Kendrick Lamar Succeeded In Spite of the Music Industry

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Dan Runcie

Kendrick Lamar (via Shutterstock)

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Kendrick Lamar has Built His Impressive Career In Spite of the Music Industry (and its Gatekeepers)

by Adrian Burger

“I’m not in the music business, I been in the human business,” says Kendrick Lamar on “Purple Hearts,” track nine on his long-awaited fifth studio album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers (“MM&TBS”).

The conceptual 18-track album is Kendrick’s fourth consecutive Billboard #1; its critical and commercial success is a reminder of Kendrick’s enduring power as one of music’s most respected and beloved voices.

But this success has come in spite of most traditional measures of music industry success. Yes, Kendrick won a Pulitzer Prize for DAMN., becoming the first and only hip-hop artist to win the award (which says more about a lack of respect for the artistry of rapping than anything else). Yet The Grammy Awards’ holy trifecta – Album of The Year (“AOTY”), Record of the Year (“ROTY”), and Song of the Year (“SOTY”) – has eluded him despite nine nominations. Of the five categories of Grammys that Kendrick has won awards for, four of them contain the word “Rap” in their title. Even in hip-hop, the Grammys infamously slighted him when Kendrick’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012) lost to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ The Heist for Best Rap Album.

This is hardly unique to Kendrick. Since 1996, the so-called “Big Four” Grammy Awards (the fourth: Best New Artist) have been awarded to 67 recipients. Of these, only five are hip-hop: Lauryn Hill (AOTY, Best New Artist); OutKast (AOTY); Chance The Rapper (Best New Artist); Childish Gambino (SOTY, ROTY); and Megan Thee Stallion (Best New Artist).

Black artists of all genres have been largely shut out from AOTY, the most prestigious of the Big Four. Jon Batiste’s surprise win in 2022 ended a 14-year drought, which Slate’s Carl Wilson wrote an excellent, incisive piece about. It’s also telling that Beyonce, the winningest artist of all time at the Grammys, has never won this award for any of her albums.

The Grammy’s biggest prize was a career boost for, country singer Kacey Musgraves, whose win (Golden Hour, 2019) also came as a surprise. Within 24 hours of her win, her album sales had increased 597%, and she was added to 53 country radio stations. Per Chartmetric data, a week before the Grammys, Kacey had 932,000 Instagram followers and 384,000 Spotify followers. At the time of publishing this essay, she has 2.4 million (+160%) and 1.1 million (+194%), respectively.

How much more impact would Kendrick have had with one – let alone several – well-deserved Big Four win(s)?

Grammy wins make a difference at every level. In 2016, Robert Glasper (this author’s favorite artist) told CNBC his 2012 R&B Album of the Year-winning Black Radio was career-changing:

“My 2009 album did worldwide 10,000 to 15,000 [album units]. Now compare that to ‘Black Radio,’ which peaked at 200,000, and my 2013 album ‘Black Radio 2’ which is at around 150,000. [The Grammy] helped a lot.”

While speculatory, we can assume that Kendrick’s shut-out has cost him at least hundreds of thousands of album sales, which translates to millions of dollars across his career.

A 2019 Trapital article documented how white and Black rappers have historically had, and still have, different pathways to success. One example is the persistent uphill battle for Black rappers at Top 40 radio. Top 40 radio audiences do skew white, but this is an inadequate explanation for shutting out hip-hop since two-thirds of the artists to top the Billboard 200 in 2021 and 2022 can be classified as hip-hop.

According to Rolling Stone, from the years 2012-2018, six white rappers scored Pop Radio #1s while only one non-white rapper – Drake – did. And more recently, of the 21 songs to reach #1 on Billboard’s Pop Radio chart since 2021, only four are hip-hop songs. Ironically “pop” music was usurped many years ago by hip-hop as the most popular genre in the U.S. Top 40 radio has either failed to realize or refused to adjust.

Kendrick has only charted four times on the Top 40 Pop Radio chart as a leading artist (he’s appeared on two number ones, with Taylor Swift and Maroon 5). Yet he’s charted 50 songs on Billboard’s Hot 100. A disconnect exists between Top 40 radio and its more democratic charting counterparts like Spotify and Apple Music. On Spotify, Kendrick pulled a clean sweep with MM&TBS, occupying positions 1-18 on the streaming service’s U.S. chart on the day of its release – interludes, skits and all.

To date, Kendrick has only one Hot 100 #1HUMBLE, which only reached #26 for Pop Radio despite being the biggest song in the country at one point.

It’s reasonable to assume Kendrick would have many more #1 songs if it weren’t for radio’s gate-keeping. Variety quotes one VP at a major label as saying:

“When we sit down with artists and managers… they want to own the Billboard 200 and Hot 100. We’ve sat down with some really big names and they told me flat out, ‘Yeah, I’d love to say I have a billion streams, but I’d also love to say I have a No. 1 record at Top 40.’”

Despite the declining perception of radio, hundreds of millions of Americans still listen to pop radio. Nielsen estimates that as recently as Q3 2020, radio was the single widest-reaching media platform among adults in the U.S., reaching 88% in any given week (mobile phone: 85%; T.V.: 80%).  If pop radio never held Kendrick back, how many more people who would otherwise not have been exposed to Kendrick would have grown to become fans? According to Variety, “46% of consumers 12 and up who consider finding new music important say radio is one of the channels where they discover fresh tunes.”

The whiteness of Top 40 radio is well documented with even deeper layers – blatantly racist and predatory. Tim Westwood, a 64-year-old white man, recently had sobering allegations of sexual abuse made against him by seven women, all Black. These reported incidents go back decades and continued through his 50s and 60s, with victims as young as 17. Westwood, who’s been called “Britain’s gatekeeper of hip-hop,” led hip-hop shows at BBC Radio 1, BBC 1Xtra, and finally Capital Xtra for decades before allegations came to light, echoing the suppression of other abuse in the music industry post #MeToo.

When music and entertainment platforms stop holding back hip-hop from reaching its full potential, great things happen for both the artists and platforms

The Super Bowl Halftime Show was gate-kept from nearly all hip-hop artists, full-stop, until 2022. Since the 1990s, when mostly-white A-List artists began to be selected to perform every year, not a single fully hip-hop-themed show was staged until this year’s incredible one at SoFi Stadium. This year’s show proved it was really the NFL that had been limiting itself by not featuring hip-hop artists like Kendrick, not the other way around.

It was a validating moment for Kendrick Lamar, even if he had to split his time seven ways with co-headliners Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and Mary J. Blige, and special guests 50 Cent and Anderson .Paak. The halftime show’s viewership was 104 million, up 19% over the 2021 show with The Weeknd. According to Forbes, “the number of households who tuned in at halftime and then clicked away before the third quarter started rose 60% from 2021.” So much for the argument that the NFL needs pop stars to bring in new viewers! And plus, “the number of households who started watching during the halftime show and stayed for the second half kickoff was up 41% year over year.” It was a win-win for a league that has been criticized for its lack of support to causes that matter to its majority Black roster of players. “No matter how you look at it, the halftime show scored big for the NFL,” says one industry expert.

Although this time around it seems of his choosing, Kendrick has participated in essentially none of the mainstream music radio and press circuit for MM&TBS, making its initial performance even more impressive. In spite of the lack of recognition from awards ceremonies, radio programmers, and industry executives, Kendrick’s fans have kept listening and supporting him en masse. And that’s a credit to Kendrick: his compelling persona, and most importantly, his singular, prodigious music and storytelling. But just imagine how many more people could he have reached if he was never held back?

To read more, check out Adrian’s companion piece on Kendrick Lamar with charts and more details on Kendrick’s charting performance, graphs, and more helpful insights.

Adrian Burger is a freelance music journalist and founder of lafter.io. You can find him on Twitter @lafterdotio.

Dan Runcie

Dan Runcie

Founder of Trapital

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