Don’t need no help
A few months ago, XXL put out its so-called “Leaders of the New School” issue, a fold-out cover that featured a bunch of guys like Crooked I and Papoose and Lupe Fiasco. The reaction to the article was interesting; I remember reading a few blogs claiming that the only person on the cover who stood a chance at achieving real stardom was Lil Boosie. I’m not entirely convinced that that’s true; the jury is still out on someone like Lupe, who hasn’t yet made the crossover leap but who conceivably could. But it’s hard to argue against the idea that we’re seeing a serious shortage of new rap stars. Most of today’s biggest stars are people like Jay-Z and Kanye West and T.I., people who predate the download age and who can still boast of millions of records sold, which is probably a big part of the reason how they’re still actually able to sell records. The most interesting case might be someone like Lil Wayne, who made the leap to real stardom in the past couple of years by putting an absolute deluge of new material online but who still sold a few million records back when he was a teenager who couldn’t rap that well. I’m not entirely certain that it’s still possible for a younger rapper to capture the imaginations of large audiences when those audiences are totally unwilling to buy music in significant numbers. It’s easy to imagine rap radio a few years ago turning out like modern-rock radio these days, where boom-time veterans like the Chili Peppers and the Foo Fighters share space with younger, smaller-name, more businesslike bands like Seether, bands that churn out familiar sounds without even attempting to find their own personalities. A music as self-referential as rap needs star figures. Among younger rappers, we’re seeing a couple of different and sort of opposed models of star-making. On one had, there’s someone like Flo Rida, a crossover rapper who hasn’t shown much glimmer of actual personality. On the other, there’s Lil Boosie, a cult figure in the South who may or may not be able to cross over.
Someone somewhere out there is already making a whole lot of money off of Flo Rida, even though he has yet to release an album. “Low” is a total juggernaut of a song, a paid-download record-setter that’s topped Billboard‘s singles chart for nine weeks running. “Low” seemed to come out of nowhere; as I wrote last year, before the song debuted atop the iTunes download chart, I’d never heard of the track and I’d barely heard of the rapper. Virtually everyone I know seems to hate “Low” with a fiery passion, and I’m not entirely certain why. It’s a perfectly workable club-rap song with a sticky hook, and if anything I’m learning to like it more now that it’s totally ubiquitous, since it’s hard to hate any chorus so obviously tailor-made for drunken group singalongs. The worst thing you can say about Flo Rida’s delivery on “Low” is that he’s essentially just filling up time between the T-Pain hooks that really define the song’s appeal. He’s got a dextrous and twisty flow that stays on-beat even when he switches it up. On the indefensible seven-minute posse-cut remix of Rick Ross’s “Speedin’,” Flo Rida had the only halfway decent verse. And I really like his new single, “Elevators,” though that track coasts on Timbaland’s all-over-the-place beat as much as “Low” did on T-Pain’s chorus.
Someone at Atlantic clearly seems to think that Flo Rida will be able to keep earning for the label post-“Low”; otherwise, no label exec would ever green-light an expensive Timbaland track for a rapper who’s never sold a single album. That alone mean Flo Rida has proven himself more marketable than other one-hitters like Mims or the Shop Boyz, rappers whose careers started and ended with their singles. In videos, Flo Rida looks like a rap star created in a focus-group: big muscles, trademarkable back-tattoo, total lack of visible bullet-wounds. But it’s weird seeing him show up in, say, the rapper cameo-parade during Fat Joe’s “I Won’t Tell” video, since he comes off more like a Michelin Man/Ronald McDonald corporate spokesmodel than like an actual rapper. Other than his one big hit and his weirdly huge head, nothing sets this guy apart. Even though Nelly was expressing the same sentiments on his first two singles back in 2000, that guy at least could rely on his springly singsong delivery and his infectious enthusiasm to distinguish him. Flo Rida is just a big blank. He might score a couple more big hits, but I can’t see him capturing public imagination and becoming a worthy successor to the still-kicking stars of the pre-download era, at least not until he develops something resembling a personality. Right now, he’s rap’s Seether.
That’s not a problem for Lil Boosie. Noz has an interesting column today about how Trill Ent., Boosie’s label, is the last relevant label in rap, the only functional successor to the late-90s No Limit/Cash Money model. Trill has built up a fierce regional following by developing a signature sound and a stable of in-house rappers, the most instantly recognizable of whom is clearly Boosie. Boosie’s deranged, hammering squeak is one of rap’s most distinct; absolutely nobody sounds anything like him. And as cartoonish as that voice can sound, it still works when Boosie’s delivering vivid threats and bluesy struggle narratives as it does when he’s making goofy club-rap. He’s also an absolute workhorse, doing shows in every scuzzy, crazy club he can find across the South and building himself the sort of fervent fanbase that only comes along when you come into personal contact with your audience. A few months back, I went to Orlando to write a feature on Boosie for King magazine, and I stood at the back of the stage taking notes like a herb while Boosie rocked a pretty huge crowd that screamed all the words to all the songs he did, singles and album tracks alike. In parts of this country, the question of whether Boosie can ever become a star doesn’t make any sense; by building an audience from the ground up, he’s already there.
But to become a nationwide star, the type who can still sell CDs past gold, Boosie needs a few nationwide crossover hits. He had one with the “Wipe Me Down” remix last year, and he’s got one now with “Independent.” (“Wipe Me Down” is technically his labelmate Foxx’s track, and “Independent” belongs to Webbie, but neither of those songs would have half the impact they’ve had without their scene-stealing Boosie verses, so I’m crediting him.) “Independent” is especially intriguing because it’s a statement in favor of female self-reliance no less remarkable for its transparent insincerity. When I interviewed Boosie in Orlando, he didn’t exactly come across like the kind of guy who would big up the hardworking women in the world out of the pure sentiment. He was adamant that he raps for the money and for no other reason, and “Independent” is a blatant pander to a female audience. But it’s still pretty amazing to hear a song like that on the radio when virtually no rappers are voicing ideas like those. Still, I’m not entirely convinced that Boosie can become a major national star even if he scores a couple more hits like that; unlike “Low,” Boosie’s hits are about as Southern-specific in sound as crossover hits get. But I’m also not entirely convinced that that matters. Rap is well along the way to becoming a loosely connected network of cult audiences; one rapper’s audience may or may not overlap with another’s. If Boosie commands a big enough cult, it’s almost immaterial whether anyone in New York gives a fuck about him.