On any other day, watching Lauryn Hill and Nas share the stage sounds like a hip-hop wet dream. But when the two took to Hot 97’s annual Summer Jam stage last weekend, their killer set couldn't offset the focus on would-be headliner Nicki Minaj, who refused to show up (partially at boss Lil Wayne’s direction) after a DJ called her a sell-out earlier in the day. In doing so, besides failing to fulfill the commitment she made to her fans and to the festival, she seemed to imply two things: 1) Selling out is not her style 2) Selling out is still a hurtful term. Since we’re not exactly in the age of anti-commercialism anymore, one has to wonder why – especially in the highly commoditized world of hip-hop – one would use this as a reason to walk away from this big a show.
Now, I may be a snob, but I'm not exactly the first guy in the world to throw around the word "sell out." I’d be a liar if I haven’t in recent days said those words every time I hear “Moves Like Jagger,” Which is ALL THE TIME. In my defense, this is only because Adam Levine & Co. seem like the perfect example of how selling out works. Maroon 5's breakthrough debut, "Songs About Jane," was actually pretty great. It took the band years to get their record filled with infectious hooks, butt shaking beats, and catchy courses to the masses, but once they did, the guys made a conscious and drastic change. Disco before quality.
The argument I frequently hear is, "Hey, if someone offered you 50 million dollars to playa songs you didn't write and don't care about, you'd do it, too." Putting aside the fact that this comically enhanced scenario has never happened to anyone, I'm not sure I agree. If a band is being offered this hypothetical amount of money, they are getting it because they are good enough and have the draw to become a commodity. Taking the money is not the only option.
This hypothetical group could easily continue making money (certainly not $50 million, cause, seriously) and living quite the comfortable lifestyle while making music they care about and love. When Adam Levine decided to sing "Moves Like Jaggar" (written largely by Benny Blanco, responsible for hits by the likes of Ke$ha and Katy Perry) his second option wasn't to starve on the streets of Cambodia. To quote the white suited man about town/quasi-rapper they call Pitbull: "Music is about 10% talent, 90% business." Once this becomes your mantra, yeah, you're a sellout.
So let's get back to Nicki. The actual insult in question was from DJ Peter Rosenberg who, earlier that day, proclaimed “I see the real hip-hop heads sprinkled in here. I see them. I know there are some chicks here waiting to sing ‘Starships’ later – I’m not talking to y’all right now, I’m here to talk about real hip-hop.” Perhaps this was not the nicest thing in the world to say, especially about your headliner, and it’s not hard to see why Minaj may have taken offense, but how mad can she really be? She knows what kind of music she’s making.
Minaj is no dummy. Despite what you may think given her recent commercial success, Minaj has some serious skills and can be heard showing them off in cameos and earlier work. In fact, the song that really delivered her to the masses was Kanye West’s “Monster,” in which she stands out among greats like Jay-Z and West himself. “50K for a verse / no album out!” Yeah, she knows she’s good, and she also knows what’s popular. After Nicki made her reputation as the “Bad bitch that came from Sri Lanka” she saw an opportunity to make choices. When it became radio hits vs. great rap song, she made her choice to great acclaim.
I have a friend whose opinion I trust, not because our opinions overlap (they don’t … ever) but because they are well-founded. When the topic of club music as pop music comes up, he is in defense of dance songs 100% of the time. The argument is that if it makes people dance, it doesn’t matter what it sounds like because it’s done its job. It is functional; no more, no less. Not unlike gruel. You know, that gelatinous, tasteless paste that has a few vitamins and minerals and will keep you alive? That’s gruel. And you know what it is? Functional and tasteless.
So does singing “Starships” and “Superbass” make Nicki a sellout? Yes.
This is a girl who does not need to cater to the lowest common denominator to make her piles of cash. As previously stated, Nicki is “a motherfucking monster,” she just happened to make a choice. However, hip-hop is a genre that celebrates entrepreneurial minds and commercialism. Unlike other genres that shun making music just to get rich, rappers spit out albums entitled “Get Rich or Die Tryin.” Just look at Jay-Z, who by all accounts is an incredibly rich and successful businessman, yet he’s widely considered one of the greatest rappers alive. We’re talking about a genre where a brilliant mind like Talib Kweli can praise a young punk like Soulja Boy for his hustle in cashing in on a dance craze.
Unfortunately, what makes Nicki different is that instead of using her skills to build an empire, she used her skills to get a new job. Nicki has everything the “real” rappers have. She’s talented, she’s charismatic, and she’s savvy as hell. Selling out isn’t turning to the dark side, it’s a business decision. It’s up to you whether or not you think that’s deplorable, but personally, I’ve fallen in love with a lot of songs and very few business decisions.