Hip Pop America: A Look At Artistic Growth Versus Crossing Over



In a culture where being stagnant can be a career killer, it’s often difficult to draw the line between artistic growth and selling out.

“And some might say that it’s a waste of time / Cause ain’t no amount of dancing finna break the bondage / We go to war and transcend space and time / When every record ain’t a record just to shake behinds…” –Black Thought, “Guns Are Drawn” by The Roots.

One thing I’ve learned from Hip Hop over the years, mainly as a fan and observer, is that there almost always seems to be some kind of double standard at play.

If you’re an artist that starts out by catering to a specific demographic, but you’re blessed enough to gain success at a higher mainstream level there are times when you run the risk of being labeled a “sellout.” Consequently, if you follow an artist as a fan for an extended period of time but find yourself not feeling that artist’s music as much as time passes because it’s not what you originally fell in love with, you might be deemed a “hater.” So no matter what side of the fence you’re on, there are times when it seems you can’t win for losing.

In case you’ve been confined under a rock in a pit for the last ten-plus years, you know that Hip Hop has become pretty popular in the mainstream since the dawn of the millennium. According to Billboardmagazine, ten of the Top 50 best selling albums for the decade are of the Hip Hop genre. Both Drake and Lil Wayne hold Top 10 spots on Billboard’s top-selling albums in 2011 with Take Care and Tha Carter IV, respectively. People magazine recently named Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as the top album of the last decade.

But with all of the success that some of the biggest names in Hip Hop have had, there’s no doubt some folks have labeled today’s music as “watered-down,” “soft,” and the ever-present “Hip Pop.” When these terms arise, battle lines are drawn between those that want their favorite artists to stay in their original lane, and those that could care less and just wanna dance.

Therefore, what’s behind this idea of “crossing over,” “going pop,” or—being a bit more venomous—“selling out” in Hip Hop? Is this still a fair assessment to make of artists in an age where they’re encouraged to be more entrepreneurial? How do we distinguish between an artist that genuinely wants to push the proverbial Hip Hop envelope, and the artist that’s just bending to the will of corporate mainstream interests in the name of the almighty dollar? Truthfully, I have no effing idea on any of those counts. Because it’s a pretty fine line going up an extremely slippery slope that’s dripping with subjectivity. But album sales, chart positions and the words of the artists themselves are always a good starting point.

Cee-Lo Green And The Case For Being Ecclectic

I think Cee-Lo Green makes for an interesting study in artistic growth versus crossing over because he started out as one-fourth of Atlanta’s Goodie Mob and part of the Dirty South Hip Hop collective Dungeon Family. But the self-proclaimed “Lady Killer” has also been heavily influenced by socially conscious Southern lyricism, Gospel, Funk, stadium status Rock, Soul, Motown-style R&B, and Electronica, while seamlessly moving from one genre to the next without skipping a beat.

All the while he’s had amazing crossover success and created music with an impressive catalog of top-notch collaborators from all walks of music, like Lauryn Hill, Danger Mouse, Melanie Fiona, Carlos Santana, Pharrell, Paul Oakenfold and Bruno Mars. Does that mean Cee-Lo has just successfully diversified himself and done an astounding job remaining relevant, or should we categorize him as an artist that’s sold his soul so that he can be well-received by little, old ladies and suburban middle school kids the world over?

Personally, I’d go with the former. If you look at his career, Cee-Lo was already singing harmonies and melodies on Goodie Mob’s 1995 debut Soul Food (check the songs “Free,” “Cell Therapy,” “Sesame Street,” and “Soul Food”). And his solo debut, Cee-Lo Green And His Perfect Imperfections, was just about as far left field from Hip Hop and pop music as you can get in terms of musical experimentation (watch the “Closet Freak” video). Admittedly it suffered from the dreaded “critically acclaimed but poor selling” syndrome. And the follow-ups, Cee-Lo Green…Is the Soul Machine and The Lady Killer, can be counted as two more musical curve balls in his catalog that didn’t duplicate or complement one another in the least.

Some of the moves Cee-Lo’s non-Hip Hop moves have made him a household name. But decisions like being a judge on NBC’s “The Voice,” and writing “Don’t Cha” for the Pussycat Dolls happened after he had already paid dues in Hip Hop and tested the waters with wide-ranging styles and unorthodox material. Additionally, the 2006 Pop success of Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere resulted in 1 million albums sold domestically with another 1 million sales of the single “Crazy.” But the follow up, The Odd Couple, was a complete creative departure, had no markings of trying to re-create St. Elsewhere or the smash single “Crazy”, and didn’t come close to the numbers of its predecessor, selling only about 500,000 in the US at the time. Verdict: Cee-Lo merely broadened his catalog. No sellout-isms there.

Andre 3000’s Creatively Comercial Leap

In 2003, Andre 3000 also took a creative leap with his half of Outkast’s Grammy-winning, diamond-selling opus, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Keeping in step with the rest of The Love Below in terms of offering listeners barely a trace of any rhymes, “Hey Ya!” still became one of the Atlanta duo’s biggest hits. Are we inclined to say that “Three Stacks” turned his back on his Southern-fried Hip Hop roots for just a moment in time to appeal to the masses, or was he simply trying something new?

I’m more along the lines to think that 3000 made TLB for creativity’s sake. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below sounded unlike anything else out at the time, with samples of John Coltrane, Patti LaBelle, Aaliyah and Geto Boys. And though the Speakerboxxx side was where Big Boi shouldered the burden of holding up ‘Kast’s bass-heavy, soulful past albums, The Love Below sounded almost nothing like what the duo had already created, as evidenced by reviews of the album way back in ’03, calling it “eccentric”, “all about disorder”, “confusing, bemusing and exciting all at the same time” (straight from reviews in Rolling Stone and BBC Music). To a greater extent, the following quote from Antonio “L.A.” Reid on Andre’s lead single sums it all up:

“More than anybody, I hope Prince reads this,” Reid explained. “I had a conversation with Prince and he said, ‘There is no way you could’ve picked ‘Hey Ya!’ as a single–no way you could’ve known that was a hit. It was so against the grain in terms of what’s happening on radio.”

Ironically, “Hey Ya!” was the most radio-friendly song on 3000’s offering. But it just seemed to be about taking a creative risk. TLB crossed various musical and cultural boundaries. Plus, the whole of Outkast’s catalog at that point was already oozing with Hip Hop that had wide-ranging influences. And even when the group began selling more records with Aquemini (2 million copies sold) and Stankonia(3 million copies sold), they seemed to be making music that didn’t fit into a standard formula.

With all of the success and accolades that Speakerboxxx/The Love Below received, ‘Kast went in a completely different direction with their follow-up, Idlewild. The album/soundtrack barely made a blip on the Pop radar screen, selling only 1 million copies. To top it off, Andre eventually found his way back to his original Hip Hop lane, with a ton of lyrically impeccable guest appearances (UGK’s “International Player’s Anthem”, DJ Unk’s “Walk It Out” Remix, Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s” Remix, Devin the Dude’s “What A Job”, John Legend’s “Green Light”, Young Jeezy’s “I Do”, and this year with Gorillaz on “DoYaThing”). Verdict: Andre 3000 gets a pass for the unconventional but stellar accidental mainstream music monster, The Love Below.

The Reinvention Of The Black Eyed Peas

More than a few artists have turned a Hip Hop foundation and pretty humble beginnings into gargantuan worldwide success. The best example in the last few years seems to be the Black Eyed Peas. On a national level, will.i.am, Taboo and apl.de.ap started out as a trio of alternative California emcees with a curious sound and devoted following. Their first two albums, 1998’s Behind the Frontand 2000’s Bridging The Gap, sold modestly and did their intended job in carving out an alternative Hip Hop niche for the threesome.

Then, along came 2003, and the Peas sprinkled some Fergaliciousness into the mix. They crafted the sugary-sweet yet socially aware “Where Is The Love,”—a song obviously destined for heavy rotation on MTV and even some easy listening stations. Their third major label album, Elephunk, eventually went triple platinum, and we saw the beginnings of the quintessential Hip Pop super group that would go on to dominate mainstream music for years to come.

BEP also began incorporating more dance music into their signature sound. While its predecessorMonkey Business was technically the Peas’ biggest selling album, 2009’s The E.N.D., saw a focus on a nearly endless stream of iTunes ready singles such as “Boom Boom Pow,” “I’mma Be” and “I Gotta Feeling.” Many of their original fans have probably deemed them as having “sold out.” But who truly gets to determine whether they have or haven’t? It’s hard to say. The Peas probably present the most difficult example of just crossing over and adding more experimentation to their music, versus a blatant ploy to get more mainstream attention and sales.

I’d have to side with those original fans. It’s one thing to want to do something different with your music, and that’s totally fine. But in terms of BEP, all the evidence is there: more of a focus on slick, polished production as opposed to lyrics? Check. Plopping a singer into your group that had basically no background whatsoever in Hip Hop or even mainstream Rap? Check. Music sales rapidly increasing with each successive album after both of these factors took effect? You get the idea.

And when you start out creating Hip Hop that caters more to indie coffee houses featuring the likes of Mos Def, Les Nubians and De La Soul one year, and the next you’ve got Fergie as a permanent member and Justin Timberlake on your lead single, what do you really expect your fans to think?Verdict: The Peas went Pop on Hip Hop. Successfully? Yup, but it was still a sellout-ish crossover, nonetheless.

A Concession For Commercialism

I think in all of these cases, it’s an easy criticism to say that each artist took the road of the “sellout,” steered away from their Hip Hop foundations, and found mainstream success and acceptance waiting around the corner after years of grinding in the world of Rap.

But even if that’s where your train of thought takes you, let’s just ponder for a moment if Cee-Lo and 3000 had remained strictly spitters from the ATL, or if BEP had continued to be underground champs on the L.A. Alternative Rap scene. More than likely, many of us would probably be criticizing them for being stuck in their ways and not taking chances musically, all the while snickering devilishly under our breath about how the game has passed them by. Or maybe we wouldn’t be talking about them at all. It’s an interesting Catch-22 in Hip Hop.

Then again, is it always fair for fans to pin such accusations on artists? Maybe not. After all, Hip Hop’s beginnings are rooted in the sampling of electronic-centered music and youth just wanting to get together and have a good time, most famously with Afrika Baambaataa and the Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock”, which is a direct descendant of German electronic music group Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express” from 1977.

The Backlash Against Barbie

As of late, current mainstream queen Nicki Minaj seems to be feeling the sting of “sellout” backlash. Though her latest single, the techno-driven “Starships,” caused a negative uproar from her fans that dismissed the song as a move towards the middle of the road, Nicki defended creating music with more of a crossover appeal by saying that she already had the intention of releasing a song that had an “urban” feel after “Starships” in a recent interview with Funkmaster Flex.

“I think people sometimes get blown away by the magnitude of the Pop stuff,” she said. “It reaches everywhere, and then I feel like my Hip Hop fans or Hip Hop culture starts getting a little bit afraid…[but] I’m just adding on to my brand. And if you don’t understand that, then it’s probably why you don’t travel and you don’t see the world and I probably can’t even have a conversation with you anymore.”

True, Nicki’s had massive success, having broken a record by simultaneously placing seven songs inBillboard’s “Hot 100” chart without having an album out upon her arrival. Additionally she earned a certified platinum plaque with her Pink Friday debut by moving 1.7 million copies as of this past February. She was also placed on last years’ Forbes magazine list at No. 15 for “Top Hip Hop Earners,” raking in $6.5 million. I personally congratulate her for it.  And yes, she’s even hella lyrical when she wants to be (I don’t care what anyone says; she killed that verse on “Monster”).

But the current proceedings have me less than convinced that Ms. Minaj is just being musically experimental, as opposed to going mainstream. Just take a look at Nicki back in, say, 2008, up against Nicki now. Pre-YMCMB Nicki was NYC to the fullest, Biggie-influenced, and going at the necks of male and female emcees alike on her mixtapes with no regard. Post-YMCMB Nicki makes multiple appearances on “Ellen,” has production from RedOne of Lady Gaga fame, and has been called by her YMCMB brethren, essentially, a Pop singer that just so happens to rap. Even though it’s quite clear by some early YouTube footage that that’s not how she was looking to be received. Verdict: This writer’s inclined to slap the “You’ve Gone Pop” label on the Harajuku Barbie.

On the other hand, outspoken emcee Killer Mike was quoted in Respect magazine as saying, “Hip Hop today is not very black, not very masculine.” Of course, I won’t try to speak for “Killa Kill from the ‘Ville.” But he may very well have been alluding to a lot of what is mentioned here: music that, while creating an “everybody’s welcome” party anthem atmosphere, may not always challenge the listener’s sensibilities and values. Then again, this is the music “business,” so we can’t expect a stirring dissertation from our Hip Hop all of the time. Sometimes people just wanna dance.

Although a case can be made for Minaj and Mike both having valid points in their arguments, it’s also important to take into account that we’re essentially talking about these artists’ careers. After all, anyone doing any job would want to get compensated properly for their craft and their skills.

So even if it is at the expense of “staying true” to the fans that rode with an artist in the beginning, should we as fans view artists as people that have bills to pay and obligations to uphold like the rest of us? By the same token, are both artists and fans alike always privy to there coming a time when putting the money first has the potential be a detriment to artistry? Once you take the Pop plunge, is there really never any coming back?

A Mainstream Fork in the Road To Success

So where do we stand ultimately? Are we to commend these and other artists for taking calculated risks with their music, or do we brush them off for having side stepped Hip Hop for greener pop pastures? I’ve made my opinion known, but the answer will be different for any and everyone that counts him or herself as a fan of Hip Hop music.

And that’s just it: there are no cut-and-dry answers, which may be due to the often fickle and chastising nature of the Hip Hop fan. Or it may be due to the way Hip Hop musicians are usually presented with a “this or that” decision when it comes to their careers. If and when they blow up there seem to be two choices: either fall in line and make the music more universally appealing, or stay stuck where you are wondering what could have been. But hell, if there were easy answers, we as Hip Hop heads probably wouldn’t be so passionate about the subject in the first place.

Let the debate rage on…

Ron Grant is a freelance writer originally from Detroit and currently residing in Orlando. He is a senior contributor to BrooklynBodega.com and runs two independent music blogs. Follow him on Twitter @RonGreezy.