For a genre of music so focused on words, hip-hop seems to be lacking lyricism these days, focusing more on sound. Artists are continually leaning on hip-hop tropes to pad their bars. “Fuck bitches get money” has become a shorthand criticism of the genre that isn’t too far off the mark. This barrier is partially intentional, keeping the music away from audiences who may co-opt it. However, at this point, the lack of intelligent lyrics has become frustratingly noticeable.
The problem is that the role of the MC has changed completely. Once the internet changed the way people value content, the music itself was no longer profitable. Instead, music became part of a larger product; your brand. The brand consists of many aspects, however, for the purposes of this article we’ll distill it down to three primary facets – Persona, Image, and Sound.
Persona is the meat and potatoes of the brand. Your persona is essentially the amalgamation of everything that makes you unique, and thus allows people to define themselves through your brand. It’s what cements a fan’s loyalty to your brand once they’ve been taken in by your look and sound.
Understanding your Persona is key to keeping your brand holistic, as the persona informs your look and the sound of your music.
The image of an artist is what generates first impressions and promotes the brand. Usually, people are exposed to an artist’s sound first.
The look of an artist has always played a role. However, that role is somewhat unique in hip-hop these days. In addition to being attractive, an artist’s look shows their commitment to a lifestyle. Large visible tattoos, obscure piercings, and hair are all styled to the point of ridiculousness are all employed to demonstrate the artist’s commitment. The look of a rapper is the next thing one usually sees when exposed to an artist. Thus, a rapper’s look is also a big part of how they cut through the clutter.
An artist’s sound is only part of their brand. Image and persona are equally important, as these generate awareness and sell merchandise. The music is mainly an ad for the artist, and the sound is only part of the brand. Lyricism is in turn part of the sound. However, most listeners are content with a nice flow and a sick beat. This puts lyricism as but a small slice of pie an artist must concern themselves with if they want to be successful.
The sound is what hooks people; it’s what gets them to Google your name. This is where hooks and punchy lyrics become important. For an artist to gain some traction, they have to be able to cut through the clutter. The simpler, the better in most cases, which has led to hip-hop distilling itself down to a celebration of turn-up and party culture.
So lyrics have become a negligible filler. All it takes is the occasional punch line or clever imagery to keep people interested. Using these principals, I’ve created a five-step guide to becoming a successful hip-hop artist in this environment.
Step 1: Be interesting
If you look weird or have an exciting story, you can be a rapper. Up and comers such as Cardi B escaped poverty through stripping. 21 Savage has a cross tattooed on his forehead and has been part of multiple shootings. You can also take the Lil Yachty route and style your hair in such a crazy unique way people can’t help but take you seriously. Whatever it takes to show you’re committed to the lifestyle, do it.
Step 2: Create a brand
Now that you look weird and have an impressive backstory use that to build your brand. Your style will inform your sound down the line, so it’s key to define exactly who you are at this phase. What’s your goal? If it’s making a lot of money, start there. Look rich, act rich, feel rich. If it’s experiencing the highest high, then find the strongest weed you can and toke up. In many ways, you need to create a character then become them.
Step 3: Make connections
Making connections is probably the most crucial step, you can be the most committed person out there but if you don’t have an ‘in’ then you’re going to have a bad time. How easy it is to makes connections depends on how sociable you are. However, you can make up for awkwardness by being driven. Find out where the people who pull strings are and cozy up to them. Ask around. Climb ladders. Suck guys toes if you have to. Just do what you need to do to find a way “in”.
Step 4: Find producers/ your sound
This shouldn’t be too hard now that you found an ‘in’; nevertheless it is important. If you can work with producers who can provide you with sick beats for you to flow over, you’re golden. Keep your brand in mind when selecting beats. Someone like Danny Brown is going to pick very different beats from someone like Jay-Z; largely because their brands are at odds.
Step 5: Release a debut album
Now that you’ve laid down some easy going flows, it’s time to put it all together and release an album. I’d recommend having at least an EP to generate some baseline hype. However, this is optional. At this point plug the shit out of your album. Blast it on Instagram. Go on Hot Ones. Make appearances. Use the album as an excuse to get seen an promote your brand.
*note: none of those steps involves learning to rap
Now that you’re a part of the machine, just ride out your success. Keep the wheel turning; more albums means more promotions means more sales means more money. Just remember not to betray your brand, or you may compromise your core fans. Stay true to the brand and have fun being rich. You are welcome.