Famous 21st century poet laureate and philosopher Yo Gotti once said, "Women lie. Men lie. Numbers don't lie." While no one can argue about the shade thrown by both genders, the whole "numbers don't lie" thing is up for debate, at least in hip-hop. Music sales have never been an accurate reflection of talent, and in 2015 that's more true than ever. If it were, Iggy Azelea would be more talented than Run the Jewels; do I even need to point out how untrue that is?
That's why serious music lovers are always talking about how they ignore sales and numbers. Yet when an album like say, 2014 Forest Hills Drive goes platinum, we are met with:
"He deserves it! That album is a classic!" - DJBooth Facebook Comment
When I saw that Forest Hills Drive went platinum, I thought "Good for Cole. Third time's a charm I guess." Then I moved onto debating Kendrick vs. Black Thought. I wasn't expecting this milestone to become a proving ground for Cole fans seemingly hungry to assert some legitimacy and superiority behind their (already legitimate) claims that Cole is among the best of the best. Weren't these the same people who were previously insisting that Drake's plethora of platinum albums and J. Cole's lack of a platinum plaque didn't matter at all? And of course this isn't about J. Cole at all, not really. He's merely a jumping off point to a much larger, and long-standing debate in hip-hop. How much do sales matter, and perhaphs more importantly, in 2015 just what the fuck does "platinum" mean anyway?
For so long, the equation for a platinum album was simple. The RIAA certified that you sold a lot of physical albums, 1 million to be exact, and you went platinum. It was much more simple when Best Buy, FYE, and Tower Records (the GOAT) were the only sources for music, but now streams, leaks and YouTube uploads of full albums have muddied the waters so thoroughly it's hard to even see clearly. Places like Billboard have attempted to update their formulas, but those attempts have been laughably arbitrary. Currently, "10 digital track sales from an album is equivalent to one album sale, and 1,500 song streams from an album are equivalent to one album sale.” Um....ok then.
Why doesn't one stream equal one purchase? Why isn't it 2,000 song streams equals an album sale? How about 5,000? Or 472? What happens if I stop on the second to last track? What if I only listen to half? Is that half a "unit"? What if I listen to the first half of an album twice? Does the source of the stream, Spotify or TIDAL, matter? We look to numbers to provide us a sense of certainty, an "objective" way to look at music, but really the numbers are also just subjective bullshit masquerading as truth; it feels more like a Starburst commercial these days. Back when platinum was a more directly quantifiable stat it was an important bench mark, but now it seems like an outdated achievement that doesn't really guage the success or reach of an album.
But how stats are compiled is just the surface issue. Even if we somehow determine a perfect algorithm, a synergistic balance between streams, leaks, and physical copies, we're still faced with an avalanche of questions. What about artists chose to sell their music and artists who give it away for free? Wouldn't Acid Rap have gone platinum if Chance had chosen to sell it? And if we're talking about an artist signed to a major label, they often have relatively little control over their sales. Case and point, To Pimp a Butterfly. Had Interscope not completely botched the release, would the album go platinum sooner? Imagine if there wasn't a week or two of waiting between us hearing it and the physical copies being made available. Still, nobody is going to say, "Oh it took TPAB six extra weeks to go platinum, therefore it's not worthy." That would be absurd. On the other end, what if a label really marketed and released an album well? Does that make the artist good? The album good? Or should we be talking about how dope the label's marketing department is?
And then of course we're still faced with the biggest question of all: does any of it fucking matter?
On one hand no, it doesn't matter at all. If platinum albums were truly reflective of talent, Ja Rule and Chingy would be in the GOAT discussion. (Fun fact, Chingy still has more platinum albums than J. Cole.) McDonalds sells a shit ton of burgers, but that doesn't make them better than the mom & pop burger place on the corner. Just because something sells a lot or is popular doesn't automatically make it "great," I think we all agree there.
On the other hand, nearly everyone, myself and my DJBooth brethren included, seems to feel like all these numbers must add up to something. McDonalds may not be the gourmet burger stand, but you know what, a Big Mac is pretty dang tasty. Or to put it in music terms, regardless of if you think Drake is talented or not, he's gone platinum repeatedly in an age where album sales are dying like the last days of the dinosaurs, and that's remarkable. It's not everything, but to completely devalue someone based on commercial success doesn't seem fair. To overcome the odds even though the cards are stacked against you is pretty incredible. If your album can sell a million, your music means something to a lot of people, it means you matter. How much you matter and for how long is dependent on so many other things, but at the very least, you can hang your hat on the fact that a million people liked your art enough to buy it when they could get it for free. That's pretty fucking impressive. Not anyone can sell a million copies anymore. Iggy was one of the most popular, successful "rappers" of 2014 and her album didn't even come close to platinum.
But if we think that numbers matter, than they matter for everyone. If they don't matter at all, then they don't matter for everyone. You can't pick and choose when numbers are reflective of talent and "real hip-hop." Too often it seems like numbers matter only when it's convenient for us. If Cole going platinum with no features is an incredible, historic achievement (and maybe it is), then we also need to give Drake props for his three platinum albums (with IYRTITL to shortly make it four). How about my girl T-Swift? Her last album, 1989, has currently sold 4.5 MILLION COPIES. So we're applauding her too then, right? Or do sales only matter when we like the artist that's selling?
I just asked seven billion questions and while I feel as though I should be able to answer then concretely and definitively, truthfully I don't know either. I'm working through these issues too. But they're questions that can't be ignored, questions we need to collectively work on answering if we're going to continue to watch the charts, continue to talk about Spotify records, continue to measure artists against each other. Otherwise, we'll be stuck having this debate over and over again into infinity, I'll be stuck writing a new version of this article every two years, and no one wants that. Not even me. Especially not me.
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]