Aaron Matthews went to Hell for snuffing Jeebus.
Rapper Saigon released his long-delayed debut The Greatest Story Never Told earlier this year, five years after its initially scheduled release date. Despite the backing of Roc-a-fella hitmaker Just Blaze, who produced most of the record and guest spots from Jay-Z and Raheem DeVaughn. “Pain In My Life”, his Trey Songz-assisted single was five years too early, before Songz minted himself as gold-single-on-a-stick status like T-Pain, Akon, & Robert Kelly.
Atlantic signed Sai as a potential competitor to 50 Cent but his record dropped too late to capitalize on Entourage buzz. Saigon convincingly describes everyday struggles with culpable feeling but never quite latches onto a cohesive, sellable image like 50 Cent. Sai’s rise from hotly buzzed saviour of hip hop to well, a cat who releases his album five years after its release date, illustrates the precariousness of this role. There’s a specific type of rap fan who expects that the best rapper in the genre should also be the most successful. Typically their taste lies in a very specific conception of hip-hop in a crystallized late 80s to mid 90s New York. Rakim changed lyricism when he stepped in the door in ’86; Ra’s undeniable skills combined with the 5 Percenter mythos surrounding him created the idea of the God emcee. Rap fans had been complaining about the commercialization of their genre as early as the late 80s, as the subculture was gradually merging with mainstream culture and people like Rakim were approaching the higher echelons of the charts.
What revisionist rap fans forget is that the Roots were lamenting the state of the genre in ’96, a year which brought us ATliens, All Eyez On Me, The Score, Hell On Earth and Reasonable Doubt. Nas was supposed to save purists from pop-rap in ’94 but two years later, Jones became part of the problem with It Was Written (at least in their eyes.) Fast forward a few years later, and rap hit the peak of its commercialism. At the height of the jiggy era, the East Coast rap scene was hungry for a popular rapper who rapped well about something more resonant than cash, money and hoes. Bad Boy owned shiny-suit-and-ties rap over 80s pop tracks, while Ruff Ryders delivered aggressive club bangers, but select fans felt like there was something missing. Purist fans expected a lyricist who would make no concessions to commercial appeal.
Of course, this narrative overlooks the surplus of good rapping by commercially successful emcees in the mid to late 90s. Jay was rapping his ass off on his singles round this time, while Nas penned some of his best lyrics on It Was Written — also his most commercially successful album. But that wasn’t enough. There were fans who wanted a rapper who succeeded by the sheer dint of his skills; they wanted a saviour. Canibus stepped on the scene with scene-stealing guest appearances on records by Common, the Firm, and the Lost Boyz. His beef with LL Cool J got him enough attention to go gold with Can-I-Bus in 1998, setting up an aggressive competition between pop-rap and underground rap. His single? A hookless, almost five minute diss against LL over a plodding beat. Even with beats by Wyclef Jean, Saalam Remi and Clark Kent, Canibus couldn’t make a commercial record, and “Second Round KO” was the closest he got to the charts.
On the record, ‘Bis suggests “the greatest rapper of all time died on March 9th” and most were inclined to agree. BIG bridged pure underground appeal with commercial success and his death opened a gap that rappers felt they had to fill. He left a yawning opening in East Coast lyricism that labels were eager to patch. And underground rappers with a Messiah complex were ready to fill in, seeing their opportunity. Hell, by 1999 Nas was literally crucifying himself in videos. What happened to our saviours?
Accordingly, around the turn of the millennium, labels were snatching up a multitude of talented underground rappers in order to remake them as commercial products. Some of these makeovers were successful, some less so. Murder Mase dropped the first part of his name and added a dollar sign in the transition from hardcore rapper to frolicking in the sand with Puff. Ras Kass’s switch from battle rap and conspiracy theories to songs about lap dances didn’t go quite as well. Eminem and 50 succeeded because they had strong pop instincts from the gate. Sure, Dr. Dre minted Eminem and 50 Cent as commercial stars, but both rappers came to the producer as established artistic personalities through years of rapping, touring and recording.
By the time he got signed to Interscope, Em had already released his debut Infinite and the Slim Shady EP. While 50 Cent already had a steady street rep and serious buzz off “How To Rob”, plus a serious commercial ally in production team the Trackmasters, who had dominated rap radio for the last few years with hits for Jay-Z, Nas, Mariah Carey & R. Kelly. Dr. Dre was the bridge from Rawkus and bodega buzz to real radio hits. 50 is a fine rapper. but his commercial ambition kept him from filling the saviour role. Eminem’s lack of melanin didn’t keep him from critical acceptance, but it did mean he could never satisfy the true purists. We’re now at 2002, 2and 50 and Em are at the top of the world.
A year later, Little Brother dropped The Listening, and with it an impassioned recommendation from underground tastemaker ?uestlove — a campaign started in earnest to appoint North Carolina trio as the saviours of “real hip hop” (i.e. Golden Age influenced rap with no commercial aspirations.) And once again, the labels came calling and Little Brother signed with Atlantic to release a concept record comparing modern rap music to 19th century minstrel shows. It didn’t go very well.
Papoose was another in a long line of decent emcees crowned as “Hip-Hop’s Last Hope” and summed up the problem of most of these dudes. He first minted himself as the East Coast’s saviour with “Alphabetical Slaughter” where he kicked a verse for each letter of the alphabet, only using those letters. He built up a heavy buzz through intensive mixtape work and rap radio cosigns until he signed an alleged multi-million dollar contract with Jive in ’06. A bizarre single about fitted hats followed to muted response and Pap was dropped a year later.
Lyrical traditionalism plays well to the dyed-in-the-wool rap purist but demonstrates no effort to integrate rap into a believable social context. The skills that lend themselves to high concept records don’t easily transition to radio. Jay Electronic entered the stage in 2007 with heavy cosigns from Just Blaze and Erykah Badu. He’s a New Orleans born rapper who built his persona from pieces of Rakim and Nas’ Nation of Islam god emceeing, Jay-Z’s slick dexterity and MF Doom’s combination of solemnity and goofy weirdness. Jay scored an Unsigned Hype writeup in ’08, but properly made his name off near eight minutes of stream-of-consciousness flow over drumless loops of Jon Brion’s score for Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind.
Beyond hip-hop fans, Jay’s biggest exposure to a larger audience arrived with a head-scratching Mountain Dew commercial where he rapped the lyrics to “The Announcement” to a suspiciously enthusiastic crowd. A song where he promises “sugar coated candy lines for the dummies”. See, red sugar water gives him the energy and pep to be a god emcee! Who’s this ad intended for exactly? People who know him as labelmates with Jay-Z and Jada and Will Smith’s muppet faced demon spawn? He’s got no such potential for pop crossover as either. Early pop attempts like “I Feel Good” shows flashes of the brilliance he’d prove later but utterly fails as a radio song. The Mountain Dew ad only killed the mystique he’d spent years cultivating.
The internet helped Jay get attention, like mixtapes helped Saigon and Papoose, but buzz alone won’t guarantee you a release date. Labels always hope to channel underground buzz into commercial success but forget that not everyone can go pop; a talented freestyler or battle-rap champion can write 100 bars about your shoes on the spot but they can’t write a convincing love song with a gun to their head. It’s deeper than shiny suits or choruses sung by pop stars. Returning to Saigon, dude just wasn’t appealing enough to attract a mass audience, as the rap messiah position demands.
Sure, purists might have appreciated songs like “Say Yes” and “Letter P” (which pulls the same trick as “Alphabetical Slaughter”) but were they really expecting Saigon to sit comfortably with Pink and Katy Perry? Lupe Fiasco, another recent candidate for real rap’s saviour, made a semi-convincing bid for corrupting the mainstream with lyricism. He scored a genuine hit in the form of “Superstar”, a single off the borderline incomprehensible concept album The Cool. After years of delays, Lupe’s supposed artistic peak Lasers was passed over to the label who made him record a pop album which he vehemently disowned…only for Lasers to become a best seller.
Lupe presents a new phenomenon, an underground rapper made good who doesn’t want the crown. And it’s probably a good thing, as aughties hip hop is too fractured and sprawling to have a single rapper on top. Survey the landscape: Wayne’s out of jail and rapping better than he has in years. Tha Carter IV will probably be massive. Eminem is more viable as a pop musician than he was at his early 00s peak, but like Jay, who got the radio pass he was clamouring for on “99 Problems”, Em doesn’t need to rap like “Any Man” anymore. Like Jay doesn’t need to rap like he did on “D’Evils”. And hip hop doesn’t need a saviour because thanks to the internet, there’s enough room for everyone. You don’t need Jay Electronica or Saigon to be on the radio or TV for you to hear their music; look around and find a proliferation of freely available, thoughtful rap writing unbiased by notions of commercial/underground oppositions. The kingmakers are dead, long live the listener.