If a rapper in 2019 wants to get their audience to call them a “sell-out,” I’m not entirely sure what they’d have to do to get the label to stick. Hypothetically, even if they were to accept a bribe from Dick Cheney and use it to release an album called, The Iraq War Was A Good Idea, I imagine their fan base would shrug their shoulders, chalk this up as a necessary evil of the modern music economy, and prop them up encouragingly with a supportive rallying cry of, “secure the bag!”
Jokes aside, the eradication of this term is probably for the best. The notion that artistic integrity is cheapened by commercial opportunism has always been problematic, but in 2019, when most artists are struggling just to make ends meet, clinging onto this mode of thinking feels downright silly. Regardless of how much value you place on it, you can’t exactly pay your hydro bill with the uncompromised purity of your artistic vision.
Unfortunately, for all the practical benefits it affords, the problem with commercial opportunism is it often feels tacky and inorganic. For as lucrative as it can be to star in a shampoo commercial or perform at a child’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah, neither of these endeavors are consistent with the irreverent, anti-establishment persona rappers often work to cultivate within their music. It’s almost worth adding a qualifying caveat to JAY-Z’s famous mantra, “Can’t Knock The Hustle.” Sure, it’s misguided to knock the driving spirit or the results of “the hustle,” but occasionally, you’d largely be forgiven for knocking the comical incongruence.
This visible brand inconsistency runs through my mind most frequently whenever I stumble across the videos rappers record for customers via the personalized celebrity shout out service, Cameo. At a relatively low cost, ranging typically from $10 to $500, Cameo offers anyone with a credit card the opportunity to contract participating celebrities—including notable rappers like Snoop Dogg ($500), Vic Mensa ($50), and Mike Jones ($45)—to record a 30 second video, saying virtually whatever they’re instructed to, directly into their smartphone cameras.
For as surreal as it is initially to learn you can purchase 30 seconds of the legendary artist and producer Havoc’s time for a seemingly meager sum of $50, the longer you think about it, the clearer the appeal of this service becomes. Provided he receives enough requests from willing customers, Havoc can significantly supplement the monthly revenue he generates from streaming royalties in just a few hours of work; all of which he can carry out at his own convenience, from the comfort of his living home, in the back of an Uber, in a dentist’s waiting room, etc.
From the perspective of the consumer, the appeal of this service is equally intuitive. Hypothetically, if you and your spouse grew up as dedicated Mobb Deep obsessives, $50 for a shout out doesn’t seem like an unreasonable price to pay for a unique birthday present. Similarly, if you’re looking for a creative way to promote your custom glassware business or vape retailer—Havoc has promoted both in the past—chances are $50 is well within your marketing budget.
Unfortunately, I can’t shake the feeling that this is a rather generous interpretation of the motivations of most Cameo customers. I don’t doubt many of the transactions Cameo facilitates are driven by genuine fandom, but as far as I can tell, an equally large percentage of their business comprises shout outs purchased primarily for the sake of novelty.
“LOOOL, that’s so random,” I imagine Brian texted his friends when they sent him this video of Bow Wow inexplicably congratulating him on getting his master’s degree in sports medicine:
“LMAO. Who did this???” I imagine someone commented on Instagram when Renew Me Dental posted the following video of Cassidy, the popular mid-2000s rapper, calling the traveling dentistry services they offer “hot.”
There’s a chance Brian is a massive Bow Wow fan, therefore, his friends purchased this shout out accordingly; or perhaps Renew Me Dental’s marketing team genuinely thought patients would be incentivized to sign up for fluoride treatments because the artist behind the forgotten hit, “My Drink n My 2 Step” told them to, but I think you’d forgive my cynicism if I were to say both scenarios seem unlikely.
Given everything I know about the internet, I’m not convinced the $175 and $100 price tags attached to these respective shout outs are exorbitant enough to exceed the lengths people online will go to in search of ironic laughs.
Seeing how heavily in-demand $75 shout outs from Riff Raff appear to be, I’m further inclined to think it warrants my cynicism. As an artist, Riff Raff has never been much more than a walking meme, so it’s safe to assume few people are enlisting his services out of profound reverence for his discography.
Riff Raff’s popularity on Cameo raises a few interesting questions about the platform more broadly. Chiefly: what is it customers expect to receive when they purchase these shout outs? On the one hand, there’s a professional aspect of these transactions; customers include detailed instructions regarding what they want celebrities to say and how they’d like them to act during the recordings they’ve requested. On the other hand, are these people expecting Riff Raff, a man whose entire career is rooted in his persona as a problematic goofball, to be a consummate professional?
Interestingly, Cameo encourages customers to rate and review the shout outs they receive out of five stars, so it’s possible to demystify these expectations a little. Judging by the reviews Riff Raff has received, it seems he’s occasionally had trouble striking the right balance of professionalism. “Way too coked out,” wrote Uptown Creation, regarding a video of Riff Raff trying and failing spectacularly to promote their social marketing services. “Thank you for reading exactly what I put on the instructions with no additional flair at all. I appreciate the wasted 37 second and $75,” read another one-star review. It’s unclear what Riff Raff could have done to make this customer feel like this was a prudent use of their discretionary income, but clearly, the video they did receive wasn’t to their liking.
Evidently, this is a balancing act required of all rappers (and celebrities) who offer their services on Cameo. Customers who purchase shout outs want the rappers who record them to follow their given instructions meticulously, but they want them to do so while conspicuously playing up their unique artistic personas and identifying traits. The difficulty here is, in their personal lives, these rappers would never dedicate birthday wishes to complete strangers or promote the music of artists they’ve never heard, so there’s little room to insert such creativity.
The resulting effect of this is an abundance of two distinct types of shout outs: ones in which rappers embody one-dimensional caricatures of themselves; and others in which rappers satisfactorily execute the instructions they’ve been given, but do so with all the enthusiasm you’d expect to see from someone who reads a series of unfavorable medical test results.
Falling definitively into the former camp is Houston’s Mike Jones, who begins a majority of his shout outs by introducing himself and then immediately following this up with “Who?,” a reference to his 2004 hit song, “Still Tippin.’” Ideally, he’d be recognizable by face and wouldn’t have to hearken back 15 years to remind everyone why he was once a relevant cultural figure, but evidently, he knows that this is the only way to satisfy the customers who’ve contracted his services.
I can say the same of 2 Milly, the rapper who popularized the Milly Rock dance craze. Not only does he introduce himself and perform this dance in every shout out he’s recorded to date, but he’s also chosen to brand himself on his centralized Cameo hub as “MillyRock,” seemingly aware this is the only marketable feature of his career.
For examples of shout outs that fall into the other camp, look no further than the ones recorded by Vic Mensa. Going through the motions as if he’s reading the terms and services agreement of an app he’s installing, few of the shout outs Vic has recorded seem like they justify the $50 price tag attached to them. Case in point: Vic lies so unconvincingly about listening to the rapper Chae Goose in the following video that several of Chae’s Instagram followers express their skepticism regarding its legitimacy in the comments of the post:
To be fair, not all rappers are as bad at navigating the requests of Cameo customers as Vic Mensa. Snoop Dogg and Ice-T, for example—with their dozens of years of high-profile media experience—are incredibly successful at injecting their singular personalities into even the most mundane, intimate, or absurd shout out requests. Whether Ice-T is revealing the gender of a baby to its soon-to-be parents or Snoop Dogg is inexplicably reassuring a lady named Janine that she should feel entitled to groom her pubic hair however she chooses, both do so with charisma, humor, and gravitas. It’s a specific talent I imagine the pair of them have honed gradually over the course of their decades spent as cultural juggernauts.
With this in mind, it seems important to note: Cameo’s business model isn’t exactly revolutionary. Rappers have been starring in advertisements, holding meet-and-greets, and otherwise trying to bolster their incomes by making inauthentic endorsements seem genuine and manufactured intimacy seem authentic for almost as long as Snoop Dogg and Ice-T have been in the public light.
Cameo’s subversion of this model has been to provide an accessible platform to facilitate these transactions, making it easier and more affordable than ever for customers to purchase the likeness of their favorite rappers. It achieves this feat by simplifying the process as much as possible, placing these rappers on the same platform as people like Ken Bone—who you may remember as the viral star of 2016’s second presidential debate, known most notably for wearing a red sweater.
Incidentally, Bone charges $20 for a shout out on Cameo, which is only $5 less than Grandmaster Melle Mel. The latter of these two is a bona fide pioneer of hip-hop, responsible for popularizing an immeasurably influential cultural phenomenon. The former wore a red sweater on TV once.
Cameo, for better or worse, levels the playing field between them, making this distinction monetarily irrelevant.