Changes Through Hip-hop
Hip-hop went through some serious growing pains last year. But a downturn can only mean rap is coming out of its slump. With a new year underway, the popular music genre is looking up in 2024.
Words: Paul Meara
Editor’s Note: This story appears in the Spring 2024 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now. It was written and published in the magazine prior to Kendrick Lamar's "Like That" diss toward Drake being featured on Future and Metro Boomin's We Don't Trust You album, which kickstarted the subsequent disses from J. Cole, Drake and Riss Ross. The information included here is a synopsis of the first three months of the year until March of 2024. 

Hip-hop celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, and while plenty of incredible tributes and celebrations were dedicated to a culture that humbly started in a South Bronx basement, the genre was in decline. For the first time in 30 years, its viability on the charts and in other metrics hit a lull.

In 2023, rap was in a downturn when it came to hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Billboard 200 charts—both regarding frequency and length of time artists and their music spent there. Unfortunately, the genre didn’t place as high or as often outside of the top spot on the chart compared to 2022. Once the most listened-to genre in the world, rap saw its biggest dip yet during its 50th birthday.

However, three months into 2024, the year has shown much more promise than the prior 365 days due to numerous albums and songs taking over No. 1 spots. With the somewhat negative period hip-hop experienced in 2023, what does that mean for the genre in 2024 and beyond?

Hip-hop’s market share of streaming continues to grow year after year, and it’s still by far the most popular genre in America. A Billboard report from January of 2024 combined R&B/Hip-Hop as the No. 1 genres in the U.S. in 2023, with 277.27 million total album equivalents sold and making up 25.3 percent of the total volume. According to Luminate (an entertainment data analytics platform) and its 2023 year-end report, hip-hop “continues to lead all others in U.S. consumption” with 25.5 percent of listeners choosing the genre, which is 5.6 percent higher than second place, rock and roll.

But when it comes to the charts, rap records in the top 200 albums dropped about 17 percent from 2022 to the end of 2023, reports Luminate. It took the genre seven months into last year to lock in a No. 1 when Lil Uzi Vert’s Pink Tape dropped in July, marking the first time such has happened since 1993. It’s been 30 years since hip-hop experienced a drought like that. Similarly, a rapper didn’t make an appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 until BTS’ Jungkook’s track “Seven” featuring Latto achieved the feat late in the same summer month.

Additionally, only six of the top 25 albums released in 2023 were hip-hop, in contrast to 13 in 2022. Looking back on a year like 2018, the genre’s biggest albums claimed seven of the top 10 slots and 14 of the Top 25. 2023 took the sharpest dip in volume among year-to-year chart placements in almost every metric and further represented a constant decline of such over the past five years.

While this may sound somewhat doom and gloom, decision-makers at labels don’t necessarily agree, citing that it’s harder to judge success due to the diversity of consumption of all forms of media and the methods by which fans access music from their favorite artists.

“I definitely wouldn’t look at it like hip-hop is falling off,” says Tunji Balogun, Chairman and CEO of Def Jam Recordings. “Audiences are fragmenting and the artists are not only competing against other artists, they’re competing against the news cycle, and what’s on Netflix this week and which celebrity did something really ridiculous this week. It’s all kind of intertwined.”

During last year’s concern throughout the music industry about the genre failing to produce No. 1 singles and albums like before, artists like Atlanta rapper Offset pointed to the lack of artist development and originality as significant culprits. “I’m noticing the numbers are down in our genre specifically because I feel like everything is so the same,” he told Apple Music in October of 2023. “The next new nigga is another nigga that was just here. Like it’s nothing new being brought to the game.” Billboard itself cited chart stagnation and a lack of the culture’s most prominent stars dropping music as additional reasons last June.

Another key is the growing frequency of emerging hip-hop superstars dying before they can continue to develop that superstardom. Whether it’s due to drug use (in the case of Juice WRLD and Lil Peep) or the result of violence (XXXTentacion and Pop Smoke), the artists many believed would live at the top of the charts have been tragically lost.

“Juice WRLD didn’t really get a chance to show the kids under him how far you could really take it,” LVRN Records Executive Vice President and General Manager Amber Grimes explains. “XXXTentacion didn’t really get a chance to show as creative and genre-less as he was. I think we’re kind of seeing—without me being able to fully analyze it because we’re still in it—the aftermath of what it means to lose your Biggie and Tupac too soon.”

2023 was also the year of women dominating hip-hop. While many rap fans were enthusiastic about the notable influx of new stars like Ice Spice and Sexyy Red, as well as the continued triumph of established female rappers such as Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Latto and Doja Cat, it set a completely new precedent in the culture’s 50th year of existence.

Like anything new in something so popular globally, some loved it while others were turned off. “Women have been rapping for a long time,” Grimes adds. “Make space. There’s never been a time in our history where there’s been more than one female rapper at a time, so I would hate for history to not get to be made because we’re worried about how many men should still be on songs and are good enough to be there.”

Kaliii is one of the few women hip-hop artists who found her place on the charts during the first six months of 2023. Her song “Area Codes” spawned many remixes and climbed to No. 33 on the Billboard Hot 100 last May. The Atlanta rapper notes that social media, specifically how to use it creatively in your favor, has been a key to her success, particularly among younger fans. Even when the music metrics may not immediately result in top streaming hits or chart numbers, platforms like Instagram and TikTok help keep artists buzzing.

“I try to speak back when people are talking to me on social media and listen to things that my fans say on what they want,” explains the 23-year-old artist, who released her most recent single, “Bozo,” in February. “You should just really stay authentic to whoever you are as an artist. I feel like that makes a viral hit. You can’t think about it too much.”

Both on social media and off, there are popular international genres like Afrobeats, Latin, K-pop and Amapiano that have also been steadily gaining share. The Billboard charts and the public’s daily consumption show that artists like Bad Bunny, Byron Messia, Burna Boy, Peso Pluma and BTS charted with singles within the Billboard Hot 100 in 2023. It’s clear hip-hop has competition. And in the case of some rap fans, their attention may be diverted, something Kaliii sees as a positive.

“People are just learning what they like for real,” she maintains. “I don’t think it’s really much to it. It’s just artists creating good music and being authentic to theirselves, and that’s why things are going up. That’s why hits are being made from different genres.”

Rappers themselves participating in global genres to increase visibility isn’t anything new. Grimes cites reggaeton’s prevalence during the early 2000s as an example. This sort of collaboration between genres continued in 2023, as Rich “Skane Dolla” Ford, Senior Vice President of A&R at RCA Records, notes. He believes rappers showcasing their versatility can only help their fan base grow exponentially.

“The better [artists] are able to change their sound and evolve and then sometimes dabble in other genres of music,” he says. “Those are the ones that just stand the test of time. Once you got your core, they with you, and I think that’s happening with Flo Milli. She had her core, but this new sound brought a new audience in, which is why her numbers are skyrocketing.”

While Flo has yet to release an international-based song through collaboration or influence, her biggest hit to date, “Never Lose Me,” released last December, debuted at No. 84 on the Hot 100. The track features her giving off softer energy over a smooth beat usually reserved for an R&B singer. It’s a clear departure from previous singles like her 2022 song “Conceited” and proved that moving even slightly away from rap was how she was able to ascend more. This move is nothing new among rappers, but is perhaps becoming more common. In the past, even artists like Lil Uzi Vert (“Just Wanna Rock”) and Drake (“Currents”) released Jersey club-based singles, which is outside their norm, to very receptive fanfare.

Perhaps improving a rapper’s ability to connect with their fans generally may be the most effective way hip-hop can cease its charting skid, especially since artists’ fan allegiance is as finicky as ever. “Fandom is now a subscribership,” Grimes conveys. “Building that base that’s gonna love you no matter what. Having the BeyHive, the Future hive, the Barbz, all of that stuff is changing because these fans say, ‘I have a choice. If I rock with you today, I don’t have to rock with you tomorrow.’”

Skane Dolla agrees. “It’s hard to stand out and I think that’s why some acts, they’re bigger socially than their records are,” he notes. “People want to see you, want to hear about you, know about you more personally as opposed to just being a record.”

While lyrics and message are all part of creating a commercial hit, catchiness and simplicity reign supreme as the formula for success to help get those songs on the charts. Kaliii’s “Area Codes” earned the rhymer her biggest look to date on the Hot 100 due to relatable lyrics that caught on with primarily younger fans. According to Kaliii, authenticity was the key to her biggest single to date and the organic nature that nurtured its creation.

“I knew it was gonna go up just because people like simplicity, and I feel like it was just straight to the point, people understood it, and it was very open,” she explains. “You can’t think about it too much.”

The big thinking is reserved for what’s been happening in 2024. Three months into the year, things are already looking promising in comparison to the hip-hop experience in 2023. A complete 180 degrees. 21 Savage’s American Dream album was the first rap project to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in January and held it down for two consecutive weeks. Jack Harlow’s “Lovin on Me” was the first rap song in 2024 to grab the top spot in the same month—for two consecutive weeks. Megan Thee Stallion’s “Hiss” followed right behind in February with a No. 1. Then, Harlow came back to reclaim the throne for another two consecutive weeks in February. It looks like he had the biggest song in the country for about three months now. In late February and early March, Kanye West and Ty Dolla $ign’s Vultures 1 album hit the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200, and their single “Carnival” landed at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Flo Milli’s “Never Lose Me” climbed to a No. 18 position on the Hot 100, making it the highest-charting song of her career. She’s also held her own with the track on Spotify’s Top 50 – USA playlist, a daily update of the most played songs in the country. On March 1, 22 of the 50 songs on the Top 50 – USA playlist were rap songs. The genre is seeing its first real wave of momentum in over a year.

Last September, Billboard also debuted its TikTok Top 50 chart, which has since revealed that rap as a genre is dominating among young listeners on social media. Four out of the six artists who held the No. 1 spot in 2023 were rappers, while this year, Flo Milli’s “Never Lose Me” claimed a majority share of the chart for four weeks in a row through January and February.

This begs the question: Has hip-hop evolved past the notion that chart placement is the—no pun intended—number one determinant of whether an artist is successful? It may depend on the artist and their definition of success. What’s great about modern-day hip-hop is that triumph on the charts and radio play don’t nearly have the grasp over introducing music audiences to the genre’s artists as it did even 15 years ago.

Artists like Curren$y, who drop a consistent volume of music and provide a certain vibe that a large niche of rap fans gravitate toward, became arguably more wealthy as independent artists than they did as signees to major labels. Others, such as Killer Mike, have won Grammy Awards, although none of his records, including newly crowned Best Rap Song “Scientists & Engineers” featuring Future, André 3000 and Eryn Allen Kane, got near the Billboard Hot 100 Top 10.

“The fact that we sit around and talk about first-week sales is so unhealthy for music,” Balogun expresses. “It’s so unhealthy for artistry. Who gives a s**t? We’re now in this era where there are so many different movements, there are so many different ways to spark a movement, and some artists are comfortable with just being in their little zone and not reaching the mainstream. I think everyone just kind of has to figure out how to tailor the outfit that they want to wear. Everybody’s path is different.”

As tour season begins, artists hitting the road for their cross-country treks or festival performances will likely help keep hip-hop’s motion going. Drake and J. Cole have already had sold-out shows with their highly anticipated It’s All a Blur Tour - Big As The What? and Travis Scott with his Circus Maximus Tour. Nicki Minaj, Offset, Gunna, Lil Yachty and Lil Tecca, among others, are also all scheduled to hit the road this year or already headed out.

From the looks of it, hip-hop remains as viable as ever. It’s difficult to determine whether a No. 1 hit or high chart placement is the end-all in today’s rap landscape. The metric being based on listenership and sales means it’s not something subjective like Grammy wins and the pitfalls of human error it begets. That said, today isn’t like the early 2000s when charting was nearly the only way to claim to be hip-hop’s king or queen. Remember Kanye West and 50 Cent’s album sales showdown in 2007?

“You have to look at it with those things in mind as opposed to just looking at one stat or one piece of information,” Balogun shares. “I bet if you looked at touring revenue, it’s gone up. Maybe our definitions for what’s successful need to evolve because everything else is evolving. I love a Billboard No. 1, but I don’t know if that’s the best metric to gauge how successful or how healthy hip-hop is.”

In 2024, hip-hop has already attained what last year couldn’t until now and that’s a great thing. The trajectory shows that more albums from the culture’s traditional heavy-hitters will take over those top spots. However, if it didn’t happen, rap is still more popular than ever.

Hip-hop has survived being labeled as a fad, persecutions that it’s solely a vessel for violence, and so much more that could’ve severely damaged its reach far before charts were even a topic of discussion. After all, it’s a culture that has spread to every corner of the globe. Only 2024’s total calendar year will reveal if 2023 was a slight wrinkle in rap history, but if the first three months are any indication, hip-hop is undoubtedly looking up.

 

Read how hip-hop in 2024 is experiencing more wins than losses in the Spring 2024 issue of XXL Magazine, on newsstands now. The new issue also includes the cover story with Gunna and conversations with Metro Boomin, comedian DruskiDanny BrownTeezo Touchdown42 DuggJim Jones and Maino a.k.a. Lobby Boyz, That Mexican OT41BabyDrillRapsody, actress La La Anthony, BigXthaPlugRob49Reuben Vincent, singer Tyla and producer Tate Kobang. There's also a look at how social networking has a chokehold on rappers' feelings, and the ways in which kid rappers are thriving thanks to social media.

See Photos of Gunna's XXL Magazine Spring 2024 Issue Cover Story

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