There was a period of growing pains in hip-hop history, when rap was young. As the street culture was finding its way as a musical genre, a few ambitious rappers ran off in a "pop" direction without a second glance. (Think of Vanilla Ice; 3rd Bass' "Pop Goes the Weasel" alleges exactly that.) Some of those songs were—don't even try to deny it—straight fire. But it became a point of contention within hip-hop, addressed by Guru ("Cause suckers be like playing themselves to have mass appeal"). Hip-hop decided on an ethos: as De La Soul put it on the Buhloone Mindstate intro, ""It might blow up, but it won't go pop."
Hip-hop would eventually do both.
One thing baked into the process of becoming a hip-hop fan is a sense of rooting for the artists you like, who you want to see win. And for a time in hip-hop history, "winning" meant becoming a real mainstream, crossover rap star—the guy who has No. 1 singles, dominates the radio for a summer, or drops a fire album sold to millions. Fans became, in a sense, invested in their favorite artists' success, living through them vicariously, like a blown-up version of getting a promotion at the office. This kind of thinking probably peaked with 50 Cent in 2003. It was hip-hop's moment of complete pop-culture domination.
Fans became, in a sense, invested in their favorite artists' success, living through them vicariously, like a blown-up version of getting a promotion at the office.
A decade later, and this dynamic no longer exists. Consider hip-hop's latest crowned star, the guy Macklemore apologized to for winning all those Grammys: Kendrick Lamar. His grassroots buzz grew to a fever pitch, and soon enough, he released an amazing album, and seemed to have "made it": a lyrical rapper with a great ear for songcraft, a smartly conceived album, and something to say. And not only did he make it within hip-hop, Kendrick also crossed over and became a mainstream pop culture figure, one of only four platinum-selling rappers of the past five years, nearing the borderline of becoming a household name.
Then came the collaborations: Robin Thicke featuring Kendrick Lamar. Imagine Dragons and Kendrick Lamar. It's not like his performances on these songs were especially disappointing in and of themselves. But those songs were just so...garish. Not that they were mythos-demolishing, since it's still pretty easy to explain them away as necessary contrivances to remain a truly popular artist. It's not like rappers from the early '00s didn't drop the occasional dud. And I'm not about to give up on Kendrick as an important artist.
But none of these songs really capture what's good about Kendrick Lamar in a musical sense—particularly his use of autobiographical details to wed aesthetics with politics in a believable way, as on good kid, m.A.A.d. City. The songs themselves use Kendrick as a stylistic accent, hip-hop as an accessory, rather than the main event. What's left on songs like "Give It 2 U" is more of a theoretical appeal: Kendrick won, representing complexity on a stage easily defined by caricature. Now, to maintain his mainstream presence, he must drop songs that are theoretically friendly to Top 40 DJs that don't spend much time in hip-hop headphones.
The question of which rappers we root for and why has shifted over the years. And there were always exceptions to this tendency—rappers whose music seemed perfectly designed for being permanently underground. Think of the absurdist space rap of Anti-Pop Consortium, where the oppositional relationship to success is even built into their name.
But for most rappers, success was the goal. Getting out of the underground was a push and pull between constituencies, values, and principles; and a tense, fraught relationship between art and propaganda. Fans of underground rap in the late '90s and early '00s would lament that the underground shit they were fucking with wasn't popping off, as if the mainstream was too brainwashed to see it. Sometimes, it was true that underground stars did not make the imprint they could have: incarceration (Max B), premature death (Big L, Big Pun), and poor business decisions were the most common culprits (and often still are). Other times, the talent for mass appeal simply wasn't there, and a rapper stayed underground for a reason.
But hip-hop's liberation of rapper from song meant that even if a song was pop, a rapper could stay true to who he was—to the principles that defined him. The song could be a lush pop jewel, it could target nightclubs, and feature an R&B chorus; the rapper just had to be himself.
What happened in the late 1990s and the early 2000s was hip-hop figuring out exactly how to blow up without changing its essential essence. The Chronicwas an early shift in that direction, reorienting hip-hop's core characteristics towards immediacy, accessibility. Puffy's Hitmen followed, increasing the genre's scope even further. From then on it was all about trend-setting, rather than trend-chasing.
Sometimes,underground stars did not make the imprint they could have: incarceration, premature death (Big L, Big Pun), and poor business decisions were the most common culprits (and often still are). Other times, the talent for mass appeal simply wasn't there, and a rapper stayed underground for a reason.
Rap music is more economical than the genres that came before it, compressing more ideas into a compact space. It can encompass the political and the economic, the pop and the underground, the lush and the abrasive. It comes from every corner of the country, from Trick Daddy in Florida to Eminem in Detroit, from Petey Pablo in North Carolina to Mac Dre in the Bay. It is poetry, theater, art, entertainment, and music. It is made for dance floors and serious listening, and sometimes both at once. It can be jazz, funk, electronic, even classical. It makes the history of music seem as if it all existed purely for the creation of a backdrop to hip-hop's larger-than-life personalities: Tupac and Biggie, DMX, Eminem, 50 Cent, T.I., etc. (It's still true today—Drake, Nicki, and Kendrick all qualify—but what had been an onrush of talent now feels like a handful of scattered artists, grandfathered in by the endorsements of an older generation.)
In hip-hop's quest for cash, plenty of folks mourned what was lost: the boom-bap drums, the singular political edge, the way sampling seemed destined to completely re-imagine history. It also developed a massive Caucasian audience, which raised questions about what it meant for a rapper to develop in the eye of a white public. Hip-hop's self-definition was changing; but it remained, despite all its contradictions and paradoxes, a coherent form. You knew it when you heard it.
Hip-hop transformed the pop charts; in October, 2003, the entire top ten was dominated by black artists performing hip-hop, or hip-hop-influenced R&B. The world wasn't a wonderland of equality or anything like that. It was just that hip-hop ran shit, and you could release a single that sounded like straight-up rap music—say "Damn!" by the YoungBloodz, or "Stand Up" by Ludacris—and watch that single hit the pop top ten.
In the mid-2000s, hip-hop began to fracture and separate, as illegal downloads helped drain the money from a fattened industry. The deaths of mom and pop stores and the increasing number of fans who found music online meant that radio had less power; the rhythmic format fell back on dance music and EDM, which had gained ground in the American grassroots through festivals. Being a popular hip-hop star was still possible; the success of Lil Wayne in the late '00s hid the fact that most hip-hop artists weren't able to repeat his crossover. Attempts by rappers to mainstream their underground sounds would appear like flailing (see: "Spotlight" by Gucci Mane).
But hip-hop fans stay counting album sales like they're a reliable measure of relevance (they're not—there are rappers who will make more doing popular festival dates than they ever would selling albums, or performing shows in the Southern or Midwest touring circuits). They continue to rely on the metrics of mass-cultural popularity, when hip-hop isn't even being played on pop radio with any regularity anymore.
The fact that rappers are less likely to blow up on a major scale than they were a decade ago has shaped the music for the worse. When artists tried to blow up, they threw everything at the wall to stand out. Rappers became unintentionally omnivorous experimentalists: the entire musical world was putty for them to play with. (Again: see Nas and Puffy sampling Carl Orff.) Now, they seem to recognize the economic limitations, playing to a core fanbase that sustains them, working just hard enough to make it a career.
So before you start rooting for your favorite artist to blow up, remember this: The cost of crossing over is higher than ever in 2014. And the rewards of sticking to your strengths are richer than ever. So what's the point of going pop?