As a proud New Yorker and die-hard rap fan, I’m more than willing to acknowledge the lack of up-and-coming marketable New York talent in rap. I put ‘marketable’ in bold because it really does matter in the music industry. New York controlled the rap game for 25 solid years, from the birth of it in the Bronx to Jay-Z’s peak years in the mid-2000s (though he’s still carrying alone nicely it’s more reminiscent of Michael Jordan in his Wizards years). New York is the home of many rap legends, but for the past ten or so years there has been no new talent to speak of that has found consistent mainstream success, despite how optimistic many were when their buzz was peaking (e.g. Saigon, Papoose, etc.).
This can’t be coincidence. Mainstream rap has also seen a shift from “traditional hip hop” (sample-based break beats and focus on lyricism) to the more pop-crossover appeal rap (electronically-fused songs with more wide appeal and a focus on hot/catchy hooks). New York falls into the former category while the artists from places like Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, and *gulp* Toronto tend to fall into the latter category. People want to party more now than “think.” Traditional hip hop makes you “think”, the new style (which I am not condemning in any way) makes you “feel.” Most of the time, that “feeling” is an escape from reality; partying hard or getting drunk/high out of your mind to just relax.
This new sound considered, the internet now more than ever is responsible for deciding “who’s the next big thing?” In fact, it very well is blogs like this (except good ones that lots of people read) that play king-maker. The tastemakers of the interwebs are the new mainstream media that tell people who and what is worth listening to and really cultivate the buzz of artists. This perfect storm of internet-created buzz, the lack of famous New York rappers, the ability now of fans anywhere (as long as they have an internet connection) to be able to find new artists from blogs, and the drastically cheaper marketing costs have created the newest breakout rap star for 2012 in A$AP Rocky.
The way artists can now establish themselves via the internet has been written about ad nauseum. When I say “how the internet made this possible” I’m going to waste to words on how it made marketing cheaper and how fans can find blogs now to find these artists. They’re worth mentioning as they play critical roles, but I have nothing new to add to that when discussing A$AP Rocky and how the internet made this possible. When you watch that video and see the cover of his new mixtape ‘Live.Love.A$AP” you can easily see how this perfect storm came together and why he got a $3 million dollar deal with RCA. Let’s examine the 3 big ones:
- He’s a Throwback: Hipsterism is hot right now. I hate it, but it is what it is. As style is cyclical, we’re seeing lots of odes to the past and “better times.” Rap is down, but when someone who’s been a rap fan for a long time looks at A$AP Rocky what do they see? For starters, check that mixtape cover and check this:
- He’s a Throwback (cont): If there was any rapper that Rocky was going to be compared to, it’s Eazy-E. And judging by his mixtape cover and the way he dresses, raps, his glasses, and even his braid style, it is all an homage to rappers/style that is reminiscent of 20 years ago. Gold grills, thick lace gold chains, wearing gold finger rings, and drinking 40s? Those hit their peak in the early 1990’s. The girl with him in the “Peso” video during the second verse also looks straight out of 1990’s music video… no one dresses like that now. Also, the A$AP crew as a group of young guys with a counter-culture approach? Pretty reminiscent of N.W.A. (Eazy-E’s old group). Lots of positive old memories and winning formulas have been drawn upon… and the best part? It all seems authentic.
- His Musical Style: Yeah, he’s repping Harlem, but I saw three of his songs before I knew it. His rapping style is not “traditional New York” at all. He raps slowly and doesn’t dive too deep into the mind, making him feel much more like a Houston rapper (e.g. Slim Thug, Bun B, Paul Wall). If you Google him that comparison is easy to find. But you know what? That’s works perfectly if you want to find the mainstream appeal that he has. Given the new emphasis on “feel” over “think” (lyricism), him rapping about drinking 40’s over spaced-out beats is a lot more appealing now than someone waxing poetically about the urban plight. Now he’s not without talking about the struggle from time-to-time, but he sounds a lot more like the purp smoking, lean sipping Houston rappers than anyone else. And while Houston hit it’s peak a few years ago, he’s interesting and his crossover style (combined with… wait for it… the INTERNET) makes him a lot more appealing to many more diverse audiences than he could potentially be otherwise. You like New York? Support him! You like midwestern/Houston rap? The songs are hot! You miss the old days and enjoy his throwback N.W.A. style? It sure is interesting! Most of all… HE’S DIFFERENT! There are no real contemporary artists he can be compared to other than lazy Odd Future comparisons since the young rap group with weird/different style dynamic is similar. It’s hard to listen to him and resist the urge to get some purp, some 40s, or lean and just zone out. He knows what he’s doing and knows his audience well and it suits him perfectly. He represents the future and the past at the same time, a rare stylistic trait.
- He Needs the Internet: Hitting on the last two points, A$AP Rocky doesn’t have $3 milllion in his pockets without the internet. He’s so unique that he transcends his own traditional fan base (NYC), his music style fan base (Houston), and his artistic style fan base (N.W.A./early 1990’s tradition). If he existed alone in any of those three markets without the ability to market himself outside of them, no one would ever have heard of him. No single characteristic of his makes him THAT interesting, it’s the combination when they’re put together and how he somehow manages to pull it off while seeming genuinely authentic (authenticity in the rap genre is vital). Without being able to “transcend” these traditional fan bases he doesn’t make it. With the internet he does. His youngest fans were born when N.W.A. was hot so they can’t remember that, but they can enjoy his young troublemaker/confident style. Fans of Houston rap won’t like that he’s a carpetbagging their style, but they can enjoy that he makes good music and is interesting. New York rap fans will hate that he’s abandoned his own region’s style for a different one, but they can enjoy that he makes good music and is getting New York buzz. And old school rap fans who don’t necessarily enjoy this new movement of electronic buzzing beats with catchy hooks can appreciate his simplicity and the homage he pays to their generation. That’s a lot of different audiences he misses out on without the internet. Thankfully, that’s not a problem.
This has been more long-winded than I initially intended, but the point remains the same. If he showed up at the turn of the millenium he would’ve been swept away quickly. But given how our culture has evolved, his style and artistic form embraces the cyclical nature of our culture while riding the new wave of it at the same time. Who knows how long his career will last… But for now, the world is watching and he’s one of the most interesting new artists out there.