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The 'industry plant' conversation no longer has a place in rap music

Trey Alston

 // May 31, 2018

YBN Cordae // Instagram

With his breath blowing in opaque storm-grey clouds to signify the chilling thickness of New York's frosty temperatures, Chance The Rapper expropriated Times Square in the video for "Juice," one of the insouciant cuts from his sophomore project, Acid Rap. The subtle visual edits, along with Chance's exaggerated, marionette-like movements painted him to be a looney — no one behind him so much as stopped to see just what the heck he was doing. But the saccharine nature of his smile and inflection contrasted with the druggy nonsensicality of the lyrics — cursing, lots of profanity too — and while it sounded like Cartoon Network's between-show background music, it was anything but.

So was "Juice," so was Chance in 2013. Acid Rap wasn't his introduction to the world, technically. 10 Day received that honor, but nary a soul has checked it out. Acid Rap was Chance The Rapper on everything in the kitchen cabinet, and from the guy in fourth period Statistics. It was like he waltzed into the nearest Lids and tried on every hat in the store. "Na Na" infused the blood of reggae into its own stream, creating a sneaky hit that, to this day, sounds as groundbreaking as it did when it came out. "Cocoa Butter Kisses" sounds like what warmly snuggling a blanket, with your eyes closed, fondly recalling childhood memories with your mother, feels like , with  it's soulful bits — bits, galore — inciting hums halfway into the second chorus. All around, it was just, just, open.

Instead of traipsing the hip-hop land mass in steel-toed boots post-Acid Rap, Chance opted for loose-fitting tennis shoes — if he even traversed anything at all. He was plugged into a depressing Myspace relaunch ad that wrangled up the who's-who of urban media, even if Chance was yet to become a stalwart. XXL scooped him up for its 2014 Freshman Class, and he dropped Surf with Kids These Days-offshoot The Social Experiment, rippling the waters, if anything.

2016 brought Kanye West's last album,  The Life of Pablo, and Chance's star power continued to grow  as  his name was featured prominently in the album's writing credits. In May of that year, Chance released his third project, Coloring Book. He traded in the easily accessible nature of drug-laced hymns for expensive multi-cultural jams that tapped at every conceivable corner of music. With features from just about everyone, the true standout of the track was "No Problem," a gospel-galvanized cut that copy-and-pasted the orchestral stylings of the church, but left out the virtue of its tunes. Around this time, the myriad parts of his career started coming together for some…serious public allegations.

In addition to his escalating popularity in music, Chance was one of the more prominent social justice warriors to lead the charge for the next generation of rappers. He checked off all the boxes — he campaigned for all the right faces and aligned himself with the causes that, coincidentally, placed him in the front of the public's eye. This also brought about some co-signs from Beyoncé — an unscrupulous hug that made the 2016 VMAs worth it to sit through — along with other industry vets that, combined with his music push, made him the hot button topic of the moment. This is four years after the ground work of Acid Rap was established, two additional projects later, and countless public placements. This is when inklings of the "industry plant" moniker began to bubble underneath the surface.

Just what is an industry plant? The two words, combined in unintelligible matrimony, have become a defense mechanism used by surveyors of hip-hop culture who don't understand an aspect of hip-hop culture and/or why an artist is relevant at the moment. It's used almost as an insult, thrown into conversation as a "matter-of-fact" comeback used to describe any new rapper's style. Anyone can be an industry plant in the game. If you've been relatively quiet and then experience a come-up that puts you at the forefront of lips, you're an industry plant. If other artists and companies support your moves, you're an industry plant. If you so much as breathe, you're an industry plant.

Over the past few years, searching just about any rapper's name followed by the two-word illogicality pulls up an argument about their fidelity from deep within the endless cesspit of the web. It's as if success itself is such a surprise today that anyone who has seen it must have enlisted a powerhouse backing from expensive partners. There's also the fact that when an artist pushes a certain agenda, they're believed to be employed by a larger power. A$AP Rocky was initially believed to be the Antichrist to Kendrick's savior. This is where Chance came in. It wasn't that he was just successful — he was perceived as too fast, as if the world forgot about years of work prior to Coloring Book. He also pushed a positive message that people recoiled at — in their defense, chants of "industry plant" sprang out.

As viral discoveries become more prominent in rap music, the industry plant conversation is quickly becoming obsolete. Not everyone that receives a tremendous amount of traffic is the coming devil; there's just a surplus of authentic, grassroots discoveries. Two of the most interesting cases are Lil Skies and YBN Cordae, two rising rappers that, a few years ago, would have been the epitome of what we know as industry plants.

Lil Skies' meteoric rise to fame can be contributed to his blockbuster hit "Red Roses," a track that bridges holy, trap, and melodic realms at the same time. He'd been recording music with his father, an artist under the name Dark Skies, since a young age. He took it seriously after dropping out of college. In July of 2017, he released "Red Roses" and, almost overnight, he went from a budding artist to certified star. From there, Atlantic Records rushed to his side, partnering with him for the release of his major label debut Life of a Dark Rose in January of 2018, a project that would go on to peak at No. 10 on Billboard's 200 chart—a major feat for an artist that only a year ago had released his first mixtape.

Reddit and KanyeToThe are central to the conspiracy theorists of rap music, and the users that inhabit the communities within these platforms continuously dissect Skies' rise. They point to playlist plugins and YouTuber co-signs as evidence of his industry infiltration via nefarious backdoors. But therein lies how rap music has changed, and also why this discussion can't happen anymore.

There are so many avenues for artists to explore nowadays on the way up — whether it's blog placements, influencer cosigns, or playlist inclusion. Each of these three ways can blast an artist to the next level in a snap of a finger. Lil Skies benefited from all three — Lyrical Lemonade's founder Cole Bennett, one of the most talented rising videographers in rap music, shot the video for "Red Roses" and promoted him on the Lyrical Lemonade blog, with its place as a powerhouse in new-age rap gaining Skies the fame that eluded him. From there, playlist inclusion came easy. Industry plants may have had the sudden rise to the fame in the past, if they even existed in the first place, but new-age rap's fruitful avenues that yield exponential growth do practically the same thing. Distinguishing between the two is what's important to continue to understand the evolution of the game itself.

YBN Cordae is one of the most interesting figures in the evolving realm of rap. He is why I salivate over discovering new music and understanding the ebb and flow of the game — there's always outliers to every argument that predecessors of the current meta can make. There's always going to be artists who go against the grain that manage to generate conversation without being mundane or routine. YBN Cordae is the result of perfect timing, a need for change, and managing to bridge the gap between aesthetic and talent. He's the Gohan of the YBN collective, appearing docile and juvenile but displaying a mastery over words that seems at odds with "hip-hoppers'" belief about his age group. He's not a social warrior like Joey Bada$$ or Astro used to be. His quips are intelligent reflections of his spry reality that've been injected with a spark that make it interesting to listen to, not a drudgery to get through.

YBN Nahmir, the spearhead of the group, popped off in September of 2017 with the release of "Rubbin Off The Paint," a new-age rap contusion of sorts that was initially written off as a fluke. Then he followed up with "Bounce Out With That" and proved himself as someone with the talent to remain a player in the game. His lyricism is rooted in what older artists deem to be dismissible, but his energy, new-age rap's measure of effectiveness, places him on the top tier of the coming generation.

Cordae's "Old Niggas" perfectly bridges the gap between conscious and Nahmir's style of new-age rap, being elegant in its commentary on the generational divide in hip-hop while also acknowledging the artistry that the new generation exudes (that the previous often attempts to discredit). Upon release, it went viral — in the sense that the views exploded, but blogs picked it up at a lightning fast rate. His previous release, a remix of Eminem's "My Name Is," opened the door, but "Old Niggas" placed a wooden block on the ground to prevent it from closing.

The organic growth of Cordae's importance comes from the perfect storm that seems to be happening much more often. No questions about his value were brought up; he just continues to grow, partly because of the YBN collective's commanding of new-age rap music right now, but also because he's damn good. Labels are probably in a rush to sign him, or will be in the near future. When he inevitably does sign on the dotted line and shakes hands, he'll be even more a fixture of bloggers looking for a new byline. When this happens, will the industry plant conversation rise again from the dust? Or will it be understood that he, like Lil Skies, has unknowingly benefitted from the multiple ways of rapid, organic growth that continue to elude some older artists?

Of course, influencers, blog placements, and playlist plugins are nothing new. However, in today's age, when the importance of platforms like BET and MTV in breaking new music continue to wane, they have become all the more popular. Especially, the playlist. Being included in Spotify, TIDAL, or Apple Music's curated compilations has become the most sought-after venture for rising artists. Carl Chery, the former Head of Apple Music's Artist Curation, and Zini, the currernt Curator of Apple Music's 'The New LA' and 'The New Bay' playlists, have become celebrities in their own right. They serve as influencers and tastemakers. Ian Connor, the fashionisto's Christ, has frequently served as a host on the world stage, introducing a number of artists to become viral sensations such as Lil Yachty, D Savage 3900 and, yes, of course, Playboi Carti. It's odd how none of these guys have been questioned as industry plants. Maybe it's because their paths to success have been so well documented, even if some were faster than others. They can't be plants because the underground supported them so.

That's probably the biggest difference with any of rap's newer cast and Chance The Rapper's initial run — we saw the grassroots support with the newer guys; Chance seemingly popped up out of nowhere. But it's 2018. Blogs, playlists, and influencers practically dictate the culture, especially in new-age rap. YBN Cordae and Lil Skies are products of these platforms' increased importance. A few years ago, they would have been deemed industry plants with the blink of an eye. But times are different, the underground is much more important, and great artistry is rewarded in accordance. The "industry plant" phrase needs to be thrown out altogether — rappers are growing even faster, organically.


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