His book is an amazing read, but we need to account for the most important rap songs over the past five years.
I was your average child growing up. I loved video games. I discovered a passion for reading. I had a love for music too. In middle school, I discovered hip-hop through the lyrics of JAY-Z and the sounds of Three-6 Mafia, two polar opposites sides of the hip-hop genre. While Jay’s lyrics spoke to me on a deeper level that I would later understand as a maturing adult, it was the sound of Three-6 Mafia’s “Sippin’ on the Syrup” that guided me towards a love for southern hip-hop.
My love for music never faded. Unfortunately, my passion for reading tanked once I started high school. Between 2001 and 2018, I read a total of one book that wasn’t required reading for a class or project. Over the past two years, I’ve read 10 books and my list keeps growing. For Christmas, my wife purchased Shea Serrano’s The Rap Year Book as one of my gifts. I had been eying this book for a while but didn’t know if I would have time to read it; I finished it right as my work vacation was ending to kick-off 2020.
Serrano offers a unique writing style that I consider to be conversational. He doesn’t try to make you think hard or use many words that you need to search in a dictionary. That’s not a slight to his writing; his books feel as if you’re sitting down with a couple of friends and talking about the subjects over some drinks (or lots of drinks, depending on the topic). There are some books you read to educate yourself (such as my current reads, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism) and there are certain books you want to read for entertainment purposes. The Rap Year Book falls into both of those categories.
As a white person who knew nothing about hip-hop before listening in the mid-’90s, I felt it was my job to research many of the records before my time, and most importantly the songs that helped build hip-hop to the dominant genre of music that you hear everywhere today. Like many things in life that I discover, I felt that I needed to pay respect and see how this sound developed before I became a fan. The Rap Yearbook is a huge resource for fans of hip-hop and I wish this existed when I was younger.
Serrano’s witty writing allows you to learn how many of the songs were created while presenting each section in a fun way. His illustrator, Arturo Torres, brings his vision to life in each chapter with illustrations that are informative yet comedic at the same time. For example, Serrano picked Drake’s “Best I Ever Had” as the most important hip-hop song of 2009. The illustration from Torres shows Drake making a vase in clay as Serrano discusses how Drake can do things that are fun but may seem corny to most people.
Sadly, The Rap Yearbook was released in 2015 and doesn’t cover the previous five years of music. The book ends with 2014’s “Lifestyle” by Rich Gang featuring Young Thug & Rich Homie Quan as the most important song. Since the publishing of this great work of literature, there have been many more important songs that have not been discussed in terms of Serrano’s book. I’ve created an addendum of what I believe are the five most important songs for each year from 2015–2019.
(Also, if you want to read Serrano’s take on the most important rap songs I highly suggest grabbing this book. I also highly suggest grabbing his other books and PDF’s about basketball, movies, The Office, and Scrubs.)
2015- “March Madness” by Future
What happens if DJ Esco doesn’t spend 56 nights in an Arabian prison? What happens if Beast Mode never gets released because of his incarceration? What happens if Future and Ciara live happily ever after and he never drops Monster?
“March Madness” filled our ears with its heavy bass and futuristic sounds on Future’s 56 Nights mixtape. Released on March 16th, 2015 as the lead single for the project, “March Madness” was the apex of Future’s string of projects and songs dating back to the release of Monster in October 2014. The song went platinum without any sort of promotion from Future’s record label, Epic Records.
Pitchfork writer Meaghan Garvey called it, “the kind of bleary, disjointed monologue that happens when you finally catch up with yourself after avoiding yourself for days.”
Future used the popularity of the song to create a more socially conscious video, one that made more fans and viewers aware of the police violence against people of color as it kept rising during this time frame. You can still get the same reaction out of people in 2020 when this drops as you did when hearing it fresh in 2015. Whether you believed we were going to NASA or Nassau, “March Madness” further cemented Future’s ability to make giant sounding records. Hell, he did it with two more albums in 2015 (summer’s DS2 and the collaborative album with Drake, What A Time To Be Alive).
Honorable Mention: “Hotline Bling” by Drake
Yes, this song was huge. Yes, this song won a Grammy; that doesn’t make it the song of 2015 though. Also, “Hotline Bling” failed upward as the smoother, older cousin of D.R.A.M.’s “Cha Cha”.
2016- “Black Beatles” by Rae Sremmurd feat. Gucci Mane
Let’s look at a timeline of events that happened in 2016 in order for this song to even come together. At the start of the year, Gucci Mane was finishing up his federal prison sentence in my hometown, Terre Haute, IN. Released on May 26th, he promptly released “1st Day Out Tha Feds” (produced by Mike-Will-Made-It). In June, he dropped his first post-prison album titled Everybody Lookin’. He started getting in shape, adopted social media, and began watching Game of Thrones. Then, in September, the world shifted.
Released on September 13th, 2016, “Black Beatles” slowly built its momentum until it had everyone telling their grandma to stay still so they could capture the mannequin challenge around the holidays. I’m sure this song would have been a hit without the guest verse from Gucci Mane. I think the song exudes more fun with a verse from Gucci Mane, almost like he’s the Adobo you sprinkle on your steak to give it that extra flavor even though you know it’s going to be delicious once you pull it from the grill.
Also, let’s remember the reason this song started taking off in popularity is because of the mannequin challenge. Before the mannequin challenge, the song rested at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. After the mannequin challenge took off, “Black Beatles” jumped to #1 and stayed there for 12 weeks.
Also, the list of celebrities to partake in the mannequin challenge included Paul McCartney. AN ORIGINAL MEMBER OF THE BEATLES LIKED THE SONG AND DID THE MANNEQUIN CHALLENGE.
Honorable Mention: “Bad & Boujee” by Migos feat. Lil’ Uzi Vert
It’s crazy to me that two different groups from Atlanta produced chart-topping hits and released them this close to each other. If “Bad & Boujee” comes out just a few weeks earlier, we may be doing the mannequin challenge to “raindrops, drop-tops” instead of “Black Beatles.” It had a spectacular run itself but 2016’s most important rap song belongs to Rae Sremmurd.
2017- “Bodak Yellow” by Cardi B
There was no denying “Bodak Yellow” when it dropped on June 16th, 2017. Cardi became the first female rapper to score a #1 record without assistance since Lauryn Hill did it back in 1998. I knew this was going to be a huge record for her when I first listened to it after my wife put me onto it. However, thinking this and seeing it happen in real life are two separate things. When I worked as a radio personality, I would think that certain songs would blow up all the time only for them to fizzle out.
I remember walking up to Target on my lunch break one summer afternoon, not long after “Bodak Yellow” was released, so I could escape work and walk around in the AC. As cars passed by me and stopped at the red light, I remember “Bodak Yellow” being blasted from an SUV. Thinking it was a female driver, I turned and was shocked to see a man blasting this and rapping to it at the top of his lungs word for word. That’s when I knew this song would become a monster.
Cardi dominated the rest of the year with this record as radio support increased across the nation, which subsequently led to her killing the charts again in 2018 with “I Like It”. Plus my favorite line from this record also pays homage to Freak Nasty’s “The Dip” while also serving as a double entendre for grabbing the chopper and letting it sing good night to your enemies. Lastly, Cardi took Kodak Black’s flow from 2014’s “No Flockin” and made it her own. It’s hard to borrow the same style and flow from a song or artist for your own record. This one fits perfectly into Cardi’s swagger and within the production.
This song is also important because if not for “Bodak Yellow”, we may not get Cardi talking to politicians and educating her fans and the people she speaks with, on issues that are important in the United States right now. Younger people are more inclined to learn about a subject if their favorite artist or person is talking about it. That’s why I owned Memphis Bleek albums in my youth. I thought JAY-Z wasn’t lying to me about Bleek being one hit away.
Honorable Mention: “XO Tour Liif3” — Lil’ Uzi Vert
Another song that ruled the summer alongside “Bodak Yellow” almost never happened. According to producer TM88, who produced the record, he dropped his laptop in the midst of the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting in January 2017 as he ran for cover. With his screen cracked, he vowed to make some of his best beats; and that he did. While we got a fun and charming Uzi on “Bad & Boujee” just months earlier, “XO Tour Liif3” dives into a more melancholy Uzi. This song is the shrapnel of Uzi’s love life after breaking up with his girlfriend, Brittany Byrd. You can feel the pain and indifference he feels throughout the record through his shouts and screams; instead, we turned the music up and jammed to Uzi’s pain.
2018- “Sicko Mode” Travis Scott feat. Drake
“Sicko Mode” is essentially three songs built into one record and it defies you to not like at least one part of it. You heard different versions depending on where you heard it. If it was on the radio, some stations blended the parts together to make it shorter and some stations chopped Drake’s intro.
Travis Scott brings insane energy, as usual, but it’s the mixture of the beats (the first part produced by Roget Chahayed, OZ, and CuBeats, the second part produced by Hit-Boy, and the third part produced by Tay Keith), along with Drake’s subtle jabs at Kanye during their summer beef that created a spectacle of this record. This song is a hodgepodge of samples as well, featuring a sample from The Notorious B.I.G. in Scott’s first verse (Gimmie The Loot!), a sample from Uncle Luke in Scott’s second verse (Don’t Stop Pop That!), and a sample from Houston legend Big Hawk (the bridge) with Swae Lee’s “Someone Said!” peppered in to bring the song to taste.
“Sicko Mode” is the most important song of 2018 because of its structure. Radio records have become easy to digest. You know when one record begins and one ends, unless you’re listening to a mix. What “Sicko Mode” did was challenge the way we listen to songs on the radio and challenge the radio industry to play something different. While some stations did, in fact, try to make the record one song, there were other radio stations that embraced the song’s differences and played all three acts.
Honorable Mention: “In My Feelings” by Drake
After Scorpion dropped, you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing this song. It was on the radio, on TikTok, and even Facebook got ahold of it down the line. We all tried to decipher if “KiKi” was about Kim Kardashian (it wasn’t) while dancing the summer away. Drake has had some monster records over the years, but this one felt like it had more power than normal. When you see your local police department doing the “In My Feelings” challenge, you know the song has taken on a life of its own.
2019- “Old Town Road” by Lil’ Nas X
19 weeks. That’s how many weeks in a row “Old Town Road” topped the Billboard Hot 100 charts. It battled off the likes of Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings”, Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” (my honorable mention below), Post Malone & Swae Lee’s “Sunflower”, Post Malone’s “Wow”, and even Taylor Swift’s “ME!”
What’s even more important (and impressive) is how long this song kept being promoted. Most artists put a record out, let it cook for a few weeks, and then release another record. Lil Nas X kept building this record for weeks in order to keep it fresh. Here’s a timeline for the releases of “Old Town Road”:
December 2018: Released independently
March 2019: Re-released via Columbia Records
April 2019: Remix released with Billy Ray Cyrus
May 2019: Video released for the remix with Billy Ray Cyrus
July 2019: Second remix released featuring Young Thug & Mason Ramsey
As a person who loves teaching artists and creators about marketing, this felt like vilification. Lil Nas X took his record and kept adding to it in order to make it more powerful. This song didn’t get bumped from the top of the Billboard Hot 100 until August 2019, four-and-a-half months after it topped it at number one.
But he wasn’t done; at the 2020 Grammys, Lil Nas X was joined by his remix collaborators (sans Young Thug) and KPop stars BTS, possibly the biggest artists in the world at the moment. Almost a year later and Lil Nas X had created more hype for his chart breaking song for people who were still living under a rock and had never heard it.
Let’s also not forget that this song was rising on the country charts before it was pulled down and forced to be recategorized as rap. Lil Nas X took the YoungKio produced track, with a sample from Nine Inch Nails’ “34 Ghosts IV”, and created a framework for future artists to look at when trying to break into or shake up the music industry.
Honorable Mention: “Truth Hurts” by Lizzo
When the Minnesota Vikings use lyrics from your song to introduce a new draft pick, you know you’ve made it. If it wasn’t for “Old Town Road” dominating the entire year, I would be writing more words about “Truth Hurts.” This is another record that was built over time, as Lizzo originally released this song in 2017. How did it become a hit two years later? Thanks to being featured in the Netflix movie Someone Great and also due to its viral meme on TikTok, the “DNA challenge.” This record took Lizzo and made her a star, but sadly it didn’t hit stride until a tornado was blowing in from Atlanta all summer long.