Through the years, two of rap’s most steadfast loves have proven themselves to be money and Gucci. The latter, more than any other fashion house or consumer product, is the most name-dropped brand in rap lyrics. Then there’s the embedding of Gucci into names and signature phrases themselves, e.g. artists like Gucci Mane and songs with on-the-nose titles like Soulja Boy’s “Gucci Bandana,” Tyga’s “Gucci Snakes,” Migos’ “I’m Gucci,” Red Cafe’s “Gucci Everything” and — freshest in the mind — Lil Pump’s summer chart-topper “Gucci Gang.” All told, the word “Gucci” makes nearly 3,000 appearances in the English-language lyrics canon. (The two-minute-long “Gucci Gang” claims a noteworthy 51 of those alone.)
In 2018, now that rap is the most lucrative and prominent genre of music in the globally-leading American music market, Gucci and money — whether acquiring, singing about, bragging about or spending with aplomb — are coming together in unheard-of ways. While record labels are already willing to shell out sums they can’t necessarily afford for the next Drake, Lil Pump or XXXTentacion, hip-hop is finding itself with another revenue stream that’s swelling to unprecedented size: corporate brands, whether designer or totally run-of-the-mill, flocking to musicians for partnerships, sponsorships and other advertising.
“Every artist wants a deal with Gucci,” Marcie Allen, president and founder of brand partnerships firm MAC Presents, tells Rolling Stone. But certainly not everyone can get one; not even the stars at the very top. (Gucci rarely teams up with celebrities in overt paid advertising, preferring to have its designs endorsed in alternate, more organic, ways.) In lieu of that, what rappers can get are deals with hundreds, even thousands, of other brands — in tried-and-true industries like fashion, food and hospitality, but also unexpected and burgeoning new areas like e-sports — who want to try and cash in on hip-hop’s bursting popularity.
Advertisers’ interest in working with musicians is hardly a new phenomenon unique to hip-hop, of course. Liquor companies, in particular, have long courted the music industry for sponsorships. But last summer, when Nielsen released a report that said rap had displaced rock as America’s most popular genre of music, corporate boardrooms saw a shining opportunity and began a mad rush to snatch up as many rappers as they could. It created a perfect circle: If rap loved money and listeners (a.k.a. consumers) loved rap, brands could easily step in to intensify that and capitalize upon it alike. Allen says she was swarmed by various companies asking to partner with emerging rappers after Nielsen’s report came out. “Data is king. Data and research are what brands are turning to, to help them build their story,” she says. “You don’t have to be Jay-Z to get a deal, you don’t have to be Drake or Cardi B.”
Drake and Vince Staples have teamed up with Sprite; Lil Yachty did the same with Nautica; Khalid collaborated with Hollister, and Future with Forever 21; Jay-Z has worked with a spate of brands in his decades-spanning career from Reebok to Nokia to Budweiser to Puma Basketball, where he is currently the group’s creative director, and it’s Hova’s affinity for corporate partnerships that puts him in the running to be rap’s first billionaire. Industry veterans point to the specific culture of hip-hop — self-driven, self-made, and openly championing wealth and riches — that has allowed its artists to strike so many deals, so quickly, and all without losing authenticity or respect from their fans. A brand deal was anathema to the guitar bands and rock gods of decades past, who rarely talked about money in public; to rap and its fans, there’s nothing better.
“This is their moment,” Allen says. “I’ve never heard a hip-hop artist say to me, ‘I’m a sellout if I do a brand deal.’ In rock, I heard that for years. Adele famously doesn’t do brand deals. You don’t see that in hip-hop — they control their careers, they are the final decision-maker, they’re very business-savvy.”
Cheryl Paglierani, an agent at United Talent Agency whose roster includes Post Malone, among others, says the rapper’s career wouldn’t have grown so fast without such deals. “Brand partnerships have been key in aligning brands with Post’s audience, but also marketing him to their audience and things he genuinely likes — things that are a part of his everyday life,” she says. A short list of Malone’s brand deals: Bud Light, Fender, Lyft and Hasbro’s Nerf guns.
“It’s something everybody wants now,” Paglierani adds. “Every artist wants to work with brands that are key and respected, but also brands they like and use themselves. So if you have an interest in a specific sneaker or wear a specific makeup — artists love being aligned now with things that are true to what they are doing.” And on the other side, UTA’s head of music brand partnerships Toni Wallace says an artist like Malone appeals to brands because he is already “authentic and original, and he encourages his fans to do the same.”
Many modern artists, especially rappers in the streaming era, have business in mind before anything else. Megan West, SoundCloud’s vice president of content and community, compares up-and-coming rappers to startups: “When you think about startups, it’s the idea of being able to find the right partners and collaborators. Any startup is looking for the right financing,” she says.
But just because rap is business-minded as a genre doesn’t mean any rapper teaming up with any brand will sell. (See HBO’s poorly received Game of Thrones-inspired mixtape Catch the Throne.) The message, as with all of advertising, has to tell a story and play off as sincere. It doesn’t work if artists don’t genuinely have the same tastes, interests or fanbases as the companies with which they’re working. That’s not to mention the brewing controversy over some brands utilizing music for free — such as creating Spotify playlists and adding music without seeking artists’ permission or providing partnership compensation.
Will the bubble burst? Not just yet. “Rap has always been the engine that fuels pop culture, but a lot of people didn’t get hip to investing in it because they thought it was a passing fad,” Interscope Records’ EVP Joie Manda tells Rolling Stone. “Now, it’s so undeniable. People realize they just have to invest more into urban music.”
Allen, who has been working with artists on brand partnerships for 20 years, says new avenues from unexpected industries are only just beginning to take shape. For one, there’s the unclaimed money in sports. “Music partnerships for brands are $1.5 billion, while sports partnerships are at $60 billion. So there’s a huge disparity between what brands spend on sports and what brands spend on music,” she says. “Imagine if hip-hop is the catalyst that ends up shortening that gap. It would be gigantic.” Then there’s the under-the-radar but burgeoning world of e-sports, with artists like Drake and Travis Scott breaking Twitch live-streaming records and nabbing promotion and exposure while they’re at it — posing new opportunities that have barely been scratched by the music business, industry executives say. Tech-world partnerships, such as a recent VR collaboration between Childish Gambino and Microsoft, are another under-explored space being discussed with interest at this year’s industry conferences.
It’s clear, though, that rap is no longer limited to the tried-and-true sphere of liquor brands and sneaker deals — as music, overall, stands to profit immensely from the expanded horizons. “If this were a gold rush, you’d start seeing deals level off at this point for hip-hop because it’s been a year,” Allen says. “They’re not. They’re only getting bigger and more frequent.”