It’s no secret that the Internet is a crucial tool to any artist in the twenty-first century. Not only does the web give artists an easy way to let the public hear their music, but it also gives them a direct line of communication with platforms like Twitter and Facebook. And in no musical community is the Internet more important than in hip hop. The emergence of mixtape culture has prompted rappers to release countless tracks for free online to build buzz and make a name for themselves. The ease in which artists can release tracks, and the speed at which these tracks can go viral, gives the web the ability to create superstars overnight.
For example, take one of the newest Internet rap phenomenons, ASAP Rocky. After releasing just a handful of songs at the end of the summer, he signed a $3 million deal with Sony/RCA. That’s a lot of money for an unproven rapper who’s new to the scene. Although he did release the solid free mixtape LiveLoveA$AP right after signing the deal, there’s no way to tell if he will be able to deliver on the hype when he releases his major label debut. Did Sony/RCA jump the gun and sign him before he was ready?
Female rapper Kreayshawn experienced a similar breakout in 2011. She released a video for her song “Gucci Gucci” in May, and it quickly became a surprise viral hit, garnering over 3 million views in its first three weeks alone. The success of the single alone was enough to earn her a VMA nomination for “Best New Artist.” Columbia took notice, and the rapper inked a deal with label only a few weeks later. However, many critics have already written her off as a fad before she has even released an album—citing her below average freestyling skills as proof that she won’t be able to hang with the big boys like Eminem and Lil Wayne. Lil B is another rapper who has made a name for himself via the Internet in 2011. His music videos garnered millions of views on YouTube, and he has a dedicated fan base with over 350,000 followers on Twitter. However, when he released his first commercially-available album this past June, he only sold a measly 1,700 copies in his first week. Turning Internet fame into sales figures is harder than it looks.
However, there is a way for rappers to use the Internet to organically build a following and improve their craft. Take Childish Gambino, aka Donald Glover, for example. While experiencing success as an actor on Community and as a writer for 30 Rock, Glover struggled to gain recognition for his music. He spent years releasing music for free under the Childish Gambino moniker, all the while improving his skills as a rapper and slowly building his fan base. When he finally released his debut album last month—debuting at number 11 on the Billboard 200—he was fully developed as an artist. Tyler, the Creator also used a similar strategy to achieve success this year. By releasing free albums with his group Odd Future and generating buzz from music blogs, Tyler gained a cult following. Then, when he released the great video for his single “Yonkers” earlier this year, he went from underground hero to mainstream icon, and capped off his successful year with a VMA win for “Best New Artist.”
Today’s Internet culture continually gives us a new flavor-of-the-week or “next big thing,” but it takes true talent to turn that potential into actual artistic achievement.