Solely two artists have launched No. 1 albums in every of the final three years. The primary is Taylor Swift, who has as many Album of the 12 months Grammys as any soloist in historical past. (Her friends in that class are Frank Sinatra, Stevie Surprise, and Paul Simon.) The opposite is a twenty-two-year-old performer who goes by NBA YoungBoy. (The “NBA” stands for “By no means Broke Once more.”) His hit data embody “AI Youngboy 2,” “Prime,” and “Sincerely, Kentrell.” However, regardless of his achievement, shared with one of the vital well known pop artists of all time, YoungBoy stays broadly unknown.
YoungBoy is a disciple of Baton Rouge hip-hop stars similar to Boosie Badazz and the late Lil Phat, and his sound isn’t a dramatic departure from the rap music of the second. His music is trap-adjacent, bounce-heavy, and Auto-Tuned, and his nasally singsong voice intensifies right into a snarl. Together with his professed fervor for retaliation, YoungBoy has earned a rep as a single-minded aggressor, however his extra confrontational songs are blunted by a smooth facet. He additionally has a seemingly inexhaustible work ethic—he has launched nineteen full-length solo tasks in slightly below seven years. Since 2017, he has secured 4 Recording Business Affiliation of America-certified platinum albums and mixtapes, together with 9 platinum singles, six of which went multiplatinum. By most numerical benchmarks, YoungBoy is among the many most profitable artists working at the moment. Why doesn’t it really feel prefer it?
YoungBoy is among the most excessive instances of a current creating phenomenon: invisible music stardom. It’s simpler than ever to be successful by all the business’s customary efficiency metrics and nonetheless go unnoticed by most of the people—to have an unlimited following that hardly registers throughout the wider pop-culture ecosystem. This prevalence is, at the start, the by-product of a streaming infrastructure that makes use of a plays-per-song mannequin to approximate report gross sales—a system that enables artists to bypass the outdated show stand, even when they threat anonymity. However it additionally illustrates a niche between what’s promoted and what’s well-liked.
The music business has all the time had its unlikely cult favorites, however solely within the streaming age can an artist get pleasure from comparable success to pop stars and have little to no cultural footprint past the neighborhood that’s tuning in. (There are artists placing up smaller numbers than YoungBoy who’re thought-about extra in vogue: vital favorites similar to Vince Staples, Freddie Gibbs, and Phoebe Bridgers, or off-center pop stars like Lana Del Rey.) At the very least a few of that is due to streaming’s intangibility. When the business was constructed on bodily gross sales, an artist sufficiently big to get one million CDs shipped out to shops was assured a pure degree of ubiquity, and a whole advertising and marketing equipment existed to make such artists and their tasks seen. Though we are able to think about CDs stacked excessive, collected streams really feel a bit like matrix code.
In 2014, as bodily album gross sales dipped under streaming for the primary time, the Billboard 200 premièred a brand new method for measuring music consumption. The metrics, which have been up to date by time, try to approximate digital models as album gross sales: observe equal albums (TEA), for instance, counts ten track downloads from the identical album as a single album sale, whereas streaming equal albums (SEA) counts 1,250 premium streams, or 3,750 free streams, from the identical album as a single album sale. In 2019, video streams have been added into the equation. The monitoring of bodily gross sales hasn’t modified, however, nowadays, such gross sales make up solely ten per cent of all music income.
For a short time, it appeared as if music streaming might democratize the listening expertise, and grow to be a direct pipeline to the mainstream for unlikely stars and artists from overseas markets. As streaming rose, so did Black music’s metric standing: almost a third of all 2020 audio streams, for instance, have been hip-hop and R. & B. (And almost thirty-four per cent of video streams got here from the identical genres.) Okay-pop acts similar to BTS and BLACKPINK have benefitted from streaming platforms’ playlist framework, and the music-sharing website SoundCloud gave bed room artists similar to Billie Eilish and Post Malone a megaphone to achieve a nationwide viewers in a single day. However there stays a colossal hole between megastars and D.I.Y. music creators. Data collected in 2020 revealed that ninety per cent of streams go to the highest one per cent of artists. Artists like YoungBoy discover themselves someplace within the center: they’ve carved out a share of the streaming pie, however it hasn’t resulted in any discernible cultural saturation.
In 2020, YoungBoy made almost as a lot as Taylor Swift did in streaming income, based on Billboard. (The distinction is that streaming income accounted for almost all of his income for the 12 months, and fewer than half of hers.) Equally, the bluesman Florida rapper Rod Wave, whose final two albums débuted at No. 1 and No. 2 on the charts, made his massive splash in 2020 with out promoting a single bodily album, because of video streams (which accounted for twenty per cent of his streaming performs). In a 12 months with restricted touring, each YoungBoy and Rod Wave made positive aspects as a few of music’s prime earners. Their success is essentially owed to one of many business’s most under-recognized platforms: YouTube.
Although Spotify stays the dominant music platform by way of subscriber numbers, YouTube has a far larger attain, and, in September, 2021, YouTube Music, the corporate’s music-only streaming service, passed fifty million subscribers, up twenty million from the earlier 12 months. (This marked a major achieve on rivals like Apple Music and Amazon Music, which have greater than seventy-eight and sixty-eight million subscribers, respectively, based on current estimates. Nevertheless, Spotify continues to be approach out entrance, with 100 and seventy-two million paid subscribers.) YouTube, which has lenient add limits and permits musicians to gather income on each video and audio streams, has grow to be one thing of a haven for area of interest artists with enormous, devoted fan bases, particularly rappers and Latin-music performers in genres similar to reggaetón. Late rappers similar to Juice WRLD and Younger Dolph, embattled provocateurs similar to Kevin Gates and Kodak Black, and regional phenoms similar to Lil Durk and Moneybagg Yo are headliners on YouTube Music and its chart, combined in amongst superstars similar to Ed Sheeran and the Weeknd.
YoungBoy, who has dominated YouTube’s music house for the final a number of years, is the form of artist that the algorithm loves—constant and prolific, producing feed for limitless playlists. He routinely seems atop the platform’s “Top Artists” chart, which tabulates views throughout official music movies, stay performances, remixes, user-made movies, album songs, and collaborations. Most of YoungBoy’s personal movies are low-budget; many characteristic the artist by himself, rapping instantly into the digicam. Considered one of YoungBoy’s video administrators, LOUIEKNOWS, has stated that the rapper has no launch technique apart from to easily churn out content material, simply as some other YouTube vlogger or influencer does.
There’s an unsavory edge to the rapper’s stardom, too. YoungBoy has an extended rap sheet, which incorporates aggravated assault with a firearm, in 2017, and an assault on his girlfriend that was caught on digicam, in 2018. He was in jail when his 2021 album, “Sincerely, Kentrell,” dethroned Drake from the Billboard 200. However none of this has stopped the rapper from reaching his listeners. One clear by-product of direct-to-consumer streaming, particularly on platforms similar to YouTube and SoundCloud, is that artists can circumvent controversy and cultural gatekeepers who would possibly try to police them out of the general public sphere. YouTube, particularly, has a number of attributes that make it engaging for contentious cult favorites similar to YoungBoy: a low barrier to entry, a built-in social mechanism, and a neighborhood characteristic that promotes content material on to followers. YoungBoy, then, gives a blueprint for different backlash-prone artists: ignore the mainstream equipment completely, and add straight to your supporters.
The followers, in flip, have earned their very own notoriety. In line with the rapper’s personal fame, YoungBoy’s supporters have grow to be identified for being defensive and territorial. That their artist of alternative is so underappreciated is a part of the enchantment: they put on their aggrievement like a badge of honor. The memes painting these followers as belligerent, bringing pointless hostility to on a regular basis duties—they’re aggressive not solely of their fandom however in all the pieces they do. An alternate on Twitter from April, 2020, sums up the dynamic completely. One person reposted a video mocking the eagerness of YoungBoy followers, suggesting that they jog, eat, and park their vehicles with gratuitous antagonism. One other responded, “Who the hell is youngboy.”