It’s difficult to imagine this era of hip-hop stars thriving in a world without social media. Drake wouldn’t be @ChampagnePapi, Cardi B wouldn’t have gone viral off Instagram and Vine clips and Kanye West might have never alienated a generation of listeners through polarizing tweets. There would also be no need to borrow bars for vague-yet-pointed status updates, no means for fans to emulate and spread the latest popular dance craze nor the chance to observe your favorite artist in his or her element via IG Live.

Of course, hip-hop and social media haven’t always been so inescapably intertwined. Yet in this past decade, the two gargantuan aspects of pop culture have molded and shaped each other in ways that have left each forever changed.

The roots can be found in the mid-aughts. On 2004’s “Get Em High,” Kanye shouts out BlackPlanet, one of the preeminent early social networking sites that served a Black demographic. Two years later, Queens rapper Grafh dropped “Myspace Jumpoff,” a nod to a network (Myspace) that had became more of a hub for rising musicians than its then-collegiate-focused counterpart, Facebook. This flirtation became a fling in 2007, when Soulja Boy went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with “Crank That (Soulja Boy),” thanks to a viral sequence of jumpy up-and-down choreography that made participants look like they were revving invisible engines mid-air; it circulated far and wide thanks to YouTube.

In the midst of all of this, Twitter launched in 2006, slowly becoming an integral corner of the social media experience. Around the turn of the decade, hip-hop stars like Diddy, Questlove and Fabolous were logged on to the bluebird network, sharing their random musings and showing off some personality. It caught on quickly. (“Once they get a hit of this, they hooked like that Twitter shit,” J. Cole rhymed in 2009.)

Meanwhile, Tumblr, which launched in 2007, eventually helped groups like Odd Future and A$AP Mob build their followings within the 2010s. “Tumblr is really its own subculture," A$AP Yams said back in 2013. "Now they have a term called ‘Tumblr Rappers’—where they rap about the shit that interests the everyday Tumblr user.”

When Lil Wayne posted his first tweet ever on Feb. 22, 2010, it quickly racked up thousands of retweets, a testament to the platform’s power even in its infancy. “’im super new to this twitter shit but wudup tho !..........follow me biotch……….wudup mak……happy bday LO……8 days of freedom..ym,” he wrote.

Much has changed since Wayne sent his first tweet and Drake was vying for a spot in your MySpace top eight. At the peak of MySpace’s popularity in 2008, the network boasted a modest 75.9 million unique monthly visitors. Fast-forward to 2019 and Instagram is now the second-largest social network in the U.S. after Facebook, counting 1 billion monthly active users in March of this year with more than 500 million users opening the app every day—more than six times the amount that ever logged onto MySpace in a month.

Sharing music through these digital platforms could be compared to hawking CDs on a street corner in Harlem. But where physical CDs take time to burn and are generally consumed individually per listener, a single post on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok or Snapchat can reach millions of existing or potential fans in moments.

According to data collected by Instagram, Drake’s 2018 summer anthem “Nice For What” was so popular on Instagram it ran up more than 76 million interactions that included the terms Drake, @champagnepapi and #NiceForWhat just two months after its April 6 release. Other famous bars, including Cardi B’s now-quintessential poolside catchphrase “came through drippin,’’ from her 2018 Migos-guested single, “Drip,” have become as much a part of social media vacation pictures as they are part of Cardi’s Grammy-winning album, Invasion of Privacy.

Given this boundless marketing potential, it was only a matter of time until rappers began writing bars specifically with social media in mind. In an interview with Apple Music earlier this year, 2 Chainz explained some of his lyrical motivations on his fifth studio album, Rap or Go to the League. “A lot of this stuff is caption music,” said the Atlanta lyricist, who was persistent in referencing his own bars (i.e. “Had the Maybach for five years I still never sat in the front”) on Instagram during the album’s rollout. “I can see this shit being quoted. I can see this shit on somebody IG.”

Chainz isn’t the only one who is in on the trend. Ever active on social media, rappers are well aware of the appeal that their lyrics have on these networks. “Drop a song, I be giving them captions,” Lil Baby rhymes on his 2019 single “Woah.” Rich Brian expresses a similar sentiment on his song “Kids,” which was also released this year: “You writin' some bullshit, I write the lyrics meant for the captions.” And you know it when you hear it. One listen to City Girls’ Girl Code reveals lines like “Bad-ass bitch, bad attitude/Nails done, hair done, ass too” that are catnip for IG flexing.

Lil Nas X was raised on social media, and he created the longest-charting No. 1 one single in Billboard Hot 100 history, 2019’s “Old Town Road,” by appeasing that audience. “It was the first song I genuinely formulated,” he told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “I was like, ‘I gotta make it short, I gotta make it catchy, I gotta have quotable lines that people want to use as captions.’ Especially with the ‘horses in the back’ line, I was like, ‘This is something people are gonna say every day.’”

The demand for rap as content has become so intense that when artists release new music, media outlets have taken to publishing listicles neatly summarizing the lines best fit for captions. Posts like Buzzfeed’s “101 Scorpion Lyrics That’ll Give You Instagram Captions For The Next Three Years” and Elite Daily’s “30 Best Cardi B Lyrics For Instagram Captions, Because You're Living Your Best Life” flip hip-hop into Instagram fodder like Supreme on Grailed.

With such a means for virality, rappers (and their rhymes) have become the driving forces behind some of the most popular memes of the 2010’s. Drake is this decade’s iron man of memes, having been the focal point of several memorable social media moments over the course of his career. In 2016, Rae Sremmurd landed its first No. 1 single, "Black Beatles," off the strength of the Mannequin Challenge—a social media video trend in which fans would freeze in action as the song plays and a camera pans around the room. That same year, Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” also reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 thanks in part to a social media trend based on Offset’s opening lyrics: “Rain drop, drop top, smokin’ on cookie in the hotbox,” which was flipped endlessly by fans.

Occasionally, the memeification of hip-hop has allowed for the discovery of new talent. The aforementioned Lil Nas X is perhaps the prototypical example, with “Old Town Road” rising in popularity thanks to massive shares on TikTok. But memes have helped put on the newer ladies of rap, too. In 2018, Doja Cat went viral thanks to her playful music video for “Mooo!,” which features the then-22-year-old artist wearing a cow costume and twerking to a shimmering beat while hentai boobs and cartoon burgers bounce in the background (see screenshot above). Meanwhile, Summer 2019 was ruled by Megan Thee Stallion and her Hot Girl Summer mantra: a meme-turned-lifestyle that catapulted her popularity, birthed a platinum single and inadvertently resulted in a battle of the sexes on social media.

Perhaps rappers and their art have always been meme-able, yet this decade has solidified the social media channels through which fans and artists can interact. Regardless of where social media takes hip-hop in 2020, the new decade is guaranteed to bring with it a whole new set of hit records that capture audiences on the Internet and, ultimately, audiences around the world. —Claudia McNeilly

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