Ask any rap fan if they like a lyricist and they will almost always have higher praise for their older material rather than new. You like Snoop? "Yeah, I like Snoop, but I like old Snoop." I like old Jay Z. I like old Eminem. What happens? Does every rapper only get worse with time? Why the huge disconnect between old-school rap fans claiming that all of today's hip-hop sounds the same despite the current diversity? Danny Brown doesn't sound like Drake and Future doesn't sound like Logic. They claim rappers aren't "lyrical" anymore, but I thought that's what rappers were aspiring to anyways, to reach the big times. Or maybe the game's just changed. It's easy to blame the rapper for falling off, but I have a different opinion: Don't blame the content. Blame the medium.
First, a brief history. In 2012, the video-sharing social media app Vine launched and was quickly bought by Twitter for $30 million. The app allows users to upload 6-second videos that loop repeatedly and share them with friends. Soon, a trend developed: users began placing music in their videos, but only to assist in making a joke.
As the user base and traffic increased, the marketing and promotional opportunities behind an app like Vine grew only more obvious to artists. From vinyls to cassettes to CDs to MP3s to streaming (and, in some cases, back to vinyl), the way people consume music is ever-changing and the way we consume social media is no exception; the music industry can only hope to recognize trends and adapt as quickly and cheaply as we want to receive it. Today, Vine has over 200 million active users.
Perhaps the first artist to have a song blow up largely because of Vine was rapper YG with "My Nigga." With its catchy DJ Mustard-produced beat and single expletive word in the song title, users made the most of his song, creating tongue-in-cheek race-fueled parodies. Even President Obama’s code-switching handshake made the cut.
Offering up even more meme-able— yes, I just made that up— material was Jhene Aiko on her collaboration with Omarion and Chris Brown, "Post to Be." Having delivered a now-infamous line like, “But he gotta eat the booty like groceries,” Vine couldn't help itself.
And so it began. Soon, unknown and obscure artists were gaining mainstream traction for the first time, and very quickly at that, simply by posting one video, using one line, from their one song. In 2013, the song "Don’t Drop That Thun Thun" by the Finatticz was used in a Vine video that featured a group of women twerking; that was enough to move the song all the way up to No.35 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. It was the maturation of the big breakthrough the Internet gave us. Artists no longer had to wait for a major record label to cosign them and then dump a big budget on marketing, radio promotion, and shows to gain (and, in many cases, still at a slower rate) recognition. Now two years in, Vine was off and running at full speed.
Outside of the funny one-liners, the next step was to introduce specific dances through Vine and utilize the video aspect much like YouTube did for Soulja Boy. Bobby Shmurda was the next pioneer with his massive hit single "Hot Nigga" and its accompanying Shmoney Dance. After both went viral, the song peaked at No.6 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, the music video reached over 200 million YouTube views, Shmurda got a record contract with Epic Records, and the song was eventually certified platinum by the RIAA. Not bad for just six seconds of video.
With Bobby Shmurda paving the way, many other viral dances would soon follow: Chedda Da Connect's "Flicka Da Wrist," T-Wayne's "Nasty Freestyle," Silento's "Watch Me," PTAF's "Boss Ass Bitch," and the list goes on. Vine had become a marketing force in the music industry and had, unintentionally, changed the rap game.
So what changed? Did Vine give aspiring artists a new platform to gain exposure? Not necessarily. Instead, Vine shifted the focus from a rap song's message to just a single lyric because of its ability (or restriction) to be communicated within only six seconds. Today, rappers focus much more on making the hit singles that drive online traffic to their album. More and more people are making custom mixes rather than listening to albums in their entirety and, consequently, the single plays a much more crucial role for the artist than ever before. It made artists focus less on making a great album, but rather on creating a song with a catchy beat and meme-able punchlines. The songs end up becoming parodies of their own radio-ready versions.
That's how songs like "Gangnam Style" and "What Does The Fox Say" went viral. They were so entertainingly odd that you couldn’t resist not sharing them with all your friends on Facebook…and the artist is waiting on the other side to reap all the benefits.
Despite not initially being a video-sharing app intended for music consumption, Vine reduced songs to their lowest common denominator by having them become snippets and, ultimately, changed the music game for the foreseeable future. So, what does this say about the future of the music marketing business? It borders on being free. The promotional process has moved from investing hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars in a single or album to simply uploading a video to social media that, with some viral luck, could get you noticed just as effectively.
However, as with all trends, there are always some ideas that fail to show nearly as much creativity. In 2014, the hashtag #MusicThatDontMatch started to trend and featured music over contrarian clips; Chief Keef narrating a nature show, for example. Sure, the joke was obvious and fairly simple to execute, but it reminded me a lot of that South Park episode that pokes fun at Family Guy for claiming that its jokes are just fill-in-the-blanks. A pop song over its polar opposite rap video? Let the comedy behind juxtaposition ensue. It gets pretty repetitive rather quickly.
The other major issue with these viral videos is that you almost never remember the album, producer, or anything else. Do you remember who sang "What Does The Fox Say?" Didn't think so. But I know the chorus! The only music artist who has, maybe unintentionally, mastered this new landscape is Drake. By shooting his "Hotline Bling" video against a monochromatic background, he could have been aware that implementing additional graphics would be easy for the Internet—and it worked out perfectly.
This trend still continues today with the recent Running Man Challenge, where people can be seen on camera doing the Running Man (albeit updated and incorrectly) to the song "My Boo" by Ghost Town DJs. Despite the song being released nearly 20 years ago, it is now back on the iTunes charts thanks to its Vine-assisted virality. And yet, the artists themselves have not had a part in it.
But maybe it's not all bad though. Vine has also given millions of kids across the world a way to showcase their personalities and opinions through video-sharing. Using the app, users have tackled big issues such as race, homosexuality, politics, income inequality and more and they do so, most impressively, almost always through the lens of humor. It just so happened to be that they all love music as well, which I do too.
Today, many of the biggest stars on Vine—it's still weird to call them that—are branching into other content endeavors. King Bach, the most followed person on the app, has since appeared in multiple films and TV shows. Brittany Furlan signed a comedy deal with production company Endemol and also starred in Pitbull’s music video for "Fireball." So who am I to knock someone for their success? They work hard and show true creativity and humor. They just utilized a social media platform that was never available to my generation.
So maybe rap has gotten worse. Or better. What I'm sure of is that technology will always influence and change everything we connect with socially, and music will probably always be at the top of that list. Maybe Vine allowing 20-second videos would be better. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, maybe we should all go back to playing vinyl. Technology changes and that's not the musicians' fault. So, again, don't blame the content; blame the medium.