Words By Emanuel Vinson
Last year, Hip-Hop/R&B album sales experienced a 25% decline, the biggest fall industry-wide across the different genres. In a year where race and class rose to the forefront of hip-hop’s discussion topics, it asks us to take a deeper look at the culture and what we expect out of it.
J Cole’s unassuming, hungry 2014 Forest Hill Drive had the highest first week sales in hip-hop in 2014. It handily dispatched its nearest competitor, Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint by about 100k.
The difference between the two album launches looked considerable: Cole stayed quiet all summer and his announcement for 2014FHD came less than three weeks before the album reached the fans. Minaj, a certified pop star, hovered around the mainstream for months releasing singles upon singles and freestyle after freestyle without really making the mark.
Nicki’s most rewarding surprise was her last: imbuing the album with the kind of universal vulnerability that Cole has been exhibiting his entire career. But even as Cole’s straight-forward “realness” triumphed, his genre remained the dark horse in a crucial time of transition.
Months after the killing of Mike Brown, Azealia Banks gave a furious, fantastic interview with Hot 97 where she called out Iggy Azalea’s pop dominance as a direct result of black erasure. Iggy played it off, but numbers don’t lie. By that point Taylor Swift’s 1989 became the top selling album of the year. That album’s big singles, “Shake It Off” and “Blank Page” both prominently feature rhyming spoken word and drum machines.
Billboard’s highest selling songs from 2013 and 2014 (“Blurred Lines” and Pharrell’s “Happy”) classified as R&B/Hip-Hop songs. And as far as Billboard’s “Song of the Year” bracket went, Beyoncé and Jays “Drunk in Love” bested Disclosure’s “Latch” in a soulful finals showdown. But what if it hadn’t?
As 2015 begins, what we do expect from the industry? Do we really expect the artists we love to be able to eat? Do we always expect Iggy to outsell Azealia or for Nicki to drop the same song as Taylor Swift and get a fraction of the attention for it? Is the music enough?
As 2015 begins, use of streaming services is still on the rise, especially with rap audiences. “R&B and hip hop are popular on streaming sites,” Billboard states, “And streamed tracks increased 54 percent last year.” Reportedly, Cole’s project was streamed a whopping 16 million times in its debut week, breaking One Direction’s record and contributing greatly to Cole’s overall sales count, given the recent changes to the format for counting streams towards sales. Obviously, streaming isn’t killing the music industry but those streams translate to very little in the form of compensation.
Black artists and artforms are running the industry but still getting the least amount of compensation and credit. And the artists aren’t staying quiet about it anymore. If you don’t know, now you know: Kanye, Drake, and Kendrick can’t do it alone in 2015.