White-hot (hot-white?) rhythmic-rhymer of words Asher Roth released his album this week. I got Tom Breihan (Pitchfork), Touré (The Daily Beast), and Byron Crawford (XXL) to cut through the obligatory talking points.
First things first: This Asher Roth album is going to sell. Sorry, kids. This guy's label has done as good a job of introducing a new artist that any major could be expected to do in 2009. It doesn't matter if the tastemakers like it or not, since the folks in charge have done really masterful work convincing everyone the world that the tastemakers like Roth, that Roth is a serious bottom-up grassroots phenomenon who's risen through the internet ranks and convinced begrudging serious rap higher-ups of his worthiness.
The majors learned a long time ago that any white rapper needs big-time co-signs from famous black dudes before they can cross over to white pop audiences; those co-signs are what makes it OK for the white pop audiences to take the white rapper seriously. Asher doesn't have anything on the level of Dre signing Eminem, but that mixtape with Drama and those YouTube clips of actual rappers half-heartedly endorsing Roth are enough.
Plus he's got a legit party-anthem hit single, one with an incredibly canny sample underlying it. Then there's "Lark on My Go-Kart", which is not actually a good song, but which does have that Seth McFarlane pop culture reference onslaught working for it; it's the sort of song that makes people feel smart for getting the non-jokes. Seth McFarlane is bullshit, but he's remarkably lucrative and popular bullshit.
So I have to admire the beauty of Roth's marketing campaign. In Asher, the majors have this appealing, well adjusted kid who can sort of rap. And they've finally landed someone who knows how to use the internet. Asher's maybe the first pop rapper other than Soulja Boy who knows how to use all this silly web 2.0 bullshit to lend himself the appearance of massive success.
It's as close to a perfect storm has we're going to see anytime soon. My guess is he sells 300K in his first week, at least. If a second single manages to stick, he'll go platinum, easy. If Asleep in the Bread Aisle was actually a good album, he'd sell twice that.
A lot of people feel resentment about the ascension of Asher Roth because they didn't realize that Asher is inevitable. If it wasn't him, it'd be someone else; if it wasn't now it'd be next year.
Many of us are still holding on, deep in the cranium, to that 80s mentality, when hip hop was black and relatively underground. We are as far from that as the Somali pirate is from home. Asher is the face of the majority of hip hop fans. It's inevitable that eventually one of them would get onstage. It seems shocking to see a blonde suburban kid getting buzz so quickly while your favorite grimy black super-wordsmith is still struggling to get heard but the music biz isn't a meritocracy. It's never about who's the best. If it was they'd just raid the southern Baptist churches. There's tons of great singers there. But they need lookers and more they need salespeople. If Britney Spears was on American Idol she wouldn't win because she can't sing (or dance). But Britney can sell a song and a persona and a brand. That's what the music business is about. Asher may not have the skill of Doom but he's intelligently presented an image that's appealing to many hip hop fans who enjoy listening to and looking at someone who reminds them of themselves. There's nothing wrong with that.
It may irritate some hip hop fans that Asher is suburban and doesn't pay homage to black culture and the ghetto (things Eminem does) but suburbia thinks hip hop is theirs and they're not wrong. Asher isn't unique, he's going to be followed by many more like him. Once upon a time rock n roll was filled with black artists. When your grandkids roll around you'll tell them once hip hop was filled with black artists. Hopefully they won't look at you like you're crazy. (By the way, Tom, I'm looking at you like you're crazy for that line "silly web 2.0 bs." Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter aren't silly or bs. This is the way the world connects today and it's not going away soon. But if it's any consolation, my grandfather agrees with you.)
It's obvious Asleep in the Bread Aisle is gonna be a miserable commercial failure. The first sign was the other day, when Asher Roth went on XXL talking about how the label failed to ship enough copies to stores. At first, I thought there might be some truth to this, since these rap labels have been known to fuck things up like that. Then it occurred to me: if the label really thought this album would be a commercial success, why would they only ship 100,000 copies to stores the first week? They probably realized the demand just wasn't there. Maybe they read a post I wrote the other day about how it's obvious people don't really give a shit about Asher Roth, despite all of the support he's received from the TIs. Then it was announced yesterday that Asleep in the Bread Aisle is only expected to sell about 70,000 copies its first week out. Which gives the lie to Roth's claim that the label didn't ship enough copies to stores.
The real question is: why isn't Asleep in the Bread Aisle the commercial success we thought it might be? It could be that the album sucks balls. I know it's gotten a few favorable nods from critics, but those people are obviously on the TIs' payroll. My boy Ian Cohen over at Pitchfork gave it a 2.7, and I'd say that's about accurate. The album was leaked to the Internets a good 10+ days before it hit the streets, on 4/20. Maybe hundreds of thousands of people were planning to cop, like they did that Lil Wayne album last year, but then they heard it and decided to get some weed instead. If the album was even aiight (say, a 5.7 on the P-fork scale), it probably would have sold way better. The streets are hungry for bullshit right now - that new Jadakiss album sold about twice as many copies its first week as Asher Roth is expected to sell, and it's a Jadakiss album. If the album was genuinely worth a shit, we might have a new Eminem on our hands. I think there is still a hunger for a great white hope in hip-hop, even though we're living in an age when race is supposedly no longer relevant.