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How niche rap stars quietly conquered 2022

YoungBoy Never Broke Again (aka NBA Youngboy) is among a handful of rappers who achieved massive streaming numbers in 2022 while remaining nearly invisible to the pop establishment.
Simone Noronha for NPR
YoungBoy Never Broke Again (aka NBA Youngboy) is among a handful of rappers who achieved massive streaming numbers in 2022 while remaining nearly invisible to the pop establishment.

If you can't find the emergent rap stars in 2022, you might be looking in the wrong place. A recent Billboard feature about hip-hop's status as a market leader suggested that a generation of rap stars is aging out and few new ones are filling the void. But scan lists of the most streamed artists of the year and, between the boldface names of artists like Drake, Future, Eminem and Kendrick Lamar, you will find a few whose presence feels less inevitable. The metrics for stardom have always required specific machinery, but that machinery has been altered in the 2020s, thanks in large part to changes in streaming infrastructure. The digital paths we came to recognize in the last decade tended to aim at an eventual level-up: leveraging a base on SoundCloud into radio play, or turning a viral video into a TV spot. For some in this latest generation, that kind of signal boost is beside the point.

To be fair, it is true that hip-hop is facing some critical challenges that have curbed its star power in recent years. Its lyrics have become a favorite tool of the carceral system, both stateside and abroad. An obscene number of young rap stars have been killed by gun violence and opioid abuse — though, importantly, that rise has been commensurate with record deaths in both categories nationwide over the same period, according to The Gun Violence Archive and the CDC, respectively. (As usual, rap is merely reflecting the values of American culture.) Meanwhile, a few of rap's biggest names have tanked their own careers in public lately. DaBaby talked his way into oblivion. Questions remain about Travis Scott's culpability in the deaths of concertgoers during the Astroworld festival in 2021. His mentor Kanye West, or Ye, spent months effectively self-identifying as antisemitic, before capping the year with a note of praise for Hitler that seemed to stun even the notorious far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

But beyond these complications, the idea that rap stardom at large is dwindling must come down to the model used to measure it. For most of pop history, the household name has been fashioned by a combination of radio plays and TV appearances, awards show nominations and "it" moments — signifiers that add up to an artist as a cultural force, prominent in ways that can't be ignored. And by those standards, there are still those whose ascendancy has been presented in familiar terms. Lil Baby, Gunna and Jack Harlow, each riding a comfortable upswing, all scored hit albums and singles this year. Megan Thee Stallion remains an A-lister, her name and music at the center of discourse despite the chaos of her situation. Polo G and Playboi Carti made such dominant showings in the early COVID era, they were able to take 2022 off and still feel unavoidable. 21 Savage, coming off a long break, reaffirmed his status with Drake at his side.

But at the fringes of that more recognizable sphere of celebrity, a new kind of star has been hard at work: the platform-conscious niche star, whose massive fanbase only looks small when compared with total ubiquity. Hip-hop has some precedent for such figures, embodied in those regional successes who operate without much concern for crossing over. And the diminished visibility of many of these niche stars has at least a little to do with their aversion to press, or the press's aversion to them. But if you believe there's a meaningful distinction between what is outwardly omnipresent in culture and what is reaching people — between what is promoted and what is actually beloved — the fringe rap star is a living test of this principle, the kind of artist whose success manifests in being actively listened to by 100 people, rather than casually heard by 1,000.

In 2022, YoungBoy Never Broke Again (or NBA YoungBoy), Rod Wave, Lil Durk, Yeat and a resurgent Kodak Black stood out among a cohort of artists who are finding ways to connect with legions of listeners while the wider pop cultural apparatus mostly ignores them. Their central appeal is their music, all varying strains of melodic rap. Their success is tangible, at least by the streaming era's murky math: Of the 13 albums certified by the RIAA this year, Durk's 7220 was one of only five to go platinum. YoungBoy scored two of the eight gold plaques, and Rod and Kodak each nabbed one more. The stars behind these numbers have each produced their own distilled sound, and though their paths differ, their stories overlap. Through the gaps in social platforming and the increased sprawl of the streaming model (with direct-to-consumer meeting word-of-mouth), these performers took the leap, some despite significant controversy, to help define the year in rap for those who took notice.

NBA YoungBoy is the archetype for this phenomenon. The Baton Rouge rapper's total streaming numbers are second to only Drake's among all artists, and yet he is hidden. He has no radio presence. He isn't even in the Top 20 on Billboard's year-end artists list. Nor is he one of Spotify's Top 5 most-streamed artists in America. Where sheer numbers are concerned, his competitive edge against music's one-percenters lies in a machinelike productivity. YoungBoy seems to have the upload button held down: He's prolific but consistent, always active and always online, rolling out content at the algorithm's desired pace. Musically, there is a subtle ranginess within his squawked, autotuned performances that has kept him clear of stagnancy, a contrast you can hear in his last two solo projects — the Cash Money-inspired 3800 Degrees is belligerent and burly, whereas Ma' I Got A Family is more subdued and tender. It's that duality that has helped sustain his nonstop creative march.

Rod Wave has picked up a reputation as rap's resident melancholiac, so much so that he announced that his August LP, Beautiful Mind, would be his last "sad-ass album." It might be more accurate to call his music yearning: He is certainly a bluesman, but often his songs are about pushing forward through tragedy and bearing the brunt of loss. It's easy to understand how that approach has resonated in these pandemic years; Rod has had an album debut in the Top 2 on the Billboard 200 every year since 2020. Unlike many other rappers in this conversation, he seems to create in isolation — his records barely have any features, and he nixed a Drake collab on the grounds that he wasn't satisfied with his own contribution to the track. His music is sympathetic and accessible, vulnerable in an almost ordinary way. It feels characteristic of the artist who makes it, cautious and homespun.

All of these fringe rappers have a sound that is supported by the ways our consumer models are currently designed. They feed into the autoplay function, absorb into the cracks around everyday life.

Lil Durk's rise started out a bit more traditional. The Chicago rapper was initially swept up in the drill gold rush of the early 2010s, but his career stalled; A&Rs didn't seem to know what to do with him, and he was released from his Def Jam deal in 2018. He has been steadily resurfacing ever since: five Billboard Top 5 albums in four years, three of those certified platinum, including a collaboration with Lil Baby. This year, he sold out the United Center for the hometown show of his 7220 tour. Similarly to Rod, Durk's success is built on openness, but his music sets a far colder mood, hardened against the harsh realities of the violence its words brush against. As drill continues its global expansion, Durk has developed in meditative directions. He does have a bruiser mode where he cuts the autotune and reflects on the cruelty he has experienced, but his most reflective mode, the default one that earned him the nickname "The Voice," is poignant, droning singsong. Both qualities have made him a reliable foil for rappers like Drake, Cardi B, Gucci Mane and Meek Mill.

Somewhere beyond the currently quantifiable lies Yeat. A former Slayworld affiliate, his music pries open rage beats (cascading electronic production often resembling 8-bit video game music) and tunnels through their vortexes, his wheezing flows opening portals to realms as vivid as Castlevania's gothic horror or Doom's hell-raising pandemonium. Yeat songs are soundscapes for a digital world, so it's unsurprising that the native ecosystem for his music is TikTok, where songs can exist almost purely as trend fuel or edit glue. He has carved out a distinct niche as a meme rapper — his song "Rich Minions" prompted zealous, suit-wearing teenagers to mob screenings of a Despicable Me prequel — and on YouTube he is a king of the fan-made AMV, or anime music video. As surreal and stupefying as his rise has been, there is something genuinely mesmerizing in the music, whose Simlish cadences really do feel equipped with the power to make memes real.

If there is an exception that proves the rule, it is Kodak Black, whose ignominy often overshadows the music he makes. The Florida rapper reemerged at the top of the year from an incarceration-induced down period, and with "Super Gremlin" notched the year's biggest YouTube hit to not have come from the Encanto soundtrack. He is a melodic rapper's melodic rapper: Roddy Ricch dubbed him one of their generation's big three (along with YoungBoy), and Drake separately delivered his own endorsement: "You really all that for this generation and the next one if we being honest," he wrote. Kendrick Lamar must feel similarly, since he used Kodak as a proxy on his crucible of an album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, a decision that received considerable backlash, but one that, in its own way, seems to wrestle with star power and celebrity responsibility and cult followings, with Kendrick himself longing to retreat to the periphery.

The notoriety that Kodak does have, or the infamy he has earned, is rooted in a buffoonery that has stretched into lawlessness. He has a long rap sheet, including a charge of first-degree criminal sexual conduct (which he pled down to first-degree assault and battery last year) and a firearm charge (which was commuted by then-President Donald Trump in 2020). And, frankly, he is incendiary and exasperating: The rapper has an extensive history of ignorant, colorist, sexist comments. All that baggage is saddling one of the most talented prospects in recent years, a rapper beloved by critics until he made himself unlovable. The same impishness that has made him a super gremlin in public seems to govern his songs; his croaked raps are charged with a mischievous energy. Kodak likely benefits most among his peers from operating on the fringes, where his nonstop antics don't have to face the more searing scrutiny of the megawatt spotlight.

In that way and others, staying out of the public eye can be a PR strategy for circumventing the demands made of headliners. Talk of the ethics of streaming tends to center on the platforms, but on the user end there seems to be a disparity between the way people talk about music and the way they listen, or perhaps between those doing the talking and those doing the listening. Kodak is a streaming mainstay despite his history. YoungBoy and Rod Wave have been similarly detained. Even Durk isn't free of controversy. Rap has long been a business that courts provocation to build momentum, like a wrestling heel on a promo run. But the opposite can be true, too: Sometimes the best way to maintain momentum is to create as little friction as possible, to avoid controversy at all costs. Yeat often can't even be bothered to show his face.

Still, beyond the bad behavior, there is something subtler and more fascinating at play: All of these fringe rappers have a sound that is supported by the ways our consumer models are currently designed. They feed into the autoplay function, absorb into the cracks around everyday life. Put YoungBoy or Rod Wave on shuffle and the songs can begin to bleed together. The artists are making distinctive, captivating music within their concealed little nooks, but they are using defined formulas to do so. It is the perfect balance for remaining hidden in plain sight. Their work never feels out of place on any modern rap playlist, but click away from the infinite wade of the stream and into their individual discographies, and a secret little sphere is unveiled.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Sheldon Pearce