Radio Hits One: Lil Wayne, Drake, Nicki Minaj, And Young Money Bring Crew Love Back To Rap Radio

Drake feat. Lil Wayne, "HYFR"

In many ways, mainstream hip-hop's boom years of financial prosperity, which reached their peak around the turn of the century, represented a bubble that was destined to pop just like many other industries have in recent years. Mixtapes perhaps more than MP3s helped crater rap album sales around 2006, slightly ahead of other genres experiencing a sales dip. With the rap industry hitting their own recession early, vanity labels were one of the first places that belts started to tighten. Stars who had been steadily cranking out albums by their lesser known proteges began focusing more on just making sure their own albums didn't disappear from the release schedule. Less established artists who thought their superstar patrons would give them an easy pathway to fame and fortune found themselves indefinitely shelved (Young Dro, still attempting to release a second album for six years and counting) while others went independent to grind on their own (Killer Mike, Freeway, Curren$y). Atlanta rapper Tity Boi plugged away as a second-stringer on Ludacris's Disturbing Tha Peace imprint for a decade before finally leaving the label, changing his name to 2 Chainz and rebooting his career to become one of the most buzzed-about rappers of 2012.

After a vacuum of new superstars persisted in hip-hop for years, how were Young Money able to so quickly fill it with both Drake and Nicki Minaj? At some point in the last few years, both the mainstream hip-hop media and the blogosphere turned the age-old drive to find the next major rap star into some kind of American Idol-like horse race. XXL's annual Freshmen Issue, featuring ten or so young up-and-comers, became a more hotly debated topic once the magazine moved away from featuring rappers who'd already signed deals and maybe had a hit single or two, and toward making the issue a mainstream coming-out party for artists who'd been quietly building cult followings online. Some, like Charles Hamilton, crashed and burned without ever releasing a major label album, while others, like Asher Roth, got an album in stores and a single or two on the charts before disappearing back into the ether.

A couple years ago, the vanity-label protégé system got up and running again, with major stars plucking new artists from the blog rap mills and/or XXL's Freshman 10. The first significant success stories were Kid Cudi, signed to Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music, and B.o.B, signed to T.I.'s Grand Hustle, who each released top 10 pop hits and gold-selling albums in 2009 and 2010, shortly before Drake and Nicki Minaj broke the platinum rookie drought. Since then, there's been a flurry of new artists boasting gold plaques and/or multiple radio hits: Big Sean with G.O.O.D. Music, J. Cole with Jay-Z's RocNation, Wale and Meek Mill with Rick Ross's Maybach Music Group. Over the past year, those squads have started to encroach on Young Money's radio dominance, and at some points recently the entire top 10 of the R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart has featured at least one artist from those four labels. They've inspired other moguls to get back in the starmaking business: Young Jeezy has taken Freddie Gibbs under his wing, and Bad Boy Records has snapped up prospects like French Montana and Machine Gun Kelly.

Out of all the new MCs on the airwaves, only Wiz Khalifa has thrived without the supervision of a superstar mentor, and it doesn't seem like a coincidence that he's by far the most successful non-Young Money rapper to emerge in the last couple years (though his 2011 album Rolling Papers is still shy of platinum sales). Just as Memphis Bleek was never able to score a hit without the assistance of Jay-Z, many of the new stars need help. Big Sean's 2011 debut Finally Famous has yielded three massive urban radio hits, but each of them featured a much bigger star (Chris Brown, Kanye West and Nicki Minaj); Wale has scored a string of hits in which his verses are overshadowed by catchy hooks from R&B singers Jeremih, Miguel and Lloyd. For a budding mogul like Rick Ross, it's helpful to have artists on his label that increase Maybach Music Group's radio playlist market share, but no one expects those protégés to ever equal his popularity the same way Kanye eventually caught up to Jay-Z.

There are some signs that Young Money's steely grip on the airwaves is beginning to slip, if slightly. As much as half of the R&B/Hip-Hop Songs top 10 has been taken up by YMCMB artists in recent years, but the current chart only features one, Drake and Lil Wayne's "The Motto"; Minaj's new album has so far been slow to yield the kind of urban radio hits her debut spun off effortlessly. "Rack City" blew up without Tyga needing any training-wheels guest appearances from his more famous labelmates, but he's unlikely to join the platinum club anytime soon, nor will Lil Twist or Gudda Gudda if they ever actually release albums. Every seemingly unstoppable dynasty in the history of rap has grinded to a halt sooner or later, and Young Money probably won't be an exception. But when that reign will stop is anyone's guess, and it almost definitely won't be in 2012.

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