Highsnobiety

2015 is shaping up to be a banner year for hip-hop. With a multitude of artists and projects pushing creative boundaries without completely alienating the boom-bap sensibilities of yesteryear, there's certainly no discussion that the genre is losing any steam. Yet, "what" we talk about as it relates to hip-hop has changed over the years - and 2015 is certainly no different.

In Raymond Carver's 1981 story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the Yakima, Washington-born author penned a short story, "Mr Coffee and Mr Fixit" that touched on the notion of change, conflict, connection and acceptance. While these themes are universal, one could argue that they perfectly describe the contemporary state of hip-hop music in 2015. While the discussion of yesteryear focused on who could sell the most records, today's rap landscape is decidedly different than it was at the start of the new millennium when the music and merchandising alone made the genre a $10 billion dollar a year business. Greed and excess is definitely still a major part of the conversation, but it comes under a guise that registers less "bling bling" and more "dot com." If someone asked you about hip-hop music, what would you say?

We talk about rap as a secondary profession...

Some of the major artists that have made names for themselves in hip-hop took a looping arc to the stage. While everyone had to have some sort of career before entering the music business, those past lives are no longer completely abandoned in a musical context. Whereas classic albums from the mid '90s told rags-to-riches stories for the likes of Biggie and Jay Z thanks to their exploits selling narcotics, their contemporaries are equally willing to reveal stories of past lives and inspirations despite not necessarily having a "credibility" usually boasted about in the genre.

As it's widely know, Action Bronson studied at the Art Institute of New York City’s culinary program before working at several steakhouses, a vegetarian restaurant, and Citi Field - where he helped prepare post-game meals for the Mets - prior to launching his successful rap career. "My profession is a chef, I just happen to rap," he told Rolling Stone back in 2011.

Donald Glover is the rare emcee who could perhaps be better known for his government name than his on-stage moniker, Childish Gambino. This has more to do with his various achievements as an actor and writer than it does with his lack of success as a rapper (he was nominated for Best Rap Album and Best Rap Performance at the 2015 Grammys). His work as a writer on 30 Rock and as a major character on Community makes rap just a small portion of what Glover does as an overall artist.

Due to the ease at which seemingly anyone can proclaim themselves a "rapper," even those who were/are on the cusp of success still feel the need to have a backup plan. TDE's Isaiah Rashad said "the month I was getting signed, I was going to be an [electrician's] apprentice. I was always going to take rap serious, but I was like, 'prioritizing, I need to make some money right now.'"

We talk about moguls...

It simply isn't good enough to just be a rapper anymore. The real pinnacle of success is when music is used as a springboard to bigger and better opportunities. If hard-pressed to name the "biggest" rappers in the industry, I'd argue that a significant number of them are better at business than they are at making new music. Sure, Jay Z still puts out albums that people respect, but he and his peers - Dr. Dre, Diddy, Birdman and 50 Cent (who make up the wealthiest hip-hop artists as of 2014) - can point to things like TIDAL, the Beats/Apple deal, Revolt TV network, a stable of other artists, and SMS Audio and SK Energy beverages as their true endeavors. If it's almost impossible to sell a million records these days, they've been wise to understand that given their brand recognition, sell 50,000 albums and 950,000 units of something else.

We talk about surprise albums...

If there's still one bit of ingenuity up the sleeves of artists and labels, it's hitting the public with shock and awe tactics. While there used to be a tried-and-true formula for building anticipation for a project - single, music video, second single, repeat - the introduction of the "leak" into that equation was like giving people at the Macy's Thanksgiving parade a bunch of darts as party favors.

Since Beyoncé dropped her self-titled album in December 2013, surprising people with new material seems to be the go-to strategy for artists. Kendrick Lamar and Drake - arguably the two biggest names in hip-hop in 2015 - both opted for the strategy. While Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly was a long-rumored, sophomore followup that only came out a week early, Drake's pseudo mixtape/album that many thought were throwaway songs for another project still landed at number 1 on the Billboard charts by selling 495,000 albums in purely digital sales on iTunes.

While Kanye West has never been known to follow the crowd, a surprise release of So Help Me God would further solidify that out-of-the-blue albums are the new, cultural norm.

We talk about culture vultures...

African-American music has a long history of being appropriated by white performers. From The Rolling Stones tribute to Delta blues, to Elvis Presley and Jerry Lewis' pilfering of Chuck Berry's rock 'n' roll swing, their black counterparts had to wait for cultural acceptance before they could find greater successes of their own.

With hip-hop music, white appropriation is at a critical mass in 2015. The last two winners of Best Rap Album at the Grammys were Macklemore and Eminem. Eminem's win for The Marshall Mathers LP 2 felt more like a legacy victory than anything else because his success ensured that Iggy Azalea - perhaps the perfect embodiment for what hip-hop has become in 2015 - had a real shot at taking home the statuette despite charges that everything from her lyrics to her posterior were the byproduct of someone else's work.

When Macklemore was interviewed by the Ebro in the Morning show, he said "I saw a tweet, it was something along the lines of 'hip-hop was birthed out of the Civil Rights Movement.' This is a culture that came from pain, it came from oppression, it came from white oppression… you cannot disregard where this culture came from and our place in it as white people."

While Macklemore certainly has his detractors, Iggy Azalea sees vitriol like no other due to what many perceive to be a "blaccent" she has crafted as a rap artist. Consider a piece that Forbes ran in Spring 2014 under the title "Hip Hop is Run by a White, Blonde, Australian Woman." Amidst a barrage of criticism, editors actually retracted the title and changed it to something slightly less "soccer-mom proud" about Azalea. In just her short career, she has been nominated for 132 awards - ranging from the Grammys to the World Music Awards. What's particularly interesting is that she has only won 25 times. For me, this is the perfect indication that Iggy Azalea can't be ignored, but that people don't necessarily want her to be remembered either.

We talk about "blackness..."

Kenrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly has received universal acclaim by a multitude of critics - many of whom point to its "blackness" as a selling point. TIME said it was "an angst-filled anthem for blackness." Slate asked, "How should white listeners approach the 'overwhelming blackness' of Kendrick Lamar’s brilliant new album?" The New Yorker noted, "It’s rare, especially as we debate issues of authenticity and appropriation, for a popular artist to draw such a firm (and firmly political) line in the sand—to make art that imagines an 'unmitigated blackness,' art that rejects the possibility of a single, liberal 'we.'"

We talk about exclusivity...

Today's music industry isn't nearly as lawless as it was when Napster, Kazaa and other file sharing sites were allowing everyone with a dial-up modem to become an audio pillager. Given the ease at which a person can listen to artists and albums thanks to Pandora, Spotify and the newly announced TIDAL, their ability to serve up seemingly every single song with a simple click has put a major dent in piracy. Between 1999 and 2012, the record industry saw a steady decline in revenue. As of 2013, the industry finally rebounded 0.3% to $16.5 billion, according to a report by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. Digital sales lead the recovery with 9% growth to $5.6 billion. While this is a far cry from the $30 billion dollars a year the music business made in revenue in the '90s, it still shows that it's a viable money-making vertical.

With all the companies essentially fighting for the same consumers, it's come to a point where individual artists might tip the competitive balance. Listeners don't care about the social aspect of music, they just want what they want, and they want it right now. With Jay Z's TIDAL, he perhaps is one of only a handful of people who has the name and the famous friends to create a destination where only these artists can be streamed. Consider the fact that Beyonce, Rihanna, Kanye West, Jack White, Arcade Fire, Usher, Nicki Minaj, Coldplay, Alicia Keys, Calvin Harris, Daft Punk, deadmau5, Jason Aldean, J. Cole and Madonna all on board as stakeholders.

TIDAL isn't the usual runaway success that Jay Z is used to. It's the 50th most popular music app and doesn't even crack the top 700 overall - while his competitors like Pandora is at 7, Spotify is at 34, and Beats Music is at 50. Whether it was planned from the beginning, or a ploy they've been forced to break out of the toolbox early than they anticipated, DJ Skee announced that Jay Z and Beyoncé would will be releasing a TIDAL-exclusive, joint album. If "surprise albums" are the first piece of the puzzle, then consider where it is assembled as the other major factor.

We DON'T talk about the "you post, we post" mentality...

If there's one dirty little secret about music coverage, it's that a single c0sign from a major outlet has a major trickle-down effect on other publications/blogs. The notion of "liking" a person's music has little impact on editorial as long as other people are posting it as well. It's not so much banking on the traffic an artist will bring in as much as it is an indictment on the playground mentality that goes into crafting a star in the media. "More of the same" is what 2015 and beyond is all about.

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