Over the past decade in hip-hop, it’s become conventional for emcees with a mainstream reputation to create their own imprints, embracing the role of executive. The rationale is obvious: provide the genre with tastemakers who aren’t as disconnected, and—hopefully—have hip-hop’s best interests in mind (and thus sign artists who reflect positively upon the genre). This has been the case to an extent, sure.
When Eminem signed Slaughterhouse and Yelawolf in 2011, he was clearly influenced by his own passion for advanced lyricism; when Jay Z signed J. Cole as Roc Nation’s first artist, he made the choice solely off of hearing “Lights Please”. Troubling, though, is the recurring trend of rappers getting a deal by affiliation or as a result of friendship. This has been persistent across the genre, even by the most shrewd and business-minded label heads. Lest we forget 50 Cent’s longtime friend Tony Yayo, or how Hov spent six years and dropped millions trying to convince the hip-hop community that his friend (and fellow Marcy Projects alum) Memphis Bleek was a great talent.
Last month brought the first proper release from J. Cole’s newly established Dreamville Records—a joint venture with Interscope—that materialized earlier this year in the form of Bas’ Last Winter. Bas has been a part of Cole’s camp since meeting him through mutual friends at St. John’s, not far from where the Queens-bred Bas grew up.
Bas began rapping in 2010 and has worked arduously to refine his skill set, frequently claiming that his relationship with Cole played no role in his deal, that he earned it solely off merit—a doubtful notion. Cole gave him a supporting role on the 50 Cent-assisted Born Sinner leftover, “New York Times”, and then put him square in the limelight on Revenge of the Dreamers in January. While Bas didn’t receive much of a response—he wasn’t yet explicitly co-signed by his mentor—Cole was anxious to release a project on his new imprint, and Bas had been working on Last Winter for years. As was parodied in their in-house 30/30 spoof, Bas created an album that was full of original content, and thus Cole ran with the idea of releasing “an album from a nigga who ain’t got a lotta fans yet.”
Cole’s protégé possesses certain ability, but Winter was a weak stab at justifying his newly inked contract. It’s plausible, then, to suggest that were it not for knowing Cole, Bas wouldn’t find himself in a similar situation of support. Media coverage for Bas may also be contributed to his cosign.
We’ve entered a time in music journalism where publications are struggling to both provide quality control and seize as much traffic as possible. As they see it, taking an honest stance on music is important, but only if it can be done without compromising advantageous relationships. What this leads to is an inextricably inconsistent narrative that would never fly in any other kind of arts publication.
Even the sites that employ criticism and effectively evaluate new music always go right back and try to do exclusive interviews with those same artists. So, prior to even listening to Last Winter, the stance that the media will undoubtedly take is predicated by the fact that he’s close with J. Cole. And if Cole might possibly read your post, and then remember that post when he’s looking to do interviews about his third LP, you better write something generous. It’s no fault of his own, but before a critic even presses play on “N.W.O.”, he or she knows how to spin the review.
Maybe it’s an unrelated circumstance, but last month Complex interviewed Bas and wrote a piece that served primarily as an opportunity to flatter him. While speaking about Bas’ single “My Nigga Just Made Bail”, which features J. Cole, the writer boasted, “…it really shows your versatility as a rapper. You’re telling a story on the record.” Go listen to that song and do your best to uncover a laudable narrative. Would the coverage be different if he didn’t know J. Cole? Would various publications even bother with Bas in the first place? The ultimate question for any musician gifted shine and a cosign by another is, as a standalone artist, does he or she deserve it?