Men Lie, Women Lie, Streams Don't: How streaming numbers confirm that lyricism still matters
While “mumble rap” may have the blogs in a death grip, rap entrenched in lyricism is what the public lusts over, evident in their lucrative sales.
Maybe it’s the role-playing game fanatic in me, but there really is a connection between Final Fantasy 13 and the current state of hip-hop.
Hear. Me. Out.
In terms of Triple AAA gaming debacles, Final Fantasy 13 ranks near the top of missteps: a jumble of incongruent ideas complicating a simple, yet elegant tale of changing destiny. At the end of the game, the heroes wrap up their fantastical journey on a good note. Then, out of nowhere, a gust of wind manifests itself, tearing the main character (“Lightning”) away from her friends and swallowing her up into everlasting chaos. She appears again, but as a narrator and secondary character in the sequel, seemingly confused at her own fate. What was once a good ending turned into the beginning of something terrible. As it turns out, she’s been picked by the world’s goddess (“Etro”) to defend her against a powerful adversary, one with the capabilities to destroy the goddess. As Lightning steps up to fight this villain (“Caius”), the game reveals gradually that their battle continues on and on forever. Through combat, they remain in a stalemate – neither destined to destroy each other.
Comparably, in order to defend itself, hip-hop unconsciously appoints a guardian to maintain a semblance of integrity. Historically, substance has been its protector, the kind of rap that carried weight to it, testing the mettle of the listener’s intelligence like a riddle from a mysterious Sphinx. The amalgamation of Auto-Tune and millennial creativity brought about a new challenger to the culture: for lack of better terminology, “mumble rap.” (Even though a majority of this type of music is actually understandable, users of the term are referring to the vacuous and riveted nature of it instead). On both sides, purveyors of the two exchange viscous barbs about the other’s expiring relevancy. The deadlocked match, until recently, was in an ongoing stalemate where neither side profited. Hip-hop culture is so malleable – it twists, turns, and jiggles with the slightest appliance of societal pressure.
The explosion of SoundCloud’s popularity led to the widespread recognition of larger-than-life characters like SmokePurrp and Lil Pump, two outsiders that would indicate the ebb and flow of rap’s stream. They aren’t your traditional album release type of guys. With idiosyncratic appearances, they command attention from the four corners of the blogosphere, but their organic growth came from the youth’s embrace. With colored dreads, more tattoos than can be counted, and a penchant for whimsical music, the culture that they represent is in its prime now. Empowered by DJ Akademiks and host Adam22 of podcast No Jumper, the culture that they represent makes up the primary consumers of rap at the moment: the youth. The ones that stream all of the music, buy the most albums, and purchase the most concert tickets. You’d be forgiven thinking that “mumble rap” is running the show.
But then, J. Cole’s KOD happened.
For a rapper to be referred to as “audio NyQuil” by creative Twitter users, J. Cole sure knows how to push a project. From the precipitous announcement to the pop-up listening parties, the world embraced Cole’s music wholeheartedly. With a week in the rear-view mirror, it looks like his album was a success. Between 350,000 to 400,000 equivalent units were moved in the first week, solidifying his release as the biggest of the year so far. If he’s boring, then hip-hop loves boring.
And just like that, the illusion was shattered. Perhaps the world wasn’t moving away from lyricism, or traditional rap. The takeover isn’t complete. Maybe the roars for change are nothing more than misplaced bellows, coming from individuals eager to exclaim about something. Lyricism is still as impactful as ever, maybe even more important due to its contemporary rarity. For every ten songs in the streaming giants’ curated playlists, you’ll find one, maybe two, laden with intricate rhymes. Its scarcity, commonly perceived as “dying out,” has made it an obsession.
With that in mind, looking at the most venerable names in hip-hop at the moment seemingly confirms this hypothesis. JAY-Z’s 4:44 debuted with 262,000 album-equivalent sales, less than J. Cole’s massive move, but still leagues ahead of the numbers that much of the new wave manages. Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther: The Album moved 154,000 units in its first week, without even being a traditional body of work but instead a compilation based on the movie of the same name. Before that, Kendrick’s Pulitzer-winning album DAMN. moved more than 603,000 equivalent-album units in its first week. Drake rounds out rap’s heavyweight class, with 505,000 first week album-equivalent units moved for his last album More Life. You’ll find other artists capable of moving ridiculous numbers like these but they are seldom; let alone having the ability to replicate this ability multiple times.
Now, let’s look at the game’s purveyors of the new wave that command attention from the world’s last line of notable music publications. XXXTentacion all but serves as the spearhead of the new generation, seemingly balancing effortless charisma with a darker, goth side that makes him a favorite of emotionally confused adolescents everywhere. His second studio effort ‘?’ moved 131,000 units in its first week. Playboi Carti’s self-titled debut moved 28,501 album-equivalent units in its first week. Lil Pump’s debut album, following Carti’s self-titled example, moved 46,000 over the course of its first seven days. While not on the level of catastrophic flops of more seasoned hip-hop veterans, these numbers are far different from the bigger names in the game.
Drake’s Scorpion is set to hit shelves on June 28 and it’s already eligible to go gold off of the strength of his massive hit “God’s Plan.” Before him, Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy went gold because of “Bodak Yellow” and its huge success. When the public identifies with the music, regardless of whether you’re a lyricist or not, album sales will respond in kind. In these cases, it shows that there will always be a place for lyricism in hip-hop’s expansive landscape.
Projecting the future for hip-hop is often times comparable with meteorology. You can study it, utilize knowledge of the past to spot patterns for change in the future, even make an observation about a change that you actually see happening right now—and you can be wrong. There’s about as much science in it as there is wildly guessing at whether you should wear a poncho to the office tomorrow. But there are ways to spot what the future could look like. If you know about the cyclical nature of all genres of music, understanding that things could go back to the way they were so many years ago should help to envision what’ll come to pass.
Another thing about rap music: it’s always been argumentative. There has always been a mix of conflicting styles that, through clashing and evolution, shape the way that rap’s stream moves down the riverbed. In the 90s, gangsta rap and conscious rap clashed like snarling pitbulls. Both subsets of the culture survived and thrived, even if then it seemed as if only one could exist while the other had to be extinguished. Today, the situation is the same – the names have just changed. “Mumble rap” and lyricism are at odds with each other and, depending on which way you look at it, both sides have a leg up on each other in terms of public importance. While “mumble rap” may have the blogs in a death grip, rap entrenched in lyricism is what the public lusts over, evident in the lucrative sales that some of the game’s most lyrically savvy generate time and time again.
The conflict between both sides will inevitably fall to the wayside and the game will embrace “mumble rap” just as conscious rap stepped aside for gangsta rap’s inclusion. But, if album sales continue in the trend that they’re going, lyricism will always rule supreme in rap music. Maybe the game’s losing the ability to mutate and find resonance with new generations, or maybe, just maybe, lyricism just feels right in the heart. The ear can’t mistake good music, regardless of who creates it. But the brain can confuse someone’s level of importance by how often they see their face and how often it makes note of hearing their voice. The decision to ultimately contribute to the continuation of their artistry ultimately rests on if they believe in them enough to support their vision. For a lot of new-age rappers, this distinction is apparent. They may not be able to convince people to cough up their hard-earned money, but they do have their attention. Figuring out how best to translate that into album sales is a task that needs to be undertaken collectively.
Perception will always be different than reality. Words will always be able to paint slants in the truth that only data will confirm or deny. No matter what any rapper says, lyricism continues to light hip-hop’s fuel. New age rap has a way to go, so these rappers slandering what came before it is a childish tactic to hopefully usher in the masses into the future. But it won’t happen like that. For now, and in the future, rap continues to keep intricate wordplay in its sights.