Do we turn on our favorite rappers when they become famous? It depends.
At the human level, fame is a tricky thing to navigate. None of us are built to be famous. The pressures are beyond what we’ve been battle-tested to handle as a society, and living a life beholden to so many people is nothing if not trapping. Fame has a price, we know this, but recently, rising and legacy rap acts, en masse, have been able to articulate the price of fame in their raps with a touch more nuance.
As the saying goes, artists have their entire lives to write their debuts. The debut album is easy to connect with: be it an artist’s coming-of-age story, an account of their most harrowing struggles, or a beloved tale of their long-awaited come-up. The debut album brings us shoulder to shoulder with an artist, and if all goes well, we get a sophomore record.
That’s it, then. Our artist made it. So, now what kinds of songs should they write? How can artists that rose to fame talking about their struggles find new material if they’re seemingly struggle-free?
At the sophomore—and junior, and senior—album crossroads there are typically two options for an artistic statement. One being: “I’m famous now, it’s great!” The second being: “I’m famous now, it sucks.” The problem with both directions is that once artists enter into the pantheon of fame, we feel disconnected from their problems. Even one price of fame song on an album is enough to elicit the following embittered reaction: “You’re famous and happy? Great, fuck off. You’re famous and sad? Who cares, your bills are paid.”
These reactions are of course dismissive and destructive, but they’ve also seemingly pushed artists to fine-tune the price of fame song. In the past half-decade, artists have come to talk about fame in less trite ways. Rather than assert fame is hard and paint a plush portrait, crying softly into their money, they’re now leaning into and fleshing out the struggle. We've come to a place in hip-hop’s lifespan where artists are better suited to unpack and portray the deep price of fame without playing as woefully out of touch. Press play on any Future song, and you won't want to be famous anymore.
Below, we have 10 songs from an array of upcoming, solidified, and legacy artists that contend with fame without turning away the everyday listener. While the tangible struggles in each of these songs may be difficult, the depth of each artist’s conviction and their impressive show of emotions bridges the gap between famous person and person-person. These are the songs changing the way we address and discuss fame in rap. Enjoy.
For the full list in a Spotify playlist, click here.
6LACK — “Loaded Gun”
The metaphor here is obvious: fame is like a loaded gun. Still, that plain-stated quality is the hook that brings us into 6LACK’s moody world on East Atlanta Love Letter, where 6LACK trades begging for freedom in for begging for time. Without time to himself, we find 6LACK at a terrifying identity purgatory. “Loaded Gun” deals with expectations piling up and relationships becoming terse, and breaks down everything that is at stake for 6LACK when it comes to this music shit. The stakes and 6LACK’s evident passion keep our attention. “Loaded Gun” portrays music as a life-or-death venture, and we buy it.
Big K.R.I.T. — “Price of Fame”
With “Price of Fame,” Big K.R.I.T. leans into the paranoia and depression that sprouts from the fast and famous lifestyle. He pines after the broke but simple life while bemoaning how subhuman he feels surrounded by greed and flashing lights. Fame is contra to his character, and yet he can do little to remove himself from the spotlight. Beyond these expected tropes, K.R.I.T. also opens up about his alcoholism—worsened by the limelight—and his difficulty dealing with real-life struggles. The entire track is mired in a shame he should not feel, and from that struggle, we believe the whole of Big K.R.I.T.'s pain.
Kendrick Lamar — “PRIDE.”
DAMN. does an excellent job of adding dimension to the chronicles of fame. In particular, “PRIDE.” is a scathing self-inventory and cautionary tale Kendrick Lamar tells himself. Pride will surely be the death of him, and he has a lot to be proud of. A series of dichotomies, between Steve Lacy’s diaphanous vocals and Lamar's equally feathered delivery, we are left with a crippling sense of trepidation. Lamar evidently does not want to appear ungrateful, but as he is realizing, opportunity costs will always catch up to you. “PRIDE.” is no crisis of faith, but rather of a crisis of character. At his most vexed, we believe Kendrick Lamar in earnest.
Mac Miller — “2009”
Mac Miller’s final album, Swimming, much like DAMN., is an impressive and heavy self-reckoning. One of the beautiful things about Mac Miller’s career was the equal exchange of it all. The entire arc was available to us, and in tandem, as were his deepest secrets and emotions. When he fondly remembers the simpler days of 2009, then, we can reminisce together. “2009” becomes a bittersweet and touching affair, a moment of overcoming just out of reach. By drawing start and end dates, “2009” carries with it a wholeness as Mac addresses the demons that eventually swallowed him alive.
Lil Wayne — “Famous” ft. Reginae Carter
This one is pretty straightforward, which is a boon to Lil Wayne. The thing about Tha Carter V is that whatever Wayne had to say on this album, the people were going to listen. The suspense was just too much. Does that mean “Famous” is passé? Not at all. The motif of this song is, surprisingly, loss. Wayne struggles to sustain relationships with his family, his persona and his personhood are in an untenable flux. Weighty, perhaps the greatest loss of all comes out on the second verse when Wayne spits: “Can't talk to myself, 'cause mama said don't talk to strangers.” If we do not have ourselves, then what’s left? Being famous.
JAY-Z — “Kill Jay Z”
JAY-Z has been famous for a long time. He doesn’t need to tell us what the game has done to him—we’ve heard it plenty. That’s why to tell the story of his decades of fame, JAY-Z had to kill his ego, kill himself. We’re left with “Kill Jay Z,” a track where Shawn Carter is at war with himself and everything his success has sown. The price of fame on “Kill Jay Z” is paid by everyone Mr. Carter has come in contact with: the loved ones he sold drugs to, his ex-wife-now-wife Beyoncé, and so on. The track works because big boss JAY-Z does not owe us humility, and so “Kill Jay Z” is both a solid song and a show of good faith. He sounds remorseful, and we believe him.
BROCKHAMPTON — “WEIGHT”
Yes, fame is heavy. That’s not why “WEIGHT” works. “WEIGHT” works because BROCKHAMPTON are a boy band of approachable dudes throwing their hearts out to the lions. Every genre of gear and demon is covered in Kevin Abstract’s verse alone. Joba and Dom McLennon showcase how the weight has crushed them, both feeling disjointed and lost amidst the compounding pressures of stardom. In the same vein as Big K.R.I.T., Joba concludes the song by bringing up the cycles of fame and addiction. The boys have the ear of the youth, so even at their most famous and distant, they’re just the hurt boys next door.
YG — “Really Be (Smokin N Drinkin)” ft. Kendrick Lamar
YG “be goin’ through shit.” Fame has him looking over his shoulder more than ever before. Being wealthy and high-profile doesn’t seem to be YG’s bag. At the least, it drives him to smoke and drink in excess, per the ad nauseam repetition of the hook on “Really Be.” Take this song to be the West Coast’s answer to Big K.R.I.T.’s “Price of Fame.” YG’s music has always been believable, so his price of fame song was never going to have a difficult time connecting. Stories of his family relying on him for financial support and YG living in a constant state of paranoia, give “Really Be” the human edge that goes on to color a majority of his sophomore record, Still Brazy.
Tyler, The Creator — “911 / Mr. Lonely” ft. Frank Ocean & Steve Lacy
Tyler, The Creator is lonely as fuck. “911 / Mr. Lonely” highlights how isolating fame is, even on stage in front of a thousand people. This two-piece track plays out as a cry for help, literally. The imperative of “911,” nearly begging people to call the hotline or Tyler directly with some company or someone who might fit the bill is just downtrodden enough. Offset nicely by the haggard delivery on “Mr. Lonely,” the emotions on the cut go from manic to fried in an instant. The price of fame, for Tyler, is that fame quickly becomes worthless. Tyler, The Creator can have as many cars as he wants, but none of them can aptly fill the voids in his life. The fear of getting it all and still having nothing, despite shifting definitions of “all,” is just universal enough to hit.
Vic Mensa — “There’s Alot Going On”
Vic Mensa has made a lot of mistakes. If you give him six minutes of your time, he will catalog all of these mistakes for you in one neat package: “There’s Alot Going On.” The title track off his 2016 EP, this song is an eviscerating self-portrait. Mensa admits to putting his hands on his ex-girlfriend, a deadly drug addiction, mental health issues untreated, and the inability to enjoy his own successes. “There’s Alot Going On” is expansive and honest, one Vic Mensa’s best songs, and the ultimate blueprint for a price of fame song. At no point are we jealous of Vic, or bitter towards him. He holds our ear and we walk away from the record thinking, “Damn, fame is not all it’s cracked up to be.” This is the essence of a perfect price of fame song: something that subverts our expectations and makes us wish we never become famous ourselves.
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