We’ve all been there at some point. You’ve discovered a musician or a band, and not only do they strike a very deep chord within you, nobody else seems to know who they are. This artist is, essentially, your secret, to cherish and clutch close to heart for the foreseeable future.
And then they make a hit. Before you know it, the fame starts to collect around this artist like a snowball rolling through a dense drift. They put out more records, but this new music isn’t quite the same. Eventually, you come to realize that this isn’t even the same band you used to like — and that, in listening to it, you feel more like a sheep than a pioneer.
We throw around the term “selling out” as if it’s not just a label, but an eventuality — that all good music must come to rest in the graveyard of mainstream compromise. If you have an artist that’s still making great music, you better enjoy the few years you have left, before the “sell-out” expiration date makes the music go stale and bland.
But what really signifies that an act has “sold out?” It’s undeniable that it occurs: Metallica, after the bands most successful release, The Black Album, was accused of compromising their sound for mainstream success — even the album’s producer Bob Rock acknowledged the difference as a desire to “make the leap to the big, big leagues.” And while it’s undeniable that going 15x platinum is a major feat, the original fans often feel spurned, like an old flame has suddenly lost interest, ready to move on to bigger and better things.
I’m not exaggerating when I describe how much people care about this — and, accordingly, how important it is to know when an artist has sold out. In fact, recently, in the Daily Arts section, a few of us editors had a short argument about the nature of selling out. Another editor and I argued that selling out could rarely be avoided, that once you get famous enough, you inherently care about how successful you are in the mainstream audience, and that affects the music you make.
Our opponent, a third editor, disagreed, explaining that artists can do both: They can care about popular opinion, and still make truly creative, uninfluenced music.
His example was convincing, at least momentarily. “Well, what about Kanye?” he asked.
That one made me think. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a fan of Kanye West, from his original The College Dropout days, all the way to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (I don’t count Cruel Summer, nor do I particularly enjoy it). In any case, his music has remained objectively well-appreciated: Rolling Stone gave Fantasy five out of five, Pitchfork a 10.0 out of 10, and Spin a pessimistic nine out of 10.
But still, I stuck to my opinion. As great as Fantasy is, I’d still argue that the music is affected by his celebrity. The College Dropout worked with heavy themes, like family dysfunction when a relative is incarcerated, or the titular act of leaving school early. Fantasy does this to an extent, but I can never truly ignore how famous he is as he raps.
It’s not a very satisfying answer — that he sold out because he “knows he’s famous.” Clearly it would qualify the majority of the music world for “selling out.”
But for this, I point to the recent exploits of a certain Kendrick Lamar. Granted, Lamar isn’t nearly as famous as Kanye, nor has he built the same body of work. But consider the situation: Lamar is an up-and-coming hip-hop sensation, garnering fame largely from his Internet stardom. Yet instead of making a 2 Chainz “I’m so cool, seriously guys” album, he records a deep, complex, almost vulnerable product — one that’s also insanely catchy.
Kendrick doesn’t jeopardize his sound, but instead holds to it tenaciously — and yet, he still found success, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. He didn’t seem to even consider the mainstream, yet he still makes a fantastic — and popular — piece of music.
So maybe selling out doesn’t come from being successful as much as living successfully. When the cash rolls in, your lifestyle tends to change, regardless of how true to your origins you wish to remain. And it’s hard to argue that lifestyle has no discernable effect on content — how often do rappers spit lyrics about growing up on the streets, only to later weave tales about their lavish luxuries?
Quoth the immortal Kanye: “Always said if I rapped I’d say something significant / But now I’m rappin’ ’bout money, hoes and rims again.” So goes the life of a hip-hop superstar.