Self Made Vol. 3 drops today. It arrives at a curious time for Rick Ross’s label, Maybach Music Group. For the first year in recent memory, MMG singles weren’t a mainstay on the pop charts, or even the hip-hop charts, in 2013. There was no “Stay Schemin’” this summer, no “B.M.F.” no "Tupac Back." While Meek Mill’s “Levels” undoubtedly reached a level of cultural penetration as a concept, the song itself sat comfortably outside of the Hot 100 the entire season. Wale managed to do a little better. His latest album Gifted has sold a comfortable 250,000 copies, but “Bad,” his only song to go Top 40, relied heavily on signer Tiara Thomas’s hook—and the song’s original version pre-dated Wale.

But asterisks or not, Wale at least managed to make some noise on the charts. Ross didn’t even manage that level of success. His singles “Box Chevy” and “Oil Money Gang” didn't even make the R&B/Hip-Hop charts. His latest, “No Games,” is strong enough to break this spell, although whether it will garner Ross some dearly needed chart traction remains to be seen.

Of course, Ross didn’t completely vanish from the charts this year—he just fell into the guest spot, as Rocko’s “U.O.E.N.O.” and Jay Z’s “FuckwitmeyouknowIgotit” became hits. In some ways, though, their success almost seemed to mock Ross’s quiet summer. The former did more harm than good, knocking him out of his Reebok deal thanks to his infamous lines about dropping molly in champagne. The latter sounded like an MMG single in every way, as if teasing Ross for giving away such a surefire hit. "No New Friends," meanwhile, just emphasized how much bigger of a hitmaker Drake is than anyone else on the song, at this particular point in time.

 

The irony of Wale becoming MMG’s frontrunner is that his success was the most unconventional, and remains slightly off-brand for a label built on Rick Ross’s mob-boss imagery.

 

The irony of Wale becoming MMG’s frontrunner is that his success was the most unconventional, and remains slightly off-brand for a label built on Rick Ross’s mob-boss imagery. But thus far, it seems to fit in pretty well with the style of hip-hop that is doing better on the charts these days, as Wale sits next to J. Cole, Macklemore, and other rap artists who’ve moved the genre’s mainstream in a direction away from the streets. There are a couple of factors that have caused this shift. The first is that, with a plethora of free music on DatPiff, and fewer and fewer people buying albums, those who do tend to be able to afford such fetish objects are of a different socioeconomic demographic. The popular taste, at least as represented by sales, ends up skewing along class lines.

Another, more troubling development, concerns the decreasing significance of black radio as a tastemaker; as Billboard began to incorporate digital downloads and streaming, they lost their ability to qualify listenerships geographically, and along other demographic lines, as they had been able to do in the past. Add to this an imbalance in which streams are counted towards the charts (for example, WorldStarHipHop still has no impact on Billboard charts), and you end up with some bizarre results, like Macklemore or Psy topping the hip-hop charts without any hip-hop radio airplay.

But the hip-hop charts aren’t all college-friendly hip-hop and crossover artists like Macklemore. Clubs are still a driving force in hip-hop’s sound (as is, increasingly, Vine, a viral appendage of the club, helping singles like The FiNATTiCZ “Don’t Drop That Thun Thun” make Billboard a year after their release). In the last half of 2013, the most popular hip-hop has made a gradual shift from the Atlanta sounds of Mike Will Made It and DJ Spinz towards California’s self-described “ratchet” sound: the syncopated thump of producers like DJ Mustard. You can hear it from Cali newcomers like Sage the Gemini, whose “Red Nose” and “Gas Pedal” singles have had significant chart traction. You can hear it in singles from Atlanta artists like Rich Homie Quan and Young Jeezy (“My Nigga,” "R.I.P."). And you hear it on crossover R&B cuts like B. Smyth’s “Leggo.”

MMG's primary sonic blueprint, however, remains a mix of aggro bangers in a "B.M.F." style, channelling an aggressive, visceral energy, and the smooth, epic luxurience of tracks like "Aston Martin Music," "Keys to the Crib," or—on Self Made Vol. 3"Black Grammys." It's a sound that has seemed like a pretty renewable resource for the past few years, but as Drake has fine-tuned the latter sound to great chart success, and Cali usurped the club sound on the pop charts, MMG's bangers have started to feel a bit off-center. 

At its peak, MMG was successful because they managed to mainstream a street sound, to take an underground aesthetic and propel into the popular conscience with a chart-ready pop framework. Perhaps they've slipped because the sound they built this empire on has slipped from the forefront of the genre's innovation. This goes hand in hand with PR setbacks for the label, like Ross's troubles with Reebok and the underperformance of Meek Mill's official debut. On the one hand, popular rap has moved further from the streets and clubs; on the street side, it's an increasingly younger artist's game. MMG is stuck in the middle, flanked on one side by YouTube street rappers, and on the other by stars with more bankable, mainstream-friendly sounds.

MMG has attempted to meet that challenge with new signees, all of whom are given ample shine on the new compilation. The risk is that increasing the label's roster at a time when its top tier performers are underperforming only serves to dilute the group's impact. On the other hand, if one or two of the performers were to have a breakout performance, it could add needed energy to a flagging franchise. Sadly, the most animated, moving performance comes from Lil Snupe, who was killed tragically earlier this year, cutting short a promising career. Stalley and Rockie Fresh are competent, but not personalities on the level of the MMG A-list. And Gunplay remains a critics' favorite, underrated by the wider world, but he's on the other side of 30, and still seemingly in search of that one song that could take him to the next level.

 

The label's slippage has been more about perception and context than it has an inconsistency in product.

 

Not that there isn't hope for MMG. The label's slippage has been more about perception and context than it has an inconsistency in product. The world rotated once and artists at a creative zenith are pulled back to earth. But for every challenge that has beset the label since Rich Forever made Ross seem like a truly untouchable performer—from his seizures to Meek's album, from singles not connecting to Lil Snupe's killing, from the date-rape lyric controversy to hip-hop's shift away from the MMG sonic blueprint—MMG has remained consistent. Self Made 3 isn't as good as Self Made, but, to this writer's ears, it's stronger than Self Made 2.

And there are few real challengers to Ross's particular space. Gucci's got an iron grip on the streets, but has marginalized himself from the mainstream pop sphere. Drake's tracks are mainstream-friendly but don't offer the macho bangers Ross's audience feeds on. Young Jeezy is the only one to pose much of a challenge recently—as he's jumped on board with DJ Mustard and Rich Homie Quan, managing to keep up with a shifting sonic landscape. But it remains to be seen if artists like Doughboyz Cashout and YG can overcome the problems Jeezy has always had in marketing artists on his CTE label.

It is a bit disconcerting for MMG, no doubt, that they've been unable to impact the charts this year. But perception of the label’s demise is easy to overstate. It’s not as if Ross's voice has disappeared from the airwaves. MMG’s dominance is, to some degree, taken for granted. They were never innovators, and don’t have to rely upon that kind of short-term inspiration for success. Instead, they are all about consistency. Ross built upon the sounds of others, put them on a wider stage. His pen is as strong as ever. “Panera Bread,” from earlier this year, included some of his best writing yet. Yes, MMG may have peaked, but they’re also one label that it would be unwise to count out completely.

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