Excessive Branding Ventures Are Killing Hip-Hop’s Soul

Alphonse Pierre
·8 min read

Pitchfork writer Alphonse Pierre’s rap column covers songs, mixtapes, albums, Instagram freestyles, memes, tweets, fashion trendsand anything else that catches his attention.

Misadventures in hip-hop branding

I get it. Like athletes, musicians usually have a finite amount of time to make their money. Who are we to tell them not to? But hip-hop fans, like me, are protective. In our heads and hearts, rap is supposed to be the one thing that’s not allowed to be commodified or appropriated—though history has shown that quite a few rappers don’t agree. Here are some of the most egregious recent offenders when it comes to selling out hip-hop’s soul.

Tyga, Swae Lee, and Lil Mosey’s SpongeBob song

For the right price, corporations can get Tyga to do just about anything. Paramount Animation and Nickelodeon Movies sent the reborn California rapper a check, and now he’s responsible for “Krabby Step,” a miserable-sounding song for the upcoming SpongeBob movie. You might be thinking, “Chill, Alphonse, it’s supposed to be a fun song for kids,” but hey, a lot of fun shit for kids sucks, and so does this.

The only tolerable part is Albert Hype and Tainy’s nautical production, which they clearly made in five minutes before spending the rest of the studio session doing snow angels in their newly acquired piles of money. The rest is predictably abysmal. “I’m flippin’ them patties, I’m chillin’ with Patrick,” blandly wails Swae Lee; it’s unclear if he’s ever seen more than one episode of SpongeBob. Of course, the biggest offender is Tyga, who leads the most basic dance-a-long imaginable: to the left, to the right, stand up, hands up. The order of the steps doesn’t even make sense, because you would need to stand up before stepping left or right. Again, I know you’re going to say, “Alphonse, the dance is for kids.” But c’mon, we’re in the age of TikTok, where kids have proven they can get the hang of Beyoncé-level choreography. Everyone can do a lot better here.

Lyrical Lemonade is helping to rebuild the NFL’s image

Director Cole Bennett’s Lyrical Lemonade, a platform popular for making cartoonish music videos for rising rap stars, has ties to the NFL that are slowly becoming more defined. Earlier this year the Chicago Bears announced their schedule with a Lyrical Lemonade animation soundtracked by the Jack Harlow “WHATS POPPIN” instrumental. Then the NFL as a whole did the same, announcing their season’s return with another animation made by the platform, this time with guest appearances by Saweetie, Kid Cudi, Lil Durk, and more. It sure seems like the NFL is looking to Lyrical Lemonade to help rebuild its image in the eyes of a younger audience wary of the league because of its treatment of Colin Kaepernick.

This week, Lyrical Lemonade and the Bears put out an advertisement for their upcoming fashion line. The video unexpectedly stars Chicago heroes G Herbo and Lucki tossing a football, while Herb’s “Swervo” plays in the distance. Once I got over Herb’s monstrous throwing motion, I realized this ad shows that brands value hip-hop so much they’re even willing to attach themselves to artists who aren’t superstars.

Travis Scott being Travis Scott

Human IPO Travis Scott has spent much of 2020 trying to transform himself into a commodity. It probably worked. Following money grabs with Fortnite and McDonald’s, next up on his hit list is Sony’s PlayStation 5. Travis promised to reimagine the unboxing video with his PlayStation tie-in, but of course he didn’t. (For all his talk of being a visionary creative, he rarely does anything to back that up.) He just made a 10-minute video of nothing—honestly, seeing Travis do a traditional unboxing would have been more captivating. Personally, I feel like Sony could be more creative in their attempts to burn briefcases of money. Maybe they could bring back Bow Wow’s old clothing line for kids? Or just write Ja Rule a check to run another music festival?

Please, stop

Big Mali: “Outro”

Big Mali likes beats with 808s so big they register on a seismograph. On “Outro,” the bouncy piano melody might as well be nonexistent once the thunderous bass kicks in. And the North Carolina rapper matches the bold beat with every bar. She raps at the pace of an auctioneer—so fast that you may not even notice she spends the entire song dreaming up new ways to viciously threaten somebody. “We come to yo’ city in whatever weather,” she raps, definitely not talking about booking a vacation.

Five memorable things about Jeezy and Gucci’s tense Verzuz battle

  • When Gucci and Jeezy were 45 minutes late to the Magic City stage, and Swizz Beatz announced the two were getting tested for COVID. Because, as we know, Verzuz battles are essential work.

  • When Gucci said, “My outfit cost 10 bands, look at my opponent,” before playing “Photoshoot.” Then Jeezy awkwardly tried to fall back on his obsession with real estate.

  • Their inability to hide their animosity for one another.

  • When Gucci ruthlessly rapped along to “Truth,” and Jeezy tried to play it off with a fake-deep, sitcom-father monologue about being a “man.” (Every rapper turns into Carl Winslow after 40.)

  • After nearly two hours of shots fired, mostly by Gucci, the two magically buried the hatchet and performed “So Icy” together. It was bizarre. Then they told all of Atlanta to meet them at the club—COVID be damned—and rode off into the sunset together like cowboys at the end of a western.

d0llywood1: “Nonchalant”

Though it runs for less than two minutes, d0llywood1’s “Nonchalant” is full of rewindable moments—like when the Louisiana artist’s soothingly robotic vocals purposely skip like a scratched record; or when Super Mario Bros.–like sound effects randomly appear in the glitchy instrumental; or when the drums become fuzzy, and d0lly’s steady croon transforms into an irritated wail. “I been noticing they want me to give up,” she sings over a beat that sounds like it’s clashing with itself, her frustration perfectly suited for all of the chaos around her.

The common collaborative-album flaws of Pluto x Baby Pluto

If we were to find out Lil Uzi Vert and Future’s Pluto x Baby Pluto only came to fruition because of the similarity of their nicknames, it wouldn’t be surprising. Going back to their 2016 collaboration “Too Much Sauce,” the two have never operated on the same wavelength, and Pluto x Baby Pluto runs into the same problems as similarly underwhelming high-profile collaborative albums. Specifically:

The What a Time to Be Alive problem

This is when the spectacle is more interesting than the actual music. It’s not to say that WATTBA is bad, I actually quite like it, but still the idea of Drake and Future at their cultural peaks cutting an entire record together in six days is more memorable than any song they made. Similarly, but in a more deflating way, Pluto x Baby Pluto is only appealing because it’s something I thought would never exist.

The Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho problem

This is when the album would have been better off as fan fiction. If some kid with too much free time mashed together Uzi and Future verses, it would probably sound more imaginative than the drab reality.

The Super Slimey problem

This is when you’re not sure the two artists even like each other. For a collaborative album to work there has to be some sort of base-level connection. Future and Uzi seem to have the type of friendship you have with your friend’s friend. It’s as if they had some leftover tracks laying around and decided to cook up a surefire scheme to increase their budgets for trips to Saks Fifth and anime-themed car designs.

Shaudy Kash and Topside: “Showed Them Niggas”

This year, Topside brought a refreshing change of pace to Detroit hip-hop. The producer makes ominous, serene beats better suited for a smoke-filled basement than a club with bottle service. Many of the city’s rappers have made some of their best music on his instrumentals, yet they’ve responded to his sound in different ways: Babyface Ray provided soothing poetics on “Fake Luv,” while Los lent his heavy-voiced dramatics to “Matlock.” On “Showed Them Niggas,” Topside laces Shaudy Kash with a gloomy piano melody and brings in drums that sound as tense as footsteps on an old wood floor. Shaudy Kash rants under his own breath as if he doesn’t think anyone else can hear him, making the most of another eccentric Topside beat.

Fredo Bagz: “Bleed Em” [ft. TTG Dree and ALL4POP]

The spiritual connection between the Bay Area and Michigan is real. Some fans might hear a song like Oakland rapper Fredo Bagz’s “Bleed Em” and claim theft, on account of the short, baton-passing verses and the thudding instrumental by Sav (a Chicago producer who mostly makes beats for Michigan rappers). But that’s not true. Since the days of Too $hort and MC Breed, the two regions have been equally influential to one another. Fredo Bagz just happens to lean on that influence a little more than others. The three rappers on “Bleed Em” are having fun, jam-packing their brief verses with as many punchlines as possible. And regardless of outside inspiration, their lingo and slick-talking personalities are undeniably rooted in the Bay.

Originally Appeared on Pitchfork