The Thrill of the Unknown: Making a Musical Legacy

There’s no better example of a history-making career-artist than Beyoncé.
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Tierra Whack, Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce

For most artists, the desire to be remembered is what makes making music, especially hip-hop, exciting. Each day, new songs are recorded. These songs could be measly gusts of wind on a hard drive or world-renowned, chart-toppling tornadoes. No one knows. From the casual fan who only listens to music on the radio to the major label A&R who spends hours searching for music’s next phenomenon, it’s nearly impossible to forecast who will make history and who will be forgotten. 

History is why every song and album release comes with heightened risk—an artist’s legacy is always at stake. Think about Kendrick Lamar before the release of his 2015 sophomore album To Pimp A Butterfly. The TDE emcee had a three-year window to fumble one of the most anticipated follow-ups in hip-hop history. If you recall, he already achieved “classic” status with his impeccable, 2012 studio debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city

Let’s say, instead of jazz, Kendrick used rock as his muse for his second major-label offering. How different would his legacy look if he fell into the company of Ben McKee instead of Thundercat? Remember, the Compton, California native performed his remix of “Radioactive” with Imagine Dragons at the 2014 GRAMMY Awards. That performance could’ve easily inspired a full-length collaboration album between the rapper and pop-rock group in the spirit of JAY-Z and Linkin Park’s Collision Course.

What’s most impressive about To Pimp A Butterfly is how, rather than making a safe sequel to GKMC, Kendrick became even more ambitious. He rewrote all expectations of what he could do artistically. This drastic reinvention was not foreseeable before the release.

No matter the artist, every project has the potential to be industry-shaping or career-defining, for better or worse. Although she’s a relatively new artist with only one album under her belt, 24-year-old Tierra Whack finds herself at a crossroads similar to Kendrick Lamar following GKMC. The Philadelphia-based minimalist set the bar moon-high with her innovative debut, Whack World—one of the most imaginative, forward-thinking releases in recent memory. 

Successfully, Tierra crafted 15 songs with a runtime of just 15 minutes, complete with fascinating visuals, a feat in aesthetic brevity that was new to modern music. Just recently, music and culture critic Wanna Thompson tweeted, “We will be referencing Tierra for decades to come,” predicting the lasting impact of the exciting maverick.

So how does Tierra Whack return? Is it possible to repeat Whack World’s meticulous and minimal presentation with the same fanfare? Or does the GRAMMY-nominated artist lean into traditionalism, swapping the short punch of her minute-long rap snacks for more weighty, full-length entrées? There’s a third path, of course, one that redesigns her visual and auditory fantastical world in ways the listener can’t fathom. Either way, let’s hope her label, Interscope Records, stays out of her way.

Waiting for an artist who you believe in to make history can be life-long. Think about how hip-hop just left the 2010s without an album from the prodigious emcee Jay Electronica. All jokes aside, the Just Blaze-produced single “Exhibit C” was released on December 22, 2009. Alongside Drake, Electronica was breaking out as the most exciting underground rapper since Saigon. He was the only unsigned artist both JAY-Z and Diddy entered the decade pursuing. 

Although Hov won the bidding-war, listening to Diddy’s ad-libs on “The Ghost of Christopher Wallace,” you can tell he’s ecstatic. Most of the six-minute loosie is a spirited rant about Jay Elect’s greatness. Here are a few choice quotes from the Bad Boy mogul:

Ladies and gentlemen what you have just witnessed is the start of something big”

“They scared of this shit Jay, you got too much substance, baby”

“We only work with the great ones, baby, it’s a legacy”

“Man, the game done got fucked up somewhere, man, niggas started talking about nothing”

“Jay Electronica, the future” 

Looking back, it was Jay Electronica, not Drake, who Diddy championed. Maybe it was an abundance of CÎROC in his bloodstream, but that night in the studio, the future wasn’t supposed to be melodies; it was supposed to be substance. As it stands, Jay Electronica’s legacy is full of questions, not songs. Even if he releases his once-long-awaited, major-label debut, Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn), sometime later this year, its impact will be minimized by the industry’s climate change over the past 10 years. 

In hip-hop, it’s never too late to make a comeback—with the Internet, your window is never closed completely—but you can miss your moment to make history; a moment you can’t get back. That’s the risk of building a legacy. 

Before Rap Radar unveiled their unexpected, artist-of-the-decade Christmas podcast with ever-elusive superstar Drake, author and music journalist Ernest Baker wrote a remarkable profile that followed the hip-hop phenomenon on the eve of his headlining performance at Coachella in 2015. It’s not your traditional interview, though. Baker documents himself in the heart of a festival fever-dream where access is granted or finessed, drugs are swallowed and shared, and Rihanna makes a cameo, all while awaiting the famous rapper born Aubrey Graham to make history. But he doesn’t.

The overall reception to Drake’s set was that of mild disappointment. A kiss from Madonna and an extensive catalog of popular records wasn’t enough to win Drake’s Canadian face an engraving on Coachella’s Mount Rushmore. 

“There’s a lurking suspicion that this isn’t going over as well as the past several times I’ve seen Drake perform, but it’s not going poorly by any stretch of the imagination. People are amped, it’s just not necessarily the historical moment that everyone wanted it to be. But I still like Drake’s music. And I’m hearing it live. And it’s fun. I’m not plugged into what my timeline is saying. I’m running up and down the aisles rapping “10 Bands.” –Ernest Baker

In retrospect, Baker’s comprehensive tour d'horizon of his Coachella weekend is more captivating than any uploaded footage of the performance. To his credit, the “Drake In Real Life” profile embodies the excitement of the moment leading up to him gracing that stage. This moment came at the height of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late mania; the peak of Drake sitting between hip-hop darling and pop music icon. 

If Drake would’ve done in 2015 what Beyoncé did at Coachella in 2018, the world would speak of him differently. Beyoncé represents what is possible when an artist extends beyond their physical, mental, and creative limits. The kind of genius that excels because of hard work and resources, not magic. 

There’s no better example of a history-making career-artist than Beyoncé. We will never forget her, not because of plaques and streams, but consistency and impact. If you are a creative in the music business intending to make history, Beyoncé is your blueprint. 

It hasn’t happened yet, but even an exceptional talent like Beyoncé can fall short of their greatness. Fair or not, every future album release and performance puts her legacy in the fire to burn or rise like a phoenix. And as a music fan, there’s no sight more beautiful than watching an artist you believe in soar because there’s always a chance they will let you down. Isn’t that just thrilling? 

By Yoh, aka Radiyohactive aka @Yoh31

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