Now more than three decades old as a recorded medium, hip-hop is deeply embedded in popular culture – to the point where its stars seem not only larger than life but also, as Rick Ross once put it, "deeper than rap." But even as they sell out arenas and top the pop charts, rappers still court the respect and esteem of their hip-hop peers. The title King of Hip-Hop still means something.
In that spirit, just as we did in June with the Queen of Pop, we've crunched a pile of data to try to determine who is the current King of Hip-Hop.
We're not looking for the all-time greatest, although many of our contenders would vie for that crown. Some of them have only been recording a couple of years; others have been in the game since the 1990s. But that's what makes hip-hop exciting – it's plausible for someone who was watching cartoons when Jay-Z dropped his debut album to emerge as a contender for the title.
As with our Queen of Pop tally, in naming the King of Hip-Hop we focused on the very recent past: from 2009 through the first seven months of 2011. We ranked 20 solo rappers (no groups – sorry, Beasties) who have dropped an album during that time. We looked at album sales, rankings on the R&B/hip-hop and rap charts, YouTube views, social media, concert grosses, industry awards and critics' ratings. In alphabetical order, our contenders are: Big Boi, B.o.B, Diddy, Drake, Eminem, Fabolous, Lupe Fiasco, Gucci Mane, Jay-Z, Kid Cudi, Lil Wayne, Ludacris, Nicki Minaj, Pitbull, Rick Ross, Snoop Dogg, T.I., Waka Flocka Flame, Kanye West and Wiz Khalifa.
All of our contenders are men except for Minaj, who reappears from our Queen of Pop survey. We like to think of "King" as a gender-neutral term, and the fact is that Minaj has earned the right to compete in this arena. It would feel strange to leave her out – as a rapper, she's had a world-beating couple of years, with a chart-topping album, block-rocking singles and a slew of killer guest appearances. Frankly, she deserves to be called a hip-hop king just for her giant-killing appearance on West's hit "Monster," in which she crushed West and fellow guests Rick Ross and Jay-Z with one blow.
Fans of the rappers, and the acts themselves, take these sorts of rankings pretty seriously. (We learned that firsthand in the comments section of Queens of Pop.) We stand by our data, but of course we know that no King of Hip-Hop index can capture swagger or flow – if it could, the all-time title might go to Q-Tip or Rakim. As you'll see, it turned out to be a fairly exciting contest. Our top overall contenders were pretty evenly matched, with five different rappers leading at least one tally each.
Let's start with the tally that comes with the biggest bragging rights: album sales.
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