By Jon Tanners
In 2008, Interscope launched The Hamiltonization Process, a flooding of the hip-hop blogosphere in support of newly signed would-be phenom, Charles Hamilton. A well-coordinated crush of mixtapes supported by a variety of e-taste makers — 2Dopeboyz, the Smoking Section, Nah Right, On Smash, and a fledgling blog called Pigeons and Planes — aimed to position Hamilton at the forefront of rap’s consciousness, a fan favorite delivering content at light speed.
Hamilton emerged rough hewn, a sharp talent without a unifying vision. He was a ladies man (sometimes). He had demons (sometimes). He wore pink. He loved Sonic the Hedgehog. He challenged convention and sold himself as a kid making peace with being an outcast while rapping his ass off. Though he possessed a loose constellation of engaging quirks and traits, they never cohered into a unified whole. Over the course of ten mixtapes and 200+ songs, The Hamiltonization Process painted Charles Hamilton as an artist who didn’t just have an idea of who he was, he had too many ideas.
In hindsight, the concept seems a deft bridge between eras, mimicking the market flooding that accompanied Lil Wayne‘s rise to stardom before the release of The Carter 3, and partially prefiguring Lil B, the social media-aided music factory that would begin assaulting the internet in the wake of The Hamiltonization Process. The formula is simple: give the people an indigestible amount of music and, regardless of quality, they’ll be fascinated. They’ll want more. Or at very least, they’ll want to know what the hell is going on.
If much of the music is good, you may wind up with Wayne, or, at least, 2 Chainz or Gucci Mane — artists who built loyal fanbases and found commercial success on the strength of mixtape material. If much of the music is bad (or, to be kind, puzzling), you may at best end up an enthralling web curio (though Lil B’s catalog, intentions, and fans could fill an essay five times the length of this one). At worst, you may get swallowed up by the infinite ether of the web.
For a time, The Hamiltonization Process seemed effective: Hamilton was featured as one of XXL’s 2009 Freshmen class (alongside a trio of chart toppers, Kid CuDi, B.o.B., and Wale, as well as the similarly mercurial Blu). His name rang throughout the vast echo chamber of the Internet, and he even served up a minor hit in “Brooklyn Girls.”
Those familiar with the hip-hop blogosphere are likely also familiar with Hamilton’s story and the precipitous downfall that followed shortly after the close of The Hamiltonization Process. For readers of a certain age, “rap blogs” and “Charles Hamilton” are impossible to divorce from one another, interconnected ideas speaking to a fading perception of taste-making ability and commercial influence. Hamilton’s demise was, unsurprisingly, chronicled and perhaps hastened by the selfsame blogs that anointed him the next to blow up (to paraphrase Kanye: they love you then they hate you).
The downfall itself has been well documented. As Hamilton’s tide crested throughout 2008 and 2009, the young man’s mercurial tendencies and knack for self-inflicted wounds peaked out of the surf. By summer 2009, Hamilton had all but ruined his stock of good will and anticipation with a slew of embarrassing videos (including a fabricated beef with Soulja Boy, losses in battles to Serius Jones and a random college kid, and a punch from a former girlfriend), dubious artistic practices, and, finally, an ugly, public spat with the mother of hip-hop’s patron saint of production, J Dilla. As his personal fortunes took a downturn, so too did his prolific and promising output, decreasing in quality and clarity as turmoil stirred.
In 2009, Rick Ross released Deeper Than Rap. After facing a year of controversy surrounding his past as a corrections officer and a publicized (but ultimately limp) battle with 50 Cent, Ross curated his own surprise coronation, pronouncing invincibility across fourteen lavish tracks that poured the concrete for his subsequent reign, now in its fourth year.
In Ross’ place, some rappers may have chosen to address accusations head on, dedicating songs and whole albums to their exoneration (throughout his career Nas has perhaps been the king of this approach, most recently with the soul-bearing “Bye Baby” off of Life Is Good; Eminem also rode this strategy to commercial success and restored reputation on his last full length album—with a title that laid the last blow on the deadest of horses: Recovery). Ross opted for the steamroller approach, obliterating any shred of vulnerability or emotional depth for the bulletproof caricature that would culminate in Ross’ invincible statement of opulent disdain, “B.M.F.”
In just over three minutes, Ross inhabits the jackhammer temple of Lex Luger’s now ubiquitous beat, luxuriating in the pillars of his empire: contempt for competition, expensive automobiles, and cocaine-laced spoils in abundance. Though Ross unleashes far more lavish statements on Deeper Than Rap and Teflon Don (the album for which “B.M.F.” served as a surprise lead single), none are as succinct and sinister as “B.M.F.” Like Scarface without the moral coda, “B.M.F.” plays as a towering tribute to unimpeachable kingpin dreams fulfilled.
In the wake of “B.M.F.,” enemies and detractors could shout “fraud!” in Ross’s direction with the effect of rubber bullets volleyed at tank. Ross had built an unbreakable wall, founded on an outsized personality and an utter unwillingness to relent from a consistent image.
In crafting Deeper Than Rap and Teflon Don, Ross doubled down. He ditched complexity for complete adherence to a persona—one utterly familiar to the modern rap fan, given new life with its proponent’s unflappable bravado (and outlandish imagery).
And perhaps that is the point: in an era of un-erasable histories, the best medicine is to simply soldier on. Ross addressed allegations by beefing up the bluster, building a persona so outsized it consumed the rubber bullets of reality. Rick Ross became too big for the truth to matter. Ross’ audacious self-aggrandizement may only have been possible because he had already proven himself commercially viable, but, even had his high-level prospects been hollowed by controversy, he still could have maintained die hard fans. By creating a breathing, detailed persona—a livable character and world for listeners to inhabit, if not necessarily relate to—Ross ensured himself a core fan base. That he did so while improving technically as a rapper and displaying an impeccable ear for beats should not be forgotten, but these facets fed into the aura of an immovable don.
For an artist whose work hinged so often on personal details, such a strategy might appear ill-fitting. Hamilton, however, possessed a gift for inhabiting character and illuminating elements of his life in great detail, suggesting the sort of imagination that would lend itself to a more thoughtful creation than Ross’ obese Tony Montana. This steamroller approach doesn’t preclude soul-bearing; in Hamilton’s case, perhaps it should. In his most recent music—largely ignored beyond the circles that buoyed him and continue to hope against hope that he can get his act in order—Hamilton has expressed (often cryptically) the personal turmoil that has embroiled him since Interscope days.
Unfortunately, the spectacle of Hamilton’s psychic life laid bare may be too much for the artist to overcome. A quick look at the description on his chaotic blog suggests a young man continuing to tussle with demons in public (however dwindling a public it may be):
“Charles Hamilton, better known as Sonic the Hedgehog, was a hero. His positive messages in his music attracted pessimistic minded, brainwashed teenagers worldwide, and though it wasn’t good for business, associates respected what he was aiming for. A bright future for the world, through music.”
Before the road to musical redemption can be mounted, it appears aspects of Hamilton’s personal life will need to be sorted—though great music has a way of accompanying great misery, the latter doesn’t always produce the former. Fans of untapped potential should root for Charles. Too much ill will may have clogged connections between Hamilton and his audience, and, unfortunately, some view him through a lens of mockery and extreme doubt (particularly in light of recent appearances that suggest, for one reason or another, Charles may be detached from daily realities).
Myth building—and, ultimately, branding—is a clear key to generating and maintaining a passionate fan base. In the last five years a bevy of artists—Odd Future, Wiz Khalifa, Danny Brown, Curren$y, A$AP Rocky—have rolled out music under specific aesthetics which, even when they don’t manifest themselves sonically, guide listeners, informing them on the character of the creator. Indie rock and EDM acts have understood this sort of image creation for years–look no further than lauded dance-mavens Daft Punk for a lesson in both sonic and visual definition almost unparalleled in hip-hop.
Currently, Ross stands atop the heap as a shining example of strong self-branding as the ultimate deterrent. A unified aesthetic doesn’t guarantee success; many artists with clearly defined aesthetics fail nonetheless. Music, of course, is a mine field. Whether you’ve figured out who you are as an artist or not, you might still fail. You might succeed; the game is cruelly random. Commitment to a firmly expressed self—whether it’s true to your actual persona or not—is as good away to increase your odds (and lay the groundwork for longevity) as any. A consistent front—plentiful music, a clear vision, and focus—could lift Charles Hamilton back into good graces, helping him achieve the musical balance only hinted at in his promising, erratic early work. In the era of the ageless internet, there’s always time for a comeback.