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The Art of Rapper Brand Building & Fan Manipulation

We're all being played, but sometimes that's OK.

If this is groundbreaking news, I’m truly sorry. Reading on means taking the red pill, and peeling back the layers surrounding your relationships with the artists you love.

It doesn’t matter who’s in your headphones—Yeezy, Jeezy, Weezy, or the dude down the street with the viral Youtube videos—your favorite rapper is playing you.  

Of course, there are degrees to how severely you are getting played; some artists lie to their fans outright, most simply curate and groom an image of themselves that fans can digest. Call it brand marketing, or the art of fan manipulation. Everybody’s doing it, and everybody’s been doing it since before Elvis first gyrated his hips on national television.  

Today, more than ever before, in order to sell their music, an artist needs to sell themselves as a brand first. For rappers in the spotlight, brand and person and artist all become synonymous, all rolled up into one lump sum and presented for public consumption.  

The result of that equation, and the perception we walk away with as an audience is rarely an accident. Especially when we’re talking about mainstream artists or rappers getting the nod from the hip-hop hype machine, branding is highly strategic, and every facet of an artist’s image is, to an extent, intentional and manicured to manipulate listeners.  

These branding choices are often small and subtle. Maybe Joey wore those Timbs in the “Land of the Free” video to harken back to Brooklyn and further the track’s retro East Coast vibe. Maybe some of Talib’s more fiery tweets are supposed to rile people up and continually cement his status as an instigator and provocateur.

Small and subtle, but all of those little branding decisions add up and affect how an artist is perceived.

And sometimes moves are more gaudy and transparent; Kanye West has a cameo in “Panda” because Desiigner really really really wants to be seen as the kind of superstar that casually hangs out with his label boss. It’s all optics, appearances, moves on a branded chessboard.

Rappers all strategically develop their brands for the same basic reasons, too—to connect with fans, build a loyal fanbase and carve out a profitable career. All of these branding decisions, big and small, revolve around making an artist palatable to their respective audiences.

Again, this isn’t anything new; everyone from Jay Z to Paul McCartney has used branding to portray a version of themselves that fans can connect with en masse. That’s just business.    

What’s different today is the toolkit artists have at their disposal to develop their branding at the micro level, and the extent to which artists are increasingly utilizing their personal brand to create fan-based movements. 

A modern example of artist turned uber-brand turned movement leader is Tyler, The Creator, whose rise to fame was as much undeniable talent as smart marketing. Tyler, The Brand is quirky, outlandish, prodigal, odd, offensive and relatable to a certain strain of young outcasts.  

Tyler, The Movement Leader didn’t have to work hard to tap into that angst. By organizing fans around OFWGKTA, with an annual meeting at Camp Flog Gnaw and the smorgasbord of media offerings, Tyler gave all of his outcast devotees something they felt they could be a part of. For a long time, wearing an Odd Future shirt didn’t just mean you rode hard for Tyler’s music, it meant you considered yourself a member of the Odd Future movement. Part of the family.  

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What, exactly, these movements stand for is often undefined, and that’s no accident either. Rather than rally audiences for a cause or towards an achievable goal, most artists are content to paint themselves as anti-establishment and let fans fill in the details along the way.

There’s beauty in these fan-based movements too, and a lot of positivity that shouldn’t be overlooked. Tech N9ne fans get to party hard every time Nina comes to town, and know they are in for one hell of an experience surrounded by other “Technicians.” Juggalos never have to feel lonely when they see a homie with their face painted. Pop stars have mastered the movement, from Beyoncé's Beyhive to Justin's Beliebers to Rihanna's Navy and beyond.

The positives from an artist’s point of view are obvious, and it’s no wonder that launching a fan-based movement is a tactic that more and more rappers are toying with. Get your fans to buy into a movement, and they’ll follow you through anything. Make them feel like they belong, and they’ll never skip another album release.  

Thanks to social media and the direct fan connection that it provides, artists are able to launch movements organically and on the fly. Not every #HashtagCampaign will result in a long-term fan relationship. But artists like Snow tha Product (via “Woke”) and Wiz Khalifa (via early Taylor Gang) have been able to cleverly use their reach on new media platforms to create fan movements that have bolstered their careers long term.

And as traditional marketing paths continue to fail and the music industry machinery continues to rust and crumble, we’ll likely see more artists clawing to assemble fan movements around their brands.

Not everyone will be able to create their own army of Technicians. Those artists who do create successful movements will do so with careful strategy and with their careers and bottom lines in mind.  

Yes, we as fans are being taken advantage of, in a sense. When we buy into an artist’s targeted and constructed movement, we’re letting ourselves get played. But knowing that won’t stop any of us from being manipulated.

The best marketing maestros create their smoke-and-mirrors illusions without anyone ever noticing or suspecting foul play. Fan manipulation is a fine art; a nuanced endeavor that’s easy to spot and ridicule when it fails, but nearly impossible to pinpoint when it succeeds.

Small and subtle. The best trick the devil ever played was convincing the world he didn’t exist; the best trick savvy artists can play is convincing their fans to swallow the blue pill and buy in wholeheartedly to a marketing tactic thinly disguised as something worth belonging to.  

That doesn’t mean you should stop listening to Tyler, or throw away your Pro Era gear. And it doesn’t mean you should stop connecting with an artist on an emotional level. The satisfaction we get from feeling like we know who an artist is and what drives them can’t be replaced.  

It’s unavoidable that we are really connecting with a highly manicured brand rather than a real and true portrayal of who an artist is. It’s also unavoidable that artists will continue to find new ways to manipulate their fans, and we’ll continue to be happily and ignorantly played.

Personally, as long as the music’s good, I’ll keep drinking the Kool-Aid with my headphones on.  

Photo Credit: GolfWang



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