What do artists like Charli XCX, Sam Smith, Jessie J, Ed Sheeran, and Coldplay all have in common? They’re all from the United Kingdom, and they all dominated the American radio airwaves in 2014, each falling within the top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
UK artists have also claimed the majority of top-selling albums thus far in 2014. Before the release of Taylor Swift’s 1989, Pharrell Williams was the international minority amongst the UK-dominated list of 10 that included Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Coldplay, Paolo Nutini, Paloma Faith, Ellie Goulding, London Grammar, Arctic Monkeys, and Bastille.
But this comes as no surprise. From The Beatles to Pink Floyd, Spice Girls to Adele, entertainers from the UK have been well intertwined within American pop culture. The only thing missing now is a notable MC.
Somewhere in England there is a British rapper, hoping to one day captivate commercial success in the States, wielding overnight mainstream triumph comparable to that of Iggy Azalea’s—sans the “all-American” façade. It probably won’t be admitted, but it can be presumed: their desire for commercial superstardom to embrace all attributes of a British hip-hop entertainer—native accent and all—is unrelenting, profoundly necessary. The motive is simple: For no reason other than to prove they can do it… just like they’ve done with pop, rock, and beyond.
Would Iggy be enjoying the same commercial success if she were rapping with her native Australian accent? It’s an endless debate, both sides brandishing an array of plausible arguments. But for many Americans, listening to a rapper spit rhymes with an Australian—or British—accent is just too taboo, too comedic and absurd. In fact, so comedic, that it’s difficult to fathom it ever being taken seriously.
Take a group of London-based rappers, for example, who once remixed Ja Rule’s “New York.” The comments underneath the video were widely focused on how gun talk and British pronunciation couldn’t possibly be coexisting, generating enough facetious, slanderous remarks to keep Kevin Hart on a stand-up stage for a week.
And badly received efforts don’t stop here.
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Back in 2006, England’s Lady Sovereign had Jay-Z and Def Jam standing behind her… only to later become just another shelved project and placed in a queue for disposal. What went wrong? For starters, in Eminem, the entertainment industry saw what a crass rebel with a gift for rhyming could do. It could be said that Def Jam reasoned that a ladylike replica was the key to reaping the benefits of this success. Yet Sovereign’s perceived female “Eminem” impersonation, coupled with her pubescent appearance, became an obvious gimmick that lost interest almost as quickly as it was gained.
It probably could have worked, if executed correctly. But to many it was done questionably—or, at least, not in a way that was convincing. In Lady Sovereign, Def Jam beheld a feminine firearm that they were certain would fascinate the minds of mainstream America. Much of the public, on the contrary, saw a pint-sized caricature with a playground-style, side-ponytail that was trying awfully hard to be a nonconformist, a fearless radical, as introduced to new listeners through her lead single “Love Me or Hate Me.” While commercially successful, this song, in lieu of serving its purpose, was largely perceived as a statue of the Napoleon Complex, reeking of the “small dog syndrome” often seen in the streets with dogs as small as a cat that bark and snarl at everything in its path—extracting both delight and exasperation from everyone within earshot. And with no follow-up single potent enough to further propel the mild success granted with the first, Sovereign’s Def Jam debut tanked. Two years later she “departed” from the label.
All of this bares the question: If Lady Sovereign couldn’t succeed with the opportunity and resources that were provided to her, who will? With the UK currently at the top of mainstream America, what will it take for a British rapper to break through and maintain longevity? We saw short-lived achievement with M.I.A, reveling in the explosion of 2007’s “Paper Planes” and echoes of that reverberating through T.I’s Kanye West-produced “Swagga Like Us”—accompanied by all of the best rappers around. But then, abruptly and without apology, the M.I.A affair was over.
With 2015 just around the corner, the arrival of a British rap act certainly will take more than just a couple more months. And with talk within the UK hip-hop community heavily reiterating British rap’s inability to get a handle on creating music adequate enough to attract American mainstream appeal, it probably won’t happen at any point next year. But, you can bet the other genres will continue to deliver in the New Year and for a significant stretch of time thereafter, because that’s what the UK has always done.