[I wrote this editorial for a website I write for, StraightFresh.net ... Let me know what you all think, any feedback is appreciated. This is my first editorial, inspired by B.o.B The link to the site/editorial is http://straightfresh.net/editorial-bobby-ray-selling-out/#more-9396 ]
On Tuesday May 1, 2012, Strange Clouds – the sophomore release from recording artist B.o.B – hit stores worldwide. As a loyal listener of Bobby Ray, I made sure to go out and purchase the album, despite having already downloaded it for free the week before its official release. I did the same thing in April 2010, when his debut album hit the shelves. After all, B.o.B had been releasing mixtapes for free throughout the years, months and weeks leading up to the release of B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray. In between his official albums, Mr. Simmons graced fans with a couple free tapes, including E.P.I.C.: Every Play Is Crucial, one of my favorite mixtapes from 2011. Dropping $10 to support one of my favorite young musicians felt like a no brainer, and feels like money well spent. Unfortunately, I suspect that I’m in the minority feeling that way.
Upon the release of TAoBR, B.o.B was panned by critics, who claimed his rhymes were too simple, even going so far as to suggest he lacked creativity. In a review of the album for Rolling Stone magazine, Jody Rosen stated, “[B.o.B’s] witless boasts leave you wondering what on Earth the bloggers are fussing about” (Rosen, Review: B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray. Rolling Stone). Witless? Personally, I still have trouble understanding where this opinion originates. As an artist with many talents – rapping, singing, piano and guitar – Bobby Ray, in my opinion, did an amazing job showcasing his long list of abilities. Was he going all-out lyrically on every track? No, but B.o.B has never been just an emcee. Anyone who listened to him prior to his ascent from the underground to the mainstream should understand that. And I can’t speak for B.o.B, but I believe his debut album was intended to showcase just how versatile an artist he is.
Despite the less than positive response critically, Bobby Ray’s genre-blending album debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200 chart, selling 84,000 copies in the first week. B.o.B had officially become a mainstream recording artist, and a number of tracks from the album started getting played on the radio. It was hard to listen to the radio (isn’t it always?) and not hear something from the album, be it “Nothin’ On You”, “Airplanes” or “Magic”. Right around this time, the critics that really matter – the fans, and specifically in this case the hip-hop fans – began to voice their opinions on the album. Personally, I enjoyed the album. But a large percentage of B.o.B fans, people who had been listening to him before he was on the radio, before he was famous, were upset, let down and just plain pissed off. I saw this first hand with friends of mine. People who had loved bumpin’ anything by B.o.B only a month before, suddenly hated the man. I can’t tell you how many times I heard things like, “What happened?” or “This tape is garbage”. Somehow, these former supporters forgot how diverse his music has always been. No matter how hard I tried to argue what I saw the album representing, they were convinced B.o.B had left rap and gone pop. His “hip-pop” album had been created with the intention of making the most money possible – B.o.B was a sell out.
Having listened to Strange Clouds, I will not be surprised when people have the same reaction this time around. B.o.B compromised his artistic integrity in order to sell more records. I could not disagree with that statement more. To me, Strange Clouds shows just how much Bobby Ray has grown as an artist and as a person over the last two years. Just to be clear, this is not an album review and I do not intend to argue my case that Bobby Ray is not a sell out. However, I believe the case of B.o.B provides a relevant and perfect example of just how over-used the concept of ‘selling out’ is.
The idea of someone selling out is nothing new, especially in the hip-hop community. Hell, there is even a documentary, The Art of Selling Out, all about selling out. Unfortunately, there is no definition set in stone. And there never will be. The concept of calling an artist a sell out is similar to saying an artist is ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ – it is all based on opinion. What these terms mean is going to be different depending on whom you ask. The definitions are constantly reshaped, redefined and forever changing. That alone has made me skeptical of the phrase, and is one of the reasons I try not to label any artist a sell out. However, the most common understanding of ‘selling out’ is “when an artist conforms to the way record labels or managers see them in order to make money through commercial success and generally not the original fan base” (Urban Dictionary). Basically, an artist is a sell out when they compromise the art form – in this case rap – for commercial success.
There are a number of reasons an artist might be labeled a sell out. To some rap fans, an artist sells out as soon as they sign their name on the dotted line and join a label. Apparently, this automatically eliminates any hope of the artist staying true to who they were before signing. If you ask me, anyone who thinks signing to a label is selling out needs to figure out a way to get their head out of their ass. Just as an example, let’s look at Jay Electronica, who is arguably one of the most lyrical, intelligent, creative and reclusive emcees out there today. For years, Sean “Diddy” Combs – who had provided guidance to Jay – was trying to get Jay Electro to sign to Bad Boy Records. When Jay finally signed to a label, it wasn’t with Diddy and Bad Boy. Instead, he chose to take his talents to Roc Nation and Jay-Z. Why? Most likely because he knew Jay-Z would allow him to keep his artistic integrity intact. Was another reason the money? Possibly, but by signing to Roc Nation instead of Bad Boy, Jay Electro made sure he would be allowed to be himself. But I guess he’s a sell out because he signed to a label…
Rap fans and critics love to go back to the Golden Age of hip-hop – where lyricism and skill mattered most, where emcees only rapped about real topics, when materialism wasn’t flaunted and bragged about. Unfortunately, this vision of the Golden Age is a complete rewrite of hip-hop history. When people today say Kanye West is a sell out because he raps about the money he has, how famous he is, etc. etc., they forget (or don’t know) that one of the major themes in early rap music was bragging about material items. News flash! Old school hip-hop is full of braggadocios emcees whose lyrics let listeners know how rich and how fly they were. The duo EPMD named themselves using an acronym that stands for “Eric and Parish Making Dollars”. The truth is, there was just as much rapping about material wealth 20 and 30 years ago as there is now. The only difference is there is more money in rap today, and that means rappers have bigger chains and better toys to brag about. Fitting someone with the ‘sell out’ label just because they rap about material possessions fails to take into account the real history of rap. There has never been a point in time where rap was strictly conscious.
Often times, when an emcee changes their style up or makes an attempt at creating something that crosses over into another genre, they are deemed a sell out. Perfect example is B.o.B – although, again, he’s always been more than just a rapper. Another example is Lil Wayne and Rebirth. I’ll go on record saying I do not like Lil Wayne, and honestly consider him one of, if not the, most overrated rappers EVER. But I do not think creating a rock album makes him a sell out. I wonder if the same people who readily label genre-crossing emcees as sell outs consider Run DMC sell outs? Making a song with Aerosmith!? How could they?…Sarcasm aside, my point is this: attempting to be experimental and innovative is not selling out.
Of course there are many other reasons for, and examples of, the term ‘sell out’ being utilized. I want to focus now on the group who most frequently makes use of ‘sell out’ and why I think this is the case. From my personal experience, the real hip-hop heads are the people most likely to call an artist a sell out. This should make sense – a casual fan probably doesn’t care enough to get worked up about something so meaningless. Think about it this way: someone who heard B.o.B for the first time on the radio, and enjoyed what they heard, won’t see him as a sell out. On the other hand, people who have listened to him since Cloud 9, people who supported him before he was known worldwide, are most likely to call The Adventures of Bobby Ray a pop album and view B.o.B as a sell out. Why? Shouldn’t they be happy to see him reach the level of success he has? Yes, they should. Unfortunately, they usually aren’t.
As a rap fan, “discovering” an artist – being that person who is ‘down’ with an emcee before others even know who he/she is – is an awesome feeling. I love knowing that I was listening to B.o.B before he was famous, and I love knowing I was responsible for introducing him to so many of my friends before the radio had the chance to. The same thing happened with so many emcees who were coming up at the same time as Bobby Ray – Asher Roth, Charles Hamilton, Kid Cudi, etc. My friends would come over for a night of debauchery and I’d have another artist to play they had never heard of. It’s still happening today, and it still feels great. But I’m not upset when that artist gets some well-deserved recognition, even if that means they start to get fans that are ‘fans’ only because it’s cool to be a ‘fan’. Why should I be? Why should I expect or want an artist to stay underground? I can take pride knowing I was ‘down’ before the mainstream was, and I can also be happy seeing an emcee gain popularity. These underground rappers are not putting out music in hopes of being a well-kept secret among hip-hop heads. They want – at least most of them want – to be well known. They want to be recognized, they want their albums to sell, and they want people listening to their music. Yeah, sure, those original fans may appreciate the music more, but they should not expect to be the only ones allowed to listen to it. And they certainly shouldn’t get upset if an artist gains popularity. If you call an emcee a sell out because they went above ground and have millions of fans instead of hundreds, then you’re a sell out. You’ve sold out in terms of what it means to be a fan of rap music. ‘It’s popular so I don’t like it.’ That is not what it means to be hip-hop.
When I hear rap fans say emcees should be rapping for the “love of the music” and not to make money, I’m tempted to unleash the WWE fan in me and start swinging steel folding chairs in hopes of knocking some sense into their thick skulls. If someone is rapping as a career, if that’s their means of making a living, then don’t say they shouldn’t be trying to make money. Just because they want to be successful does not mean they don’t love the music. Just because they want to make money does not make an artist a sell out. I want to be a teacher, and all the teaching experience I’ve had so far has shown me I love teaching. But I’d only teach if I were going to get paid. Sorry KRS, but the reality is I need a salary. Same goes for any job – you may love it, but you wouldn’t be doing it if there were not some form of payment involved. To expect any different from rappers just doesn’t make sense to me. Just because a rap album has some radio-friendly songs does not make the album pop, and it definitely doesn’t make the emcee a sell out. Was nobody paying attention to Wu-Tang back in the day? “Cash Rules Everything Around Me….C.R.E.A.M., Get the money, dollar, dollar bill y’all.”
Judging by the over use of ‘sell out’, it seems everybody and their mother understands exactly how the industry works. I mean it has to be the rappers fault, right? Nope. People tend to overlook the role of the label in the album making process. Or they go back to that “love of the music” bologna and claim an artist is a sell out if they allow the label to control what does and doesn’t make an album. Again, the majority of rappers want their names to be known, they want their records to sell, they want to be successful. Labels do not have to release an album if they aren’t satisfied with the final product – and quite often, fans view what the label sees as satisfactory as a ‘sell out’ of an album. If you were a rapper, especially a young, up and coming one, and you were faced with the choice of compromising on what the final album sounds like or not releasing the album at all, what would you choose? If you can honestly say, “fuck the label” and not release the album, well then you’re a better person than me I guess.
Is Lupe Fiasco a sell out for releasing L.A.S.E.R.S. even though he’s gone on record saying he didn’t think it was a good album? That was a popular opinion upon release of the album. Same opinions that B.o.B heard – it was made for the radio, it’s not real hip-hop, yada yada yada. Look at it from a different perspective – Lupe’s. Atlantic Records and Lupe could not come to terms on what the album should sound like. Atlantic wanted songs that would get radio play, Lupe wanted to do what he does best, rap. In the end, Lupe compromised more than he probably should have had to, but he didn’t do it to make money. He released L.A.S.E.R.S. because his fans were begging for it. The fans wanted another Lupe album and Lupe did what was necessary to finally give them what they desired. And then he dealt with the backlash of releasing a ‘radio friendly’ album.
Lupe Fiasco and B.o.B are perfect examples of emcees that are unfairly labeled sell outs, and conveniently they are both signed to Atlantic Records. Something worth considering, again, is how much control the label has over the finished product. When that album is released, everyone involved in the process wants to see commercial success. It means more money in their pockets. At times this has the potential to cause an album to end up disappointing, which leads to the ‘sell out’ label being placed on the artist responsible. What is so often overlooked is the music artists put out for free – the mixtapes that are released online, for fans to download and enjoy without having to spend any cash. More often than not, the mixtapes showcase the lyrical, raw rapping ability that these artists’ posses and the fans crave. You’d think fans could forgive an artist for putting out an album that appeals to more than just hip-hop heads as a result of using genre-crossing sounds and styles. Yes, the albums released are intended to sell, and ideally sell to more than just rap fans. But the mixtapes are released for free – all the hard work that goes into making the tape is done for no reason other than to give the fans some music. Making money but still hooking up the fans. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s not selling out. That’s hip-hop.
Labeling an emcee a ‘sell out’ is nothing new, and use of the term does not appear to be stopping any time soon. I anticipate the reviews of Strange Clouds, although I do not have high hopes for a positive review. I also anticipate hearing from friends their opinions on the album. I wonder if the people who hated on Adventures of Bobby Ray will listen to B.o.B’s new record and have a better understanding of what Mr. Simmons is trying to do and what he is capable of doing. Selling out – it can’t be defined, it’s totally based on opinion, and yet it’s thrown around frequently. In an industry like rap, staying relevant is a struggle – new artists arrive on the scene every day. Switching up your style, coming at the audience from multiple genres, or making a song that’s radio friendly doesn’t make an emcee a sell out. It makes them, in my opinion, an intelligent career oriented human, who is trying to last as long as they can in the world of hip-hop – the world in which they live, the world in which they need to fight to survive. Sometimes to survive, it’s necessary to walk a thin line between underground and mainstream. As long as you’re walking that line, you’re not a ‘sell out’ – especially when you’re walking it with the style and profile of Mr. Bobby Ray Simmons.
“So all I see is magazine covers in this game
You either surface or you plummet
It’s a thin line and I’m just tryna keep my head above it”
-B.o.B “So Hard to Breathe”, Strange Clouds
- Zach Humphrey