Why Using Controversy To Promote Hip-Hop Albums No Longer Works In 2018

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Nicki Minaj and Funkmaster Flex may not be able to stand each other, but it seems both are willing to put their differences aside for the sake of generating buzz. The rapper appeared on the radio personality’s show Tuesday to “hash out their differences” over the course of an 80-minute interview that did more to dredge up controversy in the form of a heated reaction from Nicki’s ex and onetime collaborator Safaree; the two engaged in a Twitter tiff that rivaled anything from Saferee’s current occupation on Love And Hip-Hop.

It was mildly entertaining if you’re into that sort of thing, but wound up being more detrimental to Nicki’s overall goal — to promote her new album, Queen, which could use all the help it can get after receiving a lukewarm reception from fans outside of her loyal contingent of Barbz. Nicki’s not alone in trying to use controversy to gin up interest in her latest release, but she and anyone else who tries to use that method should beware. In 2018, it just doesn’t pay to distract from the actual music.

At the beginning of the millennium, if you wanted to sell a rap record, the order of the day was, “Beef sells.” This is sort of a degradation of the old adage that “controversy sells” or maybe that “all publicity is good publicity.” 50 Cent became a multiplatinum, internationally renowned star partially from capitalizing on his ongoing feud with Ja Rule and Murder Inc. Jay-Z solidified his self-proclaimed GOAT status with the scathing “Takeover” diss aimed at Mobb Deep and Nas. Nas’ return-fire track, “Ether” resurrected his dormant revered position as the vanguard of “real hip-hop,” which had been tarnished by lackluster, commercially-oriented releases like “Oochie Wally” and “You Owe Me.” Beef was indeed big business.

Unfortunately, that business model no longer works in the modern streaming era, where releases come and go as swiftly as rap’s fickle audience’s whims change — at the click of a refresh button. Apparently, many of the holdovers from the pre-streaming generation haven’t gotten the memo. Nicki Minaj is only the latest example, as her lengthy rollout for Queen built anticipation on the foundation of addressing drama from the four years of her musical hiatus only for the album itself to end up overshadowed by a song about cows.

Kanye West went for a version of this to drum up attention for his own return to music earlier this year, an event that should have been noteworthy in itself. Rather than releasing singles, videos, and interviews ahead of a set release date, he used his outrageous Twitter antics — tweeting appreciation for Donald Trump, among other things — to attract eyeballs before announcing the stunt release of five, seven-track albums from a number of his GOOD Music collaborators and other friends, including Pusha T, Nas, Teyana Taylor, and Kid Cudi.

However, his apparent embrace of inflammatory, right-wing rhetoric turned away more listeners than it drew, and his increasingly tardy releases after those self-imposed deadlines — with mediocre, hurried, slapdash product, no less — created more disappointment than goodwill.

Even Drake, whose own rollout was tangentially tied to Kanye’s, fell victim to the controversy effect after a near impeccable early year promotional cycle was interrupted and marred by beef with Pusha T. At the beginning of the year, “God’s Plan,” “Nice For What,” and new visual director Karena Evans had Drake flying high into what looked to be his most heavily-anticipated and potentially well-received project yet. However, taken aback by references to his ghostwriting controversy on Pusha T’s album, and possibly feeling cocky thanks to his springtime successes, Drake made the critical error of falling for the bait, getting drawn into a back-and-forth that ended with the revelation of his son.