In 2018, Nielsen Soundscan’s year-end music industry report confirmed that R&B/hip-hop was the most popular genre in America. Nine of the 10 most consumed songs in the United States were hip-hop/R&B songs, and as streaming became the dominant way to consume music, eight of the 10 most streamed artists were rappers.
That report focused on 2017, but the period between 2015-2018 was a crescendo for the genre. Established artists like Ye, Jay-Z and Lil Wayne still had more in the tank; younger stars like Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Nicki Minaj put their mark on the culture; and rising stars like Pop Smoke, Juice WRLD, XXXTENTACION and Cardi B were already scoring RIAA plaques. Everything was pointing up.
Looking at the hip-hop landscape today, you might get a different feeling. Rap is still enormously popular, but its growth is slowing. Luminate’s mid-year report revealed that R&B/hip-hop still has the largest overall market share of any genre in the United States with 27.6% — but that’s a decline from last year’s 28.4%, even though it widened its lead at the top in terms of overall equivalent album units. The genre’s total on-demand streaming growth is up 6.2% in 2022, but that’s lower than the rate of the market overall, which is up 11.6%.
“I will say, I’m concerned,” says Carl Chery, Spotify’s creative director and head of urban. Chery says he’s been alarmed about rap since last year: “2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, those years felt magical. My concern is that the magic is gone.”
There’s a variety of reasons the genre’s future feels precarious. First, rap’s superstars like Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Post Malone are aging into a different chapter of their careers, less invested in chasing hits. This year, Drake dropped the dancefloor detour, Honestly, Nevermind, while Kendrick made the deeply personal Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers and Post Malone released his darkest album yet, Twelve Carat Toothache. The albums debuted with respectable numbers, but slid down the Billboard 200 relatively quickly after — and while each of their previous albums spawned Hot 100-topping smashes (“God’s Plan,” “HUMBLE,” “rockstar”), this time, between the three of them, only Drake’s “Jimmy Cooks” went to No. 1, where it lasted a week. Post told Billboard earlier this year, “I don’t need a No. 1; that doesn’t matter to me no more, and at a point, it did.”
Those artists are carrying even more weight because of rap’s second problem; a number of would-be superstars died young. The late Pop Smoke, Juice WRLD and XXXTENTACION were three of the most important rappers of the past few years, not only because they moved units but because they were stylistic innovators. Their premature passings leave a void at the genre’s center — one that has only widened with the further losses of Nipsey Hussle, Mac Miller, Lil Peep, King Von, Young Dolph and, most recently, PnB Rock.
“Unfortunately, we have those tragedies that don’t let those culture-shifters see out their days and fulfill their purpose for the sub-genre they’re repping,” says Letty Peniche, who hosts Power Mornings on Power 106 in L.A. “We didn’t just lose [XXX, Pop, Juice], it also halted that wave.”
Then there’s rap’s third problem: There aren’t as many hot prospects among rap’s rookie class.
“The last couple of years, we’re not seeing as many new stars emerge,” says Chery. “[From 2015-2018], there were just a lot of guys we would see seemingly come out of nowhere and become huge stars and put up numbers that would rival people that have been established. We’re not really seeing that right now.”
It’s not like we haven’t seen breakout rappers in 2022 — artists like GloRilla, SleazyWorld Go and Yeat are talented and may have bright futures ahead of them. But with the exception of Yeat, their success is tied to hit singles and they haven’t established their bonafides via full-length projects. While they’ve performed impressively for newcomers, they haven’t put up near the superstar-type numbers Chery refers to.
Meanwhile, some of rap’s most promising upstarts have seen their fortunes turn quickly. DaBaby’s 2020 album, Blame It On Baby, moved 124,000 album-equivalent units in its first week; after a couple of underperforming projects rehashing the same formula, 2022’s Baby On Baby 2 moved a mere 17,000 in its first week. Megan Thee Stallion won the Grammy for best new artist, but her Traumazine album did lower first-week numbers than her debut and it hasn’t spawned a hit close to “Savage.” Roddy Ricch scored the last major pre-pandemic No. 1 hit with “The Box,” but his last single as a lead artist, “Stop Breathing,” has yet to hit the Hot 100. One of 2022’s bright spots was watching Gunna ascend from Young Thug protégé to standalone star as his “Pushing P” became the kind of cultural meme rap routinely produces, yet his achievement was overshadowed when he and Thug were arrested on a RICO charge that may land them both in prison for years.
Some of this might have been inevitable. In many ways, the rap audience was primed for the shift to streaming, resulting in the genre over-indexing in its early years. “The movement of mixtapes out of the free music world of LiveMixtapes, DatPiff and blogs into monetized, proper releases was really key,” says Signal Records founder and CEO Jeff Vaughn, about the 2015-2018 period. “You had this segment of music consumption that had always flown under the radar, but now it was trackable, and there was money being made.”
As the pendulum swings the other way, the playing field is beginning to even out — as country, rock, pop and Latin catch up to hip-hop’s streaming advantage. At the same time, many artists from those genres — including this year’s most dominant artist, Bad Bunny — are now undeniably influenced by hip-hop, but their wins don’t count towards hip-hop’s market share.
Upheaval has become the norm in all genres over the past two years. The biggest factor was the COVID-19 pandemic, which put a pause on the entire music industry and hindered the momentum of countless careers. But there’s also the rise of TikTok, which has had a seismic effect on marketing — turning songs into viral sensations seemingly overnight and creating all sorts of breakout hits, but few lasting careers.
“What I’m seeing is, people stick around for the piece of the song that they like,” explains Peniche. “They don’t want to hear the rest of whatever song TikTok put in their mind. You don’t even know if you’re going to like the full song or even the artist. You fall in love with the snippet — but after that, what happens?”
Peniche adds that things like TikTok have aided in radio’s changing role in music, from breaking hits to simply reminding people of their favorites. While TikTok has helped fuel 2020s rap hits like BRS Kash’s “Throat Baby” and Popp Hunna’s “Adderall (Corvette Corvette),” as well as more crossover-ready breakthroughs like Doja Cat’s “Say So” and Jack Harlow’s “What’s Poppin,” it may already be seeing diminishing returns.
“There’s these songs that gain traction on TikTok but they don’t go all the way,” says Chery. “They’ll have a lot of streams on Spotify, they’ll be added to big playlists maybe, but they don’t go the distance.”
Chery also points out how TikTok has also helped keep older music, like J. Cole’s “No Role Modelz,” consistently successful. “The reality of the market is now, you’re not just competing with other new music, you’re competing with the best music period from past or present,” adds Vaughn. “In the meantime, you’re gonna have a lot of first week sales in the 10-30,000 range. Until something changes, that’s just probably the new reality of the business.”
These days, YouTube and TikTok celebrities are competing for attention with musicians, while today’s influencers may also be discouraging tomorrow’s would-be musicians. “People can get rich from their bedrooms now,” says Peniche. “People can get rich off of Twitch playing games. Like, ‘Why would I be out here hustling or going on the road for scraps if I can do something at home and get rich off of TikTok videos?’ ”
Vaughn thinks the problem goes beyond TikTok, though: “Is there more competition for people’s time now than there was five years ago? Yes. Are major [labels’] market share and influence declining relative to their ability to move the market? Yes. Is there more money, focus, attention and people in the hip-hop space now than five years ago? Yes. So all those things combined make it a very different landscape.”
The pandemic also upset the release schedule and forced concert cancellations. Chery recalled a moment in 2021 when he asked two party promoters what was ringing off in the clubs. They struggled to come up with an answer besides Drake’s “Way 2 Sexy.” “What point in hip-hop history have we had a shortage of club bangers?” asked Chery. “Never.”
Despite all these worries, there have been bright spots this year. Future is enjoying his biggest commercial year yet, with his I Never Liked You album posting the best solo first-week numbers of his career and “WAIT FOR U” becoming his first Hot 100 No. 1 as a lead artist. Lil Baby, Jack Harlow and Moneybagg Yo continue to be proven hitmakers. Rod Wave, Polo G and YoungBoy Never Broke Again are cult artists with huge followings. Doja Cat, Lil Nas X and The Kid LAROI toe the line of rap and pop, but have put up big numbers with their albums and scored massive crossover hits on the Hot 100.
“Overall, I’m still incredibly bullish on the art form,” says Vaughn. “It’s been here for 50 years, I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”
Ultimately, as Luminate’s mid-year report notes, hip-hop is still No. 1. But culture can’t afford to be creatively stagnant. To stay fresh, it needs to find a spark.
“I’m always worried about where it’s heading,” says Chery. “But music is cyclical. I don’t think we’ll ever live in a world where hip-hop isn’t the most influential type of music and culture. That’ll never happen. Hip-hop will always be in this position where it just helps shape [culture] and makes everything move.”