Desiigner, Cardi B, and why some artists can't escape the shadow of their first hits
Successful splashes can envelop artists’ careers, ultimately *becoming* them instead of adding to their mystery.
Growing up, the Kingdom Hearts video game series was an integral part of my childhood. Through years of snap music and Myspace musical geniuses, I forged my identity in the worlds of Disney characters and childlike avatars wielding cartoonish weapons to vanquish various villainous threats. Years later, as I look at the hip-hop industry and its newcomers, my brain retreats to this nostalgic bliss, manifesting an unlikely connection between Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep and rap’s yearly newcomers.
For anyone that’s ever played a game in the Kingdom Hearts series — judging by the references to the series in modern rap culture, I’d say a lot of people have (sup, Ski Mask?) — ideologies come in triplets. Three protagonists, three friends, all dealing with the trials and tribulations of adolescence and wonder. Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep introduces Ventus, Terra, and Aqua, three characters with problems directly comparable to the issues that our favorite newcomers face time and time again. Ventus is running from the light, Terra from the threat of evil, yet both struggles are depicted in an introductory trailer that paints both journeys the same. It’s implied that both characters don’t escape their fates, which (spoiler alert) is confirmed during the course of the game’s story.
The frantic run for both characters’ escape from the looming presence of a chasing entity strikes me as the perfect metaphor for the rap game’s obsession with new artists after the release of a chart-topping hit.
It’s the dream of every aspiring artist to drop something that the public snatches up with reckless abandon, becoming infatuated with the very thought of their existence. This Cinderella story romanticizes coming from nothing and making it to the top. But, often what comes after, is left to the roll of the industry’s dice. Some artists survive, some die out, but what doesn’t change, is the problem that having a gigantic first hit may actually be worse for career longevity.
Running down a metaphysical hallway trying to escape the gargantuan shadow of “Panda” is Desiigner, previously referred to as Future-lite. His work under his original moniker Dezolo, followed by Designer Royal, didn’t yield the kind of results he wanted. He channeled Future Hendrix on his way to the top, tapping his vocal inflection for the track inspired by the black-and-white variations of the BMW X6. Kanye West guzzled the song’s creative energy and interpolated it on The Life of Pablo‘s “Pt. 2,” making Desiigner’s new name—one that elicits red squiggles from Microsoft Word and Grammarly under it—the latest prototype for one-hit-to-the-top done right. 2016 was the year of Desiigner—there wasn’t a Vogue shoot or Spotify-curated playlist that didn’t feature the hazy, drug-inspired slurs of Brooklyn’s latest champion.
But now it’s 2018. Two entire years later after the smoke has settled. “Timmy Turner” came and went, Desiigner’s presence all but evaporated, aside from plug-ins with Steve Aoki and an EDM scene that hip-hop largely avoids. Desiigner’s recent Breakfast Club appearance was startling for some unaware that he was planning to release a 7-track EP named L.O.D. on May 4. He even let fans know that this project isn’t his two-years-in-the-making full-length debut; it’s an appetizer for something much larger. But with dwindling interest from public ears, I wonder if the community will even catch wind of his new project, let alone listen to an entire album from him.
“Panda” created such a large splash that Desiigner was destined to hit the bottom. There weren’t conceivable means for “Timmy Turner” or any of his follow-ups to taste the same air of success as his debut single. “Timmy Turner” came from a freestyle for XXL that ultimately became more popular than anything Desiigner had completed aside from “Panda.” His team rushed to slap production behind it to capitalize on the moment, but it would be fleeting. The smoke’s been blown away, showing Desiigner’s true problem : a lack of staying power.
To be fair, it’s not a predicament involving artistry. That sort of successful splash envelops artists’ careers, becoming them instead of adding to the mystery. Trinidad James, Bobby Shmurda, even Young M.A all experienced success on a level that caused their living situation to do a 180-degree spin. But the public consumed the content so much that the artist’s mystique went with it. James was swept away in a sea of disappointment due to unmemorable follow-ups. Bobby’s wave was perpetuated in parody on behalf of fans consuming follow-up content; before he could fizzle, he was thrown under the jail. And Young M.A’s fan base dissolved at the snap of Thanos’ finger.
The industry often times isn’t nice, or fair. While some artists find it difficult to keep up the wave, others stumble into the spotlight and wholly embrace it. Lil Pump’s clumsy “Gucci Gang” may embody everything that hip-hop fans of previous generations find wrong with the game now, but its undoubtedly one of the biggest songs in rap history. Instead of being written off as a one-hit wonder, Pump’s “Esskeetit” looks to follow a similar trajectory. Lil Yachty entered into the game an after-thought—”1 Night” was adorable, in a benign sort of way; now, the song itself is an afterthought—but a slew of hits in “Broccoli,” “Forever Young,” and “Minnesota” have fueled public interest. Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” annihilated all expectations and awards in its lane; she’s since dropped numerous follow-up singles and her debut Invasion of Privacy to stellar sales and reviews from critics.
From the looks of things, it really does look like, outside of a few exceptions, that the bigger the hit, the harder to follow it up. Even looking at some of the biggest names in the game may give credence to that observation. J. Cole’s modest “Who Dat” kind of just appeared online, lacking the sensationalist vein and expensive sound of 2010 hits like “Nothin On You” and “Aston Martin Music.” Its passable performance enabled the explosion of hits like “Work Out” and “Can’t Get Enough” to paint J. Cole as a batter incapable of striking out. Similarly, Big Sean’s 106 & Park debut — it’s odd to think of him as that old — of “What U Doin” didn’t elicit as loud of a response when he dropped it off in 2010 as new videos usually garner. It was foreshadowing for the song’s murky reception and complete lack of inclusion in 106‘s lineup. But its lack of staying power enabled “My Last” to be Sean’s true introduction to the game. Even Kendrick’s “Swimming Pools,” although not his first dive into the industry’s shark-infested waters, was an adequate introduction into the greater game. Then, once follow-up singles “Backseat Freestyle” and “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” made their rounds, it was only up from there for Compton’s hero.
The striking, dark parallels between Desiigner and Cardi B are the most telling, seeing as how alike they are but how different their career trajectories have become. Whereas Desiigner’s peak seems to have already passed after a once-in-a-lifetime hit, Cardi’s chart-smashing record has only increased the ballyhoo surrounding her. Both artists hail from New York, and both have personalities that are much larger than life. The public’s fascination with Cardi may have begun much earlier than Desiigner’s quick rise to fame (thanks to a television and social media presence that made her everyone’s best friend), but that’s no way of writing off their differences . Lil Skies, another case of one-hit growth with “Red Skies” has acquired a lucrative fan base with a similar upward trajectory. So what’s the public’s deciding factor when aligning with Cardi B over Desiigner? 6ix9ine over Trippie Redd? With the constant change in streaming rules for inclusion in album sales, will we see a measurable impact in who sticks around longer than others?
Maybe a large stickler in this growing story is the role of journalists, like me, who utilize our own personal bias when writing editorials on artists we love and hate. These narratives, like cracked eggs, seep down into the brains of readers, subtly encouraging them to side with whoever receives the most nods from websites they frequent. I call it the “gang-up” effect: if Site A trashes one artist, Site B may decide it’s time to, then Site C, and so forth. The public then sees online sentiment and picks the popular position, unknowingly “canceling” an artist or elevating another to that next level that all one-hit artists aspire to get to.
Daniel Caesar’s “Get You” already has the backing of the who’s-who of music journalism, so maybe I’ll get to test my theory out starting with this. Reviews of his debut album Freudian lead me to believe that he’s escaping the lucrative nature of “Get You” and will become a heavy-hitter of the kind of R&B lost on our generation. But then again, maybe he’ll fizzle out and go underground. Bryson Tiller’s amazing success may have started with “Don’t” and, even with the backing of websites across the net, he still went into hiding, recently resurfacing to reveal his own candid depression as it related to his underwhelming sophomore release True to Self. At the end of the day, it’s all a guessing game. Desiigner could come back full force, a la 2 Chainz. Cardi could make a catastrophic career move that changes everything altogether.
As it stands now, these artists are coming up, all the while, digging a hole at the same time. Sometimes they get out of it and continue the journey, others sink deeper and deeper only to become casualties of the moment. I use Desiigner and Cardi B as the protagonists of this story, two artists going in distinctly different directions, yet facing many of the same obstacles. While Cardi’s career is seemingly free of major obstacles, Desiigner finds himself in an awkward rut that may rely on outside influence to assist him in getting out of it. But time is the variable that could throw this whole situation off, making the need for analyzing it in this way unnecessary.
But then again, what do I know. Only Father Time will decide who’s around next year and who bites the dust. Finding the answers after that initial high just plays a really big part in continuing the journey.
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