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Hip-hop ended the decade as the most dominant genre in the music industry, and we’ve seen rap go through many stages of stylistic evolution over the years. So, as we enter 2020, what could possibly come next?
“Hip-hop is in the most exciting place it's been in years,” says Derrick Aroh, VP of A&R at RCA Records. “There’s going to be a lot of bigger artists putting out albums this year, on top of a lot of young artists popping up and developing.”
We will likely see major artists like Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and J. Cole return with new albums in 2020, but there are also clues as to what trends, subgenres, and new artists will pop up next. Melodic rap will likely remain hot and mainstream rappers will still dominate the game, but the overall consensus from industry experts is that constant growth and change is vital. “If things become redundant, it all gets boring,” Aroh says. “We're not going to be excited to talk about it. And if we're not talking about it, we’re not going to be listening to it. It’s that simple.”
As we look forward to the rest of 2020, the Complex Music staff spoke with A&Rs from labels across the industry about what we can expect to see in rap this year.
Derrick Aroh, VP of A&R at RCA Records
Wayne ‘Wayno’ Clark, VP of A&R at Asylum Records
Riggs Morales, SVP of A&R at Atlantic Records
Dallas Martin, SVP of A&R at Atlantic Records
Jason Peerless, A&R at Def Jam Recordings
A Brooklyn drill explosion
Brooklyn drill music found its stride in the final stretch of 2019 as Pop Smoke’s “Welcome to the Party” became a hit and helped bring a new wave of attention to the movement. This is only expected to continue in 2020.
Wayne ‘Wayno’ Clark, VP of A&R at Asylum and co-host of Complex’s Everyday Struggle, suggests artists like Pop Smoke, Fivio Foreign, and Smooth L, are “going to really put New York back to where it once was.” He adds, “The whole drill rap scene derives from beefing. Every song they make is not necessarily beefing, but they have those type of lyrics without calling out names.”
“Bobby Shmurda is coming home this year, too. He’s going to have something to say about all of this.” - Derrick Aroh
Derrick Aroh, VP of A&R at RCA Records, notes that with Bobby Shmurda returning home from a five-year prison sentence later this year, the subgenre is bound to see another uptick in popularity. “There’s been some really good records out, like ‘Welcome to the Party’ by Pop Smoke, but the best is yet to come,” he says. “There’s a lot of really good artists that haven’t broken through yet. And Bobby Shmurda is coming home this year, too. He’s going to have something to say about all of this.”
Dallas Martin, SVP of A&R at Atlantic Records, points out that some London producers like AXL Beats are finding success by bringing the UK drill sound to New York. “The drill style is making a big splash in the American market and it's crazy because some of the UK rappers weren't automatically connecting in the US, but the sound from their producers has been connecting,” he says. “The balance of American rappers meshing with UK producers is going to give a lot of the UK rappers an opportunity to get some shine in America. Music is always transforming and looking for new ways to connect with people.”
More melodic rap
2020 began with Roddy Ricch earning the No. 1 song and album in the country on the Billboard charts, and melodic rap’s dominance is expected to continue throughout the year.
“We’re now in the post-Drake era where having a melodic approach is like having a three-point shot in the NBA. It’s mandatory,” says Riggs Morales, VP of A&R at Atlantic Records. “I’m expecting Roddy Ricch’s success to birth some replicas, and some to take the melodic approach towards new territories.”
“I’m expecting Roddy Ricch’s success to birth some replicas.” - Riggs Morales
Derrick Aroh suggests that melodic rappers are seeing so much success because of a growing audience that wants to sing along and feel good while they’re doing it. “I think Young Thug and Future set a whole new wave for the next generation of artists who are very melodic and making songs that are just feel-good records.” However, Aroh also makes sure to point out that there will always be a market of true hip-hop heads who prefer lyric-based artists.
Wayno notes that sing-rap has almost become a genre of its own, but like any style, artists will find new ways to add their own flavors to it. He places his next bet on artists merging rock into the sing-rap sound.
More rap crews and compilation projects
Rap crews are becoming cool again, thanks to the success of collectives like Dreamville, Cactus Jack, and Griselda. Dreamville’s Revenge of the Dreamers III is Grammy-nominated, JACKBOYS went No.1 on the Billboard 200 chart, and Griselda is carving out a lane for itself and getting co-signed by mainstream artists.
Dallas Martin suggests the resurgence of rap compilation projects is beneficial for introducing and developing new artists on an artist's label. “You're seeing the next wave of the bigger artists developing their own company and doing their compilations,” he says. “I always believe in strength in numbers, and if you have three or four dope rappers on your labels, people are going to connect with it, and they’re going to be able to jump off each other’s fan bases. That’s what J. Cole did with his Dreamville team. All his artists have been out for a few for years, but the compilation put them in different places. It's a way to help get exposure for artists.”
JACKBOYS is another crew project that gave exposure to a rising star like Don Toliver, but Derrick Aroh, who had experience with Brockhampton’s meteoric rise, suggests that compilation projects can backfire if executed incorrectly. “Nobody wants to hear a 20-track compilation where the songs are just redundant,” he says. “You want to hear some really good verses. You want to hear some really exciting moments. As long as it stays exciting, that's all that matters.”
Aroh stresses that “each compilation or crew project has to have a purpose.” He explains, “Dreamville, on top of making sure the label was tight, was about branding and breaking new artists, or helping to shed light on new artists. Griselda came together and presented a really dope traditional hip-hop style that people needed. Brockhampton came from the Odd Future type of fabric, but in a different way that has a little bit of a pop appeal that's alternative and fresh and hip-hop. The JACKBOYS compilation album is Travis expanding his universe with Don Toliver, Sheck Wes, and all of them. [Compilation projects] need to have a purpose. If they have a purpose, they’re going to be great. If it doesn't have a purpose, then no one's going to care. Or they'll care for a week or two, then that will be it.”
Rising rappers turning into major stars
There are a lot of exciting new artists who are about to become major stars in 2020. Specifically, there are a few names that experts we spoke with could agree on.
Roddy Ricch is at the top of everyone’s list. “Roddy Ricch is going to be the biggest artist in 2020, and I'm not being biased because I signed him,” Dallas Martin declares. “The way he connects with his fans, the music he makes, him being from California and sounding like a Southern artist, I think it makes people realize that this is the next generation of kids that grew up influenced by artists on the internet. When other artists were coming up, they were influenced by their local acts, because that's pretty much what their radio station was playing and what they had access to. Nowadays, the kid could grow up to be a fan of a UK artist or artists from whatever city or country in the world, and they could be influenced by that artist and take things from that artist, but still be their own man and their own artist. [Roddy Ricch] took pieces of everything that influenced him and masterminded it into his own sound.”
Wayno names Baby Keem as another star on the rise, adding, “I think he’s going to be another one that’s around for a long time.”
The majority of the experts we spoke with agreed on a handful of Brooklyn drill artists who will become big stars, including Pop Smoke, Smoove L, Sheff G, and Sleepy Hallow. But there are rappers coming out of other regions who will find their pockets, as well. Wayno cites Detroit’s Sada Baby as a breakout artist from the midwest. “In the world of babies, you’ve got DaBaby, Lil Baby, Bali Baby. There are so many babies. But Sada Baby has a real distinction for his sound,” he says. “He's coming from Detroit, but there's nothing like him coming from Detroit. He’s somebody who is rapping about street stuff, but also dancing.”
Florida’s Rod Wave, who gained chart success with 2019’s Ghetto Gospel, Alabama’s Flo Milli, and Atlanta’s Kenny Mason were also mentioned multiple times by experts as artists on the rise.
Some regional scenes to watch
Thanks to the internet, rap has flattened in recent years, but regional scenes will still matter in 2020.
Riggs Morales believes that, in addition a New York resurgance, Houston and Dallas will also have big years.
Wayno points to exciting hip-hop scenes in Jacksonville, Florida and St. Louis, Missouri. He also thinks that artists like NBA YoungBoy and Kevin Gates are bringing attention back to Louisiana, predicting that the state as a whole will be more respected in 2020.
Taking things outside of the United States, Jason Peerless predicts that Canada will build on the momentum started by a monstrous decade from artists like Drake, Tory Lanez, the Weeknd, and PARTYNEXTDOOR. Specifically, he names Vancouver as a region to look out for.
The influence of international rap
Last decade, with the likes of Bad Bunny, Ozuna, and J Balvin, we saw Latin trap and reggaeton explode in the United States. This momentum will carry over into 2020.
Speaking on Latin music in the United States, Wayno says, “I think that is going to grow to a place close to where hip-hop is at, with influence. That's the thing that we're going to start seeing next coming from the Latin market, is the influence being implemented into every other genre.”
Wayno points out that labels will need to understand that merging genres has to be genuine and not just business-motivated, however. “One thing I learned about Spanish culture is, you’ve got to be a part of it to understand it. And they don’t let people in unless you’re really trying to be a part of it. So it’s going to take a lot of the majors really understanding that if you want a piece of this, you've got to really tap in with the people.”
Afrobeats will also continue to influence American pop and rap music. Major singers like Beyonce and rappers like Drake have been leaning on the style as they refine their sound. As a result, more artists are tapping into producers like P2J to create something fresh. You may have seen members of the music industry in Africa over the holidays on social media, and Wayno thinks moments like that signify the continual rise of afrobeats. “I look on social media for New Years and I see tons of people in the industry in Africa,” he says. “That’s not a coincidence, that's design.”
The impact of chart changes
In the fourth quarter of 2019, Billboard announced that its albums chart will begin include video plays from YouTube in 2020. Experts say this will have a big impact on rap this year.
“YouTube artists can have crazy numbers for a song that doesn’t sound like a [traditional] hit record.” -Derrick Aroh
Derrick Aroh argues that this change will redefine what a hit is in 2020. “YouTube artists can have crazy numbers for a song that doesn’t sound like a [traditional] hit record,” he says. “It could just be that the artist has a crazy fan base. And because they put out some songs that sound really different and have a lot of views, that song could go top 10, and not even sound like anything else that’s in the top 10. That's beautiful. That changes the whole idea of what a hit is,” Aroh says.
An artist having success on YouTube comes down to a loyal fanbase. Wayno looks at YoungBoy Never Broke Again as a great example of this and hopes that the bar will stay high. “I don't want to see every kid get a trophy for participating, so hopefully there are some stipulations as to how things count,” he says. “But I think if you're doing well, impact and influence is what’s going to really make your numbers move. And we see that with NBA YoungBoy. He has an insane fan base.”
A growing importance of social media
Music and social media will likely become even more closely connected in 2020. “Everyone is always on their phone,” Jason Peerless says. “If you’re listening to Spotify, you’re also probably surfing on Instagram. It’s a crossover.”
Both Derrick Aroh and Wayno agree that social media apps like Twitter and Instagram will continue to be vital tools for artists who attempt to build brands and fanbases without having big budgets or major label pushes. “You’re going to see a lot more artists who don't have backing or haven’t been fully pushed yet, finding the right pockets. So many songs and moments get real opportunities because of conversations on Twitter. The great artists are the ones who know how to use their social media platforms to enhance their fans.”
We saw how Twitter and TikTok helped artists like Lil Nas X make history last year, but Wayno insists Instagram is “still going to reign supreme” over other platforms. “Because they partner with Facebook, they’re staying ahead of the curve socially,” he says. “And from a business perspective, what’s really ill about Instagram is, if you’re a kid that might not have any budget, you could still really get popping just by posting content.”
We’re living in a “visual world now,” Jason Peerless says, and Riggs Morales adds that “content is the new music video.”
What to leave behind in 2019
While we saw lots of exciting moments of innovation in rap last year, there are some things that A&Rs want to be left behind in 2019.
Dallas Martin urges artists to move in a way that doesn’t portray rap music in a bad light. As an example, he speaks about people who focus too heavily on social media beefs. “You're doing stuff that degrades the values of urban music and what we're trying to do.” he says. “It just makes the game seem like there’s a lot of clowns, but there are a lot of people who have respect for the music, respect for the craft, and really are in it to make hit records and make an impact in the music world.”
Derrick Aroh wants artists to stop putting everything but the music first. “I'll say that I hope more artists are true to the music that they’re making, and not the spectacle of it.” he says. “What I mean by spectacle is them putting the hype of what they’re selling over what they’re actually selling. At the end of the day, we’ve always got to remember it’s about the music. Yes, everything else matters ,but it’s secondary. The music is first.’
Wayno says that he wants artists to put more effort in their “real-life documentaries” and take the craft more seriously as a whole. “It's like all these things are left on the iCloud,” he says. “So what I don't want to see happen is artists just using it as a hustle. What I do want to see happen is artists taking it a little bit more seriously.”
Finally, Jason Peerless wants multi-hour projects and over-saturated release strategies to stop. He believes that selectiveness can still be key. “If you're not a superstar artist like Drake or Justin Bieber, I don’t think people want to hear your 25-song album. Especially as an A&R, I don’t want music coming in where I don’t even know what to click on. I think it’s better to be more selective. If we could leave that in 2019, there would be more strategic, exclusive content from the newer artists. I feel like the industry is so saturated.”