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Made in America

December 11th, 2014

 

For attentive fans of rap and hip-hop, this past week offered some unexpected and cryptic excitement.

 

One of rap’s most prolific artists took to social media to air out his dirty laundry. Rapper Lil Wayne of Cash Money Records fired off a string of tweets aimed at his record label. Lil Wayne’s tweets placed the blame for his album delays squarely on his label, saying the label “refuse[s] to release it.” In another tweet from his rant, Lil Wayne expressed that both he and his creativity are held “prisoner[s]” by his label.

 

Lil Wayne’s off-the-cuff comments online might seem like innocuous frustrations initially, but in the larger context of the music industry, they signify an alarming shift.

 

As rappers have continued to boast about their successes with women, money and fame, rap music has all but stayed the same.

 

The powerful, unadulterated tracks once focused on topics like entry into manhood, social and political issues and potent emotion have disappeared slowly from radios and record stores. In their stead, tracks laced with cheap, catchy beats coupled with lifeless lyrics populate the shelves and the public’s music collection. The evolution, or more accurately, devolution, occurred quickly as a single-minded pursuit of commercial success.

 

In fact, the genre’s contemporaries bear little resemblance to their predecessors. Producers and artists have reversed their heavy-hitting drums and emphasis on meaningful lyrics, substituting them with catchy, pop-like beats and empty lyrics. Today’s rappers regularly queue up to be the newest “sellout” for their fleeting 15 minutes of fame.

 

In this sudden transformation, artists cannot be solely blamed. On account of changes in the music industry, musicians, including rappers, began adopting tactics out of an interest in remaining relevant.

 

Where previous generations placed emphasis on remaining true to their style, new rappers were forced to adapt their sounds and lyrics to stay financially profitable. The standard for success shifted from critical acclaim to radio play on “KISS-FM” and other pop-oriented stations.

 

Of the recent changes in the music industry, the technological exodus from physical to electronic records and the proliferation of piracy stand as the two most destructive to industry and artistry.

 

As technology advances, older things become outdated. It’s an ordinary and natural progression. However, the music industry progressed rapidly and was ill prepared for the explosive paradigm shift of the early 2000s. The creation and subsequent success of huge, exhaustive online music repositories like Napster and iTunes marked the abrupt end of an era in music.

 

These electronic stores removed the need to buy an entire hardcopy of a CD to listen to a few favorites. And, instead, this allowed consumers the ability to buy individual songs on their computers.

 

One pioneer in this electronic venture, Apple Inc., witnessed the meteoric success of its own iteration of an electronic music store, iTunes. From 2004-2012, Apple Inc. managed to at least double its total revenue every two years. The new medium of digital downloading continues to bring success to other, similar businesses, albeit in less impressive figures.

 

All of electronic music’s popularity caused record sales to dive deeply. In addition to buying specific songs instead of entire albums, consumers also exploited the music industry by uploading and downloading music illegally. By pirating music, Internet users can remotely and discreetly enjoy music at no cost.

 

Aside from electronic stores, piracy stands as the other most destructive force to the music industry. With access to free, unregulated caches of music just mouse-clicks away, consumers have significantly abandoned the practice of paying for their music.

 

For these reasons, specific record sales and the overall profitability of the music industry continues to plummet at a rapid rate.

 

MTV reports that 50 Cent’s “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,”  released in 2003, recorded a then-record-breaking 872,000 copies sold in its first week.

 

Just 10 years later, rap heavyweight Kanye West’s 2013 effort “Yeezus” reported just 327,000 copies sold in its first week, according to Billboard.com. To put this in perspective, in 2007, 50 Cent and Kanye West slated their respective albums for release during the same week. The ensuing competition resulted in West outselling 50 Cent by over 250,000 copies.

 

If historical trends between the two are any indication, the “Yeezus” record sale slump offers a bad omen for the music industry.

 

This past Tuesday, rapper J. Cole’s new album 2014 Forest Hills Drive debuted, featuring a track in which he says, “But then I thought back, back to a better me…Back when you could get a platinum plaque without no melody.” Here, J. Cole speaks to artists’ decisions to sell themselves short creatively for short-term profits. But, as the industry has evolved, new ways of selling out have emerged.

 

In 2013, Jay Z inked a deal with a major wireless provider, Samsung, to give one million copies of his record, Magna Carta Holy Grail, away as an exclusive pre-release for Samsung phone users. This deal effectively ensured Jay Z a platinum record well before his actual record sales reflected it.

 

In light of shrinking record sales and vanishing profit margins, record labels have begun to react. Where record labels previously allowed leniency to respected, successful artists like Lil Wayne and others, they are shortening the leash.

 

Out of self-preservation, labels now mold their musicians’ efforts into mainstream tracks with little, if any, substance. Lil Wayne’s feelings of being trapped like a prisoner are not unique,  as other industrious artists are pushing back.

 

Pusha T of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music record label responded to Lil Wayne’s Twitter tirade, saying, “if [you] wanna drop albums & don’t want your CEO’s rubbing they hands all in your videos, COME TO GOOD MUSIC!!” His reply wasn’t simply offering sympathy, but actively recruiting and persuading Lil Wayne to switch record labels after nearly two decades. Pusha T’s goal was to allow Lil Wayne to escape the creative restrictions of his current label.

 

For an industry whose landscape has undergone disorienting shifts in the past 20,  and even 10, years, one can’t help but think that 50 Cent’s 2003 album was predicting the future. Record labels are following his advice to “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.”