7 influential rappers who defined hip hop over the past decade
In rap, originality is key to sustaining a successful career and these artists are proof.
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In rap, originality is key to sustaining a successful career. However, artists and producers have pilfered from other genres dating back to the culture’s humble beginnings. Without the flipped samples of original music — both popular and obscure — and drawing from the well of entertainers of yesteryear, hip hop wouldn’t be where it is today without those influences to build upon.
With the passage of time, aspiring artists began to look inward for inspiration, taking pages out of the books of established creatives and their peers to help cultivate their persona and craft. With each era presenting a new crop of talent and feeding off of the generation before it, hip hop has continued to grow into a dominant global force and the ultimate ecosystem for all things cultural.
Over the course of the past ten years, a lot has changed in hip hop. As many of the legends who made their bones during the ’90s and aughts entered the twilight of their careers; new, fresh faces popped up on the scene, resulting in a gradual changing of the guard. While there were a few holdovers who extended their reign and remained at the forefront of rap, these upstarts dictated the course of rap music as we know it from 2008 through 2018.
As the conversation surrounding what names have made the biggest impact in terms of their influence heats up, here are seven artists who helped define and influence the sound of hip hop over the past decade.
Capping off an historic mixtape run with the release of his sixth studio album, Tha Carter III, by 2008; Lil Wayne had solidified his standing as the most electrifying star in rap. In addition to his lyrical exploits and his prolific output, a big ingredient in the Young Money general’s recipe for success was his rockstar persona. While artists like Run D.M.C. and others had associated themselves with rock artists, Weezy embodied the decadent lifestyle like no one before him, laying down a blueprint for the Young Thugs and Lil Uzi Verts of the world.
For an artist who has spent the majority of their career embattled in controversy and legal battles, Gucci Mane has managed to build a reputation as one of the most pivotal rap artists of the last 10 years. One of the chief architects behind the “trap” sound as we know it today, Gucci has also helped shepherd the careers of stars like OJ Da Juiceman, Waka Flocka, Nicki Minaj, Young Thug, and Chief Keef — all of whom were affiliated with the 1017 founder at one time or another.
As rap’s version of fictional crime boss Micheal Corleone, JAY-Z could have rode off into the sunset after the release of The Black Album, his legacy as one of the greatest MCs of all-time secured. However, Hov has not only continued to make waves with the occasional album drop, but as a business mogul, furthering the culture and expanding the playing field one deal at a time. His ability to alter wardrobes with a few well-placed lyrics has waned and his prime may have come, while many of rap’s biggest stars were in elementary school. But, Hov’s influence continues to loom large. From rap talents like G Herbo drawing inspiration directly from his 4:44 album to basketball phenoms like Zion Williamson singing his praises, JAY-Z remains plugged in with the youth and a leader by example.
Over the course of the past decade, Drake has evolved from an aspiring rapper who’s happy to get their music video played on TV into possibly the biggest music star on the planet, bar none. During that time, the Canadian star has helped shift the way rap artists approach making music on several levels, most noticeably seen in rising rappers moonlighting as crooners and vise versa. Displaying a willingness to tap into various genres and bring international sounds to the forefront, Drake’s DNA is embedded in the makeup of a plethora of rap and R&B artists today.
Kid Cudi’s breakthrough mixtape, A Kid Named Cudi, was so acclaimed for its eclectic vibes that it piqued the interests of megastars like Kanye West, who enlisted the Ohio native to help flesh out his 808s & Heartbreak album. Hailed as one of the pivotal album releases of the 21st century, 808s & Heartbreak put Kid Cudi on the mainstream radar and was followed by a succession of his own studio albums. His knack for displaying vulnerability and addressing bouts with mental health has made him an inspiration for a long list of artists including Travis Scott, Juice WRLD, Logic, Lil Yachty and other leaders of the new school.
Kanye West’s first three studio albums (The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation) are known as the holy trinity that helped change the playing field for socially conscious rappers with aspirations of stardom. However, the true turning point in his career can be traced back to 808s & Heartbreak, which elevated him from being not just a dope rapper and producer, but a visionary. In the decade since the album’s release, Kanye has continued to break new ground with albums like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus becoming instant statement pieces. And when you throw in his successful foray into the world of fashion, it’s clear Yeezy moves the needle like no other and is a force to be reckoned with. His political views, socio-political commentary and egotistical rants have dropped his approval rating to its lowest point ever. But, the Chicagoan’s imprint on the game cannot be questioned.
One of the biggest movements in rap during this decade was the emergence of the “drill” music scene in Chicago, which was spearheaded by none other than Chief Keef. A teenage phenom with the backstory to rival even the most controversial rapper, Keef’s aggressive content and viral presence made him a lightening rod in hip hop, and helped put Chicago rap back on the map. In spite of failing to achieve sustained commercial success, Chief Keef is touted by peers as a legendary figure in the modern era of rap.
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