How Novelty Can Make or Break an Artist: Donna & Yoh In Conversation

Donna and Yoh discuss novelty in hip-hop music.
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Blueface, 2019

Cash Money West rapper Blueface

What does it mean to stand out in hip-hop in 2019? How does one achieve a character novel enough to catch our attention? How do you maintain novelty without becoming a caricature of yourself? Why does any of this matter in the rap game? All of these questions and more will be answered in this edition of Donna and Yoh In Conversation, where they discuss, you guessed it, novelty as it pertains to artistry.

Their conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

donnacwrites [4:18 PM]

Afternoon, Yohsipher.

yoh [4:18 PM]

Hello, Donna. Happy Wednesday. How was your chat with Rico Nasty?

donnacwrites [4:18 PM]

Well, she said "Yeehaw" to me, so it was wonderful. What's on your mind this week?

yoh [4:20 PM]

LOL. Well, Rico Nasty is on my mind. She is an example of someone who just has that undeniable "it" factor. There's a certain novelty to Rico that shines on every track she touches and every video she stars in. Have you noticed this about her?

donnacwrites [4:22 PM]

Yes, absolutely. No one sounds or looks like Rico Nasty. There is no question about her identity. When she steps up to the mic, you know that you are getting her whether by way of thrash or ice cream truck samples. She's really novel, and that novelty is what makes her music so exciting. She isn't spitting the answers to the world's problems, but she is delivering herself without a filter on every track and that's all the more catching to me.

yoh [4:33 PM]

Yes, absolutely. There's a naturalness to her that I find enthralling. She has the presence of a sunset. To encounter Rico is to acknowledge how vibrant her personality is. How important is being an artist with novelty qualities in 2019? I think of Blueface and how the early conversations around him centered around the offbeat flow. What began as a negative quickly became an identifier with the rise of his popularity.

donnacwrites [4:39 PM]

That reminds me of something my buddy said to me, that his buddy told him: reality TV is the highest form of art because you are the character. To be a success in the saturated music market of 2019, where everyone is borrowing the same three flows and beat styles, you have to be your own character. If that means unabashedly being yourself like Rico Nasty, or leaning into the notion of your flow like Blueface or even G Herbo, then so be it. Run towards what sets you apart, and make it novel. 

Things aren't innately novel or special, but we can present them as such and you can purport your own "it" factor. Blueface is not profound by any measure, but his voice is so distinct. The more he leans into that, the longer his career will last simply because he will be serving up a dish that we can only get at his establishment. Same with Rico. She's serving up something only she can make with her own ingredients. If someone tried to emulate her, they would fail, and consequently, we would sense it if she were emulating someone else. However, I do have to wonder, when does novelty turn into a gimmick?

yoh [4:49 PM]

Desperation. The audience is often self-aware enough to recognize when what made you polarizing is being used to pander. 50 Cent is a natural villain, but no matter how hard he tries, there's no going back to the young man who aspired to get rich or die trying. Throughout the latter half of his career, he's continued to try and sell this idea of returning to his roots, to be that edgy rapper from the streets, but he is too far removed to be convincing. Listeners want to hear a convincing character, something they can recognize when they listen, not what you are telling them to listen for. Be a character, not a caricature.

donnacwrites [4:50 PM]

Does there come a moment where you are so much so the character, that you accidentally become a caricature because you lose sight of why the fans love you?

I ask because Rico kept emphasizing to me that her fans love her, for her, so there is likely no worry in Rico's regard. Unless she becomes someone drastically different in terms of her character.

yoh [5:00 PM]

Yes! I think it's very possible because, naturally, we change. People aren't required to be who they were yesterday. We've seen how fans have asked for the old Kanye because that was the Kanye who rapped what they agreed with, who had a story they could relate to, but Kanye changed, and that affected how the public received him. He's a caricature in a way, trying to always exude who Kanye is, the genius creative, but it's obvious he's no longer the man we once knew. 

Rico might be a different person by 2025. Can you imagine people asking for the old Rico Nasty? Or how hard it would be for Rico to be who she was in 2018? What I love about what Donald Glover has done with Childish Gambino is to create a character that's everchanging. The same can be said about Kendrick Lamar. He is a good kid from a maad city, but he's found different ways of reintroducing that concept of himself. If you create a persona that's always evolving without losing the core identity, the audience can have their favorite arc, but they must accept as an artist dedicated to building an evolving world around your identity.

donnacwrites [5:03 PM]

The task for an artist, then, is multi-faceted. First, they must create a distinct persona, but then they must ensure that their persona affords them room to grow. The reason Rico said "Yeehaw" was because she believes her fans would accept her making country music. This is because the Rico Nasty persona is one of experimentation and fun, and again, she's herself. If her heart were in making country records, naturally her fans would follow because she would make it Rico. That's the character. The same can be said for Childish Gambino. You have to build pivots into your novelty. To be novel is to stand out, but you always have to play the long game.

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