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Hayes: What really bothers us about ‘selling out’

Bob Hayes, Columnist

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“This trailblazer has earned Grammy nominations, a platinum album and the title of hottest MC in the game,” shouted Nick Cannon as he introduced Kendrick Lamar to the stage of New Orleans’ Smoothie King Center. This was not at a concert but in a basketball arena full of young NBA half-stars as they half-competed in various skills events that fans half-understood during this year’s NBA All-Star Weekend.

The events on Feb. 15 were no more than a pathetic, truncated representation of the skills possessed by NBA players, and Kendrick Lamar’s performance was equally disappointing to his loyal fans. The thing is, hardly anyone in the arena would classify himself or herself as a big Kendrick Lamar fan. When the performance started with the familiar riffs of “m.A.A.d city,” it was probably the first time most of the arena had heard them — that is, unless they had tuned into any part of Kendrick’s seemingly endless run of public performances in the past few months.

Since last fall, Kendrick has performed at the MTV Video Music Awards, the BET Hip Hop Awards, the Grammy Awards, Saturday Night Live and as an opener on Kanye West’s massive Yeezus tour, as well as being featured on the cover of magazines like GQ. All of these come more than a year removed from when his fans had begun jamming to his hit album, “good kid, m.A.A.d city”.

The fact that much of Kendrick’s acclaim stems from the rawness of his lyrics about his rough upbringing in Compton only serves to make every new clean performance of “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” in front of a clueless audience all the more painful to his fans. By now, if not already, fans are murmuring that Kendrick has — oh no, here it comes — sold out.

Perhaps what makes the recent ubiquity of Kendrick so scary to fans like myself is that we have seen Macklemore undergo a similar arc with which few of his older fans are happy. In just under two years, Macklemore went from a hipsters-only favorite to the most requested artist among my fourth-grade campers this past summer. Macklemore has “gone public.” He is never coming back again. Now, we fear the same is happening with Kendrick Lamar.

The idea of “selling out” is a pretty tricky one to grasp. Everyone’s favorite site, Wikipedia, provides a nice definition: “In terms of music or art, selling out is associated with attempts to tailor material to a mainstream or commercial audience; for example, a musician who alters his material to encompass a wider audience, and in turn generate greater revenue, may be labeled by fans who pre-date the change as a sellout.”

What is tough in the case of Kendrick Lamar and Macklemore is that the last material each of them has released predated any notion of selling out, so it is tough to judge them based on the criterion of material alteration. If we put ourselves in their shoes, all the performances they have done are reasonable acts in the service of climbing the ladder in the hip-hop genre. Why is wanting to be the best not okay?

Interestingly, following last year’s All-Star Weekend heavily featuring Macklemore’s song “Wings,” the rapper released a lengthy statement regarding selling out: “More people download the song, got the truth (the actual/full song) and we converted strangers that didn’t know who we were into fans. If that’s selling out to you, word. But to me that’s nothing but an all around win.”

Fandom is a peculiar thing. We try so hard to make everyone else appreciate our favorite artists, and then a tipping point arrives that causes us to lose support for them. With fandom comes ownership; what was once ours has become theirs. We display so much love and passion toward our favorite artists, then feel betrayed when they move onto bigger and better things.

It is difficult for me to reconcile my memory of Kendrick opening his Lollapalooza set with a high-energy “Backseat Freestyle” with seeing him perform I-don’t-know-what at the Grammys. As I type, I sit just a few feet away from a poster of Kendrick pensively squatting in front of a blank white wall. While it is tough to see that kid from Compton rap at the Smoothie King Center, whatever that is, all we can really do is be happy for his success and hope that he keeps putting out great music that is true to himself.

Bob Hayes is a Weinberg freshman. He can be reached at roberthayes2017@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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