Until recently, Jay Z, Eminem and Kanye West were the predominant figures in hip-hop – at least in terms of sales and chart success.
They have 27 Number-One albums between them, a number that no other combination of three rappers can collectively claim. But they are being pushed by a younger group of rappers who have been relentless in their chart dominance in recent years.
With tongue firmly planted in cheek, djrobblog takes a look at the rap game’s current Big Three and how they’re shaking up history by earning record-breaking numbers with one release after another.
For nearly as long as rap music began hitting the Billboard charts (i.e., since Fatback’s “King Tim III” and Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rappers Delight” made the singles charts in 1979), hip-hop heads have debated which rapper is the greatest. Passionate and loyal fans (or Stans in some cases) have nearly come to blows with one another over whether their favorite MC is the best there ever was, or at least whether he – or she, if you dare – is better than other rappers of his or her generation.
Such debates often involve subjective criteria like which rapper has better flows, who is more socially conscious, whose beats are the dopest, who can freestyle the best, who inspired whom, who did it first, who mumbles the least, and so on…and never is there a unanimous decision about who rightfully owns the G.O.A.T. label, although the number of true contenders is usually narrowed down to a small few (Biggie, 2pac, Kendrick, Eminem, Jay Z – and not necessarily in that order).
Indeed, applying such subjective criteria in debates always requires a large measure of opinion and judgment – and no matter how emphatically a person makes his or her argument – it is still just that: opinion.
Yet, whether we want to believe it or not, since rap moved into the pop mainstream around 30 years ago, a consistent and less subjective measure of rap artists’ success has been the bottom line: sales of records and downloads (and now streaming), which translates into chart performance. It’s why chart numbers are so often quoted by marketing departments and promotions people – and even by the rappers themselves in their own lyrics.
Heck, even fans will sometimes resort to quoting sales numbers and chart statistics when debating the subject of the Greatest if it works to their favorite rapper’s advantage and all other arguments fail.
It’s really quite simple, if rappers aren’t bringing up their label’s bottom line, they won’t be dropping new albums for long.
Put plainly, chart numbers matter.
It is with that in mind that record label executives have (pardon the expression, but it’s true) “pimped” rap artist after rap artist for decades for that big-selling, number-one album and those artists, in turn, have turned big profits (and bragging rights) for their employer and, to a lesser extent, themselves.
Think about it, there’s a reason most artists drop their albums on Fridays (the first day of the Billboard chart calculation week), or in those weeks leading up to Christmas: its to maximize sales numbers and get that No. 1 spot in Billboard.
Well, if one uses chart success as the barometer, and from an album charts perspective, the G.O.A.T. honor would clearly go to Jay Z (or the formerly hyphenated Jay-Z) who stands as the rapper with more Number-One albums than anyone else, with thirteen.
In fact, Jay Z has more No. 1 albums than ANYONE outside of the Beatles and he’s so far ahead of the rap pack that he’s nearly doubled the next contenders who each have topped the album charts seven times.
The first of those, Eminem, moved to second place among rappers in November 2013 with his seventh No. 1 album, The Marshall Mathews LP 2, and just last year, Kanye West tied Eminem with his seventh consecutive No. 1 album, The Life of Pablo.
Jay Z, Eminem and Kanye have certainly made their presence felt on the charts over the past 20 years, with seemingly every release knocking out the competition and further cementing their legacies as hip-hop greats. And even with those three experiencing slowdowns in recent years, their combined 27 Number-One albums seemed to be enough to keep the clamps down on their status as the preeminent chart kings in the hip-hop game.
At least, that is, until recently.
In just over the past two years, three challengers have turned the Billboard charts upside down with album after album reaching No. 1, giving Hova, Slim Shady and Yeezy a run for their stacks of Benjamins.
The newer contenders: Drake, Future and Kendrick Lamar.
Between them, these three millennial rappers have had eleven No. 1s on the Billboard 200 – in just the past twenty-six months alone.
All three of them – Drizzy, Future and K.Dot – have had No. 1 albums in 2015, 2016 and 2017, making them the only artists of any genre with that distinction.
In some cases, these guys have had multiple No. 1 albums in the same year (Drake had two in 2015 and Future had two each in 2015 and ’17 – although one of the Drake and Future 2015 projects was a joint effort).
And – as if that isn’t enough – their fans were still clamoring for even newer product in the wake of recent releases.
Back in March, when Future made chart history by becoming the first artist ever to have two albums début at No. 1 in consecutive weeks, there was a rumored third album waiting in the wings.
It was never released (or at least not yet…perhaps Future is holding it for later as it would have contended with Ed Sheeran’s latest album at the time – a fate that would have surely prevented Future from getting a third record-breaking No. 1 in consecutive weeks).
And more recently, before K.Dot’s new album DAMN. – released on Good Friday – became his third No. 1 album in as many years, Internet sleuths cooked up all sorts of conspiracy theories by connecting seemingly valid clues (most attributed to Kendrick himself) suggesting that he would be releasing a follow-up album just two days later on Easter Sunday.
They even gave it a name – NATION. – and an album cover and suggested it was the perfect “resurrection” companion record to his “crucifixion” on the DAMN. album.
That never happened either and perhaps it was for the best as it would have likely settled for a No. 2 peak behind the début of DAMN. since their releases would have occurred during the same chart week and DAMN. had a two-day head-start.
As for Drake, he’s lighting up the album charts and breaking music streaming records in the process. The 22 songs on his latest album, More Life, were streamed more than 385 million times in the album’s first week of release. The chart points from streaming alone were enough to place Drizzy’s album at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
And those streams were enough to place all 22 songs – along with two other Drake-featured tracks by other artists – on the Hot 100 singles chart simultaneously, giving the Canadian rapper the record for most charted songs in one week with 24. It’s unreal that an artist could be responsible for nearly one out of every four songs on a chart boasting 100 positions.
What’s more, Drake’s More Life moved him into a tie with Eminem and Kanye for rap artist with the second-most No. 1 albums with seven.
Not to be outdone, K.Dot put up some pretty muscular streaming numbers himself. The fourteen songs on his DAMN. album were steamed 341 million times last week, which fell short of Drake’s More Life numbers, but were more impressive considering that Drizzy’s album has 22 tracks (with a first-week streaming average of 17,500,000 streams per track), while DAMN. achieved its 341,000,000 streams with eight fewer songs (or a per-track average of 24,000,000 streams).
Talk about f*cking up some commas.
Speaking of which, Future is getting in on the singles game as well. His now-biggest hit, “Mask Off” is climbing the Hot 100 at No. 5 this week, placing him as close as he’s ever been to getting his first No. 1 single on the mainstream all-genre list. If he makes it, he’ll join Drake and Kendrick – both of whom achieved their first No. 1 singles as lead artists in the past year (Drizzy last year with “One Dance” and K.Dot this week with “HUMBLE.”).
It must be hard to stay “humble” when you’re knocking down numbers like these.
And so it seems that these three rappers – Drake, Kendrick and Future – have the chart game on lock for a while. While Jay Z, Kanye and Eminem – all three of whom will be in their 40s after Kanye’s next birthday in June – are still formidable artists, they likely won’t be topping the chart with the frequency that they each did during the early part of the Millennium.
Yes they may have a few more chart-topping projects up their sleeves, but neither Jay Z – who turns 48 on his next birthday – nor Eminem, now 44, has released a new album since 2013, and nothing is rumored to be in the works.
And Kanye, 39, almost didn’t reach No. 1 last year after a questionable marketing strategy had The Life of Pablo debuting months after its original release – with some very small numbers for a No. 1 album. Plus, we’re not sure where Kanye’s head is at right now. Who knows what turning 40 in a few weeks might do to him.
Indeed, rap has proven to be a younger man’s game. And it’s the three younger chart kings who are thriving these days with no clear end in sight. Future and Drake are in their early 30s and Kendrick gets there in June.
It appears they each have a lot of years left and I can see at least one of them releasing another album soon – like, even this year… again.
And you can bet your last money that next album will be another No. 1 for that artist, whom ever it is.
And that result will further nibble away at Jay Z’s status as the top charting album artist, making his distinction a little more precarious than it already is.
But then no one ever really considered Jay Z the greatest rapper of all time anyhow, did they… at least not by virtue of those No. 1 albums alone?
Okay, so now that you’re all caught up on the latest hip-hop chart facts, you can resume the debates about which rapper is the G.O.A.T. But before you do, keep reading to see where Drake, Future and Kendrick stand in this breakdown of rappers with the most Number One albums on Billboard’s main chart – the Billboard 200:
1. Jay Z (13 No. 1s)
2. (tied): Drake, Kanye West, Eminem (7 each)
5. Nas (6)
6. (tied): Future, Rick Ross, 2pac, DMX (5 each)
10. (tied): J. Cole, Ludacris, Beastie Boys (4 each)
13. (tied): Kendrick Lamar, Jeezy, Lil Wayne, The Game, T.I., The Notorious B.I.G., Nelly, Snoop Dogg (3 each)
And click here to check out my exclusive list of ALL the rap albums to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 from the very first to the latest.