Can an Artist Un-Sellout?

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by Brian Capitao

Snoop Dogg sitting at a mirrored table

Snoop Dogg was recently in the news for his politically charged video, Lavender, that featured an effigy of Donald Trump dressed in clown makeup, and drew the ire of the sitting president. After achieving his fame and success, he’s taking aim at the establishment. After having his own porn channel and playing Huggy Bear in Starsky and Hutch – the man has become a pointed critic.

As an article by Big Think points out, Snoop has become a burgeoning voice in the political discussion over the last few years. And perhaps, it started when he vocalized support for the stay of execution for former Crip gang leader, Tookie Williams. Maybe, it was that failure, that made him want to fully engage in activism.

Growing up in Toronto, far removed from the disparate realities of Compton I was enthralled with Snoop’s magnetism. Gin and Juice was the video that got me into rap. And so, Snoop has always been a fascinating character to me.

Snoop Dogg embodied simultaneously what an artist could do with great success but also at the time, what I perceived to be the lack of integrity that came with it. He became a caricature of himself. It was crass. A pimp who was whoring himself out for money. But the more I learned about Snoop Dogg – the more I came to have a begrudging respect for him.

I came to have expectations. That one day, Snoop would tire of his pimp schtick and return to pushing out verses so hard; so gangster; they had their own G-force. That he would again make an impact. And the surprising thing – is that he did. He renewed interest.

He UNSOLD out. He proved to me that he still had the same artistic integrity from where  he started; by putting out projects like Rhythm and Gangsta and Tha Blue Carpet Treatment. That was a revelation to me.

After having several commercial projects and notably being signed to No Limit Records; post-Deathrow, Snoop has maintained a public persona that was built on being cheeky and playful. Arguably, he would not have achieved the altitude of success he’s received if he had not deftly crafted a persona to carve out a lane for himself.

An artist like Snoop knows when they put out rehashed and tired songs like Gin and Juice II or  Still a G Thang; that by revisiting familiar material, they are capitalizing on an existing fanbase who are hoping their favorite artist will recreate the magic of the original song. Da Game is to be Sold, Not Told is a blatant attempt at him being an opportunist.

So where is the line? What can artist get away with and what is irredeemable? I think there has been a time when Snoop has let money get in the way of music. Now, this may have been due to legal issues in the past but my point is we don’t hold it against him.

Can an artist successfully sellout, and by that I mean, let the money overtake the artistic integrity over a period of time of their careers and then return with critical acclaim unscathed? Ludacris in the early 2000s was one of the most notable rappers of the aughts but he clearly sold out after cutting his braids and did a hit song with a teenage Justin Bieber. Can he somehow command enough respect to make a comeback?

It seems doubtful. Is that because of the initial reverence we had for an artist like Snoop Dogg supersedes any perceived slight we have as fans or is it because we feel that artists like Ludacris don’t care enough about their images and are therefore reviled?

In Summary

I am of the opinion that artists face a decision. They cannot have both commercial and artistic success without sacrificing one for the other. Rarely, there are exceptions.  Jay-Z most notably achieved commercial and critical acclaim in the rap stratosphere, however he’ll be the first to tell you that he sold out with line like these:

I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars
They criticized me for it, yet they all yell “holla”

If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did 5 mill’ – I ain’t been rhyming like Common since

– Jay-Z on Moment of Clarity

It seems as if it’s a zero-sum game. We can’t fault artists who have been in the spotlight for wanting to achieve commercial success. All we can hope for is that they retain some sense of self-respect and hopefully ours in the process.

 

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