How TikTok Is Launching Rappers to Viral Success

TikTok, known as in a past life, is a video app that is launching rappers to viral success, from Lil Nas X to BoyBoy West Coast.

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Complex Original

Image via Nick Sultana/Complex Original

tiktok rappers complex

In TikTok’s previous incarnation as, the tween-favored app was a playground for viral stars who were made for the orange carpet of the Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Awards, rather than the top of the Billboard charts. Preceding the success of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” TikTok was perceived as much of the same: a tangle of e-girls, Shrek memes, and juvenile jokes.

The recent ascent of Lil Nas X has seen the short-form video sharing app gain its first major taste of credibility as a music platform. Nas X has now spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, after breaking streaming records previously held by Drake. “I should maybe be paying TikTok,” he told Time. “They really boosted the song. It was getting to the point that it was almost stagnant. When TikTok hit it, almost every day since that, the streams have been up. I credit them a lot.”

In 2018, Chinese tech company ByteDance acquired and subsequently merged it with their own lip-syncing app, TikTok. Known as Douyin in China, it launched in North America in August of last year, transforming’s once tepid stream of memes into a hotbed for music discovery and promotion.

“Lots of TikTok stars think it sucks now that the general public has started catching up, but there’s a lot you can do in 15 seconds.” - Cookie Cutters

Democratizing popularity has been at the crux of TikTok’s appeal. The app, which operates mainly via its homepage, displays an endless flow of 15-second videos. Everyone from users with 5 million followers to those who just joined the app have the opportunity to be seen, liked, and propelled into virality. The discovery of content on the app doesn’t rely on a follower count like other social media services, but rather trending hashtags, inside jokes, and a shared feed that promises everyone an equal chance at fame.

The promise of routine virality has enticed a slew of musicians, brands, and labels to the app. With an estimated 800 million downloads worldwide, TikTok’s promotional capabilities are immense. Pushing songs to mainstream success through trending hashtags isn’t a novel idea, but the ability to remix and duet has given a generation of TikTok users a new tool to play with.

A specific type of music is seeing success on the app. Songs that lend themselves to physical humor, and have lyrics that can be easily mimicked, are growing in popularity. Upon opening TikTok, lip-syncing videos like this one from user @sav_age619 flood the feed. Staring directly to the camera, she lip-syncs and simulates lyrics from Doja Cat and Rico Nasty’s collaboration, “Tia Tamera.” Finger wagging and miming, “I’m not his buttercup,” earned the TikTok star 128.5k likes.

There’s an amalgamation of parody and hip-hop at the center of the app. The act of embracing the meme has evolved into creating music built to inspire memes. Whether it’s a diss track in response to fake tweets, or videos of people painting their faces to emulate a rapper, the common thread amongst TikTok users is a sense of fun. As a community, TikTok users aren’t inherently problematic, but instead gravitate towards jokes that are absent of the politics Facebook and Twitter thrive on. Erring on the light side of humor, TikTok’s ecosystem relies on the interpolation of memes and music.

These are the artists who not only inspired trends on TikTok, but hope to create music that integrates these formative concepts into widespread success, just like Lil Nas X.

The BoyBoy West Coast

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A simple preview clip on Instagram grew into a viral fascination when it gained traction on TikTok. Santa Barbara rapper The Boyboy West Coast lip-synced a snippet of his then-unknown song, “U Was At The Club (Bottoms Up),” directly to the camera, and inspired countless videos on TikTok that parodied the fragment over and over for months.

A tangle of PC Music soundscapes and melodies mixed with the rapper’s starkly deep and bellowing voice, making for a comical hybrid. But the joke wasn’t on Boyboy. “The drink still in my cup challenge, have you ever seen that?” The Boyboy told Genius. “They're just like dressing up like me and they're fucking singing and shit… I think it's pretty fucking funny."

Despite the memes, people genuinely loved the song, and everything else about the California rapper. Everything from his tadpole-shaped eyebrows and manicured beard to his exaggerated movements were lovingly mimicked, until it all became incredibly abstract. On March 10, Dennis Rodman tweeted, “Stop. Sending. Me. This. Shit,” with a video soundtracked by the instantly recognizable beat. The song inspired many absurdist videos, creating a corner of the app where babies were being transformed with dark lashings of eyeliner.

Supa Dupa Humble

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New York DJ-turned-rapper Supa Dupa Humble is, as his name suggests, incredibly grateful for his success on TikTok. After discovering the app through comments on his YouTube videos, he downloaded TikTok and found that his song “Steppin’” (featuring Mills Supreme) had its own #idontknow challenge.

“My ultimate goal when creating a song is for it to eventually get the ‘meme treatment.’” - Supa Dupa Humble

“The song wasn’t officially in the system at the time, so we couldn’t track the actual numbers, but I knew there were at least a few hundred videos,” he tells Complex. After contacting TikTok’s music content and artist relations director, Mary Rahmani, to find out more, Supa realized the scope of his song. “About a week later ‘Steppin’ was officially uploaded to TikTok, revealing there were already 500,000 videos on the platform,” Supa explains. “Quickly after, ‘Steppin’ was added to the featured playlist with a corresponding banner on TikTok’s sounds page.”

The #idontknow challenge encapsulates TikTok’s carefree attitude. There is no message, no diss, and no real point, except for a meme that creates an inside joke through repetition and physical humor. “My ultimate goal when creating a song is for it to eventually get the ‘meme treatment,’” Supa says. “Now that I understand how memes can positively affect music, it’s an important factor in my creative process.”

Lil Nas X

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“Old Town Road” gained momentum on TikTok under the promoted hashtags, #cowboygang and #yeeyeejuice, the latter of which saw users drink from cups labeled “yee yee juice,” transforming them into flannel-wearing, straw-nibbling cowboys.

Lil Nas X climbed up the Country Music charts, only for Billboard to remove the song, citing a lack of “elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version." After enlisting the help of country music maverick Billy Ray Cyrus (who similarly stretched the limits of country music with “Achy Breaky Heart” in 1992), “Old Town Road” found itself at the center of conversations about country music’s problem with race, Billboard’s outdated regulations, and the limits of genre itself.

The Atlanta rapper, born Montero Lamar Hill, celebrated his 20th birthday on the same day that the country-trap hit entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No.1. While “Old Town Road” has surpassed the niche fame of TikTok virality, Hill is now attempting to follow up the record-breaking, genre-bending track that dominated headlines for weeks. He recently teasing a new rock-tinged collaboration with OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, and tweeted, “Y’all think they gone let me on the rock charts?”


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Beginning as a professional dancer, ZaeHD went from supporting Future on tour to creating music with his brother CEO. “It’s a different genre, and that's not even on no cocky shit,” CEO tells Genius about their hit, “All In.” “You can go back and see if you can find somebody like us, I'll wait.”

Always in sync, the brothers dance as though they’re tuned to a fraternal metronome. It’s as enjoyable to listen to as it is to watch. Hailing from Little Rock, AR, their breakout song, “All In” gained momentum on TikTok after the proliferation of the Em Em Dance. First uploaded by user @kingk3z, the Em Em Dance incited thousands of copycat videos, which spread to YouTube, and eventually reshaped ZaeHD and CEO’s success. “We ain't even know it was on TikTok,” Zae admits. “Somebody else told us and we were like, ‘Damn!’”

The song's intro, which has soundtracked clips of people discovering Bille Eilish’s age and thirsting over girls (and McDonald's), has become a TikTok staple. Trap is the most popular genre on the app, and these new interpretations of the genre that embrace parody are becoming more popular by the day.

Cookie Cutters

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Teaming up with TikTok user Andre Swilley (who has over 5 million followers on the app), Australian production duo Cookie Cutters have created songs specifically designed to be mimicked. “We tried to have distinct movements for each lyric,” Adam Friedman, one half of Cookie Cutters, tells Complex. “You Do You” quickly amassed 100,000 likes on a snippet of the song. “Whatever part of the song we put on there really resonated with a TikTok audience,” Friedman explains

Their follow-up, “Accidents,” also inspired a slew of videos, but it was marginally less successful than their debut. The duo has a new plan for success, though. “Andre is heading to the studio this week to record three 15-second songs. Lots of TikTok stars think it sucks now that the general public has started catching up, but there’s a lot you can do in 15 seconds.”


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iLOVEFRiDAY’s song “Mia Khalifa” all started because of a fake tweet. Doctored to look like it was written from the adult star, Mia Khalifa’s verified Twitter, the tweet reads: “She’s so disrespectful to all Muslim women and gives us a bad image smh.” This apparent outrage was in response to one half of iLOVEFRiDAY, Smokehijabi, for the video for “Hate Me.” The song was then overshadowed by their follow-up track, “Mia Khalifa.”

“When the song went viral on TikTok, it was Instagram users [who] were mentioning to us that there was a new video to our song,” Smokehijabi tells Complex. Despite being released in 2018, the song surged in popularity after TikTok user Nyannyancosplay created a lip-sync video of the song, singing the line that would go on to spur millions of videos: “Hit or miss, I guess they never miss, huh?/You got a boyfriend, I bet he doesn't kiss ya/He gon' find another girl and he won't miss ya/He gon' skrrt and hit the dab like Wiz Khalifa.”

“When people feel something,” Smokehijabi continued, “they are inclined to do something about it.” The #hitormisschallenge currently has 93.7 million views on the app. Some videos feature teachers finishing the lyrics, “hit or miss I guess they never miss,” while others mimic the original Nyannyancosplay clip. As far as diss tracks go, the trajectory of “Mia Khalifa” has taken a strange turn in the depths of TikTok, all over a fake tweet. But that doesn’t matter to iLOVEFRiDAY: “All of our fans were like, ‘Screw Mia Khalifa, we don’t like her, diss her,’” Smokehijabi told Pitchfork. “So we dropped a diss track.”

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