If there’s anything we’ve learned in the 21st century, it’s that attention of any kind can result in some sort of fame or reward. No matter how ridiculous or unwarranted an action may be, as long as people are paying attention, the downside is minuscule.
This tactic is something the music industry has continued to employ—the more buzz that’s generated, the more revenue that is created. Audio streams and clicks have proven to be beneficial in chart calculations, however, those results wouldn’t occur without an interest in the artist from the get-go. While it’s possible for artists to hit the top of the charts based on talent and project excitement alone (take Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD, J. Cole’s K.O.D. and Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V this year, for example), the art of “trolling” has proven to be another successful way to get there.
Per Dictionary, the informal definition of trolling is classified as conduct or content that is deliberately offensive or provocative in order to garner attention. The art—which was at one point the bane of the Internet thanks to pranks like “Rick Rolling”—has become a way to proclaim staying power and generate profit in the entertainment industry.
“We’re in the generation of trolling,” J. Cole told Angie Martinez during a May 2018 interview. The topic of discussion was Cole being trolled by fans of rising Florida native Smokepurpp who repeatedly chanted ‘F**k J. Cole” during a concert, which is also the title of a song from his collaborator, Lil Pump. Regardless of his conduct throughout in the spotlight, Smokepurpp (real name Omar Pineiro) has generated a fair amount of buzz around his music and is in the midst of a tour with trap music icon Gucci Mane.
Despite the trolling formula appearing to work for a plethora of artists, there seems to be a limit on how much is too much. Those who troll too hard can create a counteractive effect on their career, resulting in negative and irreversible damage on the musician’s success.
While an older generation of musicophiles have difficulty accepting that the industry is changing to reflect the times, the charts have been indicative of those undeniable shifts. The art of trolling in hip-hop, however, is hardly a new phenomenon.
Although their conduct in the age of the Internet has raised tons of eyebrows, few can forget the Kanye West vs. 50 Cent trolling battle for sales superiority. In 2007, the two engaged in a spirited and highly-publicized clash, which included a classic Rolling Stone double-cover story. West’s Graduation ended up selling more copies than 50’s Curtis (957,000 to 691,000), but ultimately, both rappers came out on top thanks to a gargantuan amount of attention paid to them and their projects. Fast forward a few years, and trolling continues to be a tactic in music. Industry tastemaker Lil B has been a practitioner of the art since the early 2010s with eyebrow-raising songs like “Look Like Jesus” and “Suck My D**k Ho,” and before they became superstars in their own right, the Odd Future collective’s in-your-face appearance and behavior certainly could have been perceived as “trolly.”
There are different paths to the top of the charts, and although unorthodox, an artist’s conduct (whether immoral or otherwise) has proven to be impactful on their personal success. Those who are “good” trollers find that their conduct benefits them in terms of attention, which could multiply the amount of eyes and ears to their catalogue of work. It’s paradoxical, but it pays off to be “good” at being “bad.”
These days, Kanye’s West’s conduct is polarizing to say the least, but it hasn’t affected his ability to come out on top. Despite his controversial moves, such as his support of Donald Trump and mid-year insinuation that slavery was a “choice,” his eighth studio album ye debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 charts. Of the five G.O.O.D. Music/West-produced releases in 2018, it was the only one to hit the top albums slot, selling 208,000 copies in its first week. All seven songs on the LP cracked Billboard’s top 40.
Additionally, West’s track “Lift Yourself,” which was widely revered as merely a trolling single, ended up nearly charting on the Billboard Hot 100. The scat-happy track was released shortly after announcing the string of self-produced projects for himself and others, and it was helmed by Uproxx as a “flatulent troll job.” Regardless, the song made it to the No. 2 slot on the Bubbling Under Hot 100 Singles chart.
Although they didn’t initially embark into the industry as “trolls,” it appears that more seasoned artists like ‘Ye are latching onto a suspected anomalous practice for gaining attention in the Digital Age, which seems to be most often utilized by younger musicians.
Journalist Trey Alston penned a piece for REVOLT in May regarding the “astute ties” between Tekashi 6ix9ine, trolling, and the new wave of rap’s superstars, who appear to have perfected the craft. “The trolling is what we know [Tekashi] for,” he wrote after acknowledging the musician’s proven ability for making hits. “It’s what has enabled him to be in the position to be in the spotlight, to command attention, to generate conversation.”
“It appears that to be a successful troll, one must be able to not only be able to generate controversy as we all can but also do their best impression of what they think the worst aspects of black culture are,” Alston tells VIBE via e-mail. “This succeeds in not only generating interest and hate in the behavior itself but also in the personality, which is then compounded with each additional action. As a troll, you’re only as big as your last controversy.”
Tekashi (real name Daniel Hernandez) has been mired by controversy since becoming a music superstar in late-2017. The Brooklyn rapper with rainbow grills and tresses faces the possibility of life in prison for racketeering and weapon possession charges, among many more incidents including reportedly choking a teenage fan and a child sexual misconduct case. (His trial has been set for September 2019.) However, he has had multiple songs crack the Billboard charts, such as “GUMMO” which peaked at No. 12 and “FEFE” with Nicki Minaj, which peaked at No. 3. The track, which featured an eyebrow-raising music video, is Tekashi’s highest-charting song to date and Minaj’s highest-charting song since 2014.
Keeping the latter sentiment in mind, is chart superiority the reason why more seasoned hip-hop vets are teaming up with the younger set of rap’s elite? Is there a formula that younger rappers have cracked that results in chart-success, and is that formula something more well-known rappers are hoping to emulate?
Not only is Minaj working with Tekashi during what many critics see as her own epoch of questionable behavior; Kanye West teamed up with “Gucci Gang” MC Lil Pump in the fall for “I Love It” and Lil Wayne (thanks to a recommendation from Mack Maine) featured deceased 20-year-old musician XXXTentacion in his song “Don’t Cry” from Tha Carter V. The latter debuted at No. 5, while the former peaked on the charts at No. 6, West’s highest-charting single since 2015’s “FourFiveSeconds.”
Alston notes that many seasoned hip-hoppers found fame in an era where social media and gimmicks didn’t dictate how they were received by the public. That fact adds to the “constant nagging worry” of losing the popularity they’ve accumulated, which results in the consideration and implementation of “drastic” measures to keep them relevant during a time where attention often wanes by the day.
“It’s a brutal game,” he concludes. “[Older artists are] looking to push into new audiences without caring about the moral implications that working with artists with baggage brings. It’s a tough game out here in the social media age that magnifies misfires. Iconoclasts are willing to overlook controversy to ensure that their spot in the game is secure.”
There’s also a chance that there is a direct correlation between trolling and the charts, which could influence musicians’ decisions to engage in questionable behavior. According to Billboard Chart Manager Kevin Rutherford, there have been instances this year that trolling has had an impact on chart positions, so long as the attention is generated through social media specifically.
“Let’s take Machine Gun Kelly with the Eminem tweets and song [“Rap Devil”],” he tells VIBE. “Pretty sizable numbers socially. That kind of did correlate to sales too, but in that case, that was also surrounding the song itself. It was all intertwined. When it’s a diss track, [the trolling and the sales] are definitely connected. If they’re [trolling] off of social media, the social and music charts are usually unaffected.”
“Someone like [Tekashi] 6ix9ine, you don’t see as much on social media, so he’s a different example,” he continues. “But this week [Oct. 16], Lana Del Rey re-enters the [social] chart at No. 12.” Rutherford’s comments came one week after Lana Del Rey and Azealia Banks were embroiled in a Twitter war. “The trolling aspect usually has to kind of bleed into literally what they were saying on social media, what they’re tweeting. If they’re saying it off of social media, it’s usually unaffected.”
There’s certainly a difference between “good” and “bad” trolling, and these contrasts yield varied results for many artists. Pusha T and Eminem took “good trolling” via diss tracks to new heights. Push’s “The Story Of Adidon” diss against Drake helped continue to generate attention surrounding his May release, DAYTONA. Eminem bit back at pseudo-enemy Machine Gun Kelly with the track “Kill Shot,” which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard charts, making it his career’s highest ranking debut and highest-charting song since 2013’s “The Monster.”
Diss tracks were not the only “good” examples of trolling this year. Vince Staples was able to drum up buzz around his single “Get The F**k Off My D**k” after creating a GoFundMe and urging his haters to donate to it. If $2 million was raised, the Long Beach musician promised to retire and “shut the f**k up forever” (Obviously, based on the release of FM! eight months later, Staples did not STFU). Doja Cat’s viral video for the absurd song “Mooo!” has been watched over 22 million times to-date, and resulted in more attention for her early 2018 album Amala, which now has over one million SoundCloud streams. Comedian Lil Duval’s “Smile Bi**h (Living My Best Life)” featuring hip-hop heavyweights Snoop Dogg and Ball Greezy was created just for fun as the antithesis to mainstream rap and earned him a spot on the Billboard Hot 100.
“Every song is a joke idea,” Duval told Angie Martinez in August. “This one just took off.” However, with the good comes the bad. There are indeed limits to trolling, and those who go a bit too far with their conduct are often the ones who aren’t climbing up the charts.
Case in point, Azealia Banks. Although she possesses obvious musical skills and releases tunes that many enjoy, the Harlem native has had a difficult time progressing in the industry and on the charts. However, there’s a chance that her unapologetic and uncouth approach to discussing topics and people has deterred any sort of success the “Anna Wintour” artist could have attained.
“As a troll, you’re only as big as your last controversy.”
The 27-year-old’s highest-charting single on the U.S. charts is 2014’s “Chasing Time,” which peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard Dance Songs chart, and is one of only two songs of hers to ever chart on the U.S. Billboard charts (alongside 2018’s “Anna Wintour”). While her stateside success has seen swings and misses, overseas she has performed fairly well. Her hit “212” is certified Platinum by the British Phonographic Industry, and her 2012 EP 1991 is certified Gold by the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA).
What could be deterring her career from advancing on U.S. soil? One could argue her “troll-like” behavior is a glaring possibility. Banks has had feuds with T.I., Cardi B, Rihanna, Lana Del Rey, Zayn Malik and more, and at some points, her comments have alienated members of her fanbase through her unabashed use of racial and homophobic slurs. During a time where an online presence is often beneficial to create or advance careers, the fact that Banks is unable to rein in her behavior online has presented an adverse effect.
“Trolls have to be aware of their public perception and cognizant of the fans that they’re trying to reach,” Alston says. “Azealia’s mean-spirited trolling often offends everyone. She goes after everyone’s favorite artists, bringing unnecessary scrutiny on her own work.”
However, over-the-top conduct that some artists are notorious for actually aid in their success, brand, and marketing expertise. Take Danielle “Bhad Bhabie” Bregoli, the burgeoning rapper formerly recognized as the “Cash Me Outside Girl.” The teenager entered the public zeitgeist as a punchline on Dr. Phil, but her supposed “15 minutes” is still going strong. Although her “IDGAF” demeanor and headline-making behavior have turned off many people from supporting her musically and personally, it’s evident that the young Floridian has a knack for hit-making and the fanbase to prove it.
At 15 years old, Bhad Bhabie is the youngest rapper in history to crack the Hot 100 chart with “These Heaux,” which entered the chart in the summer of 2017 and peaked at No. 77. Additionally, her breakout single “Hi Bich” is certified Gold, and the remix to her song “Gucci Flip Flops” (which is also certified Gold) features hip-hop superstars Snoop Dogg and Plies.
In an email to VIBE, Bhad Bhabie’s manager Adam Kluger noted that his client’s authenticity and being her unapologetic self has contributed to her prosperity. “I do not filter her. Her authenticity is the reason for her success,” he writes. “We let her be her, and fans gravitate towards that authenticity.” Even her website features several on-brand placements of the middle-finger emoji and Bregoli’s new signature slang word, “bich.”
In an interview with The New York Times, and as mentioned in his client’s upfront song “Bhad Bhabie Story (Outro)” from her mixtape 15, Kluger was unsure of what his plan was in terms of turning the then-meme into a music sensation. However, he had faith that her real-life rawness would help tremendously. As written in the NYT piece, “He would let her be herself online, without constraints, regardless of what was considered age-appropriate or in her best interests.”
“It was pretty organic,” Kluger wrote regarding her shift to the music industry. “I admit it wasn’t initially the plan, but even in early TV meetings, on the way there in the car, she’d be rapping along to songs on the radio. She always gravitated towards music.” While her persona is over-the-top, Bhad Bhabie’s brand doesn’t involve tearing down others through their gender, identity or race. Despite what others believe about her rise, her label’s commitments to marketing her hard-edge image is paying off.
Lanre Gaba, General Manager/SVP Urban A&R at Atlantic Records, notes to VIBE via phone that while artists are often free to say and do what they feel, an artist’s team often offers guidance and support about what is acceptable in terms of conduct. What she cares most about is their authenticity and how they can relate their story to listeners.
“We know what benefits artists, and [A&R teams] definitely are there to give guidance and advice as anyone on their team would,” she says. “But ultimately, it’s their career and their decision. Human brains have free will, so if someone wants to do something through social media or whatever, we don’t control all of that…”
“…Conversations happen all the time, the sit-downs happen all the time, and it comes from different places,” she continues. “Whether it’s from the executive level, or someone who is more one-on-one at A&R or marketing, we’re constantly giving advice on how to move right.”
“You can’t tell me [Kanye West] didn’t lose fans. I would say that he underperformed in sales based on who he is, as a result of some of the things he said this year.”
When it comes to labels taking in artists who aren’t initially members of the industry, it’s, of course, a chancy move, especially when the person is well-known for their behavior. Cardi B gained a cult following through her unapologetic social media presence long before she was making money moves, and Bhad Bhabie’s brash approach to living life made her tabloid fodder before her musical transition. Some would argue that labels taking in the flavor of the week is trolling in itself. However, Gaba notes that these artists were working on their musical craft before they were officially signed to labels.
“[With] every single artist—no matter whether they started as a musician, whether they’re the greatest songwriter on earth—you know that you’re taking a risk and a gamble,” she says. “Any amount of things could happen that could make an artist you believed in not work. Anyone we have signed that had a prior history in another world and segued into music, still came to [Atlantic] after they had already segued to music. In that sense, we’re judging them the same way we would have judged anybody else who walked in the door as an artist. [There are] very rare cases where it’s like, ‘yes, you’re coming in the door, and we have to figure this out.’”
Can “bad trolls” work to right their wrongs and fix the damage their actions have created? There’s a possibility. However, if the cuts are too deep, it may be too late for the artist to bandage up the wounds. In the era of “cancel culture” where someone’s bad decisions have the potential to ruin their career, some artists have proven to be unscathed.
While some artists are “canceled” for saying or doing problematic things, others still enjoy sales and chart benefits despite their behavior. Gaba suggests that due to Kanye West’s storied and lauded track record in the music industry, he continues to win despite his polarizing comments and actions, whereas other artists don’t get those sort of passes.
“I think Kanye, to a certain degree, based on what he’s done before, has earned himself some level of, I don’t want to say ‘legend’ status,” she chuckles. “But on the flip side, I would argue that based on Kanye’s pedigree, the talent level we know that he has, he probably would have done significantly better [sales-wise]… I still don’t think that he was able to perform at the level that someone of a Kanye West stature should, because of some of the detrimental things that he said, and some of the fans that he lost along the way. You can’t tell me he didn’t lose fans. I would say that he underperformed in sales based on who he is, as a result of some of the things he said this year.”
All in all, the music industry has changed in more ways than one. In a world where attention can catapult any average Joe to superstardom, it’s no wonder why multiple industries are implementing tactics to ensure that people’s eyes and ears are on an individual and the work they put forth for as long as possible. In the music industry, it’s up to the artist to determine how far they’re willing to go for attention or lack thereof.
“Trolling is a dangerous game that many artists aren’t mentally equipped to deal with once it goes left,” Alston adds. “Know its lasting effects before using it to make it to that next level.”
As J. Cole puts it so poignantly in his Angie Martinez interview, “These kids have figured something out… they’ve figured out that attention is all that matters. The skill? The quality? [Who gives a] f**k about quality… This music is just a platform for [them] to get attention, and what’s even more important than the music is the sh*t that [they] do outside of the music.”