Getting signed is just the beginning.
Bobby Shmurda’s recent signing with Epic Records felt like an inevitability. Given the seeming ubiquity surrounding his viral hit “Hot N***a” and its corresponding Shmoney Dance Vine, those who feverishly follow the ins-and-outs of this rap game knew the young Brooklyn artist would be courted by the majors. Intergenerational endorsements and co-signs from Jay Z, Meek Mill, and Raekwon shone a spotlight on Shmurda that most rap publicists would would sacrifice their firstborn over. Currently lacking a proper commercial release for “Hot N***a,” any hip-hop A&R had to at least see Shmurda’s short-term earnings potential via the download and ringtone marketplace.
The ink on the contract having barely dried, some might be tempted to consider the signing Shmurda’s big win. Record deals are worth celebrating, though as Azalea Banks and others in similar predicaments can attest they often mark the beginning of one’s problems as opposed to the end. Even if Shmurda earned himself a six or seven figure advance with Epic, he’s still got to recoup that for the label. (Rock producer Steve Albini explicitly explained the uneven economics behind these deals over twenty years ago in his widely cited, must-read essay "The Problem With Music.") As with the NBA draft, getting picked means it’s time to show and prove. Once everyone’s done shaking your hand, they’re wringing their own over how you’ll fare.
Though some might balk at the comparison, there’s a rather clear cautionary tale to be found in the story of Trinidad James. Despite having a music video whose viral success scored him a deal with Def Jam, he went from being one of the hottest new rappers out of Atlanta—with two Gold-certified singles—to a “snaggletoothed” persona non grata in less than two years. In our fast-paced socially-driven Internet, “All Gold Everything” feels ancient, like it dropped ages ago on some now-dead media format. Though still presumably signed, his proper full-length debut isn’t on any calendar, nor is it particularly anticipated. It’s been nearly a year since his last mixtape and he’s hardly made a dent in 2014.
“All Gold Everything” first emerged in the summer of 2012, though it took until October of that year for it to really take off. Within two months, James had signed with the iconic label and swiftly re-released his breakout single and adjoining Don’t Be S.A.F.E. mixtape. Def Jam wasted little time in attaching him to then up-and-coming R&B singer August Alsina’s February 2013 single “I Luv This Shit.” Both tracks respectively sold enough to achieve RIAA Gold certification, though his verse on the latter wasn’t exactly the driver behind its success. A guest appearance on A$AP Ferg’s “Work” remix found him sandwiched between French Montana and Schoolboy Q. He sported mixtape and one-off features on tracks from Big K.R.I.T., Gucci Mane, and Kirko Bangz, among others, none of which popped off.
By the time the adequate 10pc. Mild mixtape appeared, his shine had faded considerably. Those who had been initially wary of James saw the lack of a viable follow-up single of his own as justification for their skepticism. That could be self-fulfilling prophecy just as much as a referendum on James as an artist. What’s undeniable is that he had a moment of genuine excitement around his music, one that seems distant and unlikely to be replicated by his future endeavors. This is what worries me about Bobby Shmurda as he currently enjoys such a moment in the good graces of hip-hop fans and the press.
The next move on Epic’s part appears to be a proper digital retail release for “Hot N***a,” alongside a French Montana assisted remix. Note that Def Jam did this with “All Gold Everything,” tacking on a bonus track version featuring T.I., 2 Chainz, and Young Jeezy to the Don’t Be S.A.F.E. re-release. Unless he’s got an album of bangers at the ready, it’s doubtful that Shmurda will be dropping a proper full-length anytime soon. Even after “Work” blew up, it took a track as monumental as “Shabba” to get A$AP Ferg’s Trap Lord tape upgraded to an album at RCA. Instead, he’ll likely get paired up with another Epic artist for a formal shot at radio, especially if some version of “Hot N***a” properly charts. Combine that with headlining live appearances and maybe an opening slot on someone else’s tour. Shmurda willl need that momentum to stay afloat in the rest of 2014, as attentions shift to new music and albums from Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar.
While there’s no exact science or formula to follow, there are ways for Shmurda to transcend his moment and turn it into a career. He’ll need to establish an identity beyond an amusing six second Vine. Trinidad James essentially became typecast as “that gold guy” because he doubled down on it, sporting a gold laptop and other such accessories. If Shmurda really has been dealing crack since the fifth grade as his single boasts, then that angle of credibility might be worth pushing instead of thinking up more dance moves.
Shmurda has taken to calling himself “the trap god” on GS9’s Shmoney Shmurda compilation, a brand already claimed by Gucci, Ferg, and scores of lesser mixtape mouthpieces. Instead of borrowing from that well-worn lexicon, he can craft his own, speaking to his experiences honestly without falling back on the same tropes listeners have grown tired of. If Shmurda can build on the accessibility and authenticity of drill and trap without coming off as another wannabe or carbon copy by way of Brooklyn, he’s got a shot.
Furthermore, success in hip-hop can’t be easily defined. Targets are fluid, the public’s tastes prone to change. Hurdles emerge and increase in size and difficulty. A label’s expectations of the artist can confound, frustrate, and bedevil. Unless he and the team at Epic can capitalize on his current heat and make it commercially viable beyond “Hot N***a,” Shmurda’s ascendancy could be stymied just as rapidly as it began.
Gary Suarez (@noyokono) is a writer living in NYC.