After the musical disappointment that was 2020, many music lovers looked to 2021 as a potential beacon of hope that would make up for the weeks that proved to be a music drought. While in some form 2021 has proven to be the light at the end of the tunnel that we all hoped for with artists like J. Cole, Tyler The Creator, and Migos dropping music, there’s been a noticeably empty canyon when it comes to newly emerging Hip-Hop artists for fans to be excited about.
In fact, one of the most engaging things about music is watching an artist develop into a household name. I remember having heated debates with my friends about how much potential 21 Savage had after spinning his breakout project “Savage Mode” for the twentieth time or annoying my friends with how much I would play Lil Uzi before he exploded into one of the most popular rappers in the world.
The passion that’s triggered when you’re trying to advocate on the behalf of an artist that in reality, you don’t know, even though you feel like you do through the songs they’ve put out is a part of what makes music fun. The passion of watching an artist you’re invested in organically rise through the ranks before the machine that is the music industry gets a hold of them is a part of what makes music fun. However, with what is potentially the most organic era in music history coming to a close, music may be headed into the dark ages once again.
The SoundCloud era is a point in time in music history that needs to be documented. The start of musicians and artists with dreams being able to upload their music to a streaming platform with the chance of the music going viral and changing a life for the better, with the best part being the lack or nonexistence of music label influence. Essentially, what this meant was instead of the labels continuing along with their method of what fans would call industry plants or picking artists they think have a chance to make an impact and then asking us, the fans what we thought, we the fans were picking the artists ourselves with labels having to scramble to react to the will of the people.
It’s a beautiful concept especially for someone like me who doesn’t like the feeling of products being forced in front of my face in a sort of “you can be on this train or under it” hostage situation. I like for things to be organic. I’m a fan of organic growth, organic marketing, organic food, etc… That’s what the Soundcloud era was, organic music being allowed to grow because people actually enjoyed the music and wanted to listen to it on repeat instead of music “growing” because it’s being played on the radio ten times an hour. Additionally, because of the organic nature of Soundcloud, artists were able to take more risks with blending genres, case in point, the Emo-Rap subgenre that at times dominated Hip-Hop in the late 2010s.
However, as previously mentioned before it seems the music industry has returned to the cookie-cutter model of trying to recruit clones who have the same sound as the hottest artists in the game. The very thought process behind trying to reproduce a sound or trend that’s working in music is insulting because it disregards the expectations from fans and critics that artists grow within their music and push the boundaries of it. As a result, artists aren’t incentivized to further develop their talent because they’re guaranteed awards and industry recognition with their musical plateau. This leads to music becoming stagnant with a growing consensus of people who feel like all new music sounds the same.
Now, I acknowledge the logic of trying to reach the younger generation who grew up with YouTube and social media by grabbing their favorite personalities and turning them into music stars. It’s something we’ve seen before with arguably some of the biggest pop stars in the world like Drake, Ariana Grande, and Olivia Rodrigo getting their start on television. Drake is the only artist I can think of who successfully made the jump from television star to rapper, however, it’s worth mentioning that Drake’s rise to success with the machine behind him including being endorsed by the greatest rapper in the world at the time, Lil Wayne came before the SoundCloud era. Cardi B could be another argument, however, I’d point out that her so-called TV superstardom came from a reality show based around rapping and the lifestyle that comes with it. With that being said, the industry plant method works better in genres not named Hip-Hop where the term “industry plant” isn’t used as an insult like it is in Hip-Hop.
However, when fans can clearly see through the façade with the machine’s arms working in such broad daylight, you get the lack of fan engagement that the 2021 XXL Freshman list is receiving. A list with quite a few picks that were known before they decided to rap isn’t going to get fans engaged because it is so clearly inorganic and alters, if not follows along in the industry plant model. This sets a bad precedent that will most likely be followed by labels where they search out the most successful influencers and give them a record contract. That cheapens the art of music because the only reason why the influencers were given the contract in the first place is because they already had a fanbase, which in turn makes it harder on the artists who are dedicated to growing musically to get noticed leading to the decline in organicism that we are currently seeing.
The bottom line is, music is fun when it is organic. Unfortunately, due to the new way labels are picking their new artists in addition to the Tik Tok method of paying people to choreograph dances for tracks that are designed to be catchy, there doesn’t seem to be sunlight at the end of the tunnel full of LEDs. Throwing money at a product or brand with the thought of guaranteed success isn’t a realistic expectation, especially in Hip-Hop. Buying success leads to the lack of meaning in that success in addition to a decrease in fan investment within the genre. And when accolades and numbers can be bought as long as labels are willing to spend the money, Hip-Hop moves away from the realness and organic nature that propelled it to become the number one genre in the country. And that isn’t fun.