What’s the most trusted source in music? Trick question; there is no most-trusted source in music. Sure, you can go the hipster route and check sites like Pitchfork and Brooklyn Vegan. You can go the digital route and check out what’s buzzin’ on Soundcloud, what your friends are listening to on Spotify or let the Interwebs do the discovery for you with Pandora. As for me, I stick to two things that have always worked for me: 1) my brother Kahron and 2) going to the local record store a couple of times per month (mostly Waterloo Records in Austin).
I don’t trust reviews online too much, but I do like recommendations from trusted sources. Unfortunately, music reviewers are accustomed to sharing their opinions about albums more so than telling us what we really want to know: should I or should I not buy that album. As a result of this behavior, I find that album reviews often do more harm than good. They either keep someone from paying for the album in the first place or they encourage iTunes singles purchases by pointing out the songs they like.
All of this is a preface for what you came here for: a blog all about Kanye West’s latest album, Yeezus, and why I think that it’s both worth the buy and it’s a significant album in hip-hop history. First let me start buy convincing you that it’s worth buying. There are three simple reasons and I won’t get too verbose here:
I know some of you have already downloaded the album and seldom pay for your music, but I honestly believe Kanye West is precisely the type of artists who deserves that $10 or $15 because he’s just that: a true artist. To me, a true artist – be it Kanye or Edward Hopper or Alvin Ailey or Dave Chappelle – is worthy of my dollar if they’re as awesome and driven to push the limits as a certain Chicagoan is.
And in case the reasons above aren’t enough, please know that this album has tremendous significance in hip-hop history. Why, you ask? Because Kanye West represents the new “God MC” in rap culture. It used to be that the God MC was lyrically skilled like Rakim then it became someone who had both the lyrics and the steez, e.g., Notorious B.I.G. and Snoop. Later, it morphed into our 2000s version, the God MC who had good lyrics, but also masterful production teams, style and character. Jay-Z and Lil’ Wayne both embody this era as did Eminem with “Slim Shady” and T.I. with “King of the South” and 50 Cent with his “How to Rob/I Get Money” persona.
The new God MC sits on the shoulders of those legends. So don’t be surprised when Kanye West compares himself to a God. In rap culture, he most definitely is. He’s not just Jay-Z’s little brother, some 7 years younger and more a product of the Internet than the streets; Kanye is also more important than anyone else in the genre right now. Jay-Z makes more money and has a more talented partner, but he’s also a bit more predictable: you won’t see Jay-Z on a telethon saying George Bush hates Black people or upstaging Taylor Swift because of an MTV Video Music Award. Jay-Z is not a businessman, he’s a business man…let him handle his business, damn.
As for Kanye, his business isn’t really business at all. It’s art.
There is only one song and one verse you need to listen to realize that Yeezus - it’s content from album cover to song lyrics to stripped-down beats – is a long time coming. The last verse on Track 19 on Late Registration, “Gone”, which says:
“Ah-head of my time,
sometimes years out
So the powers that be won't let me get my ideas out
And that make me wanna get my advance out
And move to Oklahoma and just live at my Aunt's house
Yeah, I romance the thought of leavin it all behind
Kanye step away from the lime-
-light, like, when I was on the grind
In the "One, Nine, Nine, Nine"
Before, model chicks was bendin over or
Dealerships asked me Benz or Rover, man
If I could just get one beat on Hova
We could get up off this cheap-ass sofa
What the summer of the Chi got to offer an 18-year-old
Sell drugs or get a job, you gotta play gyro
My dawg worked at Taco Bell, hooked us up plural
Fired a week later the manager count the churros
Sometimes I can't believe it when I look up in the mirrow
How we out in Europe, spendin Euros
They claim you never know what you got 'til it's GONE
I know I got it, I don't know what y'all on
I'ma open up a store for aspiring MCs
Won't sell 'em no dream, but the inspiration is free
But if they ever flip sides like Anakin
You'll sell everything includin the mannequin
They got a new bitch now you Jennifer Aniston
Hold on I'll handle it, don't start panickin, stay calm
Shorty's at the door cause they need more
Inspiration for they life, they souls, and they songs
They said sorry Mr. West is gone!”
Even in 2005, nearly a decade ago, ‘Ye was trying to tell us that he’s years ahead and that he felt like “the powers that be” wouldn’t let him get his ideas out. Well fast-forward to 2013 and here we have a well-established Kanye West with a lot more control over everything involving his music so there’s no studio exec telling him he needs a “hot” single or a certain kind of video for MTV or a simpler album concept like Graduate School.
No, what Kanye is doing now is focusing on making people like him then making them hate him so that he can push the boundaries of what it means to be a God (MC). He’s not just doing it for himself, mind you, he’s also doing it for these “aspiring MCs” whom he feels obligated to give inspiration to. Well if you listen to Yeezus then listen to what up-and-coming rappers start putting out from now through 2015 or so, you’ll probably realize that Kanye is somewhat right. He is ahead of his time. He is the nucleus.
As for the album itself, my brother likes it, Pitchfork likes it and Metacritic - the site I visit most for album reviews - adds up the critics to give it an 8.5 out of 10 (unfavorably skewed by a useless negative review by cokemachineglow). I agree with most of the positive reviews. My favorite songs are: "Bound 2" and "Send it Up".
You see the person out at a bar and they don’t make a point to speak to you or a restaurant and they don’t at least say hello to you.
You send the person an invitation and they don’t accept it or let you know they can’t make it or give you a reason why they didn’t come after the event.
You call the person and they don’t answer; you leave a voicemail and they don’t call back.
You text the person and they don’t text back. "K" is not an acceptable response unless it's followed up with greater context/detail within 12 hours or the person is abroad.
You tweet at the person and they don’t respond. (Follow back is not required if they RT or reply to you.)
You write on the person’s Facebook wall or message the person but they don’t respond; you send a friend request but they don’t accept.
You like a photo on Instagram and follow them; but they never follow you back or like any of your photos (follow back is not required if they "like" any of your photos).
You send the person a LinkedIn connection request but they never respond; you send a recommendation request and they never respond.
This is gonna be a super quick, but important rant. One of the quotes that I live by is by Steve Prefontaine. If you don’t know who he is, look him up on Wikipedia then watch Without Limits on Netflix or something. When the first Nike shoe is based on your foot and your life is turned into a movie titled Without Limits, you’re pretty much the perfect idol for me. OK, so he said, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”
What I think he meant is that once you find your true calling, your true passion and purpose – for Pre it was running - then you have you do everything to do your best. Every time, all the time. The guy was famous for refusing to run below race pace in practices! Not the game, not the actual race, but practice! Allen Iverson left the NBA just a few years ago, but he already has less impact on modern day sports than Pre because he lacked this mentality. Anyway, back to my point.
I am a HUGE music fan. Got it from my older brothers, dad (read my Father’s Day post for more on him), and good friends over the years, I guess. Regardless, the best way for me to demonstrate my music fandomness is to tell you that I go to Waterloo Records – one of the best locally-owned record shops in America – every Tuesday when I’m home in Austin to buy at least one new CD. Yeah, I still buy actual CDs. Don’t get me wrong, I love iTunes and Spotify. I’ve probably spent a good $5,000 on iTunes since college on music alone. My iPhone is Bluetooth-enabled in my car so I can start playing my iTunes playlists the second I put the key in. Still, I buy a ton of CDs. Something like 250 in the last two years. Also, I recently counted and it turns out I’ve seen over 400 different performances/shows/concerts since I moved back to Austin in January 2009. That’s something like two shows every week.
When I find a new band or artist I love, I go hard for them. Whether it’s bands like Letting Up or 10YR in Austin or groups like Electric Wire Hustle and rapper David Dallas in New Zealand, I will rep hard for them. But I can’t stand when an artist feels entitled to give anything less than their best.
Like Dr. Dre and Detox. Like Justin Timberlake. Like Andre 3000. Hell, at least D’Angelo has cleaned up his act (pun intended) and appears to be working on a new album now. One of the greatest ever, Sade, went on a full-scale tour last year, which I got to see in Miami. Bless her heart.
Dre, Justin and 3000 are absolutely killing me right now. Artists who make excuses for not acknowledging and sharing their greatest gifts kill me! Dre is using his headphones. Justin is using his acting. 3000 is using his fashion collection…and Gillette commercials. Excuses, excuses, excuses.
All three of you are sacrificing your gifts.
Have you already done enough to make someone like me happy? Sure.
Dr. Dre gave us The Chronic album and Snoop and Eminem and 50 Cent.
Justin Timberlake gave us Cry Me a River and SexyBack and his “D*ck in a Box” on SNL.
Andre 3000 gave us some of the best verses ever heard in hip-hop and paved the way for rappers like Kanye West and Lil’ Wayne to express themselves through fashion.
I get it. But you’re not dead, so you’re not done. You shouldn’t be done. If you’re just taking a break, like one of those Sade seven-year breaks, then that’s cool. Just say it! Don’t keep us hanging around…everytime Dr. Dre says, “watch out for Detox!” I want to throw a tomato at him!
Jam Master Jay
They all died for different reasons and under different circumstances. Their reputations were all different in their final years. But, upon their deaths, the same reaction occurred: universal acclaim and gratitude for the fact that they gave something special while they were here on Earth.
I’m not saying these three musicians – Dr. Dre, Justin Timberlake, and Andre 3000 – haven’t given us their gifts significantly already. I’m not saying we wouldn’t celebrate their lives and musical contributions if they died prematurely or suddenly.
I’m just saying that I keep asking myself…do Dr. Dre, Justin Timberlake, and Andre 3000 take life and their gifts for granted – not to mention their fans – so much that they aren’t busy doing their best to share them with the world?
Are they intentionally letting the years go by, drawing closer to their deaths, without sharing their musical talents because they think they’ve done enough?
If they do, I beg them to watch Without Limits. I beg them to take heed to Pre’s words.
I beg them to take advantage of, and not sacrifice, their gift. Sorry, making headphones, acting and fashion design, are talents you may have, but the world already knows what your best gift is. Making music!
That’s the gift we’ll all be prepared to celebrate when you leave this Earth, too. Until then, share it with us before you end up in music history Heaven with the rest of the people on that list above; possibly dead before your final act could be performed as was the case with Michael Jackson, with millions of fans wondering what else you had left in the tank as was the case with Tupac and Biggie, with so much talent left to show as was the case with Aaliyah and Jay Dilla.
I can tell you this; no one ever wondered if Steve Prefontaine had anything left in the tank nor did anyone wonder what other talents he had to share...every distance runner, every Nike-sponsored athlete and every U.S. Olympian knows exactly what Pre had.
He gave it his all, every time, all the time. It's disappointing to look at some of my favorite musicians and wonder if that's something they can say for themselves, despite their God-given and awe-inspiring talents.
I just attended an awesome discussion led by Bill Pauls and John McHale, creative directors at Internet marketing & branding agency SapientNitro, titled, “Y Rappers R Better Than U”. I've attended half a dozen panels during SXSW Interactive since it started yesterday (Baratunde Thurston's keynote was badass too), and this one is by-far the best one thus far. Not only did Bill and John do a good job of setting the mood (Nas' Illmatic was playing as I walked into the room), but they also did a great job of balancing their desire to speak as the discussion leaders and moderators with the insights from the people in the room. It's amazing how many moderators don't listen to the audience, especially considering many people in the audiences as these panels are social media, startup or marketing wonks themselves.
The room was energetic, engaged and the speakers well-prepared and informed. The core messages or themes they shared were that:
1) Stay legit. Rappers understand that before you can grow your brand, you must protect it. Jay-Z has maintained his hustler mentality whether it be about the drug game or the marketing game.
2) Always be on the lookout for a bigger venue. Rappers are like highly-trained tech incubators when it comes to uncovering new opportunities and unlocking new value. Run-DMC's iconic "Rock This Way" song with Aerosmith is just one example.
3) Name check. Rappers have crushed the marketing game by being pros at name dropping without overly saturating their brands. Rappers like The Game and upstart guys like Big Sean are name checking regulars.
4) Master social. Sure, brands have done a good job with social media as they've become more versed and developed case studies, but rappers like Soulja Boy have really paved the way for rap's seat as the social media kings. Take that John Mayer.
5) Fuck the rules. Excuse my French, but this is an important one. Ice Cube has gone from a hard-core gangsta rapper in NWA to a rom-com daddy actor and maintained his authenticity by saying "fuck the rules", but doing so in an organic, balanced way from Boyz N Da Hood to Friday to Barber Shop to Are We There Yet?.
6) Manufacture controversy. 50 Cent comes to mind, but there are other examples in the rap game that brands should pay attention to. Don't be afraid to challenge your competitors a la Apple's "1984" commercial.
7) Reflect culture. Project culture. This seems like the other end of the loop from point #1 about staying legit. This is where you see so many rappers constantly speaking to their audiences through other forms of pop and urban cultures.
The discussion about rappers being expert marketers triggered another thought: rappers are highly experienced at handling mergers and acquisitions.
Think about it: Rap started in the late ‘70s, but didn’t really get profile until the 1980s with Run-DMC, The Beastie Boys and Def Jam out of New York. What else was happening during the 1980s? Did you see that movie Wall Street with Michael Douglas and Michael Sheen? Leveraged buyouts and a ton of M&A activity led by New York’s finance industry.
Since that time, rappers from LL Cool J and Vanilla Ice to Rick Ross and Wiz Khalifa have been the winners or losers of mergers and acquisitions in the rap game. To that effect, I wanted to share some highlights of the last 25 years in hip-hop history and the M&A activity that has paved the way for the most powerful music marketing force we have today.
Mergers in the rap game are partnership that yield visible business results and amplify rappers' brands.
Run-DMC & Aerosmith - The aforementioned "Rock the Way" track may seem more like a partnership, but really it was a significant merger of rock and rap...paving the way for mergers like Jay-Z and Linkin Park or even the late DJAM & Travis Barker.
Dr. Dre & Eminem - Not a merger in the sense of two equal parts, given the fact that Dr. Dre helped Em get his start, but by the time 50 Cent's career was launched by these guys it felt less like a rapper launching a career and more like a successful brand launch.
Jay-Z & Kanye West – Speaking of great partnerships, Watch the Throne has produced a hit album, but more importantly produced the most successful rap tour duo ever put together. This merger has yielded considerations by other rappers of taking a shot at a similar feat a la Lil' Wayne & Drake or Nas & Common. Chances are, they'll be more AOL Time Warner than Exxon-Mobil.
Jay-Z & Beyonce - The world calls it a marriage, but from a marketing and business standpoint this is a straight up merger. Probably the single-most important merger in the pop culture world since Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie don't push product outside of the movies they act in. Perhaps this is why Wiz Khalifa is dating Amber Rose; only problem is Rose has yet to show she has talent beyond her rear-end.
Master P & Snoop Dogg - Sure, this move by Snoop helped him escape the grip of Death Row's Suge Knight, but it didn't exactly produce a successful, sustainable business.
Common & Erykah Badu - I actually like that Common song "Come Close" feat. Mary J. Blige, but I agree with the criticism he received during his partnership with Erykah Badu that he went a little soft. At least too soft to represent Chicago. His merger with Kanye West resurrected his career.
Acquisitions in the rap game are all about battles. Rappers have brands that carry weight and that weight is tested through battles. The winner gets the spoils, and sometimes - like Jay-Z and Nas - the battle itself isn't the real acquisition play.
50 Cent - Fiddy is never afraid to gamble with an acquisition. Ja Rule and Fat Joe have both had their street cred and popularity acquired by Curtis Jackson's enterprise in the last decade.
Rick Ross - However, 50 Cent has taken an L of late to none-other-than Rick Ross. Rick came in the underdog, but left with a W next to his name thanks to the progress of his Maybach Music releases over the last few years.
T.I. - Houston rapper Lil' Flip never stood a chance when he challenged Atlanta's T.I.'s self-appointed designation as "The King of the South". T.I. immediately put Lil' Flip's business into non-existence upon the acquisition.
Nicki Minaj - Did you listen to Kanye's "Monster" featuring the Barbie Doll rapper herself? Yeah, she pretty much bought all of Lil’ Kim's 1990s glory in one verse.
LL Cool J - An acquisition expert and veteran having waged battles with everyone from Kool Moe Dee to Canibus. He hasn't maintained his relevance years into his career in the way Jay-Z or Common have, but he is one of the early innovators in the hostile takeover business of rap music.
Jay-Z - Sure, "Ether" gives plenty reason to pause when chalking up an L for Nas, but it's clear to see who the king of rap music for the last 15 years (post-Biggie & Tupac) is and he is most definitely from Brooklyn, not Queens.
Common - "I Used to Love Her" is one of the greatest, most important, hip-hop tracks of all time, but surprisingly pre-comedy Ice Cube got serious and shortsighted about his lyrics and tried to squash Common's statement. Common fired back and proved to the world that he was here to stay, no matter how big of a competitor he'd have to face.
KRS-One - Before Jay-Z and Nas there was KRS and MC Shan. One of those guys is still regarded as a legend of hip-hop, the other one not so much.
MC Serch - Not many people remember MC Serch, but his 3rd Base track "Pop Goes the Weasel" helped to put fire on Vanilla Ice's career. Serch went on to executive produce Nas' masterpiece Illmatic.
Prodigy - One-half of notable, Queens-based rap duo Mobb Deep, Prodigy and Jay-Z never seemed to get along...mostly because Jay-Z was always in the seat Prodigy coveted but could never grab. Jay-Z closed the case on this one with "The Takeover" on The Blueprint.
Common - Just as Ice Cube tried to bully Common in his early days, it seems Common has taken a jab at Drake and his crooning. We'll see how this ends up, but it's already started as a failed acquisition attempt by Common. Sorry, no new fans for you.
*This may become my next book topic, so be on the lookout for more in the future, and remember where you heard this theory first.