For as long as I’ve been a fan of music, I’ve been infatuated with the idea of the “sell out,” an artistic villain archetype that represents the opposite of everything art is supposed to be about.
Art is about free expression, and the introduction of a preference for commercial success over making the best art possible is seen as an instant corruption of the process and a fast-track to “watered down” content.
While this idea exists across all genres of all mediums, I’ve found that hip-hop, specifically, encapsulates a sort of cognitive dissonance that makes monetary success both the ultimate endgame and a hindrance to longevity, the luxuries of success seeming to dull the hunger of even the sharpest of emcees.
There are artists who enter the game looking to express themselves, and there are those that simply wish to cash in on a lucrative opportunity. Of course, there’s certainly some overlap there, and it’s entirely possible to make authentic, expressive art and still be considered successful.
For instance, take Vince Staples. Even if he’s not selling hundreds of thousands of records, he's operating on a tier of rap stardom that many emcees would kill to achieve. In a recent interview with Ebro in the Morning, Staples continued his conquest to keep the conversation centered around music with a scrupulous indictment of the importance we tend to place on monetary success and the effects that it can have on the merit of art.
"If we didn't tell these niggas they had to make money, they had to be hyper successful, they had to get all the attention, they wouldn't make the music that gets the most attention, that 'makes the most money,' you get what I'm saying? But when a nigga say he rap, 'Ok, I wanna see a Benz.'"
Vince’s comments point to the exact cognitive dissonance that pushes aspiring artists to want to be monetarily successful but paints a one-dimensional picture of how to get there, creating a subconscious pigeon hole for artistic voices. Vince also made a point of making a clear distinction between artists and those who are strictly pursuing a career in the music business for the monetary gain.
"Niggas wanna call niggas artists, all this other shit, shut the fuck up. You know how many broke niggas is in museums right now? With no type of nothin? And they can walk down the street and nobody know who they is, but they content ‘cause they making something creative that they like? You can't tell a nigga that…
"...You gotta live with yourself at the end of the day, but we put so much pressure on these niggas to be this, and to be that and to be that, what you expect them to do? So every interview is, 'Oh you livin good now, where you at? What kinda car you got?' Niggas be askin that, every interview! I ain't never got an interview where ain't nobody ask me somethin’ about my pockets, niggas pocket watchin’. But then they wanna ask you like, 'Oh, you livin good, blah blah...you don't feel bad leavin’ the hood?' It's a mindfuck, this how we do niggas, bro."
There’s no doubt that Vince’s statements are rooted in reality, as we’ve seen one wave after another take the internet by storm with legions of aspiring artists sonically Xeroxing whatever happens to be successful at the moment.
Much of the blame, Vince argues, belongs to hip-hop media and their playing into what amounts to an arbitrary measurement of artistic success, all while still demanding authenticity and loyalty to the circumstances that they were trying to escape in the first place.
If, as an industry, we can somehow shift the focus back onto producing fantastic music rather than the material measuring stick that’s taken precedence, obviously that will open the door for more diverse expressions, and as we’ve seen with Vince, Kendrick, Chance and a growing number of artists, sometimes that diversity is exactly what leads to success at the end of the day.
It’s an uphill battle that’s been waged since hip-hop’s beginnings, and we have sharp, fearless voices like Vince to thank for that.