(August 7, 2023).  Some folks who’ve been observing hip-hop’s 50th anniversary all year long—from awards shows to festivals, and from news coverage to documentaries—may have asked when is hip-hop’s actual birthdate?

Well, for the purposes of validating this year’s numerous festivities, hip-hop’s year of birth—by a consensus of music historians and journalists—is, obviously, 1973.

And the only date that year where anything occurred that was reasonably tied to the cultural and musical institution we’d later call hip-hop was August 11.  

That’s when a record-spinner named DJ Kool Herc famously MC’d that “back to school jam” in the Bronx with a double turntable session that included extending the break beats of several funk records—a key element that music scholars have said was the germination of the culture that eventually evolved into the hip-hop we know (but don’t always love) today. 

After eight months of heavy hype with television specials, interviews of rap pioneers, best-of lists, and spectacular productions at awards shows (including this year’s BET Awards, which were completely devoted to the genre’s anniversary), that birthday is now finally upon us.

And what better way to commemorate it—particularly in a year where there’s been a dearth of hip-hop chart successes—than by a rap album topping the latest Billboard chart (for the week ending August 12, 2023, which encompasses the birthday).

But it’s not just a hip-hop album that tops this week’s Billboard 200, it’s a pretty good one—a masterpiece even that some are already calling an instant classic.

That album is Travis Scott’s long-awaited Utopia, which he released (after a couple of delays) on July 28, the beginning of the seven-day sales/streaming cycle that fed this week’s chart.

Utopia moved more than 496,000 album-equivalent units during that tracking week, which not only places it at the top of the Billboard 200 and makes it only the second hip-hop album to reach No. 1 during this milestone year, but it’s also the biggest hip-hop release of 2023 (so far).

It more than doubles the next nearest competitor’s numbers (Lil Uzi Vert’s Pink Tape topped the chart last month with 167,000 units, which ended a seven-month No. 1 drought for rap albums…hip-hop’s longest in 30 years).

Scott’s Utopia is a 19-track extravaganza that offers an eclectic mix of musical styles and is stacked with a superstar guest list that includes everyone from A-list rappers like Drake, Future, Young Thug, Playboi Carti and 21 Savage, to iconic R&B singers Beyoncé, SZA and The Weeknd.  As Billboard magazine pointed out, ten of the album’s featured artists have had No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 themselves (which may be a first; research is needed to confirm).

Even comedian David Chappelle makes an appearance on the eerily introspective, but self-affirming track “PARASAIL” (also featuring up-and-coming rapper Yung Lean).

The ironically titled Utopia, whose mostly dark tracks sound more dystopian, is at times trippy, with flashes of psychedelia and a mix of experimental instrumentation and traditional trap beats.  

Scott also dipped into his tried-and-true formula of trademark tempo changes on a couple tracks, a technique that’s worked well in the past, including most famously on his first No. 1 single, “SICKO MODE,” from 2018’s Astroworld.  (The new album tries to recreate that magic on the Drake-featured “MELTDOWN,” which, not surprisingly, was the highest streamed of the album’s 19 tracks, but there are much better songs on Utopia to keep listeners’ attention.)

More than anything, Utopia is Travis Scott being his best Travis Scott, which has to be satisfying to the rapper’s legion of loyal fans who, in turn, rewarded him with the fourth No. 1 album of his career (after 2016’s Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight, 2018’s Astroworld, and 2019’s JackBoys, a collaboration between Scott and a collection of artists signed to his Cactus Jack label).

The 496,000 total units Utopia moved are the third-highest by any album this year after Taylor Swift’s 716,000 for Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) in July and Morgan Wallen’s One Day At A Time (which moved 501,000 during its first week in March).

It’s also the highest total by any hip-hop album since Drake’s Certified Loverboy (613,000 units in September 2021).

The album’s 496k total included 252,000 traditional album sales (combined digital downloads of the full album plus physical copies), which includes more than 142,000 physical units (vinyl and CD versions combined), with its vinyl component–79,000 units–being the highest for any R&B/Hip-Hop or rap album since Luminate (formerly SoundScan and Nielsen Media) began tracking sales in 1991. The 252,000 traditional album sales for Utopia represent a hip-hop high for the current decade as well.

Speaking of the number 252, Utopia also becomes the 252nd rap or hip-hop album to top the Billboard 200, dating back to the very first such LP to reach No. 1–Beastie Boys’ License To Ill—in March 1987…thirteen years and seven months after hip-hop’s now widely acknowledged birthdate.

The fact that Utopia tops the chart on the venerable genre’s 50th anniversary could be a coincidence or it could be the result of some savvy marketing by Scott and his label Cactus Jack (distributed by Epic).  The album’s original release date was rumored to be June 23, which came and went without any sighting of Scott’s fourth full-length set.  (That release date would’ve had Utopia debuting on the chart dated July 6, five week’s before this week’s anniversary.)

The perfect timing of the album’s release in late July followed a three-year delay after the album was originally teased by Scott in July 2020, but was shelved in the wake of the mass-casualty crowd crush at Scott’s 2021 Astroworld festival sixteen months later, where ten people died and hundreds more were injured.

The fallout that Scott faced in the wake of that tragedy made the prospect of a new project daunting.  And Scott’s widespread condemnation also raised speculation that any new release by the Houston-based rapper might fall victim to cancel culture, regardless of timing.

But, notwithstanding the disdain that some people still have for the superstar rapper, Utopia is a quality album that feels like it was definitely worth the wait, with the new set boasting several tracks that bear repeat listening.

Songs like “MODERN JAM” (featuring Teezo Touchdown), “DELRESTO (ECHOES)” (featuring Beyoncé in full Renaissance mode), and a song I’ve looped several times, “TELEKINESIS” (featuring the perpetually forlorn pair SZA and Future), are among the best collaborations on the album (but there are several other contenders) and could easily be Hot 100 chart fixtures in the months to come.

As for his unaccompanied numbers, if the moody but exciting opening track “HYAENA” doesn’t launch you into Scott’s otherworldliness and get you hyped for this album, nothing likely will.  That and his chest-pounding flex “I KNOW?” should easily populate multiple playlists as summer turns to fall.  

It also didn’t hurt Utopia’s fortunes that Scott simultaneously released an accompanying motion picture to theaters, a film that shares its name with one of the album’s tracks, “CIRCUS MAXIMUS” (which features The Weeknd and Swae Lee).

Utopia, however, didn’t need the movie to ensure its rightful place on the chart—one that must feel like redemption in a couple ways: first for its artist, who less than two years ago was facing one of the biggest career challenges any musician could imagine (the deaths of multiple fans at one of his concerts); and, secondly, for hip-hop, which itself badly needed a classic in this era where the genre has been largely viewed as formulaic and non-daring.

Travis Scott delivered that instant classic, and now he’ll forever own his place in history as having had America’s No. 1 album on hip-hop’s much-celebrated 50th anniversary.

It also offers a bit of hope that chart redemption for past career missteps doesn’t have to be limited to country artists like Morgan Wallen and can also apply to rappers like Scott.

Congratulations to the rapper and to hip-hop on this milestone moment!

Blogger’s note:  A Texas grand jury in June declined to charge Travis Scott over the deadly crowd surge from Nov. 2021, however, he still faces multiple civil suits stemming from the Houston show. 


DJRob (he/him/his), who notes the double-standard that Travis Scott is held to by some of the same people who hold up Jason Aldean’s latest, violence-inducing hit as a patriotic anthem, is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.

DJRob (@djrobblog) on Threads

You can also register for free (below) to receive notifications of future articles.

By DJ Rob

Your thoughts?