Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Return of Album Relevancy

In the ever-changing music landscape one of the recent trends has been artists releasing albums that are much shorter than the standard length and are more like EPs as they clock in somewhere around 30 minutes. Whether it’s the run of G.O.O.D. Music releases, the BeyoncĂ© and Jay-Z project, Black Thought’s solo debut or the last two projects from Freddie Gibbs, these albums have shown us that you don’t need to have 25 songs to get people to listen and, in fact, you might be better off giving fans a small serving of quality rather than an overstuffed meal that just leaves you feeling exhausted. Aside from the tightness of these releases helping lend to their critical acclaim, the idea of albums being important again may be an unintended yet much welcomed byproduct of this movement.

In the last decade or so, first with the rise of iTunes and then with the introduction of streaming services, the album has somewhat fallen into irrelevancy as listeners can just shuffle through single songs now easier than they ever could previously. iTunes let people purchase only the songs they really wanted from an artist and with streaming services you don’t even have to put up that dollar for a track so you’re even more free to just skim through an album and “favorite” the songs you want to hear again. This has resulted in people claiming to be huge “fans” of an artist without knowing anything outside of that artist’s hit singles and it’s allowed for artists to just toss records up on Soundcloud or one of the major services without having to release an actual album. Cardi B blew up off the success of singles such that people didn’t even really care if they got an album from her so long as she kept giving us heat. Meanwhile due to the way streaming numbers are calculated some artists saw a way to take advantage of the system by releasing enormous projects that mostly contained filler but since they included the hits the project still did numbers (look no further than the Migos second album which has something like 25 songs and clocks in at around 2 hours).

All of this has been brutal to witness for people who value the album format for its ability to capture a theme, tell a story, or just to represent a complete body of work from a well-respected artist. A hit single is fine, but that full length project is what used to really define an artist’s skill as it could elevate them from one-hit-wonder status to established veteran. But in the number-driven industry the album was starting to feel like a dead artform as people don’t have time for a whole project, especially with the subscription model of streaming services allowing for access to every new album it’s like everyone is competing for the same group of listeners.

Two things have come out of all of this. The first is the surprise album as there is not much of a need to promote an album for months when as long as it’s on the home screen of Tidal or Spotify then the people will know about it. The second though, at least in recent months (and last year with Gibbs’ “You Only Live 2wice”) has been these short albums. What’s especially worth noting is how in recent years you saw the discussions of artists be about their hits whether it was Cardi, the Migos (who admittedly did drop a fire album with “Culture”), Young MA, Fetty Wap (his debut album was basically just a greatest hits) and countless other artists who were known off the strength of some hit singles but who most fans couldn’t point to deep cuts on an album (if they even had one) to further solidify that artist’s talent. Now what’s happening is you’re seeing the discussion be about the full albums we’ve gotten recently from Pusha T and Jay Rock and Nas. It’s not that we wouldn’t have reviewed these albums or dissected them if they were 14 songs and 50 minutes but snap judgments would have dominated rather than attentive assessments. In some ways it really just comes down to a time thing. With everyone so busy in this fast-paced social media world you’re more likely to give an hour-long album only one listen before moving on to the next one but if it’s only 25 minutes then it’s easier to let it ride out a couple times since even that still won’t even be a full hour’s worth of time dedicated. Even just that second listen can change the way you hear a record as you might go in with certain expectations and your initial reaction might be based off those expectations whereas if you go back and listen again knowing what you have then you might just listen for what is there rather than what you might have hoped would be there.

What this has also been great for is being able to discover the hidden gems on an album as there’s nowhere to hide them on such a short release. If an album is 18 tracks deep then you might get exhausted around track 11 and just listen to the first few seconds of a song before hitting next and in doing so you might miss the overall message of the album through some necessary transitions just like if you skipped some scenes in a movie because the film was over 2 hours long. But with these more concise releases you’re now seeing every track get equal acknowledgment and while that makes bad tracks really stand out it also ensures that you won’t miss a highlight simply because it wasn’t promoted as a single and it falls 45 minutes into the album that still has 25 minutes to go.

Hopefully this trend continues as quality has always withstood the test of time moreso than quantity. People still claim Illmatic as the best rap album of all time and it’s only 39 minutes. None of this is to say that you can’t make a classic that tops the hour mark as there are plenty of classic records that are closer to 70 minutes in length (one of the best albums so far this year, Victory Lap, clocks in at 65 minutes), but if these shorter releases are what it takes to get people to care about albums again and if it forces artists to focus on making the best music they can rather than just filling up time to get their streaming numbers (the Migos reportedly only spent a few minutes on many tracks on their last album, and it shows) then we’ll continue to enjoy the amazing output that we’ve gotten thus far.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Black Album is the Greatest Rap Album of All-Time

Hip hop is approaching a 40 year life span. What some thought would die early has gone on to get bigger and more diverse than anyone ever expected. And in those almost 40 years the general consensus among numerous rap fans has been that Illmatic is one of if not the greatest album in the genre’s history. At ten songs in 39 minutes, all practically flawless it’s an easy selection for the highest honor and anyone over the age of 25 has to remember playing it endlessly back in the days of tims and hoodies. But just because it’s always been the best album does that mean it always will be? Or has another release come along in recent years that at this point should surpass Illmatic and grab the title for best rap album of all time? The answer is yes and it’s The Black Album.

Back in 2003 one of the most well known and perhaps the best MC we’ll ever see in our lifetime announced his retirement. His swan song was an album with no guest features but with a powerhouse production team and the perfect sequencing of tracks. Lyrically Jay had never been better and his confidence in releasing the best material possible before retiring made the record only that much better. From the opening song about his childhood to the shoutouts at the end of “My First Song” (a joint which saw him return to his fast flow roots) every minute of the album was on point. It had its highlights, like “Encore”, “What More Can I Say” and the Timbaland banger “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” but every single song was solid, a rare feat especially in today’s rap world. 

Perception and timing is everything, which is why Illmatic was so monumental as it was released at a time when the West Coast was still dominating the charts. It made New York rap relevant again (Wu-Tang might have a little more responsibility for that but whatever) and it fully encompassed the time in which it was released. The Black Album was a retirement record, and so part of the greatness of it was the knowledge that this would be the last time we would ever hear a Jay-Z album and what we got was perfection. It was sad and epic at the same time.

So why is The Black Album better? Well for starters it better reflects hip hop as a whole than Illmatic. When Nas dropped his debut the genre was still in its infancy and was trying to find its identity. Nas truly represented rap on that album in the rawest form possible with street tales and observations along with just flat out rap skills. But The Black Album was more diverse in its topics, in its production, in its representation of what hip hop has come to be over the years. You had the Rick Rubin rock-influenced song, a tribute to the old days of Def Jam. You had the song for females which has become a staple in every rapper’s repertoire. You had the club banger from Timbo, the pure skills raps of “What More Can I Say” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” and especially “Public Service Announcement”. But you also had the reflective tracks like “Lucifer” and “Moment of Clarity”. And in all of its diverseness The Black Album was still very cohesive and flowed together flawlessly. Again, a perfectly sequenced album.

Not to take anything away from Illmatic but we can’t keep hanging on to the same perception that the almost 20 year old album from Nas is still the best thing rap has ever blessed our ears with. Sure it’s a great record but by today’s standards it’s really one-dimensional whereas The Black Album offers a wide variety of music, all put together properly with lyrical gems sprinkled all over. Putting a track like “Encore” at the beginning of a retirement album might seem wrong but for some reason it worked brilliantly, again attesting to the masterful sequencing on what is now most definitely the greatest rap album of all time.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Dave East's Debut Album is Pure Harlem Greatness

Purchase on Amazon

Saturday, May 9, 2015

These 90s Freestyles are a Breathe of Fresh Air

The game has been on fire the last couple months as some of NY’s heavyweights have been dropping freestyles over classic 90s beats, with Fabolous leading the charge (and far and away giving us the nicest ones). It’s both refreshing and nostalgic as we’re not only hearing beats we haven’t heard in years but something else we haven’t heard in years, New York rappers being lyrical and killing it, and especially after New York has been called out by fans from across the country and even some rappers outside the city, it’s dope as hell to see the vets come out and remind us all that part of what made this rap shit so great in the first place is MCs coasting over solid production.

What’s interesting is how the generations are being pulled together at what feels like a perfect time. We all love those 90s beats, and we all respect the work that Fabolous, Jadakiss, Styles and Lloyd Banks have previously put in, and yet if any of them were trying to bless these tracks when they were first around we wouldn’t have been ready for it. We’d still be thinking “yeah but I’d rather just hear the original” because at the time a lot of tracks these beats are from still weren’t old enough to feel truly classic, and as nice as all four artists were at the time they also hadn’t proved themselves yet and we hadn’t had time to appreciate them either. Banks gave us “Victory” and a classic debut album, Jadakiss gave us The Champ is Here, Fabolous was never not slick whether it was a radio freestyle or a guest spot on a smooth R&B joint and Styles easily provided the best album catalog, but now that we’ve had time to digest that, and miss it, we now can accept that they’ve earned their spot to make those classic 90s beats their own and they have certainly done them justice, whether it’s Jadakiss taking us to the gutter on “Where I’m From”, Banks not saying a damn thing but effortlessly coasting through the blunted boom bap production of “Passing Me By” and “How Many MCs” or Fabolous crushing absolutely everything he’s gone in on.

This generational overlap isn’t just with veteran rappers though, as some newer hungry cats are tearing through beats from the same era as the class of MCs tearing through the beats that preceded them. Both capable of one day being mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned greats, Dave East and PUSH! (or ROB WH!TE) dropped verses well worthy of being on Beanie and Jay’s “It’s On” and if you’re still sleeping on PUSH! then I truly feel bad for you. Following three of the most insightful and authentic projects:  this generation’s blueprint of knowledge in the form of “Fresh Dope”, the Gangsta Grillz feature heavy “When PUSH! Comes to Shove Vol. 2” and the magnificent marriage of passion and lyricism found on “Black Roses”, and after a way-too-long hiatus, PUSH! challenged the epicness of the Just Blaze powerhouse “Breathe” and his verse arguably won the battle, and he has since torn through a Jadakiss track, effectively mirroring the same veterans who are ripping through the beats that preceded their time.

All this is coming during a period when we’re either getting a slew of dope singles with not much following or full projects that are including way more than just bars and hooks to solidify their replay value. Shmurda got locked up after having the song of the summer last year and although Fetty Wap got a couple gems and Future gave us the anthem “Fuck Up Some Commas”, the only real solid complete albums we’ve seen in a long while are from Drake and Kendrick. The first one of those is a masterpiece and the second one you gotta light a candle and truly absorb to appreciate the brilliance, so to have a couple mixtapes worth of straight up great rapping over the last couple months is more than welcomed. We’re in a great time in hip hop and we’re still getting a new Kanye album soon so the game really couldn’t be better right now (except that Young Thug and Game corny beef shit but that’s a whole other discussion).  

Oh and Freddie Gibbs is still consistently killing everything he’s doing and if you’re really still sleeping there then when you look back in 10 years you’ll realize he gave us a Black Thought level of dopeness catalog.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Hip Hop Grew Up

Twenty years after dropping one of the rawest debuts in the history of rap, the Wu-Tang Clan is set to release their sixth official studio album, A Better Tomorrow, and from the tracks I’ve heard thus far I have to admit I’m not all that hyped. This is coming from someone who will defend just about every Wu-Tang release, including the U-God solo albums, so the fact that I’m already disappointed in what I’ve heard from the Wu Generals is proof that something is definitely up here. To me, Wu-Tang is supposed to either grimey or soulful, whether it’s gritty drums of “Bring Da Ruckus” or the Wizard of Poetry Ghostface Kilah rehashing a Delfonics classic and just spitting bars over the entire track. What I’m hearing recently though is more live instrumentation and fewer samples. But should any of this be a surprise?

Look, the 90s have been gone for a long time now, and the fact is that most of the artists from back then are gone too. Longevity is not common in rap. How many artists from 20 years ago are still making music that’s seeing placement on the major blog sites? Even artists that are releasing tracks are mostly written off as having fell off or go completely ignored by everyone other than their extremely loyal fanbase. The Wu is still thriving though, and perhaps the change in their sound is not only a reason for their continued relevance, but also a reflection of the fact that they aren’t in their 20s anymore.

Anyone who’s paid attention to the Wu should have seen this transition taking place (and since most people don’t anymore, I’ll break it down real quick). From the radio show with a live band a few years ago to RZA’s expansion into other genres of music, the Wu-Tang haven’t been doing 36 Chambers type music in a minute. But then again, at 40 years old, these guys aren’t in the staircase daily anymore. They have families now. Anyone whose parents hated the music they played as a kid can relate to what is most likely happening here. Instead of computer generated beats, a true musician, at some point in his life, becomes more about enjoying the feeling the music produces rather than making a hit single. And if you still wanna tour and do shows for as long as you physically can, the sound of a live band makes for a more involved experience with who you’re sharing the stage with. Playing off the largely improvised movements of a guitar, bass and drums allows the artist to not only interact with the audience on a more personal level through a truly unique show, but it allows the artist to interact with the people he’s doing the show with more and thus it creates an incredible energy throughout the whole venue. I’m not saying live bands are better, but the difference is one that an older musician can most likely appreciate more than a young artist on the come up trying to focus on getting the crowd hype.

A few years ago Big Daddy Kane dropped an album with a live band, and while it didn’t have the impact of his first two albums (not even close, most probably aren’t even aware of it), it was a good record, full of tight bars from one of the greatest of all time along with a backdrop soundscape of full-sounding lush instrumentation. Also an elder in the game, Kane isn’t ever going to see radio play again, and the days of ladies throwing themselves on stage at show are long gone, so most likely, as someone who clearly loves music and wants to keep working in his profession, Kane found a band and made a project for the other grown folks in rap. Therefore it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Wu-Tang also are at the point where they would prefer to put their words to something other than an mp3 track.

The fact is that hip hop is a young man’s game and always has been. But for as long as hip hop has been around, it’s still very new in that we are just now seeing what the first generation has to offer as artists removed from the spotlight of the game. So while the average teenager won’t normally step foot into an unknown, small, quiet venue to see an old jazz musician freestyle on the instrument he spent his life mastering, artists like Big Daddy Kane and Wu-Tang have become in a way just like those jazz musicians. They’re continuing to be professional musicians, but on their own terms, and at their age, being able to love what they do for a living and enjoy it with an intimate crowd of a hundred or so is probably more satisfying than working overtime to sell out large venues with thousands of faceless people, many of whom just wanna get fucked up and party.