The Tipping Point: Lil’ Wayne, social media, the internet, hip-hop and America

“Don’t hate the game, hate the institution.”

That was Lil’ Wayne’s closing line on “Walk In,” the intro to Tha Carter I, the album that ignited his stronghold on hip-hop — or, at least it’s record sales. Ironically, the phrase has never been more fitting.

After going platinum in a week three years ago with Tha Carter III, Wayne did the unthinkable and damn near did it again with Tha Carter IV, which hit retailers last Monday, moving 964,000 units.

To sell a million copies in this day and age is a challenge to which few have answered the call (just Adele, Britney Spears, Beyonce, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga this year). To do it in the first week phenomenal. But twice in a row? That’s almost unfathomable, especially for a rapper.

To be sure, plenty of other hip-hop artists have gone (multi)platinum, some even diamond — but none right now other than Kanye, Eminem, Jay-Z and (maybe) 50 Cent or T.I. Even Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch The Throne hasn’t hit platinum status yet (though it will soon) and “only” did 436K in its first week. Wayne’s lineage Drake, the lone newcomer whom one might think would have a shot at a first-week platinum album, checked in at 447K.

For the past few years, artists and music labels of all genres — hip-hop, in particular — have tried to figure out just how to break through in the music industry. Generate a huge buzz via mixtape: Drake did that, as did Wiz Khalifa. Get a chart-topping single: B.o.B. did it, Wiz, too. Receive the ultimate co-sign: Drake fits this bill also, along with Big Sean. Accumulate a massive Twitter following: Wale is well over a million.

None of the above have resulted in Weezy-esque success, though Wiz’s and B.o.B have gone gold, and Drake platinum. So given the current market, to many, Wayne’s achievements may seem unexplainable. But they’re not. As with all landmark accomplishments, it is a matter of perfect timing.

Longtime — and unbiased — fans will tell you that in recent years, his raps and the quality of his albums have deteriorated and regressed. His ability to churn out a hit has done the opposite, however. While he began his current run in 2004 and 2005 with Tha Carters I and II, plus two stellar mixtapes, Dedication and Dedication 2, the tipping point came in 2007, and Malcolm Gladwell’s book on social epidemics helps make sense of the situation.

In it, he laid out three rules: The Law Of The Few; The Stickiness Factor; and The Power of Context. Wayne has been blessed to be in position to take full advantage of all three.

The Law Of The Few

In 2007, Wayne officially caught fire, as he recorded, or was featured on, 70+ songs, including those that made the pervasive mixtape, Da Drought 3. In April 2007, when Drought 3 dropped, Facebook hit 20-million unique visitors in the U.S. By June 2008, when Tha Carter III was released, that number had jumped to 131 million — including college students, adults and anybody over the age of 13. This is critical.

The Few, who Gladwell calls Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen — the 20 percent of the population who do 80 percent of the “work” in spreading messages — had more access to the general public than ever. The masses, in general, were more connected than ever. And the ability to discuss, support and promote one’s favorite artist was placed on a stage that millions could see.

Lil’ Wayne, then, had a platform like no other hip-hop artist before. Still relying on word of mouth, Facebook blasted through a social megaphone.

The Stickiness Factor

“There are specific ways of making a contagious message memorable,” says Gladwell.

Wayne has mastered this, no doubt. While his bars declined, they became increasingly ripe for one’s next Facebook status. “I’m so hot…,” “I’m so cold…,” “I’m so sick…,” etc. Lines that, essentially, mean nothing, are applicable to anyone on a social network looking to talk some shit about themselves.

Beginning with Da Drought 3, hundreds of millions of Facebook statuses must surely be credited to Wayne. His similes and metaphors, often non-sequiturs, may not have been poignant or poetic, but they are simple. As a result, they’re contagious, they’re sticky, they’re memorable.

All of a sudden, everyone listens to the new Wayne song to get their Facebook status (which, remember, is growing exponentially at the time), and in return, he gets invaluable publicity.

The Power of context 

On top of this social media boom, context is absolutely crucial to much of Wayne’s success. He’s the bridge between two generations of music-listeners, emerging at the perfect intersection of hip-hop, social media, the internet, race relations, American culture.

Without question, there have been better, more skilled rappers than Lil’ Wayne. Nas, B.I.G., Pac, Jay-Z, Ice Cube, Scarface and Andre 3000, to name a few. So to relate Wayne’s success to him being the “best rapper alive” is a flawed theory, because he’s not. Period.

Quite simply, Wayne is dealing with a different America than those that came before him. Just as Barack Obama, who was elected as the country’s first Black president just five months after Wayne’s Carter III dropped, dealt with a different country than any Black leader who preceded him. It was an event whose time had come.

The Biggie’s and Pac’s and Jay-Z’s chopped and chopped, but it wasn’t until Wayne that America was socially, culturally and technologically ready for hip-hop to be the dominant mainstream force it has become. Weezy finally cut through the log, arriving at the the tail-end of the music-buying culture of the 90s and early 2000s, and on the cusp of the digital download age we currently reside in.

As soon as the floodgates opened, however, they shut just as quickly as record sales plunged. The axe was dulled. Thus, aforementioned newbies, like Drake, are too late. Others were just too early. Those who could have challenged Wayne — 50 Cent or T.I. — opted for lucrative business deals or couldn’t keep themselves out of jail. Kanye can’t stay out of his own way (and I’m sure he’s OK with that).

More white kids (the most essential group to any artists record sales) know, and have access to, more rap music than ever, thanks to social media and the Web. Hip-hop is more pervasive and ubiquitous than ever given improved race relations and the power of the internet. Unfortunately, anyone looking to break into the game now is doing so at a time when record sales are abysmal.

Wayne, however, landed right on time.

To use one final analogy: Michael Jordan kicked down the doors of the sneaker industry endorsement game. But it’s been those who have come behind him — LeBron, Kobe, A.I., DRose — who have reaped the greatest benefits. Are they better players, or have they had better careers than Mike? No. But they’re playing a different game. One that was primed for them by those who came before, just as Dr. J., Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had done for MJ.

The easy way out is to say that what Wayne has done is inexplainable. Or jump to the fallacious conclusion that he must be the best to ever do it. Neither are true. This is not to negate or minimize Wayne’s accomplishments (major props on this first week), but rather to analyze and put them in some context, and think about the importance of timing.

As he said, “don’t hate the game, hate the institution.”

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Why WTT Was Dope and Crucial…

One of hip-hop’s most anticipated releases of all-time dropped on Monday, and as expected, has been the topic of the day ever since. Using Twitter as an informal surveyor, the response seemed mostly positive, but to different extents and for different reasons. At the same time, it appeared as though others were not as impressed — which, of course, was also expected, as well.

After sitting with it for a few days and giving it countless listens (at least 10 run-throughs), I’ve come to my own final verdict: this shit is dope.

I’ll start by saying that I understand why some may have disliked Watch The Throne. Two pop culture mega-stars, immense hype and 20-feet tall expectations can make for an easy letdown.

But this project was clearly not meant to be The Blueprint or The Black Album, or College Dropout or Late Registration. In fact, what it actually sounds like is a combination of each artists’ most recent album: Hov’s elite, polished flow from Blueprint 3, mixed with Kanye’s sonic and erotic production, and confident and arrogant lyricism from MBDTF.

What’s significant, though, and what makes WTT truly stick with me, is that neither of them seemed to approach this as they would a solo album. It’s not about them personally, and the audience isn’t hip-hop, in particular; it’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than them and their individual experiences, and is directed at America and Black America as wholes.

For others, I’d guess this is probably the center of their disinterest in the album — some emotional vacancy. Bomani Jones put together a great review of WTT, stating that his biggest beef was the theme — or lack thereof:

“So tell me what the theme is here. If it’s about being on top of the game, Jay already did that with The Black Album, and he was far more compelling (going so far as admitting to selling out). There are flashes of outright pro-black ideologies, but some come on a song titled “That’s My Bitch.””

No doubt.

But I think that the theme, in fact, is, those Pro-Black ideologies and Black empowerment. Throughout the project, there are numerous subtle and not-so-subtle discussions of race, racism and liberation. As someone who studied shit like this in college (Black Arts Movement, Amiri Baraka, etc.), this was right up my alley.

“Marilyn Monroe, she’s quite nice, but why all the pretty icons always all-white, put some colored girls in the MOMA, half these broads ain’t got nothing on Wylona, don’t make me bring Thelma in it, bring Halle, bring Penelope and Selma in it, back to my Beyoncés, you deserve three stacks word to Andre,” raps Hov on That’s My Bitch, an odd title for a song with such lyrics, sure, but the point is taken, nonetheless.

Most poignant and blatant, however, is Murder To Excellence. Tag-team produced by Swizz Beatz and S1, it serves as a kind of core for the entire album. These brothers got on here and talked about some real shit. Moreover, they used both sides of the coin; Blacks’ struggles, contrasted with the need to strive for excellence and continued elevation, often using themselves as examples of cats who have done so.

This is to the memory of Danroy Henry,” Hov states on the first line of the track, referring to the college student who was shot to death by a New York cop in 2010.

“The paper read murder, Black on Black murder,” sings ‘Ye on the chorus. (How ironic that the day of the album’s release, the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times was occupied by news of one of the most senseless killings I’ve ever heard of, as a 6-year-old girl was shot and killed in Englewood at her grandmother’s house.)

“It’s time for us to stop and redefine Black power, 41 souls murdered in 50 hours,” he raps.

“Black excellence, opulence, decadence,” spits Hov, later continuing that, “domino, domino, only spot a few Blacks the higher I go.”

Is this anything that a lot of brothers and sisters haven’t heard already? No. Are they Gil Scot-Heron and Brian Jackson? Hell no. But not since Pac have we had MAINSTREAM, top-selling artists discuss these issues at length — let alone two of them! Both Kanye and Jay — especially Kanye (Crack Music, Gorgeous) — have spoken in such ways before, but never to this extent, and Jay, certainly never this overtly.

People complain all the time about the lack of substance that comes from major label artists. Well here it is.

Maybachs on backs on backs on backs, who in that, oh shit, it’s just Blacks on Blacks on Blacks,” raps Kanye on Gotta Have It. Niggas In Paris, New Day, Who Gon Stop Me all hold tinges of pro-Blackness, as well, while Made In America and Why I Love You , in line with Murder To Excellence, are clear displays of it.

In this case, the artists and magnitude of the project are so big, that is easy to overlook a lot of what was said and only see the two  “planking on a million.” Admittedly, their words lose some of their luster because, as messengers, they’re so removed from the average person. But it’s not fair to hold that against them.

There are plenty of other positives about the album: Kanye’s rage juxtaposed with his playfulness, Hov’s razor-sharp flow and double and triple-entendre metaphors, high-quality production. Such is why it’s hard for anyone to truly write this album off. The songs that I haven’t mentioned, No Church In The Wild, Lift Off and Otis are fucking sick.

But what really solidifies Watch The Throne are the constant ideas of Black excellence that are riddled throughout. It may not be what we’ve heard before or what some expected, but maybe that’s a good thing.

On one of the bonus tracks, Hov, despite a lackluster verse in general, still raps: “Basquiats, Warhols serving as my muses…usually you have this much taste you European, that’s the end of that way of thinking, nigga never again.”

Word.

Boogy & Phlyy B – Rocket Science

Been on hiatus from blogging for a minute, but if there was a note to come back on — even if only temporary  — this is it. Finally, after a long wait, the brothers Boogy and Phlyy B have blessed us with Rocket Science. I’ve had a handful of these in my iTunes for months, but now they’re officially liberated. Two slick wordsmiths diving clean in over dope beats. Download two copies and tell a friend to tell a friend.

DOWNLOAD: Boogy & Phlyy B – Rocket Science

3ABM, UMA all day.

Dom Kennedy – Grind’n

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This shit right here though, goes. From The Westside With Love II, June 28.

FNP Radio 6.7.11

Tonight marks the final episode of Fresh-N-Proper on Radio DePaul (as an undergrad, at least). Mounds of gratitude to anyone who has ever tuned in, even if only for a minute, and to the good folks at Radio DePaul for providing me with the platform to enlighten via music. If you’ve been a consistent listener, you’ve been put on to some dope shit, no doubt.

Tonight’s episode will begin promptly after the conclusion of Game 4 of the NBA Finals. Listen Live on Radio DePaul.

Below is a list (in alphabetical order) of all the cats who have been guests on Fresh-N-Proper (or Chicken & Waffles with PWelbs):

Big Sean

Big K.R.I.T.

BJ The Chicago Kid

Black Cobain

Boogy

Chris Shields

Christian Rich

CurT@!n$

Dee Goodz

Defcee & Kid Quo

Dom Kennedy

Fly Union

L.e. For The Uncool

N.E.P.H.E.W.

Nick-N-Beans

Phil Ade

Phil G

Phlyy B

Project Mayhem

Ro Spit

Rockie Fresh

Rugz D. Bewler

Skooda Chose

Smoke DZA

Stalley

Stay Humble Ent. (Big Homie DOE, YP, Onis)

U-N-I

Vic Mensa/KTD

Wale

Willie The Kid

Young Chris (first guest ever)

Wale Feat. Tiara Thomas – The Cloud

So smooth with some great subject matter. One of my favorites off that More About Nothing mixtape. Tiara Thomas kills; I need to find me one of them.

Jill Scott Feat. Anthony Hamilton – So In Love

The F’ing groove! Her new new album, The Light of the Sun, drops June 28th.

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