Why hasn’t hip-hop had a real Las Vegas residency?
Pop is still top dawg in Sin City, but that could change soon
Here are some of the musical artists performing or just coming off long-term residencies in Las Vegas: Lady Gaga, Gwen Stefani, Kelly Clarkson and Aerosmith. Notably missing is any representative of music’s most popular genre, hip-hop.
Hip-hop artists play Vegas, of course. Drake has a 10-date partnership with the Wynn’s XS Nightclub. Cardi B played several dates in KAOS at the Palms beginning last spring. But both artists performed at clubs rather than traditional Vegas concert venues, such as the Colosseum at Caesars Palace or the Park Theater at Park MGM, currently home to Lady Gaga’s seemingly sold-out-in-an-instant “Enigma” residency. For both, these gigs were not so much residencies as tour dates packed into busy schedules.
From fashion to film to art and everything in between, hip-hop equals sales. Goldman Sachs predicts that music revenue is going to double in the next 10 years, driven primarily by streaming of rhythm and blues and hip-hop. And while the genre skews to a younger demographic, there is a whole generation of Nas and Jay-Z fans who are now grown adults with disposable income, a good portion of which they’re already spending in the desert. Yet no hip-hop artist has had a “traditional” residency with appearances several times a month for a year or more and becomes a fixture of the entertainment offerings on the Strip.
Music residencies in Las Vegas began in the 1940s with pianist Liberace, who continued to play regular dates in the desert until his death in 1987. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and the other members of the Rat Pack followed and Elvis Presley played the International Hotel for seven years from 1969 to 1976.
Vegas has changed a lot since then. The mob-controlled scene has been replaced by billion-dollar corporations. Old Vegas, while still a draw, has been dwarfed by the mammoth monster that is the Strip. And it’s on the Strip where the modern-day, multiyear residencies of stars such as Elton John, Celine Dion, and Britney Spears take place. Following a drought in the ’90s, when big-ticket entertainment was dominated by Cirque du Soleil-type shows (which remain today), the Vegas music residency was revitalized by Dion’s A New Day show, which ran from 2003 to 2007.
Chris Baldizan, senior vice president of entertainment, booking and development for MGM Resorts International, says that hip-hop artists are making good money at Vegas nightclubs. “They are being well-compensated, oftentimes to perform a limited set with limited production, which translates to less expense,” he said. “Often the compensation nightclubs pay is equivalent, or close to, what an artist would earn on a ‘normal touring date.’ ”
But this still begs the question: When will hip-hop see an actual residency in Vegas, where a rapper holds court for months at a big venue and cements the genre’s place in the “entertainment capital of the world”?
Navjosh Singh, founder and editor of HipHop-N-More.com, cites several factors influencing why the genre birthed on the streets of New York City has yet to find a permanent home under the bright lights of Vegas.
“One is certainly that artists of Elton John’s stature within the hip-hop culture are very few,” Singh said. “So for a hip-hop artist to be doing the same, he/she has to be and have all of these: commercially successful, years of solid catalog, not into releasing albums regularly at that time and someone whose demographic crosses over, at least to some extent.”
Hip-hop has plenty of artists of significant stature. What Singh is saying with the comparison to Elton John is that there are few artists who can sell out multiple dates in big venues without a new album or single that is currently charting. (John’s 2017 greatest hits album, Diamonds, went gold. But his last album of new material to reach that milestone was The Union, with Leon Russell in 2010.) By comparison, 50 Cent, who has sold tens of millions of records, likely would be hard-pressed to launch a successful arena tour in North America unless he had a new album with multiple charting singles to support it.
This is one of the reasons that many hip-hop artists who appear in Vegas play clubs and nights such as the popular Sundrais at Drai’s Nightclub, which has featured artists such as 2 Chainz, Migos, and Pusha T. Ludacris, Fabolous and Yo Gotti are all appearing at the venue later this month.
Outside the obvious choice of Jay-Z, what other hip-hop artists could meet these criteria? J. Cole has numerous albums and a loyal following. But one has to wonder whether his fan base, while rabid, isn’t too young to support a multi-date residency in the desert. Perhaps a case could be made for Kendrick Lamar, who has turned critical acclaim into commercial success, in part by building crossover audiences through film soundtracks and collaborations with pop acts such as Taylor Swift. Could “Kung-Fu Kenny” bring South Central Los Angeles to Las Vegas Boulevard?
The current list of music residencies on the Strip have a common thread: They are all pop-driven and primarily white, a contrast with the diversity on display every day in a walk down the Strip. One notable exception is the R&B group Boyz II Men, which has a long-standing residency at The Mirage.
The mega-resorts in Vegas are businesses, first and foremost, and any residency would need to have a reasonable possibility of success, especially the one that ends up being hip-hop’s first foray onto the scene.
“Like any artist in any genre, the number of shows depends on many factors … I certainly believe there are hip-hop artists who can carry a large number of shows, but it would also depend on the deal structure,” Baldizan said.
Who would he see as the most viable artist to cement the genre’s place in Sin City? “I can’t disclose that for fear that my competitors would make it more difficult for me to get a deal done. Let’s put it this way, I grew up listening to ’80s rap and ’90s hip-hop.”
The takeaway? While hip-hop was built on the youth and an ever-changing cast of upstart rappers, there are now four decades of fans willing to shell out to see their favorite artists of yesteryear. The stigma of performing a residency (or mini residency) on the Strip is also mostly gone. While it once signaled the sunset of a career, a Vegas residency now attracts top-tier artists such as Lady Gaga and Keith Urban, who are still at their peak.
Which hip-hop artist will break the barrier on Las Vegas residencies and hold court for a multi-date, multiyear residency? As it goes many times in hip-hop, all roads lead back to Jay-Z. Jay-Z is likely nearing the end of his time as an active recording artist and probably isn’t keen on extensive tours anymore. There is a star appeal to Jay-Z that would attract even casual fans, and provide opportunities to upsell VIP packages to hardcore Roc-A-Fella fans.
But why would Jay-Z do this? With a net worth north of $1 billion, he doesn’t exactly need the cash. But it isn’t necessarily (all) about the money anymore. His partnership with the NFL, which undoubtedly will add to his coffers, is also about control, creativity and being able to program the cultural institution that is the Super Bowl halftime show.
And what is more culturally American than Las Vegas? From Marcy Houses to the Strip, a Vegas residency would pay handsomely, provide Jay-Z the opportunity to be the first hip-hop artist with an actual Vegas residency and further cement him as arguably the greatest hip-hop artist of all time.
The obstacles to a hip-hop residency, by Jay-Z or someone else, are probably more about working out the financial numbers rather than any institutional desire to keep hip-hop at bay.
“Hip-Hop is clearly a major segment of the music business that drives pop culture,” Baldizan said. “[It] will only be a matter of time before we are able to make a deal with a hip-hop artist, which we believe visitors will be excited about.”