This isn’t a review. It’s more of a “you know what grinds my gears” moment regarding young music fans/critics and today’s mainstream music consumption. Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love is getting some tremendous buzz currently and the social media snowball effect is in play, right alongside J. Cole’s new album. Praise for both at times just has me looking at certain critics and wondering when their appreciation for music started and if they’ve actually heard anything before that date.
I’m going to come clean for those who aren’t aware – I’ve never been a fan of Childish Gambino. I first heard him on Camp and I found that I just didn’t care for his story. The whole “I was too nerdy for the Black kids – look at me, I’m awkward!” shtick just tended to wear on my nerves, just as his character on Atlanta sulking through every episode rocking his angst like a Pelle Pelle killed all of the non-Paper Boi scenes for me. He comes across way too often as if he’s trying to assert himself as the smartest guy in the room without just relegating himself to the straight-man role. Musically, though, I’ve always felt a twinge of guilt about not liking the guy. A lot of my respected peers like his work and technically, he can rap – I just don’t care about his story. However, I did hear him sing once and liked it, so when I heard he was doing more of that on Awaken, My Love! (and this is probably the last time I’ll be writing that title with the exclamation point intact), I decided to make a conscious effort to approach it with new ears – and I did.
I haven’t been interested in new Drake material since 2009’s So Far Gone. For those that know my writing, it’s no surprise that I’m still not interested, but I don’t think I’ve ever shared that I once was. My little sister actually put me on to Drake’s Comeback Season mixtape back in ’07 and I liked it so much I told everyone I knew about it. This was back when he was making records with the likes of Dwele and Little Brother and not jacking the style of an entire region every other song. Nevertheless, I’m still a rap critic of sorts, so I find it necessary to listen to everything I can, especially since Drake is one of the most (I hate that I’m saying it and you’re gonna hate that I’m using the word) important rap artists of the decade. Granted, that isn’t saying much for rap’s current crop of fans, but I digress. Drake’s Views album dropped today, but is available exclusively on Apple Music and iTunes. While it’s unclear whether the album will remain restricted to just Apple availability, it’s difficult to understand from an artist’s standpoint why this new tactic makes any sense other than to appease the powers that be (Apple, Tidal).
I canceled Apple Music about a week ago. I had meant to do it months before, but just got around to it recently. The same thing happened with Google Music, though as an Android loyalist, I still buy music I can’t find on Spotify from the Play store as opposed to iTunes for convenience’s sake. I gave up on Apple Music due to the inability to embed playlists onto my blog, which was a deal-breaker for me. I was an early adopter of Spotify and have been using it to embed playlists and the occasional single song onto my blog for some time now. Other than that glaring omission and the lack of any real social aspect (because who doesn’t like to silently judge their friends for listening to Nickelback or the likes of Rae Sremmurd on Spotify), Apple Music was a beautiful service. I also tried Tidal during its debut month, but canceled within a week, quickly identifying it as utter rubbish in a shiny wrapper – I once wrote that it was the Emperor’s New Clothes of streaming services, a vanity project that only served to show how out of touch Jay-Z and friends truly are with the average music fan. It was clear very quickly, I’m sure, to the numbers folks at Tidal that:
Nobody gave a fuck about what artists make per stream, and
Nobody gave a fuck about the edge in sound quality Tidal was claiming to offer.
Third – the app is trash, fam. You’re charging people more than Spotify or Apple, yet lack a desktop client, the ability to upload your own music to listen to via the app, any social aspect, or really anything the other services don’t offer, aside from “exclusive concerts”, which I’m also sure nobody gave a flying fig about. So instead of heading back to the lab to come up with a better product, the bunglers at Tidal decide “hey, we’ll just hold some popular musicians’ music hostage and they’ll have no choice but to subscribe” (Tidal also offers no “free” tier of membership). This seemed to work at first when Kanye decided to drop The Life Of Pablo this year and Tidal was happy to report the number of people who had subscribed that week, but they conveniently failed to report the number who had unsubscribed once the free trial had ended or at the end of one or even two payment cycles. What was absolutely rich though was the staggering number of people who took to the torrents to download the album illegally. A mere two days after release, Torrent Freak reported a whopping 500,000 downloads from BitTorrent and was the most popular download on Pirate Bay.
All of you may not remember the struggle of pirating music from Napster, Kazaa, Limewire, or Frostwire, but we old-timers (allegedly) used to go through hell trying to get albums free and sometimes early and none of it was very convenient (though at the time, it was the best thing in the world for people who would have otherwise got stoned, went down music’s memory lane and woke up to a $60 iTunes receipt for purchasing random Stevie B or Blue Oyster Cult records). It was the Internets equivalent to walking five miles in the snow to get to the soda fountain or whatever the fuck your Paw Paw used to talk about. When streaming came about, ex-Limewire experts who had graduated to torrenting elsewhere were able to give out a collective sigh of relief because for a lousy ten bucks a month, one could have convenient access to damn near everything they wanted to hear – ever. No more having to unzip folders, check if they were legit, transfer to iTunes, then go through the epic hell of having to rename all of the songs therein to fit within your iTunes library or wherever you store your tunes. You’ll feel me if, like me, you feel like a clean music library is neck and neck with godliness.
For many of those same people to return to torrenting to get ahold of the Kanye album should show just how unappealing Tidal is to anyone with any modicum of savvy. Sure, you might snag subscriptions from the relentless Stans and/or people not particular about their music apps, but you’re missing out on an unidentifiable mass of casual fans and people who just want to use whatever app they’re most comfortable with to play music. And the thing is – they’re going to find a way to get your album in some fashion and you won’t even get the credit for the stream. Why? – because you wanted “control”.
When the awful news broke that Prince had died, fans like myself were stuck at work without access to their favorite Prince videos or songs to binge-enjoy. Within a few hours, though, the Internets were silently buzzing with Dropbox folders a-flying. With semi-obvious names like “Purple Doves”, people who weren’t willing to subscribe to Tidal were sharing music the old way, albeit the illegal one, like it or not. While I understand that people want to respect Prince’s wishes about access to his music, Prince was also notoriously Internet-shy and I doubt he had a real grasp on how the average web-savvy music head operates or how the plugged-in youth consume music. Despite their infinite access to almost everything in music history, many just don’t care about anything that’s older than five years and if they do, they’re not bending over backwards (clicking a YouTube link) to go find out about it. The sad thing about the latter group of music fans is that making music inaccessible to them will only ensure that that music dies along with the older generations that popularized it and who remember it fondly. It’s a shame in Prince’s case, considering how well Purple Rain stands to this day as a perfect album, one that could come out today and still be called a flawless record, even by smart music fans who weren’t born until over a decade after its release.
The competition between streaming services shouldn’t be about who can get what artist. The competition needs to be who can build the better, more intuitive apps. The way things are set up currently, the end user loses. The slow-witted uber-dedicated will pay for more than one app just to have access to one or two artists, some will find ways to access the music they want and get it on the app they like, and others will just ignore albums they don’t have access to altogether (this is what I did with the most recent Adele album, since “Hello” was available on Spotify – I’ll just assume there’s nothing good on the album because I refuse to seek it out to transfer to Spotify). People listen to music in different ways. As a music writer, I want to be able to both hear music without having to pay for every single record and also share it with my network and readers conveniently. Some people just want to stream whatever an app is willing to spoon-feed them. The streaming services should be building out their services to fit the most needs possible instead of trying to hold their artists’ releases hostage.
In hindsight, I bet the critics of the bling era of hip-hop who wanted to see Sean “Puffy” Combs burned at the stake would have hugged him if they knew what was to come. Even though Puffy’s more extravagant records had a stranglehold on the mainstream, urban radio still had variety, with a healthy mix of classic jams and current music of a totally different ilk. And while some criticized Bad Boy Records’ penchant for sampling and interpolation that nearly mimicked the original songs, this was merely an interpretation of the sampling that hip-hop was founded upon, which mainstream hip-hop today is noticeably devoid of.
Hip-hop moves fast and in “hip-hop years”, my 32 years of age can be considered old, specifically given my rather negative opinion on much of today’s mainstream rap. While there’s much about today’s hip-hop I enjoy, the hip-hop most visible to mainstream America and the world is foreign to me. Blaming criticism of modern hip-hop on age is simply a cop-out. Anyone with an ear for hip-hop and any understanding of what came before can tell that what’s being put out currently, while not always downright bad, is simply not being made with the same staying power as it once was. Whether the lightning-fast pace of modern technology and music acquisition is to blame or a desperately eager-to-please music business is to blame is a matter of chicken and egg. Personally, I think the generation gap also plays a major factor. While growing up I wasn’t necessarily digging up Sugar Hill Gang records, I was lucky enough to have a young-ish dad who was into hip-hop and always had some Ice Cube or Tribe playing in the home (among other genres). Many of my peers were fond of “borrowing” their older siblings’ cassette tapes, which they were too young to purchase on their own. Today, kids have their own iTunes accounts, their own iPods or Spotify accounts, and have no need to subject themselves to whatever classics their parents or older siblings are dusting off to play in the home. Since there’s no standard being set for timeless music, there’s no hunger for it.Despite near-unlimited access to any music from any generation, the youth have no interest in anything but the now for the most part and “current” seems to be representing a smaller and smaller expanse of time.
If anything, we should be able to rely on the elder statesmen of hip-hop fandom to provide some modicum of good taste based on simply knowing better. No one old enough to remember what Mecca And The Soul Brothersounded like should be calling the Rich Gang album “genius” and especially not “classic” (though sadly, I’ve seen this). While we won’t know what’s classic until it’s had years to settle into our hearts and minds, anyone who remembers what “T.R.O.Y.” sounded like at first listen knows what it should feel like to recognize a potential classic early on. Unfortunately, in their need to fit in, many of our elder statesman have instead chosen to co-sign new acts like Migos or Rae Sremmurd as opposed to pointing out how these acts pale in comparison to acts whose debuts were leaps and bounds above the material being offered now. We’re taking what we’re being given now and praising it as if we don’t know what better sounds like. Critics are praising music that sounds like it belongs on a Kidz Bop compilation as if they don’t know what timeless material really sounds like. Granted, all music doesn’t need to be timeless, but at the same time, it’s okay to label some things as a disposable good time and leave it at that. It’s unfortunate to see critical minds selling out just to appear “with it” and appeal to younger audiences.
We have to stop being afraid to “sound old” when it comes to critiquing hip-hop because, frankly, that’s the only voice that’s going to keep the culture alive. Why do we keep bringing up the 90s? Because hip-hop has yet to reach another peak. I just can’t sit idly by while a generation accustomed to free music is allowed to fully dictate the direction the culture is going in, not evolving but becoming less and less recognizable. If you’re like me and remember waiting for the local record store to open on Tuesday morning so you could buy whatever rap album was new, sight unseen, with cold, hard cash, you should feel entitled to have some opinions on hip-hop’s present and future. You earned your stripes ripping the plastic off of all those cassettes and CDs. You earned your voice by having real-time “best MC” arguments with people face to face as opposed to anonymously in the comments sections of your favorite rap blogs. I’m no curmudgeon. I’m a big Action Bronson fan, for example. He puts on a great live show and brings some unique references to his rhyming and has a great ear for beats. Every year on my site, I list a number of albums that I was impressed by, most of them by rappers. All current. I’m far from living in the 90’s. I’m not against the youth having fun, but I can remember being a youth, having fun, and the music still having some substance and authenticity to it…music that holds the same weight to this day. I can remember taking an album home and not hearing just a collection of wanna-be singles, but a complete vision letting you into the mind of an artist. Ignoring the fact that things have changed is just silly. The 90s were great for hip-hop and let’s just face the fact that no decade after it will compare until we take a serious look at quality control.
Happy New Year to readers new and old. This was a good year for music on the low. For folks with taste, it looked horrible on the mainstream side of things, but if you’re to any degree proactive about finding good music on your own, you know some dope projects dropped this year that you won’t catch on the Grammy nominee list or on the radio. Here’s to hoping you find something here you didn’t get a chance to check out and are able to hop on iTunes or Spotify and show some love.
This isn’t a list that appears in any particular order or that says what everyone should have been listening to. It’s a list that describes, out of what I heard this year, what moved me specifically.
Lord Steppington :: Step Brothers
I’m an Alchemist fan and will listen to almost any MC he sits down with. However, with Step Brothers, Alc steps up as both a producer and an MC in his own right, matching wits with the very formidable likes of Evidence. While Evidence clearly is the more seasoned of the two, Alc manages to not be completely eclipsed, injecting enough humor to make you forgive his stilted delivery. The beats here are what boom-bap should sound like in 2014…true to the culture and original sound without coming off as dated. Rare, obscure samples abound. This is definitely a record that doesn’t sound like anything else that’s out.
Black Messiah :: D’Angelo & The Vanguard
This is one album that made me glad I waited to put this very list out there. I’m definitely not a person who thinks calling something classic on day one of its release is acceptable, but I’m also a person old enough to recall hearing classics for the first time and remembering how they made me feel. Black Messiah is very much alive. That’s major when you’re talking about current R&B, a genre that barely contains what D’Angelo has done here. This album is organic and flies against the ultra-sleek, soulless alternative-R&B that’s been taking over the genre of late. This is an album that reminds us of the standard we’re supposed to be expecting from soul music. While it may not be accessible as his debut, or Voodoo for that matter, one must keep in mind that D’Angelo made those albums as a relatively new artist and wasn’t the elusive, near-mythical figure he is today in rhythm & blues. Here, D’Angelo shows he has grown significantly since he was the guy who made “Sh★t, Damn, Motherf★cker” back in 1995 (which was a great song but obviously represents a much younger incarnation of the artist). Messiah simply delivers.
Voices :: Phantogram
Phantogram is the kind of act whose music could very well get lost in the sauce, considering the fact that their music is well-suited for climactic teen drama backdrops or copping over-priced coffee at your local indie cafe where almost everyone has earphones on listening to their own stuff anyway. However, if you are fortunate enough to take a more dedicated listen, the duo known as Phantogram takes a painstaking approach to crafting what they call “street beat”, a decidedly edgy brand of atmospheric pop. Don’t get too caught up in genre-labeling, though, as Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter come together to show that they’re a group who are students of music, with the sounds on Voices ranging from alternative to R&B but never being easy to pin down. Songs are grandiose without feeling over-produced or cold. Phantogram doesn’t come off as girly as, say, Haim, because the production has more of a backbone to it, which is Carter’s influence on the sound refusing to be drowned out by Barthel’s commanding vocals.
36 Seasons :: Ghostface Killah
This album was the only thing that could have made up for the disappointment of the latest Wu-Tang Clan album. The tracklist alone made any rap fan old enough to have facial hair damn near blow up, with guest features from the likes of Kool G Rap and AZ. There’s something to be said about a major veteran MC deciding to reach out to fellow vets to get on tracks as opposed to getting a bunch of flash-in-the-pan upstarts who might get more attention for the project. Invest in this.
Your Old Droog :: Your Old Droog
It’s safe to say that Coney Island’s Your Old Droog shocked the hip-hop world this year when he revealed himself to be a young Ukrainian-American MC and not Nas, as some believed him to be. The Nas comparisons were lost on me, however, as Nas’ music hasn’t excited me the way that Droog’s EP and subsequent full-length did in many, many years. I also didn’t hear anything but a vague similarity between Droog’s voice and Nas’s. The unique thing about Droog is that he seems to revel in the strange, as evidenced by his odd moniker (“Droog” being a Russian term for friend) and creative references.
Hood Billionaire :: Rick Ross
A lot of people are probably surprised that this album made my list, but I’ve been a fan of Ross’ music since his first album…he just stopped moving me some time ago. With Hood Billionaire, although there are some fumbles (all of them collaborations: Snoop Dogg, R. Kelly and K. Michelle, respectively), Ross manages to sell the caricature he’s made himself into with pure zeal and gusto. Rick Ross thrives in the box he’s supposed to fit in, which is deliciously irresponsible declarations that grate on the nerves when you want something deeper, but are just right when you just want to wild out for the night. Ross’ music makes you feel ten feet tall and, when we’re looking at appreciation of music, isn’t making you feel something what we should be looking for?
Barrel Brothers :: Skyzoo & Torae
This is by far one of my favorite projects that dropped this year. You can read my full review on Kevin Nottingham, but in a nutshell, this was a top shelf offering and shame on you for sleeping on this if you did.
Clear Lake Forest :: The Black Angels
The Black Angels make the kind of music you expect to hear during a 1970’s period drama during a drug-use montage. The drowsy vocals and plodding percussion on many of the songs seem to come from another time…in a good way. This EP is nowhere near as good as their debut album, Directions To See A Ghost, but such is the case I find for rock bands that I enjoy.
Dominican Diner :: Timeless Truth
It doesn’t take long listening to Timeless Truth for any fan of Queens rap to recognize the influences these two Corona/Flushing MCs take from The Beatnuts. As a Beatnuts fan, I appreciate the fresh energy brought to the sound by two newer MCs, joining the likes of Meyhem Lauren and Action Bronson in ushering in a new era of Queens boom-bap. Buy it here.
NehruvianDOOM :: MF Doom & Bishop Nehru
DOOM doesn’t fail at what he does. As king of his own novelty sub-genre, it seems like an unlikely pairing for him to reach out to a teenage wunderkind like Bishop Nehru for an entire project. However, the youngster shines on his own, managing to impress without coming off as an over-reaching amateur over DOOM’s lavish productions. While it’s clear that Nehru’s wet behind the ears, his fresh voice juxtaposed with DOOM’s at times weary, grizzled-vet delivery makes for some seamless chemistry.
Tough Love :: Jessie Ware
From the moment I saw the video for “Running”, I was transfixed on Jessie Ware as an artist. It seemed like I was getting a concoction of Lisa Stansfield, Annie Lennox, and Sade all wrapped up within the potential of one artist. Once I heard her use a particularly menacing Big Pun vocal looped on the song “100%” (“..carving my initials on your forehead”), I was an instant fan. Following behind the acclaimed debut Devotion, Ware shows the same top shelf musicality on this sophomore effort. Ware reminds us that it’s okay to expect more out of pop music, adding a level of sophistication that’s mature without aging the sound. This album feels…expensive.
Silk Pyramids :: Meyhem Lauren & Buckwild
Artists like Meyhem Lauren are the punch in the face that rap needs in the era of hip-hop-themed reality dramas and Twitter beefs. While his flow doesn’t reinvent the wheel, Lauren flourishes when it comes to being outlandish when it comes to describing his lifestyle or inserting gruff ad-libs here and there.
Furtive Movements :: Armand Hammer
While it’s very dense, I’m the kind of person who enjoys that every now and then from a rap album. Every rap song doesn’t need to be fully understandable from listen one. Adding some complexity over some solid production is, to me, guaranteed replay value.
If There’s A Hell Below :: Black Milk
I have to admit I’m almost ashamed I didn’t really check for Black Milk before this year. I’m a stickler for names and his seemed to put a bad taste in my mouth, literally. Quirks aside, I forced myself to check out some of his features and ultimately stumbled upon his latest album, If There’s A Hell Below.
The Living Daylights :: Willie The Kid & Bronze Nazareth
Last but definitely not least, Willie The Kid’s project with producer Bronze Nazareth was a work of art, similar to last year’s Aquamarine. This was slept on for no good reason.
The Sweet Spot Vol. 3: Higher :: Maiya Norton
While it isn’t a mixtape, album, or EP, the third installment to DJ and music aficionado (and also fellow Howard Bison) Maiya Norton’s mix series deserves some recognition as one of the most moving projects I heard this year. A self-described “old soul”, Maiya presents an amalgamation of 1970s funk, soul, and psychedelic jams that together create a soothing landscape that a person could get lost in.
The following are albums I appreciated, but not as much as the ones above, for a number of reasons. Nevertheless, they’re worth checking out and they all contributed something authentic to the year in music, hip-hop and otherwise.
Pinata :: Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
Cilvia Demo :: Isaiah Rashad
Pre Magnum Opus :: Tragedy Khadafi
Is This Art? :: Michael Christmas
RAP :: SHIRT
Mega Philosophy :: Cormega
Cadillactica :: Big K.R.I.T.
Directors Of Photography :: Dilated Peoples
Run The Jewels 2 :: Run The Jewels
As usual, many thanks to the readers who keep supporting the site, to everyone who bought merchandise and repped Front-Free in public, and to my friends and family. Shout out to Ebony.com and Kevin Nottingham for published pieces I wrote this year outside of Front-Free and a special shout to UCLA’s Hip-Hop Congress for allowing me to sit on a panel based on one of those articles, discussing the effects of drugs on hip-hop culture with UCLA’s best and brightest. It’s been a dope year for me personally and I have nothing but great expectations for 2015. Let’s get it.
The recent release of J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive seems to have kicked up a conflict that seems to have less to do with the music itself than it does hip-hop fans themselves, pitting dedicated fans vs. apathetic (but vocal) non-fans. Critics of Cole’s have either maligned the album itself or dismissed it altogether based on the opinion that J. Cole’s music is, to put it plainly, boring. While I have yet to hear anyone say he isn’t talented at the actual science of rapping, any student of hip-hop music can tell you that rapping your ass off doesn’t automatically making compelling music. In what almost seem like a snub to this critical line of thinking, Cole went from the last album, Born Sinner, into this one not only producing the majority of the album himself, but welcoming zero guest features. While Cole’s formula is obviously successful (more on what that has to do with anything later), critics, based on their own listening experiences, have a field day referring to his music as “audio Ambien” or “lyrical Lunesta” or dubbing him “Young Eeyore”. But making fun of rappers is always fun until the stans get involved.
It would be highly inaccurate to call everyone who enjoyed 2014 Forest Hills Drive a stan. Many people who weren’t even fans of Cole at all before now seem to enjoy it. However, it’s the apathy toward his music that seems to spark the interest of J. Cole stans, who have come up with the most curious of arguments in response to people who don’t care for and/or about his music:
The idea that you may not be smart enough to understand the lyrics of one Jermaine Lamarr Cole.
Now, we’ve seen this odd behavior before in standom, most notably from the stans of Lupe Fiasco, who assumed that anyone who didn’t care for “Kick, Push” just thought the song was about skateboarding and was unable to comprehend the deep, philosophical meaning behind it. A major part of the stan agenda is finding a way to make anyone who doesn’t like what they stan for look like some kind of bumbling idiot, or worse, a hater. With Cole, there’s an assumption that the St. John’s graduate is kicking rhymes so cerebral, you have to be on a higher plane of understanding to appreciate them. This is used to combat the idea that Cole’s music is boring and/or that he himself is simply not that interesting a persona to draw the listener in. I’m a person who seeks out hip-hop, new and old, on a daily basis and I am here to tell you that nothing Cole is talking about even comes close to being too deep for comprehension by your average Joe on the scale of conscious rap music (a category I wouldn’t even place Cole into). Not to say that the music is of a lesser value, but it’s not what stans make it out to be.
I myself, in case you haven’t gathered at this point, am not a Cole fan, but “fan” to me is a strong word. As a self-styled critic, I try not to be blinded by adoration for artists whose work I like so that I can expect the most out of them each time around and so that my opinion can be trusted. So I would say that I’m a “fan” of very few artists. J. Cole doesn’t bother me, but he also doesn’t interest me as an MC. Skills aside, his story doesn’t draw me in and his execution isn’t something I’m interested in hearing for more than a feature or single. That’s a personal taste thing, I know. I don’t think he’s a bad rapper or (and this is most important to me) that he’s bad for the culture. He’s actually very good for hip-hop…stanning isn’t.
I recently read an article where a formerly aspiring rapper named “Corduroy” or something got his think-piece on, expressing how difficult it has been for him to get on in the rap game and declaring to the Pigeons & Planes audience that he was quitting rap. I did not listen to his raps. To me, when you expose your hand in such a manner, you make your music unpalatable before anyone presses play. Basically, the guy was complaining about having made some music that didn’t get the attention he wanted from the blogs. He never once mentioned a live performance or making any moves outside of his web browser, but says he’s giving up on his “dream” because he doesn’t have enough money to get into a studio with a “quality engineer”. Yet he manages to, instead of saying “phone” or “laptop”, finagle “iPhone 5” and “Macbook Air” in there, which was perplexing. The sense of entitlement was palpable throughout the piece. He even goes so far as to say that Pigeons & Planes, the site that posted this piece, surprised him by not posting more of his music since he had allegedly “supported” the site for five years, whatever that means. I don’t know how things work over at P&P, but over here, while I’m grateful for monetary donations and recommending my site to friends, that in no way entitles anyone to me posting their material at a whim. Even if this was just a play by the artist to draw attention to his work or a play by Pigeons & Planes to inspire outrage and responses, I see this a lot from aspiring rappers. Here’s a few take-aways we can glean from this young man’s online dragging for his swan song.
It’s not supposed to be easy to get on. Nobody owes you a single second of their time, let alone four minutes to play your song. Furthermore, however hard you think you have it now as an aspiring rapper, I promise there are a ton of older rappers who would laugh you into the fetal position for thinking that. Technology has evolved to where you will never know the feeling of trying to get someone to accept and hopefully play your demo CD, let alone your demo tape. You will probably never know the feeling of trying to sell your first album out the trunk of your Ford Escort. Aspiring rappers in 2014 seem to think getting on should be as simple as uploading your song and tweeting it to everyone on the face of the Earth, hoping the right one will actually acknowledge it. The formulas of Drake, Lil B and Odd Future seem to have people thinking that the Internet is all you need to build a career.
Everybody doesn’t need to be rapping. Being young, Black and tattooed is in no way an immediate qualifier for a successful rap career. It may look cool to you, but you may not look cool doing it, not to mention that there’s more to rapping than “cool”…or at least there should be. The kid in the article mentions Yeezus, Blueprint 3 and Watch The Throne as the three albums that inspire him the most. No disrespect to those albums (except for Yeezus, because that album was trash), but if those are the albums that come to mind as most inspirational to you as a student of hip-hop or at least someone trying to profit off of it, there’s a good chance that your rhymes won’t be bringing anything original or interesting to the table. Don’t be mad. UPS is hiring. Seriously though, the game is over-saturated because it has become way too easy to get on (though I still don’t think it is supposed to be). Whereas a label’s job used to be to create a buzz for an existing artist, labels today are looking for artists to have a buzz, image and persona intact beforehand. Thus, there is no grooming process. Thus, our ears are being assaulted by material that probably should have been left on the cutting room floor. Artists are being told how to follow the formula and sell, but not how to make records that have longevity. Rappers are aspiring to nothing more than being a hip soccer mom’s ringtone for the summer. That being said, what we need is artists with a true conviction that they are bringing a unique story to the table along with a genuine love for the art. If you don’t have that, then yes, you will be frustrated if cash isn’t in your coffers the moment you throw your little Soundcloud link on Twitter or in a blogger’s e-mail.
Stop living in your computer. Reach out and touch some people. The guy in the article talked about his music getting a spot on a blog and trying to get on other blogs, but never once talked about trying to establish a local presence or attempting to get out and book any live shows or doing open mics. Sitting in your living room e-mailing and tweeting people isn’t the kind of work you put in if this is a dream you really want to see come to fruition. If you aren’t working on building a local buzz and getting out and meeting people face to face, you’re hustling backwards. Pull together a live show experience and get people talking; it’s the shows that will get you money if you ever get on, anyway. You shouldn’t be the only one telling people your music is dope, especially via e-mail (and especially those generic “hey sir/ma’am i’m a fan of your blog…here’s a song that doesn’t fit with your content that I hope you will post even though it’s clear I don’t get what your blog is about and have never visited it before” e-mails). Most rap blogs these days just post a whole lot of whatever has SEO value with no thought given to actual quality or curating to fit a specific level of taste, so when I browse one, I click on what’s interesting to me because I usually can’t trust everything to be worth my time. Reaching out to smaller blogs and respected music critics as opposed to online sycophants that will post whatever is getting buzz may not get you tons of listeners right off, but it may get you a few quality listeners who are savvy and whose opinions matter among music people. Think of the grind as a long-term thing and if you’re not ready to put in some work, then give up or just call it what it is…a hobby…from which you can expect no returns.
So quit. I implore you. Take your ball and go home. My inbox is chock full of rappers who do not need to be rapping and I’m sure most other rap bloggers can say the same. The rap game is in dire need of some layoffs, so the more people jump ship voluntarily, the better. In all seriousness, I admire artists with the courage to create a product and put it out there for consumption, because I know as a critic than we can be incredibly harsh. I have respect for people who think outside the box and want to build a life doing what they love to do, but only if there’s an actual work ethic behind it. And with rap, a work ethic is only a piece of the puzzle. There are a lot of rappers out there putting a lot of effort into pushing really terrible music. Don’t be one more. Now you know; and of course:
We’ve been told we can no longer use the phrase “real hip-hop”. Everyone gets to have a seat at the table that hip-hop built, I was told. Everybody eats, b. I’ve caught myself a number of times in discussions about rap trying to hold back from saying something isn’t what I consider to be “real hip-hop”, afraid of the dismissive reaction some folks may give me, immediately assuming I only want them listening to Immortal Technique or to erect a Dilla shrine in their apartment or something. “Real hip-hop” is a term that has become something people have made synonymous with the stereotypical backpack rapper or fan of backpack rap, comically dismissive of anything missing one very specific sound. But all stereotyping aside, there is such a thing as real hip-hop and we need to stop shaming hip-hop fans into being reluctant to point out what they feel is authentic and what’s not because we need to continue that dialogue in order to keep the culture alive.
Anybody with sense knows that the rap business and hip-hop are two very separate things. Over the years, as hip-hop became more lucrative and more in demand across the board, it’s branched out into sounds that are significantly different than where hip-hop originated. In many cases (acceptance of southern and west coast rap, gangsta rap, etc.), this was a good thing. In other cases, the change was a watering down of the music in order to appeal to others outside of hip-hop. As the music industry started facing hard times, the trick of the trade became pushing rap to people who wouldn’t normally pay for rap…or audiences more likely to pay for it and have the means to. This meant pandering, which in essence is often inauthentic, the opposite of real. Thus, it is necessary to acknowledge the real separate from the fake, the product separate from the art. And it’s even more important now than it ever was.
While I do believe that hip-hop should be allowed to grow in many different directions and of course know that it does not live solely on DJ Premier’s turntables, I also believe there are facets that live further away from the culture’s epicenter that should simply be looked at differently. There are forces using this culture to market goods and services that have little or nothing to do with hip-hop. There’s a big business behind making hip-hop more palatable to a broader market and because of that, you have labels not releasing material until it’s been properly watered down to sound less like rap music and more like mainstream pop and R&B. It’s simply less of a gamble. To be real, a lot of the people categorized as mainstream rappers are just pop stars in rapper costumes. I don’t think it’s fair to categorize music that’s obviously pop in the same category as music that is inherently hip-hop just because the artist fancies themselves a rapper and because words happen to be rapped on the song. If Chris Brown makes a song and a rapper raps on it, that doesn’t make it a rap song. In the same vein, if a rapper makes a song rhyming over an electro-pop track, I think that song should be classified differently than an authentic hip-hop song. If we don’t make that distinction, then hip-hop will continue to get swept under the rug when it comes to sales numbers and accolades in favor of songs that sound less and less like hip-hop and market to a larger audience.
I personally don’t give much thought to sales and accolades, but it is at times important to discuss them in terms of what the world at large thinks hip-hop is. If Macklemore is the face of hip-hop to you right now, then that’s unfortunate and you clearly have not done the knowledge, but we’re living in an era where the youth aren’t concerned as much about where things come from as they are with what it’s going to do for them at this second. There’s less thought about what’s going to still be a timeless listen in ten years and instead, kids are worried about what the hot thing to have is in the here and now.
In a nutshell, the call to action here is that we need to stop shying away from talking about the concept of “real hip-hop”. The key is not using “real hip-hop” to exclude but more to properly classify things. There’s no reason why a song like “Starships” should be considered hip-hop simply because Nicki Minaj started her career as a rapper. Branch out, by all means, whether you’re an artist or a fan wanting to hear something different, but don’t be afraid to call a spade a spade when it comes to genre. If you rap and want to dabble in pop and let the underlying characteristics of what makes a record hip-hop fall to the wayside, then embrace the shift in genre and go ahead and admit you made a pop record…or that you’re a pop fan. It’s okay, we promise.
So I recently purchased a Wu-Tang hoodie online and I regret to say that I had to just sit it down in a corner and just kind of glare at it for about a week before finally putting it on today. Had to put the Wu-Tang hoodie on punishment. This was brought about by Ghostface Killah’s recent appearance on VH1’s Couples Therapy. Now you’ve heard me discuss before how I feel about rappers on reality shows, but there’s a big difference between watching Consequence fall victim to the trappings of reality TV “stardom” and watching the special place that the Wu holds in my heart be diminished by having to watch key members acting a donkey on reality television. This, mind you, is after a string of disappointments…moments I felt were obvious reaches for mainstream (read: the yute’dem) relevance years after the classic Wu-Tang Forever was released.
If you’re a regular reader of Front-Free, you don’t even have to ask me how I felt about Drake’s so-called ode to the Wu-Tang Clan, which to me seemed like a ploy to attract the ire of fans of the Wu who would naturally be averse to Aubrey’s style of rap-singering. What was worse than that was the Wu’s support of the song, an obvious attempt to remain relevant and diplomatic within the current rap game, where most fans are too young to remember the significance of the classic purple tape, let alone “Protect Ya Neck”. Nobody wants to be that old rapper who seems unreceptive to the new crop of rappers, but it’s admirable when you feel the authenticity in it, as opposed to Raekwon acting as if he plays Justin Beiber music in the whip when asked about his working with the pop star. There aren’t enough woo blunts in the world to make me believe that was genuine props and not Rae trying to avoid burning any potentially lucrative bridges.
It’s a common misconception that one cannot or should not knock the hustle. I think it’s very important to knock the hustle when it conflicts with who a person or entity represents. Keeps things honest. Naturally, Wu-Tang’s first LP was a long, long time ago in hip-hop years and a group that large is certain to grow apart and begin to have their own individual goals and ways of thinking after years and years of success and experience. Method Man, for example, has been his own separate brand apart from the Wu for years, to the point his caricature-of-himself persona exists almost completely independent of his contributions to the whole. But Ghostface joining the ranks of Joe Budden, Consequence, Li’l Scrappy and Benzino on the washed-up-rapper cavalcade that is currently VH1’s prime-time programming is just the last straw…and a wake-up call to fans that the Wu will never be the same…and not in the “oh they’re evolving” sense. It could have all been so simple: build an amazing brand in hip-hop (check). Release classic group albums that are true to said brand (check). Release classic solo efforts that are also true to said brand (check). Continue on in your careers remaining true to the brand and staying true to the core fans who got you this far and other fans will come (now this is where it gets iffy).
In closing, the Wu-Tang Clan have a catalog so impressive collectively that I could never totally give up my Wu-fan roots. Raekwon and Ghostface are still both in my top five MCs list, even if one is going the VH1 route and the other may do some questionable features here and there. At the end of the day, though, a true fan doesn’t just eat up anything an artists serves them with a smile on their face. As with hip-hop itself, you’ve got to be in love with the art-form/culture enough to want better for it. I just want better for the Wu.
A friend of mine posted this Erykah Badu commentary from a while ago and even though it came out in 2010, it makes so much sense as we begin 2014 looking at this beautiful, yet at times disappointing, thing of ours. While I love hip-hop, the rap game sucks, y’all.
How y’all gone stand by and let our music turn into pop techno cornball ass music. We don’t own our music no more. Come to think of it, did we EVER own it? when I say own our music , I’m not talkin bout the artist I’m talkin bout the people … let me be quiet. I wanna hear from the young people? easy for me to complain about this techno-pop cause i have a taste for something else. but how do u feel? These rappers ought to be shame of they damn selves, I’m talkin bout the mc’ s rappin over this pop techno music. I believe in pimpin the system buy got DAMN! not like this. #pop-technosongs. I like the idea of no distinction in race when it comes 2 music, but SOULkeepers, U dont give up the boom bip and the hump 4 the payday. I love house and techno as a side dish .But now it’s served as the main course AND that’s ALL u gone get. like chittlins in the back house. I love music PERIOD. just not ready to say goodbye to the boom bip and the hump .. kinda painful for my generation to see. just strange 2me. Yes, no1 wants 2B poor again. artist have2 sacrifice integrity of the music sometimes 2 make ends meet. this is understood.but gotDAMN now. if you’ve never tasted good p*ssy your satisfied with ass hole. (that’s terrible ain’t it .) lol
I can’t tell you what was “hot” in 2013 or why people considered it “hot” aside from me wanting to set some of these so-called top notch albums on fire. If you notice, a lot of the music blogs and websites that do “Best of 2013” lists exclude mixtapes and only list LPs you can buy off iTunes like upstanding American citizens. You may think this is because mixtapes “don’t count” when discussing albums, but some of the most complete projects (at least in hip-hop) to drop in the last few years have been mixtapes and they’re more than fit for the challenge of standing next to LPs. So the reason they aren’t included isn’t because they don’t compare, but because they’re free. If no money exchanges hands, then how can one hand wash the other between the for-purchase bloggers/site owners and the major labels? Music blogs are the next evolution of the payola system. People realize urban radio is no longer a taste-maker for the discerning listener, so this role has shifted to bloggers, but the blog game is looking more like urban radio every day…
Anyway, I don’t listen to music for the purpose of saying this album’s better than that one, so this list will not be in any particular order, but I do think it’s important to let my readers know what I thought was dope in 2013 in case they missed something I raved about or in case I forgot to mention something I was feeling until now. Hopefully, you’re able to check out something you slept on this year and if you thought there was something dope I missed that I didn’t already deride at some point, post it in the comments section. Let’s discuss.
Blue Chips 2 x Action Bronson & Party Supplies – Any follower of Front-Free knows I’m a big supporter of Action Bronson. Part of his appeal is that he does great work with a number of different producers and each time, the chemistry is different. With Party Supplies, you’re probably getting Bronson at his most experimental, gettin’ busy on tracks that are at times clearly unorthodox for a rap project and sound more like the score for a 1970s Blaxploitation flick (see “I Adore You”). Those still calling Bronson a Ghostface knock-off are at this point just not listening because the man has clearly put himself in a lane occupied only by himself. Download Blue Chips 2 for free here.
Marci Beaucoup x Roc Marciano – Roc Marciano has been on a hot streak for those looking for an alternative to the paper-thin quality of mainstream hip-pop. Though subdued in the energy he gives off, Roc is no slouch when it comes to clever wordplay and imagery. Marci Beaucoup is one of his finer recent projects. On the appropriately soulful “Soul Music”, Roc brings along A.G., best known as one part of D.I.T.C., which to me speaks to Roc’s appreciation for hip-hop and ear for an authentic sound. Cop it on iTunes.
Days Are Gone x HAIM – It’s not pretentious. It’s not angsty. It is, however, fun and refreshingly light and, dare I say, girly in the vein of Pat Benatar. I can’t carry this particular energy with me on a daily basis, but I have a great respect for the authenticity I hear in their work and was impressed with the production value. My wife put me onto this band a long time ago and I fronted for a couple months before giving it a spin, but I’m never one to not give props where they are due. Cop it on iTunes.
Orange Starburst Baboon x Oscar O’Malley – I love EPs. This particular one is almost disappointingly short, but given the density of O’Malley’s rhymes, it isn’t impossible to listen to the five tracks over and over again and find something new each time. The ODB-sampling “Ol’ Dirty Snorlax” breathes fresh life into “Brooklyn Zoo” a Wu classic that would under any other circumstance be nearly untouchable. Download it here for free.
S EP x SZA – I slept on SZA until very recently when I caught her feature on Isaiah Rashad’s “Ronnie Drake“. While her most alluring work to date, to me, remains the unattached “Teen Spirit”, the S EP dropped this year and is evidence of how unique this artist is. Throughout S, SZA comes across with an almost uncomfortable vulnerability. Quite the refreshing project. Download it here for free.
Doris x Earl Sweatshirt – When all the hypebeasts were sniffing after Odd Future, I was checking it from a distance and hoping these guys would eventually grow out of their shock-rap phase. Earl, easily the most critically acclaimed of the bunch, has clearly matured a little, relying more on actual skills than saying the most offensive thing possible. Sweatshirt even acknowledged the progression saying “I hope I lose you as a fan if you only fuck with me because I rapped about raping girls when I was 15”. He also was hopeful of gaining new ones based on the growth and I’m excited to say he accomplished that goal, as I’m eager to see what he’s got in the works for 2014. Cop it on iTunes.
Magna Carta Holy Grail x Jay-Z – I’m old enough to think fondly of Reasonable Doubt and must admit that when I heard Timbaland and Pharrell, etc. would be producing MCHG I was disappointed. However, if anyone has mastered growing up as an MC, it’s Jay-Z. Maybe being married with a kid makes me appreciate Jay’s situation a little more, but life isn’t the same now as it was for Jay when RD dropped, nor should he rap like it is. Cop it on iTunes.
Extended Play x Statik Selektah – This album made me remember what it was like to unwrap a new DJ Clue mixtape back in the early 2000s. Statik called in a rack of favors on this one, making unlikely pairings like Mac Miller and Sean Price (“21 & Over”) actually work. Prodigy puts down the solo banger “Pinky Ring” while on “Camouflage Dons”, the veterans Smif-N-Wessun join the newcomers Flatbush Zombies. There’s a lot going on here and that’s basically what mixtapes used to be when DJ Clue, Funk Flex, and Kay Slay were putting out regular compilations as opposed to arguing over Nicki Minaj singles on-air.
Aquamarine x Willie The Kid – Hands down, the dopest artwork on anything released within the past couple of years as far as I know. Willie the Kid is an easy MC to ignore because of his mundane name choice and unassuming image, but he’s a rapper’s rapper with an impeccable flow and a great ear who I’d ignored for too long before Aquamarine. Download it for free here.
SHE x Alice Smith – If this were released yesteryear and I had SHE on cassette, repeated plays of Smith’s CeeLo cover “Fool For You” alone would have made this tape pop in the player. In what was otherwise a boring year for R&B, Alice Smith came out of left field with a deeply soulful album that is a throwback to when people worried less about glamour and more about getting some hurt or joy off of their chest and onto a record. Cop it on iTunes.
Albert Einstein x Prodigy & Alchemist – I have mixed feelings about Prodigy as a solo artist, considering his nasal, at-times-monotonous flow, but Alchemist is a capable enough producer for his production to compliment P’s flow almost like an actual rhyme partner. The dense soundscape becomes its own multi-layered contribution and comparison to P’s plainly-delivered, murder-laced narratives and braggadocio. On “Bible Paper”, Alchemist himself reminds you he can rhyme, too and also shows off on the boards. Cop it on iTunes.
Polo Sporting Goods x Retch – This is one reason I waited so late to drop this list. In the last few days of 2013, Retch dropped his own mixtape produced entirely by Thelonious Martin. Martin himself is the silent star here, producing a seriously dope set of tracks that showcase newcomer Retch’s style perfectly. Download/stream it for free here.
Beyonce x Beyonce – Some critics get so jaded to the pop machine that they can’t even recognize pop music that’s been done well. There was a time when pop was actually respected because artists put in actual work to make it as opposed to following a formula composed of what will sell for sure. While Beyonce could literally sneeze on a track and it would sell, it’s clear she has no plans of getting lazy any time soon. While it isn’t something I got a whole lot of play out of (I’m far from its target audience), I found it enjoyable and I’m glad this was done to set a benchmark for what pop and R&B artists should be striving for. While a little silly and trite at times, the music wasn’t disposable and the astute listener can tell there was a vision to this album that was achieved without having to watch all of the accompanying videos (I didn’t). Cop it on iTunes.
My 1st Chemistry Set x Boldy James – I’ve never understood the problem people seem to have with MCs who tend to rap almost exclusively about one topic. Usually, this complaint is directed at “drug rap”, which Boldy James is well versed in. I’d much rather hear a talented rapper like Boldy rhyme about the life he seems to know well than rap about romance just to please critics and fail or abandon his criminal roots. While it’s difficult to say these days how authentic a rapper is, Boldy James sells you nothing but authenticity, kicking his lingo with such skill and versatility that you forget he’s still rapping about crack. Alchemist gets busy here as well, making this an unquestionably hard album including well-placed guest spots from Action Bronson, Earl Sweatshirt, and others. Cop it on iTunes.
The 20/20 Experience x Justin Timberlake – If you couldn’t at least get loose to “Let The Groove Get In”, then you’re probably too cool for this album. I just had to get over myself. While I was of the minority who loathed the peppy “Suit & Tie”, the ethereal cool of “Blue Ocean Floor” was enough to get multiple spins from me. Like Beyonce, JT showed the music biz how pop was done this year by letting the work ethic speak for itself and then adding some panache to take it over the top. Cop it on iTunes.
Avalanche x Quadron – The fact that this album was considered a commercial failure is a testament to the fact that the majority of people don’t know good music. This Danish duo comes off like a European Groove Theory, with more soul than one would expect from the songstress and amazing production on each track. Hopefully, people get hip to this album so that Quadron gets their due props. Cop it on iTunes.