1. Jay-Z – $37 million
2. Diddy – $35 million
3. Kanye West – $16 million
4. Lil Wayne – $15 million
4. Birdman – $15 million
6. Eminem – $14 million
6. Dr. Dre – $14 million
6. Snoop Dogg – $14 million
9. Akon – $13 million
10. Ludacris – $12 million
11. Wiz Khalifa – $11 million
11. Drake – $11 million
13. Pharrell Williams – $10 million
14. Timbaland – $7 million
15. Swizz Beatz – $6.5 million
15. Nicki Minaj – $6.5 million
17. Rick Ross – $6 million
17. 50 Cent – $6 million
17. Pitbull – $6 million
20. T-Pain – $5 million
20. B.o.B – $5 million
This week Jay-Z and Kanye West unveiled their long-awaited collaboration, Watch the Throne. The album’s timing and title couldn’t have been more appropriate—the Empire State of Mind rapper is hip-hop’s top earner with $37 million in the past 12 months, claiming his fourth Cash Kings crown in five years; his partner-in-rhyme ranked third.
Fueled by the tail end of his Blueprint 3 Tour and a vast portfolio of business interests, Jay-Z barely edged second-ranked Diddy—who raked in $35 million, roughly half of that total coming from a lucrative partnership with Diageo’s Ciroc vodka—but handily topped West, who earned $16 million. The duo is steaming ahead with plans for co-headlining tour starting this fall.
“Jay-Z and Kanye are hip-hop ambassadors,” says Steve Stoute, chief of branding firm Translation and author of The Tanning of America. “They bring the art form around the world, and they’ve taken production and everything to the next level. Now they’ve got a chance to grow with their global audience.”
Full Coverage: Hip-Hop Cash Kings 2011
The Watch The Throne rappers, whose album debuted around the world exclusively on Apple’s iTunes, aren’t the only ones making millions by going global. Fresh off a eight-month jail stint, Lil Wayne released a new album and performed a slew of shows from Buffalo to Vancouver, netting $15 million over the past year. That sum tied him with his mentor and label boss, Cash Money Records co-founder Birdman, for the fourth spot.
“If we ain’t number one now, we’ll be there soon,” said Birdman while discussing his billion dollar dreams with FORBES. Farther down the list, Swizz Beatz also looked to the future: “I will be #1 next year,” he wrote in an email. Wiz Khalifa—whose high earnings landed him at No. 11—seemed pleasantly surprised to learn he’d be making his Cash Kings debut. “I’m one of them?” he exclaimed. “That’s what’s up!”
The success of hip-hop’s top earners shows just how powerful the genre has become as a commercial force. The top 20 on our list combined to earn $271 million; 13 different artists earned $10 million or more, taking home cash from live shows, recorded music, endorsements and a wide range of other entrepreneurial ventures. The top five combined to earn $118 million in 12 months.
Next on the list is a troika of grizzled veterans—Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Eminem—all tied for the sixth spot at $14 million. Dre’s income got a big boost from Beats by Dre, his lucrative headphone venture with Interscope chief Jimmy Iovine; Snoop cashed in on touring and endorsements from Pepsi Max, Metro PCS and others; Eminem continued to earn from his Grammy-winning album, Recovery, as well as a handful of lucrative concerts with Jay-Z at Yankee Stadium in New York and Comerica Park in Detroit.
“There are four hip-hop artists that sell hard tickets: Eminem, Jay-Z, Kanye and Lil Wayne,” says Randy Phillips, chief of concert promoter AEG. “Those are the big four. In the past, it hasn’t really been a live medium … Is it changing? When you look at the business Jay and Eminem did in Yankee Stadium, I think it is.”
Read more: Why I Wrote An Unauthorized Biography of Jay-Z
Touring was one of the many revenue streams we looked at to come up with the Cash Kings list, which charts pretax earnings for all living artists whose work is primarily classified as hip-hop or rap. The estimates also include income from record sales, digital downloads, films, merchandise sales, endorsements, books and other ventures; management, agent and attorney fees are not deducted. Earnings are calculated for the period from May 2010 to May 2011 and based on data from Pollstar, Nielsen SoundScan, the RIAA and individual record labels, as well as interviews with numerous lawyers, media buyers, managers and many of the artists themselves.
This year’s list features plenty of newcomers. Besides the aforementioned Wiz Khalifa, there’s Nicki Minaj, who debuts at No. 15 with $6.5 million—making her the first female rapper ever to grace the list. Another, Atlanta-based rapper-singer-songwriter B.o.B, squeaked on with $5 million. Sandwiched between Minaj and B.o.B is an additional newbie, Pitbull, who released two albums, performed 50-plus shows and inked a seven-figure endorsement deal with Kodak.
“Pitbull is great with brands,” says Adam Kluger, chief of brand partnership firm The Kluger Agency. “Endorsements with hip-hop artists work because hip-hop artists typically set the most trends … It’s every brand’s goal to be seen in the mainstream, and hip-hop music has become mainstream music.”