The title is still important. Rap has evolved a lot since it first bubbled up from the streets of this city decades ago, but the King of New York crown still holds a lot of weight—even among the youngest generation. Why else would 6ix9ine be so fixated on it? If it didn’t matter, why would A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie and Lil Tjay be beefing over it? Why would you be reading this far into an article about the King of New York if it lost all significance? It might not hold the level of prestige it had in past decades, but it still means something to become the hottest rapper in the five boroughs. The majority of rap media is still located here, as well as many of the most important labels. If you’re the King of New York, you’re going to get more attention than rappers in other cities. We saw that with Pop Smoke, when “Welcome to the Party” became inescapable in Brooklyn last summer and the rest of the world started paying attention. And we’ll see it again when the heir to the throne emerges.
The title doesn’t hold as much weight as it did, say 10 years ago. Everyone can call themselves King—even artists who have nothing to do with the city. It’s a label you claim when you want to stir up controversy or draw extra attention to yourself. It sounds nice, but a club that everyone can claim isn’t all that appealing.
It doesn’t mean what it used to, but that can change. It almost did before Pop was taken away from us.
The definition and bonafides haven't changed: the King of New York has to be successful, a reputable contender for dominance in the genre overall, but whose sound and image is endemic to the city—bonus points for leading the city on a new sonic wave (i.e. Pop and drill). The king has to be a credible leader, someone who garners enough respect to organize a posse cut like “Reservoir Dogs.” You can’t get the title without the respect of the city, which someone like Tekashi doesn’t have—it’s an elected position by force of will, but not so feudal as to the point of literally none of your peers taking the claim seriously. If no one condones your antics, you’re king of nothing. The King of New York is not just the most popular rapper out of New York. That rules out Tekashi. It also, with all due respect, kind of rules out a Cardi B, who quickly attained a pop crossover—but she’s such a true Bronx girl that she credibly could campaign for the title if she really wanted to? (Does she, is the question.) There’s an age factor, too. JAY-Z left local politics long ago. What’s a king to a God? I’d love to see the A$AP Mob re-cohere and reclaim their 2011 energy, but they too might have gone too international. Does anyone even want to be the King of New York anymore, or are 2020s crop already thinking globally?
In the past, you could argue being the King of New York pretty much meant you were also the top act in rap, period. That no longer is the case as New York’s overall dominance in the game has waned. A snapshot of this can be seen through Complex’s Best Rapper Alive list. Below is a breakdown of rapper selections from the state of New York by decade (10 wins and 30 honorable mentions for a max total of 40 selections):
1980s: 36 (10 wins, 26 honorable mentions)
1990s: 25 (6 wins, 19 honorable mentions)
2000s: 14 (3 wins, 11 honorable mentions)
2010s: 7 (1 win, 6 honorable mentions)
While it’s lost some of its importance, the title will continue to hold significance as long as New York rappers keep striving for the crown (and have the work to back it up).
The rap marketplace is so big and fragmented now that I don’t expect to see someone with the universal respect and excitement of Big/Nas/Jay in their mid-to-late ’90s prime to appear for a while. Instead, it makes sense to acknowledge that the kingmakers, the people with the power and vision to create stars, have become the true kings of the realm.
It doesn’t have a lot of meaning, in my opinion. Anyone can call themselves the King of New York, but it holds a lot more weight when everybody else agrees.
The head that wears the crown is uneasier than ever. The ’90s Kings were Biggie, Nas, and JAY-Z, two of whom survived to enjoy long music careers and successful afterlives as businessmen. Back then, King of New York was primarily a rap title, a designation bestowed on the rapper who commanded the airwaves in hip-hop’s most important city. In this era, the title is more fraught, and more connected to the streets. The last three Kings of New York were Bobby Shmurda, Pop Smoke, and 6ix9ine—each had his reign cut short for reasons outside of music. These days the King is a moving target—for police and for enemies, industry and otherwise. 6ix9ine is back, and Shmurda comes home in December; we’ll see if either of them can sustain a run at the top. Actually, let me scrap my original answer. The King of New York is Cardi B.
It means more than it did in 2019 and less than it did in 1999, when the South exploded. Still, when was the last time a 19-year-old—someone to whom Enta da Stage may not exist—could spur any kind of debate by crowning himself king? Owning that title won’t put you in the Best Rapper Alive conversation, but it holds weight again.