Kanye West, J. Cole, & Mac Miller: Numbers, Money, & Art

Contextualizing last week's sales figures.

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Complex Original

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Contextualizing what June 18's sales figures mean.

Written by Noah Callahan-Bever (@N_C_B)

The heart wants what the heart wants. And when we get a look at what it wants, especially the collective, societal heart, it’s interesting. In our handicapped democracy of capitalism, we vote with our wallets, and in so doing, wear our heart on our sleeve. People care about things like box office returns and bestsellers lists, and album sales, despite not personally having a nickel in those quarters, because these numbers tell us about ourselves, about our country. Information that the “head,” as expressed through op-eds, say, or television pundits or arguments before the supreme court (or ponderous “think pieces” on websites) can’t tell us.

Hip-hop is obsessed with these kinds of stats (also the money that the stats represent, that doesn’t hurt). It has been since its earliest days, an outsider culture mining pride from its success at crossing over on its own terms. These days, though, with social media providing hard data to even the most casual fans, everybody acts like they’ve got an MBA in retail. Conversations on Twitter between teenagers sound like those had over lobster and cocaine by music industry actuaries. It’s a bit silly, like going to a ball game and paying more attention to attendance than the score. But everyone’s got their something.

These days, though, with social media providing hard data to even the most casual fans, everybody acts like they’ve got an MBA in retail.

So anyways, last week was a big week. We had a showdown between Kanye West, J. Cole, and Mac Miller. Three rap stars releasing three highly-anticipated albums on the same day, with West being obviously the biggest and most established star of the trio. He’s an acclaimed talent with over decade of inarguably significant work under his belt. And he’s sold a shit ton of records (like 10 million albums, or so). But Kanye is as divisive as he is influential, and he came into the week walking off a first in his career: The tepid reception of his last release Cruel Summer, a compilation album he executive produced. To be fair, it had huge, huge hits (among the biggest in his career, actually) but overall it left people kinda...*Kanye shrug*. It’s the only album he’s ever released that has sold less than a million copies.

Then there’s J. Cole. The North Carolinian St. John’s University graduate has quietly cultivated a strong fanbase with his everyman-of-rap underdog appeal, elevated wordplay, and homespun production. He semi-shocked the world in the fall of 2011 when his Roc Nation debut, Cole World: The Sidelines Story, sold 220,000 copies in its first week, doubling most predictions. The album was met with a positive, if not super-enthusiastic reaction (Except from Nas, apparently), and he’s been touring steadily since. 

Finally there’s Mac Miller. Oh, Mac Miller. He’s probably the nicest guy in hip-hop. Seriously. Such a nice guy. He’s real-life best friends with just about everybody who ever picked up a microphone, it seems. (Except for Danny Brown, who dissed Mac’s rapping but still conceded that Mac was probably the nicest guy in in the world.) But affability and networking are far from Miller’s only accomplishments. The 20 year-old white rapper has done exceedingly well for himself, despite slings and arrows from of rap’s intelligentsia. On the heels of a what would best be described as a YouTube hit, “Donald Trump,” he sold 150,000 copies of his 2011 debut album, Blue Slide Park, in its first week. Independently. A big “Fuck You” to all the intellectual East Coast music journalists who wrote him off as underskilled and tacky. 

I say all that to say, while it might not have been a “Clash of the Titans” on the level of Kanye vs. 50 Cent in 2007, the head-to-head-to-head comparison between these three artists—each at different stages of their careers, each facing their own unique challenges—was indeed fascinating. And revealing. You had West, an artist who’s long said things to the effect of, “I’m gonna make my art and if I lose fans along the way? Good riddance!” But never gone full Metal Machine Music and made overtly unpalatable art. (Even his most challenging departure from form, 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak had a humongous hit in “Heartless,” let’s not forget.) J. Cole, who actually moved his release date up to invite comparison to ’Ye, is making an obvious and admitted play for A-List acknowledgement. And Miller, who, despite his success, seems acutely aware of the danger of stalling out in Asher Roth-esque post-College rap hell.

While it might not have been a “Clash of the Titans” on the level of Kanye vs. 50 Cent in 2007, the head-to-head-to-head comparison between these three artists—each at different stages of their careers, each facing their own unique challenges—was indeed fascinating. And revealing.

Which brings us to the product. In order of leak: J. Cole’s Born Sinner was met with universally warm vibes. Twitter buzzed all night with hyperbolic hashtags like #newlegends and #classicmaterial. His lead single, the Miguel assisted, “Power Trip” was just awesome—catchy, organic, and soulful. Everything a real rap fan wants to hear on the radio. The album’s other standouts, “Crooked Smile” and “Let Nas Down,” were equally accomplished. Miller’s Watching Movies With The Sound Off leaked a couple days later. To the surprise of many, he didn’t Macklemore-it-out. Produced by Los Angeles experimentalist Flying Lotus, the album’s single (if you can even call it that), “S.D.S.,” would sound a lot more at home on an MF Doom Special Herbs tape than on POWER 105. That’s right, the hipster-rap-writer’s punching bag made a thoughtful, trippy, rappity-rap, rapper’s-rapper album that showcases his commitment to the craft and the diligence of his pen game. Also the fact that T.D.E. and Odd Future should consider opening a rhyme writing clinic. Dudes really rubbed off on him, for the better.

Then, a short four days before the official date, Yeezus, Kanye West’s sixth solo album. An anti-commercial tour de force, it polarized listeners instantly. Mainstream music critics slow-clapped the jagged primal scream of an album, while the conservative rap coalition kinda got quiet and made faces like :-/. The lyrics were picked apart, its politics analyzed through racial and sexual lenses, and the think-piece industrial complex gnawed at the release for over a week. So much ink hadn't been spilled over Kanye since he interrupted Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Awards four years ago.

All three releases finally, and somewhat anticlimactically hit stores last Tuesday. And this week, the official numbers were released. The rankings were as expected: West, Cole, Miller. However, the reality is that all three were winners, each achieving his own personal goal. Kanye, who sold 330,000 (100,000 less than any of his previous solo albums) carried the day, saving an embarrassment via upset, but delivering on his promise of art-that-has-no-fucks-to-give—even at the expense of his audience’s size. Cole’s total of 300,000, nearly 40-percent growth since last time, came close enough to West’s to reasonably argue his ascension to hip-hop’s big leagues. And Mac? He cut his audience by a third, selling only 100,000, but quadrupled his cred and cemented a much deeper relationship with those who remained. His was an investment in the long term; life as a career artist.

However, wins and differentiated goals aside, one cannot discount the shared cultural, and therefore commercial, interests of the three. They’re all middle class. They’re all from regional markets.

There is evidence to suggest, despite the mutual wins and differentiated goals, that the three do compete for the same ears. Conventional wisdom dictates that “event” releases like this cause all boats to rise, as consumers from different ends of the spectrum converge in consumption. However, in this instance, only one boat rose, J.Cole's. That says (to this writer, at least) that rather than inspiring a broader swath of fans to come out and support, the three, instead, split a single pie. One cannot discount the shared cultural, and therefore commercial, interests at play. All three of these guys are middle class. They’re all from regional markets. (Miller’s from Pittsburgh; Kanye, Chicago.) Most importantly, they all made their names wooing the college rap market. Also, it can’t be ignored that both Cole and Mac owe a creative debt to West, who is widely credited with reopening the non-gangsta rap market in the mid-2000s. Shit, Cole was so acutely aware of this lineage, that his first single (the one that so famously disappointed his hero, Nas) was a straight up sample from Kanye’s College Dropout. Talk about connecting the dots.

However, on Big Tuesday, two of the three stepped outside of this lane, opting to bunt. (Kanye, to be fair, stopped catering to the college scene six years ago with the aptly titled Graduation album.) And they watched their sales wane, as they probably expected to. J.Cole, on the other hand, stuck firm to what worked on the first go ’round, stared down the college-rap fastball, and swung for the fences without hesitation or shame. It’s a bit like the tango that Radiohead and Coldplay danced 10 years ago, when Thom Yorke and co. stepped left to explore new ground, allowing Chris Martin and them to fill the void. One can’t help but think that J. Cole’s bounty is coming, at least in part, from old Kanye fans. Those who miss their old standard bearer’s early work (College Dropout, Late Registration) and are uninterested in following him down his dark twisted rabbit hole.

Of course West’s only responsibility is to the integrity of his own impulse. We can’t expect any artist to beat the same drum their entire career. Same goes for Mac. J. Cole, too. But, by the same token, artists can’t expect fans tastes to evolve at the same pace. Everybody's heart wants what it wants.

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