Before Lil Yachty became the hip-hop Antichrist in the eyes and ears of hip-hop purists, he was just a kid from the suburbs of Atlanta hoping to become famous through Instagram. Through strategic maneuvering and the co-signs of influential ‘grammers like Luka Sabbat, Yachty was able to parlay his skyrocketing Instagram presence into a full-fledged music career, a move he attributes to the sizable following he was able to amass with the help of Instagram’s trendsetters.
He touched on this calculated approach last year in an interview with Rolling Stone:
"They're the cool kids all the kids listen to," Yachty says. "It was strategic. They helped my name build."
Yachty may be the most visible artist to take this route, but he’s far from the only one. This year's XXL Freshman list is comprised of a new wave of artists that rely heavily on Instagram and SoundCloud rather than the traditional infrastructure of rap stardom to fuel their burgeoning careers. As Indify recently pointed out, the relevance benchmark by which most of the 2017 XXL Freshmen were selected is the size of their Instagram following, with most artists’ Gram stats surpassing their presence elsewhere, including Spotify.
Whereas SoundCloud has begun to usurp traditional streaming services in terms of breaking new artists, Instagram has directly led to the rise of several of this year’s XXL Freshmen and has contributed to maintaining relevance for countless others. Reaching one million followers on Instagram for the new generation seems to be just as important as selling one million records.
For instance, the Instagram presence of XXL Freshmen Ugly God (1.5M followers) and XXXTentacion (2.2M followers) played a major role in their selection for the once highly-coveted cover. More so than ever, the actual music has taken a backseat to social media hype, and aspiring artists are quickly learning that a carefully manicured Instagram presence can be just as beneficial to their trajectory as a hit single.
SahBabii—whose hit single “Pull Up Wit Ah Stick” has nearly 15 million plays on SoundCloud, is getting radio play across the country and spawned an official remix with Young Thug—credited Instagram with the success of his breakout single in a February radio interview.
"Everytime I make some new music, I like to share it on my Instagram and let people hear the new stuff that's going on and people just kept sharing it, I just kept seeing it on the explore timeline. But I made that song back in March, but I didn't really care for it. But as I seen people kept sharing it and stuff I said, 'I'm gonna just put it on my mixtape,' and it went crazy from there."
Similarly, South Florida rapper Lil Pump has achieved a massive musical following based largely on his outrageous Instagram antics—he recently celebrated the one million follower milestone with a cake shaped like a Xanax pill—while his other social media accounts have a fraction of the popularity.
Lil Pump never wanted to be a rapper, a fact he freely admitted in his XXL interview earlier this year, but some encouragement from friend, oft-collaborator and fellow Instagram phenomenon Smokepurrp prompted a light-hearted foray into music that managed to capitalize on his already rising Instagram stock.
It's immediately apparent in reading Lil Pump's comments regarding his success that record sales are far from his most coveted aspiration:
"A lot has changed from last year because November I had like 60,000 followers on Instagram and it started going up. I’m on like 400,000 now. This is happening quickly."
To be clear, Lil Pump is far from the only new wave artist who had no concrete intentions of becoming a rapper but somehow fell into the role as a way of focusing their growing Instagram virality. "I didn't really have no [rap] goals or aspirations," said PnB Rock in his XXL Freshman interview.
Instagram isn’t just breaking new artists, either—it’s literally creating them and bringing them together. Across the board, the artistic trajectory in 2017 has been flipped upside down, with Instagram fame coming first and music becoming a means of solidifying and monetizing the more intangible benefits that internet celebrity brings.
It’s a strange time we live in, but regardless of how you feel about the music these artists are churning out, you have to respect the hustle.