A few candidates for hip-hop ascendency. Best contenders for the global Hip-Hop crown
We are over a decade into Drake’s reign in the Hip-Hop scene since the late aughts. His miraculous rise and steadfast output has very little precedent in modern hip-hop or pop history. In may, he was selected by Billboard as their Artist of the Decade for the 2010’s. Just to be clear, I’m not predicting his downfall or expecting a decline in sales or popularity any time soon. In fact, I think his upcoming studio album, Certified Lover Boy, will propel him further into new international markets and solidify him as a cross-generational talent. This piece is merely speculating about the future. Come the day he retires, or simply dials back his releases, who will be left to take his place? Of course, it could very well be a group of individuals instead of a single person. However, the idea of a single successor is both more attractive for spectators and appealing for ambitious artists. Through a close analysis of the broader hip-hop scene around the world in the past 5 years I have come up with three likely candidates for hip-hop ascendency. This is hip-hop in its broadest sense. It will include its offspring’s and sub-genres, including latin trap and grime music.
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Each of these candidates’ artistic characteristics, personal attributes, and musical influences will be described in detail. Furthermore, each artist will be critiqued in equal measure. Of course, feel free to passionately disagree. I welcome arguments and refutations in the comment section. The person who is destined to follow in Drake’s footsteps is most likely popular right now, and any one of us is bound to be correct.
So let’s begin!
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To start, we have the British grime super star, Stormzy. The 27 year old rapper grew to prominence through London’s grim and hyper competitive grime scene in the 2010’s. Through impressive Wicked Skengman freestyles and standout mixtapes Stormzy rose from the pack. By the middle of the 2010’s he won consecutive MOBO Awards for Best Grime Act. By the time he released his debut album Gang Signs & Prayer in 2017 he was one of the most popular artists on the island. The album eventually went on to win the British Album of the Year Award at the 2018 Brit Awards and led to his 2019 Glastonbury Festival headline performance. As the tenth black artist and first black British solo headliner the performance stirred up a lot of buzz and anticipation. Fortunately, he delivered an energetic and bombastic show for the animated crowd.
Later in 2019 he released his wildly popular sophomore project Heavy Is The Head. The subsequent world tour would have made his candidacy for hip-hop stardom even more evident to non-European audiences. The ambitious world tour spanned from Asia to the America’s, Europe, Australia and even parts of the African continent. In addition to being virtually peerless in the UK’s grime scene this world tour would have proved he was a competitive talent across the globe. During the early months of COVID-19 the tour was postponed indefinitely and Stormzy increased meteoric rise was put on hold. Nonetheless, the rest of the 2020’s looks bright for the 6’5” musical titan.
While he has a convincing case Stormzy also has several barriers to the crown. Firstly, grime is loosing popularity to drill music in the United Kingdom at the moment. Therefore, artists like Dave and Headie One might pass him in the near future if Stormzy doesn’t adapt his sound or reaffirm grime’s music and culture on the youth. Secondly, Stormzy makes a lot of different types of music halfheartedly. One of the remarkable musical attributes of Drake is his chameleon-like ability to trend in wholesale different genres. He can sing over reggaeton/afrobeats production, rap over drill/ bounce beats while still giving us the nocturnal 40-inspired confessionals we first fell in love with. Stormzy is still struggling to balance many different musical different styles with his own stable sound. Lastly, Big Mike either needs to release music more regularly or sell more in international markets. Right now, his 2-year release gap is too wide and his limited touring ability could detrimentally kill his momentum from 2019.
Still, keep an eye on Stormzy and the growing impact he’s making in the hip-hop community.
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The next contender who has been on fire lately is La Flame himself, Travis Scott. Since his 2012 contract with Epic Records, Scott has been on a ferocious tear. In his early years on Epic, G.O.O.D. Music, and Grand Hustle he was mainly under the tutelage of Kanye West and later T.I.. These immensely influential hip-hop acts informed Scott’s marketing strategy and production style. In addition to these successful attributes, Scott was known for his outstanding live performance style. The mosh pits during his shows were something of legend and his intense live persona reflected more explosive rock acts like Iron Maiden and Behemoth than any hip-hop ones like N.W.A.. While his rise through the hip-hop ranks were felt among the youth and critics with outstanding releases like Rodeo and Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, his third studio album Astroworld sent him into the upper echelons of rap and pop music popularity. Despite the bundle criticisms by Nicki Minaj and “checks over stripes” line disagreement with Kanye West, Scott persevered and has only gotten bigger since 2018.
By 2019, he transcended pop music and expanded his influence into film and television. With SZA and The Weeknd he released a single for the insanely popular show Game of Thrones. A year later he released the theme song for Christopher Nolan’s psychological action adventure film, Tenet. At this point, the world was Travis Scott’s oyster. He went on to make Billboard history in 2020 with the Young Thug and MIA assisted summer smash “Franchise”. The single represented the first time an artist had three songs debut at number one in less than a year. Travis’s brand power had grown to astronomical size. At that point, the Houston producer/rapper was undoubtedly a household name. Therefore, why not explore further into bedrock pillars of American culture?
In 2020 alone we’ve seen Scott partner with Fortnite for a virtual concert, join PlayStation as a strategic creative partner, and launch a “Travis Scott” meal with McDonald’s. If any current American rapper is going to succeed Drake in recent years it’s Travis Scott. His brand and marketing skills are not the only contributors to this prediction either, but it is also the quality of music. Sonically, Travis balances pop-rap and trap overwhelmingly well. His music from the beginning was purely his own and unlike a lot of his contemporaries, he created an atmosphere around his verses and hooks which dictated the sound and energy of every track he was on. His style of hip-hop production is like that of a composer.
Now, for the disadvantages. While Travis can rap incredibly well at times his lyrical abilities are in question by lyrical purists. If the top hip-hop artist is going to represent the best of the genre then they should be incredible at rapping, right? While I think this critique is hyperbolic, there should be space on his next album, Utopia, to prove the naysayers wrong about his rapping skills. In addition to rapping, age is also not on Travis’s side. While 30 is still young in the grand scheme of things that is only 4 years younger than Drake and leaves Scott limited time to flourish as his replacement. Even though Scott looks to still be in incredible shape and encapsulates a lot of his earlier youthful angst and energy, time is a terrible mistress. Lastly, his dependence on bundles may have conflated Astroworld’s success and given Utopia unfair expectations. Some people project that it will outsell Certified Lover Boy this year. All bets are on. Nevertheless, Travis is going to need to vastly exceed expectations if he is going to undue the bundle dependence rumors and further prove his legitimacy in the top tiers of rap superstardom.
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One of the most exciting international musicians to watch in recent years has been Bad Bunny. In just 3 three years since his critically acclaimed and eclectic debut, X 100pre, the Latin trap titan hit the world music scene like an atomic bomb. There are virtually no strictly Spanish-speaking artists in American pop music history who has made a greater impact on english-speaking audiences like Bad Bunny. Born Benito Ocasio in Puerto Rico, the 27 year old superstar grew up singing in the church choir. As a young man he worked as a bagger at Supermercados Econo and released music in his spare time on SoundCloud. Fortunately for him, a record label DJ loved his music and invited Bad Bunny to meet Mambo Kingz’s production team to release music more officially. The rest is history. From the onset, Bad Bunny’s authentic flair and colorful style captivated unsuspecting eyes during live shows. Like any budding artist in Latin America he ran the circuit of collaborative songs with artists like J Balvin, Beck G, and Ozuna. Eventually he struck a chord with North American audiences on Cardi’s number one hit “I Like It”. Later that year he received a coveted collaboration with none other than Drake himself on “MIA”. The song went on to pass a billion views on YouTube and reached number five on the US billboard Hot 100. Bad Bunny showed little signs of slowing down and proceeded to drop a Jennifer Lopez assisted single in November 2018 and his debut project the following month. From there, he only moved faster and reached higher unprecedented success.
In the first half of 2019 he partnered with the Latin trap megastar J Balvin to create their phenomenal collaborative album Oasis. The following year he released the Grammy award winning album YHLQMDLQ. Despite his young age he isn’t afraid to perform on the large and intense stages. Whether it was the Super Bowl Halftime show or WWE’s Wrestlemania event Bad Bunny impresses new audiences and further expands his global reach. The sky is actually the limit for this rock star. His last album came at the end of 2020 and became the first all Spanish language album to debut at the top of the US Billboard 200. Bad Bunny’s meteoric rise looks like its only beginning and the globe is his play pin.
Just this past April, his El Ultimo Tour Del Mundo pre sale dates sold out in record time. The momentum he is going into 2022 with should set him up nicely for the virtual crown of international hip-hop legitimacy. At the young age of 27 he doesn’t seem to be letting up any time soon.
Many of Bad Bunny’s barriers to further success are circumstantial and may only hurt him in western markets. For starters, his strictly Spanish speaking songs and albums could reach a commercial threshold in English speaking markets if he stays on this path. So far, it hasn’t hurt him but if he wants to go platinum in both China and the United States during the first week of album sales like Taylor did with Lover or sell triple platinum the first week like Adele’s 25 then English language songs should propel him into that arena. Bad Bunny’s next problem involves his live performances. Unfortunately, for a significant portion of his run concerts have been forbidden. The criticism surrounding his SNL performance revolved around his shy mic presence and awkward body movements on stage. If his record breaking tour is going to spawn future world tours then he is going to need to train and exercise his live performance skills to their limits. Next to his all Spanish-speaking music and live performances is his introverted personality. While it invites eager fans and curious listeners it may be hindering great accessibility to more audiences in future years. He may still be opening up as an artist and this will only be a time-sensitive issue. However, if he decides to go the reclusive Frank Ocean, Sade route, then he may never reach his full potential.
Dark Horse Candidates
There it is. The three best contenders for the global Hip-Hop crown. As I mentioned above, these three artists are already making strides and setting records. In all actuality, they’ve achieved career-defining success, and should be proud of their accomplishments. Nonetheless, hip-hop is a competitive musical genre, and who wouldn’t want to be in Drake’s spot one day? As a music listener you should pay close attention to these three over the 2020’s. They should continue to make history and create fantastic music for millions around the world to enjoy. In addition to the big three, some potential dark horse candidates include Ozuna, Megan Thee Stallion, Post Malone, Lil Baby, Lil Uzi Vert, Kid Laroi, and if he didn’t pass away, Juice WRLD. Remarkably, there may also be someone grinding right now who little of us have heard of today, but will make their presence known by the time this decade is over. Hopefully the mystery will reveal itself in due time.
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