I recently finished reading a great book called, Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday, for the second time. After my first time reading, I felt the book had the perfect message that I needed to carry into 2018. I know it’s important to be self-aware and realize how dangerous your ego can be when trying to build anything successfully. I have grand ambitions for Urban X in 2018, and it’s imperative that I do the best job possible of avoiding the pitfalls that my ego will lay for me along the way. Now with that said, while reading this book a second time I began to think about Hip-Hop’s relationship with ego, it’s an interesting one.
There is a fascinating dynamic within Hip-Hop, and that’s between an artist and their fans. Rappers, like any other art form, depend on their fan-base to buy (stream) their music for them to make a living. Rappers do their best cater to what their fans want to hear to ensure their albums will sell.
2017 was a big year for Hip-Hop, musically and culturally. There were many engaging debates about who were the new “top 5” rappers," if mumble rap has a place in Hip-Hop, and many of rap’s biggest stars put out great bodies of work. So what does ego have to do with any of this? Well, lately Hip-Hop seems to be a revolving door with new rapper after new rapper getting the culture excited with a smash single, then disappearing just as fast as they came on the scene. If you love the culture just as much as I do, then you’ll understand why this pattern can be disheartening. No one seems to be able to capture the longevity of a Jay-Z, Nas, or Lil Wayne. Yes, I know what you are thinking, the names I just mentioned are indeed anomalies, but it raises an interesting question, why are rappers unable to connect with listeners after a big hit?
We can EASILY point to skill level, and the fact that many of these so-called “rappers” are not real emcees to begin with, but I believe the problem is much more nuanced and solution much more straightforward, its ego. During my reading, I started to think about Rap’s braggadocios nature and how that may affect the way fans take to an artist at a specific time. Rappers of the early 00’s are a perfect example; they made it a point to tell (and show) their listeners how much money they had, and what they could spend it on in almost every verse. Then, maybe a few years later, that same artist would be in a much different position looking for support from fans to buy their music. Is it hard to blame a person not to want to support an artist who will take their money to only then give them an album full of songs about how broke they (the listeners) are? Not so much.
As rapper Jadakiss once said, “…the [music] industry is designed to keep the artist in debt.” You wouldn’t think this was true from looking at a rapper’s Instagram story because they make it their business to “floss” their diamonds, cars, and stacks of money. However, when a rapper gets signed to a major label, they are given advance money that they are expected to pay back to the label. Once that initial advance money is paid back, then a rapper will start to see the fruits of their labor and begin to make a profit. It is just like the book publishing industry. The problem is many treat this advance money as a regular check, and it is allocated to everywhere else but their music. They begin to stunt on the gram and talk down to many of the people who supported their come up. Once this happens, their next project may not be so well received because people, by nature, can be envious. If a person no longer feels important because you made them feel that way, then your music will be the last thing they are checking for. I’m not sure this behavior would not be a problem if the artist were a true emcee. I think fans are more accepting of an artist puts out great music consistently. This flaunting only becomes an issue when someone got lucky with one hit that dominated the radio for a summer, then acts like the fans are not the ones who propelled that success.
Again, rap is competitive by nature. Artists love to show how much more they have because they are subconsciously talking to their peers, people who are on the same level as them. The problem is that the message comes out in songs they release to us. Don’t get me wrong, an artist can be genuinely thankful for their fans and understands they are the reason behind their success. But the majority of the time it comes across like it is the opposite.
So where does ego fit here? A rapper’s ego is usually the small voice in their head telling them that they don’t need their fans and that their riches came solely from their own merit as if that makes any sense. Their ego doesn’t see the logic in keeping the fans happy, and in turn, their fans will keep them happy by purchasing music and attending shows. When the rapper begins to see the reality of how this game works it is often too late. Their label is asking for the money owed to them and they are then stuck in multi-album deals. When they are finally able to put out new music it doesn’t catch because the fans are just no longer interested.
It actually blows my mind when I see a rapper only two or three years removed from their last hit on a press run essentially begging for support when they were just tossing stacks of money in the club. Taking money management out of the conversation, I think many new artists should take a closer look at former stars and learn from their example of what NOT to do to maintain some form of longevity.
Malcom X. Bowser is a writer, curator, and founder of Urban X.