Even before he released his debut album, rapper Rhymefest had a hit: He co-wrote “Jesus Walks” for friend Kanye West in 2004, and even earned a Grammy for it.
But Rhymefest’s transition from hit songwriter to hit rapper has been a challenge His first single, “Brand New,” has languished on the charts despite West’s presence on it. His album, “Blue Collar,” debuted to so-so sales this month despite strong reviews.
“Although you may have written with or for someone else, you have to prove yourself not as a songwriter, but as a performer,” Rhymefest says. “The challenge is to make people accept not only what you say, but who you are.”
It’s a challenge even superstar hitmakers face as they seek to become stars themselves: Writing a smash for others doesn’t guarantee you’ll have one for yourself.
Even Pharrell, half of the super-production team of The Neptunes, is finding that out with the release of his solo debut, “In My Mind.” Pharrell has written dozens of hits for artists including Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake, and has been the featured guest on many of those collaborations.
But last year, when he released “Can’t I Have It Like That” with Gwen Stefani — who herself was on a superhot streak with “Hollaback Girl” — it generated little interest at radio, and the album’s release date was pushed back. The new single, “Number One,” with Kanye West, is climbing the R&B charts, but it’s still been a slow climb, despite its glitzy video.
Though having Pharrell on a track is almost a guarantee of a blockbuster, he insists the CD wasn’t designed to be one.
“It’s kind of like the way I do everything, boutique and special. It lasts longer like that.” said Pharrell, who has also put out records as part of his side hip-hop/skater rock outfit N.E.R.D.
“There is hope”It’s the kind of approach Butch Walker also applied to his latest album, “The Rise and Fall of Butch Walker and The Let’s Go Out Tonights.” Among the songs he’s written are Avril Lavigne’s hit “My Happy Ending,” plus tunes for Pink, Kelly Clarkson and Lindsay Lohan.
Yet you won’t find any of those radio-friendly, poppy songs on his disc; Walker’s music is edgier.
“The records I started doing for myself, they were a little deeper and a little more interesting, so there is hope out there. There are music fans that do love records that are not fill of disposable pop songs or hit singles,” says Walker. “There’s a whole movement of kids out there who could care less about radio right now.”
For Walker, the commercial success he has had with pop queens and other artists has enabled him to pursue a more artistic approach on his own.
“I was very fascinated by the fact that I could make more in one week (writing for other artists) than I could for five years playing in a (expletive) band,” Walker said. “But it definitely now can be more about the art. I can afford to be choosier.”
While Walker may not want that mainstream success as a solo artist, there are other songwriters who clearly do. Ne-Yo is the latest example of a tunesmith who has made the leap to artist successfully — the writer of Mario’s 2005 smash “Let Me Love You,” has a platinum debut album and now has his own hits, including “So Sick.”
Johnta Austin is hoping to be the next songwriter to make that next step. Austin, who co-wrote Mariah Carey’s Grammy-winning comeback song, “We Belong Together” along with Jessica Simpson’s new single, “Public Affair,” is due to release his own album on Virgin Records later this year.
Austin says songwriters trip themselves up sometimes by trying to be too different from the material they’ve created for others.
“I think you get so far left,” he says. “You feel, ‘I’ve done this for this person, so I want this to be completely different.”’
Sean Garrett, whose growing list of hits include Usher’s “Yeah!,” Mary J. Blige’s “Enough Cryin”’ and “London Bridge,” the new solo single from the Black Eyed Peas’ Fergie, says songwriters hoping to put the spotlight on themselves have to remember what made them successful as songwriters and cater to the fans.
“That’s what making music is all about,” said Garrett, who plans his own solo album in the future. “It’s not about becoming some diva and thinking you are so (impressive) that you can make an album for yourself and everybody is going to feel it.”
Nothing negativeKara DioGuardi, who has penned pop hits for Hilary Duff, The Pussycat Dolls and Gwen Stefani, says her success as songwriter has helped her become a better artist. She was signed several years ago but her solo career didn’t pan out.
“I wasn’t a very good artist when I was signed,” she admits. “I was very affected by what was around me ... I wasn’t sure who I was, I didn’t really have my own style, my own voice.”
As a hitmaker for others, she’s found that voice. Now, she is trying the artist route again — this time, as part of a duo with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame; they call themselves Platinum Weird.
While she wants commercial success for the group, she doesn’t consider her songwriting as a side gig until she gains success as a singing star.
“I’m not a frustrated artist at all,” she says. “I hope Platinum Weird does well ... but if it doesn’t do well, I’m not going to be angry, I’m not going to try and be in the limelight all my life.”
Of her songwriting career, she says: “There’s absolutely no negatives to it at all ... it probably made me a better creative person.”