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The pressure of album sequels in hip-hop

Trey Alston

 // Jul 19, 2018

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Cloverfield was the big, sexy monster movie that revolutionized the found-footage genre more than Paranormal Activity before it. It hit theaters in 2008 and, through a cinéma vérité style of narrative, it chronicled six Manhattanites dealing with the death and destruction caused by one Brobdingnagian alien menace. By the end of the film, director Matt Reeves and writer Drew Goddard make explicitly clear everything the audience needs to know about the monster and its origin, bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion. But the film grossed $170.8 million from a $25 million budget, so a sequel was bound to happen.

10 Cloverfield Lane hit theaters in 2016, eight years after the enormous impact of the first. While city-wide destruction and found footage are constants in the first, the second is a restrained, personal affair. The third-person narrative follows a woman's post-apocalyptic journey from the claustrophobic throws of a bunker with a psychopathic makeshift guardian, to her alien encounters outside of it once she escapes. Outside of her otherworldly encounters, there were no connections to the original film. The movie's screenplay originated from a low-budget spec script from writers Matt Stuecken and Josh Campbell called The Cellar. Damien Chazelle came in and rewrote the draft and, around this time, rumblings of how the film's intangibles were similar to the original Cloverfield began occurring. So, the screenwriters, director, and studio agreed to make the film a sequel to the 2008 sci-fi flick - a decision that paid off nicely. It grossed $110.2 million from a budget of $15 million.

Without the Cloverfield name, 10 Cloverfield Lane wouldn't have been the success that it is. Consider it the sequel effect — once an art form is tied to an original of the same name, it benefits from the pre-established image. But while it does gain a considerable increase an interest, it also bears the brunt of some serious expectations that come with improving on the original. Movies always rely on the sequel card, even when the second film has nothing to do with the first. But it's not the only medium to do it — music as well, specifically in hip-hop.

Often times in film, sequels are unnecessary. They're often just a vague cash-in attempt to wrangle in a few more dollars instead of trusting the quality of an original intellectual property. There's no continuation of the themes and threads that existed in the original — just vague, post-production attempts at bridging the gaps at places. Sequel albums are often similar. Music is hard enough to sell as-is today; adding a sequel to a years-old album will increase interest in it just enough. But music's a different game when it comes to thematic content, making it harder to pick up on ideas years later.

The Game released his debut album The Documentary in 2005; its follow-up The Documentary 2 came in 2014. Eminem released The Marshall Mathers LP in 2000 ; its sequel didn't arrive until 2013. Both albums received middling reception, the commonality being that neither rapper felt as hungry or focused as when they came out. Judging that the Game and Eminem had both released four albums in the in-between periods of their sequels, this makes sense. There's no tangible way to check in with a decade-old self to continue their sonic and thematic journey.

Thus, brings the true weight of the sequel on the modern rapper. Follow-ups to any rap album come with an enormous weight that exceeds the expectations set on sequel films due to the very nature of rap itself. The genre prides itself on lyricism and aesthetics to the point that when music is identified in tandem, the connections are immediately set in stone. This adds a new element to both the original and the sequel, connecting them in both good and bad ways — prior to the sequel's release. When the sequel does drop, it's reviewed twice — once for the quality of the music, and second for its link to the original. If it strikes out on either one of these analyses, the sequel is deemed a failure, thus tainting the legacy of the original.

When done right, rap album sequels organically bridge the time gap, adding new, cohesive elements to the artist that continue the concepts introduced years ago. Kid Cudi's Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager carried the same lush, introspective torch that its predecessor Man on the Moon: The End of Day did the previous year. Lil Wayne's Sorry 4 the Wait 2 continued to exhibit the manic energy and anxious desperation that made its original one of rap's most entertaining free releases in 2011. But more often than not, like in film, sequels just aren't up to par with not just their older music, but modern as well.

In Pitchfork's review of Marshall Mathers LP 2, writer Craig Jenkins revealed that Eminem is "struggling to keep up with modern pop conventions." Earlier on in the review, he also revealed one connection, albeit sour, that the album has to its predecessor. "It also revels in its predecessor's worst behaviors, bandying about misogyny and gay slurs as if Eminem's conciliatory 2001 Grammys performance with a pink polka dot-suited Elton John never happened," Jenkins wrote. This in-between space is what often impacts sequels — one foot in the past, the other in the present, afraid to commit to nostalgia while simultaneously not making enough of a commitment to modern day music.

Eminem's a little older so this idea is exacerbated, but it's seen time and time again through rap music, substantially because the genre moves the fastest. Game's The Documentary faired a little better being that Game is more of a chameleon that hides behind contemporary features; he does the same on both the original and the sequel. Yet his problem is that while The Documentary 2 boasts an orgy of features (seriously, Game albums can just be considered a "Who's Popular" list at this point), the album itself doesn't stick. The Documentary was a rag-tag collection of rap and R&B notables with a message about Game's come-up. The Documentary 2 is just hot feature after feature.

Wiz Khalifa's Rolling Papers album came out on March 29, 2011 and it felt like the beginning of a dynasty. It was his third studio album; first under a major label. Its lead single "Black and Yellow" peaked at No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and would be used by the Pittsburgh Steelers as a fight song in Super Bowl XLV. It was certified double-platinum and has moved over two million album-equivalent units. While it wasn't the deepest, or most introspective album in the world, its sheer mindless luxury made it the pinnacle of Wiz's musical career at the time. Prior to the release of the album, Wiz gave three meanings of the album's title: the papers that weed smokers roll (of course), gaining independence from his Warner Bros. contract (rolling it up and smoking it), and not writing his raps anymore (papers rolling out the door). The album had a special meaning to him, as it does many of his fans.

More than seven years later, and three albums in-between, Wiz Khalifa has released the sequel to his highest-selling album with Rolling Papers 2. He gave his reason for the album's name in an episode of Genius' For The Record. "With Rolling Papers 2, it's like I'm at a whole new point in my career where people may or may not know what to expect. I feel like this is such an opportunity to just come out to the world. It feels so important, it feels as important as the first time," he relayed.

He can say all of that, but it's clear that Wiz is playing chess, not checkers. He wants to leverage album sales from saying that the album serves as a sequel to the original, a la Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane. Rolling Papers told a self-contained story of glitz and glamour that can't really be expanded on, henceforth his next three albums having no relation. But when those sales don't exactly line-up with what Rolling Papers did, that's when you return to the property that fans identified with the most. Also, Rolling Papers had only 14 tracks and three features. Rolling Papers 2 contains 25 tracks and 14 guests. Wiz is going after those streaming numbers that'll translate to quick sales and accolades while also extracting the listening ears of fans of his wide variety of guest appearances. This is going to be his biggest, boldest commercial statement by taking advantage of the idea of the sequel, especially since he doesn't have some spectacular lyrical threshold to exceed.

But surely, the weight of Rolling Papers will weigh down on Rolling Papers 2 as critics consume the latter and listeners inevitably draw comparisons between both works. So is the life of a sequel with ties to the first that stretch years apart. There's more to it than just the name. While there's an abundance of sequels that fail to live up to expectations, there are a number that properly realize and use these trappings to elevate the message on display into something timeless.

Rick Ross recently revealed that he's working on Port of Miami 2, the sequel to Port of Miami released back in 2006. How will Rick Ross play his cards? Will he capture the drug-dealing and luxe zeitgeist that made his earliest music some of his best? Or will he continue a trend of sequels striking out? There are a lot of visible and inconspicuous factors that go into sequel albums. If what we've seen so far is any indicator, maybe it really is best to continue creating unique projects instead of revisiting the same works and feelings. That goes double for you too, Hollywood.


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