If Pac and Biggie were still alive
First things first: the white guy disclaimer. I don't pretend to the final word on all things hip hop. This piece is simply my take on things. If you don't agree, feel free to rip me in the comments section below.
In an alternate universe where Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace hadn't been shot and killed within six months of each other by March 1997, the hip hop industry would've been a lot different.
Now I'm not one to begrudge another for making a buck. Especially if it's their only means of doing so. If you want to put something out there into the world and people buy it, great for you. Even if it's what others might deem a substandard product. That's a lot of what this country is supposed to be all about. So I'm not going to look at this from a financial perspective, I'm only going to look at this alternate universe from a music industry standard of quality perspective.
With 2pac and Biggie still alive, there'd be no No Limit Records. We wouldn't have had to wait for 50 Cent to destroy Ja Rule's career, because there wouldn't have been one. No Juvenile. No Nelly. We would've been spared P. Diddy's attempts at rapping, changing his stage name three times and that whole fad with Mase.
This isn't to say they wouldn't have been popular within their own bubbles, their own regions. The south will always have their own sound. The west coast, too. But they wouldn't have had the same rise to national success, and with it gotten more mainstream play.
And with that newfound mainstream void left by the two icon's deaths, came commercial success for musicians following them. Commercial success they benefited from because of the national limelight 2pac and Notorious B.I.G. put the hip hop industry into in a way that it never was quite in before. The result were other artists after them, putting out far inferior quality music, getting countrywide notoriety they wouldn't have otherwise gotten. And because of that, more and more record labels wanted to duplicate their sounds. Because why not, it's selling. That meant if you wanted your album marketed and pushed by your label, you needed those hits. Hits that were typically empty and without substance. And most definitely not of positive substance. The music became much more about the beats, and much less about the lyrics. It wasn't held to the same standards.
Part of the problem was that 2pac and Notorious were just so damn good. 2pac specificially had tons of songs touching on criminal injustice, systemic racism, hardships in the ghetto and a positive messages. Tracks like Never Call You B**** Again, So Many Tears, Ghetto Gospel, Letter to the President and Changes all left you thinking. Baby Don't Cry, Brenda's Got a Baby and Dear Mama all achieved Top Single Billboard success, with the latter two being first singles off his albums.
Fast forward to the state of hip hop after that. Lupe Fiasco was told by his record label Atlantic Records that they weren't going to market his album Lasers unless he recorded 'poppy' songs that would sell. Songs he didn't feel comfortable or proud to put out. All the while, the song Words I Never Said, the album's second single, was already on the album and tackled societal issues, domestic and foreign. Atlantic Records decided to go with The Show Goes On as the first single, one Lupe admits was given to him and pressured into recording.
My stance is less the expected first single success Words I Never Said could've had with comparable airtime and promotion to The Show Goes on and more that the current hip hop culture meant Atlantic Records felt it couldn't sell an album headlined by a song with substance. And to think Lupe is the only example of this is incredibly naive. This happens all the time. We've gotten to a point where impactful songs are actively overlooked for an assumption that the public won't care. Or that we're not supposed to.
Look, I love me some Move Bitch or What's Your Fantasy as much as the next guy, but were they really songs some of the most oppressed and underserved communities around this country needed for inspiration?!
And that's an unfair expectation to put on Ludacris, or anyone else for that matter. Everyone has their own sound. But there were and are talented and influential artists like K'naan, Talib Kweli, Lyfe Jennings, Common and others that don't get anywhere near the same air time as mainstream artists do while constantly talking about nothing. While their beats couldn't compete with what is considered mainstream, their sound is quality and their music a positive influence.
How many times have you heard a mediocre song 10, 12, 15 times on the radio? Your first few times hearing it you just have this 'meh' feeling about it. But it's just so damn catchy and simple, you eventually find yourself humming the chorus. Too many times, it's the record label companies and radio stations deciding on what their audience will listen to and what they will like, and not the other way around. That's why J Cole and Kendrick Llamar's success is so important. Substance in the industry hasn't really sold or gotten mainstream play in a way that they're heading to in over 20 years. It's been too long. And it'll continue to be up to the public to not have their talents denied and demand their positive messages get the mainstream airtime it deserves.