The line between carefully planned publicity and reality is becoming more and more blurred.
"All publicity is good publicity." This adage has seemingly become a manifesto of sorts when it comes to rap, where just about anything can be a publicity stunt on the low. The need to stay relevant in news cycles and social media timelines is ever-important, and by extension, the impetus for rappers to pull some wild, reckless shit to get people’s attention is at an all-time high.
Rap thrives on theatre and larger-than-life characters. Rappers of an older generation understood the need to be dramatic. 50 Cent convinced the world he would retire if Curtis was outsold by Kanye’s Graduation (he didn’t). Ol’ Dirty Bastard drove to pick up welfare stamps in a limo and had MTV record the entire process. Snoop Dogg invaded Times Square with the help of Darth Vader and a dozen stormtroopers simply to promote a clothing line. Jay-Z growing his hair out is enough to scare people into thinking he’s about to drop a new album. Ray J had a single titled “I Hit It First.” And let’s not forget when Lil B went all in and named an album I’m Gay.
What’s important to note is the above rappers are from a different generation, as it were. Younger rappers are expected to be ‘on’ all the time now. As good as traditional marketing and advertising can be, it still pales in comparison to a set of viral memes or a collection of snippets from Snapchat or Instagram. Cardi B speaking directly to her fans via Instagram is more effective than all the Spotify advertisements her label can buy.
What even qualifies as a publicity stunt these days? This is starting to get murkier, as the lines between real life and acting-in-character become blurred. Now that we have rappers who are fully committed to the characters they play (Tekashi 6ix9ine, for one), it brings up interesting consequences even for those who are seen as authentic. The latest events surrounding 21 Savage are a far cry from a curated stunt, although ICE’s initial statement made a point to question his rap persona. Slim Jxmmi taking to Twitter to announce the break-up of brotherly duo Rae Sremmurd could be interpreted as a move to drive up the attention of a new solo album, or, it could truly be a sign that the rapper is frustrated and exhausted with his brother. It could also mean nothing at all – Young Thug made news when he stated he wouldn’t release new music for a year in support of his deaf brother, only to double back on his claim with a new EP named Hear No Evil released in April, followed with On The Rvn and the label compilation Slime Language later in the year. The breakdown of Cardi B and Offset’s marriage, occurring only a week before his solo album was supposed to drop, had many fans questioning whether it was done to boost his album sales. “I just really hate how people say we trying to do this for publicity,” Cardi said in response. “Think we want to put our life out there for what — what we gain from publicity? Nothing.”
Offset crashes Cardi B's set in a public plea to get her back - Scott Dudelson/Getty Images
After a year of throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks, Nicki Minaj’s recent boyfriend has many people wondering if the rapper is engaging in a long-term stunt to maintain attention on herself and rile up her fanbase. Tekashi 6ix9ine’s entire existence felt like a prolonged publicity stunt, culminating in his November 2018 arrest on racketeering charge leaving many to wonder if his arrest was intended to promote his album DUMMY BOY. It wasn't the first time the rapper had been accused of such things.
Then there’s Lil Uzi Vert, announcing retirement even while the release of his upcoming album Eternal Atakeis on the horizon. “I wanna take the time out to say I thank each and every one of my supports but I’m done with music,” he said, blaming the situation with his label from allowing him to release new music. “I deleted everything. I wanna be normal. I wanna wake up in 2013.” This hasn’t stopped Uzi from making an appearance at a Lil Baby show in Philadelphia but he doubled down on his retirement plans. “Still retired only come out for the guys,” he wrote on an Instagram story and the mystery continues. Assuming the label issues get worked out, this will only add more eyes to Eternal Atakeonce it does drop (we have faith). So is Lil Uzi Vert simply threatening retirement knowing it keeps his name in the news? We'd like to think Uzi is more genuine in nature than that. Regardless of the artist, though, these types of announcements end up getting aggregated by online social media accounts like DJ Akademiks and The Shade Room, written about on sites such as ours (!), XXL, Pitchfork and the Fader, and featured on shows such as Everyday Struggle and State of the Culture. By adding fuel to the fire, these media accounts have a huge hand in driving more eyes and ears on these blowups.
But the big question – are these rappers able to translate 'stunts' into genuine engagement? Or does the momentary attention vanish just as quickly as we scroll past it in our timeline? Here’s a theory: it depends on whether or not the rapper has a cult-like fanbase plugged in. Dedicated fans are paying attention to every move a rapper does, listening to every IG snippet released, gathering every photo and news clip to figure out their next moves before the casual listener does-- if the casual listener does. Part of the payoff of being a fan, and being constantly plugged in, is getting to see the entire puzzle unfold.
The difference between a publicity stunt, no matter how small or big it is, and reality can be an arduous line to recognize, especially in our Insta-Age of perfectly-curated posts. Even the most haphazard post could have an ulterior motive unbeknownst to us. Social media allows rappers to stay in 'character' longer than ever before. Keeping the 'character' alive 24/7 for social media is, in a way, one long publicity stunt that can definitely help push the artist’s narrative forward and keep fans invested. With that said, fans are still smart enough to recognize when a publicity stunt feels empty and move on if there’s nothing genuine to keep their interest. Perhaps this is the reason why we are cycling through artists and news at a more fervent pace than ever? Once an artist and the adjoining antics feel hollow, do we divert our attention elsewhere?
What's your take on the real versus the fake? Do you consume everything online with the tiniest grain of salt, or do you take it for face value?