Drake dominates nearly the first two minutes of iLoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday” remix, a song that redefined weekday clubbing for a generation. The song, initially a modest hit for the Atlanta artist, became a bonafide smash and led to Makonnen signing with Drake’s OVO Sound, a subsidiary of Warner Music Group. But from there, the fairytale ended, and Makonnen found himself stuck in purgatory after receiving a co-sign that he wasn’t seeking in the first place, still being part of OVO, but unable to get any meaningful support when it came to making and sharing new music.
“Why didn’t you just tell me you didn’t wanna fuck with me anymore and just let me go about my way?” he told The FADER in 2017. “And then when I’m like, ‘Can y’all tweet out my mixtape? Can I get a feature? Can I get production?’ ‘No, no, no.’ So I’m just over here in prison?! Am I in prison?!”
National buzz leading to a rapid rise is the dream for most aspiring artists, but it’s often not as lucrative as it seems, and there’s a reason most of our favorite artists still rise slowly and steadily.
Eventually, Makonnen built his career on his own terms as a genre agnostic, emotionally vulnerable creator, but it involved redefining himself in the public eye from being one of several acts in Drake’s shadow to a full-fledged artist in his own right. While he says the experience of a sudden rise is “much different nowadays,” his story is indicative of the mixed blessing a meteoric ascent can be.
Nowadays, it’s easier than ever to catapult to relevance with a single, whether it’s actual quality, simply catchy, or eminently memeable. But even in 2019, most sustainable careers are built on a series of steps, working toward building an audience who cares, using music and social media in concert to tell the artist’s story thoughtfully and deliberately, and honing a sonic identity that extends beyond a single song. By skipping those steps, an artist can fall off just as fast as they came up, and even one hit single can make it difficult to give listeners a second first impression. National buzz leading to a rapid rise is the dream for most aspiring artists, but it’s often not as lucrative as it seems, and there’s a reason most of our favorite artists still rise slowly and steadily.
There are a million ways to be a one-hit wonder.
While some rush to release more music to cement themselves as career artists, sometimes at the behest of their label, nowadays truly savvy artists can build their public persona and keep their single relevant primarily through social media. “Old Town Road” rapper Lil Nas X’s unfiltered, deeply self-aware social media presence has helped him win over fans who might have been dismissive of the novelty quality to his first big hit.
Similarly, there are more ways than ever for an artist to blow up beyond the traditional means, including TikTok, the video app which helped break “Old Town Road” and which BoyBoy West Coast cited as instrumental to the rise of his track “Bottom’s Up.”
“The internet is a crazy place. I think it was a combination of some fellow artists showing love on Instagram and the fans having fun with it on TikTok,” BoyBoy West Coast said. “And apparently it helps to have some defining facial features.”
The one-hit wonder is not a new concept in the music world, dating back to the 1950s and permeating basically every genre, including rap examples like D4L, Rich Boy, and Sir Mix-a-Lot. But those artists often were in the position of already having signed to a label when their song took off, something that is less frequent now that singles can rack up hundreds of millions of plays on their own. That means that artists can find themselves in the position of needing to recoup label money with one fewer bullet in the chamber.
Some artists who parlay viral success into label deals avoid the alluring bright lights of majors and sign with indies that are more concerned with long-term growth. London’s Beabadoobee took off with “Coffee” on YouTube, later signing with Dirty Hit, a prominent U.K. independent label home to The 1975. That decision has freed Bea up to work and explore what interests her musically, instead of rushing to replicate the success of her first hit.
“I feel like I got into music out of pure curiosity. I came into this with no expectations and took my time. Right now, I guess I’m still taking my time and experimenting with different sounds,” she explained. "I think it’s important for musicians to never rush into anything, but to explore, and learn to appreciate the art they make and keep making it!”
"I came into this with no expectations and took my time. Right now, I guess I’m still taking my time and experimenting with different sounds. I think it’s important for musicians to never rush into anything, but to explore." – Beabadoobee
She’s a rare talent, but Bea has only been making music like this for a year; “Coffee” was the first song she ever wrote on the guitar. A label like Dirty Hit has the track record to work with her and help her continue to hone her sound. Lil Nas X began making music out of boredom in the summer of 2018, using his social media smarts to promote his early work and relentlessly pushing “Old Town Road.” Since signing with Columbia, he’s been taking his time working on new music with people like Take a Daytrip and Nick Mira to expand his sound. Columbia is still doing everything they can to promote “Old Town Road,” including dropping a star-studded music video for it, while not making their young talent simply churn out new songs that are rushed to streaming services.
Sometimes, the best possible play is to actually pull back on the hot song, even though it can be difficult to stop a snowball rolling downhill. In the case of Billie Eilish, her 2016 single “Ocean Eyes” initially threatened to dwarf her as an artist herself. Knowing the potential risk of the song subsuming the entire narrative, her team decided to focus on new music instead of relentlessly pushing the accessible single.
“We didn’t want it to be about a song,” said Eilish’s co-manager Brandon Goodman. “We never wanted anything to be bigger than Billie the artist.”
In that time, Eilish honed both her sound and her image, moving from yet another gifted but anonymous alt-pop singers into a burgeoning superstar with both commercial success and a cohesive, fully-realized album that tells the singer’s story in the form of sweeping ballads (“When The Party’s Over”), eerie electronic bangers (“You Should See Me in a Crown”), and heartfelt Gen Z dispatches (“Xanny”). Still, Eilish does face criticism over how much involvement her label may have had in her career, something that speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding among many fans about a label’s role in artist development. Part of the point of signing to a label is to allow room for growth and guidance, but many listeners expect an artist who emerges on the back of an independent hit to already have everything figured out.
Stylistic singularity can be a blessing and a curse.
Diversifying their style is an easy way for an artist to broaden their fan base and make a play for longevity, and sometimes, the unique sound that an artist emerges with proves to actually confine them in the eyes of fans. Blueface’s music is constantly judged for whether it is off-beat, and he’s rehashed many of his signature phrases in different contexts, which can be endearing but exists on a thin line that was probably crossed several references to his “two dicks” ago.
Having a distinct style can make an artist stand out instantly, particularly when they’re paired up with an established star like BlocBoy JB, Makonnen, and Lil Baby once were with Drake. But the reason the latter two acts have been able to find sure footing in the industry is that they can succeed in many musical contexts, varying deliveries and turning clever phrases.
In the case of iLoveMakonnen, part of what helped him weather the storm was that he knew where he wanted to take his career long term, even as “Tuesday” was dominating airwaves. He’s had a passion for alternative and indie music for years, and has worked recently with artists like Fall Out Boy, Ezra Koenig, and the Australian pop group Chase Atlantic, in addition to collaborating closely with Lil Peep before his 2017 passing.
“I was into Vampire Weekend and stuff like that before I was into other hip-hop acts that are current,” Makonnen said. “I just sort of used the hip-hop way for me to get into music so that I could be in music with all genres.”
Sometimes, the unique sound that an artist emerges with proves to confine them in the eyes of fans.
But Makonnen has still battled outdated expectations, stemming from how he initially came to fame. He bills his upcoming M3 EP as “an updated version of Makonnen’s music since 2017,” but while the singles “Spendin’” and “Drunk on Saturday” are strong, it’s unlikely they’ll find anywhere near a “Tuesday” level audience. He recently returned to the Hot 100 with “I’ll Be Waiting,” a collaboration with Peep and Fall Out Boy, but seems content to continue down a path of making the music that he wants to make, even if it means fewer bites at the apple for a mainstream hit.
In a recent interview with i-D, Clairo talked about the drawbacks of her breakout single “Pretty Girl,” a homespun lo-fi hit that was dripping with sarcasm (“And I could be a pretty girl / Shut up when you want me to”). But even though the whole point of “Pretty Girl” is that it’s not an encapsulation of who Clairo is, she’s still found it challenging to move on from it and into the more sincere direction she’s looking to take on her upcoming debut album Immunity.
“‘Pretty Girl’ is amazing. I’m really happy that I did it because it wouldn’t have given me anything else that I currently have,” she said. “But I do think it kind of painted me as less mature than I really am. I just want people to take me more seriously because I know I have more to offer than just that.”
Jumping from URL to IRL is a tricky transition.
Among the many aspects of contemporary music stardom that Lil Nas X has trolled, some of his sharpest, most self-aware jokes are about his own live sets.
Many artists who blow up overnight find themselves in the position of hitting the road before they’ve had time to really hone their skills as a live performer. In the case of rappers, this often means that they lean on the studio version of their track, shouting ad-libs and adding emphasis but mostly functioning as a hypeman to their own recorded tunes. This practice has drawn criticism from music media, and it certainly speaks to a short shelf life if an artist can’t consistently craft new turn-up anthems every time they hit the road.
The traditional path of beginning as an opener and working your way up to headliner status is now frequently short-circuited. artists will suddenly find their names at the center of the marquee despite barely having picked up a microphone.
Festival sets afford new artists an opportunity to reach an enthusiastic and large-scale crowd without the pressure of being the evening’s sole draw, but developing those performing chops can be key to a lengthy career that doesn’t rely on radio hits and streaming numbers. Young artists like Snail Mail have parlayed success and critical acclaim into a dizzying tour schedule that has given them the chance to form a deeper connection with both old and new fans.
Like so many other aspects of the industry, the traditional path of beginning as an opener and working your way up to headliner status is now frequently short-circuited. Artists will suddenly find their names at the center of the marquee despite barely having picked up a microphone.
Sudden fame comes with baggage.
Even when an artist nails the music side of the equation and manages to follow a career-making hit with other records that find an audience, a rapid rise still can leave them in a vulnerable position in terms of their preparedness for the limelight. Sometimes, they either haven’t rectified problematic beliefs or, if nothing else, combed through their social media and erased past statements. Plus, they don't have the built-in support system or fully committed fans of an established artist, so the consensus can shift quickly.
Blueface dealt with criticism earlier in 2019 over transphobic remarks on Instagram, Rich Brian was instantly a lightning rod due to his original moniker, and Lil Pump perpetuated insensitive Asian stereotypes on his song “Butterfly Doors.” Doja Cat was called out for past use of homophobic language on Twitter, but the real controversy came when she defended her remarks instead of apologizing. The BoyBoy West Coast has faced his share of issues since the unlikely rise of “U Was at the Club.” He’s been aired out by Ramriddlz, who at one point was working on a remix to the track and accused of calling a woman a racial slur after she denied his advances.
These sorts of issues frequently pop up for more established artists, but when they have less of a track record these troubling narratives often wind up a more defining part of their stories. While moral issues are justifiable reasons to be skeptical or dubious of an artist, many who reach popularity early on are slapped with the cynical “industry plant” label simply because of how quickly they reached the masses. The term is controversial and heavily disputed, but in recent years it has been flung at artists like Billie Eilish, Juice WRLD, and Clairo.
Releasing music has never been easier, and there are more ways than ever for an artist to find themselves suddenly on the rise. But, the baggage that comes with being an out-of-nowhere star shows no sign of disappearing.
Plenty of struggles in the spotlight aren’t a result of any mistakes made by the artist, just a product of the grueling nature of contemporary fame. Juice WRLD is open about his struggles with anxiety, which though it helps to break a stigma is still troubling to hear about regularly from a 20-year-old artist. Singer-guitarist Dominic Fike who became an industry darling while finding himself in and out of jail, quickly deleted his Twitter account after his Don’t Forget About Me, Demos EP came out in October 2018.
Still, it’s not impossible to navigate from one meteoric hit to meaningful stability, just look at Carly Rae Jepsen, or Rae Sremmurd, both acts who parlayed one massive hit into commercially and critically successful careers. The key seems to be having a clear identity and sense of direction, along with a supporting team meaningfully invested in the artist’s development and evolution, not just trying to squeeze out another “No Flex Zone” every year.
Releasing music has never been easier, and there are more ways than ever for an artist to find themselves suddenly on the rise. But, the potential baggage that comes with being an out-of-nowhere star shows no sign of disappearing. So if you’re a buzzing artist and you get a surprise DM from Drake about him jumping on your track or find yourself trending thanks to tiktok, please proceed with caution.