In late November, The New York Times sparked outrage on social media with a piece theorizing that Drake is the reason “rappers are singers now.” While the Toronto artist had a hand in fueling mainstream rap’s fixation with genre-bending and sing-songy flows, he’s far from the end-all of the discussion.
When So Far Gone dropped in 2009, Drake already had peers and mentors like T-Pain, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and others pushing the boundaries of what could be considered rap music and who could be considered rappers. (Something he mentioned during his extensive interview with Rap Radar.)
And, since then, there have been younger artists who tweaked their predecessors’ formulas with new wrinkles, creating a wing of the rap canon so hard to define that it doesn’t actually have a name. Melody will be the defining trait of 2010s rap, so those trailblazers make up the bulk of our list of the most influential artists of the 2010s.
We also gave out roses for other acts who are responsible for the decade’s biggest cultural shifts. Some of these artists had their biggest moments before 2010, but their sonic fingerprints are undoubtedly visible on the 2010s rap landscape. As we prepare to enter a new decade, here are the rappers who sculpted the last decade the most. Here are the 10 most influential rappers of the 2010s.
As I’ve said before, Reginae Carter has about two thousand siblings out here. Lil Wayne entered the 2010s as the undisputed king of rap, and so many of today’s most important artists took cues from his reign. The traits that made Wayne a rap icon are in the creative DNA of artists across the hip-hop spectrum.
It’s hard not to hear Kendrick Lamar blacking out with an animated delivery and not harken to the rabid dog flow on “A Millie.” Songs like 2007’s “Prostitute Flange” and 2008’s “Me And My Drank” birthed an entire genre of escapism delivered through barely lucid crooning. Drake was still an up-and-comer and “Weezy had all the authority” when he harmonized the entirety of “Lollipop,” the first single from Tha Carter 3. In 2008, the song was looked at as a risk by fans and the burgeoning social mediasphere’s armchair A&Rs. Wayne was billing himself the best rapper alive, on par with JAY-Z, and he was singing on his first single? Yes. And it’s still his most commercially successful song.
“Lollipop’s” success paved the way for Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreaks and a huge industry shift toward melody as the predominant draw of mainstream rap.
Wayne’s career zenith is the undeniable genesis of a new era of hip-hop, where artists could liken themselves “The Best Rapper Alive” and “a Rockstar” all at once, flood the streets with music, croon for an entire track, and nobody batted an eye.
And beyond the music, his impact is through a simple eye test. Visit No Jumper or DJ Akademiks’ YouTube channels and compare the tattooed, rockstar-ideating fashion sense of just about every rapper on either channel to a picture of Wayne in 2008. Enough said.
By late 2008, even 50 Cent was trying autotune. Together, T-Pain and Wayne had made the vocal modification software the veritable hottest feature of the moment. But while T-Wayne was predominantly making feel-good singles at the time, Kanye West took to the software because he felt “melodies that were in me” after the loss of his mother and a breakup with his fiancée.
Kanye has noted that his peers wanted him to release 808s & Heartbreak under an alias because it was a risk even after the success of T-Pain and Lil Wayne. But he put out the album as Kanye West, and with the help of Kid Cudi — T-Pain — crafted a landmark album. He deemed it a “pop album,” but defining “pop” is more about metrics and palatability to white audiences than it is any identifiable sonic.
Kanye belonged to hip-hop, and the success of 808s & Heartbreak further shifted the sound of mainstream rap toward harmony. Drake said in 2009 that Kanye is “the most influential person” to him, and his So Far Gone classic is heavily derived from 808s’ atmospheric, minimalist soundscape and lovelorn lyrical content.
Critics and Drake stans credit So Far Gone as the one project that shaped the sonic aesthetic of the 2010s, but it makes sense to go one step further and credit the project that helped shape Drake.
Kanye’s constant boundary-pushing helped inspire a generation of artists after him to go above and beyond.
And outside the studio, Kanye’s crusade against European fashion houses helped shed light on the fashion industry’s racism and eventually forced more brands to embrace hip-hop culture. Who knows if artists like Gucci Mane and 21 Savage are doing ads or being treated like royalty at fashion week without Kanye holding them collectively accountable for not acknowledging their continued obsession with hip-hop.
Kanye is a lot of contemptible things in 2019, but one would be lying if they said he wasn’t influential.
Drake has gotten a lot of credit reserved for artists who preceded him, but that’s what happens for the biggest star in the world. It’s foolish to say that he’s the sole, or even primary, reason that rappers are singing today. But it would also be foolish to say that Drake didn’t build on the blueprint on his predecessors and take it to new commercial heights.
So Far Gone was heavily influenced by Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreaks, but 40’s take on Kanye’s cavernous sound has become the predominant sonic scope of hip-hop and R&B. Together, 40 and Drake — with the help of The Weeknd — polished off the 808s formula with murkier aesthetics, and later, lo-fi renderings of ‘90’s R&B staples. It’s also worth noting that So Far Gone, released for free, was one of the first major projects to blur the lines between mixtape and album.
From 2009, Drake fully embraced his multi-hyphenates to the point where there’s “rapping Drake” and “singing Drake,” at times dueling on the same track. He stuck to his formula throughout the 2010s. His influence is most heavily seen in dual-threat artists like 6lack, Tory Lanez, and Bryson Tiller. And though other acts like Lil Uzi Vert, A Boogie, Young Thug and others sound little like him. Their inclination to try out harmonies was no doubt spurred by seeing Drake win year after year.
Cardi B first grew a fanbase via viral clips on Instagram while working as a stripper. Her New York charm and no-filter nature won her so many fans that she became a fixture on the Love And Hip-Hop. It seems like most characters on the VH1 show only pretend to do enough music to stay on the show, but Cardi’s music actually drew traction to the point where she left the show to pursue music full-time in December 2016.
By June 2017, “Bodak Yellow” hit, and the floodgates were wide open for other strippers, bartenders, starlets, and just about anyone with a healthy Instagram following to try their hand at stardom. Entertainment industry figure Adam Kluger saw then-13-year-old Danielle Bregoli gain notoriety with her culturally appropriative performance on Dr. Phil and decided that her catchphrase was a good enough basis for her to be a rap star.
There’s a strong possibility that labels wouldn’t be scouring social media for people to “turn into” rappers if “Bodak Yellow” flopped. But Cardi’s success has, for better or worse, made viral fame a viable springboard to a record deal.
How impactful is Gucci Mane? If you take him out of the story of Atlanta rap, and who knows how rap mainstays like Waka Flocka, Migos, Young Thug, Mike-Will-Made-It, Young Dolph, MetroBoomin, and others would have got on. Gucci Mane’s Atlanta studio was called the Brick Factory, and it’s an apt name. He helped build the foundation for modern Atlanta hip-hop in that studio, through his selfless desire to put on talented artists and his own catalog, which may be the most beloved in the entire trap music genre.
Even the artists that Gucci Mane didn’t put on were inspired by his relentless work ethic and pioneering approach to mixtapes. At the time, most DJ-hosted tapes consisted of freestyles or street singles that rarely got radio play, much less scratched the surface of Billboard relevance. But by the end of the 2000s, Gucci began making fully original songs that helped permanently blur the lines between albums and mixtapes.
Intermittent jail stints may have kept him from accruing the kind of mainstream stardom that begets platinum records and Grammy nods, but Gucci never needed that.
Kendrick Lamar’s impact isn’t measured by how many people sound like him. His imprint is evident in artists like J.I.D and IDK, but very few of his direct sonic descendants can both mimic his vocal acrobatics and execute concept albums with his level of precision and ambition. There’s no Drake to his Phonte or Young Thug to his Wayne.
Kendrick’s influence is based in the response to Good Kid M.A.A.D City and To Pimp A Butterfly, two landmark albums that inspired his peers and helped shift the direction of Black music. GKMC was a winding, cinematic project that helped expand the possibilities of mainstream Gangsta Rap when it felt like artists were merely rehashing the same story. Kendrick Lamar wasn’t overtly menacing or wrathful on GKMC; he was disturbed, lamentful and fearful. He didn’t glorify the life, he resented it. The album’s skits helped immerse listeners even further into his raw, dire depiction of L.A.
It would be childish to buy into the popular the narrative that “Control” influenced his peers to collectively step their pen up, but GKMC set the standard by which all of their work would be measured just two years into the decade.
He then followed up with To Pimp A Butterfly and Untitled, two more projects (derived from the same recording sessions) that sidestepped mass appeal but went multi-platinum anyway. He, along with several other artists, helped disprove any reductive notions od lyricism, socially conscious messaging, and experimentation being dead in the mainstream.
Sonic experimentation, Afrocentric themes, and social commentary are in the fiber of popular music. And as “King Kendrick,” widely believed to be the best rapper of his generation, he played a huge part in that shift.
All melody men aren’t created equal. Drake doesn’t sound like Max B, who doesn’t sound like Speaker Knockerz. The South Carolina rapper/producer, who died at 19 from a heart attack believed to be related to codeine syrup, has a cult fanbase who properly recognizes him as one of the forebearers of the glossy brand of sing-song rap dominating the radio today. Speaker Knockerz’ tracks, like 2012’s “Weekend” and “Lonely,” served as an early blueprint for modern artists like A Boogie Wit DA Hoodie, Dej Loaf, Nav, PNB Rock, and others.
He doesn’t have a huge catalog, but the syrupy melodies and scatterbrained songwriting of his biggest hits fit right into a contemporary playlist with the aforementioned artist. Lil Durk was exploring the same sound during the early-to-mid 2010s, but his lyrical fare was derivative of the gritty drill scene. In Speaker Knockerz, today’s harmonizers saw a more palatable gateway to mass appeal.
Nicki Minaj rewrote the rules for women in hip-hop. Not enough people give her credit for being the most successful New York artist of her generation, or dramatic vocal inflections that predated Kendrick Lamar.
Nicki is very much a descendant of artists like Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Eve and others. Their sexually empowering ethos is apparent in her lyrics, and the colorful visual aesthetic of her early side is in part inspired by Lil Kim.
But she made her own mark for herself and future women in the industry with her independent streak. She was signed to YMCMB, but she wasn’t going to be relegated to “first lady” status. They weren’t all in her videos like handlers, or on her singles as a crutch. When Young Money was at its height, her, Lil Wayne and Drake were a big three.
Nicki has called out double standards for women in hip-hop, noting in 2017 that “in any field, women must work TWICE as hard to even get HALF the respect her male counterparts get.” After facing backlash for her response to Travis Scott’s Astroworld bundle, Nicki Minaj took to her Queen Radio show and doubled down.
Nicki is no underling. Her insistence on being respected as her own entity (an iconic, multi-platinum one) made a mark on future women coming into the rap game. She said in Marie Claire that “you have to be able to know that you need no man on this planet at all, period.” And today, artists like Doja Cart, Rico Nasty, Megan Thee Stallion and others are breaking out without the help of any co-signs. That shift would have eventually happened regardless, but Nicki deserves credit for being a model for women in hip-hop to follow.
Roc Marciano is the lord of the underground. For the past decade, the Long Island rapper has scribed the blueprint for lyricists like himself to carve a lane for themselves without relying on the machinations of the industry.
He was signed to Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode squad in the early 2000s, but has done everything on his own since releasing Marcberg to critical acclaim in 2010. Having that creative freedom allowed him to craft his sound. Turning on a Roc record is walking into a universe where barbs such as “in a whore I see a resource” zip through like stray bullets into the night.
When Roc debuted in 2010, the underground was full of rugged lyricists who rapped about the streets, but rarely rapped about the trappings of their riches lest they be viewed as bubblegum adjacent. Roc reintroduced opulence into with “Lamborghini dreams, Nissan nightmares/Moving white my ice cool as the night air.”
His self-assured delivery, abstract diction, and soulful, drumless production is now the default sound for an entire field of lyricists. It’s hard not to hear his influence in artists like Ka, Earl Sweatshirt, Mavi, and other underground stalwarts. His sound is inspired by New York’s classic mid-90’s era, but he’s updated the proceedings. He’s not merely rapping over loops, his productions often unfurl along with his mafioso tales.
Being the undisputed godfather of Chicago’s Drill Music scene alone places Chief Keef securely on this list. We entered the decade with Keef, Lil Reese, G Herbo and others popularizing Chicago Drill. And we’re closing with artists like Pop Smoke achieving stardom with Brooklyn drill, which borrows its 808-based percussion and menacing synth melodies from the early work of producers like Young Chop and the late Smylez.
But Chief Keef’s most indelible impact came from his post-Interscope Records output. With his 2012 to 2013 run of Finally Rich, Bang 2, and Almighty Sosa, Keef played a huge hand in birthing the subgenre that somehow doesn’t have a more recognizable name than the demeaning “mumble rap.” Lil Wayne had largely left his autotune warbling behind by 2013, and Chief Keef took the formula and updated it.
The projects were polarizing. Compounded with the disappointing sales of Finally Rich, the lazy, marble-mouthed melodies served as confirmation bias for detractors looking to label him an apathetic artist putting a black eye on hip-hop. But he knew what he was doing. He didn’t achieve commercial fame, but young artists like Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti, Lil Yachy, and an entire scene of so-called SoundCloud rappers were listening.
Lil Pump told J. Cole Chief’s sonic evolution was the start of “a new era.” Keef was just as naturally uninclined for singing as a Max B, and their music carries some of the same appeal in different packages. Whereas Max B would legitimately attempt falsettos on tracks like “Sexy Love,” Keef confidently stayed within a range that accentuated his guttural delivery.
There were no vocal tricks, or attempts to polish his voice to sound like something it wasn’t, he firmly leaned into an oft-incoherent sound over vibrant synth-driven productions. Today, artists like Uzi (and his many offshoots) have Keef to thank for first popularizing the sound. What’s clear now wasn’t so apparent in 2013: Keef was a maverick who followed the beat of his own drum. He wasn’t going to be tied down by label constraints or conventions of who was allowed to harmonize, and he’s become an icon for just doing him.
There’s a reason Phonte was so adamantly against The New York Times’ assertion that Drake is why rappers are singing. Phonte, who was rapping and singing as early as 2004, is one of Drake’s heaviest influences by the Toronto artist’s own admission. Former Little Brother producer 9th Wonder told Combat Jack that “without Phonte, there is no Drake. And Drake knows this.”
The two artists share a generally relaxed, confident delivery and a knack for filtering thoughtful, inquisitive introspection into social media-worthy nuggets. Phonte’s work as half of the Foreign Exchange showed a young Drake the blueprint to both rap and sing to his heart’s content, without guilt.
But Phonte and Little Brother’s impact doesn’t stop at Drake. They have said that their name is derived from being figurative little brothers to their hip-hop predecessors. The trio paid that idea forward by inspiring a new generation of “everyman” artists like J. Cole, Wale, Kendrick Lamar, and others who Phonte has received praise from. So much of the early 2000s’ most popular rap was either turn-up fodder or bulletproof depictions of hypermasculinity, and it was harder to find music outside the Billboard bubble during the internet’s adolescence.
Little Brother’s candid, incisive The Listening and The Minstrel Show albums, with raps about living check to check and meta criticisms of hip-hop culture, were viewed as a breath of fresh air. 9th Wonder even believes that Kanye got a lot of his early mojo from Little Brother.
The first time I heard Max B, on Cam’ron’s “You Gotta Love It,” I wondered “who is that?” His gruff vocals sounded off to a 2006 ear sed to hearing polished R&B singers. But through each successive listen, it became more catchy. And by the time Max B hit us with the tidal wave of releases from 06 to 09, it didn’t matter that he sounded like a regular joe who had a buzz and was feeling good enough to sing. Tracks like “Blow Me A Dub” and “Baby I Wonder” were way too catchy to care about the presentation. They sounded better unkempt.
Not since Ja Rule had a rapper with such a polarizing voice been so adamant about singing. But the Harlem artist took the formula to the next level with a sound he deemed “wavy.” Max B is an underground hero. Some people may scratch their heads at his presence on this list. But every beloved melody man knows about the wave. He gave French Montana the blueprint as his righthand man. French has said that Drake and Wiz Khalifa have told him about their love for Max. Even Jim Jones, an archenemy, has surmised that he could have been as big as Drake. Young Thug has called him “the older me,” which is accurate. Even with autotune, some artists just aren’t going to sound polished harmonizing. But Max took a couple sips of grand cru and went at it anyway, and a generation of artists is grateful he did.
There shouldn’t be any more drivel about “bringing New York back,” or even a “New York sound” after A$AP Rocky and Yams shattered regional lines almost a decade ago. In 2011, Rocky received flack for being a Harlem rapper unabashedly presenting a Houston aesthetic with his “Purple Swag” track. Some of those purists are still complaining, but they haven’t realized that no one with sense is listening.
Rocky was one of the most important artists to run over the post-regional hill, and his success allowed his peers to stop being so conscientious of regional barriers. What does it even mean to “sound” like a place, especially in the internet age? The cultural gumbo of early Rocky music was inspired by A$AP Yams, a student of hip-hop who was exposed to dope music from everywhere. He ran the now-defunct RealNiggaTumblr, where he made eclectic playlists and found myriad inspiration to craft the cloudy, Houston-influenced sound that made the Mob a brand name.
The critical and social acclaim of LiveLoveA$AP, along with the Atlanta forays of Nicki Minaj and French Montana, helped usher in an era where people weren’t vying to bring New York back with rehashes of bygone era, but bring it forward. Today, the city, and the rap game is eclectic as its ever been.
A$AP Rocky, Yams, and the whole A$AP movement deserve credit for being one of the first movements to cull influence not just from their city, but from whatever they found dope.
Andre Gee is a New York-based freelance writer with work at Uproxx Music, Impose Magazine, and Cypher League. Feel free to follow his obvious Twitter musings that seemed brilliant at the moment @andrejgee.
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