Everybody likes rags-to-riches stories, and there’s plenty of them in the rap world. Many of today’s most famous rappers grew up in poverty, amidst violence, and/or with little to no support structure. In spite of these disadvantages, rappers such as Jay-Z and Eminem became best-selling artists. They beat the odds and thus, their successes are all the more admirable. Whatever impossibilities you face while pursuing your big dream, there’s a successful rapper who had it worse than you — so be relentless, indefatigable, and listen to the sound of #winning from my favorite rags-to-riches artists below.
1. Nicki Minaj: Tapout
Only Rap B*tch on the Forbes List
I believe Nicki Minaj is the most successful female rapper ever and has risen to the top of a male-dominated industry. Nicki grew up in Queens, had a violent, drug-addicted father, and faced bullying at school. But after launching her career with Lil’ Wayne’s help, Nicki rose way above her disadvantaged childhood. In 2012, she was eighth on Forbes’ list of highest-paid hip-hop artists. A year later in 2013, she was fourth on Forbes’ list at $29 million in income. That same year, she became the top-charted female rap artist in the history of the Billboard Hot 100. Has Nicki Minaj surpassed the popularity of great female legends Lil’ Kim and Missy Elliot at the height of their day? I think so.
2. Rihanna: Rock Star 101
Got up in the club Posted in the back Feeling so good Looking so bad Rocking this skirt Rocking this club Got my middle finger up I don’t really give a f—
Rihanna’s childhood in Barbados was rocky with parental discord, a (now-reformed) drug-addicted father, and crippling headaches. She found an outlet through singing, formed a girl group, and wowed music producer Evan Rodgers during an audition. At 16, she left Barbados for the U.S. to launch her music career and “didn’t look back.” She has won numerous accolades, including being named in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012. To date, she has sold over 30 million albums and is the youngest solo artist to have 13 number one singles on the Billboard Hot 100. RiRi’s a “Rock Star,” and in the video she shows that winning means she’s reached a point where she doesn’t care what people think of her.
3. Eminem: Final Battle
This guy ain’t no motherf—–g MC, I know everything he’s ‘bout to say against me. I am white, I am a f—–g bum, I do live in a trailer with my mom…Don’t ever try to judge me, dude. You don’t know what the F— I’ve been through. But I,know, something, about you. You went to Cranbrook, that’s a private school. What’s the matter, dog, you embarrassed? This guy’s a gangster? His real name’s Clarance. And Clarance lives at home with both parents. And Clarence parents have a real good marriage.
Final Battle, performed by Eminem in the final rap-off of 8 Mile, is one of the best raps of all time. Eminem’s lyrical blows eviscerate his opponent, never addresses him by name (a classic Presidential candidate tactic), and alienates him from the audience by exposing his happy, private-school life. It’s an unforgettable scene and movie based on Eminem’s upbringing on the wrong side of Detroit, where he was raised by an perennially-unemployed single mother. He was frequently bullied and suffered a severe head injury from one of the attacks. At 14, he discovered rap, struggling for many years before Dr. Dre discovered his brilliance. Today, the “Rap God” is the “King of Hip-Hop” (as named by Rolling Stones), an Oscar winner, and the second best-selling male artist of the Nielsen Soundscan era.
4. Big Sean: Fire
Dealt with real life sh*t, Manned up and got through it I’m a real D Boy, take a look up in my face Never did real estate, but still put you in your place
Although Big Sean grew up in Detroit’s hood, he had the opportunity to attend school in the nicer part of town, thanks to strict parenting by his single mother and grandmother. Reportedly, this gave him a well-rounded perspective on life. He persevered through school and then eventually through the music business. To date, he’s won nine BET awards, two Grammy nominations, and numerous others.
6. Jay-Z: Diamonds Are Forever remix by Kanye West
I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!
While there are plenty of awesome songs by Jay-Z, his lyrics in Kanye’s remix are my absolute favorite. This particular line, seemingly simple, speaks volumes about how far Jay-Z has come. As many of his songs describe, Jay-Z lived with his single mother and three older siblings in a Brooklyn drug-infested housing project. He sold crack as a teen and expressed his anger through bouts of violence. Although he discovered a passion for rapping at age nine, he didn’t fully relinquish street life and pursue his music career until his early 20s. To date, Jay-Z’s accolades outnumber all the artists mentioned above, and his success as an entrepreneur has further increased his wealth. Forbes recently estimated his net worth at $520 million. No wonder “businessman” isn’t sufficient to describe Jay-Z; it’s too singular, even ordinary. Jay-Z the “business,” on the other hand, represents an empire.
7. Young Jeezy: Champion by Nicki Minaj
Over a mil in three weeks, yeah I did it like a champ Momma taught me pride, yeah she did it with the stamps
Young Jeezy’s intense drive to succeed is well-documented in his biographical film A Hustlerz Ambition. Perhaps this drive has something to do with the sad childhood Jeezy has described in various interviews. As a child, he shuffled between his divorced parents and relatives. At age 12, he was dealing drugs and getting arrested. Allegedly, he’s a former member of drug trafficking organization Black Mafia. With the money he made from hustling, Jeezy invested in a studio and his music career officially launched. Compared to others on this list, Jeezy’s accolade numbers are on the modest side. The hip-hop rapper is well-known for creating “authentic” music aimed at the street crowd. In spite of that, Jeezy’s commercial success continues to grow.
8. Future: I Won
Ever since I got with you I feel like I done won me a trophy A trophy, I won me a trophy I won, I won, I won A trophy
No doubt that Future is talking about Ciara, who just have birth to their son. But Future’s trophy wife and life almost didn’t happen. He started selling drugs as a teen and continued to hustle until his late 20s. He got his start in music as a songwriter, then he started performing the songs he wrote. To date, Future has five singles on the Billboard Hot 100, and I anticipate many more accolades in his Future. If you love Future and Ciara as much as I do, read my review of Body Party, a hit video on their romance.
5. 50 Cent: If I Can’t
If I can’t do it, homie, it can’t be done Now I’mma let the champagne bottle pop I’mma take it to the top, For sure I’mma make it hot, baby
50 Cent grew up in the most impoverished area of Queens. His mother died when he was seven, and he became a crack dealer at age 12. But he began turning his life around at 16, when he quit dealing drugs. He started rapping and recording instrumentals in a friend’s basement and eventually was discovered by Eminem. The rest is history: Billboard Magazine’s sixth best artist of the 2000s and 30 million albums sold to date. For me, 50 Cent’s If I Can’t defines what it takes to be successful. This song is my ringtone.
9. Lil’ Wayne: Forever Winning
Young Money we the hardest team Forever winning bitch We on our Charlie Sheen Make that ass jump Girl do your damn thing We bout that life
Lil’ Wayne grew up with a single mom in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New Orleans. He sold crack, while making the honor roll at a magnet school. When his mother re–married, Lil Wayne grew close to his step-father only to lose him to a violent murder. Still, he showed a talent for rapping at the young age of eight, becoming the youngest member (at age 9) of the label Cash Money Records. His awards are too numerous to name; highlights include over a dozen Grammy nominations and four wins. In 2012, Lil Wayne proved he is a winner by passing Elvis Presley as the male with the most entries on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, with 109 songs. He’s not done yet…
10. Kendrick Lamar: Now or Never
Waking up in a dream Sleepwalking on another big stage You never heard peace ’til you hear people scream Your name in unison, I’m so far away From the place I used to be, struggling usually Look at the newer me, fate pursuing me I can feel the energy in the air It feel like I’m supposed to be here
Kendrick Lamar grew up on the rough streets of Compton, yet he didn’t get roped into the violence — not an easy effort, as he describes in the song Sing About Me. Instead, he embraced his studies and enjoyed writing stories, poems and eventually, lyrics. Now, with a handful of commercial hits, collaboration with several prestigious artists and producers, and seven Grammy nominations for 2014 — Kendrick’s star is gaining speed, which is “the energy in the air” he describes in Now or Never.