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.
Were we saying something about a close contest? Not on the album tally, where comeback king Eminem takes the top slot by an absurd margin. Thanks to his two latest chart-topping albums, 2009's Relapse and 2010's Recovery, the man otherwise known as Slim Shady sold more than two and a half times the number of albums as the second-ranked Lil Wayne during our survey period.
More than half of Eminem's 7.5 million in sales were taken by Recovery. Now past four million copies in the U.S. alone, Recovery was the best-selling album, period, of 2010. One-fourth of those albums sold digitally, making it the first album in history to sell more than a million non-physical copies, a mark it crossed just last month. Despite losing the Album of the Year Grammy in an upset to Arcade Fire, Recovery still took home Best Rap Album, Eminem's fifth win that category. It also doesn't hurt to have a crossover hit song to fuel album sales, and Recovery had a monster: the Rihanna-supported ballad "Love the Way You Lie," which topped the Hot 100 for two months last year and probably fueled more soccer-mom album purchases for Shady than at any time in his career.
What's most impressive about Lil Wayne's second-place showing is he did it with a handicap – his smash Tha Carter III came out in 2008, before the start of our survey period. He's sold another 750,000 copies of that blockbuster from 2009 to now. An even bigger handicap might have been Weezy's eight-month prison sentence in 2010–11, but he managed to release two discs in 2010 before going to prison, and both had strong numbers: about 750,000 for the rock-rap hybrid Rebirth, and just under a million for his hip-hop return I Am Not a Human Being. All this is besides his numerous mixtape releases, which have sold tens of thousands. The guy is nothing if not prolific (just wait until we get to the songs tally).
Unlike Weezy, most of the acts in our survey only managed one album release during our two-and-a-half-year survey period. Jay-Z's third-place showing was mostly the result of his two million-selling 2009 smash The Blueprint 3. But Jigga likely would have looked impressive no matter when we took this survey over the last decade. With 11 Number One albums on the Billboard 200 over his career, Jay holds the title of the most chart-topping albums among solo acts, rappers or otherwise; and he is second among all artists, behind only the Beatles (who have 20 Number One discs, so Jay's got a way to go there).
Among acts lower down in the tally, respect should be accorded to Rick Ross, who only placed eighth but has been a model of album-chart consistency in his five-year career. All four of the big man's albums have debuted in the Billboard 200's top two, and while none has been a megablockbuster, each has sold in the mid-six figures. Of the two discs he released during our survey period, the second – 2010's 650,000-selling Teflon Don – was his first to miss the Number One spot, but it still managed to out-sell its predecessor, 2009's Deeper Than Rap, by nearly 200,000 copies.
Now let's turn to songs, where a rookie with only one full-length album to his name has emerged as a runaway radio powerhouse.
BILLBOARD'S R&B/HIP-HOP AND RAP SONGS CHARTS
If you were one of our more conspiracy-minded commenters, you might complain that we picked the 2009 start date for our survey so Drake would win. We didn't, but it's true that nobody benefits more from our survey period than Aubrey Graham, the Canadian teen-soap star who took America's charts by storm starting in 2009 after transforming into a single-named rapper.
For an art form that once prized street credibility, preferably from one of a handful of American cities, hip-hop has embraced the clean-cut Drake remarkably quickly. His role on Degrassi: The Next Generation had barely ended when he began contributing tracks to mixtapes by mentor Lil Wayne's Young Money crew. Thanks perhaps to Weezy's Good Hip-Hopping seal of approval, a slew of major rap figures lined up to record with Drake: of the 19 other acts in our survey, almost half – from Jay-Z to Eminem to T.I. to Diddy – have released tracks fronted or backed by him.
Thanks in large part to all of those appearances, Drake leads, by a comfortable margin, our tally of Billboard's two urban-radio-oriented charts. They are the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, which, under various names (e.g., Hot Soul Singles, Hot Black Singles), has existed for half a century; and Hot Rap Songs, which dates to the end of the 1980s, back when Flavor Flav was still known as a rapper.
Drake has visited the penthouse of these two charts more than anyone else during the last three years. You might think that his tendency to sing rather than rap on many of his hits would make him more popular on the R&B chart, but he is actually bigger on Rap Songs: Drake reached Number One four times as a lead artist there, with "Best I Ever Had," "Forever," "Over" and "Fancy"; and five more times as a guest on tracks by Timbaland, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj and DJ Khaled. On the R&B chart, "Best" went to Number One, and Drake backed up five other records that rang the bell, including jams by Trey Songz and Jamie Foxx.
While we're discussing guest recordings, a technical note: Across all of the King of Hip-Hop tallies, we award partial credit to rappers' featured performances. It would be unfair not to – guest verses have been a staple of rap hits since the music's inception, and nowadays tracks without backup are the exception, not the rule. When assigning points for the R&B/Hip-Hop and Rap charts, we gave full credit to a lead performance and one-third credit for a featured performance; the number of guests on rap tracks generally ranges between one and four, and so dividing the points by three seemed like a reasonable average. On both surveys, we awarded points based on each song's peak position and its total weeks charted.
We're showing the tallies for the R&B/Hip-Hop and Rap tallies side-by-side, since the results have a lot in common, including an identical top two (Drake and Lil Wayne). But there are some major differences as you get further down.
For example, you wouldn't expect gruff Southern rapper Gucci Mane to do so much better on the R&B list, where he places third, than on the Rap tally, where he misses the top 10 entirely. The secret of Gucci's R&B radio success: volume – like Drake, he gets around as a guest star. Gucci has backed up romantic crooners including Omarion, Mario and Jagged Edge, and 17 such appearances have made
Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop chart, dwarfing his 10 lead appearances. But most of those guest appearances don't help him much on Billboard's Rap Songs, which is a smaller chart (25 positions) and leaves out a lot of records that make the lower rungs of the 100-position R&B/Hip-Hop list. To make Rap Songs, your hit really has to be booming from cars everywhere – this chart tends to reward big lead performances over guest spots.
Gucci's not alone on the skewed lead-to-featured ratio: half of our contenders made more appearances on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart as featured performers than as leads. For some, the ratio is almost even – Nicki Minaj started her career largely as a supporting rapper but is catching up on the lead side, with nine charting singles under her own name versus 10 as a featured performer. (This explains her better performance on the Rap Songs tally, where her big hits as a lead, like "Moment 4 Life" and "Super Bass," help her place third overall.) At the other extreme, promiscuous guest star Lil Wayne has scored only eight lead R&B chart performances since 2009, versus 29 supporting performances during the same span. (One imagines Weezy driving from studio to studio like Michael McDonald, ready to drop 32 bars for friends.)
Let's turn from the radio to another arena where hit songs rule the day, and featured performances make a difference: YouTube.
When tallying the views racked up by our contenders' official music videos, we were reminded of an ironclad YouTube rule: Pop rules.
Of the 10 videos we tracked that were viewed more than 100 million times, nine were Top Five hits on the Billboard Hot 100, including Jennifer Lopez's "On the Floor" featuring Pitbull, Katy Perry's "E.T." featuring Kanye West, and Jay-Z's team-up with Alicia Keys, "Empire State of Mind." (As for that 10th video, "Price Tag" by Jessie J featuring B.o.B., it topped the pop chart in Britain.)
Only one of these nine-figure-viewers is a video from a rapper by himself – one who's neither supporting a singer nor being supported by one. That would be Eminem, who goes it alone on his 2010 hit "Not Afraid," the video of which has been watched 257 million times. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that Eminem leads our YouTube tally – again, as with his albums lead, by a massive margin. The 1.3 billion total video views collected by Mr. Mathers are double those of perpetual runner-up Lil Wayne. Almost half of those views come from just two clips: the aforementioned "Not Afraid," and (of course) "Love the Way You Lie." That Rihanna-supported clip has been watched 360 million times, the most of any lead performance by any of our rappers.
That is not the most-watched video any of our contenders appears in, however. Crushing Em and Ri is the video for "Baby" by Justin Bieber featuring Ludacris, which has been viewed an astounding 589 million times, the most of any video in YouTube history. (That view count was as of two weeks ago, when we collected our numbers; as of this writing it's cruising toward 600 million.) As with our R&B/Hip-Hop and Rap Songs tallies, we give one-third credit for supporting performances on YouTube, which helps explain Luda's placement in the top four of this survey.
Laugh at Chris Bridges and his squeaky-clean Bieber verse all you want, but most rappers probably envy him. The mere fact that Ludacris is in a King of Hip-Hop survey in 2011, and does respectably on most of our tallies, is a testament to an unflashy but consistently productive career. More than a decade after he presciently titled his debut album Back for the First Time, Luda keeps coming back, acting in acclaimed movies, consistently releasing chart-topping albums (during our survey period, not a particularly big one for him, he shifted just under a million discs) and dropping verses for a range of R&B stars. Just since 2009, he's appeared in the R&B Top 10 three times on his own – including the Number 2 hit "My Chick Bad" with fellow contender Nicki Minaj – and three more times backing up singers Ciara, Chris Brown and LeToya. As for our YouTube tally, back out that Bieber blockbuster and all his other featured credits, and Luda would still have 192 million views, a total big enough to to put him just outside the top 10 by itself. Whether on the big or small screens, people like watching this guy.
In keeping with the YouTube pop theme, the rappers in our survey who lean toward the Top 40 side of the dial do better on this tally than any other, particularly Latin club-rapper Pitbull and pop-rap teamer-upper B.o.B., who place fifth and sixth, respectively. Pitbull's appearance in J. Lo's "On the Floor" gives him a big boost, as that clip has been viewed more than 300 million times; but his own summer 2011 Hot 100 chart-topper "Give Me Everything" has been watched nearly 75 million times, as well. As for B.o.B., his team-up with Paramore's Hayley Williams on "Airplanes" has been seen 136 million times, followed by his pairing with Bruno Mars on the soul ballad "Nothin' on You," with 80 million viewings – and, as the credited lead performer on both tracks, B.o.B gets full points for those hefty totals.
While we're focused on the visual, let's turn our attention to the live stage, where our perpetual runner-up takes a commanding lead.
Give Lil Wayne and Jay-Z credit – they have cracked the code when it comes to live hip-hop. Rap has long been a tough sell on the concert stage thanks to skittish promoters, weak stagecraft and indifferent audiences (save for the occasional touring festival like Rock the Bells, rock-oriented rap acts like the Beastie Boys or certain one-off shows by superstars). Only in the last half-decade, as hip-hop enters middle age, have rap tours begun to draw grosses comparable to and competitive with road-warrior rock acts.
For the past few years, Lil Wayne has been the biggest draw on the road among rappers, putting together eclectic packages that appeal to the full spectrum of his fan base. Supporting acts have ranged from T-Pain to Keyshia Cole to Gym Class Heroes, making the whole of a Weezy tour greater than the sum of its parts. Wayne's $51 million total gross since 2009 includes dates from his I Am Music tour (which kicked off in 2008, in the wake of Tha Carter III's blockbuster sales) and America's Most Wanted tours, which together played to some 724,000 fans across 68 concerts. Scarcity, perhaps, has also helped – Weezy's incarceration in late 2010 probably made his return to the stage in 2011 hotly anticipated, and a new tour with Rick Ross has been selling briskly.
Coming in second on our live tally, Jay-Z offers, in essence, the other model of hip-hop touring success: rapper as self-assured Chairman of the Board (Frank Sinatra allusion fully intended). A decade and a half into his career, Jigga has an enviable catalog of rap classics worthy of a two-hour showcase. And while his shows regularly draw impressive support acts such as Mary J. Blige, Jay has the authority to headline showcases as large as Coachella or Britain's Glastonbury festival on his own. The Blueprint 3 tour made Jay 2010's top hip-hop concert draw and one of the biggest acts on the road, period. When he does share the spotlight, it's with a fellow superstar. His four shows in 2010 with Eminem, two each in Detroit and New York, reportedly grossed $15 million by themselves. And the forthcoming head-to-head tour by Jay-Z and Kanye West following the release of their joint album Watch the Throne promises to be a blockbuster.
For our contenders who have served as opening acts, we've apportioned one-fourth credit, which in a couple of cases provides a solid boost. Nicki Minaj has just started headlining gigs on her own, but as an opener for Britney Spears and Lil Wayne she has played for thousands of people. Drake and Rick Ross have also opened for Wayne, and the former's participation in the blockbuster America's Most Wanted jaunt gives him a large lift in our tally (Ross has only started touring with Wayne this summer, so his grosses are smaller). Rookies like Minaj and Drake have made lots of new friends on the road as openers, setting themselves up to headline their own tours.
Speaking of making friends, let's take a look at how our contenders are doing on the social-media front.
•Lil Wayne: A History in Photos
As with YouTube, Eminem is king of social media, racking up the largest number of both friends and followers on the major sites.
Slim Shady's command of Facebook is particularly eye-popping – nearly 44 million fans have "liked" him there, placing him not only 14 million fans ahead of Lil Wayne but also a couple of million ahead of such pop figures as Rihanna (43 million) and Lady Gaga (42 million). In fact, among actual humans, Em is more "liked" than anyone; across all of Facebook the only things given the thumbs-up more than him are Texas Hold'em Poker and Facebook itself.
On Twitter, Eminem's lead among rappers is slimmer – his five million followers top those of his "Roman's Revenge" duet partner Nicki Minaj by only 600,000 or so. And for a public figure and a musician, it must be said his following is strong but not especially remarkable – Gaga and Justin Bieber passed 10 million followers several months ago, and Em is also soundly beaten by such pop starlets as Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Shakira.
Perhaps verbally acute rappers are too hemmed in by the limits of a 140-character tweet – a length better suited for the latest thoughts by pop acts servicing their armies of young fans. To become a competitive tweeter, it helps to have a well-defined, larger-than-life persona: Diddy and Snoop, two veteran rappers who have built reputations far beyond their status as MCs, have the third- and fourth-highest numbers of Twitter followers, respectively.
The act perhaps best known for spewing pithy thoughts is world-class tweeter Kanye West, who ranks fifth among rappers in Twitter followers (eighth overall in our Social tally). So (in)famous are Ye's shoot-from-the-hip, frequently all-CAPS tweets that whole comedy sketches have revolved around them. It's actually kind of surprising Kanye doesn't rank higher – although it's conceivable that another million or two of former Twitter followers got fed up with his loquaciousness and dropped him.
Before Kanye gets insulted and tweets about this, let's give a toast to him by looking at where the critics place him among his peers.
It should come as no surprise that Kanye West – a guy who has released five widely praised albums in seven years, including two Rolling Stone five-star discs – should top our critical acclaim ranking, which combines our ratings with career album ratings by Metacritic.
In the history of hip-hop, only West has produced a body of work at this level of all-killer-no-filler acclamation. Public Enemy followed their years of awesomeness with several late-career duds; the Notorious B.I.G. didn't live long enough to extend his two-album streak of greatness; and even West's mentor Jay-Z has a couple of low-rated discs among his string of classics. In "Pazz and Jop," the Village Voice's annual year-end poll of critics nationwide, West has ended up on top three times (a mark equaled only by Bob Dylan), with 2004's The College Dropout, 2005's Late Registration and 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The latter two earned Rolling Stone's "classic" rating upon release, again unprecedented among rap discs. West's high-rated albums have also been top-sellers, but other acts with a more limited commercial presence benefit even more from our critics' tally.
Coming in second is a rapper who, with his old group, reached heights of both acclaim and sales few rappers enjoy, but as a solo act is starting virtually from scratch – OutKast's Antwan "Big Boi" Patton. He's released only one solo album, but it was a gem: 2010's Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty. Long in gestation and repeatedly delayed by a label that wished he would reunite with André 3000, Big Boi's debut disc finally dropped last year to a raft of A-level reviews.
Toward the bottom of this tally, Fabolous has long been more popular on the radio than with critics, while the more pop-leaning rappers, such as B.o.B and Pitbull, also receive little love. Somewhat more surprising is the placement for Snoop Dogg, who falls third from the bottom. His career average has been hurt by the sheer volume of albums he's released – usually one every year or two, many of them middling in quality.
Before we close out, let's look at one last measure of acclaim: awards.
Maybe Jay-Z really is, as he claims, rap's Frank Sinatra – among our contenders he's the biggest award-winner, not unlike Ol' Blue Eyes in the early days of the Grammys. In fact, Jigga has collected a statuette at almost all of the shows we tracked. Our awards ranking totals up the contenders' wins since 2009 at the American Music, Billboard, BET, Grammy, MTV and Soul Train awards. We gave bonus points for nominations at the Grammys and – because of their importance to the hip-hop community, especially after the demise of the Source Awards – BET's two awards shows (BET Music and BET Hip-Hop); we also gave extra credit for Grammy and BET wins.
Jay's dominance is largely fueled by his Grammy and BET omnipresence. Even if he hadn't taken home a single statue at these shows, his 16 Grammy nods and 23 BET nods would put him near the top; he earns the title thanks to his seven Grammy and nine BET wins, plus a handful of AMA and MTV wins.
No act has been more nominated by the Grammys than Jay-Z since 2009, but Eminem came close, with 13 nods, many in higher-profile categories like Album and Song of the Year – categories that eluded Jigga. At the two BET awards shows, Jay has the most wins but not the most nominations; Drake, with 26, and Lil Wayne, with 25, each saw their names listed more times collectively.
Of the smaller awards-givers, the Billboard Awards provide the biggest boost to a single act: 15 wins for Eminem, a sweep fueled by the chart dominance of his 2010 album and singles. Additionally, Shady's three wins at the MTV Video Music Awards are the largest haul at that show by any of our contenders.
And now, the moment we've all been waiting for: the official coronation of the King of Hip-Hop.
So here we are at the final showdown, ready to mash up all of our data into a master list and crown a winner.
With his dominant album sales, YouTube views and social-media scores, Eminem takes the title as the current King of Hip-Hop.
Unlike our Queen of Pop ranking, which Lady Gaga took in a walk, Marshall Mathers's win was somewhat closer – note the fairly tight point range among our top three.
If third-place Drake's commanding lead on the song charts had been even more dominant (which is hard to imagine), he could well have taken the title – a massive upset considering the brevity of his rap career. As it is, Drake's strong finish, more than 200 points above now-veteran Kanye West, is a testament to his current omnipresence. With his second album due later this year, he's got a shot at stealing the title by 2012.
Speaking of omnipresence, Lil Wayne takes second place through sheer work ethic, thanks to a constant stream of releases that even prison couldn't slow. His regular appearance in our runner-up slot – he made Number Two in albums, songs, the online rankings and awards – made him the runner-up overall, and his staggering live grosses almost put him over. If we'd done this survey just one year ago and included data from 2008, Weezy would have taken the title, without a doubt.
But again, timing is everything: Sure, if we'd done a similar three-year survey of rappers back in 2002 or 2005, Eminem would have won, probably. But as recently as three years ago, Eminem winning a survey like this was unthinkable; his nearly half-decade hiatus from recording made any comeback unlikely, let alone one in which he took back the charts as if he'd never left.
In the year to come, Drake is surely the performer to watch. But so are our fourth- and fifth-ranked contenders, who, in a Voltron-like act of power consolidation, may be about to lay waste to our top three. If Kanye's and Jay-Z's Watch the Throne is as big a release as expected – not just this week, but deep into the fall, followed by a world-beating tour – next year at this time those two friends and veterans may be yanking the crown off Slim Shady's head.
• The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Eminem
• Life on Planet Wayne: Rolling Stone's 2009 Lil Wayne Cover Story
• Lil Wayne: A History in Photos
• The 30 Best Albums of 2010: Drake's 'Thank Me Later'
• Photos: Kanye West's Career Highs - And Lows
• The 30 Best Albums of 2010: Kanye West's 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy'
• The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Jay-Z's 'The Blueprint'
• The 30 Best Albums of 2010: Rick Ross' 'Teflon Don'
• What Does Gucci Mane's Ice Cream Cone Tattoo Mean?
• Diddy Brings Nostalgia Back to New York
• The Hottest Breakout Stars of 2011: Wiz Khalifa
• The 50 Best Songs of 2010: B.oB. feat. Bruno Mars' 'Nothing on You'
• Review: Waka Flocka Flame's 'Flockaveli'
• Lupe Fiasco Goes Head-to-Head With Bill O'Reilly
• The 30 Best Albums of 2010: Big Boi's 'Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty'