Last year’s new crop of rappers were known for breaking the rules. Lil Uzi Vert preferred to be called a “rockstar,” 21 Savage insisted on deadpan coldness in all his tracks, and Lil Yachty was in contention with members of rap’s old guard every other week. Their music jettisoned in new and different directions, but there was one thing they all had in common: how they used Instagram. Through this visual medium, the young artists spoke directly to fans, telling their behind-the-scenes story. Fans loved it, as evidenced by the rappers’ skyrocketing follower counts. Lil Yachty, for example, now boasts over 2 million followers on Instagram.
There are obviously numerous ways to measure an artist’s popularity: Facebook likes, ticket sales, Spotify streams, albums sales. None of these are perfect—they can only ever give us a slice of the whole picture. The same goes for Instagram. (How many of the millions of Drake’s followers are spambots?) But after paying attention to the Instagram lives of up-and-coming rappers, I realized there might be a better way to tell whether an artist is about to blow up—not by looking at their follower count, but at the percentage of those followers who like their Instagram posts. Tracking the ratio of likes to followers became a fun way to see how artists stacked up to each other; to me, it seemed less precise but potentially more telling than the sheer number of followers an artist has. After all, if your followers aren’t pausing as they scroll through their feeds and double-tapping to give you that like, does it really matter how many you have?
I should pause here and say—using social media to express yourself and connect with audiences is not new, in the rap world or anywhere else. But starting early last year, I noticed something different was happening on Yachty’s, Vert’s, and 21 Savage’s Instagrams—and it became more obvious when I compared their likes-to-followers ratios to those of rappers like Drake, Future, and Quavo. Yachty and his peers rapidly gained Instagram (and IRL) followers over the course of last year, but it also seemed like they were getting more engagement on their individual photos. Some back-of-the-envelope math confirmed my hunch: These younger rappers consistently had much higher likes-to-followers ratio than their predecessors. This felt like proof they were about to blow up.
Consider Lil Yachty. Throughout 2016, Yachty’s likes-to-followers ratio remained consistently around 10% by my calculations. That might not seem high—but paired with his sudden stardom, it tells a story. Last year, his early shows would sell out and just the possibility of a meet-and-greet would spawn mob-like frenzies of Yachty-crazy teens.
Yachty could have been a clear outlier, so I tracked other artists’ engagement to see how they measured up. Rich Homie Quan has significantly followers Instagram followers as Lil Yachty—2.9 million compared to 2.1 million—but his posts rarely get likes from more than 3% of his followers. A photo of Quan posing with EDM star Marshmello only got 0.3% and even his most popular Instagram post last year didn’t break 2%. In the music world, Quan had more hits over a longer period of time than Yachty, whose career has been relatively short—but Quan hasn’t had a real mainstream hit since “Flex (Ohh Ohh Ohh)” in 2015. Both of them hail from Atlanta, but Quan and Yachty occupy completely different worlds: As Lil Yachty appears in tongue-in-cheek Sprite and Target ads and headlines showcases at SXSW, Rich Homie Quan remains on the endless southern nightclub circuit. It probably helps that Lil Yachty’s Instagram could be better described as a teenage moodboard, where Rich Homie Quan’s feels old school in that it exists almost purely for self-promotion.
For the purpose of this experiment (which I conducted on-and-off over the course of last year, without taking screenshots, much to the chagrin of my editor), I focused mostly on rap and R&B, because artists in these genres thrive on social media, where they curate their public persona instead of relegating updates to a publicist. But to replicate my results for this piece, I looked to today’s star-bound rappers and peeped their likes-to-followers ratio to see if I’m onto something or if everything really is meaningless. Nav, the came-out-of-nowhere singer now signed to The Weeknd’s XO label, pulls in well over 15% on most of his Instagram posts; his most recent post, at the time of writing, got just under 20%. His appeal to his Instagram followers is outrageous, considering that he’s only has a handful of tracks on SoundCloud and hasn’t played any shows. Where did this fan base come from?
This level of fandom reminds me of another superstar, albeit someone outside of the rap and R&B world: Mitski. She currently has just over 30,000 Instagram followers—but her posts typically get likes from 12% to 18% of her followers, including one post that received likes from more than 25%. It was a cheeky mirror selfie, and the caption read: “hello I’m the high-strung urbanite antagonist girlfriend in the romcom who gets unceremoniously dumped bc no I don’t want to get into a spontaneous water gun fight or skip work to go on a date I love my job. come to a show if you agree.”
It’s a good explanation for her huge rock-star appeal: in her music and online, Mitski uses a mix of the highly relatable and highly personal to connect with audiences. Of course, her likes-to-followers ratio is by no means the perfect way to gauge the fire of her fans. But posts like these show how much her fans respond to that mix, and like Lil Yachty and NAV, the engagement on her Instagram mirrors something of her real-life rise to fame: Mitski went from playing relatively small DIY venues to selling out a 1800-person venue in two years. She’s so beloved that an Instagram post about said sold-out show—which was just a photo of show’s flyer, no mirror selfie this time—was liked by just under 10% of her followers. For comparison, Drake would need three million people to like one of his Instagram posts to show the same kind of engagement. That isn’t to doubt Drake’s commercial and critical success, but at some point millions of “followers” on Instagram also bring a windfall of fake accounts, or fans who liked you before you were big and now don’t double-tap out of some cool-kid shame. But there’s no shame in being a Lil Yachty or Mitski fan right now. Today these newer artists and in-the-know fans are still in the honeymoon phase of fandom, where they’re excited about whatever new turns the artists’ careers may take and ready at any point to smash that heart button.