Back in 2007, Paul Wall released his sophomore album Get Money, Stay True, showing off how much money he'd made since his debut "The Peoples Champ", while still maintaining his basic style of music (custom cars, diamonds all over, plenty of women, and a boatload of cash all from his grind). While he (at least for a time) was able to do both, for others the balance has been next-to-impossible. Henceforth, any artist in the industry constantly has to make a choice: "Do I take the shortcut to quick success, or do I build up a long-term reputation and a small-to-medium but loyal fanbase?"
In last week's "buy my old album" column, I mentioned three artists who went through a significant image evolution over the years. However, in their case, they could have been successful even if they had stayed the same, but chose to make the change for "image reasons" (whatever they may be). So here's a list of notable artists who faced that dilemma early on, made the decision, and the aftermath of each decision.
Case #1: Three 6 Mafia
The Background: As one of the primary rap groups to come from Memphis, they were pioneers of not one but two subgenres; horrorcore (for their often gruesome kill descriptions that would make even pre-"Recovery" Eminem blush) and crunk (the Six were packing underground hotspots and leading the crowd in easy-to-remember back when Lil' Jon was still a semi-nerd). Their most commercially successful album to date ('05's Most Known Unknown) pioneered another sub-genre; the Willie Hutch samples used in "Stay Fly" and "Poppin' My Collar" drew the soul-sample craze attention not seen since the original "Blueprint" and also kept them on the vibe to produced one of the decade's best rap songs in UGK and OutKast's "International Players Anthem" (actually a retooling of that they did in '02 for compadre Project Pat's "Choose U").
Where The Dilemma Kicks In: As successful as they had gotten, they also lost most of their group in that timespan. Kingpin Skinny Pimp and Koopsta Knicca left because of (what else) money problems, while Gangsta Boo and La' Chat simply sought their own lane, with no precise word on which issues came up between the two. Lord Infamous was barred from Sony's studios after a recording-session incident (which means even though he's still on good terms, he can never be on a proper album of theirs again), and Crunchy Black was removed because of a "lack of communication". All that left DJ Paul and Juicy J as the "Last 2 Walk" for the group, and even that album hit some snags after the disappointments of "Dope Boy Fresh", "Whatcha Starin At", and "Sugar Daddy" and was reworked under Pimp C's guidance hours before his untimely death. So, when they needed a mainstream hit to finally get that album in stock, what do they do?
The Decision: Get Money as a group, but Stay True as individual artists.
The Aftermath: "Get Money as a group" led to the club smash "Lolli Lolli (Pop That Body)", but was also seen by various fans as "the point where they should've quit" ("Shake My" and "Feel It" also stand out). However, "Stay True as individual artists" led to them releasing solo albums this past year (DJ Paul's "Scale-A-Ton" and Juicy J's "Hustle Till I Die") which maintain their old hardcore style. (For those who saw DJ Paul's "Buy My Old" video I linked in my last article, Juicy J gives another POV on Old Triple Six which can be seen here) No word on when their newest album Laws of Power is dropping.
Case #2: Gucci Mane
The Background: First hit the scene in 2005 with independent debut "Trap House". Most notable for lead single Icy featuring then-newcomer Young Jeezy (and for the surrounding beef that ensued when Jeezy was supposedly never paid for his verse). Featured rapid-fire lyrics in the "trap music" style which dominated Atlanta at that time (check out Alfamega collabo "Dopeman Phone Number"). Was followed up by "Hard to Kill", which featured his first mainstream hit "Freaky Girl" and led to a major deal with Atlantic.
Where The Dilemma Kicks In: Even after Atlantic, Big Cat Records still wasn't quite done with Gucci, releasing unauthorized albums "Trap-A-Thon" and later "Murder Was the Case" (not to be confused with Snoop Dogg's EP/movie). Needing to make sure his fans could tell the difference, he had to make a decision which would change his image forever.
The Decision: Get Money
The Aftermath:Atlantic debut "Back to the Trap House" showcased a dumbed-down flow which was met with derision and low album sales. However, pretty soon the industry realized he could be useful in small doses, which prompted features on the likes of E-40, Mario, DJ Drama, Trey Songz, Jagged Edge, Big Boi, and even Jamie Foxx's singles. This paved the way for his comeback and the relative success of follow-up "The State vs. Radric Davis", for which he was promoted to Warner Bros. Records.
Case #3: M.O.P.
The Background: Growing up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, Lil' Fame and Billy Danze were members of the Mash Out Posse gang, the namesake for the rap group they decided to form. They first appeared on the scene with "How About Some Hardcore?" from the "House Party 3" soundtrack with a low-budget video directed by the then-unknown Hype Williams. This success continued with their first three albums "To the Death", "Firing Squad", and "First Family for Life" (the latter of which was the most-stolen CD from RCA outlet stores in 1998). However, the fanbase exploded in 2000 with "Warriorz" lead single "Ante Up" and its remix featuring Busta Rhymes, then-unknown Remy Ma, and still-unknown Teflon. After Loud Records folded, the duo was quickly snagged up by Roc-a-Fella Records, where they had recorded three unreleased albums: "Ghetto Warfare", "The Last Generation", and "Kill Nigga Die Slo Bluckka Bluckka Bloaoow Blood Sweat Tears" and "We Out". After the Jay & Dame split, longtime fan 50 Cent signed them toG-Unit Records, where they were set to release "Yearly Physical".
Where The Dilemma Kicks In (Twice): Being signed to such a mainstream act, they knew they would have to tone down their hardcoreness at least slightly (the clean version of "Cold As Ice" sounds like the CD got scratched really bad). However, collabos with LFO and Victoria Beckham angered many of their longtime fans, leading them to quickly return to their roots with their collabos on Linkin Park's tour as well as appearances on EA Sports' "NFL Street 2" and "Fight Night 2004". Still, major labels thrive on mainstream, and the logical choice for them was evident.
The Decision (Both Times): Stay True
The Aftermath: Both times they asked for release from the Roc and the Unit, leaving them to finally drop another proper album "The Foundation" in '09. Well-received by critics, it stands as testimony that while M.O.P. will likely never taste mainstream success again, they will continue to make good music for their core underground audience for many years to come.
Case #4: Clipse
The Background: Bronx natives but Hampton Roads residents, our own Nathan believes them to be the poster case for this dilemma. Having signed to fellow Hampton Roads natives the Neptunes' Star Trak Entertainment, their debut album Lord Willin' was a refill of the fix radio was looking for at that time-it didn't hurt that Pharrell & Chad produced 75% of what was on the radio at that time. The formula certainly worked, as "Grindin'" and "When the Last Time" (which Malice now hates) quickly devoured the charts, and the 'Tunes quickly hooked them up with further show-stealing collabos (Birdman's "What Happened to That Boy" and E-40's "Quarterbackin'" stand out).
Where The Dilemma Kicks In: While the rest of Star Trak went to greener pastures on Interscope, a certain contract clause left the Clipse where they were at. It was after Arista shut down and the Jive people took over that hip-hop soon learned why no rapper should sign there. Though the Clipse had finished the initial form of "Hell Hath No Fury" in '04, Jive refused to release it for some reason, and when the brothers asked for a release from their contract, Jive refused to do that. It was at this point that they begun their critically-acclaimed "We Got It for Cheap" mixtape series, returning to their earlier hardcore street sound (using the typical rap statements, but finding new ways to say it). At that point, Jive was asking them to come back and get that album ahead. While the Clipse accepted, Jive constantly pushed it back until late November, at which point we heard their decision.
The Decision: Stay True
The Aftermath: They decided to throw away the rough draft and switch to a more angry, venom-spitting style for "Hell Hath No Fury"'s final version, prompting unprecedented critical acclaim (with many believing it's the most recent classic album in hip-hop) but disappointingly low sales. That secured (finally!) their release from Jive, with their earlier feel-good vibe taking over for '09's Columbia release "Till The Casket Drops" (which was solid, but not as great as their '06 work). Currently, Pusha T is working on his solo career, with various recommendations that he sign to Kanye's G.O.O.D. Music.
So after further review, Stay True is the best option to choose. As Paul Wall would later say following the low first-week sales of "Heart of a Champion": "I want my fanbase to be happy with music I make. In the industry these days, people want hits more than they want good music. As long as you got one good radio hit you can sell an album, but you got on radio hit and the rest be a wack album. I'd rather have a good solid album, all the way through. I think that's where I made a name for myself -- making good music. Even though I haven't really had too many big smash hits, I've been having good music. Every album got good quality music ... good solid albums."
And now I have a surprise announcement to make-this has been the last After Further Review until December. In its place I will run The Femcee Letters. Counting down until November 23 (the day Nicki Minaj's highly-anticipated debut is released), I will write an open letter to one standout female rapper on RefinedHype each week. Some will be pure praise, others will be pure criticism, but most will be a mixture of both.
So join us next week for the first of the Femcee Letters!