Hip-Hop’s Obsession With Numbers Goes Way Back

The music-industry adage “numbers don’t lie” isn’t all the time true, however it is vital. Hip-hop artists and followers genuinely imagine within the thought, to the purpose that it has develop into a lyrical weapon, deployed at essential instances within the life cycle of dueling singles or albums. This summer season, Drake’s Scorpion moved over 3 times extra items than Kanye West’s Ye, and he made certain individuals knew that with a lyrical tweak throughout a reside efficiency of “Know Yourself” in August: “Then Kanye flopped, it was polos and backpacks.” Meanwhile, Nicki Minaj was coping with her personal numbers woes in a really public style.

In July, Queen, her first album in 4 years, debuted at No. 2 behind Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD — a giant offense for somebody who readily makes use of file gross sales as a cudgel in feuds. But two months later, Minaj could be warring with Cardi B as a substitute of Scott. Nicki went on her Beats 1 radio present to allege that Cardi “constructed her profession of sympathy and payola.” Cardi by no means explicitly responded, however she Instagrammed one thing that’d at the least solicit a response: A rating of the 12 months’s top-ten-selling hip-hop albums, with Cardi’s Invasion of Privacy at No. three and Queen totally absent.

Warring utilizing gross sales figures is in some ways distinctive to hip-hop. Rappers usually rap about how significantly better they're at rapping than their friends, however singers crooning about being one of the best singer might sound corny, in line with producer Jermaine Dupri. The So So Def founder, whose work spans a number of genres, says his former collaborators Jay-Z and Mariah Carey each had excessive business ambitions. But “promote a bunch of data and you continue to owe dough” isn’t a Mariah Carey line for a purpose. Though hip-hop had already seen platinum-selling ’80s success with Run-DMC’s Raising Hell and Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill, Dupri recollects the numbers didn’t actually develop into an on-record bragging proper till a lot later.

“The ’90s is when the youthful technology began to concentrate to file gross sales, and that’s when the general scope of promoting data and making an attempt to promote as many data as attainable modified for your complete file enterprise,” Dupri says. “I believe individuals seeing different individuals’s success turns into a contagious state of affairs.”

Boasts about file gross sales had been nonetheless an anomaly for a lot of top-selling hip-hop albums from the last decade’s first half, although Ice Cube did boast about being “nonetheless No. 1 with a bullet” on 1993’s The Predator. The mid-’90s and onward noticed labels flaunting these plaques on file, and artists wielding their gross sales success in opposition to rivals. Famous examples embody Bad Boy (“I’ma win trigger I’m too sensible for these cats / While they makin’ up details you rakin’ up plaques”), Cash Money (“I finished made extra money unbiased than a serious nigga went gold”), and Jay-Z (“Men lie, girls lie, numbers don’t”).

“Once it grew to become not simply artists signing file offers, however the artists changing into file house owners — the place you had a Baby [Birdman, Cash Money’s founder] or a Diddy — once they bragged on numbers on these situations, it wasn’t essentially about them as an artist,” says Port Arthur, Texas, rapper Bun B. “It confirmed their proficiency as an organization; it made all of the sense to say, ‘Ruff Ryders we promote x quantity of data.’ Yeah, since you’re a black-owned in a enterprise that’s usually been worthwhile for everybody however the black individuals within the .”

But capitalism and competitiveness play out in hip-hop music in contrast to another common style — so maybe it was inevitable that the numbers brags changed into jabs. Sales numbers ended up changing into checkpoints within the tradition’s most pivotal moments. In a 1996 Vibe interview in the course of the East versus West Coast feud, Tupac Shakur boasted that he offered “5 million [records] in two months; Biggie’s album [Ready to Die] been out two years, he’s barely touching 2 million.” Shakur’s label Death Row would crumble after his loss of life, together with multiplatinum pillars Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre’s departures, and Bad Boy obtained to lean on its platinum plaques as proof of its a lot wider cultural cachet.

Though the 2 sides traded disses for years, the true loss of life blow got here within the early aughts, throughout a struggle between Ja Rule versus 50 Cent when the latter’s multiplatinum debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, simply outsold Ja Rule’s Blood in My Eye, which has but to go gold. Then the fates turned in opposition to 50 Cent three years later when Curtis misplaced its extremely publicized first-week gross sales battle in opposition to Kanye West’s Graduation, which signaled the style’s flip away from bulletproof-vest-wearing avenue conventions to Everyman betterment. 50 Cent was considered one of hip-hop’s highest-selling artists; after the rivalry, he’d by no means go platinum once more.

At its core, the numbers-don’t-lie idea presents itself as arduous proof inside a maelstrom of subjective thought, however these metrics are recognized to be defective: Illicit “pay-for-play” schemes have been alleged in hip-hop for years, plus the ’90s SoundScan expertise didn’t take into consideration file shops that scan albums a number of instances to spice up gross sales numbers. In 2011, Birdman was accused of shopping for a number of copies of Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter IV to spice up his first-week totals. Although he denied doing so, the plausibility of such a rip-off is noteworthy in itself. A label shopping for its personal product to spice up reported gross sales and chart place wasn’t a brand new idea, and Cash Money did have an incentive to take action, with IV probably being Lil Wayne’s second straight album in Tha Carter collection to promote over 1 million its first week. The album got here in simply shy of that, with 964,000 copies offered.

Music’s streaming period additionally muddles the veracity of gross sales numbers. RIAA certification guidelines designate 1,500 on-demand audio streams as one album sale, an simply exploitable metric. Those streams depend even when they arrive from an album single dropped effectively earlier than the venture’s launch, and you may stuff the observe checklist to spice up these gross sales numbers. This 12 months’s greatest examples embody Migos’s Culture II, Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V, and Scorpion, that are throughout 20 tracks lengthy. They every had a just-above-average essential reception; nonetheless, they’ll possible be gold-certified by the tip of the 12 months.

Other variables like streaming platforms’ playlist placement additionally discredit the concept of excessive figures being actually singular achievements: The success of Drake’s Scorpion was little question aided by Spotify’s intense promotion of it. Nonetheless, file gross sales nonetheless maintain significance for a style that usually analogizes itself with skilled sports activities, a commerce that’s equally obsessive about stats and competitiveness. Kevin Durant nonetheless will get derided for deciding to hitch a superteam, however a hoop’s a hoop. Shade 45’s DJ Whoo Kid, who hosted 50 Cent’s early mixtapes, is considered one of many who're skeptical of gross sales metrics, noting that the stats have been shady effectively earlier than the streaming period, in the course of the misleading techniques of the SoundScan age. Still, he understands the fascination: a win’s a win even when the numbers might not be legit.

“The rappers who don’t promote use thoughts video games to say, ‘Well, true hip-hop followers respect my content material. I don’t care in regards to the numbers,’” he says. “You care in regards to the numbers. So [shut] up.”

“They love numbers, so that you’re not gonna deny any individual that has a billion streams after which one man is speaking shit,” he says. “You’re going to have a look at whoever offered essentially the most and whoever has essentially the most power in the intervening time. And the easiest way to look is these SoundScans and these numbers — that’s actually ultimate proof. It’s fucked up how a quantity makes you not like a tune anymore.”