I Don’t Listen To Rap

I’ve come to the conclusion that when people make a point of saying “I don’t listen to rap”, that nine times out of ten, they’re thinking that there is a specific intrinsic value to that statement.  It’s like when you’re telling someone about a great TV show and they interrupt you to say “Oh…we don’t own a television”.  They’re not simply stating facts.  They’re letting you know that they’re different from everyone else and that they’re probably looking down on you from an elevated, enlightened perch.  Otherwise there would be no need to interrupt your appraisal of a TV show with their lifestyle choices.  With music, it’s the same thing more often than not.

Honestly, I can understand not being into a specific genre.  However, I hate when people say they don’t listen to rap and then list everything that’s wrong with mainstream rap as a reason for it.  “It all sounds the same to me” is a common complaint, but no; what sells to the public at large all sounds the same…I will give you all that.  However, there is no genre of music more diverse than rap, in my opinion.  Hip-hop has touched so many cultures worldwide and people from so many varying walks of life have picked up the mic at one time or another to where you’d be foolish to sit there and say that all rap is alike…but we’re also dealing with people who are saying this just to have something to say or to prove themselves to be a highbrow of some sort.

I can from first-hand experience tell you that you can be well-versed in other genres and still be a die-hard hip-hop fan.  In fact, I recommend all fans of any one genre also be fans of others in order to truly appreciate the art of making music as a whole.  I’ve said many times that I can’t trust the ear of a hip-hop fan who listens to nothing but hip-hop.  If you can’t appreciate James Brown, then there’s a lot you don’t understand about the origins of rap.  If you can’t get into the samples used from jazz, blues, country, etc. to create your favorite hip-hop tracks, then you’re only appreciating a small percentage of what’s available to you to enjoy.  I heard “A Garden Of Peace” by Lonnie Liston Smith years after first hearing “Dead Presidents” by Jay-Z and it made me appreciate the craftsmanship that went into using the sample ten times more.  On the reverse, if you’re making one blanket statement about your inability to appreciate hip-hop based on a handful of examples, you’re either in love with complaining or too lazy to make the effort to find what’s dope to you…or both.

A Garden Of Peace x Lonnie Liston Smith

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The Day Beyonce Said Bow Down & Everyone Got Mad

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I don’t make a habit of speaking on the latest mainstream happenings or celebrity Twitter beefs, if you can even call this that, but trust me here….I have a point.  Keyshia Cole is mad.  Yesterday, she went so far as to tweet a decidedly meek jab at Beyonce in reference to her latest tired-of-being-humble anthem “Bow Down”: 

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Clearly she has not learned from what happened when Keri Hilson attempted to throw a veiled diss at Miss Knowles some time ago.  People are quick to catch on and you essentially throw yourself to the wolves.  It always becomes an issue of insecurity when an artist tries to throw themselves into the same arena with artists they aren’t even a blip on the radar to.  Beyonce and Keyshia Cole do not compete for the same audience.  Keyshia’s forgettable brand of hoodrat soul is a very specific genre as opposed to Beyonce’s mass-marketed world pop and those who like both are going to support both, plain and simple.  Throwing out ugly little tweets just introduce you as “hater of Beyonce” to people who have never heard your work or have forgotten you existed.  I think Keyshia Cole’s opinion stopped meaning anything as soon as the world was introduced to Frankie and Neffie, but that’s neither here nor there.

Granted, the song itself is abysmal and Beyonce didn’t need to resort to profanity considering her huge following of young impressionable women, but that being said, I’d much rather she show her ass in the studio than do it in her every day life literally on Instagram (a la Rihanna) or figuratively on Twitter (a la Rihanna or in yesterday’s case, Keyshia Cole).  There is something to be said for getting into character when it’s time to perform and maintaining composure and mystique outside of it.  If anything, any female R&B singers who felt slighted by this should have taken it as competition, not a reason to gripe and make themselves the whipping horse of Beyonce’s army of fanatics.  It’s lonely at the top and in Beyonce’s case, it’s no surprise that people have something to say when she decides she’s tired of being humble and rising above every time.  She’s spent her entire adult life in the public eye and she’s allowed to act out once in a while.  Unfortunately, people want to over-analyze things when it suits their purpose.  

We also can’t act as if acting out on the occasional song hasn’t been a staple in R&B/pop music for years, though.  Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” was one.  Michael Jackson had “Leave Me Alone”.  Granted, both of those were jammin’, but that’s neither here nor there.  The point is, Beyonce is a name that will go down in history whether people like it or not…in history.  I can’t say the same for most of who’s out now…or at least I can’t say they won’t continue to tarnish their own legacies through scandal and self-destruction.  She doesn’t have to be humble in the studio when she maintains that in her life as we the public know it and as part of her public image.

In terms of Beyonce’s music, it isn’t any surprise that not much of it lives on my iPod, but it’s also not marketed toward me.  I do however admire her work ethic and the effort that goes into maintaining her image, presence and quality of work (this little misstep notwithstanding of course).  Beyonce detractors, however, seem to be dead set on being extremely vocal about their distaste at every turn, refusing to acknowledge her abilities or downplaying them, which is fine, but it makes them look foolish and ulterior motives can be telling.  When she doesn’t give you enough of her life, she’s hiding something and when she does a documentary on herself, she’s giving you too much.  Which is it?  Never mind…don’t care.

In closing, we’ve got to get used to celebrities saving their ratchet tendencies for the recording booth or channeling their need to talk sh*t into their artistic endeavors as opposed to making it a part of their persona and everyday behavior.  

Bow Down x Beyonce

 

 

 

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Who Hot/Who Not: Why “The Hottest MC” In The Game Isn’t Important

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Let me start by saying that I’m not about to debate anyone’s place on MTV’s list or take shots at the individuals named.  That isn’t what this is about.  What this is about is trying to understand why it even matters who the “hottest” in the game is.  We are talking about music, right?  I feel the same way about this topic that I feel when I hear guys going on and on about a rapper’s album sales and bringing it up success or popularity as an indicator of talent:

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I cannot understand caring about something like that, mostly because I know that popularity doesn’t equal talent in this day and age and additionally because in this day and age I know that popularity is a good indicator of lack of talent, sad to say.  People are checking more for the package a rapper is placed in vs. his actual ability to create timeless work once all of that shit is stripped away and you just have the man and a space to create/perform.  Outside of inner industry circles, I can’t understand the importance of album sales, either.  How does this affect who you listen to and how you evaluate it?  If so, you’re missing out on great material.

We have to be honest with ourselves in understanding that this list isn’t about hip-hop, talent, or artistry.  It is about SEO value and this fact is thinly disguised as a popularity contest.  SEO (search engine optimization) value is basically about putting as much content on your website to attract as many views as possible, thus generating ad revenue and widening your influence on the net.  So where the normal inclination would be to create a list of the “best” or “most talented” rappers in the game, the most lucrative inclination is to make one that will undoubtedly accrue the most people visiting your site because they were searching for Future, a guy who would never make any sane person’s “best” rap list on any level.

So don’t take these lists seriously if you’re serious about hip-hop.  People throw around the term “MC” frivolously these days and “hip-hop” has just become something you can label anything with…to the uninformed.  The awake will always find a way to support and discuss/debate the things that are actually relevant to the progression of the culture just as we did back in the ’90s when the mainstream was just a little more representative of what is more hip-hop than pop.  By giving things like this so much concern, all we do is feed the machine and keep the bullshit relevant.  Peace.

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Buggin’ Out: An Open Letter To Consequence

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Let me preface this by saying I’m not writing this for controversy’s sake or to be a “hater”…nor am I a big enough fan of any of the artists Consequence is beefing with to the point I would say anything about Cons that doesn’t already need to be said.  I generally dislike these “open letter” style blog posts, as they’re usually just intended to make fun of people, but I genuinely hope Consequence and other artists take note.  At the end of the day, I’m just one guy with a slightly above average appetite for hip-hop music and culture with a mind to think about it critically.  That being said, I was a fan of Consequence since his appearance with A Tribe Called Quest on Beats, Rhymes & Life and have followed his career hoping for him to really see some shine up until this point.  Unfortunately, Cons is reaching the dreaded point that is referred to in hip-hop circles as “falling off”, because even though his visibility has increased due to his recent beefs and reality show appearances, his quality of work has significantly decreased and as an MC, I just don’t see him getting the respect one needs to really make a mark on the current rap scene.

I don’t watch Love & Hip-Hop.  To me, it represents a sad turn for the culture and for pop culture in general and to incorporate the term “hip-hop” is just a bastardization.  Imagine my surprise to find that Consequence had signed up for this go-round (“Q-Tip’s cousin Consequence?  From all those Tribe cuts?  Nahhh).  From the episodes and clips and coverage  I’ve seen, it seems like Consequence has reduced himself to fussing with women on camera, even going so low as to make an awful song dissing co-star(?) Raqi Thunda (no idea who this is).  He’s also become known for some sort of feud with Joe Budden, also on the show, who’s notorious for over-sharing on every technological medium he can get his hands on and finally made the move to cable TV.  I personally feel that the mystique was what made hip-hop and pop culture at large until recently.  In the information age, we as a society demand to know every intimate detail about an artist’s life and then have no choice but to judge based on what we see.  Thus, you have the Chris Browns and Rihannas, who get by more on persona than actual quality music being created.  With Love & Hip-Hop, you now have a talented MC (Consequence) giving his own career the Wale treatment by over-exposing himself to audiences who didn’t know who he was to begin with.  People like myself who grew up on Tribe probably aren’t the demographic checking for Love & Hip-Hop and if they are, are probably too evolved in life at this point to give him a pass for his actions.

The second factor contributing to Consequence’s demise in the public eye was his ongoing feud with G.O.O.D. Music, Kanye West’s imprint which he was previously signed to along with Pusha T, who seems to be the only G.O.O.D. artist to really entertain questions about the beef and exchange barbs with Consequence through various media circuits.  The thing about rap beef in 2013 is that it’s less about skills and more about who is the more popular artist and while Pusha T is a very competent MC, the audience they’re beefing for are quite familiar with Pusha’s work, while Cons just comes across as another “old rapper” which in today’s game just means “irrelevant”.  So in addition to Cons being marginalized as the typical mad, old rapper, he’s also put himself into the “jilted artist mad at the label” box, which we have seen too many times.  Cons called Pusha T “a worker” in one interview in reference to his theory that Kanye has never discussed any of the beef with Pusha directly, stating that Push was “jet fuel” to both Kanye and Pharrell.  However, Cons continues to push his agenda on every radio station that will have him without so much as a jab from Kanye himself.  People have just become jaded to this kind of beef, dismissing the intimate details in favor of the general assumption that someone’s just mad they’re no longer down with the team.  And regardless of whether at this point either party claims to have squashed the beef, the footage of the back-and-forth is still out there on the net as if it dropped today, which is one of the good and bad things about the modern age of expressing oneself through social media. 

Third and what matters most is that Consequence’s output has been largely sub-par, to put it plain.  The man did a song with Pooch Hall, for Christ’s sake…yes, the guy who plays Derwin Davis from The Game.  The aforementioned diss record aimed at Raqi Thunda was an exercise in turning pettiness into awful music.  It’s like Consequence is trying desperately to make a niche for himself among new rap fans instead of building upon the respect others who remember his work with Tribe have built up over time.  All he succeeds at doing is alienating both, however.  

Pusha T said in an interview that he didn’t believe anyone was checking for Consequence.  Cons responded to this by mentioning that he had just done the chorus and some co-production on the song “Party” on Beyonce’s album.  This is where it hit me how much of a disconnect Consequence has from the audience that would embrace him if he was putting out better music.  Nobody who cares about lyrics is concerned about anything he’s done on a Beyonce song and to even bring that up in a war of words between two MCs shows that Cons is out of touch, to say the least.  I would say delusional, but I feel like Cons isn’t stupid and has a very lucid idea of where he wants to go and how he plans to get there; his plan is just extremely myopic and thus far, his execution is horribly flawed.

The phrase “all publicity is good publicity” needs to be amended for the modern day.  While marginally talented musicians seem to get a boost from acting out on social networks, distracting listeners from their lack of quality material, a perfectly good rapper or singer can cause their own stock to plummet simply by giving the public an ill-advised foray into their personal life.  Sometimes, it’s better to play the humble and go the hard-work route to garnering a following, putting out good music that’s true to one’s roots and letting the fans come when they come, as opposed to trying to strong-arm a listen by forcing yourself into the public eye or pandering to current trends.  I implore Cons to go back and listen to the tracks he debuted on and ask himself if he’s really giving people that same level of artistry and if it’s that important to appeal to the teeny-bopper set that his every move be set up to lose the older set completely.

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[Retrospect] The Boomerang Soundtrack

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A classic soundtrack to accompany a classic Black film.  You could really expect nothing less of a soundtrack released on LaFace Records circa 1992.  This album set the tone for so much after it and embodied the tone of R&B during this period. 

“Give U My Heart” with Toni Braxton and Babyface is the obvious hit, an upbeat R&B jam by an emerging songstress and an R&B genius.  The best thing about the soundtrack is that it covered a range of tempos, from the quirky romp of Grace Jones’ (!) “7 Day Weekend” to the monster ballad “End Of The Road” by Boyz II Men.  A number of tracks show clear influences of the New Jack Swing era, which defined early 90s R&B.

Johnny Gill’s “There U Go” and Keith Washington’s “Tonight Is Right” were mood-setters, with their heavy saxophone and whispering background vocals indicative of the contemporary soul music of the time.  PM Dawn’s “Die Without You” was clearly a standout of the album, a track that quietly made its presence felt among the album’s more popular songs.

Go cop this album.  And watch the movie.  Tonight.

Die Without You x PM Dawn

Love Shoulda Brought You Home x Toni Braxton

Front-Free presents…Strangé

StrangeGif

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[Retrospect] First Born Second x Bilal

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I had this album for about three months before I sat down and really listened to it.  This was at a time during college where every Tuesday, I would hit up the Mom & Pop record store that was on Howard campus at the time and pick up a stack of the newest CDs, then see the bootleg CD dude outside the store for the latest DJ Clue or other street mixtapes.  I was knee deep in the game, folks.  Anyway, I had seen the videos for “Love It” and “Soul Sista” and was impressed that the guy had two dope singles and I’d never heard of him before.  When I finally broke through the plastic and gave this a spin, I was instantly a believer.

The intro lets you know off top that Bilal doesn’t plan to play any games here, claiming he just wants to “put a little paint where it ain’t”, which can easily be taken as bringing some much-needed originality into the R&B game as it was then and even as it is now.

“For You” is almost a continuation of the intro, as it gives you some more insight into the artist’s style and approach.  “Fast Lane” features Jadakiss on a beat that was unmistakably crafted by none other than Dr. Dre (who also produced “Sally” on this album).   This song provides social commentary while not being preachy and maintaining its entertainment value, a balance that many artists fail to achieve.

“Reminisce” featured Mos Def and Common pontificating on past lovers over a J. Dilla beat.  Bilal is without question considered a neo-soul artist (or was at the time) and was a member of the Soulquarians collective.  This song in particular and the album as a whole is indicative of that movement and Bilal’s hand in its progression.  

“Love It” and “Soul Sista” are easy to like and were the obvious choices for singles, though I would have loved to see a visual treatment and single for “Love Poems” as well, a song about making the leap from friendship to romance.  

I think most Bilal fans would agree that “Queen of Sanity” is easily the crowning achievement on this album, much like “White To Gray” is on his slept-on (the label apparently shelved it) classic Love For Sale album.  “Queen” is a raw, heartfelt ode to a woman whose very presence brings about peace and comfort.

Bilal is very much a complete artist.  As much as people would like to compare him to Prince or D’Angelo, you’d have to only be half listening to not notice the subtle and not-so-subtle nuances of Bilal’s sound.  His next album, Love For Sale was shelved by his label but, if you can find it, is equally great if not better than this one.  But to get the whole experience, you’ve got to go support the man’s live show, as Bilal and his band tend to guarantee you will get your money’s worth and then some.  In the meantime, if you don’t have this album, please buy it.

Love Poems x Bilal

Love It x Bilal

Queen Of Sanity (Live at Berklee College of Music) x Bilal

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So You Want To Be A Rapper: How To Get Your Music Heard By Bloggers

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Since starting this blog, I have learned some of the tactics that people use to get their projects heard in the rap game, some good and effective and others bad and annoying.  Though Front-Free isn’t a major blog just yet, some of the things I’ve heard from colleagues tell me that the same things still apply, so I’ve decided to write out a list of tips for aspiring rappers if you want the average blogger to not only listen to, but post and promote your work for you.  I say “average blogger” because appealing to the majors, though advisable, isn’t going to build you an online fan-base like trying to soak up as much online real estate as possible in the blogosphere.  And once you’re on the major sites, you run the risk of getting lost in the sauce as your work gets posted among established artists that their readers are more prone to listen to over you.  

I hope this is helpful to both aspiring artists (not just rappers) and the bloggers who have to sift through tons of submitted content and figure out what to post and what to mark as cornball spam.

  1. Twitter Spam: Don’t Be That Guy – I don’t know who told rappers it was a good idea for their online presence to be solely about tweeting people who have never heard of them links to videos, but they were told wrong.  Nothing is more annoying on Twitter than receiving links to music from people who haven’t even bothered to follow you or build any sort of rapport with you.  That isn’t to say don’t use Twitter to build a fan-base, because that is crucial…just do it correctly and stop tweeting your music into a vortex.
  2. What’s In A Name – Everything.  I’m more inclined to listen to an artist with an interesting name with an ill reference to it like “Scaramanga” than an artist with something cliche (“Stack Chips”) or something with a ridiculous spelling (“Da Madd Doktah”).  You may think your name has some deep meaning, but no one cares to find out what it is until they’re already familiar with your work first.  Your name is often what appears in the subject line of the e-mail before a blogger gets the opportunity to see your face, get the meaning of the name (if any) and hear your music, so your name or even the name of the song or album/mixtape can make or break you.  No one wants to listen to “Big Stanky”.
  3. Keep It Short – You’re unknown.  Nobody wants to hear a 23-track LP from you just yet…hell, I don’t even want to hear 23-track LPs from rap legends.  All rappers could stand to go back to about ten tracks per project, so as an amateur, you’ve got to know your role and understand people haven’t committed to wanting to hear you for the duration of one track, let alone more than twenty.  But say someone does end up downloading your mixtape, sight unseen.  Where do they start?  They could hear your worst three songs and give up before they get to what you would call your best, just because you’re not there to point out what to pick first.  Should have just made a shorter project, but now your vanity’s landed you into the land of the unheard.
  4. Maintain an inclusive but persistent web presence – You never know who’s watching on Twitter and what bridges you might burn.  While it’s important to be genuine, it’s also important to be really conscious of the groups you might exclude with your word selection or point of views.  Women and gays support hip-hop too and offending the wrong ones could be the difference between your video being sent to someone who can help your career or being overlooked because you can’t grow up.  It’s also key to be persistently accessible and not just tweeting links, performances and other things regarding your material.  A lot of celebrities do it this way, but many of them are also actually busy…or their handlers are wise enough to know that letting them loose on the web could be disastrous.  Building actual social connections on Twitter makes people more inclined to support your work, whether they actually like it or not!
  5. Get Quality Artwork & Visuals – It’s 2012 and there are way too many different methods to make your basic cell phone pics look professional for rappers to be trying to pass off crap as their press images.  Instagram is the obvious choice for phone pics, but I’d advise just downloading the pic to a computer and using a web-based (free) program like BeFunky.com or Citrify.com to edit and put cool filters on your images. 
  6. Be Original – If you’re asking folks to listen to your demo so you can get on, chances are you’re not mobbin’ in a brand new Benz.  This may not always apply, but either way, nobody wants to hear an aspiring rapper rapping about Jay-Z’s life.  The best way to get heard at the ground level is to be unique, so that people can say that you grabbed their attention for this reason or that reason…not because you sound like this one or that one.  What makes you special?  Be unique…you can always sell out later if that’s the jacket you feel like wearing.

Hopefully this is helpful to some of you.  Believe me…I get it…putting your art out there is one of the scariest things to do and I always commend the bravery…just doesn’t mean I’m going to give your music a spin.  And trust that if I’m saying it, other bloggers are saying it too.  The most important thing is to be yourself.  As bloggers, it’s important that I/we never become too jaded to lend an ear to as much new material as we can, because clearly it’s up to us to keep the genre fresh and give aspiring craftsmen a shot at gaining at least a few more willing ears.

Crap Artists x Despot

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The Rapper Vs. The MC

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To understand the difference between what’s hip-hop and what’s simply rap, one must understand that there’s a difference between an MC and a rapper.  As with everything music-related, everything is subjective here, but I like to consider myself an astute observer on the subject, so why not throw my two cents into the pot.  My theory is simple: everyone who raps is a rapper, but not everyone who raps is an MC.  In fact, I believe that very few rappers in the modern day can actually qualify as true MCs.  Now don’t think from that I’m going to get into a KRS-One-inspired tirade about what is or isn’t “real hip-hop”.  I just think that the culture has come to a point where there’s a fairly distinct line in the sand between who’s producing art and who’s simply a product churning out assembly line music for the masses.  

The MC is an artist while the guy who’s simply a rapper is a product.  The MC (and the artist of any medium) makes art because he has to.  The money comes later or is considered after the work has been completed, if at all.  The rapper goes into the studio with the directive that he must do X, Y and Z in order to get paid or create something that the label will be willing to back.  It’s like comparing an original Charles Bibbs to one of those paintings you see hung up in the dentist’s office.  On one hand, you’ve got a beautiful piece of art with heart and soul apparent throughout while on the other hand, you’ve got an image that all you can say about it is that it’s not offensive.  One makes you want to stop and think of the inspiration behind it and what the artist was feeling while the other is just keeping you from being offended by negative space on a white wall while you wait for a teeth cleaning.  It takes up the space it needs to for the time being.  It isn’t timeless, nor will you remember it after leaving the room, let alone five years down the road.  With hip-hop in 2013, it’s like the music you hear because you sought it out versus the music you were spoon-fed by your local urban radio station.  Radio stations at one time employed taste-makers, but are now just cogs in a machine, keeping the same handfuls of schlock spinning in perpetuity.  It keeps the party going, sure.  But will you remember the feeling you had when you first heard it five years from now?  Will you feel compelled to introduce your children to it when they are of age, regardless of how far down the road that will be?

It’s understandable that the music industry eats well off of rap and the Wal-Mart-ization of hip-hop culture.  Something great was birthed in the late 70s and early 80s and the more influence it has acquired over the years, the more it will need to appeal to a larger audience.  This is the way things work.  However, it’s important to still be able to make the distinction between what’s organic and what’s been doused with pesticides and preservatives and packaged for mass consumption and, most importantly, purchase.  Both can be appreciated, but held to different lights.  Both the rapper and the MC need to eat, but keep in mind that the mainstream, artless packaged product brought to you by the industry is designed to get revenue, whether it’s a hip-hop fan buying it or whether it’s somebody who’s gonna shelve that disc right in between Ke$ha and the Black Eyed Peas.  Know what you’re consuming and whether or not it’s art or just a marketing machine pandering to your pocketbook.

Too Many Rappers x Beastie Boys f. Nas

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