Image via Gunplay

This summer, Gunplay released his oft-delayed, oft-retitled debut album Living Legend to quiet indifference. 3,376 copies sold first week, only 2,586 more in the months since. No huge streaming activity—just over 2.6 million streams across the album. Minimal promotion. No hit single. No big features, save for label-mate YG and mentor Rick Ross. Rapping for the better part of a decade and signed to a major label almost as long, Gunplay had become a human relic. Living Legend felt, for a dedicated fan and hip-hop obscura obsessive, like the death knell for rap’s middle class: neither the soon-to-be superstars nor the avant guardians.

Gunplay is a journeyman, a 36-year-old spark plug who has lent verses to legendary loosies like Kendrick Lamar’s “Cartoon and Cereal,” snorted coke and assaulted his accountant on camera, and cobbled together some of the better mixtape moments of the last five years. He’s like a great role-player in basketball—let’s compare him to John Starks. You saw his potential for greatness. You celebrated the moments he looked like he was turning the corner. When he was hot, he was a star. Ultimately though, you saw his ceiling.

Gunplay has always been too jagged to to be a manicured superstar. He’s a great hardcore rapper with a knack for storytelling that made his best songs (“Bible on the Dash,” “Cartoon and Cereal,” Living Legend’s “Dark Dayz”) resonate with tragic life.

Late ’90s and early 2000s record label rosters were littered with mid-tier artists like Gunplay: Lil Flip. Petey Pablo. Ace Hood. Max B. Slimm Calhoun. Obie Trice. Da Youngbloodz. Bubba Sparxxx. Jayo Felony. Pastor Troy. Black Rob. Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz. The Lox. Chamillionaire. Tony Yayo.

The above list could stretch into oblivion. All of these rappers had hits that reached varying, and, in a few cases, major, levels of success, spawning considerable if brief visibility, and even worthwhile albums. Most hardly endured beyond their initial landing.

In the last 15 years, the gloomy record industry prognosis plays back like a recurring nightmare: revenues are shrinking! We can’t spend! Tell your kids to be bankers instead!

While streaming revenues continue to rise, they don’t make up for the staggering decline in overall revenue that has occurred since the dawn of the new millennium (varying reports put the worth of the US recording industry near $1520 billion during its 1999 heyday; the RIAA reported 2014 revenue at $6.97 billion). Reasons for optimism abound, but the halcyon days are buried beneath us.

Even without knowing the finer points of major label budgets, it’s a simple leap to determine that expenditure on recording and marketing a song or album for a non-superstar artist—or any artist, for that matter—can’t come close to the boom times when Janet Jackson received $80 million contracts and Busta Rhymes made million dollar music videos. Several of them. One with an elephant.

Labels still invest heavily in big stars, and rightly so. Swinging for the fences and connecting comprises the essence of the blockbuster model, the strategy detailed by Harvard Business professor Anita Elberse in her book Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment. The gist: big risk, big reward. Spread risk over a number of smaller, less promising entities, whiff on the big wins—and possibly sink yourself under the weight of unrecouped expenses built on the back of mediocrity.

A huge component of this reliance derives from consumer law: If casual buyers perceive something as popular or successful, that pushes them in the direction of purchasing. This preference “can tip the scales in favor of those products that perform well at the outset,” Elberse details (p. 67). The result: Labels spend on household names who can post impressive first week sales, theoretically signaling quality to non-diehards. In music, Elberse uses the example of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way . In 2011, Interscope invested heavily in an unprecedentedly wide-scale release for Gaga’s second album, resulting in 1.1 million units sold first week, two million copies within a year, and 18 millions copies of its songs. While 440,000 of the first week units were sold for 99 cents via an Amazon promotion, the online retailer paid the same wholesale price as its competitors for the album. Interscope’s gamble meant financial windfall and PR victory.

Companies either whip out the checkbooks for “surefire” hits, or throw modest figures at developing talent hoping for surprise hits.

As the cash consolidates at the pyramid’s tip, music’s divide resembles the prevailing dynamic in film for the past decade. Companies either whip out the checkbooks for “surefire” bets, or throw modest figures at developing talent hoping for surprise hits (think The Avengers and it’s $220 million budget versus the six-film Paranormal Activity series and its collective $28 million budget, with the first installment only costing $15,000).

Decreasing margins encourage spending on big, safe things. Taylor Swift. Katy Perry. Rihanna. Jay Z. Eminem. If it’s worked before, it can work again, especially with enough in the war chest to gather a battalion of safeguarding songwriters and producers.

Now you’re either a juggernaut or a developing act, an artist with big pop aspirations or one resigned to provincial reign at best (no small feat—anyone who can make a viable living off of music in 2015 deserves applause).

The new dynamic squeezes out rappers like Gunplay who fit into these categories awkwardly or not at all.

Gone is the room for Jadakiss, Yelawolf, and Canibus—great rappers who were purely great at rapping. Gone is the room for Tony Yayo and Memphis Bleek, trusty sidekicks who had hits by dint of proximity to stars and major label access. Gone is the room for Bubba Sparxxx, Slimm Calhoun, and Max B, oddballs with left-field pop sensibilities who were either before their time or were simply never meant to have a time.

In the current era, it seems like a precipitous drop-off occurs after you exhaust rap’s superstars: Kanye. Jay. Wayne. Eminem. Drake. Nicki.

The rising secondary tier: Kendrick. J. Cole. Rocky. Wiz. Big Sean. Future. Meek Mill. Wale.

Beyond them, there are the established legends and brand names: Nas. 50 Cent. E-40. Dr. Dre. T.I. Big Boi. Andre. Game. Ludacris. Scarface.

Outside of those names, speaking purely of visibility, it feels like Chance the Rapper is perhaps the only rapper who’s placed himself in the upper-echelon conversation. A whole host of others have built considerable fan bases and stable, often booming businesses (Tyler the Creator, Mac Miller, Action Bronson, Danny Brown, Joey Badass, Big K.R.I.T., G-Eazy, and, perhaps the king of them all, Tech N9ne), but seemed to do so without the need or desire for what poppier peers have on their plates.

The continued fragmentation of our attention means artists need constant streams of big hits for true saturation, but not necessarily for sustainable success.

As P&P-mate Graham noted in our back and forth this week, the middle class didn’t simply disappear when the profits took a dive. Rappers sought home studios, indie labels, and DIY mentalities, effectively replacing the financial muscle of majors with agility, freedom, and, perhaps most importantly, ownership. The continued fragmentation of our attention means artists a steady stream of hits for true saturation, but not necessarily for prolonged success.

The widening divide between the top and the bottom puts in high relief the notion that major label deals and expectations don’t suit every rapper. That might seem like a truism, but the golden age of getting paid led all levels and types of artists to reach for an illusory brass ring. While hip-hop’s middle class produced great random rap landmarks—again, the list could stretch considerably: songs like Lil Flip’s “The Way We Ball,” Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz’s “Deja Vu,” Da Youngbloodz’s “U Way,” groups like the Flipmode Squad, the Nappy Roots, Field Mob—it also hobbled a strata of artists under the weight of unrealistic expectations.

In a way, the death of the middle class has freed a new generation of artists from a bygone era’s burden. Lowered expectations and smaller budgets allow rappers like Young Thug, Travi$ Scott, and Fetty Wap to experiment out of the view of public (and often their labels), scoring surprise hits and building foundations for careers unburdened by the deafening din of the hype train. The ether between the haves and have nots enables big surprises—Young Thug’s rise, Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen,” Makonnen’s “Tuesday”—to pop off careers with little precedent. It also sees rappers like Freddie Gibbs, a major label refugee, crafting sustainable paths without having to rely on the largesse of Sony, Universal, or Warner. In this climate, an artist like Gunplay might not be able to score a major deal, but great music delivered frequently to a devoted core means a future—at least one that doesn’t entail getting stuck in label limbo.

To celebrate some of the middle class’ greats, I put together a playlist. By no means exhaustive, just a little tribute to some of the excellent moments created by the artists discussed in this piece.

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