For the music industry, 2017 was the year of hip-hop.
Nielsen’s mid-year music report revealed that, for the first time since the company started tracking the data, hip-hop and R&B is the top music genre in the country according to sales and streams. This is due in part to the popularity of artists like The Weeknd and Drake, and the ubiquity of hits like “Bad & Boujee” (the infectious single from Atlanta rap group MIGOS that’s racked up 574 million + views on YouTube) and “Bodak Yellow” (the hit from Bronx native Cardi B, which maintained the top spot on the Billboard 100 for three weeks).
It’s also due to technology’s democratization of the music industry and the power of young fans. Hip-hop dominates streaming consumption, generating nearly twice as many streams than rock in the first half of 2017. Radio stations used to determine what songs would become hits; now listeners discover the song of the summer on Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube. Rock musicians still sell more albums—more than twice that of hip-hop artists—and sell out more stadiums, but hip-hop’s newly minted mainstream popularity is a defining cultural moment.
A soundtrack of struggle
“Hip-hop tells a story and it gives a voice to voiceless people,” says Connie Orlando, EVP and head of programming at BET. “Hip-hop reflects the time. So if we’re in a political climate, hip-hop will reflect that. If people are being disenfranchised, or if things are not the way they should be, hip-hop will say that.”
One clear example of that this year was Eminem’s scathing anti-Trump freestyle, “The Storm.” In the song, the rapper accuses Trump of disrespecting military veterans, inciting nuclear war, and failing to respond to the violence in Charlottesville and the hurricanes in Puerto Rico. Aired as one of the BET Hip Hop Awards‘ Cyphers, the freestyle became a trending topic across social media, with personalities like athlete Colin Kaepernick and rapper J.Cole sharing their support.
Thanks to hip-hop, the year’s critical and popular musical hits discuss social justice, racial inequality, and the criminalization of black men. Consider the work of artists Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z, who lead this year’s Grammy nominations with seven and eight nominations respectively. On DAMN., Lamar criticizesFox News and America’s treatment of people of color and Fox News, and laments the result of the election. Jay-Z addresses the legacy of slavery, racial stereotypes, and black culture on 4:44. On “Legacy” he raps, “We gon’ start a society within a society/That’s major, just like the Negro League/There was a time America wouldn’t let us ball/Those times are now back.”
Hip-hop was “born out of struggle, and in 90% of America, people are struggling.”
Contrary to rock and pop, hip-hop tends to tackle economic and societal struggle just as much as emotional turmoil. On Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow,” which unseated Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” from the top of the Billboard 100, she boasts about going from stripper to rap star. Swift’s single, on the other hand, is about getting back at celebrity rivals.
Hip-hop was “born out of struggle, and in 90% of America, people are struggling,” says Orlando. “When you hear something you can relate to, you embrace it. And I think that’s what’s happening.”
More than music
Authenticity and transparency are also intrinsic to hip-hop, an alluring feature to a culture that thrives on celebrity and brazen personalities. This is where the arenas of entertainment and politics intersect, where both Cardi B and President Trump can become a voice of an everyman and win over audiences by refusing to self-censor or filter their thoughts. It’s also why, for fans of hip-hop, a song like “Bad and Boujee” with the lyrics “we came from nothin’ to somethin’” is anthemic.
“I always thought hip-hop was number one,” says Kevin Liles, veteran record executive and 300 Entertainment co-founder and CEO. “Hip-hop was more than music. It was a culture. And eventually, the rest of the world caught up.”
According to Liles, young artists are adopting hip-hop’s ethos in a modern way. “I think what we see is a new generation saying, ‘I want to do what I want to do,'” says Liles. And, because of technology, they have the opportunity to talk directly to their fans. This has enabled more people to express themselves through hip-hop, pushing the boundaries of the art form. This generation of artists “has a whole new perspective on what hip-hop means.”
Learn more about hip-hop’s place in culture in the first episode of the new Viacom video series, Hype and Influence:
Header image: Contemporary hip-hop artist Maliibu Miitch recording at Shifted Recording Studios on October 26, 2017.