Can Kesha, JoJo & Lil Wayne Get Their Groove Back After Label Battles?
Silence is deadly when it comes to a music career. In an age of surprise releases, constant social media updates, mixtapes, teaser singles, awards show performances and carefully curated vacation snaps, even artists who are between albums feel the need to be in the public eye doing... something. Anything. All the time.
But what happens when a legal battle with a manager, producer or label puts you on ice for months, or years? Ask Kesha, who hasn't released a new album since 2012's Warrior due to her ongoing court fight with her former mentor/producer Dr. Luke over allegations that he physically, mentally and sexually abused her; Luke has denied the charges and is countersuing for defamation.
With only one single under her own name in the marketplace over the past three years -- a recent collabo with Zedd on "True Colors" -- the pop star has lost valuable time in a genre where pop careers are sometimes counted in months or years, not decades. And she's not alone.
Lil Wayne has stayed in the public eye with a string of mixtapes and features during his years-long court battle with Cash Money Records and former child star JoJo recently released her first new studio album on a major label in a decade. A decade. That's like a century in pop years.
That got us thinking. Can these acts reboot their careers after long involuntary hibernations? We asked a panel of experts to weigh in.
After appearing on a number of shows as a child sensation, JoJo broke out of the gate in 2004 at age 13 with her girl-power anthem "Leave (Get Out)" from her smash self-titled debut. Two years later she scored more hits with "Baby It's You" and "Too Little Too Late" from The High Road, but then a battle for control with her former label put the singer in limbo for 10 years.
In a recent interview with Popsugar, the now-25-year-old singer said an unnamed company she previously worked with put pressure on her to lose weight quickly, putting her on a diet that had her on a dangerously low 500 calorie-a-day regimen. She eventually broke free of that situation and landed a deal with Blackground Records, which lost its major label distribution during a time when the singer was signed to a seven-year contract.
In the meantime, she took some acting gigs and released the pointedly titled Can't Take That Away from Me mixtape in 2010, dropping the odd single over the next year, hitting the road with Joe Jonas and Big Time Rush and then putting out yet another mixtape in 2012, Agape, and, finally, settling things with Blackground in 2013 and signing a deal with Atlantic Records.
She released a trio of EPs in 2014-2015 that were met with rabid joy by her still-devoted fanbase (if modest sales), hit the road opening for Fifth Harmony and released her comeback, Mad Love, last week. The album landed at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 Album chart, moving 25,000 equivalent album units (19,000 in traditional albums sales), according to figures provided by Nielsen Music. By comparison, her debut shifted 95,000 in its first week and The High Road hit 108,000 in week one (both released before the use of the equivalent album units measurement).
"She's real -- has a real voice and can really sing," said Chris Booker, afternoon drive-time host on Los Angeles' 97.1 AMP FM. "The thing with JoJo is she really needs something to kickstart this again and she hasn't found it yet. She almost has to start again." None of the songs released from Mad Love have charted on the Hot 100 or any of Billboard's airplay or streaming song charts to date and the first single, "F--k Apologies" with Wiz Khalifa, continues to bubble under the Mainstream Top 40 Airplay chart in the week ending Oct. 23, according to Nielsen Music.
"Without a doubt in the pop arena this kind of time away can be a career killer," said Jeff Rabhan, chair of the Clive Davis School Institute of Recorded Music at New York University. "Especially for female artists whose fans aren't necessarily waiting for a new album, but moving on to other artists. Kids who love you when they're 13 forget you at 16. The only redemption comes is when you have a hit and have a great story to tell. Nobody loves a comeback more than Americans."
Rabhan, author of Cool Jobs in the Music Business and former partner at The Firm management company, said the old adage "you're always only one hit away" holds for JoJo, who he said has a "very steep hill to climb."
Verdict: By staying on the road, on the big and small screens and releasing a stream of singles and leaked tracks, Jojo's tenacity has kept her hardcore fans engaged. But at this point it remains to be seen if they'll reciprocate by buying her new music in major numbers.
For an MC whose output was like a raging waterfall for much of the late '90s and early 2000s, Weezy F. Baby's production has dwindled to barely a trickle over the past few years. Sure, he continues to be featured on tons of songs, but thanks to a bitter $51 million lawsuit against his career-long label, Cash Money Records, Wayne's long-delayed Tha Carter V album has seen untold release dates come and go since 2014.
The disagreement stems from Wayne's claim that Cash Money only paid him $2 million of the $10 million it owned him for recording and delivering the Carter album -- his 11th, and reportedly final, studio album -- and that he was not registered as a co-owner of the recordings used for his 2013 album, I Am Not a Human Being II, plus some other alleged accounting irregularities. Billboard reported that the suit continues to linger on and that Wayne recently called off settlement talks, with the apparent intention of taking label boss (and surrogate father) Birdman and Cash Money to court.
Wayne is also suing Cash Money distributor Universal Music Group for $40 million in damages over royalties he claims the major label has redirected away from him to Cash Money to pay off a $100 million advance to Birdman's label. In the meantime, the two parties have continued to go at each other, with Weezy frequently slamming his label in public appearances, even as he appeared to bury the hatchet with Birdman earlier this year by reuniting with him on Mannie Fresh's "Hate." That detente appeared to end recently when Weezy said Birdman is "not family."
Wayne's last official studio album was 2013's I Am Not a Human Being II, though he released the Sorry 4 the Wait 2 mixtape in January 2015 and the Free Weezy Album in July of that year exclusively on Tidal. He's since dropped the No Ceilings 2 and ColliGrove mixtapes, but his once ubiquitous features have slowed considerably in the past year and his once dominant position on charts and radio has been significantly impacted. In fact, Wayne hasn't scored a single top 10 song since 2013.
"If this had happened at any other time -- six years ago -- when he was at a pivotal point, his apex, or before, I would think this would be detrimental to his career," said Sway Calloway, host of Sway in the Morning on SiriusXM's Shade 45 channel. "Rap was more one-dimensional then. You were a rapper and one or two people were versatile enough to broaden their brand like Jay Z. At that time it could have hurt him and gotten him swept under the rug if a new sound came and washed you away."
But in a digital age where singles are the driving medium in hip-hop (and pop), Calloway said Weezy has been able to survive and stay near the spotlight as a career artist. "You want that next Carter album, but you don't miss him because you still hear his collabo album with 2 Chainz, his feature with Drake... his voice is still on radio, there's video content on the internet, you see him on sports shows, he's on Genius. There are enough tools for him to stay a prominent figure."
For this generation Wayne building a skatepark in his Miami home or jumping on someone else's track has the same currency as putting out an album, Calloway argued. The legal tangle, though, keeps smacking down his efforts, with the latest news coming this week when Portland Trailblazers point guard Damian Lillard announced that Cash Money forced him to drop a Wayne feature from his debut rap album, The Letter; a day later Lillard announced that Cash Money relented and will allow "Loyal to the Soil" to appear on the baller's album.
Verdict: Could another album help? For sure. "But there's been a lot of change since Wayne's been going through his legal issues and there are new heroes now -- Chance the Rapper, Lil Uzi Vert, Young Thug," Calloway said. "Wayne is still Wayne. Would you still pass the ball to him to take the last shot? Probably not, it would go to J. Cole or Drake. But if you pass him the ball you gotta believe he could make the shot."
No artist exemplifies the potential damage of a litigation-related career stall better than Kesha Rose Sebert. After getting signed to Dr. Luke's label at 18 in 2005 and exploding in 2010 with her glitter-blasted smash hit "Tik Tok," Kesha continued her hit-making string but checked into rehab in January 2014 to deal with an eating disorder, then filed her lawsuit against Luke (born Lucasz Gottwald) in October of that year.
At that point, for all intents and purposes, Kesha's music career went into a deep freeze. And, as Rabhan and Booker agreed, her audience likely grew up, moved on and found other acts in her absence. "It would be really hard for her to reboot now," said Booker. "She can't do 'Tik Tok' again because she wants to be a serious musician, but if she wants to come back it needs to be an undeniable monster because hits cure everything, but I just don't see it."
It recently appeared as if Kesha was finally back on track, with reports that she had nearly two dozen songs in the works for her long-awaited follow-up album. Then on Wednesday (Oct. 26), a New York Times magazine story that dove deep into her legal battle with Dr. Luke came out and the producer's lawyer hit back hard, saying that the piece (written largely from the perspective of the singer's legal fight) continued a pattern of "maliciously level[ing] false accusations in the press."
In fact, Luke lawyer Christine Lepera issued a statement claiming that for "well over two years" Kesha "chose" not to provide her label with any music, saying she has "always" been free to move forward with her music and could have released an album "long ago had she done so." Instead, Lepera wrote, "she exiled herself," adding that months after a judge denied a preliminary injunction seeking to release her from Luke's Kemosabe imprint, Kesha finally began providing the label with music.
"She provided 22 recordings created without any label consultation which were not in compliance with her contract, were in various stages of development, and which Kesha’s own team acknowledged needed work," Lepera said. Both Kemosabe and RCA have reportedly provided Kesha with "detailed" feedback on the music, studio time has been reserved and both have urged her to get some music out into the market. "It was Kesha's team who rejected this proposal," Lepera claimed.
"Kesha doesn't have the kind of fanbase [Lil] Wayne has that can be reached without that marketing muscle that a [major] label has," said Rabhan, who has experience with pitched label battles over artist contracts. "Kesha is completely handcuffed until this is done. What I would do if I were working with her was I'd be leaking music, I'd tell her to remain as active with her fan base as she can via touring." The bigger hurdle, perhaps, is that for an act that was birthed with a hard-partying, wild girl persona, the transition to a more sober, serious artist could be a hard climb.
Kesha -- who has gotten support from Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, Lorde and Taylor Swift in her fight -- did hit the road this summer for a short run of dates. Is it enough? "You have to be creative and aggressive about maintaining that contact with your audience by any means possible," Rabhan added about Kesha talking to her 3.8 million Twitter followers and 1.8 million Instagram fans.
In the Times piece, Kesha describes Luke's direction to make mindless early hits such as "Tik Tok" (which she intended to be "ironic") sound "more dumb," but that the 22-track album she claims to have turned in to Luke aims much higher. One track, a Ben Folds collaboration featuring a full orchestra called "Rainbow," is described by the Times as having a "big and sweeping" Pet Sounds vibe that aims much higher than "boys try to touch my junk."
Verdict: "You could grow old if you sit on your hands and wait for justice," Rabhan said. A plus for Kesha is that she's also a talented songwriter, with credits on tracks by Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears and Big Time Rush, as well as a global smash in 2013 with Pitbull's "Timber." But, with no new music on the horizon and her legal fight showing no signs of letting up, the clock keeps ticking.