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Twenty-one years ago, N.W.A.‘s Efil4zaggin dethroned Paula Abdul’s Spellbound from the top of the Billboard albums chart. It wasn’t the first rap album to hit #1– saccharine acts like MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, and Tone Loc had been there before– but it was definitely the first of its kind: A critically reviled and wholly nihilistic record that got very little radio play but still bullied its way into the charts through the sheer buying power of its listeners.
During the decade or so that followed, rap record sales were a reasonably accurate reflection of its core audience’s taste (for better or worse). Sales had become a conduit for the interests of listeners who were historically underrepresented in the mainstream media. Even when the press and industry ignored grassroots stars– usually of the regional or gangsta disposition– the numbers spoke for themselves.
These days, rap album sales still dominate the conversation amongst the more dedicated fans of the genre. Major sites report first week numbers as if they’re box scores, and fans violently hurl SoundScan data amongst one another and back @rappers via Twitter. A strong first-week outing can define the popular perception of an artist’s relevance, a weak one can instantly destroy a career. The only problem is: Sales don’t matter anymore. At all.
Never mind that there are a bevy of other (and sometimes more reliable) ways for an artist to generate revenue these days– tours, endorsements, reality shows, merchandise– these numbers mostly measure success outside the culture, amongst casual listeners and neophytes. They are crossover scans. Actual Rap Fans have little to no purchasing power and yet they argue about record sales constantly as if it were an accurate reflection of their interest.
Before we go any further, let’s define the Actual Rap Fan. These are people for whom rap is central to their listening habits. It might not be the only style of music they listen to, but they care about it in a singular way; they are invested in the narratives of the genre, they know when tapes are dropping, when beefs are popping. They have favorite rappers, not just favorite rap songs. They do not refer to 50 Cent‘s “In Da Club” as “The Birthday Song”. (They probably do not refer to 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” at all.) These fans don’t always lie at the immediate intersection of young and black and urban and lower class that defined the genre at its birth, but I suspect that most of them are at least one of these things. 
While the myth that young people don’t buy music isn’t entirely true, their attentions have definitely been divided across mediums– some paid-for and legal and SoundScan-approved, others less so. The Wall Street Journal reports that teens under the age of 18 are most likely to listen to music on YouTube, a service that falls into the freebie gray area and for which it would be virtually impossible to index views on an artist-by-artist level. Naturally, this survey did not cover hip-hop-specific free music outlets like WorldstarHipHop, DatPiff, andLiveMixtapes.
These sites do huge numbers and self-report them, though the accuracy is unclear. In any case, their existence has de-incentivized the album purchase amongst dedicated rap listeners. The freebie mixtape, once a format of liberation for unsigned rappers and those being suffocated by the expectations of their major deal, has backed artists into a corner where it’s absolutely necessary to give music away to generate and maintain a buzz. At this point we know that the album is going to be worse than the mixtape and that we can get it for free on DatPiff and that the big single was leaked via YouTube or Rap Radar six months ago and that we’re already kinda sick of it. So when an Actual Rap Fan does buy an actual rap album, it’s a largely symbolic gesture. 
The commercially successful album-oriented rap artists aren’t necessarily the ones with the most listeners, but the ones who are best able to rally their base to actually go out and buy their album. Support the artist is the mantra and, thus, the rappers whose music reflects the values of audiences with the most disposable income will forever win the SoundScan game. This is probably why white artists like Mac Miller and Macklemore (or black artists who have cultivated large and hyper-loyal white fanbases like Tech N9ne and Odd Future) are among the last rappers able to sell like gangbusters on an independent level. Or why milquetoast middle-class and -brow snapback rappers like J. Cole and Wale manage to move significantly more units to college kids than less-groomed, street-oriented counterparts like Waka Flockaand Yo Gotti do to their respective fanbases.  It’s a gentrification of taste. Kids with disposable income on the outer perimeters of the culture are dictating its direction because they posses the income to displace the demands of the proverbial hood. (Which, again, isn’t the end-all, be-all of hip-hop, but it is its birthplace.)
The “who” of rap record sales is dictated by the “where” of it as well. For many years, locally owned mom and pop stores were the hub for independent commerce, particularly for breaking and local artists. There would be no Cash Money without Peaches, no Sick Wid Itwithout Leopold. This was the old model. A rapper could sell 50,000 records independently in their hometown and surrounding cities, a major label would come calling, and then they’d fanute that 50,000 into 500,000 or 5 million.
But today that strategy has been cut off at the knees. The independent retailer where black music is the primary focus, or even a serious priority, is close to completely extinct , devoured by big box chains like Walmart and Best Buy. These stores are not equipped to support genuinely independent music or cater to specific regional demands– a big problem for cultivating new talent in the American folk music known as hip-hop. Their shelf space is dedicated to selling known entities, and a bulk of their trade comes from low investment, point-of-purchase impulse buys from casual listeners who may not know what this Lil Wayneguy is all about.
The digital marketplace is slightly more democratic, but still there’s no true online equivalent to the mom and pop store. iTunes and Amazon are just digital big box stores– they can’t engage communities directly. Additionally, they require a credit card, a computer, an internet connection– or at the very least a smartphone and a data plan– which are things that some people in this country still cannot afford.
Without the natural selection of hip-hop sales, it’s become almost impossible for a middle-tier rap artist– particularly one whose music caters to the streets, clubs, and/or teens– to ascend to its upper tier without the explicit cosignature of existing upper-tier rap artists. Instead, the industry and, especially, the rappers who caught the last windfall of real egalitarian record-sales money and are somehow still standing– Jay, Wayne, Kanye, Rick Ross– have become the genre’s sole gatekeepers, the liaisons to the mainstream audience that is still throwing money at artists.
Master P’s No Limit takeover could not happen in 2012. He might silently make tens of thousands off of phoned-in guest spots and club dates on the modern day chitlin circuit but he wouldn’t ever be able to turn this hustle into a multi-million-dollar empire. He’d never be able to buy his way into the national market without the hard sales data to quantify his success. And even if he did somehow manage to get in, he’d have a hard time justifying the deal or turning a major profit because most of his fans would just be racking up pageviews on Worldstar.
His best option would be to parlay it into a deal with an existing artist’s stable– Cash Money, G.O.O.D.– work the cosignature, and let them take a cut. The wealth gap widens as the people at the top sell the illusion of The Self-Made Man back to those at the bottom. Of course, the only time anybody actually makes that leap is when they are given an assist from the folks who are already at the top (who thereby serve to profit from the exchange). Sometimes the rap game reminds me of the contemporary American class divide.
There’s no corrective measure to this trend, either. The new outlets for music consumption and fandom– YouTube, Pandora, Worldstar, DatPiff, Twitter– aren’t just faulty barometers because of how inherently gameable they are, but because they’re all free to users. Their numbers measure attention, not investment. Views and plays and followers won’t tell us how many of an artists’ impressions came from curious visitors who hated the song and immediately closed the window. Or, alternately, how many came from hyper-loyal fans who will play a song a hundred times on repeat and unknowingly turn a niche cult artist into a YouTube sensation. Columbia saw this with Kreayshawn who, after 40 million+ YouTube views and (allegedly) a million dollar deal, went on to sell just 4,900 copies of her album in its first week of release. 
When a purchase was the only way for a listener to hear the music contained on an album, sales might’ve been an accurate popularity metric. Fans would buy the album because fans wanted to hear it. Casual listeners were the icing on the cake, the difference between a platinum album and a 5x platinum album. Now that sales fail to measure anything but some executive’s ability to trick soccer moms and college kids out of their loose change, it’s time to change the talking points. The armchair A&Rs who treat SoundScans like knock-out punches in the endless boxing match that is rap fandom (and the actual A&Rs who throw money at the Kreayshawns of the world) might actually have to start basing their opinions on the subjective quality of the music itself.
 Respect is due to 2 Chainz for strategically hijacking every drunken white girl request for “In Da Club” by actually releasing a single called “Birthday Song”.
 I’ve talked to more than a few folks in both the music and publishing industries who will swear up and down that this demographic doesn’t exist at all any more, that the tastes of all young music consumers have dissolved into a multicultural Tumblr-feed blur. But then most of these people haven’t ridden a city bus in the 21st century, where kids are always rapping to themselves. This is precisely the sort of underrepresentation that rap fans are subject to now that they don’t have the buying power on their side.
 In much the same way, the actual creation of the retail album often feels like an act of tokenism. Outside of a handful of conscientious album-oriented acts, most major label rap albums feel like they exist solely as an excuse to celebrate a victory lap when their fans support them.
 In some cases the word “lyrical” has become a shorthand for “well spoken/educated” and is used to etch the line into this class divide.
 Most still-thriving, independently owned music stores are capital-I Indie Music stores and as much as the Indie media pays attention to urban music– the rate of return on click throughs is enormous– Indie retail frequently remains indifferent to it.
 It’s worth noting that she was at least partially a victim of product placement as well. For some bizarre reason physical copies of her Something About Kreay were exclusively made available at the mall goth catering chain Hot Topic.