With the arrival of a new Lil Wayne opus in the form of I Am Not a Human Being II, it’s time to revisit a post from our coverage of his prior album: Monsters of Rap. Weezy F. Baby didn’t top the 2011 list, and he doesn’t head the 2013 installment, either. But no one personifies a Monster of Rap -- a megastar impervious to musical trends, cultural tastes or hipster criticism -- quite like he does.
The Monsters of Rap is quite different from MTV’s controversial “Hottest MC in the Game,” which is largely determined by industry buzz. Monsters compiles the biggest rap stars in the universe through a semi-mystical analysis of record sales, extracurricular ventures and scary omnipresence. But let’s not pretend this exercise has any lasting cultural value. It’s just a damn fun list to make.
This time, the criteria for the list have changed. Rappers who have logged only gold discs are now permitted. Let’s face it, no one goes platinum like they used to. The caveat is that an artist must have at least two gold and/or platinum albums. Call it the Rick Ross rule. (Nevertheless, it keeps out Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Wiz Khalifa, 2 Chainz, B.o.B, Wale and Big Sean.)
Otherwise, the ground rules remain the same. Only active artists are worthy of inclusion. Unfortunately, that now excludes Dr. Dre, who may never drop his mythical Detox, and the Beastie Boys (RIP Adam “MCA” Yauch). And let’s stick to relevant mainstream artists: sorry, Nelly, LL Cool J, Lil Jon, Ja Rule, Juvenile and The Game).
Finally, there are the usual intangibles. Pitbull is a proven Billboard Hot 100 champion, but he doesn’t sell full-length albums: His 2011 album, Planet Pit, went gold, but it should have sold far more considering its many radio singles. Lupe Fiasco has sustained his prominence despite persistent (and sometimes unfair) attacks for his political views and musical choices. His Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1 has sold disappointingly, but that may change with a potential hit in “Battle Scars.” And Ludacris … where is Luda-Luda? Save for occasional digital singles and the occasional shots fired at former Disturbing the Peace employee 2 Chainz, we haven’t heard much from him. If his Ludaversal finally drops this year, we’ll know whether he’s still a top dog or a former rap celebrity.
So who are the Monsters of Rap in 2013? Here's the baker's dozen.
So Jay-Z just took an L with widely derided verses on Timberlake’s “Suit & Tie” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” remix. They’re just blips. The cover art to the latter depicts the L.A.-born Kendrick as Kobe Bryant, and Jay-Z … as Michael Jordan. It’s a testament to Jay’s unquestioned status as the biggest artist in hip-hop, one that’s worth half a billion dollars. He virtually controls the marketing for the Brooklyn Nets, hangs out with President Obama, and is married to Beyoncé, the biggest R&B singer in the game. His Roc Nation is the new Rush Management, with a label roster that features J. Cole and Rita Ora, and a management wing that includes Shakira, MIA, Rihanna and many others. He has an upcoming international tour with J.T. and a highly anticipated new album in the works.
Much is riding on the performance of Lil Wayne’s new album, I Am Not a Human Being II. Is he the “best rapper alive” despite his growing legion of haters, or an alleged substance-abusing monarch in ugly decline? While we wait for answers, let’s not forget that he mentored Young Money stars Drake, Nicki Minaj and Tyga; launched one of 2012’s highest-grossing international tours; and remains one of the few hardcore rappers to get spins on increasingly bland pop radio. Thanks to his prodigious output, he has logged the most Billboard Hot 100 chart hits ever. Whether Weezy’s fall is imminent or exaggerated, he deserves our attention for now.
3. Kanye West
Number of Platinum Albums: 6
Most Recent Top 10 Hit: “Nggs in Paris”
In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been surprised that Cruel Summer was a dud. Most rap comps stink, and we’re generally happy to get a few decent songs out of them. Perhaps it was Kanye West’s generally high standards that led to a cruel backlash despite dominant singles like “Clique” and “Mercy.” Meanwhile, his G.O.O.D. Music churns out stars like Big Sean, Kid Cudi, John Legend and Pusha T; his DONDA design firm created the fantastic artwork for Lil Wayne’s I Am Not a Human Being II; and he’s an arena artist who earns millions with international tours. Yes, rap fans wonder if Kanye jumped the shark with Kim Kardashian. But every superstar weathers a bit of turbulence.
The failed launch of Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded The Re-Up was a minor black mark on an otherwise terrific year that included a second Platinum album and a love-it-or-hate-it megahit in “Starships.” In 2013, she has taken over American Idol by becoming the sassiest voice on the judges’ panel. Meanwhile, there are deals with MAC Cosmetics, a fashion imprint and perfume line, and a planned record label that includes pop-leaning artists like Parker Ighile. Her career peak seems well ahead of her: Last year’s “Pink Friday” theater tour sold out quickly, and with another big album due soon, she should be ready for arenas.
Number of Platinum Albums: 2
Number of Gold Albums: 2 (including We Are Young Money)
Most Recent Top 10 Hit: “Started from the Bottom”; Lil Wayne’s “Love Me” (2013)
Drake has risen quite a way since he “started from the bottom” in 2006 with his Room for Improvement mixtape. He completed a sold-out national tour last year that, unfortunately, was marred by a few nightclub incidents, including a fight with Chris Brown’s entourage. Other than that, his appearance here is due solely to his considerable impact as a recording artist. He’s kept future plans under wraps, including his OVO label deal with Warner Bros. Records, and perhaps an (inevitable?) acting career.
Rick Ross has never earned a Platinum album, or even a Top 10 solo single. He caters exclusively to hip-hop and R&B audiences -- no David Guetta cameos, thank you -- and they’ve returned the love by making him one of the genre’s most consistent sellers. He also built a surprisingly potent label in Maybach Music Group, which features the gold-selling Wale and Meek Mill. His national tour could have legitimized his stardom, but its cancellation amid rumors of conflicts with street gangs hints that Ross may be too dependent on his drug-baron image, even though he’s clearly not one.
Eminem topped the 2011 list, so why the drop? The enigmatic, intensely private emcee tends to fade from view between albums. His attempt to relaunch Shady Records fell flat when Yelawolf’s Radioactive sold poorly; Slaughterhouse’s Welcome to Our House wasn’t as anticipated, but it didn’t exceed its low expectations, either. Still, his place among hip-hop’s leaders should rise again when his new album drops sometime this year.
Number of Platinum Albums: 5
Number of Gold Albums: 1
Most Recent Top 10 Hit: “Dead and Gone” (2009)
Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head has sold well, and will probably go gold this year. But with a lack of pop hits in spite of a club smash, “Ball,” T.I.’s status as the Jay-Z of the South is waning. Locking down the rap crowd while the pop market ignores him isn’t a bad thing (see Rick Ross and Young Jeezy). He has a reality TV series, T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle, authors ghetto novels such as 2012’s Trouble & Triumph, stars in Hollywood movies like Identity Thief, and has kept his Grand Hustle imprint viable through signings like B.o.B, Iggy Azalea and Trae the Truth.
Laugh all you want at Snoop Dogg’s transformation into the dreadlock-wearing Snoop Lion. The concept is getting him more press than he’s had in years, and that might be its real goal, not any potential album sales. With 21 years as a rap star behind him, Snoop can still land cameos on big pop singles like Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” and is an underrated touring draw. He may appear like a parody of himself, but he doesn’t seem to care, and his nonchalance is proving irresistibly disarming.
Last year, the hip-hop cognoscenti finally gave Nas his due, thanks to the critically acclaimed Life Is Good. But what will he do with this newfound appreciation? Co-ownership of Rock the Bells ensures him a slot at the annual touring festival whenever he wants. However, he’s not a go-to guy for cameos on radio singles -- a key venue for reaching the pop market -- which limits his prospects for record sales growth. Meanwhile, his Def Jam deal recently expired, and it’s unclear whether he’ll remain with the label.
By continuing to push back his next album, Street King Immortal, 50 Cent could be delaying the inevitable news that his run as the haughtiest of rap stars is over. Or he could be prepping a major blockbuster. If he manages the latter result, it will be a huge comeback. Meanwhile, he generates headlines for sundry ventures – the occasional Thisis50.com viral video, an ongoing flirtation with comedienne Chelsea Handler, a love-hate relationship with boxer Floyd Mayweather, his Street by 50 headphone line, SK Energy Shots, et cetera.
Seven years after Thug Motivation 101: Let’s Get It, Young Jeezy remains your favorite trapper’s favorite trapper. His 2011 album, TM: 103 Hustlerz Ambition, easily went gold and notched a crossover R&B hit with the Ne-Yo-assisted “Leave You Alone.” This year, he’s taking over the clubs with his 2 Chainz collaboration “R.I.P.” Jeezy still has the streets on lock. Who cares if Billboard notices?