Who Was The Face Of Rap This Decade?
Despite claims that hip hop is in its final days, the beginning of this millennium saw the birth and reign of several great MCs. Gangsters, pretty boys, businessmen, hipsters, and even former law enforcement all came forward to claim their slice of the industry pie. In this sea of talent, a select few rappers were able to achieve exorbitant sales numbers and elevate their careers to superstar status. These artists all displayed versatility, lyrical ability, and a high level of popularity. Cases for a better rapper could be heard, but these are the men [in no particular order] who left an unquestionable stamp on hip hop over the last 10 years.
Ludacris: Making his mainstream debut in late 2000, Ludacris hit the ground running with Back for the First Time. His fun and spirited nature initially caught the attention of fans while his raw talent kept them coming back for more. Establishing himself early in his career as a go-to feature helped to keep him relevant while simultaneously expanding his fan base. With every album, Luda was able to move large units and in just nine years he became the best-selling Southern solo artist in the history of hip hop. In addition to his musical contributions, Mr. Bridges also obtained numerous acting credits, including his role in the Academy Award-winning film Crash.
50 Cent: In late 2002, following previous attempts to break into the industry, a Dr. Dre and Eminem cosign thrust 50 Cent onto the scene with a never-before-seen hype. Not only did the Queens rapper deliver, he created what would become one of the most popular rap debuts in history. From the jump 50 Cent also became associated with beef, beginning with the feud between himself and Ja Rule. As the G-Unit group and brand began to grow, so did his apparent antipathy towards other industry figures. By the time The Massacre dropped, going platinum in just four days, 50 had no problem taking shots at Fat Joe, Nas, Jadakiss, and even fellow labelmate The Game. Developing into a savvy entrepreneur, 50 Cent also gained popularity through his multiple business ventures including a reported $100 million deal with Coca-Cola resulting from his stake in Vitamin Water. Though the sales of his latest album aptly titled Before I Self Destruct may be indicative of a rapper finally losing steam, there was a solid 3-4 years where 50 Cent was arguably the biggest force in hip hop.
Nas: Bouncing back from the disappointment that was Nastradamus, Nasty Nas released Stillmatic in late 2001 to universally positive reviews. The album produced a few decent singles, but the shining star was the diss track aimed at Jay-Z. Despite present-day unsettled debates over who won the Jay vs Nas battle, it’s clear that “Ether” reenergized the career of the latter and shot both MCs to a new level of stardom. With his following albums Nas was able to successfully walk the line of staying socially conscious and remaining commercially successful. No stranger to controversy, Nas created an industry-wide stir with his eighth studio album when he declared the death of hip hop as an artistically viable form of music. Again in 2008 Nas’ untitled album created embroilment when the original name was supposed to be that of a largely pejorative racial epithet. Nas is one of the few individuals whose status has been able to withstand the test of time.
Kanye West: Hate him or love him, Kanye West has made enormous waves in pop culture over the last ten years. Well before he embarked on his solo project, West rose to fame as a producer for Roc-A-Fella Records and was the man behind some of Jay-Z’s biggest hits such as “Takeover”. Any thoughts that the famous beat maker wouldn’t be able to transition to the microphone quickly dissolved with the release of The College Dropout in 2004. Paving the way for more conscious rappers to crossover to the mainstream, Kanye’s album dealt with religion, family, materialism, and other formerly unpopular topics. He was an ordinary person speaking about ordinary things and the result was an extraordinary following. Somewhere down the line, the humble producer-turned-rapper transformed into the poster boy for egotism, yet his fan base never wavered. Every album he’s released has reached platinum status and his efforts have earned him a staggering twelve Grammy wins. Whether he was making music, storming stages, or designing the hottest shoes of the year, Kanye West has remained a fixture in music news this entire decade.
T.I.: With the lack of success by T.I.’s debut album I’m Serious, few people believed that the rapper would develop into the “King of the South” that he claimed to be. After being dropped from Arista however, Tip found a new home and success with Atlantic Records. By the time Urban Legend was released under the strength of “Bring Em Out”, it was obvious T.I. was in it for the long haul. His fourth album King provided his first Grammy nod and coincided with the release of his first acting role in ATL. By the time 2008 rolled around, T.I. was ready to take a seat at the table with the best. Paper Trail was his most honest, lyrical charged, and best-selling album to date despite being created under less than favorable circumstances. At his current rate of progression, it would be no surprise to see T.I. go on to become an even stronger force in the years to come.
The Game: Originally signed to Aftermath Entertainment, The Game entered with a buzz similar to that of his mentor 50 Cent. Much like 50, he delivered in a strong way, instantly amassing an abundance of fans. Credited for the resurgence of West Coast and gangsta rap, Game’s debut meshed the aggressiveness of an N.W.A with the cinematic styling of Dre’s beats and Stortch’s piano. Following his public feud with G-Unit and subsequent release from the group, Game proved that he could survive on his own, producing the same hard-hitting lyrics that made him famous. Both Doctor’s Advocate and LAX received generally favorable reviews upon their release and performed well on the charts. Taking a page out of Lil Wayne’s book, Game’s multiple features and independent ventures helped to keep his name abuzz during the gaps of time between studio albums. Though Game got a relatively late start to the decade, his recognition as the face of a coast quickly elevated him to iconic status.
Jay-Z: Jay-Z rode into the 2000s on the wave of mainstream success generated by 1999’s “Big Pimpin”. His 2000 album The Dynasty achieved multi-platinum status and the following year saw the release of the undisputed classic The Blueprint. Every album thereafter would go on to reach platinum certification and debut at number one, setting an all-time record. This decade Jay-Z also developed the blueprint for using rap as a stepping stone to bigger things. His Rocawear clothing line has been a staple in hip hop since its induction and his success as the owner of Roc-A-Fella records motivated ensuing rappers to try their hand in the business as well. In his personal life, Jay-Z married one of today’s biggest icons in Beyoncé, catapulting them both to the top of the list of hip hop power couples. He also managed to find time to market his own liquor, open a chain of sports bars, and buy a share of the New Jersey Nets on his way to an estimated net worth of $150 million.
Eminem: His first appearance of the decade was a dumbfounding verse on “Forgot About Dre”; his first official single of the same time was “The Real Slim Shady”. The 1.7 million sold copies of The Marshall Mathers LP is the record for one-week sales by a solo artist; the 1.3 million for The Eminem Show ranks number two. To try to dissect Eminem’s numbers or pinpoint a period of time that stood head and shoulders above the rest would be absurd. The man is an undeniable lyrical genius, the most controversial rapper ever, and the highest-selling artist of the decade despite a four-year hiatus from his solo projects. Beyond the numbers, Eminem’s complex rhyme schemes and syncopations paired with ever-clear enunciation helped to distance him from the pack.
Lil Wayne: After considerable success with Cash Money in the late 90’s, Wayne entered the new millennium on a relatively quiet note. Lights Out and 500 Degreez were both critical failures and the last Hot Boys album did little to set Wayne apart from his bandmates. In 2004 however, Lil Wayne’s breakout album The Carter signaled the beginning of his rise to the top. With Jay-Z declaring [temporary] retirement, the Louisiana MC didn’t hesitate to proclaim himself the de facto leader of rap. Wayne continued to improve and expand with every mixtape and album that followed, leading to his historic year in 2008 when he was called upon for features in every genre of music, embraced worldwide as a rock star, and finally recognized by the Academy. The Carter III also became the first album to go platinum in a week since 50 Cent’s 2005 album The Massacre, leaving little doubt about who the heir apparent of rap was.
If these are the kind of artists that hip hop provides to us in its death, I for one am beyond interested to see what the future has in store.