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No Sell-out? For Modern Rappers, It’s More of a No-brainer

Chance, Lil Yachty, and Kendrick keep the crossover

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the spirit of Halloween, Chance the Rapper stars in a new Kit Kat commercial in which he’s dressed as Raccoon Mario from Super Mario 3. He sings the Kit Kat jingle over a piano melody in the style of “Sunday Candy.” It’s cute. And it’s corny, though not as dreadfully so as Kendrick Lamar’s brief but nonetheless unfortunate verse on Maroon 5’s latest single, “Don’t Wanna Know,” also released last week. And then there’s Lil Yachty, a rapper who blew up less than a year ago, starring in a Sprite commercial that premiered October 12. “Endorsement deal! For Lil Yachty!” the rapper shouts in the ad, as if corporate sponsorship were his personal telos.

That’s three high-profile rap stars making shameless crossover moves within days of each other, each approaching the gambit with varying degrees of eagerness. Chance rides the distinction between cute and corny with diminishing caution; his Kit Kat commercial is a stab at what rap fans might otherwise call selling out. Kendrick Lamar had already subjected himself to the white-pop-industrial complex in 2015 when he rapped on Taylor Swift’s official remix of “Bad Blood,” a hit record at odds with the Compton rapper’s artistic sensibilities. There were no repercussions. In a decimated genre within a decimated industry, “selling out” is among the very least of a rapper’s concerns.

So perhaps there’s no longer such a thing as a bad look. Older rappers have lived down worse crossover maneuvers than Kendrick’s collaboration with Maroon 5 — LFO featuring M.O.P. comes to mind — but now it seems fans and critics have come to tolerate occasionally awkward paydays as the cost of doing business. Even with hit records to their name, up-and-coming rappers are increasingly dependent on corporate benefactors for reliable revenue streams. Brooklyn rapper Young M.A. is fresh off her breakout single, “OOOUUU,” which climbed onto the Hot 100 only a month ago, and now she’s already costarring alongside Pharrell, Nicki Minaj, and Travis Scott in a commercial for Beats by Dre.

Sprite’s promotion of Yachty is an ultramodern case. Yachty is a distinguished personal brand but a relatively unaccomplished musician; he’s only the sixth-most-popular rookie rapper on Billboard’s Rap Streaming Songs chart, and the only true hit to his credit is “Broccoli,” a song where he raps as D.R.A.M.’s guest. As a solo artist, Yachty seems like he was built to peak with the childish wish fulfillment of appearing in a Sprite commercial with LeBron James. His music career is just noise.

For Yachty, selling out was always the goal of his ascent, so his Sprite commercial serves as an overwhelming vindication of the rapper’s divisive talents — at least among his fans. For Chance, too, it’s all a part of the plan to pop stardom: He’s now personally petitioning the Recording Academy to nominate his latest album, Coloring Book, for the Grammy Awards next February. The charm offensive has no end.

Admittedly, the blueprint that Chance and his peers now follow was first drafted by generations of so-called “sellouts” who preceded them. In 2016, however, these brand partnerships and crossover moments have arguably eclipsed record deals in importance to an artist’s livelihood. So fans will forgive a corny costume or two, if it means seeing their favorite rappers outlive the immediate highs of their breakout hits and debut projects.

For millennial rap, such commercial growing pains aren’t a totally new state of affairs. After all, the late ’90s yielded childhood-defining footage of jiggy rap icon Ma$e pushing the Reptar Wagon down Green Screen Avenue, courtesy of Jimmy Iovine at Interscope and Puffy at Bad Boy Records. It gets no cornier than that.