The music industry can be taxing on one’s confidence. As much fun as it is, it can be turbulent to navigate, and it will often take a toll on your ego. Gaslighting, manipulating, and lying are not foreign to the business. It can be ruthless, and people will say what they need to say to get what they want. And when money is involved, it’s a whole different ballgame. Now, I’ve never been very good at asking for money, but after realizing that I do have valuable knowledge and experience in an industry that I’m passionate about, I still tend to get treated like an intern. People treat services in this industry very differently than a lot of industries. Jobs are often thought of as favors. But at some point, you deserve to get paid for the work that you do. Unfortunately, I’ve had numerous discussions like this, but they end up with the other person downplaying and even insulting my skillset, making it known just how replaceable and unimportant I am. It’s something we see at every level in the music business; as soon as you ask for something in return, all pleasantries are out the door. The skills that people were hoping to utilize are all of a sudden unnecessary, and essentially, you ain’t shit. Artists see it too when they start taking their demands to level executives. Out of nowhere, the same people who labeled them geniuses have named five others who could take their place. Thankfully, I’ve always taken pride in my resilience. I know that there are hundreds of thousands of others doing what I’m doing and more. But there’s only one me, and that’s valuable as hell.
In my opinion, hip-hop has its own hierarchy, one that symbolizes the elitism in the industry. You have the hip-hop moguls, the radio-stars, the “thugs” with the street-credit, and definitely the underdogs. But no matter how those artists are ranked now, they’ve faced criticism to get to where they are. Some have a traditional ‘come-up’ story. The artists who have the ‘started from the bottom now we here’ kinda story. Others have had to familiarize themselves with being told no, facing rejection due to their individuality and risk-taking. Sometimes, those artists don’t receive the fame they deserve, instead overshadowed by more glamorous artists with basic production and big-name collaborations. And then, there are the artists who simply don’t care for the dollar signs. Instead, they prioritize their mentors and the culture, caring more about the respect of the game than the flashy cars. Unfortunately, a lot of this industry is a numbers game, focusing on different factors that don’t represent a rapper’s ability. As a result, it’s difficult to classify what makes a successful artist. When ideals differ, how do you judge when an artist has reached their peak? This post outlines artists who rap about making it in the industry, no matter how they define it. Some have faced adversities, and others have felt underappreciated by the business. But they’ve all had a sweet taste of success.
One of the most iconic hooks about being undermined is off of 50 Cent’s 2005 track, “Hate It Or Love It.” In the song, he includes the lines, “hate it or love it, the underdog’s on top, and I’m gon’ shine homie until my heart stops. Go ‘head envy me, I’m rap’s MVP, and I ain’t goin’ nowhere, so you can get to know me.” The beat to this song is uplifting and feel-good, and the catchy rhythm of 50’s flow really reminds you why he was so hot around the 2000s. Despite his persona today, the hook didn’t come across as cocky, but instead rightfully confident, especially concerning his humble beginnings, which he lays out in the verses. Ice Cube’s “True To The Game” takes on a less feel-good approach. Cube takes shots at everyone who switched up once they got a bit of fame, a story told time and time again. In the track, he encourages rappers that he believes sold out to “give something back to the place where you made it from” while also persuading rappers to “be true to the game.” It’s so important to remember your roots, especially if you’ve built your career upon a particular hustle or struggle. Especially with current hip-hop, (and I know from growing up in the city that led to artists like Shy Glizzy, Logic, and Wale), authenticity is extremely imperative. To rap about a life that you don’t know is like profiting off of someone else’s struggle, and it gets exposed very quickly. Dr. Dre also raps about the importance of staying true to who you are in “Still D.R.E.” In the song, Dre and Snoop Dogg fight against the criticism that they’ve changed, arguing that they’re “representing for them gangstas all across the world, still hitting them corners in the low-lows/still taking [their] time to perfect the beat, and [they’ve] still got love for the streets.” They that no matter what level of success they reaches, their quality of music will never diminish and they’ll never stop repping the life they used to live.
In a classic story of from nothing to something, Outkast’s “Elevator’s (Me & You)” maps out a pretty accurate road for their journey. They rap about how they started off “doing the hole-in-the-wall clubs,” where they’d “[make] the crowds move but [weren’t] making no G’s,” only to later become one of the greatest hip-hop duos. Even nowadays, we see it with streaming artists who can get hundreds of thousands of streams but aren’t seeing the payback in the checks. Unfortunately, it takes a certain level of impact to see a huge payout from streaming revenue, and even if you have a large number in your crowds or streams until you have a certain sphere of influence, it doesn’t really matter. On a very similar note, KRS-One tells the story of his uphill battle with becoming a famous pillar of hip-hop in his track, “Outta Here.” He talks about how he struggled in the foster care system but used that to fuel his love for rapping and hip-hop, truly starting from the ground up. With lots of practice and the right ties in his community, he made a name for himself, building up respect and credibility as he “was takin’ suckas out in the shelter system,” preparing him for the big league.
Maino created an inspiring anthem in “All The Above”, as he and T-Pain talk about “[coming] up from nothin, to [them] living [their] dreams. [They’ve] done been to the bottom, [they] done suffered a lot, [they] deserve to be rich, headed straight to the top.” They emphasize the difficulty of their journey, showing that because of their focus and dedication, they deserve the fame and praise. Kanye West is another artist who had an unsteady path to fame. He didn’t receive the proper recognition for quite sometime, and despite my disagreements with a lot of his sentiments, he is a groundbreaking artist. He proves that in “Last Call,” as he asks, “now was Kanye the most overlooked? Now is Kanye the most overbooked?” He lists his credits as some of hip-hop’s most important names, including Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Jay-Z, and Bun B, reminding listeners of the artists who recognize his talent, even if they don’t. Schoolboy Q takes a more aggressive approach to his fame in Mike WiLL Made-It’s “Kill ‘Em With Success.” He acknowledges that the Range, the Lambo, and the “big deposits” “wasn’t there when [he] was workin’ for it.” It not only shows that hard work pays off but also demonstrates that sometimes it’s the pure love for the culture that motivates you to keep going. A lot of artists don’t ever end up seeing these outcomes, but even then they don’t lose hope and keep pushing. In his song, “Fireworks,” Drake gives a nod of recognition to Lil Wayne, recognizing that “Wayne put [him] right here, that’s who [he] got the paper with.” To get co-signed by a heavily respected artist is extremely important in this industry, but it’s important to also never take that for granted. It exemplifies how much easier the music industry can be as a collaborative effort, rather than trying to compete with everyone around you.
Not every artist had an easy climb to success. A lot of artists had to be told ‘no’ numerous times just to make it to where they are today. Look at Eminem, for instance. “Lose Yourself” is the story of the fight to the top, showing an artist going from his lowest of lows to his highest of highs, but not without struggling. His time on stage symbolizes his journey; at first, no one could take him seriously. He was getting laughed at and ridiculed as he struggled to find the courage and confidence to demonstrate his skill. But as soon as he found his voice, everyone was taken back. He reminisces on how he “was playin’ in the beginnin’, the mood all changed, [he had] been chewed up and spit out and booed off the stage, but [he] kept rappin and stepped right in the next cypher.” He successfully channeled his anger into his rhymes, using his criticism and struggle to show why he should be taken seriously. Biz Markie uses “Vapors” to not only tell his story about trying to make it as a rapper, but the stories of TJ Swan, Big Daddy Kane, and Cutmaster Cool V as well, showing the different ways in which they all faced rejection, whether from women, jobs, or people around their neighborhoods. He talked about how defeated they felt until they all became famous. Once they received recognition, all of those same people came back around, finally trying to give them a chance that they no longer needed. Similarly, in “The Waters,” Anderson .Paak talks about how his music was slept on for numerous reasons, including for being “too hippy.” And yet, it’s that same innovation that gave him the means he later discusses to provide for his family, with the Free Nationals riding alongside the whole way. “Let Nas Down” was J Cole’s heartbreaking apology to one of his idols, Nas, who didn’t like one of his projects. In the track, he expresses his “apologies to OG’s for sacrificing [his] art, but [he’s] here for a greater purpose. [He] knew right from the start, [he’s] just a man of the people, not above but equal.” In a humbling experience, he confesses that he went beyond his purpose as an artist, talking about a life that he didn’t know. It pushed him to go back to his roots, and even received a response from Nas, putting him on the remix. In my opinion, that right there is the ultimate come up. It’s funny though because it took Nas a while to be taken seriously as well. In “Surviving The Times,” he talks about how little he was offered in his deals. He even paints how ridiculous the concept is when he asks, “could you picture Russel needing a check?” Even artists as popular as Biggie remembered how little people believed in him. In one of his most famous songs, “Juicy,” he recounts how people in his everyday life from teachers to police officers failed to see potential in him, thinking he’d “never amount to nothin’.”
Sometimes though, these artists don’t necessarily want the recognition. For instance, in Rick Ross’s “Ghostwriter,” he thinks back to how he would “write a rapper’s song then go buy a home,” showing that his words were valuable, even if he wasn’t the one to share them. In earning respect from others because of his talent, he could charge them obscene amounts of money, contributing to his luxurious lifestyle. And yet, despite all of his accomplishments, he continues on to exclaim how “it gets so lonely at the top,” showing that maybe money really can’t buy you everything. Furthermore, in Jadakiss’s “Grind,” he motivates young artists to keep working hard while providing them with the advice that one should value “money and respect over fame and publicity.” Sometimes it’s smarter to look to less sexy ways of becoming a successful artist, such as investing in yourself rather than wasting it away on material goods; the popularity will fade eventually but the respect will be everlasting. Contrastingly, in “Hard To Choose,” Rapsody recognizes that it can be difficult to “choose culture over fame,” but then proceeds to list why she still makes it her top priority. From refusing to sell out to make mainstream rap that appeals to white kids to refusing to slow down her raps to make them easier to comprehend, she demonstrates just why she’s “still that rapper that your favorite rapper’s scared to rap after,” putting the respect and opinions from her mentors before mainstream fame and popularity.
I think another interesting concept coming from a woman’s point of view is this idea of women having to serve the ‘ride or die’ stereotype, as we see in instances such as in Pvrx and Dave East’s “Is U Down” or 50 Cent’s “21 Questions.” In “Is U Down,” we see the question “is you down for the come-up? ‘Cause you know you ‘gon be around when my funds up,” being thrown around. He talks about how, at first, the girl doesn’t want to do things such as pay his bond and pick him up from jail. But why is that her role to play? If my man does some stupid shit and catches a case (obviously circumstantial), then I don’t think I should be expected to wait around or pay for his mistakes. Even in 50 Cent’s “21 Questions,” he asks if “[she’d] love [him] when [he] was down and out,” bringing up situations like “if [he] got locked up and sentenced to a quarter-century, could [he] count on you to be there to support [him] mentally?” Uh, well I can’t promise you that.. Granted this may not be the strongest example because despite my love for this song, if someone else saw you with another girl and you thought you could gaslight me into believing they were lying, we’re gonna have issues. I’m not sure what kind of submissive bullshit he’s expecting to get out of this situation, but yes, I may be mad if you’re asking me 21 questions like these. To base a woman’s intentions off of your stability and competency is a bit unfair, considering men do it to women as well. And I understand that there are gold diggers out there, but it’s these expectations for women to just sit around while you’re bumming it, waiting for your shot to be a big-time rapper that makes me cringe. If there’s effort and you’re trying to make a good life for yourself, and you just need some time to find your way, that’s one thing. But if you’re going to guilt a woman into thinking she’s a gold-digger because she deserves better or wants an equal, that’s a whole different story.
We’ve also seen this flurry of fame and recognition be the downfall of artists. Whether it’s caused by drugs, alcohol, mental health, or ego, being famous can be a double-edged sword, and not everyone is fully equipped to handle it. In Tyler, The Creator’s “911/Mr. Lonely”, he talks about how empty and lonely he feels, despite having everything in the world. He pleads to a 911 helpline for someone to talk to, showing how isolating the industry can be, looking for just one minute of meaningful and genuine conversation. He opens up about the truth behind his outlandish and loud persona, defending it to just be a façade, one that covers up how he truly feels. BROCKHAMPTON also bears a more vulnerable side to the industry in “Weight,” showing that sometimes fame isn’t the desired outcome. In the song, they wish for their life before the fame and the fortune, asking to be relieved of the weight and the pressure that has come with everyone knowing their name. In a very similar breath, in “Famous”, Lil Wayne discusses his disconnected relationships with others as well as himself, fearing that he’ll be exposed to gold-diggers and users who just want a bit of his money. He discusses how even though he gets everything he asks for, he still can’t shake the demons from his mind. As Big K.R.I.T. opens up about his relationship with alcoholism due to his name in the limelight, his track, “Price Of Fame,” also exposes his inner turmoil and fear of the entertainment industry, feeling vulnerable to those who pose a threat, whether by using him for personal gain or for simply wanting to see his downfall. It once again highlights the internal conflict artists endure despite supposedly having access to whatever they want. And then there’s of course, the toughest pill to swallow. Mac Miller. Mac Miller’s fame hurts a lot because it sometimes feels like we, his fans, were his demise. Although his death was an accidental overdose, he outlines in “2009,” his inability to keep his head together in the industry, arguably making for his most incredible music. This song makes me sob like a baby. Although most of us were fans from a place of support, there’s something quite strange and unsettling about finding joy in a person’s breaking point. I think that’s just another reason why I can’t stomach his music anymore.
Success means a lot of different things for people; it can mean respect, recognition, money, fame, fortune, drugs, beautiful women, fancy cars. It can motivate us, pushing us to be our best and prove those who doubted us wrong. It can be our lowest points, causing depression, the destruction of relationships, death, or the loss of everything that we love. It’s subjective, and yet society has made us feel like only specific things determine if you’re successful. I’ve always been goal-oriented, and I’d take pride in the small things; getting good grades or finishing up a load of work. I love making lists and checking things off. But that happiness and feeling of content seem to be so short-lived. It feels like for everything you accomplish, there are ten more challenges ready to be tackled. And so I think it raises the question: when are we truly finished? When does the list end, and when do I get to celebrate the things that I’ve done? Sometimes I feel as though I’ll never be successful. With the standards that I set for myself, I seem to always fall short. That’s why I’ve tried to get better at taking pride in the small things. If I’ve checked off 3 out of 10 of the things on my list, I know that it’s okay, because I have tomorrow to keep working at it. And to keep working at myself. I can also find comfort in knowing that I put my best effort in, whether it’s writing a blog post, working out, cleaning the house, or just getting out of bed.