It’s nice to have artists who serve as beacons of light, upon whom the camera can pan to, at any given moment, and they will be caught offering an irradiant smile and dance. However, there will inevitably be moments when these lights burn out and the dimness of their silhouettes leaves us feeling foolish for ever having relied on this source of warmth. It’s usually then that we question whether we are at fault for having expected too much or whether the artist led us down a road that promised reward at the end, but relied on our energy to continually construct this fantasy.
When Chance the Rapper’s name first started drifting around the Internet, it was at the tail end of the mixtape era. People were preemptively becoming nostalgic for a time when an artist could blow up off DatPiff. So when they first heard lil Chano from 79th’s squawky voice on 10 Day, they were ready to hit the download button and enter the captcha code. Not only was the wordplay wonderful and the samples eclectic, but the project had a captivating origin story. You could play the tape for a friend, affecting a knowledge of underground rap as you recounted the tale of some dude recording these songs during his 10-day suspension from high school for smoking weed. It was goofy and angsty. Therefore, it was accessible and relatable.
Chance’s 2013 follow-up, Acid Rap, was a more polished version of what attracted people to 10 Day. It struck the same balance between tracks that convince you that you have a good ass day ahead of you and the ones that score your paranoia about things not actually being so peachy. Fast forward to Colouring Book and we’re being asked to buy into a whole new philosophy – everything’s good, ALWAYS, and God is to thank for that. When this enthusiasm was too much for some to match, they hopped off the bandwagon. By the time The Big Day came around, those who checked ‘Yes’ to attend were ready to be showered in sunshine. But now, it was a strain of joy that was too specific to slide into. For listeners who did not have a spouse – or one that they loved a whole lot – a 22-song concept album about a wedding was alienating. However, there was even a significant faction that was able to get past the marital theme, yet still didn’t find the project to be particularly good.
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Throughout this musical transition from druggy delinquent to jubilant husband, Chance’s public persona took a turn too. Well, for one, he became a public figure – a big one. He popped up on every late night show with a wide grin, beaming about the beauty of being an independent artist. His tweets preached about his faith. He appeared in a Kit Kat commercial in a fuzzy bear costume. There was an unrelenting aura of positivity surrounding him.
This isn’t a tirade against being happy. Being happy is good, but there’s always something suspicious when it’s projected as a constant state. You sit there – perhaps only if you’re a pessimist – and wait for some ugliness to rear its head. When Chance caught wind of the negative feedback on The Big Day and tweeted out a conspiracy theory that the album’s detractors wanted him to kill himself, it was ugly. Not only was it ugly to bring talk of suicide on millions of timelines over a hunch, but it was also a heavy accusation to level at people who took the time to listen to his project – meaning they were likely his fans. While he ended the thread on a lighter note, reaffirming that he loves his wife, the grim cloud of how he started overshadowed the rest. It punctured the veneer of cheerfulness that coated his career and left a hole through which people could peer into a side they hadn’t seen before and were led to believe didn’t exist.
It’s no coincidence that Lil Yachty exhibited a similarly perverse reaction to his debut studio album, Teenage Emotions, getting panned. It took a little over a week for Yachty to try defending his project with a lengthy caption on Instagram. Like Chance, he deflected the blame for its poor reception, claiming it was merely a result of people not understanding him. He betrayed where his plea was stemming from when he mentioned how “first-week numbers didn’t do what most people expected.” After he featured on two buoyant tracks that enjoyed mainstream success – D.R.A.M.’s “Broccoli” and KYLE’s “iSpy” – there was pressure from his label and the public to stick to this genre of formulaic fun. As the pull-quote atop Pitchfork’s Teenage Emotions review reads, Yachty was “our master of joy.” He gladly assumed this title and put out the album of playful bubblegum trap that (he thought) was wanted from him.
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It’s even more humiliating and harder to reconcile getting booed when it comes from the same people who pushed you on stage and told you to dance. Months after its release, Yachty confessed in several of his press appearances that Teenage Emotions’ rejection hit him hard. In a GQ video segment, he explained that it “really broke [him]” and in a conversation for Interview he said he was “devastated and so confused.” As with the Chance scenario, it’s a weird look when a former “master of joy” is caught despondent. It comes off as if the artist wasn’t as limitlessly and inherently vibrant as it appeared, but was reflecting the spotlight being shined on them. A precarious outcome of being boxed into a given role is that an artist will quickly and forcefully oscillate to the opposite extreme. Less than a year after Teenage Emotions, Yachty pivoted from his poppy jams to dense trap on 2018’s Lil Boat 2. On the album’s cover, he appears almost completely obscured in shadow, standing in waters that take on a bloody-tinge in the setting sun.
Aside from the disappointment that a fan could experience when discovering that a respected artist’s wall of positivity isn’t as sturdy as advertised, artists don’t even leave themselves room to maneuver after fabricating this sort of brand. A single mess up calls everything into question. Some may be inclined to argue here that in today’s “cancel culture”, no one is given the opportunity to mess up, but that’s simply not true. People slide by with their problematic behaviour every day. It’s often the ones who present themselves as morally conscious who are held most heavily accountable.
Not any artist would get called out for snitching after tweeting the name and face of someone who stole their Postmates order, but Lizzo did. Had Schoolboy Q done the same, we’d probably be hailing him for being his hilarious, occasionally-grouchy self. There’s very likely a gendered dimension to Lizzo being expected to repent for this sin, but it also surely has to do with the image and fanbase that she has cultivated. Lizzo has quickly become the mascot for self-love. Most of the songs on the album that led to her breakout this year, Cuz I Love You, are empowerment anthems. She scored a #1 hit with “Truth Hurts”, a song so widely likeable that even Hillary Rodhman Clinton is endorsing it. When Lizzo aired out the meal thief, she boasted, “she lucky I don’t fight no more.” However, in the house of good vibes that Lizzo built, she can be ousted for committing acts far less severe than a physical fight.
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This isn’t a tirade against being happy. We want artists to be happy the same way we want ourselves to be happy. Now that social media has created an almost constant loop of communication between artist and consumer, we all need to be on the same wavelength to understand one another. When artists feign unwavering glee, it throws the whole system off balance. Any ordinary human who isn’t being paid to promote the happiness agenda can see through it. We want artists to be flawed and volatile because we know they are – as we all are. There’s an underlying resentment that brews when artists act as if they are hovering above all negativity in some impenetrable sphere, awaiting the slightest slip-up and then erupting in an often nasty manner. Let’s keep the commentary and criticism going because it’s what helps us grow, but only if we’re being honest with ourselves and each other.