We take a closer look at how R&B and hip-hop eclipsed rock music as the mainstream’s biggest genres.
It’s official. Hip-hop and R&B have overtaken rock music as the biggest genres in the United States. Nielsen’s 2017 music report found that eight of the top ten most popular albums of the year were hip-hop or R&B records, with rock music — previously the biggest genre in the country — falling by the wayside.
Artists like Kanye West, Beyonce, Drake and Bruno Mars have long been dominating the mainstream with their music. But only now have their genres officially eclipsed rock music as pop’s biggest rivals. So how did this transformation come about?
Rock bands became focused on the live experience
For these two genres to surpass rock music in streams and downloads, rock didn’t have to become any less popular; fans are just enjoying it in a different way. According to Pollstar, the two highest-grossing tours of 2017 came from rock acts U2 and Guns N’ Roses, with each band raking in around $300 million in ticket sales. With figures like these it’s clear rock is still extremely popular, it’s just that the genre’s biggest artists are dominating the live arena, instead of the recorded one.
Festivals, too, are a haven for guitar-based rock acts. Reading and Leeds festival’s recent lineup announcement left many scratching their heads over the prominent placement of Fall Out Boy, Kings of Leon and Panic! at the Disco, with seemingly more famous hip-hop acts placed lower on the bill. (Kendrick Lamar was the only rapper to make headline status.) If you’re paying attention to the charts, it makes sense to be confused, but the reality is these bands still have thousands of fans who want to see them live—they just don’t necessarily want to buy their new records.
Genre lines have been blurred
In a way, it doesn’t make sense to say R&B now rivals conventional pop as the biggest-selling musical genre. It’s more accurate to say that R&B has engulfed pop music. Pop music is R&B now, in many cases. Even Ed Sheeran, whose album topped Nielsen’s chart, and whom Nielsen deemed a pop artist, has incorporated R&B into his songs. Taylor Swift, whose album Reputation sold more copies than any other, is similarly indebted to R&B conventions in places, with comeback singles ‘Ready for It’ and ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ both owing more than a little to the genre.
R&B and hip-hop sounds have become such an integral part of popular music that making use of them is simply following the trends of the day. For a mainstream album not to sound at least a little like R&B is actually unusual. And that’s a testament to the genre’s success.
Hip-hop has become immensely popular
There was a time when hip-hop seemed to exist in an alternative universe to the mainstream charts. Some artists ,like Snoop Dogg and Eminem, had crossover success, while others, like Rakim and Big Daddy Kane, became huge stars in their own right without ever fully crossing-over. Now, the biggest rappers of our era are household names. Even your grandma has heard of Kanye West. When Biggie Smalls rapped ‘You never thought hip-hop would take it this far’ in 1994, he was addressing small-minded critics who thought hip-hop was destined to be a flash-in-the-pan fad. But perhaps even he would have been surprised to see just how far hip-hop has made it today.
Kanye West and Drake are two of music’s biggest icons, with even more ‘conscious’ rappers like Kendrick Lamar and indie rappers like Chance the Rapper becoming global megastars. These rappers stand alongside R&B singers Beyonce, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and The Weeknd as the most famous artists on the planet, regardless of genre. This, combined with R&B’s inescascapable influence on mainstream pop music makes it easy to see how these two genres overtook rock music as the biggest genres in the world.