Big K.R.I.T. was signed to Def Jam when he released his first two studio albums in 2012 and 2014. However, he left the label and became independent this past summer after being seemingly treated as an afterthought. K.R.I.T. celebrates his new status on the song “Free Agent.”
“Three presidents in five years; I never stopped/When they worried about them single sales, them albums flop.” In these lines, K.R.I.T. speaks to the fact that record labels today see a hit single as a better bet than a strong album. For most of hip-hop’s history, a three-minute song that’s catchy has been easier to sell than a project that lasts more than 30 minutes. Yet, there’s a greater separation between the two listening experiences in this social media age. As a result, artists like Big K.R.I.T. who make solid projects but don’t easily fit into the trends of the day become non-priorities for major labels
This drop in priority becomes worse when staff changes happen. If three different people act as label president in the span of five years, the supporting staff usually changes as well, and the people responsible for signing someone like K.R.I.T. can be gone altogether. Without those people, artists are left to depend on staff members that don’t value them nearly as much and their careers can grow stagnant. The passion you hear from K.R.I.T. on “Free Agent” reflects the joy he has in liberating his career.
K.R.I.T. goes on to rap, “How I ain’t a gimmick, but I got all these fans?/How I made in merch what you got in your advance?” Here, he points out something casual fans and even some artists don’t know: For those with solid fanbases, being independent is often more lucrative than being on a major label. Many rappers that sign to big labels have to hand over significant portions of the profit made from things like album sales, streaming and merchandise to their labels. In exchange, they’re given a lump sum of money and presented to the masses through the label’s resources (relationships with radio stations, big name features, etc.). They gain relevance for the time being, but if their moment in the spotlight fades quickly, they don’t have much to fall back on.
On the other hand, indie artists get most (if not all) of the proceeds from their music. Their sales can be hundreds of thousands copies less than major label artists, but they’ll still make more money from the sales. In addition to earning more profit, K.R.I.T. and other independent artists gain something else of high value — creative control. They can make exactly the type of music they want to and market the music specifically to fans that’ll appreciate it. Tech N9ne is often brought up as the prime example of a rapper maximizing his lane as an indie artist due to his success with touring and merchandise each year. And now you have Chance the Rapper
achieving feats reserved for big name artists without giving a major label control of his career.
Now, Chance is still an exception; indie artists usually aren’t brought up in mainstream conversations about hip-hop the way he is at the moment. Yet, that’s a price worth paying for the benefits of being independent. And “Free Agent” is a testament to that.