One of the myriad ways in which Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city was a departure from the conventional was how it simultaneously pleased both the label and hip-hop head—a feat rarely accomplished in a genre with such a vast disconnect of ideals between those two parties. He provided singles with bigger beats and more enduring hooks that could be profitable in the over-saturated singles market, yet they wove seamlessly into the project’s narrative. Kendrick became the commercial success Interscope had vied for, and he didn’t have to make a record that seemed all that inauthentic in the process.
As labels strive to stay afloat in the midst of declining record sales and a growing number of independent acts (who often now only request management services to push their singles to radio), they have become increasingly stringent about the financial promise of projects they release. This inflexibility has become quite public at times of hostility between the artist and label, as this is often the cause of albums being pushed back—especially when rappers with more advanced lyricism opt for the convenience offered by the majors. In 2011, Atlantic reportedly refused to release Lupe Fiasco’s highly anticipated Lasers, triggering a feud that persisted until he finally recorded “The Show Goes On,” appropriating a Modest Mouse sample that A&Rs knew would generate airplay. Lupe refused to submit completely, though, as he turned the song into an anti-label anthem, maintaining “they treat you like a slave.”
But that is the game to be played if an artist desires that level of fame. G-Eazy, however, has not signed, and with that choice came an expectation that his sound would be a continuation or upgrade of his earlier works. Unfortunately, he’s followed a route much more conventional than Kendrick’s, and one that ultimately feels much less graceful and fluid. Of all these moments in the time since These Things Happen released, none was more informative and vivid than listening to the Rick Ross-assisted “I Mean It” remix, which he premiered last week. This collaboration, surprisingly, doesn’t sound out of place or fabricated, and that’s the first mark of the problem. Sure, inauthentic collaborations conjured for exposure rather than fit occur regularly, but when they do, they don’t work and they shouldn’t. But we don’t find any of those anticipated outcomes here: Rick Ross boasting about his assets on a track with much more sustenance, Rick Ross out of his comfort zone trying to write something with sustenance, or even G-Eazy uncomfortably trying to play into Ross’ world and doing so with genuine difficulty. Both rappers’ verses here are equally mundane, comfortable, and—most of all—hollow, with not even a drip of extra depth coming from the man who’s about to be first heard by millions on this track.
These Things Happen is the debut of an artist who might as well have signed; it is the product of a conscious decision to undermine one’s craft in favor of commercial success. There are a number of echoes from his prior releases here, for sure, with relatively earnest songs about love and his struggles off-camera, but it’s littered with a set of stock singles—tracks that would have generated the same success on the pop charts if performed by any number of trap-hop emcees. For an artist with such a strong sense of his image and contrastive approach to his writing, it makes for a deeply complicated listening experience: the man in possession of unique skill and production prowess dissolving into ubiquity.
While artists’ attempts to gain crossover success are often defended by loyalists as a mark of versatility, these choices more often than not contradict their narrative. Hip-hop fans are eager for a revitalization of their genre—at least as it exists in the public eye—and latch on to artists promising to change its aesthetic. On “Opportunity Cost”—which might be G-Eazy’s most thoughtful song to date—he sincerely raps about what he’s sacrificed personally to pursue hip-hop. There’s a line in it where he says he’s “trying to outdo all those rappers who think that they can spit” that is essentially indicative of his entire operation, and his vocal efforts to advance hip-hop. And yet it’s impossible to revisit this moment and cherish the genuine emotions of it when two songs later he’s alongside A$AP Ferg starting his verse with, “Yeah I get a lot of checks and yeah I have a lot of sex.”
Artists like G-Eazy earn platforms from which they are high enough to attain a star feature or make a play at radio because of their fan base. And those fans are earned, at least predominately, by an artist’s ability to write about topics of resonance; an ability to guide fans as they navigate challenges and encounter shared experiences. Thus, it can’t help but feel like a sort of duplicity when artists on the cusp of fame continue to take these conventional routes. We can only hope that more artists will avoid the allure of big companies and their needs in order to stay in demand, and follow the formula of those who have traversed these waters before to come out with their integrity unscathed. I guess when the taste of fame is within reach, though, even for the most passionate of reformist voices, these things happen.