When Jay-Z and Kanye West launched their classic album Watch the Throne back in 2011, they racked up earnings that look almost quaint in hindsight. Jay-Z banked $37 million, topping the Forbes “Hip-Hop Cash Kings” list, while Kanye tallied $16 million. Fast forward a decade, and both artists’ earnings have increased more than tenfold.
Hov is this year’s king of hip-hop cash, accumulating a career-best total of $470 million after selling centimillion-dollar chunks of his Tidal streaming service and Armand de Brignac champagne; Jay-Z’s net worth has since ballooned to $1.5 billion. Fellow billionaire Ye ranks second, pulling in $250 million over the course of 2021, almost entirely from his Yeezy footwear empire.
The star-crossed pair transcends hip-hop. Aside from legacy rockers who sold their catalogs last year (and filled up the overall rankings of the highest-paid musicians), Jay-Z and Kanye are the highest-paid musicians of any genre, and there’s no rapper within $175 million of either mogul. Even so, it’s been an impressive year for hip-hop. The top ten earners of 2021 banked more than $1 billion, nearly double their pre-pandemic 2019 haul.
“Things got bigger and better—God is great,” says DJ Khaled, who ranks No. 7 with $35 million. “We the biggest, you know that.”
Hip-hop was forged in a crucible of adversity, part of the reason it’s flourished amid the recent uncertain times. The genre has stared down the barrel of systemic racism from the beginning, and acts historically haven’t been able to rely on live shows or fat corporate checks like their peers in other corners of the music business. Now, they’re among the best equipped to find paths to profit even throughout the disruptions of Covid-19.
Though Hip-Hop now accounts for 27.7% of U.S. music consumption—more than any other genre, according to MRC Data, and roughly equal to rock and country combined—its highest-paid acts are successful because of their diversified portfolios. “Hip-Hop has, and always will, set trends,” says Kim Kaupe, founder of the creative agency Bright Ideas Only. “Brands realize they can no longer sit on the sidelines and test what ‘might’ work. They need to be in the mix testing partnerships and trends before they have the data to back it up.”
That means teaming up with many of the names on this list, and not just Jay-Z and Kanye. Diddy netted more massive payments from Diageo for his Ciroc vodka line while Khaled padded his coffers with partnerships involving companies from Pandora to Dolce & Gabbana.
Others scored big independently. Fire-spitting emcee Tech N9ne made the cut thanks to a previously unreported digital-only catalog deal that added eight figures to his DIY fortune. Wiz Khalifa cashed in on the cannabis revolution with products including his Khalifa Kush (and got a big boost from quietly selling a chunk of his publishing in April).
Some sat back and collected checks from surging catalogs, like Super Bowl star Eminem and Cash Money co-founder, Birdman. Even the embattled Travis Scott made the list despite the deadly crowd surge at his Astroworld festival—he’d already stacked up plenty of cash from his Cactus Jack empire and brand partnerships before the tragedy struck.
Indeed, there are places Hip-Hop could still improve, perhaps most notably when it comes to its persistent gender pay gap. Doja Cat is the only female act on the list, blasting into the top ten on the strength of a thriving international presence and partnerships with brands from Pepsi to CandyCrush.
“Doja is unapologetically self-expressed and the world loves her for it,” says Adriana Arce, Vice President at artist management firm Rebel. “Hip-Hop has always defined culture. Culture shapes the world’s consumer habits. Brands need culture to survive.”
And even as the fortunes of hip-hop’s next generation rise amid such deals and the continued streaming boom, it’s as important as ever to watch that throne. Given how far Jay-Z and Kanye have come in the past decade, imagine the financial heights they’ll reach ten years from now.
Read below to see the full list of hip-hop’s top earners:
1. Jay-Z ($470 million)
2. Kanye West ($250 million)
3. Diddy ($75 million)
4. Drake ($50 million)
5. Wiz Khalifa ($45 million)
6. Travis Scott ($38 million)
7. DJ Khaled ($35 million)
8. Eminem ($28 million)
9. J. Cole ($27 million)
10. Birdman ($25 million)
10. Doja Cat ($25 million)
10. Tech N9ne ($25 million)
*Methodology: The list of Hip-Hop’s highest-paid acts measures pretax income for calendar year 2021 before deducting fees for agents, managers, lawyers and living expenses. Estimates are generated with the help of numbers from MRC Data, Pollstar and other databases, as well as by interviewing handlers and some of the artists themselves.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg pioneered the “Forbes List” of hip-hop’s top earners over a decade ago. Now he writes the Zogblog, a Substack newsletter on music and money. He’s the author of four books; the “Billionaire Edition” of his Jay-Z biography Empire State of Mind came out in 2021.