Drake's 2018 Has Been Huge. But Is He the Biggest Rapper Ever?

Drake's 2018 Has Been Huge. But Is He the Biggest Rapper Ever?


Earlier this month, Drakes latest album, Scorpion, become his eighth No. 1 album on the Streets Talkin 200 albums chart. With 732,000 equivalent album units, it was the largest opening of 2018 and the biggest onesince Taylor Swifts reputation last year. Drakes commercial run also ties him with veteran megastars like Kanye West, Kenny Chesney, Madonna, U2, and Eminem, who all also have eight No. 1 albums to their name (and share eighth place on the list of artists with the most No. 1 albums ever). Hes undeniably one of the biggest stars of his era — but is Drake now also the biggest rapper ever?

The Streets Talkin 200 chart ranks the most popular albums of each week based on a combination of traditional album sales, track equivalent albums (TEA), and streaming equivalent albums (SEA), accounting for the evolving methods of consumption for contemporary music. As such, being the biggest rapper in the game means something entirely different now than it meant 30 years ago, or even 10 years ago. Streaming has reshaped the landscape for artists and fans of popular music, and the kind of starpower that happens in the age of social media and 24-hour connectivity is a new kind of beast. Most significantly for hip-hop, rappers are among the biggest pop stars of the past two decades, and in the 2010s, that means a historically unrivaled level of cultural visibility. Drake has been the commercial king of the post-streaming era. How does that compare to his predecessors?

In the 1980s, being the biggest act in hip-hop meant standing at the forefront of a coming cultural revolution. In the middle of that decade, Run-D.M.C. became the first hip-hop act to go gold and platinum, as well as the first to be on the cover of Rolling Stone. More than anyone, the Queens-bred trio proved that hip-hop could be hugely ble as a commercial genre. With their groundbreaking success, Run-D.M.C. were harbingers for what was to come, knocking out MTV-friendly singles like Rock Box and King of Rock even before the chart-busting Aerosmith collab Walk This Way shot to No. 6 on the Hot 100 in the fall of 1986.

Along with The Beastie Boys and LL Cool J, Run-D.M.C.s reign was an affirmation of rap music as a potent commercial force, though the Beasties had hip-hops best-selling album of the 1980s with 1986s diamond-certified Licensed To Ill. Other platinum-sellers during that decade included Salt-N-Pepa, N.W.A., and Public Enemy, but the decade belonged to Run-D.M.C. in terms of album sales and visibility. However, even they didnt dominate the pop charts in the way a hip-hop star can in the 2010s. Public Enemys singles that decade never reached Top 40; Salt-N-Pepa, which was obviously more of a pop act, only hit the Top 40 twice in the 1980s. (Theyd do so five more times in the 1990s.) Drake has four Top Ten hits on Scorpion alone.

The 1990s began with the biggest commercial draws hip-hop had seen up to that point in pop-rappers MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. Both drew little critical acclaim and were derided in many purist circles, but the success of their respective diamond-selling 1990 albums, Please Hammer Dont Hurt Em and To The Extreme, put them in rarified air. As far as singles, Ice would only score one major pop hit, while Hammer would hit the top 10 five times in 1990 and 1991. But both, however, faded fast commercially within two years of their blockbuster albums. 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G. would go on to become the two most iconic rappers of the decade, with multiple platinum albums and several Hot 100-toppers between them. But both rappers recording careers were tragically cut short — 2Pacs lasted five years, Biggies lasted three — by their respective murders.

Then theres Snoop Dogg, who was arguably the most famous rapper in music following his smash 1993 debut Doggy Style. He dropped three more platinum albums between 1996 and 1999, but his late-90s singles wouldnt match his early success; he didnt return to the Hot 100s top 10 until 2003s Beautiful — almost a decade after he had hit it big with Whats My Name and Gin & Juice. As the 90s came to a close, DMX emerged as a commercial force. He released two multi-platinum No. 1 albums in 1998, and would release three more platinum LPs between 1998 and 2003. His singles, however, werent pop smashes — X was a fixture on the hip-hop charts and a fixture on the Streets Talkin 200, but he never even scored a top 10 hit on the Hot 100.

By the early 00s, hip-hop had become the center of youth culture in popular music, with rappers like OutKast, 50 Cent and Nelly becoming some of the best-selling stars in the industry. Eminem would become the decades top-selling and most commercially dominant rapper, with multiple No. 1 and a handful of Hot 100 top ten singles just in the period from 2000-2009. Still, the fact that a white artist became the most commercially dominant rapper of his era meant that Ems influence would always come with a cultural asterisk that made it uncomfortable for many hip-hop fans to consider him the decades most definitive rap star.

Eminems success in the 2000s was rivaled by 90s holdover JAY-Z, who became one of hip-hops most influential artist of that decade — both before his 2003 retirement and after — with seven No. 1 albums, all of which reached platinum sales certification. Jay is the closest commercial precedent to Drake; hes been a fixture on Top 40 for the better part of 15 years, and even his latter-day releases have sustained his run. (Jay also currently has 14 No. 1 albums to his name, the most of any artist in history behind the Beatles.) Most of the biggest rappers of the 1980s and 1990s saw their commercial peaks go into sharp decline after as little as a few years, but Jays longevity set a new standard. And its one that seems most similar to what Drake has done in recent years. Jay is one of the few guests on Scorpion– given their respective legacies, that doesnt feel incidental.

Another relevant benchmark for Drakes 2010s success is Kanye West. Ye released four multi-platinum albums between 2004 and 2009, three of which peaked at No. 1. He also scored half a dozen top 10hits during that stretch. But after the success of 2010s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and 2012s JAY-Z collaboration Watch the Throne, Wests has music became more experimental and less commercially ble. Top 40 singles arent really what Wests music is known for these days, though hes still generated hits. In June, Yikes landed in the Top 10 — though West himself has credited none other than Drake with writing the chorus.

Obviously, Em, Jay, and Kanyehave sustained their commercial bility well into the 2010s. (Honorable mention goes to 2000s mainstay and Drake mentor Lil Wayne, who kicked off his hottest commercial streak in 2008 but has since been slowed down by a stint in prison, health problems, and some questionable artistic choices.) But since 2010s Thank Me Later, Drake has been in a singular space: four multi-platinum studio albums, three mixtapes (including his More Life playlist) that have also crossed the platinum threshold, 20 songs that have peaked in the Hot 100s top 10, and a mind-boggling amount of streams that consistently make him the most popular artist across platforms. In 2018 alone, Drake has scored two No. 1 hits that topped the charts for 19 weeks. Following Scorpions release, he snagged seven spots in the Hot 100s top 10, breaking a record for the most simultaneous top 10 singles that waspreviously set by the Beatles, with five songs, in 1964. Drake also has a potential Song of the Summer on his hands as momentumgrows for “In My Feelings,” bolstered by the viral In My Feelings challenge. Almost a decade after his debut studio album, Drake isnt just sustaining his commercial run — hes only gotten bigger.

Sure, there are legendary rappers who have carved out a much bigger sonic and cultural imprint. There are hitmakers who created sounds that have defined the genre in a number of eras. Kendrick Lamar remains the creative standard by which most mainstream rappers are judged these days, and Future has been a major influence on so many rappers under 30 when it comes style and aesthetics. But the way that Drake has become an inescapable force in the game is unique. Hes most commercially dominant rapper of his generation, with a ubiquity thats never been seen before in the genres history. You can attribute Drakes success to a broad relatability; a near peerless ability to craft accessible singles; and a fusion of hip-hop, pop, and R&B that unites what were traditionally three very different audiences.

That hes in the conversation for biggest rapper of all time shouldnt seem like heresy, especially considering the history of other genres: Rock and R&B were both dismissed in their earliest days, only to become commercial juggernauts as the genres grew and matured — and as the industry learned new ways to profit from them. The commercial success of James Brown and Motown in the 1960s broke new ground for R&B artists that made it possible for Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston to become pop superstars in the 1980s; Drake reaps similar benefits in the 2010s as a rapper who is now one of the biggest pop stars in music following decades of hip-hop climbing higher in popular musics hierarchy.

The emergence of streaming means that audiences have access to Drakes music in an immediate way that doesnt require direct purchase, so even the curious listener contributes to Drakes omnipresence as much as a die hard fan. The platform itself allows for major artists to rack up unprecedented commercial numbers. But the emergence of streaming didnt just affect Drake, and hes not the only artist who reaps the benefits. This isnt just chance. You still have to have the music. And doing what Drake has done isnt easy. He maybe just makes it look that way.