What's in a Co-Sign? How Hip-Hop's Seal of Approval Has Evolved in the Twitter Era
The Weeknd has dubbed himself “Starboy,” a moniker that will carry him through his third studio album of the same title and the chart-topping single to match it. It couldn’t be a more appropriate calling at this stage in his career -- one packed with mainstream success that has inched into pop stardom, platinum plaques, Grammy awards, and social media numbers in the multi-millions. Though his transition from alt-R&B outsider to Hot 100 chart-topper seems unlikely, Abel Tesfaye isn't the first left-field artist to crossover successfully. The Weeknd’s hard left into the pop stratosphere echoes a similar tale of a fellow Canadian, Drake, whose second studio album Take Care made him a household name. An artist who gave The Weeknd his first major boost five years ago. With one simple tweet -- and a feature -- Drake provided The Weeknd with a co-sign that changed everything.
Outside of hip-hop, "co-sign" typically represents the concept of staking an important claim of your reputation on another person. You can co-sign someone’s student loan, apartment lease or car note. The stake of your credit score rests in the hands of the person that you’re co-signing. In the genre's yesteryears, the gravity of a musical co-sign was equally massive. When proven to be flimsy, there was backlash but today's rap game is different. Our everyday interactions have been relegated to 140 characters on Twitter so everything from emotions to emojis live within a tiny box that can mean everything or nothing at all. So how valuable is a co-sign today in comparison to hip-hop’s past?
Trace the lineage of many of hip-hop’s current titans, and they originated from a co-sign, i.e. Jaz O co-signed Jay Z, who co-signed Kanye West. Sure, there were others sprinkled into those degrees of separation (see: Memphis Bleek and Beanie Sigel), but once the stamp of approval landed on West, things changed. Big Sean rapped for West outside of a Detroit radio station, he got the co-sign. Kid Cudi, after a fledgling career, was brought to Hawaii to co-pen Ye’s 2008 album 808s & Heartbreaks and thus, got the co-sign. It’s not to say that a K. West co-sign has dropped in value, but compared to his predecessor Hov, it was easier for the neophytes to earn.
Cut to J. Cole who inked a deal with Roc Nation and after watching many of his peers receive a featured verse from Jay Z (Kendrick Lamar and Drake to name a few), he finally landed a sixteen with "Mr. Nice Watch" off his major label debut, the 2011 chart-topper Cole World: The Sideline Story. Philadelphia rapper Freeway knows all too well how a Jay Z co-sign is earned and not given. "The crazy thing is I rapped for Jay a couple years before I actually got signed," Freeway recalls. "We were at a Mike Tyson fight versus Botha in Vegas. I met Jay in a hallway, and it was the first day I ever met him. They told me to spit for him and I spit for him and he was like, 'Oh, it’s cool.' Then we both just went on with our day and whatever. Then me and Beans [Beanie Sigel] had gotten tight, and he had gotten the situation with Roc-A-Fella. He brought seven of us to spit for Jay. When I spit for Jay, he ran out the room. He came back in like, 'Yo this kid is crazy!'"
At that point, the co-sign still never happened as Freeway found himself in prison for three months on drug possession with intent to distribute charges and later, house arrest. While Sigel promised to hold him down once he was free, the grand jury was ultimately Mr. Carter. The co-sign finally came when Freeway came off house arrest and was invited to appear on Jay’s 2000 effort Dynasty: Roc La Familia on the track "1-900-Hustler." Jay Z (and Beanie Sigel) even appeared on Freeway’s now classic “What We Do” off his debut album Philadelphia Freeway. "The rest is history," Freeway says.
Prodigy of Mobb Deep can also echo the value of a co-sign. "As soon as me and Havoc created our demo, we decided to stand in front of Def Jam with our Walkman and make people listen to our shit," Prodigy says. "We stood out there for a few hours and nobody wanted to stop for us. We were like, 'Yo, listen to our demo.' Q-Tip actually stopped and listened and brought us into the office. He pulled us into the industry and people started knowing who we were." Both co-signs resulted in record deals: in Freeway’s case, the co-signer signed him to his own label and crew; for Mobb Deep, the co-signer put them in the face of execs that later materialized into a deal.
Those two tales are a far cry from today’s co-sign story. While Drake is an artist who came from the humble beginnings of rap co-signs (Birdman co-signed Lil Wayne, who co-signed Drake fresh off an acting career on the TV series Degrassi: The Next Generation), his co-sign is a far easier one to achieve. Drake aligned with fellow Torontonian The Weeknd early on, dating back to a tweet from Drake in March 2011 urging his followers to follow The Weeknd. The two even briefly merged their OVO and XO crews, respectively, into OVOXO. That stamp is arguably the catalyst in what brought The Weeknd to his multi-platinum commercial fame. The two collaborated on several buzz cuts, including "Live For," "Crew Love" and "The Zone." However, things dimmed when Drake publicly announced he was looking to sign The Weeknd to his own label, only for The Weeknd to opt for a deal with Republic Records. It’s a well-documented fallout of what can happen when an artist (Drake, in this case) claims the fame of another (The Weeknd’s) and wants the benefits of the discovery.
Follow the young king @theweekndxo— Drizzy (@Drake) March 10, 2011
However, as of late, Drake has made social media his co-signing playground. A snippet of Kodak Black’s “SKRT” appeared on Drake's Instagram just before the newbie Florida rhymer landed a record deal with Atlantic Records. Before that, it was ILOVEMAKKONEN, the Atlanta rep who got an assist from Drake on his 2014 breakthrough hit "Tuesday." The question is though: does Drake have an ear for talent or a knack for trending topics? He clearly knows a soon-to-be hit when he hears one, evidenced by the aforementioned Weeknd wave and even his aligning with Future.
Internet approvals could make co-signs lose their luster, though the effects are instant. What was once an exchange stemming from "Please listen to my demo" has now transformed into a retweet or social media post, and the real estate is often the same price in the eyes of major labels. (Reps from Sony and Universal were unavailable for comment.)
"Nowadays, if an artist is hot on the Internet, they poppin', have a catchy song and might get a co-sign," Freeway explains. The track falls into the public domain for optimum promotion, even though a social media "like" is perhaps the laziest means of suggesting an artist gets your enthusiastic thumbs up. "If an artist posts a song and it’s really good, it’s gonna go viral really quickly," adds Prodigy. "Somebody major is gonna hear it and play it in the background of their Instagram video. It’s a little easier for an artist now to get a co-sign or have somebody notice them.” But what does that mean for a rapper’s lyrical work ethic when a hot song can yield a retweet, which can lead to a record deal? Is it a numbers game or merely a single-based strategy? "It’s still hard because you actually have to make a dope song first," Prodigy argues. "Music comes first. If you make a dope song, you really can’t stop it. It’s eventually gonna take off, but it’s definitely easier now because of the Internet. Before we actually had to put footwork in to get music places. Now, you’re just uploading.”
While newer rappers like Atlanta's Lil Yachty have shrugged off the value of a nod from their hip-hop forefathers, many legends still keep the quality of their co-signs in tact. "My fans know what I stand for so whoever I co-sign has to go in there and top whatever I do," continues Freeway. "It takes a lot." Prodigy echoes that sentiment. "That’s like sharing my fans with people, telling them, 'Check out this person, I think he’s dope,'" he says. "I’m not gonna tell my fans to check some shit out that ain’t official. I’m not sending my fans to no fluke shit. Then [my fans] won’t trust me. They’ll be like, ‘Yo P led us down this road to this corny ass place. I don’t wanna be here.’”