The Four Horsemen dominated a decade in music’s most impactful genre.
“I think it’s good but I don’t know if it’ll work.” Those were my words to a small gathering of friends in a tightly packed dorm room — ironically at one of North Carolina’s smallest colleges. We were listening to an upcoming Carolina rapper who was rumored to be signing a deal with hip-hop icon Jay Z. At that time — August 2009, I didn’t know who J. Cole was. Drake was setting dorms ablaze as burned CDs circulated of his So Far Gone mixtape (dropped earlier in the year). We were ready to crown him BUT he was still Lil Wayne’s understudy and had yet to release an actual “album”.
Kendrick Lamar was a myth…a rumor in circles mostly reserved for insiders and west coast kids whispering of a prodigy to come. Wale was on the verge of releasing a commercial project with a Lady Gaga feature, plus he’d already notched a few videogame soundtrack credits under his belt. At the time he was undoubtedly the most successful of the four artists but he was, by no means yet, a cultural icon. No one knew what the next decade would hold.
A few years later, in a 2013 interview with Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club, host Charlamagne asked Jay Z who he feels (in hip-hop) will be around 10 years from now — to which Jay Z replied by giving a shout out to the four artists: J. Cole, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Wale.
Individually, each artist carved their own space in the genre but together, they have helped transform music as a whole. They are in essence the four horsemen who ushered in the HIPOCALYPSE, or “hip-hop apocalypse” — the doomsday when all other genres bow to hip-hop’s impact and influence. The horsemen’s music is a soundtrack we’ve experienced, lived with, and moved to. Of course, they aren’t the only four hip-hop legends of the decade, but Jay saw something in them, and since 2010 the world has been enriched by the contributions of their art, their stories, and their lives.
J. COLE –
Native of Fayetteville North Carolina, Jermaine Cole signed a record deal with Roc Nation in 2009 although he didn’t release his debut album until 2011. His debut included features from Drake and Jay Z among others but his most successful commercial project came with his album 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Released in December 2014, the project was a rebellion against the radio-hit, feature-heavy formula of the music industry (at that time). J. Cole told his story his way and with no features or radio-ready single for the album’s rollout. The gamble would pay off in a major way earning Cole his third consecutive #1 album and a spot in hip-hop history.
IMPACT: As the first artist to go “platinum with no features” in 25 years, J.Cole’s blueprint was quickly followed by Adele, Bruno Mars, and others. Read More.
Arguably the most successful music artist in any genre for the past decade, Aubrey Drake Graham signed a record deal in 2009 with Young Money Records following the release of his generation-defining So Far Gone mixtape. A native of Toronto Canada, Drake had the benefit of being understudy to music’s brightest star at the time in Lil Wayne — whose 2008 album Tha Carter III, was the most successful hip-hop project of the year (going on to sell more than 6 million copies in the US alone). Drake was the heir apparent and admitted feeling pressure when Wayne went away to serve a prison sentence in 2010. Drake’s sophomore commercial project — Take Care is tied with Views as his most successful release (both are certified 6x Platinum). Take Care saw Drake return to the synths and mood music that made him a cult success. After multiple rap feuds, high profile relationships, and leaked reference tracks raising questions about Drake’s authenticity and artistic integrity, Drake still remains a pillar of hip-hop and music culture. His success is undeniable and he helped shift the mainstream culture of rap from a violent sport of braggadocio toward more honest and intimate self reflections. He has never failed to provide us with musical content and a soundtrack for every season. Whether you love it, hate it, think-piece it, or try to ignore it, Drake and his music have earned a spot in the lexicon of hip-hop history.
IMPACT: Drake has, by himself, out-charted the entire Rock genre since 2010 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Top 10 according to @HipHopByTheNumbers. Read More.
KENDRICK LAMAR –
Compton California native Kendrick Lamar Duckworth joined with the independent label Top Dawg Records as a teenager. Headed by Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, the label served as training grounds for Kendrick and a cohort of talented MCs. In 2012, following the success of independent releases, Kendrick and label mates Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, and School Boy Q (collectively known as Black Hippy) signed deals in partnership with Interscope Records. Kendrick was uniquely positioned to watch and learn the game from the inside back in 2007 when Jay Rock was the first of the crew to garner a major record deal. That deal dissolved but Kendrick learned a lot by touring with Jay Rock prior to releasing his own major label project. Kendrick’s major debut — Good Kid Mad City (G.K.M.C.) is tied with DAMN as his most successful commercial project. Both are certified 3x Platinum. G.K.M.C. was released in 2012 to rave reviews. It was followed by a string of features including the moment-making verse on Big Sean’s 2013 Control, during which Kendrick called out the other horsemen by name in addition to a slew of other artists. Expecting a sophomore slump, fans and critics alike were stunned into silence in 2015 when Kendrick released To Pimp A Butterfly — wildly heralded as one of the best music projects in hip-hop history. Kendrick’s sociopolitical messaging along with his attention to detail, his unique sound, and his skill as a thought-bending MC has earned him praise from older generations and contemporaries of the hip-hop lexicon including Ice Cube and Eminem as well as fellow horsemen J. Cole and Wale. His position as one of the best rappers of today and perhaps the best of all-time is for many fans and critics, already carved in stone.
IMPACT: Kendrick’s Good Kid Mad City has spent 400+ consecutive weeks on the Billboard 200 chart — the longest for any hip-hop album in history. Read More
Olubowale Victor Akintimehin — better known as Maybach’s Poetic Genius, Folarin, or simply Wale, had a hip-hop journey vastly different than his contemporaries. A native of the Washington DC area, Wale is the only one of the horsemen who released a full-length commercial project before 2010. His major label debut — Attention Deficit, released in November 2009 under Interscope Records. After splitting with Interscope, Wale would find a new home with Rick Ross’s Maybach Music imprint (MMG) under which he released his most commercially successful project — Ambition. A true poet and as talented a wordsmith as any in his class, Wale shined on radio hits and album deep cuts alike. He would earn a reputation for being vocal about feeling omitted in the discussions concerning his contemporaries, but hip-hop fans across the world continue to appreciate and support Wale’s artistry. Unlike his fellow horsemen, Wale also dealt extensively with changing pieces in his business dealings. He signed his first deal with Allido Records (DJ Mark Ronson’s Label) in 2006. His subsequent deals with Interscope, Roc Nation, and various other imprints, labels, and/or management collectives meant an unsettled team in Wale’s creative corner but through it all he has endured. His unique sound rooted in live instrumentation, his poetic writing, and even his reputation for wearing his heart on his sleeve has given music fans some of the best music and best moments of the past decade.
IMPACT: From appearances at Wrestlemania to a special relationship and collab album with acclaimed comedian Jerry Seinfeld, Wale continues to help bridge the gap between hip-hop & pop culture. Read More.
Collectively, the four horsemen ushered in the HIPOCALYPSE. They provided the soundtrack for millions of lives in a decade dominated by hip-hop — the genre once called a fad but now leading and altering the music industry as we know it.
In 2017, Business Insider touted the headline, “For the 1st time ever, hip-hop surpassed Rock as the most popular genre in the US”. Other magazines and blogs picked up the story with varying summaries — most including reports from Nielsen and RIAA. But the bottom line was the same: hip-hop changed the world.
The headlines were somewhat of a validation BUT to the fans, to all the millions of people already listening across the world, to the blogs, promoters, and to the artists in the trenches everyday — it was what we already knew. The decade was dominated by hip-hop in all its textures, colors, and complexities.
Whether it was Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y pioneering a shift towards super serving their fan bases; OR Nipsey Hussle revisiting ideas about the value of an album with his groundbreaking $100 Crenshaw CD; whether it was Jay Z’s Samsung partnership to download Magna Carta Holy Grail; or Chance’s digital-only Coloring Book “mix-tape” earning a Grammy award, hip-hop artist remained forward thinking and experimented with ways to sell, distribute, and experience music. The horsemen specifically — J Cole, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Wale helped to changed what an entire industry understood to be worthy and maybe more importantly what an entire generation understood to be possible.
James Randolph is an American Author, Editor, and Journalist. Follow on Twitter @Mr_Red_Eyes