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Pop Rap

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Too legit to quit. (Clockwise from top left: Run–D.M.C. (back) and Aerosmith; Missy Elliott; BROCKHAMPTON; and Eminem and Rihanna.

Pop rap is a subgenre of both Hip-Hop and Pop that emerged in The '80s (during The Golden Age of Hip Hop) and became extremely popular at the beginning of The '90s, with another resurgence at the beginning of The New '10s. It aims to combine the edge and rhythmic nature of hip-hop with the mass appeal and theatrical approach of pop.

Pop rap production tends to place more emphasis on the melody instruments in the beat rather than on the bass and percussion, and uses the fashionable sounds of the time. Many pop rap songs will feature both a pop singer and a rapper collaborating on the track, usually with the singer taking the hook and the rapper handling the verses. Infectious sing-along hooks are an essential, and pop-rap often uses light lyrical content like romance, breakups, sex, dancing/partying/the club/the beat, self-empowerment, and occasionally novelty topics, though there are significant exceptions. During pop rap's second resurgence in The New '10s, a general audience more hip-hop literate than in the 90s led to a wave of pop-rap using more traditional hip-hop subject matter like Boastful Rap, Glam Rap, social issues, lyrical technique showcases, and even battle rhymes and diss tracks.

While "pop" is short for "popular", it shouldn't be assumed that a rapper makes pop rap just because they're a popular rapper — if influence from general-audiences pop music isn't present, they are just making hip-hop (or a different subgenre of it). Similarly, it's possible to make pop rap music that nobody actually likes.

Pop rap is stereotyped as being more lyrically clean (it needs to get radio play), and several acts in this genre built careers on being The Moral Substitute to edgier rappers of the time (such as MC Hammer and Will Smith), but there are many pop rap songs that got popular because they combine accessible production with controversial subject matter (Lil Nas X, "MONTERO (Call Me by Your Name)"), gratuitously vulgar lyrics (Azealia Banks, "212") or, indeed, both (Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP). Similarly, pop rap is often assumed to be more musically simplistic than other hip-hop, but rappers such as The Notorious B.I.G., Eminem, Lil Wayne, Kendrick Lamar, Nas, Nicki Minaj and Jay-Z have all made pop rap records that do not compromise on their exceptional technique. As pop rap places more focus on the melody instruments in the instrumental than conventional hip-hop, some pop rap is also praised for complexity and musicianship in its instrumentals, such as Dr. Dre, Pharrell Williams, BROCKHAMPTON and Lizzo.

Despite pop and hip-hop being similar genres in many ways — both pull in influence from every other genre of music and aim to be fun, attitude-driven and accessible — the pop rap label is often used as a pejorative to imply an act is inauthentic and shallow. Pop rappers such as MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, Flo Rida and Pitbull are often derided as making watered-down party music for white and mostly female audiences, unlike the real stuff from the streets. The result of this is that there are many rappers with enormous pop audiences, making songs for pop radio, that use pop song structures, pop hooks, and pop lyrical content, who would be insulted by any attempt to label them as "pop rappers". LL Cool J mocked his labelling as "the forefather of pop rap" on Twitter; Eminem's attempts to resist the label led to his legendary Turn of the Millennium beefs with Boy Bands and Teen Pop artists, though he was still happy to collaborate with adult contemporary artists like Dido and Elton John, and would be comfortable self describing as a "pop star" by The New '10s.

Despite this, pop rap is still enormously popular. Many pop rap acts are rightly recognised as hip-hop pioneers and skilled rappers and performers. Due to a greater awareness of the Unfortunate Implications of rejecting pop music outright, some critics have highlighted pop rap's greater accessibility to women and LGBT+ performers, with the subgenre containing many female emcees who use their music to share feminist messages. While white emcees are often thrown into the pop rap subcategory due their skin colour making them easier to sell to a largely white pop audience, many white rappers gravitate towards a poppy sound due to an uncynical desire to fuse hip-hop with their own White-music influences. Pop rap is also a way of breaking down the Public Medium Ignorance that surrounds hip-hop, serving as a Gateway Genre to hip-hop as a whole.

Compare to Rap Rock, which can overlap, such as in the case of artists like Run–D.M.C., Crazy Town and Post Malone. Significantly commercial Alternative Hip Hop, Hip Hop Soul and G-Funk also overlap, as well as Country Rap, Southern Rap, Trap Music and Gangsta Rap with appeal outside of the usual audience niche. Horrorcore pop rap is historically rare, but does exist note , and became increasingly common in the late 2010s and early 2020s due to the rise of SoundCloud Horrorcore and horror-pop.

It's common to the point of cliché for Hardcore Hip Hop artists to transition into pop rap after they become successful, or at least make several songs in the style. Many an artist working in a less commercial subgenre has had a Black Sheep Hit with a pop rap song... or tried for one.

Significant pop rap artists and records:

  • 24kGoldn
  • Ashnikko
  • J Balvin
  • Azealia Banks is known for her largely LGBT Fanbase (in line with many a pop starlet), her outspoken personality, her filthy lyrics and witch persona, and her constant beefing, mostly with other celebrities or her own fans.
  • Beastie Boys, another Rap Rock group (starting out as punks) who crossed over into the mainstream, aided by their white skin. Their cartoonish drug-crazed fratboy personas started a moral panic about their imitable behaviour (supposedly launching a craze for stealing car emblems to turn into medallions) and misogyny. (And served as inspiration to another moral-panic-baiting white rapper with an Anti-Role Model persona listed on this page.) The Beasties struggled with getting Lost in Character, realised they had attracted a Fan Dumb that took their act seriously, and all later became outspoken feminist allies, refusing to play a lot of their older material.
  • Big Pun: While some of his best known songs ("I'm (Still) Not A Player", "How We Roll", "Punish Me") were made with pop/R&B crossover in mind, nobody would dare call him a pop rapper.
  • Biz Markie's cuddly, Unlucky Everydude persona and funny, self-deprecating lyrical content gave him a wide appeal with a pop audience that, at the time, was uncomfortable with Boastful Rap.
  • The Black Eyed Peas transferred over to this style in the 2000s and enjoyed significant commercial success... and fandom bashing.
  • B.o.B, an iconic pop rapper of the early 2010s who is probably now better known for his questionable views on astrophysics.
  • BTS are a Korean Pop Music group with a heavy influence from American hip-hop. RM and SUGA were both involved in the underground Korean hip-hop scene before joining the group, and they (along with J-Hope, the group's third rapper) have all released mixtapes in the pop rap style.
  • Busta Rhymes' lyrical skills, sex appeal and ties to the Native Tongues collective gave him a pretty even crowd of mainstream fans and underground purists.
  • Cardi B's mega-graphic "W.A.P." challenged perceptions of the lyrical content of pop rap as inoffensive.
  • DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince:
    • Will Smith, both solo and with DJ Jazzy Jeff, was a shameless pop rapper, and openly wore the label during the height of his solo career. This, and being famous for not using profanity, led to him being mocked by more hardcore contemporaries, most famously Eminem. Ironically, Nas, his total opposite (though he was flirting with pop rap at the time), was a ghostwriter on select tracks on his 1997 release Big Willie Style.
    • DJ Jazzy Jeff felt limited by the Contractual Purity of his association with Will Smith as it prevented him working with edgier rappers. A collaboration he did with the considerably more vulgar Eminem ("When To Stand Up") was squelched by his record label for this reason.
  • Doja Cat
  • Drake, whose extraordinary popularity at the rise of Spotify led to a significant amount of Follow the Leader as other artists tried to capitalise on his stream-friendly sound.
  • Dr. Dre's G-Funk sound would become the "philosopher's stone" of creating radio friendly rap while still having enough hardcore appeal to not be considered a sellout. However, Aftermath, his followup album to The Chronic, and his Hip Hop Soul group The Firm, both garnered criticism for being too poppy and commercial.
  • Eminem, who always had enough of a pop sensibility to lecture other emcees about the need for hooks "people can relate to" way back in 1999, mainstreamed hip-hop into the white suburban audience like never before with his pop-parodying The Marshall Mathers LP, fitting its concept of him dealing with life as a Teen Idol — despite its exceptionally vulgar lyrics and the amount Eminem would have whined about being put on this page. Eminem began to dabble in less ironic pop on The Eminem Show and especially Encore (which has several songs where he doesn't even rap), and embraced the pop style fully in The New '10s on Recovery, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, SHADYXV and Revival. Eminem makes a point of pride out of not simplifying or cleaning up his Hardcore Hip Hop lyrics however radio-friendly his production is — "[I] even pop shit on my pop shit! And it's popular!".
  • Falco became an international star with "Amadeus", a rap about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that was the first German-language Billboard hit in America.
  • Flo Rida, the archetypal pop rapper of The New '10s's pop rap boom. In the 2020s, he's best known for representing San Marino in the Eurovision Song Contest 2021. And losing.
  • Jack Harlow
  • Heavy D: Interestingly, despite hitting all the checkmarks for a pop rapper, and having a legion of fangirls, the Heavster's lyrical skill and choice of producers got him props from the hardcore crowd, and allowed him to work with more hardcore emcees, most notably giving The Notorious B.I.G. his major label debut.
  • iann dior (mixed with Pop Punk and Rap Rock)
  • Ja Rule, beloved in the early 2000s for combining his thug persona with love songs and dance routines, as much as he denied being a pop rapper. His career as a credible force was ended after losing a beef with Eminem, another pop rapper in denial, who accused him of... being a pop rapper. Whew. Anyway, then he showed up running the Fyre Festival.
  • Jay-Z, while never as poppy as Eminem above, has released several significant pop-rap singles and collaborations, including several with his wife Beyoncé.
  • The Kid LAROI
  • LFO, a Boy Band that combined pop music with borderline Piss Take Raps.
  • Lil Nas X became a major artist through attracting controversy — first, when his Country Rap song "Old Town Road" was rejected from the Billboard charts due to not being enough of a country song (which many declared to be racist, despite the fact that Lil Nas had made a country rap song in the first place because he realised it would be easier to make it chart), and second by antagonising the religious right with a button-pushingly homoerotic and blasphemous video for "MONTERO (Call Me by Your Name)".
  • Lil Yachty
  • Lizzo is a great example of a pop rapper able to use the genre's greater interest in melody to her advantage, combining cheerful, catchy self-empowerment songs with her virtuoso flute playing.
  • LL Cool J is sometimes regarded as a progenitor of the style, with "I Need Love" being one of the first major hip-hop crossover hits. LL himself has resisted this label, preferring to consider himself a battle rapper. He is known in particular for doing love ballads, which combined with his Hunky looks gave him a large Periphery Demographic of female fans that began to outnumber his male fans before long.
  • Mariah Carey is often credited with launching the pop singer + rapper collaboration style with "Fantasy (Bad Boy Remix)" featuring O.D.B..
  • MC Hammer, known for his enormous "Hammer pants", athletic dancing and his wide appeal — at the peak of his popularity, he had a Saturday morning cartoon. He faced a severe backlash due to the rise of Gangsta Rap and G-Funk, which he attempted to transition into to little success (despite Tupac Shakur as Ghostwriter). Ironically, in real life he had gang connections and was involved in some near-fatal beefs.
  • Man Parrish: 1983's "Boogie Down Bronx" is arguably the Ur-Example. Man was heavily influenced by Giorgio Moroder-style disco, and had an image and music sensibility that was closer to "New York club scene" than what other early hip-hop artists were doing at the time. While "Boogie Down Bronx" is very different from the kind of club-oriented rap that would become popular later, the fusion of rap and electro was certainly extremely influential.
  • The Midnight Beast
  • Nelly
  • Audrey Nuna
  • Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo's production duo The Neptunes produced 43% of all songs on American radio in 2003, pop and hip-hop artists alike.
  • Nicki Minaj, a rapper who first gained prominence by outrapping both Kanye West and Jay-Z on "Monster", yet also releases poppy romantic ballads and dance songs. She has the most Platinum singles to her name of any female artist due to the enormous amount of guest verses she did for pop acts in the 2010s, and is often praised for this work over her own songs.
  • The Notorious B.I.G.: His authentic background (he was a former drug dealer) and rhyme skills allowed the hardcore crowd to easily embrace him, but his R&B-styled beats also gave him greater appeal to the mainstream crowd (Though the latter was due to Puffy's insistence)
  • Post Malone
  • PSY is an individual Korean K-Pop rapper who is best known for "Gangnam Style", though in his early days during 2000s, he combines this with Gangsta Rap more often. His newer songs do have elements of Gangsta Rap, but shamelessly parodies it.
  • Raptile
  • Run–D.M.C., often cited as another progenitor of the style with the crossover appeal of their Rap Rock sound.
  • Salt-N-Pepa, known for lyrics that frankly discuss feminist topics in a pop-friendly way.
  • Sean Combs and his Bad Boy Records was a significant force on pop rap in the late 90s and early 2000s, often blamed for the "Jiggy Era" or "Shiny Suit Era", a controversial moment in pop culture where rappers wore Space Clothes and rapped about how much money they had into fish-eye lenses.
    • Bad Boy signee Jadakiss of The L.O.X. made a significant album in this style (Money, Power, Respect), but admitted he hated it, rebelling against it as soon as he was able.
    • Lil' Kim, one of the most controversial recipients of five mics in The Source for The Naked Truth in 2005 — a review which commentators have speculated was payola at a time when The Source was struggling with its ownership and editorial staff.
    • Ma$e, considered a great of the Shiny Suit Era. Famously quit rapping to become a priest.
    • Missy Elliott, another great of the Shiny Suit Era, a boundary-pushing Big Beautiful Woman and sexually dominant female MC.
  • Tupac Shakur went through a bit of a loop with this. He did some pop-adjacent rap with Digital Underground, but his solo debut was extremely raw and hardcore, with almost no pop appeal. Gradually, he began to craft more chart-friendly singles like "I Get Around", before fully diving headfirst into pop-rap with the G-Funk-drenched All Eyez on Me. The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory went back to his hardcore roots, but most of his posthumous material since has been remixed to be more radio friendly.
  • Vanilla Ice. Known for a backlash against him that led to the discrediting of the style, as well as closing the door for critically acclaimed white rappers for about a decade. In reality, he was not the culture-vulture he was accused of being, having come up from the underground scene in Chicago where he gained a reputation for his impressive dancing. While his lyric style was outdated in a post-Eric B. & Rakim world, Ice has blamed this on his record label for forcing him to simplify his rapping on To The Extreme.

Tropes associated with pop rap:

  • 15 Minutes of Fame: Like pop stars, pop rappers have a stereotype of being unbelievably popular for about five years and then having their career ended by their overexposure, changes in fashion, Hype Backlash and reaching the limitations of what they have to offer. Many artists under the umbrella have had enduring careers, but often at the sacrifice of some of their mass appeal.
  • Anvilicious: Some of the pop rap from the 90s, aimed at children, had a didactic tone aiming to keep the kids away from drugs and violence.
  • Auto-Tune: In addition to being a fashionable production style during The New '10s era of pop rap and beyond, it also makes it easier for non-singers to manage those melodic pop hooks.
  • A Wild Rapper Appears!: Almost the definitive trope of the genre.
  • Be Yourself: A common lyrical theme.
  • Black Sheep Hit: Expect a respected underground rapper with a rich discography to only be known by their one radio hit about partying (featuring a pop singer doing the hook).
  • Contractual Purity can be a concern for many pop rappers who made their name being family-friendly. Pop rappers who start off light and go Darker and Edgier run the risk of scaring off their fanbase but being seen as too inauthentic to gain a new one. In reality, many of these artists were just musicians trying to make the music that made sense to them at the time.
    • MC Hammer was famously screwed over by this. He'd started off making Hardcore Hip Hop, but slid into making more poppy, dance-orientated music, and enjoyed huge commercial success with it (and his music is still regarded with affection in a way that Vanilla Ice's is not). However, his attempt to transition into Gangsta Rap met with derision due to his pop image and persona. While critics liked his work after signing with Death Row Records, it didn't sell, and the death of Tupac Shakur (who ghostwrote his work under the label) sealed his music in the vault, as it sealed his fate as a cautionary tale for what happens when a pop rapper tries to go gangsta.
    • While it was cultural appropriation accusations that took down Vanilla Ice, his attempt to transition into a harder-edged Rap Rock / skate-punk / stoner rock style could have taken off if it was not annulled by his previous typecasting as the squeaky-clean "you got a problem? Yo, I'll solve it" guy. The fact that a genuinely controversial white rapper was enjoying massive critical and commercial success by that time did not help, and resulted in a small beef between the rappers that Ice lost almost before it started.
    • DJ Jazzy Jeff found that his reputation as producer for the profanity-free Fresh Prince meant he was prevented from working with more vulgar rappers, and has claimed that a late 90s collaboration with Eminem (which came about because of their mutual admiration) was blocked by his label to protect his image.
    • Nelly was being pitched by his label as a Ruder and Cruder — and more credible — version of Will Smith, with a cocky and slick, but ultimately harmless image. His Hotter and Sexier direction following a seven-minute long, graphic music video and song for "Tip Drill" has been credited with damaging his career, as it made him too misogynistic and slimy for his usual young female pop audience but was still too poppy and silly for fans of Dirty Rap.
  • Many of the pop-rap songs in the early 2010s incorporated Dubstep drops.
  • Exhort the Disc Jockey Song
  • In Da Club: Several Pop-Rap songs, including the 50 Cent song that the trope is named after, take place in a club.
  • Insult Friendly Fire: It is not uncommon for rappers in this genre to insist they are not pop rappers, accuse other pop rappers of being pop rappers, and then jump right back on songs produced by buzzy Top 40 producers with an Idol Singer on the hook.
  • Genre Mashup: Hip-hop and pop. Since both pop and hip-hop are cannibalistic of other genres by definition, don't be surprised to hear some particularly wacky samples and influences in this genre.
  • Ghostwriter: A lot of the criticism of pop rap being illegitimate is based on the idea that rappers in the genre use ghostwriters, leading to a perception that it's for musicians who are good at being stars, but are not artists. However, due to stigma, all but the most shameless of pop rappers (and Dr. Dre, who considers himself a producer first and a rapper second) obscure whether or not they are using them, especially after the mid-90s, so it's difficult to know how much ghostwriting actually happens.
    • Rather a lot of the ghostwriting in pop rap that is known about is done by Hardcore Hip Hop artists, often ones who you would not catch dead rapping in that style on their own work.
    • While Drake has been accused of using ghostwriters since the mid-2010s, most notably by Meek Mill, he managed to successfully fend off the critics by burying Meek with two disses, until Pusha T's 2018 diss, "The Story Of Adidon", did serious damage to hiss reputation that he is still struggling to overcome. Ironcially, Pusha had set aside the ghostwriting allegations on "Addidon" to go after something more personal to Drake.
    • Eminem's paranoia that Kendrick Lamar was using ghostwriters led him to lure him into an empty studio under the guise of having him sing on their pop rap collaboration "Love Game", then have him write a rap verse with no support and at the last minute (the eventual verse completely allayed Eminem's suspicion).
  • Gangsta Rap has a fraught relationship with pop rap, as the two genres claim to be antagonistic, but have often hybridised with gorgeous and effective results — as in the work of Snoop Dogg and The Notorious B.I.G.. Frequently gangstas can get away with going pop if they have hard enough beats and an authentic persona... less so if they make love songs and do choreographed crowd dancing.
  • Glam Rap is sometimes suggested to be a genre which came about as the result of pop rap. The theory is that violent or dark songs would get censored out on pop radio, meaning Gangsta Rappers wanting a crossover hit would release singles emphasising the spoils and fun of a criminal lifestyle rather than any of the misery or social commentary. This proved successful with casual listeners, who liked vicariously hanging out in a gorgeous car with big-booty models more than songs about being traumatised by the blood on your hands or racially harrassed by the police. Record executives would encourage these acts as they knew they were saleable, leading to near-saturation of this style on radio towards the mid-late 00s.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: Some pop rap sounds melodic and harmless until you actually listen to what the rapper is saying.
  • Melodic Rap: Many pop rappers now often infuse sing-song melodies into their rap, while still retaining their rap cadence. This was pioneered by Snoop Dogg, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and several others, but it didn't truly take off until the 2000s, thanks to T-Pain and Kanye West; eventually becoming the most dominant style of hip-hop.
  • Money, Dear Boy: Even if you'd rather be writing dense and inaccessible battle rhymes with no catchy hooks, getting on the radio will help you buy fuel for your private jet.
  • Periphery Demographic: Many people who would never listen to an underground hip-hop artist will listen to pop rap...
  • Periphery Hatedom: ...while many people who would never touch a pop radio station hate all pop rappers automatically, seeing underground artists as more real.
  • Radio Friendliness: A prime concern for the genre.
  • Rated G for Gangsta: Rappers who make pop rap (especially after making Hardcore Hip Hop while underground) are often derided for "going soft".
  • Rock is Authentic, Pop is Shallow: With emphasis on the "Pop Is Shallow" part. Many hip-hop fans view pop rap as inherently inauthentic and witless, hence why pop rappers and their fans prefer to think of the music as just 'hip-hop'. In reality, pop music is just as valid as any other kind of music, and all but the most mindlessly contrarian of hip-hop fans will have some pop rap songs they love.
  • Scary Musician, Harmless Music: Several significant pop rap stars of the 90s wave were artists who had serious gang connections and violent backgrounds, and lyrical content about dancing, God, and staying in school.
  • Shaking the Rump: A popular move in the music videos.
  • Silly Love Songs: This was LL Cool J's innovation (his ballad "Looking For Love" was a then unprecedented megahit with both hip-hop and pop audiences). Naturally, the formula was then copied to death by many far lesser talents.
  • Soprano and Gravel: A common format for the pop-feature style of pop rap is a female singer belting in a high register on the hook, set in contrast with a deep-voiced rapper dominating the verses with Harsh Vocals. Though several prominent rappers have interesting variations — Nicki Minaj tends to favour deep voiced male soul singers on her hooks while rapping in a high-pitched aggressive style, and Eminem tends to prefer to offset his Creepy High-Pitched Voice Metal Scream with soft-voiced women singing in a lower alto register.
  • Stuffy Old Songs About the Buttocks: Pop rap played a significant role in mainstreaming the idea of a large female ass as an erotic body part, especially for white audiences.
  • Teen Idol: Many pop rappers are cute to look at and aim to draw teen audiences.
  • Three Minutes of Writhing: Expect to see a fusion between the jiggling Male Gaze video-ho style of hip-hop writhing, and the more aggressive, Escapist Character Ms. Fanservice style writhing found in pop.