In a 7 minute long freestyle aside Big L, Jay-Z once rapped “I’ll raise hell, ’til its heaven”. Which is essentially what he did, coming from Marcy housing projects and moving his way up to having a partnership with Barneys among other business endeavors and plenty of platinum plaques. Jay-Z’s reign is unlike any we’ve seen in hip hop, still being just as relevant as he was when his break through “In My Lifetime Vol. II: Hard Knock Life” album came out in 1998. You would think that this is what all people who come from a background like Jay would aspire to do, however he comes under heavy heat for his success. Jay is labeled as “watered down”, a “sell out”, accused of compromising artistic value for finance. Of course, there are people who praise Jay-Z for what he has made of himself, but a lot of people from neighborhoods just like the one in which he came from, and people who were riding with Jay through his early work just look at him as an uncle Tom. Is it just a manifestation of jealousy and the crabs in the barrel mentality? or is there solid reason for this claim?, it’s a matter of opinion really. Some people may love Jay’s last effort with his Magna Carta album this past summer, while most fans of Reasonable Doubt Jay-Z can’t stand to listen to it. Though I’ve used Jay-Z as the example, he’s not the only one, this has been a trend in hip hop for as long as its been around. The mentality of attaching negativity to “going mainstream” may just be a reflection of the general attitude towards success in these neighborhoods where so many of these rappers come from. People like MC Hammer and Vanilla ice were the sacrificial lambs of hip hop, because though they were never accepted as real artists in thorough hip hop circles, they were the friendly guys who mainstream America could accept a little more, thus expanding hip hop. It opened hip hop to markets, that an N.W.A or a Public Enemy would never get in, just off the basis of fear of outside communities. Hammer and Vanilla Ice were completely cut off from the hip hop community, wrote off as pop trash (cue “pop goes da weasel”). Both selling millions on top of millions of records and bringing hip hop into houses it never was before, a more broad commercial success, but most hip hop fans laugh at them and make the two emcees as standards for being corny, ignoring the fact that they did make a contribution to hip hop. Not all rappers had to take the route of holding their sentiment to sell more records. Those who successfully managed to get across the views of the ‘hood and gain fame were viewed as superheroes, but their success came with a cost and possibly threatened the expansion of the art because of it’s negative and threatening stigma.
The way a lot of us hip hop fans see it, the way you’re supposed to gain more broad exposure is by kicking the door down, not with knocking politely hoping to being let in. N.W.A, is a prime example, coming out and gaining national exposure with songs like “straight outta Compton” and “Fuck Da Police”, songs that reflected the hostility and anger that lived where they came from, every rebel identified with it, even from suburban communities. Though the rebellious spirit in early hip hop was met with a lot of resistance, as they say “no press is bad press”. Hip hop was gaining national attention because of their take-no-shit, sick-and-tired, alpha male & misogynistic themes. Some would argue, though this negativity brought hip hop to an international level, it was also overshadowing the actual art of the music and hurting it’s chances of being sold in certain locations and being seen as a risk for people who were interested in investing. Record labels began taking heed to the fact that hip hop acts being so loud about the message may hurt the companies money, and started to reflect that on to their artists. Despite the corporations efforts there were still labels like Cold Chillin’ Records (Kool G Rap), Loud Records (Wu Tang, Mobb deep, Big Pun etc), & Rawkus (Black Star), which generated what is considered to be “Real Hip Hop”. However, signing a deal with a label that may offer more broad and commercial appeal such as Columbia or Bad Boy, was viewed as something that could put even the most revered rapper’s career in jeopardy, reputation wise. Though it’s not even a stain the rapper’s legacy at this point, at the point in which Nas decided to strive for a little more commercial success, he was attacked for it. The “second coming of Rakim’s” first album, “Illmatic” was naturally accepted as a thoroughbred, hip hop by definition, classic. It was the second time around that was met with negative criticism. Nas’ second album “It Was Written”, took a little more time to really be appreciated. The QB spitter’s sophomore effort was a clear showcase of Nas’ elevation, as a story teller, a writer and as an overall artist. Nas had some of his grittiest tracks such as “Live Nigga Rap”, “I gave you power” & “Shootouts” on that album. But it was because The Trackmasters had a heavy hand in producing the album, and there was a lot less production from Dream Team of producers assembled on his first effort. There were more broadly appealing songs with R&B hooks such as “If I Ruled The World” and “Black girl lost”, that the “Golden Child” of hip hop was criticized for selling out because of. People grew such an attachment to Nas off illmatic, because of his promise and reflection of the projects, that they took it personal when Nas had a mainstream hit. The Trackmasters talents were often overlooked because of their mainstream success with Mary J. Blige, Soul For Real and Faith Evans, and the fact that they often flipped more hardcore tracks with a melodic, sample heavy remix. But Tone and Poke also had a history of production credits for Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap, among other well respected emcees, before they worked with Nas. But critics so conveniently ignored that part of the story. To people like me, “It was written” was a perfect album. There is something to be said about an artist who can have street, boom bap hip hop shit and blend it effortlessly with something more appealing to the masses. There was nothing gimmicky, even regarding the controversial single “If I Ruled the world”. It was Nas being Nas the visionary, with Lauryn Hill on the hook, whats more hip hop than that?. It was the fact that Nas wasn’t exactly waving the underground hero flag, and because his popularity grew, instead of Illmatic fans being happy for him and giving the album a fair listen, they criticized him. But for fun, let’s say Nas stays the exact artist he was on “Illmatic”, chances are he wouldn’t have made it to where he is now. Nas is now branching out to deals with Hennessy and others, representing hip hop at Harvard. His ability to make these moves come off the strength of what he has done as an artist, he probably wouldn’t be able to do all he has done if he didn’t evolve from Illmatic.
I will admit, a lot of artists will sacrifice some of their music for more mainstream success and it shows. Artist’s who blatantly make songs that don’t sound natural, deserve to be criticized. Much respect to Jay-Z but when he came with “In my lifetime vol. 1”, which is an extremely underrated album, there was a blatant attempt to attract that Bad Boy audience. Jay was rocking a shiny green suit in his “Sunshine” video alongside Foxy Brown, and the song itself didn’t sound organic at all. Luckily Jay found his groove and exploded with Vol. II and did it smooth, he made his lifestyle appealing to all listeners. He brought in guys like Swizz beats, Timbaland (who didn’t produce much hip hop to that point), and even Premier to make a complete album that could rock an M.O.P crowd or a Drake crowd. But that’s the point, if someone’s putting together quality music that just happens to appeal to the masses, they shouldn’t be knocked just off the attention they’re getting for it. Now-a-days, we have someone like a Kendrick Lamar, who is the medium, the balance between super stardom and “backpack” hip hop (I hate saying “real” hip hop). His first album “Good Kid, Maad City”, was a critically acclaimed piece of work from both the guys in the barbershop and Rolling Stone magazine. He doesn’t seem to be doing anything to compromise his art, he made his personal story appealing enough to earn a platinum plaque and arguably the hottest right now. He just has the gift from God, of being able to be himself & be widely accepted at the same time. It will be interesting to see how Kendrick Lamar develops. People are already starting with the “he’s feeling himself too much”, due in large part to his game changing verse on Big Sean’s “Control”. In some cases, there really are rappers who lost fans on the basis of their success, with no correlation to the quality of music. Certain types of people take pride in being “exclusive” as if they’re the only person to know about an artist. So when the artists starts gaining popularity, the loan fan loses his “one-up” on everyone else, ultimately making them be less of a fan. Ridiculous, but very real. But for us more progressive hip hop fans who appreciate the Golden era hip hop, and find the good and artistic value in Today’s hip hop, we’re in good shape. A true artist can make the underground appealing to the masses, and mainstream appeal to the underground by doing it their own way. Very few are capable of it, but the gifted artists who do, are often assumed to be watered down and only given a biased ear. Not all underground hip hop is good, and not all mainstream hip hop is wack. Open minds, people.