Music

Why Do Rappers Keep Quitting?

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Take this job and shove it, Turtle

A couple of weeks ago, Saigon posted a long rant on his MySpace blog about how he’s quitting the rap game. His reasoning: “Now I can say what the fuck I want, when I want, however the fuck I want without people feeling like they have the right to ridicule me, judge me and talk slick about me because I have this title ‘Rapper’ attached to my name.” Today, Pitchfork ran an interview with Lupe Fiasco where Lupe talked about how the album he’s got coming out is his second-to-last. His reasoning: “I’m at a creative end. I really don’t think I have that much to say. And I don’t want to get to the point where I’m putting out music just to put out music.” In both of these cases, there seems to be some pretty sound reasoning at work, even if in both cases it’s surrounded by pretension and bluster. But it’s sort of striking how quickly these guys are getting tired of the music business when they’ve both only really just broken in. Saigon and Lupe were both on the cover of XXL‘s next-big-things issue a couple of months back. Between them, they’ve released a grand total of one album. After years of working to get into the position where major record labels are releasing and promoting their music, these guys are declaring themselves done with the business before the vast majority of the music-listening public has had a chance to figure out who they are. I still haven’t heard The Cool, the new Lupe album that’s coming out in a couple of weeks, but a friend who’s heard it reports that he keeps saying “one more to go” throughout. It’s kind of hard to get excited about rap music when the people making the music keep reminding you how over it they are.

Common mag-industry wisdom has it that you have to have three workable examples before you can write a trend-piece, so this isn’t really a trend-piece. I can’t think of any other young rappers who are declaring themselves through with rap, though I wouldn’t be shocked if there’s some random mixtape rapper out in New Jersey doing just that this second. And Saigon and Lupe are two very different cases. Lupe’s long been planning to only release three albums, whereas Saigon seems to be going off on the spur of the moment; there’s a good chance he’ll either issue a retraction soon or just keep on as if the outburst never happened. Still, it’s pretty amazing to see both of these guys making dramatic-exit talk at the exact same time. Rap has had more than its share of halfassed retirements, retirements which always turn out to be temporary. But it hasn’t had a whole lot of high-profile figures who just storm out of the industry in disgust. To be sure, a whole lot of foul shit happens in the music industry, and as record sales continue to tank, there’s also less money going around. But Saigon and Lupe have spent long enough in the music business that they knew what they were getting into when they signed their contracts. It baffles me that either of them can be surprised about how much bullshit is involved in making a career out of rapping.

One of the weird things about rap is that none of the richest rappers make most of their money rapping. They all have clothing lines or action-figures or signature microwave-popcorn brands or whatever, and those things generate a whole lot more money than music. But to get to the point where someone is making that microwave-popcorn money, you actually have to become a popular enough rapper that the microwave-popcorn companies of the world sit up and take notice. The biggest financial incentive to keep rapping isn’t record sales or live-show fees; it’s the possibility of endorsements. Another weird thing is the recent mentality that being a rapper isn’t cool and so every rapper needs to constantly remind you that he’s not a rapper but that he’s really a master kingpin drug-dealer who also raps, just for fun. I’ve interviewed both Lupe and Saigon in the past, and both of them are total rap dorks, people who have studied the form for years and who take their craft seriously. But I wonder if the general devaluation of the craft of rapping has somehow seeped into every rapper who either wants to quit right now or who wants to record a few albums an then quit. If it’s not cool to be a rapper anymore, and if the music business is such an exploitative mess, then why would anyone even bother? Why isn’t every rapper just throwing up his hands and quitting? Is everyone on the cover of that XXL next-big-things issue going to announce a sudden retirement within the year? Or are they all going to do the honorable thing and gradually fade into obscurity instead?

Voice review: Colin Fleming on Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor