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Hip Hop Fridays: Talent vs. Marketability by Jason Alston

The following scene will sound very familiar to true hip hop fans.

You’re discussing urban music with a fellow “rap” fan, usually a wannabe thug or a pop-loving young lady. You and this person disagree on how skilled a particular popular artist is. You make some valid points as to why this artist isn’t all he is cracked up to be; perhaps his rhymes are basic or maybe his lyrics don’t any sense. Maybe he is unoriginal and talks about the same stuff song after song, just like the 200 artists who sound just like him.

Regardless, you make some powerful arguments supporting your premise that the commercial artist is more of a pop icon versus a hip-hop pioneer. But that’s when it happens. With no other legs to stand on, your friend has no other choice but to make the asinine assertion that the artist has to be good because he’s selling records and getting lots of radio time.

This suspect reasoning has gone on in the hip hop world for far too long, and it continues to be prevalent because many urban music fans have failed to distinguish “talent” from “marketability.” Talent is what spawns good hip hop. Marketability is what sells records to the masses.

Unfortunately, in today’s hip hop world, there are scores of low-talent rappers who dominate the air waves and go multi-platinum due to their marketability. Some low-talents, such as Chingy, are able to sell because of their good looks and ability to appeal to young girls. Others, like Lil Wayne, have sold records by exploiting a thug appeal, thus making themselves marketable to those who idolize street life and fantasize about being gangstas. Some low-talents use gimmicks; Mike Jones, for instance, masks his lyrical shortcomings by frequently repeating himself. And one of hip hop’s best selling low-talents, Nelly, has risen to the top by exploiting his hometown marketability; rap fans typically support artists who rep their hometowns and, before Nelly, no one was repping St. Louis and very few were holding it down for the Midwest.

These artists have sold well and, with the exception of Jones, have enjoyed lengthy careers. But what many of their fans fail to realize is their success is not a reflection of talent, but of marketability. None of these guys are known for being remarkable wordsmiths, or conveying profound messages, or for being particularly unique and creative, which are all reflections of talent. At times, Nelly fails to even make much sense. But they all sell and they all sell well.

There are plenty of very talented rappers out there, but many of them will never go multi-platinum or have a number one video on 106 & Park because they don’t have the required market appeal. Acts like Jurrassic 5, Dilated Peoples, Murs, Jean Grae, Immortal Technique and many others have won cult followings in the underground by infusing the market with fresh ideas, intelligent lyrics and remarkable rhyming capabilities. But these acts don’t have the sex appeal, thug appeal, or reliance on gimmicks that it takes to go multi-platinum. Intelligence, consciousness and creativity may make good music, but they don’t appeal to mass audiences or sell millions of units.

It is possible for an artist to be both talented and marketable. The late Tupac for instance could convey ideas and craft rhymes like nobody else, but he also had the sex-appeal and thug-appeal necessary to reach a mass audience. The rap duo Outkast has been known to incorporate gimmicks into their act, but they are also among the most unique and creative rappers the game has ever known.

And whereas intelligence hinders some rappers from selling well, artists like Mos Def, Common and Talib Kweli have been very successful in spreading knowledge and provoking thought through their rhymes. What makes artists like these three marketable is that even commercial rap fans - contrary to popular belief - often want to hear at least some intelligent hip hop on the radio from time to time.

Then of course there’s Eminem. Em had worked the underground circuit in Detroit for quite some time before meeting Dr. Dre and becoming famous. Even in his underground days, Em was a talented wordsmith capable of crafting complicated rhyme schemes, as evident in his underground release “Infinite.” But Em didn’t become an icon to self-disenfranchised suburbanites until he learned to play up on the “white kids have it hard too” angle.

And of course it is possible for rappers to be both untalented and unmarketable. This is why acts like Pretty Willie and B-Rich were quickly forgotten.

Perhaps in the world of pop music the number of records sold serves as an adequate measure of how good an album is. But in hip hop, the number of units sold has nothing to do with how good an album is. A product record put out by a puppet artist will always do well if properly promoted. But it’s not talent selling such a record, it’s marketability.

When arguing with me over how talented Nelly is, a friend of mine actually said, “Well he’s cute, that has to stand for something.” For a model, maybe, but not for a musician. If you think an artist is cute, you’d be better served buying a poster of him instead of buying an album. And if you want to support your hometown, don’t buy a record from an artist who comes from your city, donate the money you were going to spend to your local Boys and Girls Club or do some community service.

Buying a record from a rapper that claims to be a thug doesn’t make you hard. Want to be hard? Want respect? Then come to the aid of those who are victimized in your community. And acquire knowledge; nothing scares an oppressive force more than someone who is too smart to be easily tricked.

So to my hip hop fans, next time someone tries to say a certain artist is talented because he sold well or tries to say one artist is better than another because he’s sold more albums, explain to them the difference between talent and marketability. As long as people are still unable to distinguish the difference between talent and marketability, commercial rap will continue to dominate the air waves keep talented rappers from getting the shine they deserve.

Jason Alston is a reporter for The Henderson Daily Dispatch in Henderson, N.C. He can be reached at

Jason Alston

Friday, August 19, 2005

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