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

Written by on September 6, 2018

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.

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 Leaders of a new school have always been replaced by an incoming class.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.

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