“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”
“I fucked my money up.” These lyrics begin Waka Flocka Flame’s chaotic, post-crunk breakout single, “O Let's Do It.” It’s a sentiment easily understood: funds are low and panic begins to set in. What follows the opening line is infectious anarchy—aggression and mayhem thumping from the song’s Southern heartbeat.
The former Gucci Mane protégé blew up without the polish of a seasoned artist. He was a rapper by circumstance who stumbled upon a formula that aimed to reach clubs by focusing on energy rather than technical ability. In the year 2009—36 years after hip-hop’s birth—making rap music intended for a specific audience wasn’t a new phenomenon, but admitting you don’t care about lyrics was and still is an act of taboo.
Waka made headlines after calling into DJ Whoo Kid’s radio show, stating, “The n---as who they say is lyrical, they ain't got no shows ... that ain't finnin' to get you no money.” The statement was and still is inaccurate, and doesn't fully represent the opportunities that are available to rappers operating in the underground. The brash remarks made the Atlanta-based rap rookie the epicenter for conversations regarding lyricism and the lack thereof. Rhymefest and Method Man—two veterans cut from the cloth of golden-era lyricism—chimed in with their personal viewpoints, but far more respectfully than Ice-T insulting Soulja Boy for single-handedly killing hip-hop in 2008.
"I been on tour for the last two years. I didn't get into rap to freestyle. I don't even care about selling records, as long as I get them shows for $15,000 four to five days out the week, I'm happy." —Waka Flocka Flame
Questions and debates about lyricism have followed the Brick Squad leader through most of his career, but his response in a 2011 Vulture interview is the most genuine telling of his intentions in music: “I didn’t get into rap to be no lyrical genius. I got into rap to feed my family and help the people in need around me, that’s it.”
Recently, in an Instagram Live video, Cardi B shared a similar sentiment after professing she doesn’t care about being a lyrical rapper. “I like to make shit that’s going to make me fucking money, shit that’s going to climb me up the charts,” she admitted at the beginning of the 54-second clip. Cardi, unlike Waka, was never accused of lowering the quality of rap by her hip-hop peers. She appealed to other rappers and to the clubs, the radio, the charts—to everyone. The Bronx-born hitmaker had a natural charisma that glowed on her every song. Cardi's debut single, "Bodak Yellow," peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, a stark contrast to "O Let's Do It," which only reached as high as No. 62.
Commercial success and chart prosperity aside, the two both had breakout summers with back to back to back bangers. They saw the financial and celebrity benefits of having records that had reach across both club and radio circuits. The strength of a hit is measured by the life-changing opportunities it can create. Waka Flocka and Cardi B sought careers in rap to change their lives, not to change rap. It was always about the bag. The moola. Essentially, C.R.E.A.M.
Since its infancy, rap has been a culture that allows dreamers and hustlers to intersect. It's one of the rare art forms where artistic survivalists who arrived from the mud could be poets, professors, drug dealers, strippers, or a combination of the four. Anyone—truly anyone—can make an attempt at rapping and see success. But there’s always been more respect paid to enthusiasts of the craft rather than the check chaser. Hip-hop, by its very nature, is a competitive culture that thrives from the foundation of a challenge.
The thrill of rivalry can be traced back to the very beginning. Battles between fellow DJs and competing MCs were frequent. Steel has always sharpened steel in that regard; great art has always inspired great art. This is why those who openly discard the craft in search of currency are ultimately frowned upon. But as hip-hop slowly transitioned from a subculture into a billion-dollar business, the genre attracted practitioners who only viewed the art form through the lens of opportunity. How could you not when flossing symbols of wealth has become the most common rapper trait?
Money motivates. Without the possibility of obtaining some form of wealth, the music industry would be far less saturated. Yet, there are countless artists, and people who count on their success, who have earned a second chance at a better life because of music. As I wrote last year, Vince Staples was able to leverage his popular mixtapes into a record deal and pay for his mom’s medical bills; 21 Savage's life doesn’t change without rap offering an avenue to something more than the streets he knew. From T.I. to Lil Wayne, the possibilities of what rap could offer have always been what attracts the black and brown youth from impoverished backgrounds with enough ambition to try.
It was hope—not certainty—that drove Waka Flocka Flame and Cardi B. Scoring “O Let’s Do It” or “Bodak Yellow” was like having a megaphone and speaking upon a giant stage. They had the world's attention. There’s a big difference between being liked and being global. Even JAY-Z, one of hip-hop’s greatest lyricists and wealthiest acts, once rapped "I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars / They criticized me for it, yet they all yell 'holla'" and "Truthfully, I wanna rhyme like Common Sense / But I did five mil, I ain't been rhymin' like Common since” to illustrate how money encouraged an artistic reinvention.
The key point is the decision. Artists must decide what they want, who they want to be, and how they hope to be remembered. For some, being considered as a "great" is enough, while others want the classic albums and longevity that means being viewed as a legend. There is the class of acts who care solely about the money and big records, and then there's the rare talent who, like JAY-Z, is a combination of great artistry with capitalistic vision. As Hov later said on "Moment of Clarity," "And I can't help the poor if I'm one of them / So I got rich and gave back, to me that's the win-win."
Rich is easier said—and shown—than accomplished. There will always be a separation between reality and how much money we believe everyone is making. The business doesn’t promise millions to every artist who signs to a major label, or even chart dominance. New acts are brought in, swallowed whole by the system, and regurgitated back into the ether to be replaced by another batch of hopeful prospects. Hope is what draws us to rap, and what has destroyed so many. It goes without saying, but studio costs, album costs, touring costs, and the splits between everyone involved—if you aren’t Russ—can leave you with the yearly salary of a little more than a McDonald’s manager. Or less.
For some, this is a fine deal. A chance to do what you love shouldn’t be determined by how much money is made. But the bills still come every month, and stomachs still growl every morning. No matter the field, creative or not, money matters. For someone who is seeking more, and is determined to pursue a higher level of wealth and success, what you make must be popular.
Countless Twitter users have accused Cardi B of being a "culture vulture," but that distrust isn’t a fair critique. Not enough credit is given to an artist who can consistently produce big records, dominate the charts, be the people’s champ, and still satisfy expectations without falling from the people's good graces. It’s a path bathed in gold, but one that you are rarely able to walk for long. Waka Flocka Flame entered hip-hop strong, a man with the sound and style of disruption. What he accomplished with producer Lex Luger became a blueprint for drill and the foundation of modern trap music, but the rowdy rapper peaked early. He’s still famous, able to make a living by touring heavily and appearing on reality television, but he's been absent from the charts since 2012.
That’s why Cardi’s current two-year run is so impressive. In her breakout year, she achieved towering popularity, with the Midas touch to turn singles into Platinum and Gold worldwide anthems. The question now: how will she maintain it? The goal to stay rich as a star on the charts isn't unheard of, but difficult nonetheless. All because you aren’t attempting to make the next great American rap classic doesn’t discredit the difficulties of producing a winning record that will feed you and your family.
Securing the bag doesn’t simply mean trying to score a hit record or dumbing down your music to fit in where the "most" money is made. Nipsey Hussle sold his mixtape Crenshaw for $100 as an unsigned artist and made $100,000. Oddisee is a great example of a renowned lyricist who has captured a fan base that's passionate and supportive. The Mello Music Group rapper-producer tours, streams, and sells enough to maintain a career that's not based on radio play or major-label backing.
There's always the Mach-Hommy approach: be an excellent lyricist and charge top dollar for your craft. Before deleting his Bandcamp account, there were albums by Hommy that cost over $70. The mysterious wordsmith doesn't conform to free streaming services, thus making the access to his product a cost of his choosing. In an excellent 2017 interview with L.A. Record, Mach-Hommy was frank about why he creates and his objective of releasing music:
“The respect? C’mon—that’s a foregone conclusion. That’s the bare minimum. The respect just opens a conversation. I’m here for the bag, son. I’m here for the fucking bag of money, you dumb ass. If not, then I keep it to myself and we keep it obscure and we don’t record or do none of that. Time is money. You see me going out of my way to design sound. Guess what? There is an intended purpose for this sound that I’m designing. A) You will pay me. B) I am the vendor. I am the vendor. I am the vendor.” —"MACH-HOMMY: I GOT WAVES"
Mach-Hommy is right. He is the vendor, and that allows him to always price his worth; to decide the size of the bag he wants to secure. Art in any medium has to come with a price. Even if money isn’t your motivation, the cost is always present. Being able to elevate culture, push art forward, and keep your family fed is a beautiful dream but far from an easy task. In hip-hop, a clustered medium that’s easily accessible, the possibility of doing it all is very slim. That’s why the decision, regardless of motivation, should be respected. It’s not up to the audience or the culture to dictate why the creator makes what they make.
If we all can understand the disappointment of “fucking the money up,” we all should be able to respect what it means to try and obtain all we can, to support those we love, doing what we love. With the release of her new single “Money,” Cardi B has only proven again that she isn’t all talk. She’s coming for the charts, for the clubs, and I hope the label and promoters will have her bag waiting at the door.
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By Yoh, aka Yoh-HOMMY, aka @Yoh31