In the movie “Notorious”, the actor who played Puff Daddy made Biggie sit in his office and asked him “what story are you trying to tell?”. This is probably the most important question to ask yourself as an artist because people connect to “stories”, and you want to have one if longevity is one of your goals. Plenty of artist are good at what they do but don’t connect with their audience that much because they don’t have any “identity” as an artist. They don’t possess any traits that separate them from the next artist. Having an identity doesn’t mean refraining from trying new things. it means keeping certain factors consistent so that the listeners can figure out what purpose you will serve on their playlist. Experimenting is always good, but playing to your strengths is what will separate you from others. Find your strength as an artist and put emphasis on it. Grow as an artist but make sure your roots are strong enough to keep you alive.
Lets get into some examples of what I mean by “Identity”. Whether Kanye West is rapping over soul beats about trying to get his beats to jay z or yelling over experimental beats about how he’s a god, he’s consistently been the outspoken character who strives to be innovate and set trends. Eminem has experimented with plenty of sounds through out his career. But from the beginning of his mainstream career to today, he’s consistently been the lyrical miracle rapper who uses shock value and stories about his rough childhood as the main course on his albums. Drake is the r&b rapper who uses melodies in combination with his rhymes to paint pictures of his past relationships and current lifestyle. Even though his first 3 major label albums all have their own distinctive sounds, those factors remain consistent.
You may not notice it but the subconscious mind often puts music into categories. Not necessarily because everybody wants to put everything in one box, but because the mind naturally judges every little bit of information it receives. When you hear an artist who isn’t consistent with anything in their music, instead of storing them in some kind of category you might not store them in your mind at all. When you don’t connect to an artist it raises questions like “who are you?”, “what do you represent?”, “who is your audience?”, “what is your message?”, “what separates you from other artist in your genre?”, and “why should I listen to you instead of them?”. A lot of the time when a person doesn’t like an artist they have a specific reason why that artist doesn’t do anything for them. In some cases people aren’t able to put their finger on why an artist doesn’t spark their interest. I often hear the explanation that “they’re missing something”. Not that they aren’t talented or that their music isn’t somewhat enjoyable, but they’re simply missing something. I believe that in a lot of cases an “identity” is what those artist are missing.
I’ve been in numerous hip hop conversations regarding the best rappers of all time. Some names that are frequently brought up are Jay-z, Nas, Biggie, Eminem, and Tupac. Many artist are left off of these list not because they’re not good enough but because people don’t connect to them. Tupac connected with people to the point he’s often ranked over rappers who even his fans would sometime admit are superior lyricist. Sales of hip hop music has dropped tremendously over the last decade or so. One of the obvious reasons is the internet, where you can find music for free. Another reason is that people aren’t connecting to artist the way they used to. Therefore people aren’t putting their hard earned money behind many artist anymore. This can be noticed in this current music climate where there are rappers who make music thats hot in the clubs and are talked about 24/7, but don’t do well sales wise. Meanwhile rappers like J. Cole or Kendrick Lamar are going platinum. This is not only because they’re skilled at what they do, but because they both have their own identity and are not shy about telling their story and giving people something to connect to.