History of Hip-Hop and Secrets Behind Its Popularity

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Addressing popularity in hip-hop: What does it take for a rap song to be a successful hit and attract popular attention?

At its most rudimental form, music is meant to please. Music should stimulate past memories, augment our moods and force us to get out on the dance floor and bust a move. However, not all songs were created with the same ability to move people. Nowhere is this clearer than in the hip-hop industry, where some rap songs become instant hits and others are popularly rejected. The art form was born in the South Bronx in the early 1970s to embody these ideals and provide a safe and solitary environment for DJs, MCs, artists and regular people to rebel against the oppressive conditions of the area, and the time period as a whole. Since then, hip-hop artists and rappers have sung with innovation, pushed without regard, and produced for worldwide recognition, all in pursuit of the answer to the industry’s billion-dollar question: what makes a one song better and therefore more successful than the next?

Of course, it is also important to note the subjectivity of what constitutes a good rap song. Because of this, popularity has been taken as the objective indicator of a good song, and crucial components of it, such as uniqueness, popular and cultural appeal, artist and brand familiarity, and the value of production have been identified. In order to more completely understand the inner-workings of a hip-hop hit, distinct audio features of popular rap songs, such as danceability, loudness, energy, valence and acousticness, have been chosen as key, sonic guides, and will be further analyzed throughout this paper. Although the billion-dollar question seems to demand a systematic answer, the history of popular hip-hop tracks has proven that while there are important characteristics that help a song garner popularity and views, hip-hop is more art than anything else, and therefore does not hold any translucent recipe to success.

One of the most important characteristics of a popular song is its interaction with contemporary simultaneousness and sympatry. Often, a rap song’s difference from or similarity to other hip-hop songs that are being recorded and released in the same time period or geographical location can make or break that song. In her Prophets of the Hood, Imani Perry assesses how a song can be conterminous with other rap songs and hip-hop artists. A distinguishable feature that helps some rap songs differentiate themselves from others, and thus bring themselves to the top of charts, is how “heterogenous” (Perry, p. 28) their work is. In this sense, the artist tries to add an element to their song that departs from previously established or current norms in the hip-hop genre.

In recent years, artists have capitalized on this concept by taking facets of music in other genres, and blending them recognizable hip-hop components, in order to make their songs stand out. A chief example of this is Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road (2019), which fuses together country music and hip-hop to create a #1 hit that has topped charts for multiple weeks. With its country-focused introduction, this song is immediately identifiable as a break from traditional hip-hop customs, and consequently grabs people’s attention from the onset. The song’s superlative popularity can also pay thanks to its cross-genre attitude, which helps cater it to a more widespread audience. Of course, Lil Nas X is not the first to delve into the field of country-rap. While several have dabbled within the genre, Old Town Road’s success might be attributed to the time of its release, which has seen a plethora of artists begin to experiment with new, inventive forms of rap, like Young Thug’s Beautiful Thugger Girls (2017) project.

Hip-hop heterogeneity does not have to be limited to overarching themes or genres, however, micro-level changes in the fundamental characteristics of a song also benefit a song’s popularity immensely. In the early 1980s, Rakim rocketed himself to hip-hop stardom on the back of his never-before-seen lyrical inventiveness and incomparable flow. Moreover, Rakim’s emphasis on his ‘godly’ stature was something new to hip-hop, and aided him stand out from other contemporaries. Rakim’s claim of authenticity is also evident in his I Ain’t No Joke (1987), which helped him draw “clearly demarcated boundaries” around his status as the best in the game. This is representative of one of the first rap songs that sought success by elevating the MC and pushing other rappers down. The appeal of standing out can be traced back to the very origins of hip-hop, when black rappers started to opt out of using regularly spoken English in their songs. Rappers like Biggie Smalls spoke “exclusively” in “black American English” (Perry, p.24) in order to dissociate themselves from other artists, especially white ones. By rapping differently on their tracks, black artists attempted to move away from tradition and launch themselves to the top. This inclination to stray from the status quo epitomizes the culture of hip-hop, and its modern adaptation today often acts as the impetus for rap songs to become popular hits.

Although some artists choose to remove themselves from hip-hop tradition, others find success in remaining loyal to the tuberous roots of the genre. Narration in hip-hop descends directly from the significance of story-telling in African-American communities. Perhaps the most influential story on hip-hop is the tale of Stagolee, the Badman of hip-hop, notorious for his unmatched virility, impulsiveness and dauntlessness. Stagolee’s ability to do whatever he wanted created a desirable new image for African-Americans as an epiphenomenon of the institutionalized forms of anti-blackness and oppression.

The legend was passed down between generations during the 20th century as a persona for children and young adults to look up to and try to emulate. Hip-hop artists embraced this Badman persona and channeled its energy into their music, giving hip-hops its counter-culture attitude and laying the foundations of Gangsta Rap. The narratives told by MCs who take on this persona are often referred to as the “Yarn” and consist of the storyteller presenting “outrageous stories” about “characters expressed in superlatives,” each one more egregious than the last. The strongest, craziest or most violent character is always presented as the hero of the “Yarn”. The appeal of these narratives lies in their suspense, as the audience yearns to find out if the MC can top the last story they told.

Therefore, the MC who can tell the most ridiculous story is lauded as the best; their songs, the most popular. The art of the narrative has persisted today, but like the use of Black English in hip-hop, the basic Badman persona was accepted and championed by too many. Consequently, hip-hop artists have attempted to distance their Badman identity from others by creating new standards of strength, folly and violence within the hip-hop industry. Modern rappers like Trippie Redd, Lil Pump and Tekashi 6ix9ine, have pushed the Badman persona to its limits, flaunting face tattoos, unregulated drug use and addiction, and new levels of violence (including against fans). This burgeoning group of rappers, who rely on their perceived image as a Badman, have translated their distinctiveness appearance outside of music into songs that emphasize how crazy they are, to tremendous success.

Poles1469 (2018), a collaborative effort by Trippie Redd and Tekashi 6ix9ine, exemplifies how modern rappers continue to push the limits of what it means to be a Badman. The song, and its accoupling music video, glorify scandalous actions and the rampant use of guns. In the music video, both rappers are seen recklessly driving motorized ATVs around the desert, simultaneously pointing large assault rifles at the camera and aggressively singing “bitch, you know we tote them poles…put a hole in his head, he a dolphin”. The song and the music video reached massive popularity, topping Billboard charts and eclipsing 140 million views on YouTube. The rappers’ success can largely be attributed to their perpetuation of the Stagolee story, which still offers a pervasive light of resistance for many against chronic forms of oppression in the world today.

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Furthermore, many normal people simply like to hear about crazy, violent things they cannot do themselves. However, perhaps the most indicative reason for the song’s success is the larger-than-life identities of the rappers who released it. In hip-hop’s earliest days, MCs became the Badman on the nightclub stage, but their persona was limited to performances only. With the meteoric rise of social media in this past decade, Tekashi 6ix9ine in particular has attracted myriad fans that have access to and intently follow all of his drama, beef with other rappers, and excessive braggadocio, on and off of the stage. This platform has allowed the rapper to exaggerate his actions, hyperbolize his behaviors, and mythicize his image, despite it all being an “act” for “shock value”. This enhanced persona helped popularize Tekashi 6ix9ine not for “raw talent” or in his own “biography” but, rather, for his “sensationalism”. Not unlike the folklore of Stackolee, the rapper popularity lies in his counter-culture attitude, and his profound ability to captivate the eyes of many, and hold their gaze with his egregious, violent, and manic drama. Sometimes popularity is determined not by what is released, but who releases it.

Other times, it is not who releases it, it is who produces it. With so many aspiring rappers in the world, it makes sense that not every single one of them can be talented enough to garner some sort of popular success. Nevertheless, there have been several examples of ‘average’ rappers making it big or releasing a hit single. One of the reasons for this is the skill of the producer, or even just the quality of the track production. The birth of hip-hop was facilitated by a group of artists called disk jockeys (DJs) in the South Bronx, the holy trinity of which being DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash. DJ Kool Herc laid the blueprint to hip-hop, Afrika Bambaataa built a community for hip-hop, and Grandmaster Flash perfected the art of hip-hop.

The popularity of these DJs resided in their ability to connect with their audiences. In Rakim’s Paid in Full album (1986), he defined an MC as someone who “move[s] the crowd” (Eric B. Is President, 1986). No one embodied this definition more than the holy trinity of DJs, who set up their turntables in the midst of nightclub and party crowds, and interacted with their audiences to the full extent. Thereby comes the popularity of hip-hop, which was described by DJ Kool Herc simply as the MC and the listener, “connecting one to one” (Chang, p. xi). This is the universal appeal of hip-hop, and the reason for the early popularity of the first DJs, who helped “young people… understand their world,” (Chang, p. xi) irrespective of where they came from. The loudness of DJ Kool Herc’s sound system also helped, which was “loud and crystal clean” (Chang, p. 83), allowing the event to quickly and saliently attract large crowds of people. Nowadays, DJs, or producers, have new vessels to grab people’s attention and force people to listen to their tracks. Producer taglines, memorable lines at the start of a song that credit the producer, have become the standard method of communicating to people that a hot beat is about to drop.

Metro Boomin’s tagline, for example, is one of the most recognizable and immediately captures a listener’s attention. In this manner, producers have found a way to ensure a base level of popularity for their songs and create an overarching brand for their music. No DJ has been more successful at creating a brand than Dr. Dre, who can credit most of his accomplishments in the hip-hop industry to the diversification of his outputs. Labeled as the leading candidate to become “hip-hop’s first billionaire,” Dr. Dre’s ventures as a musician, producer, record label CEO, and product design chief have exemplified how a diverse and wide-reaching brand can lead to incredible amounts of popular and commercial success. By placing his name all over the hip-hop industry, whether it be on Spotify tracks or on the side of headphones, Dr. Dre has made himself a household name and created a lasting legacy of success. The producer has the ability to speak to African-American history, and use it as a tool to make great art. The ones who can whisper their music throughout time are the most successful.

As previously alluded to, the markers of what make an aesthetically pleasing and popular song are regularly swayed and influenced by opinion. The more ubiquitous a positive point of view on a specific feature of song is, the more popular that song is likely to become. To counteract this inherent bias within the hip-hop industry, this paper has attempted to produce an objective stance on what sonic features of an audio track make it a popular success. Two datasets were analyzed for certain audio features that could illustrate what makes one hip-hop song more popular than the next. First, the top 25 hip-hop tracks posted on Billboard’s ‘Hot Rap Songs’ from the week of May 11, 2019 were investigated and given a score out of 100 for specific audio features, including danceability, energy, valence, acousticness, and loudness.

Afterwards, the 70* hip-hop songs that have peaked at #1 on the Billboard’s ‘Hot Rap Songs’ from the past 10 years (2009-2019) were analyzed in the context of the same audio features. These musical traits were chosen based on previous studies that have been conducted in this area, and were chosen in accordance with Spotify For Developer’s Web API, which collects accessible data on all tracks published on Spotify. These audio features were analyzed in order to discover what elements of correlated most closely to success, which, in this case, was determined by Billboard’s charts. The study used a simple regression model to evaluate each individual audio feature against the popularity metric for a given track and produce a correlation r-value between -1 and 1.

For example, the correlation between danceability and popularity, for the first dataset, was found to be around 0.28, signifying a moderate correlation between the two characteristics. After analyzing every song’s audio features in correlation to its recorded popularity, the study found that loudness had the strongest correlation to popularity, with danceability being second strongest and energy third strongest. On the other hand, the findings pointed out that valence and acousticness did not have a strong correlation to popularity. Overall, the findings of the study indicated that there is no scientific formula to creating a hit hip-hop song. While loudness and danceability may have had the strongest correlative values to popularity, none of the values exceeded 0.3, demonstrating that making a hit single is not as easy as simply making it very loud, energetic and easy to dance to. In fact, the rap songs that reached #1 on Billboard’s charts held scores anywhere between 44 and 96 for energy, 34 and 96 for danceability and 6 and 96 for valence. The findings emphasized that creating a popular hip-hop song is truly art more than anything else, and just like art, there is not one easy way to paint a song.

The study into a hip-hop track’s audio features did provide some insights into the key elements of a successful song. The dataset of this decade’s #1 rap hits made it clear that songs that have hip-hop connotations, but sound a lot like a pop song, have the edge on more normative rap songs. Imani Perry warned of rap’s “disintegration into pop” and the possibility of it being “Elvisized,” (Perry, p.192) which is the process of the genre being recorded in history only in its most clean and acceptable form.

Songs like Cardi B and Bruno Mars’ Please Me and Kent Jones’ Don’t Mind, that highlight a ‘pop’ chorus and are more lucid with their identification to a specific genre, benefit from their inclusion in Billboard’s rap charts, as pop elements in songs generally appeal to a more widespread audience than traditional rap songs. As the lines between hip-hop and other genre continue to blur, Imani Perry’s question of: “How can the aesthetic requirements of and an allegiance to the hip hop community withstand the necessary aspiration of popular artists to have commercial success and make a name for themselves in music?” (Perry, p.193) will become increasingly important in the future.

Although there are key components and certain perceptual features that aid hip-hop music reap the benefits of popularity, the attraction and success of these songs cannot be limited to one methodical, repeatable recipe. Instead, it might come down to how a song separates itself from similar tracks, how an artist markets himself to a widespread audience, or how well a DJ can produce the audio-makeup of a song. Regardless, it is evident that the creation of hip-hop is an artform that does not care about how “smart and good and scientific” you are, because that is not “going to rock a party all by itself” (Chang, p.113).

Another thing to note is the prevalence of hip-hop artists who do not have any desire for commercial success and are not concerned by the popularity of their songs. Such artists were not discussed in this paper, as their presence does not undermine what goes into a successful hip-hop track. One component of hip-hop that damages an argument in favor of the artfulness of the industry is the challenge of artist familiarity and brand imaging. As seen with Tekashi 6ix9ine, some modern rappers have found ways to ‘game’ the industry and collect popular attention for their music, irrespective of its quality. Nonetheless, today, the popularity and success of hip-hop songs remains a constantly fluctuating juggernaut that pays its dividends to the most.

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