Top Tier: Breaking Down Hip-Hop's Current Big 5 Artists

Drake, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Travis Scott and Post Malone are the five biggest artists in hip-hop in 2018 and it's not close.
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Earlier this month, a video of Pharrell Williams in the studio with a young Kendrick Lamar circulated around social media. The clip is dated around the release of Section.80, the debut album preceding Kendrick's major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city. The storied producer sings praises of the rising rapper, even proclaiming Kendrick to be one of the next to break out from America. Skateboard P saw it early, no different than Merlin seeing the king in an adolescent Arthur.  

Watch the Throne arrived one month after Section.80. The title said it all: JAY-Z and Kanye West were at the pinnacle of rap stardom, seated at the throne of excellence's upper echelon. From Reasonable Doubt and The College Dropout to the very heights of hip-hop’s hierarchy, their takeovers were gradual, the slow build of empires. But with the release of Watch the Throne, their reigns were ending in plain sight. 

There’s always an end. All eras conclude before achieving everlasting dominance. For example, JAY-Z once rapped, “Only dudes movin' units—Em, Pimp Juice, and us,” an acknowledgment of the acts who ruled by the numbers. That was 2003—almost two decades separate then and now. Currently, Eminem is still a star who maintains noteworthy numbers, but they're only a fraction of what he used to sell. Likewise, Nelly and the cast of characters from Roc-A-Fella—JAY-Z included—aren’t doing the same numbers in 2018 they scored 18 years ago.

As natural as birds flying south when winter comes, to be on top is only temporary. Leaders of a new school have always been replaced by an incoming class. To rise is to fall; to conquer is to be conquered. Aging gracefully is just a long road to replacement. Maintaining relevance is harder than ever in a shifting industry that continuously welcomes a fresh face. In 2018, we have new thrones to watch. 

Album sales are rarely an indicator of album quality, but they help to illustrate mass popularity. In that breath, JAY-Z, Eminem, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, and Kanye West are all former rulers—once kings of hip-hop's commercial realm and still prominent figures, but no longer at the height of their reign. Also in that breath, Cardi B, Future, Big Sean, Logic, Migos, and Lil Uzi Vert are all among hip-hop’s most successful mainstream acts but are currently operating on a tier below the culture's current rulers. Their music is capable of making a huge impact, both commercially and culturally, and each one is capable of breaking through to the next tier of rap stardom, yet they currently fall just short of top-tier status.

That top-tier status belongs to only a few. There are five artists who are currently standing above the rest, receiving the lion's share of visibility as compared to their contemporaries, maintaining a large listener base, and who have the kind of following that will produce at least 300,000 opening week equivalent album units. Hip-hop is wide open, but there is only a handful of superstars who have built kingdoms that are visible from below the underground and above the mainstream. 

Travis Scott

Travis Scott stands as a testament to the possibility of elevating from popular star to bonafide superstar. As a protégé of both Kanye West and T.I., the Houston rapper and producer has maintained a strong if controversial presence in hip-hop since the release of his 2013 debut mixtape, Owl Pharaoh. He wasn’t kicking down doors commercially or critically, but he was setting a fire in the hearts of young ragers. It took five years before the king of chaos was able to transcend and reach the seat of a superstar. The release and profound success of ASTROWORLD, his newly-released third studio album, cemented Travis' elite status.

In its first week, ASTROWORLD debuted as the No. 1 album in the country, moving an astounding 537,000 equivalent units, with 270,000 coming from pure album sales. The album placed every one of its 17 tracks in the Hot 100, was certified Gold after seven days, and maintained its No. 1 spot in its second week, beating out a long-awaited new album from the self-proclaimed Queen, Nicki Minaj, with another 205,000 equivalent units.

Even if ASTROWORLD's accomplishments were propelled by merchandise sales and benefitting from a changing music industry environment where streaming records are set and broken every few weeks, these numbers are jaw-dropping. For comparison, just two years ago, Travis' sophomore album, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, sold only 88,000 (53,000 pure) units in its opening week. If not for Drake, Travis would have easily netted the best-selling album of the year. And with “SICKO MODE” and “STARGAZING,” the Houston artist has finally cracked the top 10 as a solo artist, adding two viable hits to his growing catalog of hits. 

In the digital age, such a miraculous leap is unprecedented, but since going on tour with Kendrick Lamar in 2017 and wrecking a series of high-profile festival headlining gigs, solidifying himself as arguably rap's most sought-after performer, Travis' appeal has been skyrocketing.

Travis wasn’t expected to climb above the many peers who were in the same class; he was always close but continued to fall short of crossing over. It was safe to assume that Travis would always knock on the door, but there was no certainty he would be let in. Currently boasting 29 million monthly listeners on Spotify, there’s no denying that Travis Scott has entered into a high rise above the field. 

Post Malone

Travis Scott becoming one of rap’s big five is surprising, but nowhere near the shock of Post Malone’s popularity. “White Iverson” was an instant hit, one of the first singles that went from SoundCloud to mainstream success, but it didn’t magically present Post as the next artist to enter the mainstream rap elevator. I believed, at best, Post would have a string of singles that would do well before disappearing into the back room of a studio as a songwriter. At worst, he would be a one-hit wonder that is vaguely remembered for the Iverson song. I didn’t envision a third option; I didn’t see a commercial conqueror. 

Like an alien invader, Post Malone arrived when the world least expected him. He’s very much a martian of hip-hop, but his presence at the crossroads of rap and pop is mighty. He currently holds the third-highest 2018 first-week numbers of a rap artist; his sophomore album, beerbongs & bentleys, sold 461,000 units in seven days. The charts were conquered by his singles “rockstar” (featuring 21 Savage) and “Psycho” (featuring Ty Dolla $ign), both of which reached No. 1 on the Hot 100. Recently, Post’s debut album, Stoney, broke the record Michael Jackson set with Thriller for most weeks in the top 10 of Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. 43 years ago, Jackson set the bar with 76 weeks. Post surpassed him as he entered his 77th week

Post Malone may not have the live draw of Travis—even after touring with Justin Bieber, Post has yet to sell out arenas—but he is simply an undeniable titan in the streaming era, crafting melodic music that shatters records even if it fails to leave much of a mark on critics. Post may remain a controversial star in hip-hop as a product of his skin color, past comments, and inclination for synthesizing the production and themes of other popular trap artists, but he's a true superstar in 2018, one of the biggest on the planet. 

Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole have long stood side-by-side with Drake as the three-cemented kings of hip-hop's post-blog era. What’s impressive about Kendrick is his commercial climb. He has long been a darling of critics and the underground, but DAMN. put his mainstream stock unquestionably above the moon. Only Kendrick can move 603,000 units in his first week, have a 7x Platinum, chart-topping single, and win a Pulitzer Prize for Music—all accolades accomplished with the same album. Rarely do we see a rapper becoming more popular while retaining their early brilliance, but Kendrick Lamar is a unique superstar. 

Being able to curate the soundtrack for Black Panther was a clear indication of how Kendrick Lamar has continued to separate himself from the pack, spread his name into spaces where his presence wasn’t prominent, and still release a quality body of work with big corporations like Disney and Marvel attached to the project. 

Kendrick Lamar has hit nearly every milestone an artist can desire—both critically and commercially—over the last few years, and his star has only grown brighter. Classic albums, GRAMMYs, No. 1 hits, political statements, viral videos—no one can do it quite like Kendrick. 

J. Cole

Unlike Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole showed reluctance instead of acceptance when the spotlight started to shine its brightest. After the release of his sophomore album, Born Sinner, Cole became a star who decided to exist along the margins. He didn’t care to be visible; Cole’s every move was anti-attention-seeking in the attention economy age. And yet, once he retreated into himself and his own fanbase, he became a bigger star than ever before. With 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Cole had his first Platinum album (now 2x Platinum), the feat of selling out Madison Square Garden, and a comfortable seat at hip-hop's elite table alongside Drake and Kendrick Lamar.

After 4 Your Eyez Only, 2016's third-highest first-week sales behind only Drake and Beyoncé, KOD marked the beginning of a return to the public. Moving 397,000 equivalent units in its opening week ranks Cole's latest album as the fourth-highest hip-hop debut of 2018, but what Cole lacks in streams he more than makes up for in fan dedication. What makes the kingdom of Jermaine so strong is the unwavering admiration of his core. They’re showing up for every tour, every album, and will be in attendance at the first annual Dreamville Festival in September. One of the most unwavering fanbases in hip-hop, Cole's cult has no nickname, but they will continue following their leader. 

Drake

Drake is entering his tenth year of popularity. He’s been a top rap prospect since So Far Gone, and has maintained a dominating position following his sophomore album, Take Care. He’s the first hip-hop king to reign from Toronto, Canada, by far the biggest rap artist to ever arrive from his home country. He is no JAY-Z or Michael Jackson, yet, but he has built the biggest modern kingdom in the worlds of hip-hop and pop music. For close to a decade, Drake has been music’s Midas, turning everything he’s touched to gold (or platinum).

No one comes close to Drake's album current dominance (732,000 album-equivalent units for 2018's double-album Scorpion), streaming audience (62 million monthly Spotify listeners), or single omnipresence ("God's Plan," "Nice For What," "In My Feelings"). Drake has been a juggernaut for a decade, and against all odds, he only seems to be getting bigger. 

The fall will eventually come for Drake, as it did for those who came before him. We’ve seen the cracks in his armor in the very year he delivered his most flawless rollout. The singles still slap, the raps have maintained a potency, but the murmurs of criticism have only gotten louder. There is a lot expected of Drake, and with each album, he struggles with pleasing every corner of hip-hop. The cause of his downfall will not likely be his power to keep up, but an inability to push the needle forward. 

Regardless, the legacy he’ll leave, at least commercially, will set an enormous bar for whoever comes after. They won’t be breaking JAY-Z records or Michael Jackson records; it’ll be Drake. Drake is not only the king to dethrone but whose reign over an entire generation of music listeners have witnessed. Success will be synonymous with his name when it’s all said and done—if it's not already. 

Empires grow and they crumble. No one stays on top forever, and every few years we witness new kings rise to the occasion, becoming the biggest artists in hip-hop. 

Drake, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Travis Scott, and Post Malone are rap's current mainstream rulers, at least for now. 

By Yoh, aka King of Keyboards, aka @Yoh31

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