When André 3000 took to the stage at the Source Awards in 1995 and challenged the regional bias against Southern rap, even his conviction couldn’t have foretold his hometown’s ascent to becoming the beating pulse of the genre. From Decatur to Delhi, Atlanta’s ubiquitous influence has been the tale of 21st-century hip-hop.
In 2019, Atlanta once again reigned supreme, leading hip-hop for albums released over the course of the year, with projects including those from Young Thug, Future, and Gunna, registering just over 2.6 million album-equivalent units. However, Atlanta’s reign only extends to American shores. The most successful city for hip-hop in 2019 was Paris, France.
Sales from Parisian rap albums in 2019—including PNL, Ninho, and Nekfeu—also totaled just over 2.6 million units, despite the fact hundreds of millions of streams didn’t count due to efforts on behalf of France’s official sales institution to implement a more revenue reflective sales system.
According to the Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA) classification criteria, 1,500 streams equates to one album-equivalent unit. The RIAA does not distinguish between where those streams come from. Consequently, a free Spotify stream counts the same as a paid subscription Apple Music stream. Likewise, all views from official YouTube videos are factored into sales and the RIAA’s Gold and Platinum certifications.
Billboard also has its own classification criteria independent from the RIAA’s, which they derive from Nielsen’s SoundScan tracking system. For its Top 200 chart, Billboard counts an album-equivalent as being derived from 1,250 streams if it comes from a paid account and 3,750 if streamed from an ad-support account. Starting January 3, 2020, Billboard began counting YouTube streams toward its Top 200 album chart.
Streaming remains an inherently imprecise method of establishing genuine consumption, unable to distinguish between active and passive listening. There is no system of interpreting how many of an artist’s streams result from devoted listenership or playlisting, nor how many highly touted first-week sales come from simple curiosity. Yet, in the US, all these streams count towards sales.
In an attempt to create a more accurate sales system and counter the purchasing of streams, France’s equivalent of the RIAA, the SNEP, reformed its classification criteria in April 2018. Alongside Spain, Germany, and Italy, France’s endeavor to bring a measure of precision to sales ensures that only songs that are streamed from a paid source contribute to a sale.
Like the RIAA, the SNEP equates 1,500 streams to one unit of an album sale. However, qualifying streams must come from a paid subscription account. Consequently, French music sales in 2019 did not count any ad-supported free streams from services like Spotify and Deezer, nor any YouTube views—streams that account for most music consumption.
While inarguably a more authentic representation of sales, paid subscription memberships of audio streaming services in France account for just 5.5 million people—a mere 8% of the French population. In 2019, this resulted in far fewer audio streams being registered as sales, and none of the hundreds of millions of music video views accrued by Parisian rappers being accounted for.
Despite hip-hop being the most popularly consumed genre in the US, less than 4% of the genre’s consumption comes from actual album sales. While streaming accounts for 51% of the music market in France, the old-fashioned American tradition of purchasing hip-hop is still alive and well. Sales from CDs are the second-largest remunerator, comprising 43% of the French music market, compared to a global average of 30%.
Deux frères, the fourth album from France’s most popular group PNL, recorded more first-week sales than every hip-hop album released by an Atlanta rap artist in 2019 combined. Deux frères’ total first-week sales plus streaming (113,214) would have likely reported higher sales than those of Young Thug’s So Much Fun (131,000) and Future’s The WIZRD (125,000) if all streams and views were accounted for. Under the SNEP’s previous streaming classifications, Deux frères, along with fellow Parisians’ Nekfeu’s Les étoiles vagabondes and Ninho’s Destin, would have likely reached the 500,000 equivalent album units mark in 2019, an unprecedented achievement for three French rap albums in a calendar year.
To add to the RIAA’s arcane album sales classifications—which continues to include albums bundled with merchandise and tickets, and count albums that are shipped to retailers as sold—sales from singles previously released before an album have also found their way into extended projects upon release. Such was the case with Lil Nas X’s EP 7, which was hastily declared Platinum by the RIAA when six months of pre-album sales of “Old Town Road” were attached to its sales count shortly after its release.
Meanwhile, in France, previously released album singles, such as PNL’s “A l'Ammoniaque” and “91s,” or Niska’s chart-topping Diamond single “Médicament,” were not added to their subsequent album sales. The combination of single streams and the millions of video views would have contributed a marked increase, had they been attributed. Nonetheless, rappers from the capital sat atop the French album charts for 29 weeks of the year and contributed 13 of the 19 number one singles in France in 2019—over half of which were not associated with an album.
For decades, France has been the largest market for hip-hop outside of the US, but an unprecedented rise in domestic rap over the past five years has firmly entrenched rap français as the country’s most popular genre of music. With Paris’ fertile scene already overtaking its US counterparts in sales, the city of light appears destined to be at the forefront of non-English language rap’s long overdue globalization in the 2020s.