Hip-hop is a hypochondriac. Since its first records, the genre has reimagined and revised its own Edenic myth. For every Golden Age, there’s a tin present, allegedly limping from commercial compromises and calorie-free lyrical content. Aside from maybe jazz, no other art form has so existentially lamented its decline from both internal and external boogeymen.
But even by normally cantankerous standards in which past glories are always greater than present achievements, 2014 has been underwhelming. The genre’s most famous names (Jay-Z, Eminem, Kanye West, Drake) haven’t released commercial albums after each dropped new ones in 2013. But most young stars that emerged over the past several years (Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, J Cole, Odd Future, A$AP Rocky) have also been absent. Accordingly, A$AP Yams, who spearheaded A$AP Rocky’s rise, proclaimed 2014 to be “the worst year in rap history.”
There’s some validity to the claim, especially if you use one specific set of criteria: From a strictly major-label perspective, this year’s rap offerings haven’t just been underwhelming, they’ve been almost nonexistent. Just a generation ago, major-label rap albums dominated release calendars, racked up millions in sales and were the home of many genre classics.
With music streaming cannibalizing record sales and leaving them at historic lows, the format and the industry itself are in a period of transition. Ten months into the year, not a single album has gone platinum (Taylor Swift’s “1989” might soon change that), and the music business has gravitated toward a risk-averse Hollywood blockbuster model. Now a few tent-pole releases dominate marketing attention and resources for an entire year.
“There’s less albums across all genres, less artists getting signed, and Spotify isn’t having a great effect on the album format,” says Joie Manda, the president of Urban Music at Interscope. “But if you hook people with a few great songs, they still want the album.”
In a sign of the times, the label of Eminem, Dr. Dre, and 2Pac has only mass-released physical product for one rap album this year: Schoolboy Q’s “Oxymoron,” which debuted at No. 1 in February. Interscope’s other hip-hop offerings have been digital-only EPs, compilations or commercial mix tapes accompanied by a limited-edition batch of CDs.
“It’s more about live shows and how singles react in the club — less about the album,” Manda adds. “The hot artists are omnipresent and never off cycle. By releasing singles on Soundcloud, Drake has impacted this year as much as any artist. It’s a gift and a curse: rap has become so broad as to be massively popular, but it’s no longer dangerous.”
Rap’s DNA now lurks in most pop songs, from Ed Sheeran and Katy Perry. It’s gone from being what Chuck D famously called “the CNN of Black America,” to the entire cable package. It’s no longer enough to just rap well. You’re expected to sing, make pop with universal appeal and be a savvy brand ambassador with edgy credibility for corporate sponsors. But not so much edge that you scare customers away.
The audience’s shifting demographics have been reflected in the artists themselves. Mainstream rap was once the exclusive province of black musicians, save for the occasional outlier (Vanilla Ice, Eminem, Cypress Hill). But over the last half-decade, white rappers of wildly varying styles and skill have built massive followings, often without inner-city support, major labels or radio. A generation who grew up hearing Slim Shady in the stroller doesn’t bat an eyelash at the rise of Macklemore, G-Eazy and Iggy Azalea.
T.I. is one artist who straddles the line between two eras of hip-hop. His new album “Paperwork,” is his ninth major-label effort; five have gone platinum. Despite spawning a gold-certified lead single (“No Mediocre”), this latest salvo embodied the downward spiral of album sales — selling half as much in its first week (70,000 units) as his previous effort, 2012’s “Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head.” But his career arc reveals the multi-platform approach endemic to the contemporary rap star. He owns an Atlanta nightclub, a label (Grand Hustle), acts in films, stars in a VH1 reality show (“Family Hustle”) and has endorsed Chevrolet and Remy Martin cognac — at least until multiple arrests caused the sponsors to back away.
“Talent will always sell. You can’t deny it,” said T.I. recently by phone. “Drake might not have the most traditional background or approach, but him being dope overshadows everything else. . . . All artists still need to be authentic. No amount of capitalism or appropriation can duplicate or replace that,” he adds.
The mention of cultural appropriation underscores a recurring conflict in rap. In this instance, it’s a reference to Grand Hustle artist Iggy Azalea, who has been criticized by many for rapping in a bassy Atlanta drawl, a stark contrast to her native Australian lilt.
“The thing is: Iggy is true to what she represents,” T.I. says. “She was a bad b---- and she proved it.”
It’s hard not to view some of these recent circumstances as a tectonic shift rather than a series of mild tremors. In mid-October, 19-year-old Chief Keef was dropped by Interscope after releasing just one album. Before major labels knew of his existence, Keef simmered from a conflagration of social media, YouTube and worship on Chicago’s chronically violent West and South sides. Given a multimillion-dollar recording contract at 16, he quickly became a litmus test for the difficulties facing street rappers in the major-label system.
Refusing to play the industry game, Keef flaked on 50 Cent and Wiz Khalifa for a video shoot. Multiple arrests and rehab stints followed. Despite massive popularity, no singles conformed to conventional Top 40 radio formats. Keef pushed his music and persona in non-mainstream directions and opted for the anything-goes lawlessness of the ’90s and early ’00s, when platinum sales offered gangsta rappers the ultimate business protection.
Interscope reportedly washed their hands of the investment on the same day that Warner Bros. announced a $10 million pact with Mac Miller, a bar mitzvahed rapper raised in suburban Pittsburgh who entered the industry with a relatable brand and careerist savvy.
“For major labels to really invest in an artist, they have to believe that it’s about more than a single or even one album; it’s the full package,” says Benjy Grinberg, whose Rostrum Records is one of only a handful of mid-sized independent imprints that made its name selling hip-hop.
Before their major label deals, Rostrum bolstered the early careers of Miller and Wiz Khalifa (who is signed to Atlantic in partnership with Rostrum).
“The major labels want to know: How many plays on YouTube will artists get? Can they get sync licensing deals, brand sponsorships, sell merchandise and tour nationally?” Grinberg continues. “That’s how they make all their money now. Instead of one big bucket, they try to fill up 10 little buckets with the work of one artist. Typically, street rappers have a harder time getting licensed and getting sponsorships.”
The endless stream of possible listening options available to fans also works against artists who hope to sell only their music.
“You’re competing against every kid in a dorm room who can upload a track to Soundcloud,” says Mike Caren, the president of worldwide A&R for the Warner Music Group. “That means you need to be a multidimensional artist with stylistic depth, the ability to carry melody, and a ferocious work ethic that keeps people excited over numerous releases.”
If a single major-label classic emerged from the Saharan 2014, it was YG’s “My Krazy Life.” The Def Jam debut from the Compton gangsta rapper realized the increasingly rare combination of critical raves and respectable sales (almost 200,000 copies and a platinum single).
In what’s become a common pattern, YG was already a local street rap phenomenon upon signing in 2009. But during the half-decade between the contract ink drying and CDs being shipped, the rapper endured countless postponements, trend shifts and label tumult. (This is not an uncommon scenario; see sidebar.)
The A&R who signed him left. Several mixtapes and local anthems burnished his hometown legend. But no release date was remotely in sight until his longtime collaborator, DJ Mustard, become the hottest producer breathing and their “My Hitta” became the ratchet generation’s “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
“There weren’t initially huge expectations for YG’s album. But when [“My Hitta”] went platinum, it gave us the freedom to do what we wanted. The record changed,” says Sickamore, the senior director of A&R at Def Jam. “But we had to have some [guts], too. If you make a super West Coast album and it bricks, you’re out of there.”
The Brooklyn-raised executive approached the project with traditional yardsticks in mind. Cognizant of our playlist culture, they crafted a timeless narrative-based rap album that met contemporary trends exclusively on their terms. While most of their peers tried to be everything to everyone, Y.G., Mustard, and Sickamore concentrated on doing one thing — West Coast gangsta rap — extraordinarily well.
“Sometimes movies try to be an action-drama-thriller and you lose people. We wanted to be one pure form, where you can’t skip a scene. Making a classic used to be the goal in hip-hop until it became ‘we need a hit,’ ‘we need to get hot,’ ” Sickamore continues. “We need a lot of mavericks and people fighting to do new sounds. Everyone’s caught up to us, and now it’s time to innovate. If you don’t innovate, you die — that’s the fight that hip-hop is in.”
Weiss is a freelance writer.