut album would drop in November of that year. Upon release, Pink Friday debuted at No. 2 — behind Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — while spawning four Hot 100 top 40 hits and earning a best rap album nomination at the Grammys, but it wasn’t quite the earth-shattering musical moment the public seemed primed for. It did continue Nicki’s ascent to pop superstardom, however — particularly once the crossover smash “Super Bass” was pulled as a single from its deluxe edition — as she became one of the most famous women in music, and unquestionably the biggest female artist in hip-hop.
6. Dr. Dre, The Chronic (1992)
N.W.A’s 1991 album Niggaz4Life had been a commercial success and a lightning rod for controversy, but the group fell apart within months of its release, due to money disputes between co-founding members Eazy E and Dr. Dre. Dre would break from Eazy’s Ruthless Records to strike out on his own, with the specter of N.W.A and his own demons hovering over everything he touched. Dre’s behavior in 1991-’92 had been especially headline-grabbing; he was charged with assault following his vicious beating of TV host Dee Barnes, he’d acrimoniously split from NWA and Eazy E’s Ruthless Records; and he’d been involved in a melee in a New Orleans hotel that left a 15-year old stabbed. As N.W.A deteriorated, it wasn’t exactly clear what Dr. Dre would become — until he released his first solo single; the theme song for a cop drama starring Laurence Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum.
“Deep Cover” (from the movie of the same name) got every rap fan’s attention in spring 1992, and it helped announce the 2nd phase of Dre’s career; as a solo rapper/producer and face of Death Row Records. But it would pale in comparison to the success of Dre’s next release. “Nuthin’ But A G Thing” was released in fall 1992 and it would go all the way to No. 2 on the Hot 100. It was the lead single from Dr. Dre’s solo debut, The Chronic, a gangsta rap magnum opus that made Dre a solo star and made his protégé, Snoop Doggy Dogg, a phenomenon. The Chronic would eventually sell over 5 million copies and established Death Row Records, which would go to become the biggest rap label of the 1990s.
5. Nas, Illmatic (1994)
The 19-year old Nas was supposed to be the second coming of Rakim. Mainstream hip-hop’s focus had shifted West following the blockbuster success of The Chronic in 1992, but New York City maintained a hold on the hip-hop underground, and rap purists had been raving about this upstart rhymer from Queens ever since he’d appeared on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbecue” in 1991. In summer ’92, Nas popped up on MC Serch’s single “Back to the Grill,” dropping another scene-stealing verse alongside Serch, Chubb Rock and Red Hot Lover Tone. He made his first official solo appearance (as “Nasty Nas”) with the release of “Halftime” on the soundtrack for the 1992 romance drama Zebrahead.
The stage was set for Nas’ debut album in early 1994, when the lead single “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” was released to rap radio — along with its video getting airplay on video shows like Yo! MTV Raps. The single only reached the bottom of the Hot 100, but it added to the wave of anticipation for Nas amongst East Coast hip-hop aficionados. When Illmatic was released in April 1994, Nas was hailed as the savior of NYC street rap. At the height of West Coast G-Funk dominance, Nasir Jones seemed like the latest and greatest in the city’s grand emcee tradition. And with its critical success, Nas helped set the stage for the East Coast’s mid-1990s resurgence.
4. Drake, Thank Me Later (2010)
Drake’s mixtape buzz had been building for three years, but the Canadian rapper/singer’s early career reached a crescendo with the release of 2009’s So Far Gone. His third mixtape turned Drake into the most-talked-about new artist in music, with anticipation reaching a fever pitch after hit singles “Successful” and “Best I Ever Had” hit No. 17 and No. 2, respectively, on the Hot 100. The bidding war that followed only added to the young rapper’s rising fame, and it was announced that Drake had signed with Young Money, just before he headed off on the Young Money America’s Most Wanted Tour that summer. His work with Boi 1da and especially Noah “40” Shebib made them two of the hottest producers; and Drake tapped both for work on his highly-anticipated debut—alongside superstar hitmakers like Timbaland, Kanye West and Swizz Beatz.
Thank Me Later dropped in 2010; the album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. “Find Your Love” would be another Top 5 hit for Drake in 2010. While the commercial impact of Drizzy’s major label debut was undeniable, as the set was certified Platinum almost immediately, the reception from fans and critics was decidedly lukewarm when compared to the enthusiasm that had followed So Far Gone the previous year. Nonetheless, the album spawned two additional Top 20 hits (“Over” and “Miss Me”) on the Hot 100, and generally did what it was supposed to do — assuring that Drake made a seamless transition from mixtape sensation to album artist.
3. DMX, It’s Dark & Hell Is Hot (1998)
Earl Simmons’ career had been delayed and sidelined for years. After a failed stint with Columbia Records and some time in prison, DMX attacked his rap career with renewed vigor. He got heads talking, but garnered little major attention — at first.
But X turned up everywhere in 1997; he guested on hit singles by LL Cool J (“4,3,2,1”), The LOX (“Money, Power, Respect”), and Ma$e (“24 Hrs to Live”). Irv Gotti pushed for Def Jam to sign the Yonkers-bred rhymer and they picked up X and the Ruff Ryders imprint in 1997. In early 1998, X’s single “Get At Me Dog” was released, along with a gritty, no-frills music video that landed heavy rotation on MTV and BET. It presented X as the grimy alternative to rap’s glossy-flossy superstars, and the song’s rambunctious energy shot it to No. 6 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles chart.
It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot was released in the spring of 1998 and it debuted at No. 1. The album’s subsequent singles weren’t crossover smashes (unlike many of his later hits) but they were well-received by fans and critics and had videos that were unavoidable on MTV, making the album a runaway success — Dark would eventually sell 4 million copies. The set made DMX the most popular new rapper of 1998; so much so that he dropped another No. 1 album before year’s end: Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood was released that December.
2. 50 Cent, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ (2003)
50 Cent announced himself with all of the antagonism and brashness of a young contender with a chance to take on the champ. And to the rapper born Curtis Jackson, the champ seemed to be damn-near everybody in the rap game with a hit. He’d recorded his debut album Power of the Dollar at the turn of the millennium, but it had been shelved after 50 was shot in spring 2000. The project was widely circulated via bootlegs, however, and radio played his notorious single “How to Rob,” on which 50 declared war against pretty much every Platinum-selling rapper of the late 1990s. Add to that his scathing diss of Ja Rule (“Your Life’s on the Line”), and it made him the most talked-about new voice in hip-hop.
As he recuperated from the attempt on his life, 50 recorded mixtapes and released them to tremendous buzz amongst hip-hop fans and artists — including multi-Platinum superstar Eminem. Em pushed for his label, Interscope Records, to listen to 50, and he was eventually signed to Interscope via Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label. They put 50 on the soundtrack for Em’s new movie 8 Mile and released a new 50 Cent mixtape, No Mercy No Fear, with 50’s crew G-Unit. It all set the stage for 50’s debut album for Aftermath; Get Rich or Die Tryin’ — preceded by the Hot 100-slaying lead single “In Da Club” — was a monster hit upon release. The album sold more than 10 million copies worldwide to become the best-selling album of 2003, and was nominated for a Grammy.
1. Snoop Doggy Dogg, Doggystyle (1993)
He’d been the breakout star for Death Row ever since his first appearance on the single “Deep Cover” with Dr. Dre. With the release of Dre’s ’92 smash debut The Chronic, the barely-out-of-high-school Calvin Broadus became the hottest new voice in the rap game. His distinctive drawl and laid-back demeanor conveyed a sort of cooler-than-thou charisma, as well as the kind of menace that made him just dangerous enough for the MTV audience. Every single released from The Chronic prominently featured Snoop. With Dre producing, Doggy Dogg was primed to become the franchise player for his notorious record label.
And Snoop delivered. Released in fall 1993, Doggystyle became the fastest-selling debut album in Billboard 200 history, entering atop the chart and selling over 800,000 copies in its first week of release. The set would go on to sell four million copies, while scoring a pair of Hot 100 top 10 hits with “What’s My Name?” and “Gin and Juice.” Following the album’s release, Snoop’s stardom would only continue to explode with the release of the Murder Was the Case film and soundtrack in 1994. With the success of his first album — along with the notoriety that came from Snoop being charged in connection to the 1993 murder of Philip Woldemariam — Snoop Doggy Dogg quickly became the most famous name in hip-hop.