ALBUM REVIEW: FLOWER BOY By Tyler The Creator

How does one go about dropping a major rap album in the crater left by Jay-Z’s recent master-work, 4:44? If you’re Tyler The Creator, you drop a whole other animal entirely, but one that’s similarly brief (at 46 minutes), but with a lot to unpack. Flower Boy is Tyler The Creator’s fourth album and, just to get right to it, a project that will probably mark a pivotal moment in his career, as it’s sure to have people checking for him who weren’t before.

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Why Streaming Exclusivity Doesn’t Quite Make Sense To Me

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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:

  1. Nobody gave a fuck about what artists make per stream, and
  2. 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.

 

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Not A Picasso Or A Neruda: A Review Of Kanye West’s ‘The Life Of Pablo’

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It appears that Tidal is becoming the new bastion of exclusivity for out-of-touch musicians who don’t understand the needs and habits of today’s social-media-savvy music consumers. To date, The Life Of Pablo has been pirated over 500,000 times. The online feeding frenzy that occurred over the course of the album’s release weekend makes one consider what would have happened had Twitter been around for the Napster or Limewire eras. And to think the piracy would have probably been halved at minimum had West simply released the album for access on Spotify and Apple Music/iTunes. While the app rose to number one on the app store, probably in response to West’s behest of his fans to download it for exclusive access, I’d be interested to see how many people stick around for the laughable subscription fee for the problematic app, which has never held a candle to its competitors in the way of functionality from day one, yet lauds exclusivity as its main draw.

I’ve got to say I wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid that made “UltraLight Beam” bearable to most early reviewers of the album. West’s affected vocals on the song just made me think of how much better this trick works for singers like Sampha or James Blake who have actual chops to back up the digital tampering. Unfortunately, actual singers The Dream and Kelly Price still don’t add much to the song. I’m not a huge fan of Chance The Rapper, but his spoken word contribution was really the only thing worth revisiting to me on this record. I’m not sure what Young Thug contributed specifically to “Highlights” given the mess of auto-tuned vocals, but Kanye’s raps on the record, a cheaply-constructed slaw of TMZ-heavy non-content, make what would normally be a mildly decent, mindless jig into a super-petty vent session for the Kanye Kardashian-Jenner persona we’d all been hoping would never rear its ugly head. It’s non-content like this that was bound to occur once we became aware of the likes of Kylie Jenner being allowed to hang in the studio (“Kylie Was Here”). It’s just hard to believe that any hip-hop classics are being made with Jenners in the studio and “Highlights” is the perfect example of that conflict of interest.

“Famous”, a high point on the album, is textbook Kanye in that he mars what could be an amazing song with typical Kanye ugliness, taking a jab at the fact that he, in his own way, made Taylor Swift famous. This may be true, but that bit of pettiness is unnecessary, as the arrangement of the record itself says more for Kanye the artist than he ever could. The Sister Nancy “Bam Bam” sample is expertly included and the new and improved Rihanna, fresh off of the game-changing ANTI (she’s never sounded better), shows up to lend an assist on the hook. “FML” featuring The Weeknd has moments of greatness blemished by moments of “Kanye, for fuck’s sake, let the singer do the singing”. However, on “Waves”, I was wishing for sweet death the moment Chris Brown’s breathy intrusion surfaced on the record, sounding like Express For Men store soundtrack fodder. TheLifeOfPablo

I think enough time has passed where some of us can openly admit that Yeezus wasn’t so much of a pushing of boundaries as it was a Kanye West vanity project. The only people really blown away by that effort were Stans, hypebeasts, and people who had never heard of Hudson Mohawke or Daft Punk before. The anti-establishment rantings weren’t really believable coming from ensconced within the Kardashian-Jenner publicity machine, just like the claim of “greatest artist ever” is starting to come off more hollow the more West leans on this claim as opposed to actually putting out the high art he dares you to say he’s not putting out. Thankfully, TLOP is light years beyond Yeezus production-wise. It’s the rhymes and other glaring blemishes that make the album lukewarm.

In terms of guest appearances, West seemed to have gone the route of the upstart rapper with the dream debut album budget. Though some might argue that he’s taking the time capsule approach to album curation or, as Nina Simone would say, reflecting the times, I think the approach speaks more to West’s well-documented hubris than anything else. He’d rather be a god among freshmen than to risk mediocrity among his fellow varsity. It’s disappointing in a sense that an artist with the influence and resources to rekindle some of what the culture has lost over the years chooses to stoop to the level of pandering to new rap fans instead of building a bridge between the old and new by taking some risks of inclusion. However, it’s obvious that Kanye West is also the kind of artist at this point in time who would rather take a new, younger artist under the wing than be forced to bow his head to a rap legend of his caliber or greater.

I don’t want the old Kanye, although this will be the retort at the tip of every Stan’s tongue throughout reading this review. I don’t want the old Kanye so much as I want the current Kanye to be an improved, evolved version of the old Kanye as opposed to an uber-pretentious, fever-dream version of him. All change or weirdness is not evolution. In a climate where veteran rappers are encouraged to pander to the kids or fall completely off the map, Kanye has managed to become more childish with each incarnation, eschewing the idea of maturing in his music or public persona with each album. This works for the current era of loyalty to whatever’s hot for the moment, but doesn’t do much for the breadth of Kanye’s legacy as an artist.

The Life Of Pablo isn’t an excellent album, but it certainly has its bright spots. However, it seems like critics have lowered the standard for great to include albums with weak points that they are even willing to point out themselves. TLOP is a hodge-podge of different ideas that don’t ultimately come together to form the masterpiece people have come to expect from Kanye, but I think Stan culture will continue to encourage disjointed projects like this to ooze out of Kanye’s attention factory for a long time. West has announced a subsequent summer release for this year, the results of which may provide the other solid joints we didn’t get on TLOP and just drive home the fact that quantity over quality is the order of the day. In a nutshell, The Life Of Pablo would have made an excellent instrumental album, but we all know Kanye isn’t the kind to let his work speak for itself. He’s gonna run his mouth too…which I think gets in the way of the all-time great entertainment he’s constantly telling us he’s capable of.

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[Album Review] Yeezus x Kanye West

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I tried.  I really did.  I’m a fan of music of almost every genre, but I’m not a fan of over-extending your reach as an artist to force yourself into new territory.  Yeezus is clearly Kanye’s idea of “I can do whatever the hell I want” music, but to me, it translates as the point where I can finally stop excusing the man’s incessant douche-baggery on account of him making great music…because at this point, he’s abandoned “great” altogether.

I like G.O.O.D. Music signee Hudson Mohawke and electronic duo Daft Punk, but here, their collaboration with West/West’s take on their genres just comes off like a poorly leeched Bizarro-world version of those artists’ sounds.  We didn’t need a Chief Keef collaboration and neither did ‘Ye, but it seems that West is intent on making us watch his early midlife crisis through music.  Of course, West’s stans will say I “just didn’t get it” or that my palate isn’t broad enough to appreciate what he’s serving up, but trust me, I’ve been around the world and a-ya-ya…and I’m not convinced.  Yeezus is just the kind of un-listenable schlock that hipsters and music critics alike will praise just to prove to folks how “eclectic” they are…the same people who picked up their first Daft Punk project this year, but claimed to be longtime fans just for credibility’s sake.  I don’t even think it’s fair to call Yeezus a hip-hop album, since aside from West rhyming words together in a certain rhythm, this album is just about as hip-hop as Nicki Minaj’s “Starships”.  And for those calling this some sort of high-brow achievement in modern music, this album is as much “high art” as that insipid little song by The Dream. One writer for Rolling Stone even went so far as to say that Yeezus makes Radiohead’s Kid A look like Bruno Mars by comparison.  And this is where I prep my rocket-ship to leave Earth and search for understanding amongst the stars because absurdity and the musical counterpart to hypebeasts have surely taken over the music community at large.

Just as critics praised Watch The Throne as something greater than a good record for the time being, they’re praising this one already, as if Throne itself hasn’t proven itself a forgettable album, aside from “Niggas In Paris”, if only for Gwyneth Paltrow’s unfortunate Twitter decisions and “No Church In The Wild” for its random attachment to action movie soundtracks.  This critic can’t call this anything other than trash, as it doesn’t succeed as a hip-hop album or one of any other genre.  There’s about as much artistry in this album as there is in the album “artwork”.  Some books actually can be judged off of their covers.

Forget this one and go get that new Statik Selektah disc dropping tomorrow.  The Prodigy/Alchemist joint and the Action Bronson/Harry Fraud EP are already out.

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Charlemagne On Kanye: “Fake Revolutionary For A Profit”

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Kanye West Is Not This Generation’s Gil Scott Heron

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Hip-hop has an unfortunate tendency to over-think and under-think at the wrong times.  Many under-thought the whole Rick Ross/date rape issue, attempting to crucify the rapper vs. start a serious dialogue about how much our youth really know about rape (of the date variety and otherwise).  Many over-thought the entire career of Tupac Shakur and will to this day call an influential musician a “revolutionary” without having a solid grasp of what that title really entails.  There’s a difference between assassination and just getting shot, yet people are really holding dear to their hearts the idea that Tupac was a political target or a danger to the American government at any point in time.  This is no different from Kanye West and his seemingly arbitrary forays into sociopolitical commentary.

During the New Orleans flooding, many were praising Kanye West for his outburst while my reaction was more similar to Mike Myers’ immediate shock and distancing.  I saw it as no more than what it was…an outburst…and you can tell from the trembling in Kanye’s voice that it wasn’t a very well thought-out statement (“George Bush doesn’t care about Black people”).  “Oh, he was just passionate” was a lot of people’s explanation.  No, he was just being counterproductive, making what was going on an issue of race instead of an issue about class, dividing people where people should have been coming together.  But that’s Kanye for you, making more of an issue of him jumping up to say something at all than drawing attention to the issue at hand and stepping aside so that those listening can make their own assessment.  It’s all a show and I don’t think at that point in time that Kanye had the wherewithal to think “let me do this so I can bring more attention to the issue” but ultimately all it did was bring more attention to him and his biased and irrational opinions and need to over-emote.

The Taylor Swift incident was more up my alley and something I praised him for on this very website at the time it happened.  If we’re talking music and not politics, then Kanye is probably one of the few people in the mainstream industry who are qualified to speak up, especially when a sub-par, disposable pop video is receiving an accolade over one that will go down in music history as a great video, whether you liked “Single Ladies” or not.  While it’s almost impossible not to view the backlash from it as containing elements of the Black menace threatening middle America’s darling, delicate white flower, the issue itself was really at its heart more an issue of showing passion for the art of music in an environment where uninspired drivel was getting undue praise.  The issue needed to be raised and luckily, Kanye did so…but on a topic as frivolous as music…which he’s qualified to speak on credibly.

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I was basically unmoved by the new songs Kanye performed on Saturday Night Live, “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead”.  As if being a guest on SNL and daily coverage on TMZ isn’t enough, what better way to captivate white and/or mainstream America than making them uncomfortable with racial and sociopolitical commentary?  While I’ve read many articles analyzing the bejeezus out of the songs and praising Kanye for using his voice or whatever, I think folks forget who we’re dealing with here.  While he may be attempting to “say something” of substance, he’s also been praising and working with the likes of Chief Keef, a young man who could probably benefit from the knowledge he thinks he’s dropping on a jaded public and then some.  I’m not saying Kanye should shut up because he’s contradictory, as the martyr-makers love to point out that all “great minds” contradict themselves and then pull a Tupac hologram out of nowhere as an example.  What I’m saying is that sometimes musicians need to simply be musicians and stop trying to horn in on activist territory, particularly when the astute can see through the facade to the root of your cause: grandstanding and an absurd fear that you will be forgotten, a fear which I think many in this generation share.  Many will sit and rail against the government and “the system”, tweeting and blogging away using tablets and $500 smartphones ironically to badmouth capitalism.

Kanye West has succeeded in becoming the caricature he’s been made out to be, spoiled rotten and caught up in his own hype machine.  Nevertheless, while folks were trying to pick apart the perceived depth of Kanye’s words on his two new songs, I was listening for the production, which of course was top notch.  All of this being said, I’m absolutely looking forward to Kanye’s album to drop in June (titled Yeezus, a title that’s yet another successful attempt to rile people and force his status as some sort of pop culture martyr).  My only point is to avoid taking Kanye too seriously or thinking his outbursts on topics other than music (and even those) are anything more than showmanship, lest you too become part of the joke.

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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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