My last piece covered how negativity, (most notably criminality, misogyny, and materialism), has a stranglehold on popular hip hop today. Response was varied. There was agreement that it is a horrific dilemma. There was suspicion that I am merely jealous because it's not my music dominating the airwaves. Blame was assigned to everyone from rappers to listeners to labels. Amidst this can of worms one common response stood out to me as particularly puzzling; "it's what sells."
The notion that hip hop consumers have an insatiable thirst for negativity is widely accepted and regularly circulated. In today's society where the bottom line reigns supreme, generation of revenue is seen less as an excuse, and more as an reasonable explanation, for immoral and socially irresponsible behavior. One commenter went as far as to assert that rappers who play into redundant stereotypes are "being good capitalists."
I don't like this argument for two reasons. The first is that It suggests that it's acceptable for integrity to take a backseat to lucrative business opportunity.
The second is that, it's not even true.
The universally accepted, almost common knowledge claim that consumers prefer negative hip hop over all else is a falsehood that does not hold up to even the lightest scrutiny.
Where once the hip hop landscape was rich with the type of diversity believed to have no where near the demand that negativity does, today it is completely saturated with the base immorality consumers are said to clamor for. If negativity is what sells, one would expect hip hop sales to be at an all time high. Instead, hip hop sales are at an all time low. Oddly enough, this is also common knowledge.
Proponents of the misconception chalk this up to record sales being down across the board regardless of genre. Fair enough. Ever since Napster it's been tough all around. A look at the best selling hip hop albums of all time should level the playing field.
Hip hop's best selling album is Outkast's Speakerboxx/The Love Below, which sold 11 million copies. While the double album is not absolutely devoid of the themes said to be mandatory for achieving commercial success (Big Boi is vocal throughout about his penchant for pimping, and it is clear that both he and Andre 3000 have witnessed, and perhaps even taken part, in a few shady happenings while coming of age in Atlanta), they come across first, foremost, and most powerfully as the street-wise, slick talking ladies man who adores his daughter, and the legendarily gifted introvert just looking for someone to love.
There are those that argue that since Speakerboxx/The Love Below was a double album that actually sold 5.5 million copies that it doesn't count. I personally side with the Record Industry Association of America and agree that 11 million sales is 11 million sales whether they came two at a time or not (particularly since the double album sold for roughly twice the price of a single one), but let's round out the top five sellers for argument's sake.
Two Eminem albums, "The Marshall Mathers LP," and "The Eminem Show," The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Life After Death," and MC Hammer's "Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em," all sold roughly 10 million copies.
Pre-hiatus Eminem was characterized by his substance abuse, his inability to gain control over his love/hate relationship with his daughter's mother, his mommy issues, his ironic disgust for pop music, and his phenomenal talent. Hardly an example of one-dimensional negativity, his persona was that of a troubled youth lashing out at a world that seemed unfair.
Then you have MC Hammer. Genie pants, sideways dancing, rapping about how good he raps. A far cry from a money worshipping, women hating, bully. He even prayed.
Biggie is the only member of the top five sellers that fits the profile rigidly adhered to today. In many ways he was it's prototype. That never bothered me though because he was an amazing rapper. I am not naive enough to think that no one sold drugs before hip hop made it cool, but in an atmosphere where talent was paramount you were bound to find the full spectrum of human beings represented. This is further supported by 2Pac, Nelly, The Beastie Boys, and Will Smith rounding out the top 10. Hardly birds of a feather.
In my last piece, Crazy Legs told me that hip hop was never about love. It was never about hate. It was never about peace or flowers or murder or pain. It was about talent. He said something like: "People talking all this hip hop is about peace. It was never about that. Half that cats that started hip hop were stick up kids. Half of 'em were dust heads. Sure some cats were pro black or pro whatever, but that's because they were, not because hip hop was." (I didn't tape record our conversation so that might be a misquote, but that was the gist of it.)
It's also worth noting that if Outkast's contribution to the top five is rendered void for being a double album, so too must B.I.G.'s contribution, "Life After Death."
Speaking of Biggie, when his first single "Juicy" was burning through the airwaves it wasn't alone. An equally infectious single called "Flava in Ya Ear" from Bad Boy label mate Craig Mack, an emcee who's personality was characterized entirely by his unique delivery and enormous ego, battled "Juicy" head to head for pole position on practically every hip hop chart in the country. Their simultaneous ascension despite starkly contrasting personas is strong evidence that it doesn't take an overtly negative image to be marketable in hip hop.
While Mack's first album revealed him to be a one trick pony, Biggie went on to create some of the most creative (albeit negative) anthems that hip hop has ever known. Never has beating your girlfriend when she talked slick seemed so romantic as on "Me and My Bitch." I would never sell crack, but if I did, I'd follow "The Ten Crack Commandments" to the letter. With the exception of "When God Comes," Mack's entire debut album was same song, different beat, while Biggie's Ready to Die was an undisputed classic whose songs painted an array of different pictures. Though his subjects were common, his strokes were brilliant. "Suicidal Thoughts," the album's creative pinnacle, found B.I.G. vividly detailing the hell that awaited him for all of his evil deeds; a concept seldom tackled executed in a thoroughly unique way. The Notorious B.I.G.'s career did not surpass Craig Mack's because of image, it surpassed it because he was a better rapper, and given proper exposure better music will win out. Always. That's why it's "better."
I say "given the exposure" because what's really at the root of the "negativity sells better" misconception is people supporting negative hip hop because it's all they know. My favorite album of this year, (besides my own, of course), is Oddisee's "People Hear What They See." (A telling title indeed). Genius from the first note to the last, the album has not sold a single copy at Best Buy, or at Target, or at Walmart, or at any of the most visible most easily accessible physical music retailers in this country.
Of course it hasn't. It isn't being sold there.
If you go to a supermarket and all that's being sold is oranges, oranges are going to sell. Today's mainstream hip hop audience is an underinformed bunch confusing taste with familiarity. In my last piece I shared my experiences inside inner city high schools and middle schools. Ask these kids who they like and everyones' hand shoots up. Ask them who they don't like and you'll hear crickets. They represent a demographic that is eating whatever they're fed. Oddisee is one of the most gifted musicians of our generation, but he's not in heavy rotation on Hot 97, BET or MTV. He's not getting constant coverage from Vibe, XXL, The Source, Rolling Stone, Spin, Complex or Fader. He's not performing on The Tonight Show. What basis can there be for knocking his music for not selling, when the overwhelming majority of consumers haven't even had an opportunity to listen to it in the first place?
While it's true that Oddisee's digital album is as as available to anyone with internet connection as his mainstream supported counterparts, it doesn't make much sense to compare their sales numbers given the spectacular gap in exposure. Getting people to hear Oddisee is way tougher than getting them to buy his music once they have. Oddisee making a comfortable living off of his music while being relatively unknown is a testament to his conversion rate. I can't speak on Oddisee's personal journey but I can tell you that my highest viewed music video hasn't even reached 100,000 views on YouTube and I've been paying rent in lower Manhattan for over a year. DJ Khaled's latest album sold about 65 times more in it's first week than mine did, but he gets way more than 65 times more exposure. More like 650 times. It's irrational to hold him to the same sales standard as artists getting by on little more than talent and word of mouth.
In fact, when all of these factors are considered, it begins to look like my conversion rate, and Oddisee's, and Brother Ali's, and Blu and Exile's, and all the other remarkable emcees who live comfortably (some very comfortably) exposed to hundreds of thousands rather than hundreds of millions, is actually higher than the vast majority of the acts most people think of when they think hip hop. If as many people knew about us as knew about them, we wouldn't sell just as good. We'd sell better.
Just look at what happened when super stereotype 50 Cent challenged then conscious Kanye West to a Curtis vs. Graduation release week duel and got blown away. Common's Finding Forever debuted at #1 on the billboard charts despite receiving virtually no airplay at all on Hot 97 (the #1 hip hop station in the birthplace of hip hop)! Lupe Fiasco's most recent release fetched 90,000 sales in its first week despite outright media blacklisting. If negativity sells so much better than anything else, how come Eminem's Recovery sold so much more than Relapse? In fact, released in 2010, Recovery is the best selling hip hop album in the last seven years. It's easy to look at the Billboard charts and proclaim that negativity in hip hop is selling. Only slightly closer observation reveals that whenever given equal exposure, talent sells even better.
The reason why today's popular hip hop is embraced by labels and media alike is not because it's the music that sells best. It's because it's the music that sells other things best.
In my last piece I listened to hip hop songs on Hot 97 at random. The first was French Montana's "Pop That." In the song's music video, before anyone begins rapping a close up of a Moet bottle is shown and it's established that one of the guests on the song is nicknamed Rozay (the pronunciation of "Rosé," a blush wine). I admit to only watching the first two verses worth of the video, which contained about as many shots of Ciroc Vodka as it did the rappers performing the song. I'm not exaggerating. The lyrics referenced expensive cars, most notably the Bugotti. Expensive jewelry was boasted and shown, misogyny was overt both lyrically and visually, and multiple molly references were made. ("Molly" is shorthand for a pure form of ecstasy, the trendiest mainstream hip hop drug of the moment).
"Pop That" is typical of the hip hop championed by today's mainstream media. It doesn't sell records particularly well, but has been proven remarkably effective at selling liquor, cars, jewelry, clothing, and electronics. Not only does it also sell drugs but it sells selling drugs. Impressionable listeners who follow suit get caught, and wind up cogs in the prison industrial complex. What corporate interests lose in record sales they more than make up for in sales of expensive goods and free labor. That hip hop music about being irresponsible inherently sells best is a rumor created to justify the transformation of hip hop culture from an art form to one gigantic advertisement.
Hip hop is hurting, and so are we the members of the hip hop community. It's gotten so bad that the term "commercial rap," has gone from meaning rap that is commercially successful, to meaning rap that is actually a commercial. But a higher demand for negativity than talent? If you buy that, you'll buy anything.