Music

Hip-Hop Smashes That Became Pop Sensations

It was been well over 30 years since Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest said, “Rap is not pop if you call it that then stop” on the pioneering quartet’s seminal 1991 single “Check The Rhime.” In the years since hip-hop has grown far beyond its underground block party roots to become one of the most popular genres worldwide. Thanks to the efforts of groups like A Tribe Called Quest and their successors, rap music more or less defines modern-day pop music which borrows beats, slang, vocal deliveries, and more from the musical form that was once considered sacred by insiders and a fad by outsiders.

Those binary distinctions no longer apply as much as they used to. Rap is topping the Hot 100 chart, changing the face of contemporary pop culture, and moving the world with its biggest hits. Apart from ruling the airwaves and dance floors of not just the US but every corner of the globe, hip-hop has upended the music hierarchy that once held rock’n’roll as the most influential American genre. Hip-hop hits don’t just make us dance or soundtrack the most memorable moments of our lives, they change the world in ways both big and small. I don’t know if Phife Dawg would be disappointed by the relatively short shelf life of his “Check The Rhime” closer, but I do think he’d be proud of how far it’s come (the ha, the ha).

Migos — “Bad N Boujee” feat. Lil Uzi Vert (2017)

Not only did the Atlanta trio’s 2017 breakthrough hit take them and feature artist, Lil Uzi Vert, from being burgeoning underground talents to bona fide superstars but it also introduced the world to a whole new way to spell “bourgeoise.” Migos have had hits since but none as ubiquitous or as catchy. As an added bonus, the video also introduced a future XXL Freshman in Rubi Rose, who modeled in the video before launching her own rap career a couple of years later.

Wiz Khalifa — “Black And Yellow” (2010)

It’s ironic that Wiz Khalifa’s hometown anthem became such a monster hit that other artists began doing their own takes on the color-combining chorus to shout out their own home teams. If you want proof that “Black And Yellow” was a pop smash, look no further than the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers actually adopted the track as their unofficial theme song and during the 2011 Super Bowl, their opponent, the Green Bay Packers, used one of the many knockoffs (Lil Wayne’s “Green And Yellow”) as their own fight song.

Cardi B — “Bodak Yellow” (2018)

In 2022, Cardi B is a brand unto herself, a one-woman buzzword that sends visions of Monopoly money bags flying through marketing execs’ imaginations. But before she was tearing up the streets with the Fast & Furious crew or officiating weddings as part of her own television show, “Bodak Yellow” launched her from relative obscurity on the New York mixtape circuit to daily name-checks on Ellen in front of an audience of millions of soccer moms.

Soulja Boy — “Crank That” (2007)

It’s hard to believe now, but at one point, the gatekeepers of the hip-hop establishment (such as it was) were tearing their hair out over Soulja Boy’s insanely viral, self-produced single. Seemingly every kid in America was hitting the Superman dance from his video and the very fabric of the genre seemed to be coming apart at the seams. In hindsight, well… they were right. “Crank That” broke every expectation of what hip-hop was supposed to be (nearly singlehandedly creating “ringtone rap” as a genre), how it could be promoted (the video — shot by Soulja himself and uploaded to YouTube — was among the first viral videos ever), and what it would look and sound like for the next generation.

Jay-Z — “Empire State Of Mind” feat. Alicia Keys (2009)

I must admit, as a native of the West Coast of the United States, this song got on my nerves. It wasn’t just that BET, MTV, and VH1 ran the video into the ground (back when they all still ran videos at all). It was on every radio station, it was played in every public video, and it became the hip-hop equivalent of elevator music — and all this was in LA! The song is about New York! It just felt wrong on every level. But Jay-Z might never have had a No. 1 record without it, falling off like so many of his contemporaries. Also — and I can’t stress this enough — Black Twitter as we know it would likely not exist were it not for that platform’s early adopters coming together to roast Lil Mama for crashing Jay and Alicia’s performance at the 2009 VMAs.

Drake — “Hotline Bling” (2016)

I know, I know. Technically, nobody is rapping on this track… but this was the moment it felt like Drake figured it out. He had risen to prominence behind his rapping (or rather, his talent for switching between rap and catchy singsong melodies) but he had never come so close to the top of the chart. Suddenly, a No.1 wasn’t just attainable — it was inevitable. “Hotline Bling” was everywhere: In phone commercials, on SNL, and all over our respective social media feeds. It blurred the line between parody and sincerity because even the satires acknowledged that it was just too big to fail.

50 Cent — “In Da Club” (2003)

One of the biggest rap songs ever introduced the world to one of the biggest brands in rap. “In Da Club” arrived like a hurricane or an earthquake, rearranging the landscape seemingly overnight. One minute, there was the world before 50 Cent and the next, a rap album selling 11x platinum didn’t seem all that unreasonable. Vitamin Water was something people cared about in a very real sense. Guys wore, as Joe Budden once so colorfully put it, “wife beaters with bra straps.” 50 went from a guy who Jay-Z once casually dismissed on a throwaway Timbaland beat to a guy you would gladly throw a couple of million dollars to produce a TV universe. Why not? You could find him in the club, but this song saturated the very atmosphere.

The Notorious B.I.G. — “Juicy” (1994)

“It was all a dream.” That really was all it took to take The Notorious B.I.G. from obscurity to become an icon. Sure, he has a lot of contemporaries from the mid-90s who have as much or more rap clout. But there’s just something different about “Juicy.” It transcends regions, chart performance, generations, and genre allegiances. Everybody knows “Juicy.” It was the song that kick-started the jiggy era, that signaled rap’s arrival on the grand stage when it became undeniable. It was the first time someone in the genre could look back at all that had been accomplished before and confidently note that it had reached a whole new level.

Nicki Minaj — “Super Bass” (2011)

“Anaconda” might technically be a bigger hit than “Super Bass,” but Nicki hates it and it’s a clear goof. The people who helped make it the Queens rapper’s highest-charting song for half a decade should be ashamed of themselves. “Super Bass” defined Nicki’s run as the first female rap star to actively court pop fame. From its cotton candy colorful music video to its infectious hook, “Super Bass,” more than any other song in Nicki’s repertoire, became the blueprint (alright, fine — pinkprint) for how nearly every other female rapper since would chart a course to the top of the charts.

Roddy Ricch — “The Box” (2019)

The catchiest song of the last two years and the last real pre-pandemic smash, “The Box” was able to block pop radio mainstays like Justin Bieber, The Weeknd, and yes, even Drake (with Future via “Life Is Good”) from taking a spot that was previously considered reserved for them. There’s really nothing else left to say there. It was another case of a relatively unknown rapper becoming one of the most famous and accomplished human beings for the next year, and it was all due to this song.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

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