Who is an artist once the plaques are no longer Platinum? Who do you become when the singles no longer scratch the surface of Billboard? The fall is never fast, and it doesn't have to be forever, but very few are able to rise a second time. Artists who make their names with big hits and then struggle to make more must feel like going from the Promised Land to the purgatory of declining relevance.
In 2000, Lil Bow Wow (born Shad Gregory Moss) was barely a teenager when “Bounce With Me,” the first single off his debut album, Beware of Dog, was released. Before entering the spotlight, the baby-faced rapper spent two years developing his skill set underneath the musical wings of Jermaine Dupri. Being signed to So So Def and supported by Dupri proved fruitful for Moss as the teenybopper anthem peaked No. 20 on U.S. Billboard Hot 100. Successful singles have the potential of being gateways into stardom, and on his first attempt, Bow Wow was famous.
Scoring a hit single is like shooting the winning basket, but with the expectation of repeating the performance every time you enter a gym. Big records will get you in the door and allow you access to the glamorous life, but in order to remain in the room, a continuation tax is required. Children aren’t exempt, and for the first seven years of his professional career, Lil Bow Wow was able to pay up.
Wherever there was a radio, Bow Wow was heard. Wherever BET and MTV were being watched, Bow Wow was seen. A string of hits including “Like You” featuring Ciara, “Let Me Hold You” featuring Omarion, and "Shortie Like Mine" featuring Chris Brown and Johntá Austin made Bow Wow inescapable, and that's without mentioning his work with Snoop Dogg, T-Pain, or R. Kelly. Without the skill set to be considered a potent rapper, Bow Wow was able to both survive and thrive on charisma, features, and consistency. For a brief moment in time, Bow Wow appeared to be destined for longevity in rap.
Just a few weeks shy of the 18th anniversary of “Bounce With Me,” Bow Wow tweeted his latest single, “Pussy Talk.” He is now 31, still famous, but not for any recent music. His last album was 2009's New Jack City II and his last charting single was "Sweat," a single from 2011 that features Lil Wayne. Before promoting his latest record, Bow Wow went on a brief Twitter tirade that ended with a promise to quit rap and give away all his money. This is what 20 years of fame looks like—a privilege and a burden.
"Pussy Talk" is the inverse of the youthful, charismatic rapper who appeared on “Bounce With Me,” with his fiery flow morphing into Auto-Tune-laced lyrics without a hint of fire left in the tank. Behind the boards, Dupri’s jubilant soundbed has become a dull, generic trap canvas lacking color. Even the video featuring gyrating, bodacious women is somehow nary of believable excitement. This is a rapper trying to shoot down the stars with a water pistol.
Bow Wow is still boyish, with the youthful skin of a man untouched by the wrinkles of time, but time hasn't been kind to his career. To live by the notoriety of records with commercial impact means to risk vanishing by the lack thereof. Bow Wow is the perfect example of an artist who was able to produce strong singles that assisted in the selling of millions of albums, but one doesn’t move without the other. His decline began in 2008, and a decade later, he has sunk only further into obscurity.
To be frank, “Pussy Talk” is terrible. But I see the intent. Bow Wow attempted to create his own version of “Taste," Tyga's summer smash. The two are strangely similar, two notorious single artists who both take an abundance of chances when the chips are down. The difference between Bow Wow and Tyga, however, is Tyga is a lottery ticket rapper; he’ll keep betting on the same numbers until he wins. For 2015 to 2017, Tyga was absent from charts; the singles he pushed received whispers, murmurs, and laughter. If Bow Wow is the butt of jokes, Tyga is social media’s favorite court jester. But at the end of May, Tyga did what no one expected—he returned with a mega-hit.
“Taste” is shallow, simple, and soulful—a winning trifecta for a summer single. Over undeniably catchy production from D.A. Doman, the kind of infectious bounce that wraps around your skin and causes your body to move, little wrongdoing could possibly occur. The single is fun, as is the video, capturing the career thrill of living your best summer life.
Comeback singles are always a good indication of an artist's willingness to innovate and adapt to the times. Expertly, Tyga knows how to adapt and, at the same time, also change very little; he is dedicated to making party records and selling the experience of a good time. He’ll adjust his sound, find what works, but essentially he’s still the rapper drinking the lime out of coconuts.
Tyga has come a long way since he entered our headspace in 2008 when he barely crept onto the Billboard charts with a Travis McCoy feature. “Taste” is artfully curated to create vibes, and how he raps perfectly in the pocket is done to maintain a sense of serendipity. There are no strange flows, awkward punchlines, or unnecessary delivery—knowing the potential hit on his hands, Tyga just wants you to enjoy the song on repeat. “Taste” is currently No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100, his highest-charting solo single since 2011's “Rack City.”
After the thrashing that he received for last year’s Kyoto or the rightful criticism of his relations with ex-girlfriend Kylie Jenner (“Act your age not your girl's age”), I had long accepted Tyga as an artist who would be followed by a rain cloud of wisecracks. Public opinion has always fluctuated around Tyga; the only time he’s in our collective good graces is after a sizable hit record. The longer the stretch without a hit, the more his past slips from consciousness. There is no reason to consider Tyga an exceptional rapper, but his ability to survive against the odds is a reminder that in the Internet Era, a rapper's window is never, ever closed.
While Tyga has followed the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" model, for many artists, transformation is often the key to future success. Bow Wow couldn’t complete the transition into Shad Moss, but that is because you can't change your stage name without also drastically adjusting your brand. Chicago's Yung Berg may be known for a pair of 2007 singles (“Sexy Can I” with Ray J and “Sexy Lady”), but his name is more closely connected to an infamous, 2008 chain snatching. Instead of the continued pursuit of a solo career, Berg decided to pivot toward production and songwriting, understanding that his talents were best utilized away from the spotlight. Overnight, Berg became Hitmaka.
The name Hitmaka is bold; it’s the kind of self-assured title that could quickly backfire if the moniker isn’t backed up by actual hit records. To his credit, Hitmaka has built real momentum over the past few years, working closely with Big Sean ("Bounce Back"), Ty Dolla $ign ("Pineapple"), Meek Mill ("Dangerous") and Chris Brown. Later this month, Ty Dolla $ign and Jeremih will release their joint album, MihTy, produced in full by Hitmaka. If he can supply the pair with a top 10 single, one of the best comeback stories since Tity Boi became 2 Chainz will be complete.
Trying to predict the career trajectory of an artist is a guessing game. There’s a multitude of factors that come into play—co-signs, label deals, finances, etc...—many of which only reveal themselves over time. Tyga appears to be launching into the next phase of his career, picking up a momentum last seen when he released “Faded" after "Rack City." Hitmaka has the potential to completely overshadow everything he accomplished as Yung Berg, especially if all the music to come sounds like Meek Mill’s “Dangerous.” Then there’s Bow Wow, who's but a memory for those of us who grew up in the early 2000s and fondly remember Hardball and "Outta My System," Roll Bounce and "Puppy Love,” 106 & Park and "Marco Polo.” Suddenly, I'm strangely interested in finding out if he has one more hit in him.
It's undoubtedly better to have a hit on your résumé than to never have a hit at all, but it's always about the next hit. And the hit after that one. The chase is never-ending, even if you release "Pussy Talk."