By Keith Murphy, ozy.com
Keith “Murph” Murphy spars with brazen hip-hop moguls, Hollywood rebels, revered thespians, redemption-seeking pugilists and more. His work has appeared in VIBE, the New York Post, Billboard magazine, Essence and The Root.
It was a strangely subdued reaction to hip-hop’s longest-awaited, most-talked-about return to the spotlight. For nearly two decades, fans of Andre “Dr. Dre” Young had clung to evaporating hope that his mythical “Detox” album, a comically long-in-the-making project, would finally see the light of day. And the Good Doctor’s patient followers were finally rewarded, in a way, in August when he dropped Compton.
It did… OK. While by no means a flop, first-week sales were surprisingly low for such a mammoth “event” record, timed to coincide with the movie Dr. Dre was backing, Straight Outta Compton. Indeed, the album’s so-so performance was yet another reminder of hip-hop’s Achilles’ heel: the comeback. After all, if Dre, the iconic, near-billionaire co-founder of Beats By Dre, struggled to make a proper musical comeback, the rest of the grizzled rap contingent plotting a return to glory face an even more daunting future.
Brian “B. Dot” Miller, Rap Radar’s content director, blames the fast pace of hip-hop evolution. “Hip-hop has become a very trendy culture, so if you can’t adapt to those trends, you kind of fall by the wayside,” he tells OZY. Singular artists, like Jay Z, can “navigate through the changing times and sounds,” Miller says, and there are other examples of comeback success — like Thursday’s much-welcomed return of rap goddess Missy Elliott. But they’re exceedingly rare.
Compared with other musical genres, hip-hop has often flubbed the art of the comeback. Rock, Pop, R&B and country are brimming with stories of performers whose careers have been left for dead, only to enjoy a commercial rebirth: Tina Turner, Aerosmith, Carlos Santana, Shania Twain, even Britney Spears. Most recently, the long-dormant Janet Jackson scored a No. 1 album with the praiseworthy Unbreakable. Yet rap comebacks remain largely the exception to the rule. When Southern rhyme giant and legendary Geto Boys standout Scarface released Deeply Rooted, his first new album in seven years, the excellent set moved less than 24,000 copies its first week.
Rapper 50 Cent performs during a taping for 'MTV Spring Break 2003' at the Surfcomber Hotel March 12, 2003, in Miami Beach, Florida.
Or consider 50 Cent, who recently filed for bankruptcy; he has struggled mightily to recapture his multiplatinum mojo. The Get Rich or Die Tryin’ rapper’s last studio work, 2014’s Animal Ambition, was an unmitigated bomb out of the box, pushing a meager 47,000 units. Other rap acts, like T.I., Ja Rule and Nelly, have jumped on the reality show bandwagon as their recording careers have waned. Aging gracefully in hip-hop’s forever-young world is about as easy as running for governor of Arizona on the Democratic ticket. Yeah, good luck with that.
To be fair, traditional music sales and digital downloads continue to plummet across the board. As of August, only Taylor Swift’s 1989 and Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late have managed to go platinum or more this year. So how does a middle-aged emcee prosper in an era dominated by omnipresent pop vixens, an emotive Canadian rapper, coked-out trap music and some annoying kid doing the Nae Nae?
“You have to reinvent yourself,” says West Coast rapper Ras Kass, who dropped his debut album, Soul on Ice, in 1995. The lyrically deft talent formed the artsy Semi Hendrix with left-field producer Jack Splash, releasing the genre-blurring soul-rap-funk mashup Breakfast at Banksy’s. “I probably wouldn’t have done something this out there five years ago,” admits Ras. “It’s really about making great music with no labels.” He is in good company. Killer Mike and El-P (who make up the brilliant tag-team Run the Jewels) and Outkast’s Big Boi (who has formed Big Grams, a quirky but cool supergroup, with electronic indie-rock duo Phantogram) have all managed to extend their careers by stepping outside their artistic confines and courting the alternative-music crowd.
But if getting your David Bowie on doesn’t work, you can always achieve relevance through more traditional means. “I haven’t had to deal with making a comeback because I don’t have to answer to any labels,” says 25-year rap vet Paris, the Bay Area-based founder of independent imprint Guerrilla Funk Recordings, which recently dropped the militant emcee’s 11th studio album, Pistol Politics. Paris says that he owns his own publishing and has complete control over his distribution. “If I was still trying to make music for 13-year-olds, I would be doing myself and the culture a disservice.” As LL Cool J once declared, “Don’t call it a comeback...”