Establishment: a group in a society exercising power and influence over matters of policy or taste, and seen as resisting change.
Hip-hop has always centered around the establishment: sneaking around it, toppling it, camouflaging yourself inside it. As the genre progresses, this relationship manifests itself in different ways. NWA raised awareness of the machine’s effect on their neighborhoods through police brutality and profiling. Roddy Ricch, also a native of Compton, is dealing with a different type of machine, one that might be more terrifying than anything we’ve ever seen – Justin Bieber.
In all seriousness, Roddy’s disruption of the Billboard charts is making waves and stirring up debate. A quick rundown: Justin Bieber, after 5 years with no new solo material, dropped his now maligned single “Yummy.” The general reaction was that it was aggressively generic and disappointing, yet I doubt that Justin was worried at all. Based on name recognition alone, the song was bound to be a smash and kick off his album rollout with a bang. He forgot, however, to account for the cultural phenomenon being birthed right underneath him: “The Box.”
On the surface, Roddy beating out Justin for the #1 spot made little sense. Justin is one of the biggest musicians of all time, and Roddy has only just been introduced to the mainstream after building momentum off his feature on the late Nipsey Hussle’s “Racks In The Middle.” Justin has 125 million Instagram followers to Roddy’s 3.8 million. This stat is deceiving, though, as the very domain that gave Roddy the edge was the internet and social media, while Justin used it to leave a sour taste in the public’s mouth, quickly posting and then deleting instructions to help manipulate the song’s streaming numbers. As egregious as this was, it only became notable due to its juxtaposition with the organic way that Roddy gained his traction. Both Roddy and Justin are signed, but in Justin’s case, there is a greater feeling that the establishment is pulling strings behind him, and in this case, they might’ve yanked too hard.
Everything about Justin’s rollout felt off from the beginning. From the deleted instructional post, the unsettling posts of babies with the caption “#yummy,” as well as the title of the song itself, it all came off slightly off-putting. Maybe just one of these things being a part of the rollout wouldn’t have done much, but the combination of them all made Justin seem out-of-touch. However, looking at Roddy’s incredible reverse-psychology tweet in response to Justin’s antics, the public automatically related to Roddy much more than Justin.
You get the sense that Roddy understands how internet narratives can build buzz; however, he’s not coming at it from the perspective of someone on the outside; he’s right along with us. After defeating Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez was next. Although not as bad as Justin’s case, Selena also pleaded with her fans to get her album to #1, while refusing to say Roddy’s name. Cue another tweet from Roddy:
“The Box” is being celebrated so much because it’s a song that’s easily meme-able while actually being good. Full of charisma and versatile flows (and the now famous “EEEEE OOOOO”), the song built its buzz organically; it wasn’t even marketed as a single when Roddy dropped his album. The people picked it. And Justin and his team misread the room and tried to take his moment away, distancing themselves from the very people they thought they had in the palms of their hands. Justin’s clenched-teeth congratulations to Roddy didn’t exactly smooth things over either.
This entitlement is reminiscent of a situation last June between Tyler, The Creator and DJ Khaled, in which Khaled released a video on Instagram explaining why his album deserved to be number one instead of Tyler’s. Once again, this is an instance of the establishment rearing its head when something organic happens that they can’t control. People loved IGOR when it came out and used it as an opportunity to celebrate Tyler’s evolution. And DJ Khaled’s album… was another DJ Khaled album. Just like this new Justin Bieber song sounds like another Justin Bieber song.
As both these cases show, trying to manipulate how the public receives your art only serves to antagonize you to them. The plan should be to create something you believe in, market it, and then stay out of the results. It also shows how consumers today are savvier than ever, and how we can sense when someone is manipulating things. We’re attracted to authenticity, and we’re attracted to a story. Justin’s story was one of the most compelling: posting YouTube videos, getting the attention of Usher, and becoming a superstar at age 16. Now, at 25, he isn’t trying to tell any story, or at the very least, he’s trying to tell too many at once. “Yummy” coincided with his announcement that he’s been struggling with Lyme disease. The announcement accompanying this rollout is no mistake, and there’s no inherent problem with sharing what you’ve been dealing with after being absent from the spotlight. However, discussing the seriousness of what he’s going through and then posting the link to a song with the goofiness of “Yummy” seems like a drastic change in tone. It’s almost as if he was seeing how far he could make it off marketing and his name alone, and apparently, the answer is #2 on the Billboard charts.
The new establishment is people. The cracks have been widening for years in the armor of labels, who everyone is just now realizing don’t really know what they’re doing. As more artists like Roddy Ricch feel emboldened to take on the status quo, don’t be surprised if they end up prevailing more often than not.