The 1995 Source Awards are remembered as the night hip-hop’s East Coast-West Coast rivalry exploded. What was once considered a footnote from that night is how OutKast signaled the rise of Southern rap by way of Atlanta.
If any moment marked the arrival of Atlanta on hip-hop’s main stage it was when OutKast took the stage to accept the award for Best New Rap Group. Under a cascade of boos, Andre 3000 forced both coasts to acknowledge that they’d been sleeping on an entire region.
“The South got somethin’ to say.”
Andre 3000’s statement would prove to be a prophecy. Over the next 25 years, Atlanta established itself as the mecca of hip-hop, producing an endless array of iconic rappers: T.I., Ludacris, Young Jeezy, Killer Mike, Young Dro, Yung Joc, Shawty Lo, Gucci Mane, Waka Flocka, 2 Chainz, Future, Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan, Migos, 21 Savage, Lil Yachty, Playboi Carti, Lil Baby, Gunna, JID, Young Nudy, and Lil Keed, among others.
From T.I. to Gucci Mane, Future to Lil Baby, let’s crown the King of Atlanta Rap, every year since 1994, the year OutKast released its debut album.
- Notable Contenders: Kilo Ali (1994), Goodie Mob (1995-96), Kilo Ali (1997), Raheem The Dream (1998), Pastor Troy (1999), Ludacris (2000)
- Albums: Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (1994), ATLiens (1996), Aquemini (1998), Stankonia (2000)
- Hit Singles: “Ms. Jackson” (#1 on Billboard Hot 100), “Elevators (Me & You)” (#12), “So Fresh, So Clean” (#30), “ATLiens” (#35), “Player’s Ball” (#37)
OutKast established Atlanta as a burgeoning hip-hop scene in the second half of the 1990s. Fresh off the release of their debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Andre 3000 put the rest of hip-hop on notice with an iconic speech at the 1995 Source Awards at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
“I’m tired of folks — you know what I’m sayin’ — closed minded folks. It’s like we got a demo tape and don’t nobody want to hear it. But it’s like this. The South got somethin’ to say. That’s all I got to say,” Andre said, single-handedly planting the flag for not only his city but the entire southern rap region.
After asserting their status atop the Atlanta scene with its debut, OutKast gained widespread critical acclaim with their second album, 1996’s ATLiens. The duo followed it up with its third album, 1998’s Aquemini, which became the first Southern LP to earn a coveted five-mic score from The Source.
Two years later, OutKast cemented their status as mythical figures in Atlanta rap with Stankonia. Selling over 530,000 copies the first week, the album produced the group’s first No. 1 single in “Ms. Jackson,” Nearly 20 years after its release, the single ranked at number 145 on Rolling Stone’s “Top 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list in 2021.
- Notable Contenders: Lil Jon, Pastor Troy
- Albums: Word of Mouf (2001)
- Hit Singles: “Move Bitch” (#10 on Billboard Hot 100), “Rollout” (#17), “Saturday (Oooh! Oooh!)” (#22), “Area Codes” (#23), “Southern Hospitality” (#24), “Welcome to Atlanta” (#35
- Hit Features: Missy Elliot’s “One Minute Man” (#15), Trina’s “B R Right” (#90), Lil Jon’s “Bia Bia” (#92)
Though OutKast came before him, there’s no denying Ludacris was the first Atlanta rap crossover star of the 21st century. In fact, compared to similar rappers-turned-pop-stars of his era (Nelly and Ja Rule), Luda might have become underrated. Granted, it’s worth noting that he came from the suburbs of Chicago, only arriving in Atlanta a few years before dropping his official debut album. Even so, Luda repped Atlanta through and through, establishing himself from the jump with his 2000 album Back For the First Time.
It wasn’t until 2001, though, that Luda would wrestle the throne away from OutKast with his second studio album Word of Mouf. Released in November 2001, the album established Christopher Bridges as the King of Atlanta, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. Word of Mouf would go on to be certified four-times Platinum thanks to Top 25 hits like “Rollout,” “Saturday (Oooh! Oooh!),” and “Area Codes.” A few months after its release, Ludacris joined forces with local pioneer Jermaine Dupri for the defining Atlanta hip-hop anthem “Welcome to Atlanta.”
- Notable Contenders: Ludacris, OutKast, Crime Mob
- Albums/Mixtapes: Trap Muzik (2003), Down With the King (2004), Urban Legend (2004)
- Hit Singles: “Bring Em Out” (#9 on Billboard Hot 100), “U Don’t Know Me” (#23), “Rubber Band Man” (#30), “Let’s Get Away” (#35)
- Hit Features: Destiny’s Child’s “Soldier” (#4), Bone Crusher’s “Never Scared” (#26)
T.I. arrived on the scene in 2001 with his studio debut I’m Serious. The record was widely considered a flop, as it barely scraped the Top 100 of the Billboard 200, peaking at No. 98. Two years later, the Bankhead native would establish himself as the King of the South on Trap Muzik, which doubled as the beginning of the trap music subgenre that has defined Atlanta hip-hop in the 21st century.
“It’s called trap music, so you know it’s gonna be dealing with all aspects of the trap,” T.I. explained to Stereogum. “And if you don’t know what the trap is, that’s basically where drugs are sold. In this country, the majority of us live in a neighborhood where drugs are sold, whether we like it or not. Whether you in the trap selling dope, whether you in the trap buying dope, whether you in the trap trying to get out – whatever the case may be, I’m trying to deal with all aspects of that lifestyle.”
In August 2003, Trap Muzik debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, selling 110,000 copies in its first week. The album was highlighted by hit singles “Rubber Band Man,” “24’s,” and “Be Easy.” Just over a year later, T.I. cemented his status in Atlanta with Urban Legend, another Platinum-selling album that would produce the then-biggest hits of his career, “Bring Em Out” and U Don’t Know Me.”
2005: Young Jeezy
- Notable Contenders: T.I., Ludacris, Dem Franchize Boyz
- Albums/Mixtapes: Trap or Die, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101
- Hit Singles: “Soul Survivor” (#4 on Billboard Hot 100)
At the midpoint of the 2000s, Young Jeezy marked a changing of the guard, as he steered Atlanta into the “trap music” subgenre that would define the city’s next decade. Sure, T.I. might’ve coined the phrase with his 2003 album Trap Muzik, but Jeezy’s version of the sound was different. Even more, Jeezy arrived on the heels of the crunk music sound that’d dominated Atlanta the previous year by way of Lil Jon, Crime Mob, and Trillville.
After dropping his iconic mixtape Trap or Die in January 2005, Jeezy followed it up that summer with his major label debut Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101. The LP debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, selling 172,000 copies in the first week. Thug Motivation 101 also produced arguably the biggest hit of Jeezy’s career, the Akon-featuring “Soul Survivor,” which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100.
- Notable Contenders: Young Jeezy, Ludacris, Gucci Mane
- Albums: King (2006), T.I. vs. T.I.P. (2007)
- Hit Singles: “What You Know” (#3), “Big Shit Poppin’” (#9), “Top Back” (#29)
- Hit Features: Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” (#1), Young Dro’s “Shoulder Lean” (#10), R. Kelly’s “I’m A Flirt” (#12), DJ Khaled’s “We Takin’ Over” (#28)
If not for Young Jeezy’s meteoric rise in 2005, it’s fair to say T.I. was Atlanta’s undisputed king from 2003 through 2007. No matter, though. After letting Jeezy snatch the throne in 2005, Clifford “T.I.” Harris hit his apex in 2006. That March, the Bankhead native scored his first No. 1 album with King, which debuted atop the Billboard 200, selling over 522,000 copies in its first week of release.
The LP was highlighted by the then-biggest hit of his career, “What You Know,” which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. T.I. ‘s explosion into the zeitgeist climaxed that fall with a guest appearance on Justin Timberlake’s No. 1 hit “My Love.” The following year, T.I. continued his momentum with another No. 1 album, T.I. vs. T.I.P., which produced another Top 10 hit for the rapper in “Big Shit Poppin.”
2008-10: Gucci Mane
- Notable Contenders: Shawty Lo, T.I., Young Jeezy, Waka Flocka Flame
- Albums/Mixtapes: EA Sportscenter (2008), Mr. Perfect (2008), Gucci Sosa (2008), From Zone 6 to Duval (2008), The Movie (2008), Bird Flu (2009), Bird Money (2009), Writing on the Wall (2009), The Movie: Part 2 (2009), The Burrprint (2009), Murder Was the Case (2009), The State Vs. Radric Davis (2009), Burrrprint 2 (2010), Mr. Zone 6 (2010), Jewelry Selection (2010), Ferrari Music (2010), The Appeal: Georgia’s Most Wanted (2010)
- Hit Singles: “Wasted” (#36 on Billboard Hot 100), “Spotlight” (#42), “Lemonade” (#53)
- Hit Features: Mario’s “Break Up” (#14)
It’s easy to forget Gucci Mane first made waves in 2005 with the release of his debut studio album, Trap House, which produced his first street hit “Icy.” A beef with Atlanta’s then-King, Young Jeezy, was not able to slow Gucci down. From 2008 to 2010, the Zone 6er delivered one of the most prolific runs in hip-hop history, as Gucci released 22 full-length projects.
Gucci, whose flood-the-market approach had made him the hottest street rapper in the game at the tail-end of the 2000s, transformed into a superstar in 2009. Gucci dropped nine mixtapes in the first 10 months of that year, including classics like Writings on the Wall and Burrrprint: The Movie 3D. From there, he exploded into the mainstream with a pair of hit singles in “Wasted” and “Lemonade,” both of which appeared on Gucci’s first big label album, The State vs. Radric Davis.
2011-13: 2 Chainz
- Notable Contenders: Future, Migos, Gucci Mane
- Albums/Mixtapes: Codeine Cowboy (2011), T.R.U. REALigion (2011), Based on a T.R.U. Story (2012), B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time (2013)
- Hit Singles: “No Lie” (#27 on Billboard Hot 100), “I’m Different” (#27), “Birthday Song” (#47)
- Hit Features: A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems” (#8), Kanye West’s “Mercy” (#12), Drake’s “All Me” (#20), Juicy J’s “Bandz A Make Her Dance” (#29), Lil Wayne’s “Rich As Fuck” (#38), Nicki Minaj’s “Beez In The Trap” (#48)
The rise of the artist formerly known as Tity Boi couldn’t have been predicted. In March 2012, five years after 2 Chainz broke out alongside Dolla Boy as hip-hop duo Playaz Circle, Kanye broke the internet by dropping “Mercy,” the first single off G.O.O.D. Music’s forthcoming compilation album, Cruel Summer.
2 Chainz stole the track with one of the most iconic guest verses of the century, kickstarting merely one of the greatest feature runs in hip-hop history. Over the rest of 2012, Chainz would establish himself as the hottest rapper alive with appearances on Cruel Summer (“The Morning,” “The One”), Nicki Minaj’s “Beez in the Trap,” Juicy J’s “Bandz a Make Her Dance,” The Game’s “Ali Bomaye,” and A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems,” among others.
At the peak of his guest verse blitz, Chainz dropped his debut studio Based on a T.R.U. Story in September 2012. The LP debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and would spawn three Top 50 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 in “No Lie” (#24), “I’m Different” (#27), “Birthday Song” (#47).
Despite the success of his first solo offering, Chainz continued his momentum into 2013, delivering iconic guest features on hits like Jeezy’s “R.I.P.,” Lil Wayne’s “Rick As Fuck,” B.o.B.’s “Headband,” and Drake’s “All Me.” That September, Chainz strengthened his grip on the ATL throne with his second full-length offering, B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time.
2014: Young Thug
- Notable Contenders: Rich Homie Quan, Future, Migos
- Albums/Mixtapes: Tha Tour Pt. 1 (w/ Rich Gang), 1017 Thug 2, 1017 Thug 3, Young Thugga Mane La Flare (w/ Gucci Mane), Black Portland (w/ Bloody Jay), World War 3D: The Purple Album (w/ Gucci Mane)
- Hit Singles: “Lifestyle” (#16 on Billboard Hot 100), “Stoner” (#47)
- Hit Features: T.I.’s “About The Money” (#42), Tyga’s “Hookah” (#85)
After breaking into the mainstream at the tail-end of 2013 with singles “Danny Glover” and “Stoner,” Young Thug made his true ascent in 2014 by delivering scene-stealing guest appearances on Tyga’s “Hookah” and T.I.’s “About the Money.” But it wasn’t until June that Thug would put the rest of the rap game on notice on the strength of one song: “Lifestyle.”
While the track credits Rich Gang as the lead artist, there’s no denying that “Lifestyle” is a Young Thug song for all intents and purposes. Months after the Rich Homie Quan-featuring anthem became the anthem of Summer 2014, Rich Gang dropped Tha Tour Pt. 1. The mixtape, which has since become one of the most appreciated hip-hop projects of the past decade, doubled as a coming-out party for Thugger, who shined on standout tracks like “Givenchy,” “Flava,” “Tell Em (Lies),” and “See You.”
- Notable Contenders: Young Thug, Migos
- Albums/Mixtapes: Beast Mode, 56 Nights, DS2, What a Time to Be Alive
- Hit Singles: “Jumpman” (#12 on Billboard Hot 100), “Where Ya At” (#28), “Fuck Up Some Commas” (#55)
- Hit Features: Ty Dolla Sign’s “Blase” (#63), Travis Scott’s “3500” (#82)
Future challenged 2 Chainz for the throne at the turn of the 2010s, as the Dungeon Family affiliate made a name for himself in 2011 with a string of cult classic mixtapes (Dirty Sprite, True Story, Free Bricks, and Streetz Calling).
From there, Future dropped another classic project, Astronaut Status, in January 2012, before catapulting into the mainstream that spring with his official studio debut album, Pluto. The LP produced a handful of hit radio singles (“Same Damn Time,” “Turn On the Lights”, “Neva End”), which helped mint Future a crossover star in the making.
And yet, Future’s momentum grew stale by the time his next album dropped, 2014’s Honest, with many diehard fans blasting the up-and-comer for going full-pop. The turning point in his career arrived several months later, when King Pluto followed-up his high-profile break-up from Ciara with Monster, a project that took him back to his mixtape roots.
What followed was one of the greatest mixtape runs of the past decade, as Future kicked off 2015 by joining forces with Zaytoven and DJ Esco for Beast Mode and 56 Nights, respectively. The hype surrounding the pair of tapes would climax in the summer of 2015 with Future’s third album, DS2.
2016: Young Thug
- Notable Contenders: Gucci Mane, Future, 21 Savage
- Albums/Mixtapes: I’m Up, Slime Season 3, Jeffery
- Hit Singles: “Pick Up the Phone” (#43 on Billboard Hot 100), “Best Friend” (#45)
- Hit Features: Usher’s “No Limit” (#32)
You could argue that Young Thug occupied the throne from 2014 through 2016, as his 2015 run was only surpassed by the greatest year of Future’s career. After cementing his status as the King of Atlanta in 2014, Thugger delivered a Hall of Fame performance in 2015.
Between March and October of 2015, Jeffery dropped three full-length projects (Barter 6, Slime Season, Slime Season 2) countless fan favorite leaks (“Love Me Forever,” “Proud Of Me,” Makaveli,” “Guarantee,” “Get That Money”), a string of one-off singles (“Speed Racer,” “Pacifier,” “Paradise”), and a handful of iconic guest appearances (“Good Times,” “Maria I’m Drunk,” “Yamborghini Dream”).
While Thug’s 2015 output warranted a brief hiatus, the upstart rapper didn’t take one, instead kicking off 2016 with a pair of EP-length projects. After dropping I’m Up and Slime Season 3 in February and March, respectively, Thugga continued his momentum with an endless array of scene-stealing guest spots (“Pick Up The Phone,” “Minnesota,” “No Limit”), which would lead into his next release, Jeffery.
Released in August 2016, Jeffery marked Thug’s arrival as a full-blown pop star, which in turn helped him supplant Future as the King of Atlanta.
- Notable Contenders: Future, Young Thug, 21 Savage
- Albums: Culture, Without Warning (Offset w/ 21 Savage & Metro Boomin), Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho (Quavo w/ Travis Scott)
- Hit Singles: “Bad and Boujee” (#1 on Billboard Hot 100), “Motor Sport” (#6), “T-Shirt” (#19), “Slippery” (#29)
- Hit Features: Gucci Mane’s “I Get the Bag” (#11), Calvin Harris’ “Slide” (#25)
The second half of 2016 saw Quavo establish his case as the hottest rapper alive on the strength of a string of iconic features. Over that calendar year, Quavo guest-starred on nearly 50 tracks, alongside the likes of hip-hop A-listers who proved to be no match to him.
Following his spectacular verse on Young Thug’s “F Cancer,” that January, Quavo set out on a spree of stellar features: he kicked-off Kanye’s posse cut “Champions” with a spectacular cold open; closed the best hip-hop song of Summer ‘16, Travis Scott’s “Pick Up the Phone,” with the track’s winning verse; handled hook duties on DJ Mustard’s underrated anthem, “Want Her;” contributed fantastic but overlooked guest verses to Meek Mill’s “The Difference” and Ty Dolla Sign’s “Long Time;” outshined 2 Chainz and Gucci Mane on the former’s “Good Drank;” helped raise Post Malone’s clout with his guest appearance on “Congratulations;” and had the best verses on star-studded remixes (Lil Yachty’s “Minnesota” and YFN Lucci’s Keys to the Streets”).
By the close of 2016, Quavo had minted himself not only the leading man of Migos but a star in his own right. But it took less than a month into 2017 for Migos to catapult itself atop the Atlanta hierarchy. “Bad and Boujee,” the first single off Migos’ second studio album, 2017’s Culture, became an internet phenomenon in January 2017 en route to peaking atop the Billboard Hot 100.
Later that month, Culture debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, officially marking Migos’ arrival into the mainstream. The Atlanta trio wouldn’t give up the throne for several months, as Culture gave way to joint albums from Offset and 21 Savage (Without Warning), as well as Quavo and Travis Scott (Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho).
2018-19: Young Thug
- Notable Contenders: Lil Baby, Migos, Future
- Albums/Mixtapes: Slime Language (2018), On the Run (2018), So Much Fun (2019)
- Hit Singles: “Hot” (#11 on Billboard Hot 100), “The London” (#12), “Bad Bad Bad” (#32)
- Hit Features: Post Malone’s “Goodbyes” (#3)
By the time Young Thug released his first project of 2018, September’s Slime Language, two of his underlyings had already established their dominance over the year with solo releases of their own. In February 2018, YSL up-and-comer Gunna dropped his third mixtape, Drip Season 3, which was highlighted by a pair of Thug guest spots (“Oh Okay,” “King Kong”).
In May, another Thug protege, Lil Baby broke out on the back of his debut studio album, Harder Than Ever, which also capitalized on a Young Thug feature (“Right Now”). In October, the pair would join forces for their joint mixtape Drip Harder, which, of course, included another Thug guest spot (“My Jeans”).
In any other year, that would’ve been enough to signal Thug’s influence on the next generation. Instead, Thugger returned in the fall with two full-length offerings: YSL’s debut compilation album Slime Language dropped in August, followed by Jeffery’s six-track EP On The Rvn in September.
While Slime Language asserted Thug’s influence on the rising generation of Atlanta rappers, thanks to its collabs with Gunna (“Chains Choking Me,” “Dirty Shoes”) and Lil Baby (“Chanel (Go Get It),” On The Rvn reminded the hip-hop community of Thugger’s pop potential, as he delivered melodies alongside R&B upstart 6LACK and the iconic Elton John.
2020–21: Lil Baby
- Notable Contenders: Young Thug, Gunna, 21 Savage
- Albums: My Turn (2020), The Voice of the Heroes w/ Lil Durk (2021)
- Hit Singles: “The Bigger Picture” (#3 on Billboard Hot 100), “We Paid” (#10), “Woah” (#15), “Sum 2 Prove” (#16), “Emotionally Scarred” (#31), “All In” (#45)
- Hit Features: Drake’s “Wants and Needs” and “Girls Want Girls” (#2), Pop Smoke’s “For the Night” (#6), Kanye West’s “Hurricane” (#6), DJ Khaled’s “Every Chance I Get” (#20), Meek Mill’s “Sharing Locations” (#22)
Lil Baby became the Prince of Atlanta in 2018 thanks to an unmatched prolific run that saw the upstart release seven full-length projects over an 18 month span (Perfect Timing, Harder Than Hard, 2 The Hard Way, Too Hard, Harder Than Ever, Drip Harder, Street Gossip). After solidifying himself as the undisputed Rap Rookie of the Year in 2018, Baby took a brief hiatus in 2019 before returning that fall with “Woah,” the first single from his next album, 2020’s My Turn.
Released in February 2020, My Turn debuted atop the Billboard 200 en route to topping the chart for five nonconsecutive weeks. In its first week of release, 12 songs off the album charted on the Billboard Hot 100, which gave Lil Baby a career total of 47 songs on the chart, putting him at a tie with Prince and Paul McCartney. Lil Baby capitalized off the success of My Turn by dropping a deluxe edition that May, which produced a pair of top 10 singles in “The Bigger Picture” and “We Paid.”
Lil Baby followed up his career-making 2020 by continuing his momentum in 2021, dropping a string of one-off singles en route to teaming up with Lil Durk for their joint album Voice of the Heroes.
- Notable Contenders: Lil Baby, Gunna, 21 Savage
- Albums: I Never Liked You
- Hit Singles: “Wait for U” (#1 on Billboard Hot 100), “Love You Better” (#12), “Keep It Burnin” (#15), “Worst Day” (#34)
After hitting his creative peak in 2015 with a trio of projects (Beast Mode, 56 Nights, and DS2), Future experienced his commercial apex at the top of 2017, as he became the the first artist in the history of the Billboard 200 to notch back-to-back No. 1 debuts in consecutive weeks with Future and Hndrxx.
The former project also produced arguably Future’s defining hit single, “Mask Off,” which peaked at No. 5 on the Hot 100 en route to being certified nine-times Platinum. Despite following that feat by dropping a pair of No. 1 albums, 2019’s The Wizrd and 2020’s High off Life, not to mention three collaborative mixtapes (2017’s Super Slimey with Young Thug, 2018’s Beast Mode 2 with Zaytoven, and 2019’s Wrld on Drugs with Juice WRLD, Future Hendrix appeared to be at the tail-end of his prime.
However, Future’s run in 2022 proved the critics wrong, as the hip-hop veteran earned his eighth No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 with his latest full-length effort, I Never Liked You. The project debuted atop the chart on the back of 222,000 album equivalent units in its first week, which was highlighted by Future’s first No. 1 hit, the Drake-featured “Wait for U.”