The Curious Case of the Irrelevant Rapper
When I first heard about Nipsey Hussle’s #Proud2Pay concept, I was blown away. The LA-bred rapper would make 1,000 numbered copies of his new mixtape, Crenshaw, and sell them for $100 each. In a stream-heavy music world, pillaged by piracy, Nipsey’s initiative was what I found inspiring. You don’t have to think Nipsey is a visionary, much less like his music, to appreciate that his intention, to combat a decreasingly lucrative music model, is audacious and innovative. Nipsey isn’t the first rapper to sell a mixtape in limited quantities. And he isn’t even forcing fans to buy his mixtape, which is available for free download online. Nipsey narrowed in on his core fanbase and allowed them to determine the intrinsic value of his music. So why not try it?
I naively posted about the Nipsey model to the rap world trenches, also known as the RG Forums, and was surprised by the overwhelmingly negative response. I’m well aware of the fact that online forums of any kind are crawling with the most ruthless commentators; anonymity, after all, gives people a lot of courage. But the backlash was excessive. I couldn’t comprehend how the biggest rap fans, specifically rap fans, didn’t at least appreciate Nipsey’s underlying intention. Rappers are arguably the most generous artists. They help you bypass the pain of piracy by literally giving you free music regularly. Of course, there’s the tenuous argument that mixtapes are somehow of lesser quality, as if that would entitle us to free music (it wasn’t free for the artist to make, after all). In reality, mixtapes are often uncompromised music. It’s raw and uncut: the music the artist makes when there are no label pressures or radio singles. Perhaps mixtapes are the music we should pay the most for
But the fact that Nipsey was selling a mixtape was not the real point of contention for the forum vultures. They attacked him as “greedy” or “hella weak”, and they were collectively confident he would never prevail. I realize, haters gon’ hate, but what struck me the most was the repeated use of one word in particular: “irrelevant”. Wait...so Nipsey’s plan wouldn’t work simply because he’s not relevant enough?
The relevancy attack in hip hop, one’s distance from the “top”, stands as the highest insult. But why is “irrelevant” the ultimate diss? Does it mean you’re old? Not on TV? Don’t have enough followers? In literal terms, “relevant” seems to be on the rise against “irrelevant” when looking at the frequency of these terms in rap lyrics:
Perhaps rappers are now more concerned with claiming their own relevance versus attacking that of another rapper. All this got me thinking, what does it even mean to be relevant in the first place? Is it some measure of album sales? Notoriety? Critical acclaim? The less likely you are to be mentioned in the “top five dead or alive” lists means the less relevant you are. Or are you?
Nipsey has nearly half a million Twitter followers, he was on the Freshman list, he’s collaborated with mega artists like 2 Chainz, Drake, and Rick Ross, he’s even got a budding acting career and a pretty sick car! That being said, he’s never released a studio album. Considering the relationship between success and visibility is vague at best, I wondered, what does it actually mean to be relevant in the first place? And if relevance doesn’t determine music industry success, is it even relevant?
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Nipsey, Jay Z shook up the music world this year when he announced that one million “copies” of his twelfth studio album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, would be purchased by Samsung as part of a larger advertising deal with RocNation. The album would be available for free download on several of the technology behemoth’s Galaxy handsets days before its official release, automatically awarding Jay $5 million in sales. Jay touted his official leak as “new rules”, and the industry, unsure of how to respond, scurried about to reevaluate the system. Billboard decided the Samsung albums would not count towards Jay’s standing on the charts. The RIAA, on the other hand, adjusted their existing standards to count the Samsung copies toward certification immediately on the album’s release date versus one month later when physical copies are usually accounted for. Like it or not, Hov certainly rewrote some rules and changed the way we think about commercial success. Why is it that his mega ad deal was heralded as innovative, but Nipsey’s independent call to action was not? Is it in fact because Jay is more relevant?
Setting album (or mixtape) sales aside, is financial gain even a reliable gauge for relevance? If you caught this year’s Forbes Hip Hop Cash Kings list, the answer would be, probably not. Tech N9ne is not a name the mainstream hears a lot. Rarely a part of the relevance debate, he seems to be in his own lane altogether. He’s held as an underground king, but given zero radio and television presence, he’s arguably the most irrelevant. His 2013 album Something Else didn’t even break 60,000 records sold in it’s first week. But none of these factors changed the fact that he’s sitting pretty at number 18 on the Forbes list after earning $6.5 million dollars in the last year. That’s a lot of irrelevance. If financial success isn’t directly correlated with an artist’s media coverage, it’s not a definitive factor in one’s relevance. Isn’t relevance, to some extent, your ability to exist in the industry successfully? This is something that Tech is clearly managing to do compared to other, more talked about, rappers
Stumped by my initial question, I began to worry about the success of Nipsey’s plan. He’s never sold any music, but he’s no 20 year veteran like Tech N9ne either. Could he prevail solely on the loyalty (and wallets!) of his core fanbase?
Separate from the money race is the industry darling that is Chance the Rapper. A truly independent artist, Chance has no major label deal, he didn’t sell any records last year, and he has no radio singles. Yet he was nominated for “Best Mixtape” in the BET Hip Hop Awards, he’s the only artist with an original song on Lil Wayne’s Dedication 5 mixtape, and he also landed the cover of Complex magazine in October . Financial success will more than likely come soon for Chance as he embarks on his first headline tour at the end of October, but even without clear financial success in his industry independence, it’s hard to deny the fever that was Acid Rap. From overwhelming industry excitement to public celebrity love, the anticipation of and excitement for Acid Rap was ubiquitous. Someone even tried to illegally sell his tape! With no certifications or chart stats, but undeniable impact, where does his relevance stand vis a vis a more commercially successful artist?
If relevance is really so crucial, who then is the most relevant rapper? Kanye proclaimed Drake is the reason he felt compelled to make Watch the Throne. Kendrick Lamar’s good kid m.a.a.d. city took roughly 10 months to go platinum, but with one verse, albeit a very long one, he shook up the entire industry and his competition. Eminem, the self-proclaimed “Rap God”, has the most Twitter followers of any other rapper, but hasn’t released an album since 2010. Lil Wayne is in 2nd place for Twitter followers and has had many releases in recent history, but had to apologize to his fans about the quality of them. Then there’s Kanye West who took the antithetical approach to Jay’s Samsung deal and had many of us staring at brick walls for hours (more than once) in anticipation of whatever he had to share with the world. His album, in Kanye terms did not sell well, but every time he opens his mouth, much of the world is listening
Take one of the most contentious debates in all of hip hop: Jay vs Nas. At any given moment in their career, the frequency at which they’ve been talked about in rap has fluctuated greatly, but certainly, no one can claim they’ve ever not been relevant despite this. And in the same year that Jay lands a game-changing deal, Nas seems to be a little more popular in rap lyrics:
Every case points at a different measure for relevance, questioning the very importance of its claim. If we can’t in fact define what relevance means in the game, how important can it really be in the larger discussion of success? And despite the skeptics, Nipsey did in fact prevail, selling all 1,000 copies and grossing over $100,000 in a single day. He didn’t go platinum. Heck, he didn’t even come close to gold! But he certainly will net more money than some artists, entangled in murky publishing deals, would make selling an album. Looks like “relevance” isn’t all that well, relevant, after all.
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