“There’s never been a nigga this good for this long,” Jay-Z raps to open “What More Can I Say” from his then-retirement LP, The Black Album, in 2003.
Jay was in the midst of closing an unprecedented run where he released eight solo albums in seven years. But perhaps most importantly, he pledged an unwavering commitment to lyricism, released critically-acclaimed and commercially successful bodies of work, and emerged as arguably the most influential rapper since 2Pac. A late bloomer by rap standards, releasing his first album at 26, Hov still rhymed at a God level seven years removed from his debut, Reasonable Doubt, in 1996.
There were already G.O.A.T. whispers when Jay momentarily called it quits in 2003. Of course, he’d return to rap after a three-year break, making guest appearances and releasing joint projects with R. Kelly (Unfinished Business) and Linkin Park (Collision Course). He’s since released seven more albums, including collaborative works with Kanye West (Watch the Throne) and Beyoncé (Everything Is Love).
Jay’s lyrics, as it turns out, also apply to Drake. The Boy is at the 11-year mark of a record-breaking run, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. He passed the cast of Glee for most entries (208) on the Billboard Hot 100 with his appearance on Lil Yachty’s “Oprah’s Bank Account” in March. He secured his eighth No.1 on the Hot 100 (fifth as a solo artist) with “Toosie Slide” in April, and he broke the record for the most top 10 hits in the history of the Hot 100 with “Popstar” and “Greece,” the pair of singles he released with DJ Khaled in July. Drake has managed to put together a record book comparable to Jay in less than half the time. “More slaps than the Beatles” wasn’t hyperbole after all. And in the process, he changed the criteria for the throne that any heir will need to live up to in the future.
Rap has been a game of thrones since the beginning. The music thrives off ego and competition like no other genre, and almost every artist who lives by hip-hop’s foundational ethos aspires to be the Best Rapper Alive, which leads to tension, subliminal sparring, rivalries or feuds.
The throne has always been somewhat of an abstract concept. The criteria to be on top comes from an intangible mix of credibility, skill, popularity, impact, influence, and cultural relevance. Record sales help, as they reflect popularity on some level, but they don’t supersede other qualifications. Jay-Z, for instance, wore the crown for significant parts of his career, but has only had the best-selling rap album of the year once: Vol.2… Hard Knock Life in 1998. Hov, however, over-indexes in all other parts of the criteria. Any rapper with a claim to the throne must also be battle-tested or inspire fear.
Drake quickly rose to superstardom on the heels of his breakthrough mixtape So Far Gone in 2009 and prophesied himself as the king of hip-hop a couple of years later. “I’m just feeling like the throne is for the taking, watch me take it,” he raps on Khaled’s “I’m on One” in 2011. The lyric referred to Jay-Z and Kanye West, collectively known as the Throne, both widely considered hip-hop’s rulers at the time. Drake collaborated with both Jay and ’Ye early on, but there was competitive tension from the start.
Drake and the Throne were on a collision course in 2013 when all three released albums within months of one another. Kanye’s Yeezus was polarizing and it marked the first time one of his projects didn’t garner universal fan acclaim. The album was well-received by critics and revered in the indie scene, but it was considered an acquired taste by most hip-hop traditionalists. Magna Carta Holy Grail had flashes of vintage Jay, but fell short of the standard he’d set with his initial eight-album run. Drake’s Nothing Was the Same proved to be his most concise album to date and eclipsed Yeezus and Magna Carta commercially.
It was during the NWTS cycle, over a 2013-2014 stretch, that Drake wrote the new pages of his playbook, which allows him to keep a stronghold on hip-hop to this day. He adopted trap as his own on the anthemic “Started from the Bottom,” and later by remixing Migos’ “Versace.” The song marked the first time a Drake remix served as a springboard for an emerging act. And he would go on to remix songs by ILOVEMAKONNEN, Tinashe, and Fetty Wap, to name a few. Drake’s co-sign is so powerful that a simple Instagram post (Bryson Tiller) or rumors of a remix (Dej Loaf) can generate immediate interest or help jumpstart an artist’s career. This also allows him to be stylistically chameleonic. He’d later borrow Caribbean and African sounds during the Views cycle and embraced the U.K. grime scene around More Life, introducing his massive fanbase to new subcultures and sounds.
Anyone aspiring to fill Drake’s shoes in the ’20s will be evaluated by different qualifications than even Drake himself originally had to meet.
Drake was as dominant as ever in 2014, feeling ubiquitous, though he was technically off-cycle. He strategically released loosies like “0 to 100/The Catch Up” and “Trophies” and made guest appearances on YG’s “Who Do You Love?,” Lil Wayne’s “Believe Me,” and Nicki Minaj’s “Only,” to name a few.
During Drake’s run, Kendrick Lamar has also laid claim to the crown, and he meets all throne qualifications. He technically isn’t battle-tested, though he’s sent subliminal jabs and warning shots, but he inspires fear. K-Dot made his mission extremely clear via his incendiary verse on Big Sean’s “Control” in 2013. “I’m usually homeboys with the same niggas I’m rhymin’ with/But this is hip-hop, and them niggas should know what time it is,” he declared. “And that goes for Jermaine Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Wale, Pusha T, Meek Mill, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Big Sean, Jay Electron’, Mac Miller/I got love for you all, but I’m tryna murder you niggas.”
Drake addressed the verse in a Billboard interview. Nicki Minaj took issue with being excluded, and a number of rappers, ranging from Meek Mill to Lupe Fiasco, responded on record. Many of the rebuttals came from artists who hoped to capitalize on the moment, but no one has had the nerve to explicitly challenge Kendrick post-“Control.” The verse surfaced right as Drake was attempting to dethrone Jay and ‘Ye, and it signaled a changing of the guard. On “Control,” Kendrick prefaces the challenge by interpolating a famous Jay-Z lyric from “Where I’m From.”
“I’m from where niggas pull your card/And argue all day about who’s the Best MC? Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas,” Hov raps on the song.
Today’s Holy Trinity consists of Drake, Kendrick, and J. Cole. Kendrick and Drake played musical chairs with the throne in 2017 and 2018. Dot’s reign began with the release of DAMN in 2017, a tour de force that marked the Compton lyricist’s third consecutive masterpiece with an album that even included massive singles. Previously, his lack of hits was the only hole on his stellar resume. The album was released almost a month after Drake’s More Life, and turned out to be the year’s highest-selling album across all genres—even besting pop stars like Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift. DAMN won five Grammys the following year, bringing Dot’s grand total to 12 at the time. Drake followed by having one of the most commercially dominant years in history, spending over half of 2018 at No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with four different singles. There’s occasionally been shifts within the Big Three: Drake and Kendrick have traded places, and Cole, though he’s never had an undisputed moment at the top, arguably had more mainstream traction than Kendrick when 2014 Forest Hills Drive and To Pimp a Butterfly cycles overlapped.
Now, Drake has established himself as arguably the most commercially dominant rapper yet. Nas, DMX, Eminem, 50 Cent, Kanye West, and Lil Wayne all had claims to the throne during Hov’s run, and the field was also highly competitive during previous eras. Drake, though, has only contended with Kendrick, and his core sound was still ubiquitous as of last year. Hip-hop was stuck in a post-808s-So Far Gone-trap bubble for at least a decade. The market is oversaturated now and less projects have staying power. 2019 felt like a transitional year and many signs point to a necessary shift in the 2020s.
If history repeats itself, Drake, Kendrick, and Cole, all born in the ‘80s, will inevitably graduate from Best Rapper Alive discussions to G.O.A.T. debates, as a new crop of ’90s and aught-babies who are more tuned in with Generation Z rises to power (no different than the way the Big Three came into power last decade).
Only two artists have appeared to penetrate the Trinity’s orbit in recent years: Travis Scott and Chance the Rapper. Chano emerged as a superstar on the heels of his groundbreaking mixtape, Coloring Book in 2016. He became the first independent artist to perform on Saturday Night Live, initially for a rendition of Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam,” and a second time as a host and performer to promote CB. Chance had so much momentum that he was one of three finalists, including Drake and Kanye West, debated during MTV’s Hottest MCs in the Game roundtable in 2016. Complex named him Best Rapper Alive for 2016 the following year. He won three Grammys, including Best New Artist and Best Rap Album, making Coloring Book the first streaming-only release to be rewarded by the Recording Academy. However, he crashed back to Earth with the release of his debut album, The Big Day, in July of last year and faced mixed reviews for the first time in his career.
Drake was instrumental in modifying the DNA of a rap superstar in the 2010s and he changed what it’ll require to sit on the throne in the ‘20s. The new age rap star has to be a jack of all trades and a master of many.
Travis Scott, meanwhile, had a massive year in 2018. Astroworld sold 537,000 album equivalent units in its first week, marking the second-highest hip-hop debut of 2018, behind Drake and ahead of Lil Wayne. This was the moment La Flame finally had commercial success to match his cultural impact. He released “Highest in the Room” on October 4, 2019 and the song reached No. 1 on the Hot 100 in one week, joining a select group of megastar rappers who’ve accomplished the feat in the past including Puff Daddy (I’ll Be Missing You”), Lauryn Hill (“Doo-Wop (That Thing)”), Eminem (“Not Afraid”) and of course, Drake’s “God’s Plan” and “Nice for What,” which debuted at No. 1 in 2018. Scott’s collaboration with Kid Cudi, “The Scotts,” also debuted at No. 1 in April of this year. And his new single “Franchise” featuring Young Thug and M.I.A. debuted at No. 1 in October. Travis checks a lot of boxes, but conventional lyricism has traditionally been part of the top dog’s skill set. Travis’ music is more melody-driven.
When it comes to today’s criteria for the throne, Drake broke the mold. He was instrumental in modifying the DNA of a rap superstar in the 2010s and he changed what it’ll require to sit on the throne in the ‘20s. The new age rap star has to be a jack of all trades and a master of many. You have to be a savvy marketer, keep up with the trends, be adaptable through hip-hop’s shifting climate, and release music at the speed of streaming, while finding the right balance between omnipresence and over-saturation.
Drake is as comfortable dropping hook-less 60-bar verses as he is crooning love songs. He’s a surgical strategist, and there’s never a step that isn’t intentional. His lyrics make for perfect Instagram captions and hashtags, his music videos are meme-ready, and he’s turned his social media channels into primary marketing levers. The music takes care of the rest. His guest appearances are carefully peppered to hold his fanbase over between projects or create a runway for his next album. His collaborations with emerging talent are casual flexes at this point, a reminder that his finger’s on the pulse of what moves the culture, whether it’s an artist or a sound. He’s arguably the industry’s most influential A&R and tastemaker.
Anyone aspiring to fill Drake’s shoes in the ’20s will be evaluated by different qualifications than even Drake himself originally had to meet. It’ll be much more difficult for a rap traditionalist to claim the throne in the future. Artists are now expected to excel in many areas at once. There’s no mistaking any Kendrick or Cole song for R&B, but even they expanded their range of delivery, particularly as hip-hop shifted towards a more melodic climate in the past five years.
Credibility, popularity, impact, influence, and cultural relevance are still paramount, but the current Big Three may very well be part of the last generation to produce traditional mainstream lyricists. Conventional rap skills might be considered optional until a lyricist bred in the streaming era becomes a platinum superstar. Substance, however, is still a non-negotiable trait. Songwriting, plus the ability to sing or carry melodies, are now vital.
There’s no clear heir to the throne, not by old or new standards, but several artists are making compelling cases to form the next Big Three, and Travis is the prospective leader of the pack.
He’s been building the foundation to his superstardom for years now. He put out three studio releases from 2015 to 2018, and each album was an artistic and commercial leap from its predecessor. He’s become an influencer in his own right. He launched the Astroworld Festival in his native Houston in 2019, and his collaboration with Jordan brand has produced some of the most coveted drops in sneaker culture; the Jordan 1 Retro High OG ‘MOCHA’ is reselling for upwards of $1200. He’s ushered in new talents like Sheck Wes and Don Toliver through his Cactus Jack joint venture and secured No.1 singles for veterans Kid Cudi and M.I.A. with “The Scotts” and “Franchise,” respectively. He already competes with the Big Three in influence and scale.
There’s no clear heir to the throne, not by old or new standards, but several artists are making compelling cases to form the next Big Three.
Cardi B, meanwhile, is already one of hip-hop’s biggest stars and her success was key in expanding the field for women. There are now more female rappers than there has been in the history of the genre. Cardi took home the Grammy for Best Rap Album with Invasion of Privacy in 2019, and the Bronx rapper has already topped the Hot 100 four times (three times as a soloist). Meg Thee Stallion is on the verge of superstardom, as well. She was recently named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, gracing one of the covers of the publication’s annual issue. Her recent collaboration with Cardi, the chart-topping “WAP,” is a glimpse of the commercial power of women in hip-hop for years to come. Meg’s “Savage” also peaked at No.1 on the Hot 100.
This year, two other rappers emerged as likely front-runners to join Travis as part of the new Big Three: Lil Baby and Roddy Ricch. At the time of publication, Baby is arguably the hottest artist alive. His sophomore album, My Turn, spent five non-consecutive weeks at No.1 and is certified double platinum, making it the best-selling album of the year across all genres. Baby has also become hip-hop’s most in-demand guest star, reportedly charging at least $100,000 per feature. He has helped power Pop Smoke’s “For the Night,” Rod Wave’s “Raggs2Riches.” and Money Man’s “24” to chart success, among many others. Still, he’s weirdly underrated. He fits in with the post-mumble rap crowd, but there’s depth to his message. He delivered two of 2020’s most profound singles in “Emotionally Scarred” and “The Bigger Picture,” the latter of which is possibly the best protest song to come out in the wake of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd’s deaths.
Roddy dominated the first quarter of 2020. His debut album, Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial, spent four nonconsecutive weeks atop the Billboard 200 and “The Box” is the biggest song of the year so far, spending 11 weeks at No.1 and fending off Future’s Drake-assisted “Life Is Good” and Justin Bieber’s comeback single “Yummy,” among others. Roddy’s greatest asset is quite possibly the urgency he conveys in his music. It’s not expressed through conventional lyricism—the Compton rapper has already emerged as an elite melodist—but his story is poignant and relatable.
Lil Uzi Vert and Young Thug, meanwhile, are two of the most influential artists of the past five years. They’ve been stars for half a decade, but recently reached new commercial heights. DaBaby, meanwhile, rounds out the short list. He’s proven to be a bankable star, a throwback to a circa-2000 rap persona built on street credibility and fit for platinum success. Complex named him the Best Rapper Alive for 2019 at the top of the year, and he’s the most conventional rapper of the bunch, rarely using melodies until the success of his No.1 single “Rockstar” featuring Roddy Ricch.
No member of the new guard currently checks all the boxes under old or new requirements, but that’s subject to change. Artists evolve. Lil Wayne transformed into a rhyme animal six years after his debut album, Tha Block Is Hot, in 1999. And when an artist does reach a point where they’re ready to claim the throne, they’ll need to challenge Drake head-on.
The throne is tied to the idea of rap as a competitive sport, but aside from DaBaby’s occasional boasts, no one from the new guard seems to have the throne on their vision board at the moment. Today’s competitive tension is typically addressed on Instagram Live, not on record. Bragging rights have been reduced to a numbers game, screenshots of Billboard, Spotify, Apple charts and RIAA certifications.
Until a member of the new guard explicitly challenges Drake, as he did when he plotted to take the throne from Jay and Ye many years ago, the throne isn’t for the taking.