Music

Quality vs. Quantity in Hip-Hop

Less is more

Striking the balance between quality vs. quantity in hip-hop is difficult. Hip-hop artists are known for releasing music at a higher clip than other genres, it’s the nature of the art form. In the streaming era, quantity has become more important than quality music, and that’s a problem.

I get that every generation measures success differently. I know that new casual music fans will always conflate album sales with music quality. But it still fucking bothers me that the mainstream narrative is obsessively focused on sales numbers.

It’s gotten to the point where we are pre-judging albums based on their projected sales. Media personalities like DJ Akademiks have changed the narrative from “music is good if you enjoy it,” to “The quality of your music is based solely on how much people stream it”. If you’re saying, “who cares what Akademiks says?” I understand, but it matters. Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith helped usher in the era of garbage hot take culture. Personalities like Akademiks and Adam 22 have shifted hip-hop culture into a neverending thirst for clout.

The media is evolving and social media is an integral part of it now. Clicks and engagement pay the bills. I’m not hating on them for chasing the bag, but I don’t like how it’s warping the minds of the next generation of music fans. It worries me to see values shifting from the quality of music to wealth and output being the true measures of success.

Social media is a flood of “DROP THE ALBUM” or “YB BETTER” and “YOU FELL OFF” posts. Sometimes minutes after a new project is released. It drowns out valuable discourse between fans and turns everything into a clout war. People are now arguing over who is more famous instead of who is more talented.

Drake’s CERTIFIED LOVER BOY was bad. Objectively bad. Honestly, Nevermind was even worse. Soundtracks of a pampered man completely disconnected from reality. There was not a single compelling moment on either of those records and it didn’t matter because it’s Drake and he could sell 200K for recordings of his farts. My point is high streaming numbers do not a good album make.

If we used the same metric for TV shows, Law and Order: SVU would be the best show of the past 20 years. It’s always going to be #1 because it’s mindless entertainment for middle America. Would you call it the best TV show of the 2010s? Of all time? Of course not, that would be silly.

Fame and fortune are always going to be measures of success in hip-hop. But talent use to matter a lot more. How good were your metaphors? Wordplay? Flow? My issue isn’t that people take these things into account, it’s that fame and fortune have eclipsed talent as the only measures of success.

Take 6ix9ine for example. A shameless parasite who has never made a good song. Yet, if you judged him by album sales and social media engagement, he’d be considered one of the GOATs. Is 6ix9ine in your top 5 artists?

How does anybody enjoy this?

If you can make a career off of clout alone, why would you care if your music is good? There’s no incentive to uncover the truth in the world or the truth in yourself when you can chase clout and rake in the dough. Even TikTok stars are getting in on the action.

To be clear, music is a subjective art form. There are no wrong opinions. The value is what you get out of it, not what its intention was or how much it sold. If you love 6ix9ine’s music, if it speaks to you, who am I to tell you you’re wrong?

But just as Napster forever changed the music industry, social media has warped how we judge hip-hop and what we value as important. How did we get here?

Most Modern Music Journalism is Lazy, Vapid, and Toothless

Similar to the mainstream media, modern music journalism is focused on making everybody angry. It’s personality-driven, and the most influential voices are the laziest, most untalented group of content creators out there. The content is focused on who is beefing with who, industry gossip, fake loud podcast arguments, and being obsessed over streams and sales.

It’s a byproduct of how the industry has changed. Music gets minimal web traffic compared to Donald Trump or breaking news stories. Traditional music outlets have shifted their business model to cover different things. Complex is a hypebeast/pop culture magazine, MTV turned into a tween/teen sitcom factory, Rolling Stone is basically HuffPost, and Pitchfork only gets press when they trash an album that a lot of people like. Pitchfork used to be the example of what not to do when it came to music journalism. Now they’re one of the only outlets adding to the discussion.

I’m not saying music journalism is dead. There are still plenty of people doing great work out there like Anthony Fantano, Jeff Weiss, Ann Powers, Jon Parales, or Craig Bro Dude. There is a solid subculture of opinionated fans on Twitter who believe that sparking a debate and having a strong opinion is more important than reporting sales numbers or stirring up beef.

There is an abundance of engaging, interesting content that suits my needs. A lot more than there was when I was growing up. I don’t think that the loudest voices are the only voices. The problem is that they’re being drowned out by the critics who are gaming the system.

And those loud voices matter. They are the ones who will influence the next generation of music fans. They are built on clicks and nothing gets more clicks than pointless social media beef and album sales. Attention is all that matters. They don’t have opinions, they only do what will get them the most clout.

I worry that nuanced music journalism will disappear and get replaced by these opportunists. Music “critics” whose opinions are at the whims of whoever is paying them. We should be holding these artists accountable for putting out trash or giving half-assed performances. Nowadays, if you sell enough records (Drake, NBA Youngboy) you are immune to criticism.

Quantity Over Quality and our Neverending Desire for More

In a 2019 interview with XXL, Dr. Dre spoke on the issue of quality vs. quantity. “Right now, I have to really, really search hard to find something I like, as far as hip-hop goes,” Dre said. “I think it’s just about the substance. Now it feels like it’s a little more quantity over quality. ‘Made a song last night, I need to put it out tomorrow.'”

“What are you gonna dedicate yourself to, the art or the money? You know, it’s that simple,” he added.

As album sales are replaced by streams, quantity has become more profitable than quality. Artists don’t earn money from album sales anymore, it all comes from merch and touring. They need to stay relevant more than they need to put out good music.

Combine this with the fans’ increasingly unquenchable thirst for new music, and hip-hop has become more watered down than ever. It’s nobody’s fault in particular. The internet made things easier to post and see and increased the thirst for new music exponentially. We need more content because we’ve been conditioned to expect it. It’s the same reason Jeff Bezos hasn’t retired, it’s never enough. Once you get more you want more.

Gone are the days of major label releases and massive marketing budgets. The record company gatekeepers still hold all the money but only a sliver of the power they once did. Lil B, Kid Cudi, and Mac Miller paved the way in the early 2010s. They started the direct-to-consumer model by sidestepping record labels and releasing free mixtapes that showcased their talents. In the age of social media and websites like Soundcloud and Datpiff, you didn’t need millions of marketing dollars. Just talent and a broadband connection. It got so popular that industry vets like Gucci Mane and Lil Wayne started doing it.

These artists passed the torch to the Soundcloud era, and rappers like NBA Youngboy, Chance the Rapper, Lil Uzi Vert, Trippie Redd, and Lil Pump expanded the era of internet independence. They could churn out hit after hit on Soundcloud, free from the ties of the record label.

The needle has moved too far in the quantity direction. There has been a noticeable dip in quality with mixtapes and major label releases as of late Songs are half-finished and unpolished, and many tracks that would normally be left on the cutting room floor are now included in a “deluxe” version to maximize streams.

As Dre said, do you value art or money? The younger generation of rappers has clearly chosen money. There have always been opportunists in music (ask Limp Bizkit), my fear is that the new wave will become the norm, and music quality will cease to matter.

But I’m probably thinking about it too much. There are plenty of artists who straddle the line, and some that do both quality and quantity extremely well.

Everybody is on the Spectrum

This is the new era of hip-hop, whether we like it or not. For every 6ix9ine bastardizing the art for a quick profit, there is a Benny the Butcher who shows that maybe this new model isn’t such a bad thing. You can have both quality AND quantity.

There are countless ways to approach your music career and what you deem as “good enough” to release. As long as it’s authentic to who you are, the fans will embrace you.

The world of music is a confusing place, I understand trying to find some metric to the madness. We should judge artists based on innovation, doing something new, being vulnerable, tapping into our raw emotions, or making a focused, powerful body of work. I don’t give a fuck what an album sold, how did it make you feel? Did it change your perspective? Did it challenge your beliefs? Did it make you cry? That’s what matters.

I implore everybody to stop using album sales as an argument. Stop being surface-level when it comes to evaluating a piece of art. And for artists, take your time with projects. Tyler, the Creator puts out an album every 2 years because he has to actually live life in order to rap/sing about it. When I hear about a rapper “spending 24/7 in the studio” I know the album is going to be trash. What the fuck are you rapping about? The artwork in the studio? Who the fuck cares?

If it sounds like I’m hating, I definitely am. Music is something I love and to see new fans trending in the wrong direction is disheartening. I’m bitter because I was hoping when album sales didn’t matter anymore, all that would matter was quality yet the exact opposite happened.

The discourse in nerdy music circles will stay the same, the NBA Youngboy and BTS fans will still be louder than anybody else on social media, and the world will keep turning for as long as global warming allows. I’m not enough of a pessimist to say WE’RE ALL FUCKED like every generation before me. I’m imploring the next generation to be better.

Be loud about your music preferences but stop adding on nonsense like album sales or tour numbers to make a point. There’s 1 DJ Akademiks and he’s shitty enough. We don’t need more disciples like him. Just like the music industry, we need quality content, not the rapper version of Buzzfeed.

Ignore the charts, like what you like, and argue (respectfully) with people who think differently. Listen to an album 4-5 times before having an opinion. Let it fucking breathe a little bit before judging it. Have a little patience for the love of God. And if it’s clear that your favorite artist hasn’t put in the time or effort on their latest release or has nothing to say, be honest! Don’t jump on social media and do mental gymnastics to call a shitty, boring album a classic.

And above all else, remember that album sales do not matter. The value of music is how it affects you, not how rich it makes the record companies.

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