How Looky-Loos Became the New Spectators in Hip-Hop

From Drake and DJ Khaled to Tyler, The Creator and Frank Ocean, we must acknowledge the crowd as a vital member of the ecosystem of art.
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On May 12, 2020, Kenny Chesney’s 19th studio album, Here and Now, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with 233,000 sales, 11,000 more units sold than Drake’s commercial mixtape, Dark Lane Demo Tapes. Just like that, the Canadian superstar’s 10-year streak of consecutive No. 1 albums was over.

In a story published in The New York Times, Ben Sisario addressed why Chesney’s victory over Drake is a twist of fate that continues the conversation about the value of album sales in the year 2020. Based on his reporting, Here and Now outsold Dark Lane Demo Tapes due to ticket bundles. If you put their numbers in contrast, the country music veteran only accumulated enough streams to account for 11,000 albums sold. The remaining 222,000 units sold were because of a bundle package that included a physical CD or concert ticket.

Drake, on the other hand, had 19,000 albums sold as a bundled package, while his remaining 203,000 unit sales came from album streams on services like Spotify and Apple Music, where he reigns supreme. And yet, the biggest rapper in the world lost his commercial throne by virtue of physical CDs and concert tickets. Who saw that coming?

Well, it wasn’t impossible. Last May, DJ Khaled felt the effects of change when Tyler, the Creator’s critically acclaimed album, IGOR, bested his 11th studio album, Father of Asahd, in its first week on the charts. Following the announcement of the sales totals, the famous DJ and album-curator born Khaled Mohamed Khaled said the following in a now-deleted Instagram post:

“I make albums so people can play it and you actually hear it. You know, driving your car, you hear another car playing it. You know, go to the barbershop, you hear them playing it. You know, turn the radio on, and you hear them playing it. It’s called great music. It’s called albums that you actually hear the songs. Not no mysterious shit that you never hear it.”—DJ Khaled

To a certain point, Khaled is correct. His brand of anthemic, star-studded, mainstream-leaning rap music is wide-reaching. It’s the kind of music that, when attached to a popular campaign, can be a conqueror in the world of cars and clubs. Tyler, the Creator isn’t from that world. Khaled didn’t see him as a competitor. That’s why the music celebrity was so surprised when Tyler stole his fire the way Prometheus did Zeus.

In retrospect, Khaled’s caption (and thinking) is funny. The lion share of his pride was in all the places his music could reach, and yet, COVID-19 has since made all those avenues inactive. There are now fewer drivers on the road and fewer bodies in the barbers’ chairs because a majority of the world is at home, standing still. Yes, the global pandemic has benefitted artists like Tyler, the Creator, and Kenny Chesney, who built grass-root infrastructures around the world by having fans who buy the experience, not just hear the songs.

One of my favorite essays by author and critic Dave Hickey is “Romancing the Looky-Loos.” Published in Hickey’s excellent Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy, “Romancing the Looky-Loos” separates people who attend music events into two groups: Participants and Spectators. It’s a remarkable breakdown of the opposing, yet intersecting, sides of how a crowd responds to art.

Spectators, as Hickey states, “Have neither the time nor the inclination to make decisions. They just love the winning side—the side with the chic building, the gaudy doctorates, and the star-studded cast” compared to the Participants, who, he claims “lose interest at the moment of accreditation, always assuming there is something better out there, something brighter and more desirable, something more in tune with their own agendas.” He goes on to say:

“While spectators must be lured, participants just appear, looking for that new thing—the thing they always wanted to see—or the old thing that might be seen anew—and having seen it, they seek to invest that thing with new value. They do this simply by showing up; they do it with their body language and casual conversation, with their written commentary, if they are so inclined, and their disposable income, if it falls to hand.” –Dave Hickey

“Romancing the Looky-Loos” acknowledges the crowd as a member of the ecosystem of art. What is a museum without the art world? What is a performance without the audience? They are just empty places with paintings on the wall and music playing over the speakers. The audience provides value. That’s why streaming numbers and ticket sales matter in music; they validate talent. Without that validation, who are you? A nobody. Nameless. In the age of art overlapping with capitalism, the more applause around your name, the more likely you’ll be treated like someone worth clapping for.

Tyler, the Creator and Odd Future lashed out at bloggers because they didn’t need Spectators—they needed Participants—but the applause didn’t come until Tyler released “Yonkers,” a sensational, Wolf Haley-directed music video that went viral on social media.

The rise of Odd Future was more than just one song blowing up. Collectively, the entire conglomerate created enough smoke as solo artists to be treated by the masses as budding fires. Still, it was the gap-tooth, foul mouth, bacon-loving Black kid from Ladera Heights, California, who glowed the bright orange of a loud explosion.

Tyler, the Creator, born Tyler Okonma, was bound to be watched by the world. The number of things he has created over the years—from carnivals to a clothing line—proves Tyler was always one great idea away from the attention he sought. What remains special about Tyler, the musician, though, is how fans who gathered around the original fire caused by “Yonkers” have remained as he changed and transformed. They didn’t wander off in times of PR crisis, and they supported every loud and sincere endeavor. Because of this, IGOR, unlike Father of Asahd, was seen by fans as a special album—an album that is only possible when its creator isn’t concerned with the audience.

Drake, on the other hand, is always concerned with the audience. You don’t become the biggest artist in the world by avoiding the spectator’s eye. But that approach means catering to those who only watch, which isn’t the same as those who participate. Most popular artists stop being in vogue when it becomes challenging to maintain this balance, especially when, in the age of Instagram, spectating has as much value as participating.

Instagram is a perfect medium for a rapper like Tekashi 6ix9ine, who continues to gain our attention through sensationalism. The success of his brand is based on one concept: If he can make you watch, he can also make you talk, which means he can make you listen, and that’s how we participate in 2020. Enough spectating participants can make a joke go viral, and before you know it, that joke is a Platinum record.

Instagram Live is running the same playbook. There’s an art to Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s Verzuz battles, but they require nothing of the audience except for their views and comments. Sure, there’s value in terms of engagement, but has that engagement turned into album sales or increased streams? Will it turn into royalty checks? Verzuz is a celebration of the artists and the art, but there’s no price of admission. Since anyone can look on, we must place the value on who gathers, not who gives.

Enter live performances and physical merchandise—mediums that require fan investment. A brand without any investment from those who love it will inevitably fall as Rome did. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but the downfall is never far.

Last November, Drake was greeted by boos at Tyler, the Creator’s annual Camp Flog Gnaw festival. The reason? He wasn’t Frank Ocean, who festivalgoers assumed to be the evening’s special guest. Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber said this about the spectators at last year’s Camp Flog Gnaw:

“Drake is a considerably more available entertainer than the reclusive Ocean. For the rapper to bound onstage thus not only disappointed Ocean’s famously ravenous fans, but also set up a clash of tastes. Tyler and Flog Gnaw’s brand is colorful and punkish and opposed to all things serious. Drake’s is chilly and commercial and calculated. He has charted 205 songs in the Hot 100—more than any other solo artist ever. For some Flog Gnaw attendees surely, Drake showing up was the equivalent of a popular jock crashing the art geeks’ party and demanding to take over the aux cord to put on Maroon 5.” –Spencer Kornhaber, “When the Biggest Rapper in the World Gets Booed Off Stage

In his defense, Drake isn’t 6ix9ine or DJ Khaled or Maroon 5. In his mind, he’s Michael Jackson, a purveyor of pop and culture, commercial and cool. Why else would he collaborate so often? Drake wants his audience to know he can sit at any table. With the art geeks and the Billboard titans; politicians and punks; NBA players and scandalous rappers. Unfortunately, that mindset shaped this era of online Looky-Loos. He built a fan base that will watch anything, and listen to anyone, without investing any value.

Frank Ocean, by comparison, is the inverse of Drake. Frank loves the fringes instead of the center. He prefers rare invisibility. Before making his Instagram public, we couldn’t find the popular R&B star anywhere online. You had to see him in the physical, not as an avatar. The music he released was personal, not popular. He built a fanbase dedicated to him. Frank Ocean fans aren’t just fans; they’re microphones, the ones who shout, “Look At God.”

If Drake introduced the era of the Looky-Loos, then Frank Ocean is the master of entertainment who bridged the participants and spectators. The artists of tomorrow now have two drastically different blueprints in their possession as they navigate the new, all-seeing spectator. If you want to become No. 1, you need to give them a reason to participate.

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