The Blatant Hypocrisy of the Sotheby’s Hip-Hop Auction

Emilee Geist

Pitchfork writer Alphonse Pierre’s rap column covers songs, mixtapes, albums, Instagram freestyles, memes, weird tweets, fashion trends—and anything else that catches his attention. Putting a price on hip-hop history How much would you spend to have a piece of hip-hop’s heart? Well, some rich people answered that question this week […]

Pitchfork writer Alphonse Pierre’s rap column covers songs, mixtapes, albums, Instagram freestyles, memes, weird tweets, fashion trends—and anything else that catches his attention.

Putting a price on hip-hop history

How much would you spend to have a piece of hip-hop’s heart? Well, some rich people answered that question this week at a Sotheby’s auction. Items included 22 love letters Tupac wrote to his high school crush (sold for $75,600), the crown famously worn by Biggie ($594,750), and an original Tommy Boy Records neon sign ($13,860). Overall, 120 pieces of art and memorabilia were on sale, and most sold, but there’s something uncomfortable about it, right?

There’s a long history of the one percent spending absurd amounts of money on paraphernalia connected to cultural movements they had nothing to do with, but should we just shrug and say, “It was bound to happen”? Maybe I’m being overprotective of the genre, but since hip-hop’s inception it has had to fight the threat of influential powers trying to both silence and co-opt it.

Organized by Sotheby’s VP Cassandra Hatton and former Tommy Boy Records exec Monica Lynch (both white women), the auction was intended to reflect on hip-hop from the late ’70s to the present. But is Sotheby’s the right organization to canonize hip-hop culture? There’s no doubt that the tony auction house was once the type of space where hip-hop was dismissed as a fad or simply wasn’t considered as art. That mindset was detrimental to the careers of some of the very artists they’re now profiting off, whether it be the Harlem writers behind a vintage Subway sign covered with graffiti (sold for $27,720) or Rammellzee, a foundational, multifaceted artist who was shoved to the side by art spaces in the ’80s (his Bands of Steel sold for $35,280).

We’re still not that far removed from New York City’s war on graffiti, where the artform was villainized, writers were imprisoned, and the movement was used as a way to push law enforcement into Black and Brown neighborhoods. Many of these artists never got the opportunity to see their work embraced on a wide scale, but now that Sotheby’s and their big-pocket bidders are foaming at the mouth, anything associated with hip-hop culture is worth thousands. I’m sure Sotheby’s is aware of the irony. At the bottom of the auction’s online page, they try to get in front of all possible criticism by stating that some proceeds will go to NYC public libraries and a nonprofit called Building Beats aimed at teaching underserved youth leadership skills through music. But self-awareness doesn’t change the fact that these spaces only wanted a piece of hip-hop once it proved to be profitable.

The five dumbest things that were on the market at the Sotheby’s auction

5) The item: Private atelier experience and couture design-session with legendary Harlem tailor Dapper Dan (sold: $11,340)

The reality: Dapper Dan spends the entire session trying to force you to wear a bowtie.

4) 22 Love letters Tupac wrote to his high school crush (sold: $75,600)

The only love letter I need is Drake at the end of “Diamonds Dancing.”

3) Private lyric writing lesson and studio session with Rakim (sold: $18,900)

I bought this and am sending the Coochie Man, YN Jay, in my place.

2) Virtual wine tasting with Big Daddy Kane (not sold)

Big Daddy Kane is alone on a Zoom call somewhere drinking wine, how sad.

1) Louis Vuitton x Supreme Box Logo Hoodie (sold: $6,048)

Sotheby’s is really just Grailed.

Breaking down the rise of Mulatto

You rarely ever come away from the XXL Freshman Freestyles feeling like you know a rapper better than you did before. Each cypher participant usually just lifelessly spits a pre-written verse and then waits for filming to end so they can resume commenting emojis under Say Cheese Instagram posts. But Mulatto broke that mold this year. Her undeniable charisma cut through: She boasted about turning down a deal, cracked jokes about sexual conquests, and even found the time to flirt with an overly excited Fivio Foreign. It felt like a star-making moment. But in case you still have questions…

Who is Mulatto?

Mulatto is the second budding rap star to come from Jermaine Dupri’s Lifetime musical competition series, The Rap Game (the other is J.I the Prince of NY). In 2016, a teenage, bracefaced Mulatto, under the stage name Miss Mulatto, won the inaugural season of the show. Since then, the Atlanta native has been gradually coming into her own.

What is she good at?

Mulatto can rap. Her flow is tight and, even when she’s being disrespectful, it’s still somewhat charming. “Fuck The Rap Game, still happy I ain’t sign that,” she says on “No Hook,” and any rapper who has beef with a cancelled reality television show has my support. But she’s best at creating moments, like the luxurious remix of “Bitch From Da Souf” with Trina and Saweetie, or one of her eye-popping videos. How could you not be enamored with “On God” after watching Mulatto strut down the street with Coi Leray and Mariah the Scientist by her side?

Is there any reason to be skeptical?

Queen of Da Souf, Mulatto’s album from August, is held back by production that seems like it was chosen by someone who hasn’t listened to Atlanta rap in at least half a decade. Even her most popular song, the Gucci Mane-assisted “Muwop,” is stuck in the past. Her rapping on it is sharp as usual, but the hook—which interpolates Gucci’s classic “Freaky Gurl”—will only make you want to listen to the original instead.

OK, but does she need to change her name to be a star?

Mulatto is definitely one of the worst rap names ever, but I say ride that shit out.

Baby Plug: “Float On”

Remember the decade-old era of hip-hop when Kid Cudi was running around with MGMT and Ratatat, and Childish Gambino was rapping on Grizzly Bear tracks? When I think about that time, I wake up in my sleep like a character in a horror movie, startled and sweaty. But I’m not going to lie to you, I was playing the hell out of Lupe Fiasco’s Modest Mouse-sampling “The Show Goes On” back in 2010, so it only makes sense that I appreciate Baby Plug’s “Float On.” The Atlanta rapper hops on a RX Brainstorm-produced flip of the Modest Mouse hit, crooning like the Thug disciple that he is. Let’s just hope he doesn’t decide to rap on Grizzly Bear next.

Revisiting Lil Durk’s Just Cause Y’all Waited 2

Lil Durk’s Just Cause Y’all Waited 2 arrived in May, during one of the most stressful and upsetting months in modern history: The Trump administration and their sheep were still trying to deny the impact of the coronavirus, and George Floyd was murdered at the hands of the police. At that time, I was too angry and frustrated to even think about listening to music. And though my anger and frustration has hardly subsided, I want to look back at the records I didn’t have the will to immerse myself in then.

Since Lil Durk left Def Jam in 2018, the Chicago drill forefather has been one of the most consistent and prolific rappers out. On Just Cause Y’all Waited 2, instead of the cold-hearted rap he made early on his career, he’s singing like he’s on the verge of a breakdown. “When you wake up off them pills, that feeling terrible,” he howls in the album’s opening line. Similarly, “248” shows that Durk is at his best when it sounds like he’s at a therapy session. “I’ve seen so many young niggas lose they lives/That’s why when I go to a funeral today, I don’t even cry,” he wails.

As far as rappers who sing about pain, Durk is still a notch below Polo G and Rod Wave; I listen to The Goat or Pray 4 Love and feel so personally invested in every line, whereas Durk can lose me at points. It’s probably because he tries to make different types of records that don’t work out: “Gucci Gucci” is meant to blend into the playlist of white noise known as RapCaviar, and “Broke in Miami” is an awkward love song with unpleasant imagery. “Put my dick in her oven,” he croons, followed by a moan that sounds like the host of a cooking show just had their first bite of food. But even Durk’s worst moments are at least kind of funny, and he can make just about anything interesting. It’s no surprise he laid down one of the best guest verses of the year, elevating Drake’s Nike ad into a moment.

NoCap: “Drown in My Styrofoam”

A couple of months back, I was introduced to the music of Elliott Smith. Even though it unsettled me to hear the late songwriter painfully sing over slow, creeping guitars at first, I realized that I listen to much of the bluesy rap currently coming out of the Deep South in a similar way. More specifically, Smith’s music makes me think of NoCap, an Alabama rapper who seemingly self-destructs on every song. On “Drown in My Styrofoam,” maybe his best song since last year’s “Ghetto Angels,” he pours out his soul over dreary acoustics: “I want Ceelo beside me just like my gun is/I wish he never left, I gotta ask myself/Would I drown in this styrofoam tonight?” It’s as uncomfortable as eavesdropping on a breakdown.

Louie Ray saves fashion in the “2021” video

Autumn!: “Moncleezy!”

Louisiana’s Autumn! has earned a cult following on SoundCloud, inspiring endless imitations. For the last few years, he’s been laying his robotic coos over melodies smooth enough for an early 2000s R&B album cut and choppy drums inspired by Southern producers StoopidXool and Mexikodro. On “Moncleezy!” Autumn! elevates his Auto-Tuned croons over a sparkly Iankon beat. His vocals can be piercingly high-pitched or low and steady, though I prefer when he digs deep and belts out a line like, “New Moncleezy on my body!” Singing about Moncler coats isn’t new, but Autumn!’s supernatural wails can make almost anything sound refreshing.

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