For all the amazing things that happened in hip-hop in 2017, it’s easy to forget that the year started with a fully promoted boxing match between Chris Brown and Soulja Boy.
Yes, it’s coming back to you now, Chris Brown and Soulja Boy. Two huge stars of the decade prior, got into a beef that extended through Twitter and Instagram, and they were planning to settle it in the ring. In a boxing match. In Dubai. It even went as far as Floyd Mayweather agreeing to train Soulja Boy and Mike Tyson was in the corner of Chris Brown. Not even ten days into 2017 and hip-hop was already reduced to a sideshow. And then we had to live through Donald Trump being inaugurated as president of the United States of America.
Fortunately, despite the early blunders of the year, hip-hop recovered—as it always does. Hip-hop culture today dictates the trends of modern society, from music to fashion to social discussions. We’ve seen cultures unite through songs like “Bad & Boujee” and “Bodak Yellow.” In 2017, hip-hop elder statesmen proved you can be over 40 years old and still have a prominent perspective. Hip-hop has even begun pushing the youth to take much more of a political stance. If you remember 2017 for anything, remember it as the year hip-hop ran it all.
As it comes to hip-hop music, the last five years haven’t been good to the genre on the music charts. We saw hip-hop elite Kendrick Lamar only nab a No.1 on the coattails of Taylor Swift’s 2014 squad goals anthem, “Bad Blood.” Notable hip-hop acts like Wiz Khalifa (“See You Again” – 2015), Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (“Thrift Shop” – 2013), Eminem (“The Monster” – 2013), and Drake (“One Dance” – 2016) almost completely transformed their sound to fit within the format of what is supposed to be a Billboard No. 1 song. Hell, even PSY’s “Gangnam Style”—which isn’t anywhere near the culture of hip-hop—earned the prestige as the hottest rap song in the country, according to Billboard in 2013. Maybe that says more about the metrics that Billboard measures “hot rap songs” in more than the rap songs that were released, but nonetheless, in 2017, hip-hop fixed that. This year not only were actual rap songs back atop the Rap Songs charts, but rap songs dominated almost all charts across the board. In the last year we’ve seen twelve rap acts (Migos, Gucci Mane, Rae Sremmurd, Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B, Post Malone, etc.) reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in addition to longstanding albums (DAMN., Luv Is Rage 2, Stoney, CTRL, & more) within the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 album charts.
This boost in hip-hop on the charts can largely be attributed to the addition of streams into the metrics in which albums and song sales are measured in. The consumption of music changed in the last four years, and while other genres are still fighting for radio play, hip-hop—and the youth that embraces it—moved forward. Streaming has been a fixture in hip-hop since the blog era (2010 through 2015), where outlets like AudioMack or Soundcloud became avenues for releasing and promoting music. It’s a model that companies like Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal have embraced, and with their success have pushed hip-hop to the forefront of their marketing and releases. In September, Neilsen Soundscan, responsible for tracking sales, reported that for the first time since the tracking inception in 1991, R&B/hip-hop today officially dominates other genres and controls 30.3% of all audio streams. Numbers don’t lie, hip-hop is owning the year.
Leading the charge (and the charts) is hip-hop’s stalwart Kendrick Lamar, who extends his flawless streak of amazing albums to four of four with the dynamic, DAMN. With vigor and virtuosity through the album’s 54 minutes, Kendrick Lamar arguably reaches a new level as an MC. Enough to earn to the distinction as the best rapper alive at only 30 years old.
Alternatively JAY-Z, 48, represents the other side of the looking glass in 2017. For the last few years JAY-Z has always seemed to be the old man trying to play the young man’s game. Double-time rapping on songs with Future, even hitting a poorly-timed dab at a concert a few years ago which might’ve been the oldest Hov has looked, ever. This year Jay accepted his role as hip-hop’s elder statesman and dropped truly the first grown-man album of his career, even more grown than telling fans to ditch fresh jerseys for button-ups. He laments over his personal indiscretions, reveals his mother being gay in an extremely vulnerable moment, and destroys the remnants of “old JAY-Z” on his latest 4:44. JAY-Z was never more Shawn Carter on any album, until 4:44. It was an album that taught hip-hop how to age gracefully with music. In the wake of the album’s release, JAY-Z was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame—a first for any rapper. His career accolades will be immortalized alongside legendary songwriters like Elton John, Marvin Gaye, Max Martin, and more. In response to this award, he thanked hip-hop via Twitter by shouting out his peers whether they were old or new, enemy or friend.
JAY-Z’s induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame felt like just a headline going into his monumental 4:44 album, but it holds so much prestige and represents so much, not only to hip-hop culture—which for the first time ever has attained this level of success—but to black culture as well. The year 2017 saw a shift in celebrating the achievements of black entertainers, athletes, and entrepreneurs—and not solely for the asterisk purposes (because while the win is nice, seeing “The first African American in ___ years to win” an award is still incredibly mystifying), but because they were excellent at what they did. Representation is important and blossoms hope, and hope can inspire innovation.
Donald Glover’s award-filled year was another feather in the cap for hip-hop in 2017 for his innovative creations. Just five years ago, Donald Glover was hip-hop’s nerd. Like, the nerdiest of nerds. Releasing an entire album set at summer camp was almost the nerdiest moment in hip-hop until Logic made a full album based in space. But still, he was a hero to thousands of fans who sympathized with his story—fans who may have never experienced that voice in hip-hop. Glover’s creativity and artistry only evolved through the years with his subsequent musical endeavors, and in 2016, he released two ambitious projects in the form of his self-directed TV series Atlanta and his third studio album Awaken My Love. And while 2016 would go down as his marquee year, then came 2017. His year didn’t have the volume of “Bodak Yellow,” nor the massive marketing campaign of 4:44, but he explored new territory for hip-hop by walking away with a Golden Globe and Emmy for Atlanta—something that hasn’t been accomplished in hip-hop’s modern era. His single “RedBone,” featured in one of 2017’s biggest movies Get Out, added to his successful year, and would go on to become certified triple platinum. Donald Glover is 2017’s renaissance man, and by the looks of it, he looks ready to continue his success in 2018.
Beyond the leading men of the year, hip-hop may have birthed a new first lady in 2017. Far and away the biggest breakout star of the year is Cardi B. Publications can’t get enough of her, the radio can’t stop spinning her, and fans haven’t quite yet soured on her, and she hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down as of yet. Dubbed as the new “American dream” (which, quite frankly, transitioning from stripper to Instagram queen to rap superstar is pretty close to whatever 2017’s variation of the American dream is), she’s become bigger than rap. She’s impacted pop culture. She experienced her biggest success of the year slaying the snake queen Taylor Swift and becoming the first solo female #1 since Lauryn Hill in 1998.
JAY-Z’s truths, Cardi B’s personality, Donald Glover’s creativity, and Kendrick Lamar’s skill have not just represented the domination of hip-hop in pop culture, but how diverse and multi-dimensional the culture has become. We’ve also seen hip-hop maintain a strong pulse through the entire year. The art of the diss record returned with ferocity thanks to Remy Ma’s “ShEther,” Kendrick Lamar’s “The Heart IV,” and Mase’s “The Oracle.” Migos made a strong leap towards their bigger-than-The Beatles claim with the release of their platinum album Culture. The Grammys crowned Chance the Rapper as Best New Artist, while also recognizing the major impact of hip-hop and R&B for the 2018 ceremony. Logic released a suicide prevention anthem called “1-800-273-8255” that became one of those rare occasions when a hip-hop song with a message becomes uber-successful. Eminem scorched Donald Trump’s presidency with a powerful freestyle on BET. The hip-hop community stood up and simultaneously knelt in support for Colin Kaepernick’s protest of racial inequality in this country.
Sure, hip-hop has had its moments that haven’t been so pretty, but the culture has evolved from rapping about impoverished realities and making dreams a reality; it’s grown past just being chart-topping music acts to entrepreneurs, executives, philanthropists, creatives, and political figures. Here’s a toast to keeping that same energy in 2018.