Any Hip Hop head who has ever entered a debate about a particular rapper they are feeling or supporting has had to have the debate about album sales. There are some Hip Hop fans who believe that the greatest or only measure of a rapper’s success or talent is measured by how many units he/she can move. Well, I believe nothing can be further from the truth. Album sales do have an effect on a rapper’s career and presence in Hip Hop history in a number of ways, but none of those ways dictates talent or relevance. Let me explain…
Album sales, for the record labels, dictates the worth of an artist. That’s not a bad thing per se. They are not looking at it from a business aspect in which they are going to make an investment and, therefore, they want to see a return on their investment. That’s business. However, business is dictated by things like radio play and album sales. The labels only throw money at what they can quantify as a solid investment. They aren’t looking at a rap artist the same way that a fan does (most often).
For a Hip Hop head or fan, the things we value in an artist will be different. We know album sales can’t dictate the quality of an artist. So while album sales may elude to the kind of reach that an artist has in terms of getting their music exposed, it doesn’t speak to the quality or significance of what they have to offer. This is what defines an artist’s relevance.
The exception to this is an interesting fact that I came across but makes logical sense. When an artist releases a new album a good portion of albums sales they make is from their body of work. This is an easily confirmed notion. One can go to amazon and click on an album and it offers a list of other purchasers of that album and what they purchased. Many times there is a least one or two purchases of older albums from the artist. I, myself, have done this when I have seen an artist drop an album and I hear the buzz surrounding the album but am not familiar with the artist enough to decide whether I really like that album or that single or the actual artist. I usually go dig through a couple of albums from the artist and make my decision after considering more than just one album. So if an artist already has a body of work, album sales could be expressive of that artist having put in their work for a while and only just then beginning to get recognition for it, which happens often with a lot of quality artists. Even still those album sales would be reflecting the total sales and not just that of one album.
I don’t believe relevance to be the sort of thing that can be defined or confined by time. I believe that relevance is exactly the opposite. It is about that which defies time. Just because a rapper isn’t selling madd albums at the current moment does not mean that the artist is no longer relevant. Take for instance Nas’ Illmatic, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, Wu-Tang Clan’s 36
Chambers, or A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders all of these albums are at least a decade old, yet no one can argue that they not have contributed so significantly to the greater canon of Rap music that they will always be discussed, listened to, studied, and appreciated.
Consider artists such as Common, Talib Kweli, and The Roots. These artists have been around for quite some time and are respected by fans and peers but almost never receive the promotion or album sales as less talented artists. This is because there is no direct correlation between albums sales and mainstream popularity and relevance.
There are a number of rappers who can follow a trend or formula in music that may allow them to get airplay or sell albums but in terms of contributing to the body of work that will affect the culture and endure, there isno guarantee. Take for instance J. Cole’s Cole World. The entire album, while not terrible, is a hit and miss list of Cole’s attempt to create a radio hit. The about lacks a cohesive singular concept and instead dances around through watered down content and trendy production. However, Cole’s Born Sinner comes in wit the first track “Villuminati” which immediately sets the tone for the fact that what you are going to get is an introspective, passion driven produced, soul heavy, New York style rap album. Or take for instance BIG K.R.I.T. who has produced 4 acclaimed mixtapes and then produced an album that failed to deliver in the same way. It is because mixtapes give rappers more freedom and they are more creative and true to what it is they want to produce and what the fans love them for. All too often, this contradicts what “sells” in the mainstream.
It is the quintessential issue that every rapper is struggling with at this moment as the industry is changing and the game is evolving. What is being exposed is the fact that the power to decide is returning to the fans and Hip Hop heads — where it belongs.
Power to the People
The problem is that we continue to allow people who have no connection with Hip Hop culture or Rap music. These individuals have for the past 2 decades have decided for us what artists get longevity and a successful career (which ofcourse means they are able to make more music) and which sounds and styles are popular. While they industry does this under the premise that the statistics and data they use to make these assumptions are revealing objective truths about Rap music, in truth, the data (as is always the case with statistics) is skewed. In this case the data is contaminated because of the limited avenues from which they draw this information. With the decline in album sales, the weakening influence of radio play, the growing popularity of free mixtapes the record labels no longer have the influx of data they have been using to determine who is popular (not that they ever really could) and they are having to admit they don’t know.
For a moment this will cause the labels to withdraw support of certain artists and probably become a little more tight handed with marketing and advertising budgets. But in the end the power to decide will return to the people. As the labels will have to rely on the popularity of mixtapes, the engagement of an artist on social media, and concert sales (which is a decent determinant as only a real fan or Hip Hop head cops a concert ticket for a couple hundred dollars).
I for one am excited about what is happening in Hip Hop music right now. It will happen slowly and there will be a few bumps along the way. But the evolutionary imperative of Hip Hop returning to those who love it is inevitable.
I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man