When Def Jam surprise-released Jeremih’s third album, Late Nights: The Album, earlier this month, it took the singer all of 24 hours to start publicly shaming the label. Speaking to the Times the day after Late Nights’s release, the Morgan Park native bashed Def Jam for its loveless rollout of the album, which was pushed back five times since 2012 and then plunked in stores with no tour, media junket, or music video. “You can’t ride around New York and see my face on a poster,” he told pop critic Joe Coscarelli. “The label is responsible to do that.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Late Nights flopped. It sold fewer than 14,000 copies in its first week—down from 69,000 with Jeremih’s first album and 18,000 with his second—and didn’t crack the top 50 (it’s since inched up to 42). In response, Jeremih lashed out again, this time on Twitter, claiming Def Jam shipped as few as six copies of Late Nights to select Best Buys (ostensibly the country’s only remaining CD retailers).
@DeafJamRecords y’all don’t even deserve my voice— Jeremih (@Jeremih) December 13, 2015
There’s actually no CD’s in the stores to even buy ,that’s the main point. each Best Buy was shipped 6-7 copies a peice— Jeremih (@Jeremih) December 13, 2015
Jeremih’s story is a familiar one when it comes to Chicago artists: Sign to a major label, then suddenly go silent. Def Jam is a regular offender to artists in general—Nas once wrote an email to the label titled “PUT MY SHIT OUT!", and LL Cool J gave them their own diss verse in the mid-aughts—and the label hasn’t done much better with Chicago rappers Lil Durk and Lil Reese. Both were signed during Chicago’s 2012 hip-hop boom. Three years and three free mixtapes later, Lil Durk’s album finally debuted this summer. There is still no word on Reese’s release. (As of this posting, Def Jam hasn’t replied to a request for comment.)
The trend goes beyond Def Jam, too. Singer Tink signed to Timabland’s Epic imprint more than a year ago; no album. Rap duo Sicko Mobb is albumless on RCA. Rockie Fresh’s three years with the Warner-distributed Maybach Music Group have yielded mixtapes but no albums. Atlantic famously delayed Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo and Youth by two years for lacking a pop single (and possibly only released it under threat of attack by Anonymous). And Chief Keef, who sparked 2012’s signing frenzy, was unceremoniously dropped from his $6 million Interscope deal after a single album.
Of course, there are two sides to every story. Jeremih blames Late Nights’s delay partially on a custody battle, and Lil Durk cites his own legal troubles. Interscope never publicly acknowledged why it dropped Chief Keef, though Keef himself said in an interview that he wanted the break-up to happen. But when a prolific artist releases several top-shelf mixtapes while waiting in the label wings—such as Tink’s Winter’s Diary 3 or Lupe’s Lost in the Atlantic or Sicko Mobb’s Super Saiyan Vol. 2 or Rockie Fresh’s Birthday Tape—it points more to the label’s lack of resources than the artist’s prolificacy.
What’s worse, some labels are asking artists not to release their overflow. In January 2014, Def Jam allegedly barred Lil Durk from releasing his completed Fuckery mixtape—two years after they signed him and 17 months before they put out his album. The tracks Lupe Fiasco released during Tetsuo’s long incubation—named Lost in the Atlantic as a jab at his label—have since been scrubbed from their home on SoundCloud. Jeremih’s mixtape prelude to Late Nights was reportedly released in 2012 against Def Jam’s wishes.
The sentiment, of course, is hold your material until we can monetize it, even if that takes three years. But with artists like Chance the Rapper landing SNL on the virtue of self-released music, it’s a wonder anybody’s still listening.