One of my favorite writers died believing he was a failure. The books weren’t selling, the people weren’t reading—at his funeral, the minister didn’t know him as a great American novelist, but another dead body being buried into a vacant hole. Failure didn’t kill him, but the lack of recognition can do more damage to the soul than a knife to flesh. Years rolled on after the casket closed and the rightful praise finally came, but that never changed F. Scott Fitzgerald's dying thoughts on his writing career.
There’s an ongoing internal pressure in most people, especially artists. It’s as if a bomb is strapped to our hearts, and if we fall short of our own expected greatness the explosive will detonate. No one wants to die a failure, no one wants to fall short of being number one. This is how I thought, at least, until I listened to Isaiah Rashad’s “Nelly” on repeat over the last few days.
He sings from the perspective of a rapper who would rather not reach Billboard’s peak, seeing such a reward as more of a curse than a blessing. Instead of looking forward to the avalanche of admiration, he shudders at the idea of being momentarily hot and then left high and dry once the crowd moves away. He sees having a number one single as being temporary—a phase, a trend, but not the lasting love you receive for a more meaningful song.
Max Bell wrote for Passion Of The Weiss that “Nelly” was the anti-single, a song that strategically went against the popular sound dominating hip-hop’s mainstream. The tempo is languorous, his voice is easygoing. There’s nothing dynamic about the song, but it’s entrancing—a song that’s easy to get lost in. Isaiah knows he doesn’t have a hit song, but a jam, the kind of record that will be enjoyed in a long-term sense.
When I first heard Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” it was far from what I expected from the rapper eater. There are a million better Wayne songs, but none of them had the massive popularity of "Lollipop." Weezy changed it up, flipped the radio switch, and turned delicious candy and Auto-Tune into a vehicle for commercial success. As Isaiah states on “Nelly,” “They gone do you wrong, they gon’ play you out.” Number one records didn’t keep Wayne from getting the short end from Cash Money, and it surely hasn't made people want to hear him sing “Make her wanna lick the wrapper” years later.
In some cases, reaching number one isn’t a drop in artistic quality. OutKast was able to achieve chart-topping success with “Ms. Jackson," “Hey Ya!” and "The Way You Move." Are these the best OutKast songs? No, their immense catalog is filled with records with better production, better flows and better raps, but it doesn’t change the fact that they peaked with three great records. In OutKast's case, being the biggest rap duo was too much pressure for André 3000. He tasted the highest honor, the peak of fame brought by music, and he ran from the hordes that chased his heels. If he died tomorrow the entire world would sing his songs, they would cry to his voice, but that won’t change how he chose seclusion over the public’s demand of him. I wonder if he could do it all again—would he embrace the fame or create in secrecy as a true outcast?
In the last few weeks, Rae Sremmurd and Migos successfully achieved a position at the highest point on Billboard's charts with “Black Beatles” and “Bad and Boujee,” respectively. When Kim Kardashian recently captioned a photo with "bad & boujee," it felt as if some sacred animal had been discovered by poachers. They’ll run it into the ground, the loudest and latest to the party. The song will be dead in a few weeks; oversaturation has a way of squeezing out all the fun.
That’s why hits never last: people become sick, no different than binging on candy and the miserable crash that follows the sugar rush. Hype can make any song popular, but when it dies, when all the chatter ceases, what we listen to is rarely the songs that the world gushes over. The songs we truly cherish, are the ones we hold dear when the world goes silent. The best song is rarely the single, and the fan favorite is almost never the number one record.
Recognition is a drug. Sometimes you feel it’s needed like air in your lungs; you feel suffocated by the feeling of being overlooked, underappreciated and disregarded. It’s weird to think that some artists are on their death beds still haunted by the thought of their art being ignored by the world. Some art simply blossoms later than others, discovered years after the spirit has passed to the other side. But having a number one isn’t always the pinnacle of success. Some artists achieve the fame despite the recognition, while others spend their lives trying to reclaim that brief moment of approval.
Being an artist is experiencing extremes—hating the love, loving the hate, lost in this endless cycle of chasing mass validation. I believe Isaiah is okay with just a taste of notoriety, a bit of fame, and a series of songs that people will remember him by. Not because they were hits, not for critical acclaim, but because they were touched by his sentiments. I find comfort in his positive outlook, “We can’t be number one, but we can be the jam.”
Who knows, maybe another artist can sample the jam, and take you to the top years after your time? That’s the beauty of art, it will still be here when our bodies fill those vacant holes.
By Yoh, aka Nostalgic Yoh aka @Yoh31.
Art Credit: Jones Factory