Hip-hop fans have, for years now, watched artists choose between their art and their pockets. There were albums that we loved—ones that reflected upon social issues, politics, and race artfully and poetically—but weren’t catchy enough for radio and didn’t sell. And then there were albums that we didn’t love—that were largely devoid of meaningful content, and yet had that one irresistibly melodic song that generated airplay, and as a result sold quite well. But in 2015, it seems those lines are blurring. Some of the year’s fastest selling full-lengths have also been the least marketed and most critically-acclaimed. Though single sales remain inextricably linked to album sales in the pop industry, hip-hop seems to have found an out. Is the industry being forced to adapt?
In order to better illustrate this trend, let’s consider the paths of Lupe Fiasco and J. Cole, two rappers whose careers began in the past decade with a considerable amount of critical acclaim, as well as fan appreciation for the creativeness and purposeful content showcased in their full-length efforts. In the early months of the 2010s, both were signed to major labels (the same ones they’re still with five years later), and struggling to navigate the distinction between what they desired for their art and the standards of the industry to which they were being asked to conform.
Both Lupe and Cole had certainly shown that they were capable of drawing a considerable audience. Lupe’s first two albums, Food & Liquor and The Cool, had already gone gold and were still selling steadily (to this date sales of the two projects have amassed a combined 1, 780,000 units). J. Cole, the recent Jay Z signee and Fayetteville native, was on the verge of releasing his second mixtape in less than eighteen months. The Warm Up had been met with widespread critical acclaim and was on its way to 500,000 downloads. Most of the songs that would later come to constitute Friday Night Lights had already been written; tracks that would help the project earn the Mixtape of the Year award from BET, and eventually produce 999,000 downloads on DatPiff (it also ranks seventh all-time on the site in favorites).
So why were they encountering so much friction from labels as they prepared to again hit a market that had been so receptive of them in the recent past? It was predominately because neither artist had been able to produce a worthy single; a song that their labels could release for mass consumption, to pique the public’s interest in their full-length effort.
Labels over time had solidified their strategy of using single performance as the primary gauge of future album sales. This had become deeply rooted in the system after many decades, and label executives were confident in this reliance. Both Lupe and Cole had been at work on their upcoming projects (Lasers and Cole World: The Sideline Story) for years. They had songs they were passionate about. Songs that sounded like the natural progression of their sound as they developed as artists. Lupe was getting more political. J. Cole was becoming more adept at his brand of social commentary. But they didn’t have a crossover success; a pop song that might sell outside the hip-hop realm.
In Lupe’s case, it was presented rather simply. In an interview with Complex in February 2011 titled “Lupe Fiasco Hates His Own Album,” Lupe stated that he’d been approached by the President of Atlantic Records, and was told bluntly: without a pop single there wouldn’t be an album.
“He played ‘Show Goes On’ for me on the iPod. I was used to it because they presented me like ten other songs in the same fashion or via email… I had to do ‘Show Goes On,’ that was like the big chip on the table. I had to do it and it had to be the first single if the record was going to come out.”
Meanwhile, a few miles east in Queens, J. Cole was finished with his debut album, but it was still without a release date because his label had yet to hear a single-worthy cut. He tried giving them “Who Dat,” but it wasn’t catchy enough to compete with the likes of B.o.B’s “Airplanes” or Jay Z’s “Young Forever.” He made “Higher.” He made “Blow Up.” He made “Can’t Get Enough.” But none of these were the green light Roc Nation needed. At an NYC listening party for Born Sinner in June 2013, Cole had this to say about that time in his life:
I dropped [Friday Night Lights]. I now got a buzz that had spilled passed underground. It was to the real people now… to the world now. However, I don’t have a single. And the next six months of my life was like, literally, hell… The next six months of my life I was making some of the worst, most uninspired music of my life… Imagine every beat you make, you like, ‘Damn, is this a hit kick drum? Is this a hit snare drum? Is this a hit drum pattern? And then once I make that, like, ‘Is this a catchy enough line?’
Fast-forward five years, and everything has changed.
Neither Lupe nor Cole has a song in the Top 40. In fact, neither has had a single chart higher than No. 58 in almost two years now. And yet, they both have had albums released in the past five months, and their labels haven’t changed. (Lupe’s Tetsuo & Youth was his fifth with Atlantic, and 2014 Forest Hills Drive was Cole’s third on Roc Nation).
Cole opted for an intentionally atypical promotion route. He first made fans aware of his album on November 16th with a video trailer, just a little over three weeks before release day. In the coming weeks, no single was released to radio—the only additional promotion came in the form of a Complex cover story, where he explained the album’s inspiration, and a release of the preorder and track-list that came ten days before the full project. But with the release of the album came 371,000 first week sales, and to date it is his highest selling, earning him his first platinum stamp.
Lupe’s release process was also a rather unique one, as he never seemed to make a very determined shot at radio. He first announced the title on the red carpet of the Grammy’s in February 2013, and in May 2014 his first promotional single was released. “Mission” was certainly a more upbeat offering from him, but as a song dedicated to cancer survivors and those still inflicted, it was likely never regarded as a realistic radio success, and it unsurprisingly did not chart. Still, that October Atlantic tweeted that the album would be released on January 20, 2015, and within a month the first official single, “Deliver,” surfaced. “Deliver” was powered by a blazing synth line, but thematically wasn’t really geared for radio, either. As stated on Rap Genius, the song addresses “certain pizza joints that won’t deliver to neighborhoods that are considered high-risk,” and is more largely a “social commentary on deliverance, or lack thereof, for people living in the ghetto.” The song was his second promo release that failed to succeed on mainstream radio, yet the album still released on January 20th as planned.
While Lupe’s album had unimpressive first week sales (it debuted at No. 14 with just 42,000 copies sold), fans and critics have been very pleased by the final product. The album was assigned an 80 at Metacritic, which designates “universal acclaim”—his highest score in the eight-plus years since his debut. It’s also an album that feels very much like the one he set out to create, with its abstract cover art, narrative-heavy songwriting, and more than a few songs that stretch past the six-minute mark.
This seems to suggest that labels may be softening their measures, and—as a byproduct—giving artists more control over their own fates.
Jason Flom, co-founder and CEO of Lava Records and Lava Music Publishing, has had a long and successful career as an industry executive, having served as Chairman and CEO of Atlantic Records, Virgin Records, and Capitol Music Group, as well as being credited for the discovery of Lorde and Katy Perry. He notes that hip-hop has an advantage in marketing experimentation.
“Hip-hop is the most important music of this generation and to a large extent it’s where the voice of social consciousness is coming from,” Flom said. “It’s a genre where there are several contemporary living legends who each have their own huge, fiercely loyal fan base and this allows for innovative, experimental marketing plans to take shape. Radio is still a tremendously powerful force but now more than ever branding and awareness are coming from social media and from the streets.”
Nullah Sarker, the Creative Director for Lava Music Publishing, agreed that this trend is most applicable to hip-hop. “You have to be more holistically appealing in hip-hop than you do in pop. Hip-hop artists are tangible longer… they are embodying a culture. They are more at one with their artistry.”
Elsewhere, Drake’s If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late has had similar success under quite comparable circumstances. His project, like Cole’s, came as a surprise to fans—a trend that has become increasingly popular after Beyonce’s eponymous and unexpected album rode the strategy straight to five million worldwide sales. This strategy has not been proven equally effective for all, but in many cases, it creates a much more personal sensation around what is typically a middle-man-heavy album release process.
In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered, Jason King—a professor and musician at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Record Music—stated, “[Beyonce’s album] seems like a direct gift from the celebrity to the consumer, in a way that I think is going to benefit her. She seems extremely altruistic actually for doing this.” Drake’s new work evoked similar emotions from fans and critics, and has shared the same success. Without an official single, If You’re Reading This was designated platinum the very same week as Forest Hills Drive.
So, what does this mean for labels’ presumed tried-and-true method of determining potential sales outcomes? Has this criterion been outgrown? The times seem to suggest a rapidly changing landscape in the music industry; a landscape where more accessibility and spontaneity in one’s marketing efforts are generously rewarded by more dedicated fan bases.
The inverse of this has proved to be interesting still. Take Omarion’s new album, Sex Playlist, or Jeremih’s repeatedly delayed Late Nights, or even current airway heavyweights Rae Sremmurd’s SremmLife. Each of these artists have produced Top 20 hits: Omarion’s “Post to Be” currently sits at No. 13; Jeremih’s “Don’t Tell ‘Em” peaked as high as No. 6; Rae Sremmurd’s “No Flex Zone” has reached No. 16, and two other singles of theirs have peaked inside the Top 30. Yet Jeremih’s album is still in limbo, and neither Omarion or Rae Sremmurd have managed to sell more than 200,000.
If this method is outdated, as seems to be the case, then what has taken its place?
Fan base certainly plays a role. Cole, Drake, and Kendrick Lamar (whose sophomore effort To Pimp a Butterfly has also sold efficiently, reaching gold status in under two months without a Top 40 single obviously have larger fan bases than the likes of Jeremih, Omarion, or Rae Sremmurd. A more even comparison is Nicki Minaj (who has almost twice the combined Twitter followers of Cole and Kendrick). The Young Money first lady released her long-awaited third album, The Pinkprint, in December, after spending much of 2014 following what was largely a traditional promo route.
Four singles were promoted prior to the album’s release date. To date, there have been five promo singles, three of which (“Anaconda,” “Only,” and “Truffle Butter”) have peaked inside the top fifteen, and another in the top thirty. Yet the album has sold only a reported 607,000 copies since its Dec 12 release. It took eight weeks to earn gold status, which is longer than it took her rap counterparts (Drake passed 500k in his first week, Cole in his second, and Kendrick in his third.)
This is not all to say that the market for single promotion in hip-hop and R&B is going away anytime soon. More than a third of the Hot 100’s current Top 40 also appear on the Hip-Hop/R&B chart. As long as catchier, simpler hip-hop is popular, there will be a window for our Trinidad Jameses and Rich Homie Quans—artists who are capable of producing gold-selling singles, but still aren’t able to get a major label album funded and deemed as necessary or desired from the public.
The singles market may never fully disappear from relevance altogether, but the times openly suggest that labels begin searching for alternative strategies. The process of deciphering which artists are deserving of the funding and distribution is becoming increasingly more difficult. Data is beginning to more clearly show that what will motivate a fan to spend 99 cents is not sufficient in getting them to spend nine dollars more. No, it is the artists capable of creating an album’s worth of meaningful content who have found themselves in control, at least for the time being.
It has been a long five years watching our artists’ creativity suffer at the hands of the gatekeepers. A long five years since J. Cole sat in his apartment, depressed and hopelessly uninspired, trying to create a song that would allow the rest of his work—the songs he’d made out of love and passion for hip-hop—to be heard by his fans. A long five years since Lupe penned the words, “They treat you like a slave,” in regards to Atlantic. But finally, it seems, these measures that have kept our artists in captivity for so long no longer will be maintained with the same force. Other methods have proven themselves to be successful. Methods where artists’ relationship with their fans and ability to create an album’s worth of quality material becomes more relevant than the single is—or maybe ever was.
During that night in the SVA Theatre in 2013, J. Cole spoke at length about his song “Let Nas Down”—a song he’d made about the shame he’d felt after learning Nas hated his album’s first single, “Work Out.” Less than a week after its release, Nas remixed the song out of respect for Cole. “Radio records are needed, I just wanted to bring the warning,” he rapped. He was referencing his 1999 label appeasement cut, “You Owe Me,” a deeply misogynistic and unimpressive song that forever hangs over the legacy of one of the genre’s best writers. The need to conform has tainted the work of even hip-hop’s most celebrated technical rappers and poetic lyricists, ever since the lines between popular music and hip-hop began to blur.
But what labels may find waiting at the end of these questions, at the end of their search for a new barometer, is that they really aren’t the ones with the answers anymore.
Jeff Baird is a writer based in New York. He has previously written for The Atlantic, Potholes In My Blog, Fresh New Tracks, and more.
Photo Credit: Getty Images