Rap Is Not Pop: Monsters of Rap
Back in the '80s, the world's biggest rock bands gathered together for an annual stadium festival called Monsters of Rock. Though mostly a U.K. phenomenon, an American version featuring Van Halen and Metallica toured the States in 1988. Now, with the release of Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne, it's an ideal time to chronicle the rise of the hip-hop megastar and establish our very own Monsters of Rap.
First, let's establish some rules. They must have at least one platinum album. (That eliminates Kid Cudi, Rick Ross, Lupe Fiasco, Gucci Mane, Flo Rida, Tech N9ne, B.o.B , Wiz Khalifa and Pitbull.) They must have at least two full-length albums to their credit. After all, "monster" signifies a fearsome animal with a significant life span, not a zygote-like flash in the pan. (That eliminates Drake and Nicki Minaj.) Finally, they must be an "active" artist with new material; artists who are dead (the Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, and Big Pun, R.I.P.) and currently inactive (Missy Elliott, OutKast) are excluded.
I left out a few others for intangible reasons. Timbaland is mostly known as a studio producer and vocalist, not a stage performer. Pharrell Williams has his own solo hits (including 2003's "Frontin"), and even pulled off tours with his alt rock group N.E.R.D., but has never carried a platinum album on his own. Young Jeezy, Lil Jon, The Game and Nelly were hugely successful in the past, but their popularity isn't where it used to be. Unlike rock, hip-hop is all about who's hot right now. Hit singles come and go, but platinum albums, touring revenue, boutique labels, and business ventures mark the difference between temporary and lasting stardom.
Claim to Greatness: Eminem tops the list because he's the only rapper with two diamond albums, and his quadruple-platinum Recovery was the best-selling album of 2010. Regardless of arguments over whether he's the true G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time), he has a legitimate claim to being the most popular rapper in history. Although he recently relaunched Shady Records with mixtape stars like YelaWolf and Slaughterhouse, Em's general reclusiveness means he will always trail Jay-Z in extracurricular ventures. However, his millions of "stans" probably admire him for that.
Biggest Album: 1998's Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life, five times platinum
No. 1 Hit: "Empire State of Mind"
Claim to Greatness: Jay-Z's career has suffered from pop radio's traditional reluctance to program rap hits, a glass ceiling he finally broke through with 2009's "Empire State of Mind." And his celebrated business prowess via Roc-A-Fella, Roc Nation and a minority stake in the New Jersey Nets sometimes overshadows his musical accomplishments. Quibbles aside, he's a megastar who can assemble platinum projects and sold-out arena tours at will. The mania surrounding Watch the Throne is a perfect example.
3. Lil Wayne
Biggest Album: 2008's Tha Carter III, triple platinum
No. 1 Hit: "Lollipop"
Claim to Greatness: Lil Wayne's classic 2007 mixtape run and 2009's No Ceilings linger in rap fans' minds. His Young Money team runs the charts, and his arena tours are hugely successful among teenage girls with "Lollipop" ringtones. However, his increasing pop incursions, from the syrupy ballad "How to Love" to rock experiments like 2010's gold-selling Rebirth, make him a bit of an enigma, and may account for a lack of street buzz surrounding his forthcoming Tha Carter IV.
4. Kanye West
Biggest Albums: 2005's Late Registration, triple platinum
Claim to Greatness: Kanye West seems to succeed in spite of himself. As he once put it, "I've got the title in two classes," generating hits as a solo artist and as a producer, not to mention as a guest vocalist (see Katy Perry's "E.T.") and co-owner of G.O.O.D. Music. Provocative statements and a pompous attitude make him one of the world's least popular celebrities, yet they inadvertently divert attention to his inarguable strengths as a musician. Otherwise, why would we care about this self-admitted D-bag?
Biggest Album: 2005's Monkey Business, quadruple platinum
Claim to Greatness: Scholars will have a field day deciding the Peas' place in history. Should they be admired for launching a series of pop hits in the '00s, or derided for novelties like "Boom Boom Pow"? Complicating matters, the group lost face with its awful halftime-show performance at the 2011 Super Bowl. The four members recently announced an extended hiatus to work on solo projects, but they may find themselves diminished and ready for the "I Love the Aughts" oldies circuit when they return.
Biggest Album: 2008's Paper Trail, double platinum
Claim to Greatness: T.I. may be a recidivist felon, but he's a hot star who turned 2010's No Mercy into gold despite little promotion and mixed reviews. And he proved with Paper Trail that he could launch a crossover smash. Questions remain as to whether he can expand his Grand Hustle label (B.o.B's The Adventures of Bobby Ray was a big step) and build his portfolio with concert tours and marketing ventures, and if his ongoing legal problems will hinder him.
7. Snoop Dogg
Biggest Album: 1993's Doggystyle, quadruple platinum
No. 1 Hit: "Drop It Like It's Hot"
Claim to Greatness: Snoop Dogg is on the downside of his recording career after two disappointing albums, 2009's Malice 'N Wonderland and this year's Doggumentary. But he continues to generate good will with his brand name, occasional acting gigs, two decades' worth of hits, and headliner status at festivals and arena tours. With the right producers and songs, he could easily make a comeback album.
8. 50 Cent
Biggest Album: 2003's Get Rich or Die Tryin', six times platinum
Claim to Greatness: 50 Cent's business dealings, fledgling B-movie career and constant presence on the Internet (usually for making gleefully ignorant statements) mask the fact that he hasn't had a major hit since 2007's Curtis (though he landed a guest verse on Jeremih's "Down on Me"). He doesn't have much of a concert reputation, either. However, his high profile among rap fans leaves the door open to another hit album -- if he's capable of making one.
9. Dr. Dre
Biggest Album: 1999's 2001, six times platinum
No. 1 Hit: None; "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang" peaked at No. 2
Claim to Greatness: Dr. Dre is reportedly retooling Detox after a mixed response to two early singles, "Kush" and "I Need a Doctor." He seems determined for another Chronic-sized landmark, but years of inactivity and a perfectionist's approach will make that difficult. It's hard to keep your finger on pop's pulse at the age of 46. Successful ventures like the Beats by Dre headphone products and his ongoing mentorship of fellow Monsters of Rap like Eminem, Snoop Dogg, and 50 Cent qualify him for this list.
Biggest Album: 1997's No Way Out, seven times platinum
Claim to Greatness: Diddy's recent theater tour for his Diddy Dirty Money project reminded us that he's years removed from his arena-crushing No Way Out years, no matter how many reality shows he launches on MTV. His power now lies in his tabloid celebrity and multimedia ventures, chiefly his clothing line, Sean John. He can still launch radio hits with the right synergy, including "Loving You No More" with Drake.
No. 1 Hits: None, but "I Can" peaked at No. 12
Claim to Greatness: Better known as an album artist than a singles artist, Nas doesn't generate platinum hits like he used to: last year's collaboration with Damian Marley, Distant Relatives, earned respectable reviews and little else. Then again, few in any genre do. Besides, he gets to play arenas every year as a major investor in Guerilla Union, the promotions company behind the annual Rock the Bells festival.
Claim to Greatness: Why is Ludacris ranked so low despite 2010's No. 1, gold-selling Battle of the Sexes? He has never mounted an international arena tour, hasn't had a critically acclaimed album, and after some initial success, his Disturbing Tha Peace imprint has cooled. His acting gigs are well received, but it's hard to imagine him carrying a movie like Mos Def or Will Smith. Unless Ludacris can grow into a respected album artist, he'll be the latest in a line of pop-rap stars only truly famous for their hit-making ability.
13. Beastie Boys
Biggest Album: 1986's Licensed to Ill, nine times platinum
Number-One Hits: None; "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)" peaked at No. 7
Claim to Greatness: Before you snicker, ask yourself this: who else can land a top-five album on brand name alone, owns an Oscar-nominated film production company, and can launch arena tours at will? The Beastie Boys may not have had a real hit in over a decade, but their lasting popularity and catalog of classics make them the definition of a Monster of Rap.