This feature is part of a larger series where we will examine the "business model" of impactful hip-hop artists. Visit last week's instalment, about Tory Lanez, here.
For a generation of aspiring hip-hop artists, one commodity is cherished like no other. A far cry from anything that the culture’s time-honoured four elements could’ve anticipated, this one elusive attribute doesn’t play into the concept of showing your prowess over your fellow rapper, graffiti artist or B-boy. Instead, this sought-after status symbol is anything but straightforward to obtain and so many ill-fated attempts to cultivate it have left artists as the brunt of the joke. Above longevity, credibility or any of those hallmarks of a healthy career that artists of the past prioritized, what many of today’s rappers really covet is virality.
As outlined by the Oxford dictionary, virality essentially relates to “the tendency of an image, video, or piece of information to be circulated rapidly and widely from one Internet user to another.” This is a fairly common occurrence in the hip-hop world. Whether it’s Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang,” Sheck Wes’ “Mo Bamba” or the many incarnations of Blueface’s “Thotiana,” these widely disseminated tracks can form the basis of a fanbase that treads somewhere between meme-oriented and sincere or act as a launchpad for artists to explore more meaningful work in the months and years that follow.
While Gazzy Garcia and his team know exactly what it takes to elicit this reaction from the public-- which can be all found in their deeply cynical but no less effective “Pump Plan”-- another artist that has learned how to bend the internet’s attention span to his will is Joyner Lucas. As far as artistry goes, Lil Pump and Joyner Lucas couldn’t be at more opposing ends of the spectrum and the concept of being in the same sentence as the man behind “Drug Addicts” would likely cause the Worchester, Massachusetts MC to experience physical pain. Nevertheless, the common ground is their desire to accrue as much of a viral presence as possible in order to further their respective careers.
Where Lil Pump does so through Instagram-based feats of extravagance and teenage hijinks, Joyner’s approach is built on provocative output and capitalizing on trends or news cycles. But where other artists would package the music as an afterthought, part of Joyner’s mastery of the viral world comes in his unorthodox approach.
Joyner Lucas at the 61st Grammys - Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images
Explained in the wake of his politically charged and Grammy-nominated “I’m Not Racist,” Joyner granted Revolt TV a glance into how he constructs music. The perfect marriage between the audio and the visual of a black man and a Trump-supporting white man was no accident and was the product of an upended methodology to the average artist’s process:
“I take the video first approach. I write the video treatment first. I write the soundtrack to the visuals and once I know what the video is going to look like, I go and create the record around the structure of the video. That approach works for me… the typical Joyner Lucas fan, they love that about me and that’s what they look forward to.”
For many rappers, the visual aspect of the music rollout is an afterthought rather than of the utmost importance. In Joyner’s case, it takes precedence on the grounds that “I’m a director at heart. I’m trying to venture off into movies. I’m trying to get into a bigger world.”
As it stands, the polarizing nature of “I’m Not Racist” and his decision to show things from both perspectives paid off and has resulted in the video amassing 121,501,860 views to date. A number that many rappers would envy, what makes the successful unveiling of the track all the more exceptional is that its YouTube views even surpass that of Joyner’s “Lucky You” collaboration with the eternally popular Eminem.
While “I’m Not Racist” propelled Joyner to newfound heights and prompted Em to declare that he “should’ve won a Grammy” for the track, this recipe for success is one that he’d prototyped from an assortment of different angles and continues to tweak as the release of his new album ADHD edges closer. Long before he was discussed by CNN, Joyner had ran plays on how to breach the mainstream’s defences in two distinct ways. Introduced via his rework of Desiigner’s “Panda,” the lyrically adept MC began to repurpose the prevailing “mumble rap” hits of the day to present himself as "the alternative" and to capitalize off of the audience’s familiarity with the beat. Whether it was “Gucci Gang,” Future’s “Mask Off” or 21 Savage’s “Bank Account,” his reworks of these popular tracks yielded big numbers time and time again and helped him to build a viral buzz as the “antidote” to perceived inanity in hip-hop. In coincidence with these tracks, Joyner was perfecting the formula for the video that would take him into the stratosphere with the heartrending anti-suicide anthem “I’m Sorry” and the road safety awareness on “Frozen.”
No matter how well meaning-- or alternatively-- transparent these efforts seem to you, there’s no denying that Joyner was acutely aware of their potential to go viral and understandably knew that it could benefit his career. Over the past month or so, this tactic has been implemented by him for both the divisive “Devil’s Work” and “ISIS.”
Logic and Joyner performing at 2019 Boston Calling - Taylor Hill/Getty Images
In the case of the former, the sheer brashness of wishing death upon R. Kelly, Tomi Lahren, Donald Trump and Suge Knight in exchange for the return of Nipsey Hussle, 2Pac, Michael Jackson and others was always going to generate a response due to shock value. As a student of the game, Joyner understands the allure of controversy and as such, knows that it’s a way to transform an artist’s song from a passing concern to a must-listen so that you can adequately provide your own two cents. Hailed as a moment for the culture by Rihanna, the quickness with which he retweeted this praise on his scarcely used social media channels made it clear that it was the sort of response that he hoped to garner. A move used to maximize the impact when he does post, it once again served him well when it came time to release “ISIS.” Complete with a verse from former enemy Logic, the video rollout with the caption “what’s beef…” was an attempt to send the Twittersphere into hysterics. Squashing their issues may have been done in public for marketing purposes, but here we are discussing it all the same.
Capable of igniting social media curiosity with every move, it is undeniably a smart approach for an artist that is relishing his renewed independence. But if chart success remains the ultimate metric of success in the rap game, the devil’s advocate would have to ask whether Joyner is doing what’s best for his overall prosperity. After all, these momentary waves of infamy and enduringly profitable careers aren’t necessarily indivisible. As it stands, Joyner has had three tracks make their way on to the Billboard Hot 100-- his feature on Eminem’s “Lucky You,” the Chris Brown-aided “Stranger Things” and his recent track with Logic. Now, considering that each appearance on the Hot 100 has come with the crutch of an artist that consumers are more acquainted with, it makes you wonder whether his viral hype is as transferable as once hoped.
Let’s make one thing clear. Joyner Lucas is an immensely talented rapper and a man that has had to construct his own lane at every fork in the road. Deemed by collaborator Boi-1da to be “one of the best lyricists and storytellers I’ve ever heard” and “not your conventional artist,” it’s clear that he has all of the tools to sustain a career in the industry. Enviable as his regularly replenished viral status may seem, the real question is whether he needs to dispense with responding to what’s timely, in favour of producing art that is made with timelessness in mind. If ADHD arrives with the impact that the viral model would suggest then his decision will be vindicated. If not, perhaps the effectiveness of controversy and taking the internet by storm isn’t as sustainable as it may initially seem on paper.