Music criticism is defined as “the intellectual activity of formulating judgements on the value and degree of excellence of individual works of music, or whole groups or genres”. As a journalist first and critic second, I find that the market for music critics has become heavily oversaturated, as social media has given everyone a platform to speak about any topic they choose with the same assumed authority as a published writer. Even established publications are literally hiring “any geek off the streets” to write about music, so it’s difficult to tell who you should be listening to and who you shouldn’t, but there are a lot of folks who have questioned the relevance of music critics at all in a world where you no longer have to buy albums with no idea what they sound like first.
In a recent interview with Complex about Andre 3000’s relatively new position as creative director for Tretorn, the interviewer naturally meandered into some questions about the future of 3-Stacks’ rapping career. To the disappointment of many, it doesn’t look good for a brand new OutKast album, let alone a solo LP. He went on to describe rap as more of a “hobby” for him right now, preferring the occasional guest feature to the effort and time it takes to put together an album. However, there was a particular tangent he went on about aging in hip-hop that didn’t quite make sense and which Complex chose to highlight in the subtitle, though the interview is seemingly intended to focus on his career in fashion design.
On the idea of rapping into his later years, Andre 3000 had this to say:
“Rapping is like being a boxer,” André continues. “No matter how great you are or were at a certain time, the older you get, the slower you get—I don’t care who you are. And I can feel that coming on. There’s always a new wave of artists, and sometimes I’m just like, ‘I’m good. I’ll let the young guys do it.’”
UN-WOKE: Why “When Will Black Lives Matter To Black People” Is A Terrible Message To Send With A T-Shirt
I had to take a beat when I noticed the above shirt in my Instagram feed. I made an active decision to ignore both it and the very disturbing comments section under it. The issuer then reposted the shirt with the following message regarding the previous post:
In the details section of the item page, the company has written the following:
“Designed in response to the senseless killings of people of color BY people of color.” – @ServedFreshLive
While this won’t be everyone’s fight, this is the hill I’m willing to die on, so come at me. It’s only natural that the majority of music consumers will simply eat however they’re fed. The path of least resistance is always the most frequently traveled and I get that. I just feel too strongly for the art to allow business to get in the way of my ability to consume the music the way I want to in the long run. While it’s a great move for Jay himself (the business/man), I think he’s setting a dangerous precedent by going the exclusivity route with not only 4:44, but with his entire discography aside from a few exceptions (Streets Is Watching soundtrack, anyone?).
On Friday, June 30th, Jay-Z is releasing his fourteenth studio album, 4:44. Before its announcement, mysterious signs with the numbers “4:44” were popping up all over New York, including a full screen ad in Times Square. From there, the speculation began and a hope was born among fans, old and new. Were we FINALLY getting another Jay-Z album? When it was confirmed that the 4:44 ads were in fact promotion for his album, there was a mixed response. Elation from his fans tempered by ambivalence or disinterest from the folks who don’t get down with Hova. And, with reason, a bit of nervousness hangs in the air. Those who love Hov have been disappointed with his recent releases and so are managing their (ok, fine, our) expectations appropriately.
With his album release announcement, there was something else that crept into the broader discussion, though. Unsurprisingly, the intolerance for older hip-hop heads creating, consuming, and taking up space in hip-hop made its appearance. It’s been questioned whether a father, a husband, and a rapper who is just a cup of coffee away from 50 has anything interesting to say.
This week, we lost one of the best to ever do it, one half of a group that was also the best to ever do it. Mobb Deep was able to transport a kid born and raised in California right into the hallways of Queensbridge before the Internet allowed you to go almost anywhere via Google Maps.
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 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.