The Rap Game


Vince Staples is one of my favorite rappers today. He’s very talented as a musician, but I’m more drawn to him for his personality, charisma, and interviews than his music. In the buildup to the release of his critically acclaimed album “Ramona Park Broke My Heart,” he interviewed with Complex and spoke about his opinion of the rap music business. Staples said:

[Music] is not a game. What’s the game? In basketball, you dribble, you shoot, you score, you win. Why is [the music game] an expression? […] The reason it’s an expression is because somebody has to lose so that way when it ends up and you do it and it takes everything from you then you just lost the game. But that’s not what it’s supposed to be. This is a business. You’re supposed to have good business [and] good morals. They pay you. […] They don’t call any other genre the game. They call it the rap game.

Staples is adamant in his view that rap is entertainment, and a rapper’s job is to sell to consumers. The idea is for everyone to work collaboratively to propel each other and the entire industry forward. There are tour headliners and opening acts, for example, and everyone has a role to play in the larger music operation. However, he takes a strong dislike towards the idea that you have to be arrogant, cocky, unprofessional, or antagonistic to further a career in hip hop when the same doesn’t apply to any other genre. The pressure to conform to this antiquated view of rappers can have dire consequences, and we’ve all been reminded of that this week.

Takeoff, one-third of the Georgia rap group Migos, was murdered on November 1 in Houston, Texas. There was an altercation at a bowling alley and during the ensuing gunfire, Takeoff lost his life. He was with his uncle and band member Quavo as the conflict escalated. My heart goes out to his family and everyone else currently in mourning. I’m not angry at Takeoff for being in that position. I’m not angry at the shooter. I’m only angry at the rap game.

We accept that in every genre of popular music, there are songwriting teams, production teams, vocal coaches, instrument players, and a plethora of others who collaborate to achieve a fantastic end product. They are acknowledged in the album liner notes, and they are compensated as such. The artist then gets to choose which song they want to perform, without the pressure of only singing about their personal lives. If a song they’ve chosen doesn’t apply to their life story, there’s no angst generated from this, and we’re all in agreement that it is entertainment. But that isn’t the case for rap music.

I’ve always been confused by rap music’s need to be autobiographical. Rap fans operate under this guise that the artists with the most braggadocio, ironclad drug-dealing back stories, and infallible street credibility are also the most talented wordsmiths and have mastered the art of musical melody and harmony. If someone is exposed to not living the life that they rap about, there is huge consternation amongst the music industry and the rap music fanbase. It’s as if they have been part of an elaborate ruse. So to maintain this facade, rappers are pressured to live out the lyrics of their music and stay true to the unsavory characteristics they outgrew after receiving mainstream acclaim, popularity, and wealth.

Whenever a rapper is slain — and so many have been that they have their own Wikipedia page — it’s due to a combination of failures. It’s a failure of society that these artists feel the need to put themselves into such dangerous situations. It’s a failure of the artist that they feel the need to “keep it real” in these situations rather than hiring security. And it’s a failure of the music business that such things as misogyny, murder, and criminal activities are glorified. When you combine these factors, the winners are corporate greed and capitalism. The losers are human lives.

And like Staples said, somebody has to lose.

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Author of The Powers That Be

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