Commercial rap is boring. Came to this realization after watching a much heralded music video done by hip hop music video heavyweight Hype Williams for Meek Mill’s latest single “Levels.” While the song is catchy enough, it is also the perfect example of modern commercial hip hop’s love affair with flash in-the-pan hits. More than ever commercial rap both feeds and foments certain cultural expectations and trends. Not so sure the current evolution will be seen in the most positive lights as time provides context. Rappers are making songs for the immediate; from a financial perspective this may be necessary, but from a musical standpoint it’s a lackluster strategy. The end goal for the majority of rappers seems to be to matter right now at the expense of making significant music in the grand scheme of things. The irony being that the aforementioned song by Meek Mill is an ode to the levels of his success.
And I be rocking Prada like the devil in this bitch/and the Birkin bag like a gold medal to this bitch/Lord/And I’m heavy as it get/Shining like the motherfucking bezzle on my wrist/All my niggas mobbing so we heavy in this bitch/3o grand for the Muller so thats a Chevy on my wrist.
Meek wants the world to know that there is a hierarchy in hip hop and the majority of his competition can’t compete and more importantly can’t even understand. The only real levels that were established in Hype Williams interpretation of the song was the levels of attention beverage companies got in the video. Monster Energy drinks, Belaire Rose, and Ciroc vodka are prominently displayed throughout the video. Albeit Meek may not personally dictate the way these companies are co-opted into his music it represents the huge weakness of commercial rap in 2013: it is completely and utterly for sale. While partnerships with companies that sell a tangible product have long existed in rap, they have never been as forced and nonsensical as now. Run DMC partnered with Adidas after they had organically integrated the apparel into their aesthetic. They didn’t sell off that brand integration off to the highest bidder, which is exactly what happens now.
While my criticism of Meek and Hype Williams stands, to focus on one video from one rapper would be unfair. Just look at some of the big name rap artists to have dropped well received albums this summer: Jay-Z, J.Cole, & Wale all seemed to be vying more for attention than aspiring for excellence. Sales seem to be the intended validation instead of substance. Monogramed Coach bags sell. Hollister shirts sell. Does that make them iconic items in the history of fashion? While music–like fashion–is in the eye or ear of the beholder, it is hypocritical that many rappers name drop couture brands while being more H&M than Tom Ford. Rap has become a very aspirational genre to the point of its detriment. It used to be the voice of the voiceless. Now it voices what the voiceless can’t afford. When rappers value approval from entities that traditionally looked down upon their art form and culture at the expense of having any musical message or social commentary, consumers lose.
Everyone wearing the same lame Versace shirt to the BET Awards. AKA commercial rap in 2013.
What is to blame for the proliferation of mediocrity in commercial rap? The question is a complicated one, but the answer is money. Specifically, the lack thereof in major label infrastructure and the music media institutions which are is supposed to hold rappers accountable for their actions. The major labels have grown to value the employee who can inject capital from third parties (alcohol/clothing companies) more than the employee interested in creating timeless music. The liquor sponsorship check cleared, the radio single they payed Clear Channel to play is selling, and the pictures they take of themselves in clubs with celebrities on social media leave them feeling validated. Who is supposed to fill this vacuum? Hip-Hop media? Mobilized audiences? Objective commentary on rap no longer exists. The traditional platforms are broke and broken; critical platforms outside are frequently operated by underpaid and/or under contextualized writers who are more concerned with appearing cool on social media platforms and getting impressions than developing unique insight and/or perspective. Furthermore, from a content standpoint, many of the new media outlets are merely aggregators presenting information from the perspective of a fan rather than serving any sort of critical or journalistic purpose. When the blind lead the blind…everyone gets lost.
The solution? Time. All bubbles inevitably pop. Commercial rap is kind of where commercial rock was in the late 80s with hair metal. Being a mindless, decadent idiot is only cool for so long before the masses get bored with the same repetitive themes. It’s only a matter of time before some person or company is enterprising enough to provide an alternative to the status quo. After all, the music business is the media business. It is no longer a game of record sales, but a game of creating premium content and running premium advertising against it. Or at least having a revenue sharing arrangement with the entity that is running the advertising against the content. While the rat race has just begun, and the “right way” to win in this new environment has not been established, may the victor enjoy their spoils.