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This Is My Rifle: Jay-Z, Drake & the Art of Selling OutPosted by Jason James on 07/20/11 | Filed under Top Stories, Features, This Is My Rifle
“You should’ve been Drake”.
Yes, over the past few years a handful of people have actually had the balls to walk over and say that to me. I know that in their mind they’re trying to convey their appreciation for my music while drawing the comparison to say, “what the fuck is wrong with the world?” but I can’t help but be offended every time it happens. I smile gracefully and carry on with my day, spending the majority of it trying to suppress the rage bubbling inside brought on by statements made by people who know nothing about me or why I’ve chosen the path that I’m on. And let me be the one to tell you, I will not, and never will be, anything like Drake or any other rapper currently dominating the mainstream.
It’s not that I don’t like any of their music. Drake has some great songs and there are a few other popular artists that get steady burn in my iPod. There are some artists that are just undeniably talented and manage to cross both musical and cultural barriers. Jay-Z is an excellent example of that. His music (post-"Reasonable Doubt") has always had the uncanny ability to connect with people regardless of race, age or social status. His reign at the top has been like none other and I highly doubt we’ll ever see anything like it again. It’s nothing short of amazing that a man well into his 40’s can still make music appreciated by people half his age.
Perhaps a lot of what’s kept Jay-Z on top for so long, aside from being one of the greatest lyricists Hip Hop has ever seen, has to do with his willingness to mesh himself into whatever trend is happening at the time. If you look back through his discography, you can pinpoint the era in which that album was made by the featured artists, producers and overall sound. He’s a master of matching his competition and then out-doing them in their own arena while at the same time carving his own niche and pushing himself into mainstream dominance. In my opinion, Jay’s career can be summed up by the second verse of his song, “Moment Of Clarity” from “The Black Album”:
The music business hate me
Cause the industry ain't make me
Hustlers and boosters embrace me
And the music I be makin
I dumb down for my audience and double my dollars
They criticize me for it yet they all yell "Holla"
If skills sold, truth be told
I'd probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli
Truthfully, I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did five mil, I ain't been rhymin like Common since
When your sense got that much in common
And you been hustlin since your inception
Fuck perception, go with what makes sense
What Jay outlined was that crucial decision that all artists have to face sooner or later. It’s the moment that you have to choose between what’s more important, fame and financial status or total control over your creative direction and artistic integrity. Unfortunately, there are very few cases in which you can maintain both. Pusha T said it best; “We can’t all be Nas”.
Myself, I sit at the opposing end of the spectrum described in the lyrics above. You can literally reverse those 12 bars, switching the words for their polar opposites, and you have me. What drives me as an artist is not money or fame but an obsessive compulsion to achieve perfection. My creativity is the core of everything I do. Without it, I would cease to exist. I need to exercise it constantly or else I feel like I’m not living. When put in situations where I can’t create, my mind works in overdrive, frantically grasping to whatever thoughts that I can take and turn into words that will ultimately become songs.
I don’t know exactly when it all changed for me. In my early 20’s, as part of a group with fellow Refined Hype supported artists, e.d.g.e. and Shane Eli, our world revolved around someday eventually “making it”. A major part of what kept us together all those years was that we shared the same dream and we’d frequently talk about what life might be like when we finally signed that big record deal. The homes we’d buy, cars we’d drive and women we’d have sitting beside us in the passenger seat, we knew what we wanted and we were sure that some day we would attain it.
I can’t speak for e.d.g.e. or Shane, but over the years that dream slowly started to fade. As I came in contact with people inside the music industry and established artists, I saw their world for what it really is: a diluted, twisted, paranoid lie. The industry people could care less about the music; they were in it to make money. Time and time again I hit brick walls. The people put in place to find best and brightest the world had to offer were only looking for the closest comparable thing to whatever trend was happening at the moment. They weren’t interested in developing talent that had staying power; all they wanted was a quick buck.
As for the artists, these were some of the most delusional people I’ve ever come across. They were so lost in their own fabricated image that the only identity they had was the one manufactured by their publicist and record label. They were socially repressed, unable to hold an intelligent conversation for fear that they may infringe on who they’re supposed to be rather than who they actually are. And so they would avoid eye contact and seclude themselves to escape from any human contact not associated with talking about themselves. They were fragments of their former personalities, confused, beaten and submissive; the love for their art a vaguely distant memory.
Not everybody I encountered was this way. There were some who managed to successfully navigate the music industry without selling their souls, but I wasn’t willing to take the risk. I knew that virtually everything about myself and my music would have to change in order for me to appeal to a mainstream audience and so odds were that I wouldn’t make it out the same way I went in.
And so I chose to continue on with a new dream. Rather than be a puppet caught in the elaborate entanglement of fame and distortion, I decided to be free. If it meant that I would spend my life working a regular job and making music in my spare time, then so be it. Money could never equal the high I feel when my voice falls perfectly into the drums and a song is complete. No matter where the world takes me, my home will always be somewhere between a snare and a kick drum.
Yeah, I could’ve been Drake but I didn’t want to be. I’m sure he’s perfectly happy with his life as is and I’m very comfortable with mine. I like going places by myself and being left alone, and it’s nice to know that any woman that I spend time with is attracted to me because of who I am and not what I can do for them. It’s always a great feeling when people recognize me and come over to say they like the music and the articles, but I don’t know if I could handle it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
I mean, if I was Drake and with all the outlandish shit I say in these articles, could you imagine what the media would do to me? Good God man.
(Jason James is an artist, freelance columnist and writer for RefinedHype.com. You can listen/download his most recent album, "Marvelous World Of Color", here and you can contact him here and here.)