Artists wax and wane in popularity. Release dates get pushed back by unenthusiastic labels. Comebacks are hatched and fail to achieve the intended effect. This stuff happens every day in rap, as in every other genre of popular music, but somehow none of the existing evidence fully describes what's happened to Rich Homie Quan. Call it decline in popularity, a contractual snafu, or an all-out disappearance, but however you slice it, RHQ isn't where we thought he'd be when projecting his future back in 2014 or '15.

When I spoke with Quan last April, there still seemed to be a window of opportunity— a fast-closing one, but an opportunity all the same. He'd just weathered a drawn-out contract dispute with Think It's a Game, the independent label he'd signed to at the beginning of his career, during which he wan't able to release new music. That explained why he went from releasing five projects between September 2014 and November 2015, to zero between December '15 and March '17. Two months before we spoke, Quan announced that he'd inked a new deal with Motown, who quickly released his Back to Basics EP, the first new Quan project in 18 months. At the time, it seemed like his debut album, Rich as in Spirit, was all-systems-go for a summer release. Since we spoke though, there hasn't been a peep about it. We've gotten some singles in the past few months, most recently "Changed," but it seems like Quan is once again stuck in a holding pattern. This time it's one he knows he can't afford. 

"I can't ever take another break," he said last April, "It wasn't one I ever wanted to take, it was a break I had to take. Hopefully I don't go through no more legal stuff." 

Back to the Basics was filled with preemptive retorts to questions about Quan's absence, calling out fans that had "turned their backs" on him, claiming he was "meditating" rather than sleeping or dead, and opening single "Replay" with a line ("I'm so content with the person I am") that seemed to be Quan's way of reassuring fans that he was fine, really. "Changed" has a similar tone, but perhaps an even more urgent one. "If you ever thought I was going broke, you thought wrong, my n****. If you ever think I was falling off... fuck you then," he opens the song, sounding almost bitter. Oversized boasts of wealth follow, but the hook is yet another clear attempt to right Quan's narrative, the message being that "Ain't shit changed" since he was scoring Billboard hits and landing on XXL's 2014 Freshman list.

If these desperate messages accompanied music that marked a severe drop-off in quality, that'd be one thing, but both Back to the Basics and "Changed" hang with the best of Quan's prime-era material. You could argue that he hasn't done much to update his sound, but apart from hitting the trend of melodic trap in its 2012-2014 stride, Quan's never been reliant on sounding fresh or cutting-edge. His penchant for big hooks and heartfelt writing makes it seem like he could make it in any era, whether as a member of classic R&B group, a booty bass rapper like his idol Kilo Ali, or in a snap-rap ensemble like D4L or Dem Franchise Boyz.

This straight, timeless element to Quan's sound is what made him such a good foil to Young Thug on Rich Gang's now-legendary 2014 tape, Tha Tour Pt. 1. Released in between Quan's biggest solo hits, "Type of Way" and "Flex," the collaborative project is now viewed by many as his, and even in the eyes of some diehard Thug fans, Thug's peak, a joint release that actually feels organic and heartfelt, unlike so many other collab tapes. Thug's obviously a one-of-a-kind talent and a restlessly creative artist, but Quan's more straightforward approach lends a soulful vibe that Thug rarely achieved at that point in his career. I actually prefer most of Quan's solo Rich Gang joints like "Milk Marie" and "Everything I Got" to Thug's. 

Tha Tour made everyone crave more Thug/Quan collaborations, but it was always destined to be a flash in the pan. The actual tour that the tape hyped up never happened, and Quan and Thug were soon seen firing shots at each other. There was a brief moment of hope last spring, when Quan told me that they were on "good terms" and then weeks later, Thug shared a snippet that featured Quan's voice, but it was short-lived. Quan soon clarified that they weren't on speaking terms, and the full version of that track never surfaced. Suffice it to say that a new collaboration between the two would have a much bigger impact on Quan than Thug, who recently scored his first #1 single as a featured artist.

It's never like that slot as Thugger's sidekick was Quan's only path to stardom, though. He had hits of his own, and even a dance to his name. But perhaps the case of "Hit the Quan" reveals his relative lack of business tact. The video for his 2015 single "Flex" spawned a viral dance challenge inspired by his unique moves, and three months later, some one-hit wonder named iLoveMemphis dropped a song inspired by it. Ironically, "Hit The Quan" charted higher than the song that inspired it. Compare Quan's non-response to the trend he inspired to, say, Migos capitalizing on the dab craze they allegedly invented, and it's clear that he could have made the whole thing work in his favor. Instead, he got leap-frogged by someone with a $35 budget

Business aside though, there's something admirable about Quan's refusal to rely on trends and gimmicks. Only 28, he's always seemed like a bit of an old soul. Perhaps that's what led him to sign with Motown, a label that's seen better days but has achieved recent success via its partnership with Atlanta's Quality Control. The label's homepage currently touts Migos' chart-topping Culture II, as well as its affiliation with fellow QC artists Lil Yachty and Zaytoven, but head to its "Artists" page and you'll see Quan's name and photo sitting above everyone else's. He's clearly a priority at the label, but considering the interminable delays on Rich as in Spirit, it certainly doesn't seem that way. Perhaps Motown's simply not adept at marketing hip hop— the only other rapper on their roster is Chaz French— and are looking for some pop or "crossover" aspect in Quan's music that's never been there. 

As of today, Quan's only released two tracks since Back to Basics arrived last March, and hasn't offered any further details about his upcoming debut album. As "Changed" proved, he's still got it, but if he doesn't hurry up and sort out whatever's getting in the way of him releasing new music, be it label disputes, legal issues, or something else, he's risking three solid years of stagnation. Let's hope we hear Rich as in Spirit sooner rather than later.