Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar are two leading contenders to make music history in January. They both stand a chance at becoming the first solo black male hip-hop artist to win top honors at the Grammy Awards.
On Tuesday, it was announced that the two rappers are nominated for album of the year at the 2018 Grammys — Jay-Z for the mid-life reckoning that is 4:44, and Lamar for his heady and soulful Damn.
They’re up against Childish Gambino (for Awaken, My Love!), Bruno Mars (for 24K Magic) and Lorde (for Melodrama). If that lineup of nominees seems more diverse than usual, that’s because it is: This is the first time since 1999 that a white man hasn’t been nominated for album of the year. And the potential accolades for artists of color comes as American popular music is in a transition phase.
Hip-hop officially became the most-consumed music genre in the U.S. in July, according to Nielsen, as reported by Wall Street Journal. From January to Oct. 12, the combined hip-hop and R&B music category exceeded both rock and pop in terms of consumption, making up 24% of the market, compared to rock’s 21% and pop’s 12%.
Plainly put, traditional “pop music” is no longer that popular.
So as genres rooted in blackness are becoming more mainstream than ever before, white icons in conventional pop music appear to be losing their appeal. But with the mainstreaming of hip-hop comes another development: White hip-hop artists look to be getting more and more attention as well.
The decline of the white pop diva?
Not every pop star is on the decline. Taylor Swift’s latest album, Reputation, has sold well, but that album also features a reinvented version of Swift, one that dabbles in rapping. Meanwhile, the latest LPs from other white singers like Demi Lovato and Miley Cyrus have underperformed since their September release dates.
Katy Perry’s Witness debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 back in June, but the album was met with a lackluster critical response, and none of its singles have had the staying power or impact of Perry’s past hits.
It’s because of this larger trend that Townsquare Media editorial director Craig Marks forecasted the recording industry focusing less on white pop divas and more on finding the next hip-hop and R&B hit-makers to follow in the footsteps of, say, Future, Rihanna and Beyoncé.
“A&R execs are combing SoundCloud looking for the next Drake or Kendrick, rather than the next Taylor [Swift],” Marks told the Journal in October.
While it’s true that black hip-hop artists have established themselves as being the center of music culture in 2017, white hip-hop performers are gaining traction as well.
White “rappers” on the rise
White artists are currently dominating the upper echelon of Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop digital sales chart. Five of the top 10 most downloaded songs for the week of Dec. 9 belong to white emcees.
Post Malone, an accused “culture vulture,” has two hits in the top 10: “Rockstar” and “I Fall Apart,” which are in the first and eighth spots, respectively. For those unfamiliar, Malone is the “White Iverson” singer and former heavy metal band member who recently made headlines for reportedly telling people looking for substance in song lyrics, “Don’t listen to hip-hop.”
(After receiving backlash, Malone walked his comments back in a video shared over Twitter. In the clip, he clarified that he made those remarks during a “beer-tasting interview,” and added, “Who the fuck am I to tell you, ‘Don’t listen to this’ and ‘Whenever you want to feel something, don’t listen to this’?”)
G-Eazy’s club banger “No Limit” placed fourth on the hip-hop downloads list. Despite his success, some YouTube fans were shocked to discover Eazy was white while watching his September performance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
“I ain’t know this boy was white,” one YouTuber commented on the video.
A little further down the downloads list is white soul singer Blackbear’s hit “Do Re Mi.”
The only black men other than Logic in the hip-hop and R&B top 10 digital sales list for the week of Dec. 9 are the Georgia rap trio Migos and “Young Dumb & Broke” singer Khalid. “Bodak Yellow” rapper Cardi B rounded out the top 10.
“I do think it’s true there are more famous white rappers right now than ever before,” Rolling Stone contributing editor Christopher R. Weingarten told Mic on Thursday. “Rap as an art form is exploding in all these different ways... There will probably always be white people trying to eat off that, but the spotlight is on rappers of all backgrounds right now in a very interesting and unique way.”
“At some point, the notion that this [appropriation] is a surprise has to get upended,” the Seattle lyricist told Mic on Wednesday, also acknowledging that winning a Grammy is “cool and all,” but doesn’t equate with sincere mainstream acceptance of blackness.
Butler also doesn’t consider Post Malone’s music to be authentic hip-hop, even though it’s successful on the Billboard hip-hop charts.
“These are all derivatives, literal thieves of styles,” he said of artists like Malone, specifically. “To me, if we got a culture and we got a type of feeling about it, when people moonlight, it’s up to us to keep it strong.”
“History repeats itself”
There is, of course, a lengthy history of white artists enjoying mainstream success by performing traditionally black music.
White youths of the 1950s and ‘60s made black rock and roll legends like Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Chuck Berry top 40 staples alongside white icons like Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
By the 1970s and ’80s, however, mainstream black rock stars were largely phased out. During the heydays of acts like Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen and Aerosmith, rock became viewed as a white genre.
“Sometimes when you have chart-toppers of the moment, people forget where that music came from,” Jason Hanley, education vice president at the Rock Hall of Fame, told Mic over the phone on Tuesday, while sitting in his Cleveland office. “You wouldn’t be able to build this building without the foundation of blues and R&B and all the artists this thing was built on.”
Rappers have anticipated and maligned the day that rock music’s cycle of appropriation would spread to hip-hop. J. Cole famously called out the genre’s whitewashing on the song “Fire Squad,” from his 2014 album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive.
“History repeats itself and that’s just how it goes/ Same way that these rappers always bite each other’s flows/ Same thing that my n*gga Elvis did with rock ‘n’ roll / Justin Timberlake, Eminem and then Macklemore/ While silly n*ggas argue o’er who gon’ snatch the crown/ Look around my n*gga, white people have snatched the sound/ This year I’ll probably go to the awards dapper down/ Watch Iggy win a Grammy as I try to crack a smile.”
Of course, white rappers aren’t a new phenomenon — the Beastie Boys first broke through in the ’80s, Vanilla Ice was a one-hit wonder in the early ’90s and Eminem was arguably the most culturally impactful musician at the turn of the 21st century. But white rappers have enjoyed success at a more consistent rate over the past few years.
Macklemore’s ironically titled 2012 album The Heist won critical acclaim and eventually a Grammy award for best rap album over Kendrick Lamar’s breakout LP, 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city.
Eminem, Iggy Azalea and the Marvin Gaye-biting Robin Thicke also performed well on the combined hip-hop and R&B charts over the same time frame.
This pattern isn’t so much a sinister, racist plot, as it is an organic and systemic function of capitalism, according to Butler.
He acknowledges that hip-hop is a unique and rightly popular form of creative expression that people of all races can and should enjoy — but that also makes it profitable for predominantly white record label executives to market to a majority white audience.
Butler also notes that black hip-hop creatives who market and produce music for white artists are often unwittingly complicit in the appropriation of black culture as they maximize their own individual successes.
“Whether a black or a white person made it, it’s always going to be fluff,” Butler said, referring to chart-chasing hip-hop music. “If the money is that simple, for a mumbling guy saying nursery rhymes to come get it, do you really want it?”