When the tracklisting for Future’s Dirty Sprite 2 dropped earlier this week, the Drake feature stood out for multiple reasons. Having recently completed a run of Jungle tour dates together and given Drizzy’s persistent rap radio omnipresence, it seemed an obvious pairing for such a highly anticipated album from one of Atlanta’s best known artists. Yet apart from the Toronto titan, apparently the only other voice you’ll hear on DS2 is Future’s.
This deliberate decision extends to both the regular and deluxe editions of the record, in sharp contrast not only to last year’s Honest but to the original Dirty Sprite mixtape from 2011. Both of those projects had ample guest verses from the likes of 2 Chainz, André 3000, and Kanye West, among others. These also included features from Casino and Young Scooter, two Freeband Gang (FBG) rappers attached to his Freebandz imprint via Epic Records. Their absence, along with that of other FBG artists like Mexico Rann and Slice 9, from DS2 is a glaring one.
Then again, Future’s in mighty good company here. Last year’s top-selling new rap album, J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive, included none of his Dreamville Records artists. Kendrick Lamar didn't have a single Black Hippy rapper on the critically acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly. The sole Mobster appearance on A$AP Rocky's recent At.Long.Last.A$AP came via a posthumous Yams recording. While Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris was littered with Odd Future guests, I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside shut all of them out. Tyler, the Creator’s Cherry Bomb followed suit about a month later, almost as if in response.
Exclusions like the one on DS2 make you wonder why rappers are even bothering to sign artists to their labels at all.
Though it appears to have become the norm, it may seem pathological the way contemporary rappers with even a modicum of success seem to deliberately exclude the artists they're supposed to be repping on these high-profile album projects. Sure, they’ll gift these guys a verse or hook on a mixtape or even a single, as Future did for Slice 9’s 2011 cut “Another One.” But leaving one’s own artists off bigger major label projects subtly counters that. Both Casino and Young Scooter (whose Freebandz subsidiary Black Migo Gang could stand to get some love on DS2 too) assuredly have benefited from their Honest features. A guest feature on an album track—especially a single—can mean increased awareness from the comparatively more popular artist’s fanbase and could even lead to a larger appearance fee, one of the few legitimate revenue-generating prospects for rappers. Exclusions like the one on DS2 make you wonder why rappers are even bothering to sign artists to their labels at all.
The bestowing of a vanity imprint is often a high-profile deal sweetener employed by major labels to secure a particular artist signing. Though it makes for good publicity for a major to treat a rapper as a tastemaker, this is hardly a blank check giving every weed carrier and hanger-on in his crew a career in music. Yet rarely nowadays does this shiny perk materialize to provide an artists’ pals with a backdoor record deal. Cole, who has consistently produced gold-selling albums as well as some platinum singles in a time when most major label rap artists struggle to do either, dropped proper solo records from his Dreamville signees Bas and Cozz in the months leading up to 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Conversely, Rocky—whose major label debut, Long.Live.A$AP, took over two years to achieve gold status—failed to get more than a few coolly received singles out via his RCA Records sublabel for his A$AP Mob crew. And though To Pimp a Butterfly will likely cross the 500,000 equivalent sales mark before the year is through, there’s no guarantee that’ll help out Jay Rock, who recently dropped his second single in as many months.
one can’t expect a genre as driven by the prospect of stacking racks on racks on racks to let crew love get in the way of finances.
The truth is that sales matter, even more than support does. Call it callous capitalism or shrewd business decision making, but one can’t expect a genre as driven by the prospect of stacking racks on racks on racks to let crew love get in the way of finances. There’s far more value to a record label in securing someone like Drake or Kanye for a feature than investing further money into an unknown prospect in a rapper’s circle of fiends. With so many artists languishing in release date limbo, Future can’t play no games with these labels after both Honest and Pluto failed to go gold. Now, while he’s experiencing a tremendous and fortuitous career upswing following a trilogy of well-received tapes, he can’t carry everyone with him at the same damn time.
Meanwhile, the mixtape circuit remains an insatiable beast, hungering loudly for fresh meat. Though the major label machine participates to no small extent, this remains the safest place for a rapper affiliated with another’s vanity label to put in work. One flop single released through a major label like Slice 9’s aforementioned one can put the kibosh on a rap career. Mixtapes allow these same artists to operate below the executive radar with both a rapper’s blessing and material support. From these projects, street singles emerge, which can be a good way forward in this competitive market. It’s a model that Future still benefits from, with Monster’s “Fuck Up Some Commas” making it onto DS2, itself ostensibly a mixtape sequel as album. Let’s just hope Scooter and the gang don’t take their snub too personally.
Gary Suarez is a writer living in New York. Follow him @noyokono.