The Ascent of Viral Rap

In the 2010s, viral rap allowed rappers to elevate themselves to unseen heights.
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Given its record-breaking popularity, it’s reasonable to speculate future cultural historians will identify Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” as the ultimate swan song of the 2010s. For the bulk of 2019, it was an unstoppable force, spending 19 consecutive weeks atop Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. But more than that, its well-documented rise to popularity on social platforms like TikTok was perfectly emblematic of the way the global music ecosystem has evolved over the past decade to become a democratic marketplace.

As smartphones began narrowing the global connectivity gap at the outset of the decade, millions of people gained access to an online universe that disempowered traditional gatekeepers and eliminated artificial boundaries. Accordingly, hip-hop — long since underrecognized by the old guard for its outsized influence — finally assumed its rightful position as the world’s most popular and dynamic genre.

All of this, in concert with the meteoric rise of online platforms connecting artists with consumers directly, created the perfect storm to spur on the subsequent renaissance we’ll refer to here as viral rap. Shorthand for a highly disruptive force, the term alludes to a subcategory of hip-hop reaching a broad audience — intentionally or otherwise — via memes, dance challenges and other online paraphernalia.

The cultural shift has been swift and profound. In 2012, when Psy’s “Gangnam Style” became the first YouTube video to reach a billion views, this renaissance was just beginning. Amused audiences wrote the song off as a gimmick, awestruck that millions of non-Koreans had embraced Psy’s brand of flamboyant foreign-language rap. Seven years later, every hip-hop song released by the K-pop group BTS goes astronomically viral within minutes, and no one bats an eye.

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