ReadyToDie

Are Release Dates Becoming Obsolete in the New Era of Music Consumption?

I remember how important release dates were as a kid. Growing up in the late ’90’s, before the time the Internet became the forefront of music listening and buying, an artist’s release date was the most critical ingredient to ensuring a certain level of album sale success. Of course, there were other pieces to the overall puzzle. The artist needed at least one radio single and usually a music video for that single; that’s how the initial “buzz” would start. They also needed the push from a major label to get their music out there: major dollars and marketing man-hours were invested. Soon after, like wildfire, news would come of the official release date and word would spread, be it through the music news channels (BET, MTV, etc.), the radio, or print publications (SPIN magazine, Rolling Stone), then eventually via word-of-mouth, the strongest form of promotion. Twitter and the music blogosphere were not around to keep us constantly updated on release dates for albums; we simply had access to those few channels and our peers that paid attention to music news as much as we did.

Another thing I remember about that time was that release dates were rarely pushed back. Think about how disastrous that could be for any major-label artist… Heavy airplay via TRL and top 40 radio stations as well as big-budget marketing and promotional campaigns led to the finished product: the album. If the date the project is released is moved in that era, how much money did the label just potentially lose? How many fans of the artist would go to Tower Records on the original release date only to be disappointed? How late would the media be to respond to such a change, needing to inform its listeners and viewers as soon as humanly possible? The possibility of loss in profits seemed like it was too much of a risk; most major-label release dates were set in stone during that time.

The idea of the “push back” became more frequent and apparent, at least to me, in the mid- 2000’s. A combination of factors came into play. As time progressed, contracts were becoming more complicated between major labels and artists. Many artists found themselves under imprints or indie labels initially, then being signed under distribution deals through major labels. When one company is handling your album’s production budget and another is handling the manufacturing costs, “official” release dates can become difficult to verify. Sample clearance also became an issue, especially in rap music. Older artists that were sampled may not necessarily have wanted to be sampled, or may have been in constant talks and negotiations with the current artist to fight for a higher royalty rate from future profits of the music sampled; this undoubtedly creates a problematic atmosphere for solidified release dates. Lastly, the introduction of the Internet dramatically changed how and where we listen to music. Waiting in line at record store for an album release was no longer a part of the music purchasing process: now, we can torrent an album illegally or purchase it digitally via outlets such as iTunes and Amazon and have it available to stream instantly. Additionally, social media websites like Twitter allow artists to reach the audience directly, and quickly divulge information on album releases. Blogs and publications also have the opportunity to use these mediums to inform the public about release date information as they receive it, much quicker today than in the ’90’s when they would have to rely on premiering the news on the radio or via print.

Above, you’ll see a screenshot of a Twitter search of Game’s release date for his new album. Already, six different publications and blogs have posted the news within 24 hours of the announcement. How quickly and efficiently could we find this information in the ’90’s?

Today, I’m more familiar with the album push back than ever, to the point where I almost expect it, especially when it comes to certain artists. Rick Ross, Wayne, and Young Jeezy, to name a few, have become notorious for this kind of thing. With Wayne specifically, his rollouts have become so frequently disorganized that his albums will sometimes be released more than a year after their original release dates. Because of this, a divide is born between the generation that enjoyed the hysteria and anticipation surrounding a release before the Internet, and the generation that becomes all too familiar with the skepticism surrounding a release date announced in today’s environment. Then, there is also everyone stuck between, which I believe includes music listeners aged 20 to 30.

A Google search of “lil wayne album push back” brings back multiple results and dates that the push backs were announced.

It was time for a change. If the current state of the music economy was so volatile that release dates became meaningless, what’s the next promising avenue for big-name artists? Beyoncé answered this question with the release of her critically acclaimed self-titled album on December 13th, 2013. There had been no prior promotion and/or marketing done for the album; it essentially dropped out of thin air, immediately available on iTunes for purchase. The idea of the “surprise album” began to take over the release date conversation shortly after in 2014, and in 2015, it seems as though it’s dominating the way major label albums are going to be released in the future.

It’s only March, and already three major-label rap artists have somewhat followed in Beyonce’s footsteps: Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Earl Sweatshirt.

Drake mimicked Beyoncé’s method completely, with the exception of a few teasers beforehand. She was able to sell 828K copies of her album in the first few days of its release; Drake sold around 500K copies of his album (“mixtape”) during the first week of its release. To be able to move that many digital units without a release date is quite an accomplishment, especially in today’s low-record selling environment.

Kendrick Lamar did actually end up announcing a release date, one that later seemed to be phony. After the releases of his singles “i” and “The Blacker The Berry” (the former earning him a Grammy earlier this year), the album was available on iTunes in pre-order format until March 23rd, 2015, the supposed official release date. The initial album art was a black cover, adding to the hype surrounding the release (the official album art was later released on Lamar’s Instagram). On March 16th, though, the album was made available for purchase on iTunes, much to everyone’s surprise. It felt planned, but Top Dawg’s CEO claims otherwise:

Despite Interscope’s mistake, the album turned out to be a success sales-wise, selling over 325K copies in its first week of release.

Earl Sweatshirt is the latest artist to hop on the wave with his sophomore effort I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. He follows a method similar to Kendrick’s: his album is recently unveiled on iTunes for pre-order with an attached release date of March 23rd. Unlike Kendrick, however, no singles were released beforehand; the single, “Grief”, arrived at the same time as the pre-order in the form of a video. Like Top Dawg’s CEO, Earl claims that Sony screwed-up the release:

Judging from the tone of Earl’s tweets, he was going for more of a Beyoncé approach instead of having announced a release date via the iTunes pre-order reveal.

So, what can we gather from all of this information? For major-label artists that can do the numbers, the Beyonce-surprise release could be a viable sales option. All the commotion around the release is a great marketing tool, especially for the social media era. On the other hand, you have major-label artists who are “announcing” release dates within a couple of weeks time of their album releases, or artists who surprise-drop their albums ahead of the official release date. Regardless if the album is delivered today or two weeks from now, that window of time is narrow for Internet-savvy music streamers and purchasers, and eventually they will take notice and buy into the hype. The surprise release date won’t conclude with these three artists: Kanye recently commented on his new album So Help Me God, stating that the release would be an unexpected one this year. Will indie artists move to adapt this method? How many more major-label artists will take the risk? The year is just beginning, but I believe that 2015 will be a the year where we will be able to effectively measure the success of the Beyonce approach against the different types of artists that will adopt it.

2k14gold

Best Albums of 2014

1. D’Angelo & The Vanguard - Black Messiah

2. YG - My Krazy Life

3. Future – Monster / Honest

4. Freddie Gibbs x Madlib – Pinata

5. Rich Gang – Tha Tour, Part I

6. Azealea Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste

7. Migos – No Label 2

8. Mick Jenkins - The Waters

9. PARTYNEXTDOOR – PARTYNEXTDOOR II

10. Sango – Da Rocinha 2

11. Vince Staples – Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2 Hell Can Wait EP

12. Nicki Minaj – The Pinkprint

13. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2

14. Real Estate – Atlas

15. FKA Twigs – LP1

16. Lil Durk – Signed to the Streets 2

17. Jeremih – NOMA

18. Isaiah Rashad – Cilvia Demo

19. Popcaan – Where We Come From

20. Eric Bellinger – Choose Up Season

21. Yung Lean – Unknown Memory

22. Copeland – Ixora

23. The-Dream – Royalty: The Prequel

24. DJ Chose – Surveillance

25. Tinashe - Aquarius

26. Todd Terje – It’s Album Time

27. Rick Ross – Hood Billionaire

28. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!

29. Trey Songz – Trigga

30. Majid Jordan – A Place Like This

31. Spooky Black – Black Silk

32. Lil Bibby – Free Crack 2

33. Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty 

34. ILoveMakonnen – ILoveMakonnen EP

35. Iamsu! – Sincerely Yours

Like previous years before it, 2014 was full of great music. Much of this music was created and released in response to race relations in America and police brutality continually practiced on minorities in the country. D’Angelo’s long-awaited junior album arrived at a crucial time, right on the heels of the Eric Garner rallies taking place across the nation. Being a young black man in America, I’ve grown aware and to an extent, cynical that things will never change. People will still cross the street to avoid me at night. Convenience store employees are still going to follow me throughout their store for no apparent reason besides the color of my skin. Police will stop and frisk me as they please. You may not believe it, but it all still happens, even today, right now. However, knowing that there are people out there feeling and experiencing the same things and relating to them through their music is not only comforting, but the ultimate escape. After all of the disappointment, turmoil, and horror stemming from the reported unarmed murders of black men this past year, I’m glad I at least have music to connect to at the end of the day.

Here’s to hoping the world is a better place in 2015 and more challenging, polarizing music is released.

noisey atl

Noisey Atlanta (Episodes 1 & 2)

Noisey recently started a new documentary series where they travel to the city of Atlanta and attempt to dissect its unique rap history for the masses. This is fresh off of their “Chiraq” series, which took them to the streets of Chicago and gave them the opportunity to interview GBE/300 rappers and producers and learn more about the rarely documented violence surrounding the inner-city.

Thomas Morton, the awkward, nerdy interviewer that works for VICE, the company that Noisey operates under, headed the “Chiraq” project on camera. He has also been made responsible to conduct the investigative journalism necessary for the Noisey‘s new Atlanta series, and the results are… interesting. Despite the at-times completely uncomfortable interviewing, these documentary series end up becoming pretty informative.

In the first episode, Morton explains that from Atlanta you can go to any city in America because of the vast amount of highway infrastructure present. This also means that you can get to Atlanta from any city, which is the reason why Atlanta has become such a hotbed for drug trafficking. High-profile dealers living in the Texas and Louisiana areas would import cocaine from Mexico for example, then transport and distribute the packages north towards Atlanta.

Thomas and co. first meet Curtis Snow, who has gained popularity from his own documentary titled Snow on tha Bluff (highly recommended). He is known as a drug dealer and robber in his hood, and literally cooks crack in front of Morton.

Snow explains:

When a rapper’s rapping, you should be able to smell the dope cooking. Wherever there’s a trap, there’s a studio. You can’t have one without the other.”

It’s part of the culture in Atlanta to couple rap with the selling and/or consumption of drugs, so Snow’s insight makes sense.

Later, Morton and co. meet with Bleu Davinci, who’s a rapper from the Black Mafia Family (BMF), once headed by now-jailed Big Meech. There, Davinci explains the importance of BMF’s arrival in Atlanta and how the group made a name for itself in the city’s rap culture.

After they finish chopping it up, Morton becomes an honorary member of the BMF, and is graced a chain after he finishes learning the handshake.

In the next episode, the Noisey crew head to Atlanta’s famous Magic City strip club to meet Migos, and later visit them at their home.

At one point Morton calls Migos’ popular flow “Tourette-style madlib rap”, as if the dudes have no idea what they’re rapping about and/or no control over the sounds coming out of their voices, but… Moving on.

Once they arrive, Morton and the cameraman are greeted by Migos’ shooters and their respective tools, and once they’ve entered, are exposed to more of Migos’ posse and more guns.

Note the immaculate portrait of the trio in the background of the picture above. Regarding the Migos’ heavy artillery, Atlanta rapper Jose Guapo explains:

You just got to be over-protective, you know? A lot of wild things going on in the culture these days.”

Later, they get into Migos’ history. Prolific rap mogul Gucci Mane connected the trio with his manager Coach K and producer Zaytoven after the success of their street single “Bando”, and things have been looking up for them since. Despite their success, the group still chooses to record in a closet at their home, which shows much Atlanta artists are influenced by their original DIY-aesthetics. Later, when they’re discussing metaphors for drugs, Morton decides to ask: “What means coke now?”

…Man, what? The episode isn’t as informative as the first, but is interesting nonetheless. It’s great that a major publication is giving a city’s rap history this much press, but I can’t help but think that something about these interviews feels off and invasive. I’m not sure if a different host would even amend the situation. Hopefully it feels less forced as the series goes on.

Generally though, I feel like Guapo in the above screenshot.

thuckert

Young Thug Isn’t Ruining Hip-Hop. You Are.

I have been listening to hip-hop for quite some time. I would wager that it started as early as the 6th grade. Hip-hop music and culture has been a badge that I’ve worn proudly for years. As a fan, as a critic and currently as a participant, I personally have crafted three albums, worked with some of my peers, and met many of my idols. But in 2013, I first started to notice a glaring problem with the culture I was so immersed in. A culture so ready to fight for equal rights, political justice, and fair treatment by the police and for their place in the world suddenly seemed so…bigoted.

See, the problem with hip-hop music is the divide between fans and artists, and then also the fans with other fans. On one side of the coin you have the fundamentalists; the hip-hop heads, the “real” hip-hop fans. These people don’t want to hear anthems about partying, drugs, “bitches”, or really anything that they perceive as a belittling and step backward of “the culture.”

Hip-hop culture, according to them, only wants to hear social commentary. They want political consciousness. They want to hear rappers standing up for the people, being of the people, and speaking for the people. Andrew Mehari, the founder of this blog, said the following to me in a recent discussion about the topic:

Hip-Hop purists are all about lyricism and boom-bap beats. When a rapper such as Young Thug comes around, they’re always the first ones critical of him. A lot of these guys claim that whatever Thug is rapping about is irrelevant/”hurtful to the black community”, and that people should look to rappers like Lupe Fiasco for “real hip-hop”. That’s just not true. People want to discount what he’s saying as an irrelevant/hurtful because they think he’s promoting his lifestyle, but he’s not. He’s rapping about what he experiences every day, and experiences shouldn’t be discounted like that, especially from people that come from marginalized communities. If violence/selling drugs are all he knows, then let him rap about it. Thug’s voice is just as important, if not more important, than what Lupe Fiasco has to say. Also, I just rather listen to “Lifestyle” a thousand more times than any song from Lasers.”

Andrew has many good points (although, if I am being honest, I love Lupe Fiasco and the new album is great). Being different isn’t a bad thing, and to me that is the most harmful thing about the hip-hop community as a whole. They don’t want to hear anything different. They don’t want you to dress different, or in the case of Thug or say A$AP Rocky, actually wear a dress. Andrew continued:

I also think hip-hop is critical of Thug because of the way he chooses to express himself. He’s a flamboyant guy with a colorful sense of style, something that for some reason is “un-rap”. Because of rap’s history of bravado, homophobia, and masculinity, people that represent the culture and shy away from those notions are attacked constantly, which is the case for Thug. I’m glad the guy sometimes wears dresses and blouses and paints his nails, because I think the rap world needs more people like him to help break open those barriers. “

People were, and still are, critical of rappers such as Lil Wayne. When Wayne came on the scene and as he blew up to massive levels, hip-hop heads were critical of his voice, his style, his vocal inflexions and of course – his lyrics. It took years and still starts debates on if he is one of the best artists to ever do it (FYI: he is). With Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan, Migos and Future these criticisms are ever prevalent, even though these are the artists currently pushing the boundaries of hip-hop. Whether it’s style, or the music they are creating these are the new guys (New Atlanta, what’s up?) that push hip-hop to unchartered and unconventional territories. Whether they are understood now or take time to settle, I believe as we progress as a society, these artists will get the recognition they deserve – as pioneers. Why does it feel uncomfortable to see a man in a dress? Or call his friends hubby? Why does “different” make us so uncomfortable and unwilling to open our minds? That’s because Young Thug isn’t the problem with hip-hop.

You are.

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Future – Beast Mode

Future’s new tape, Beast Mode, is a collaboration between himself and prolific Atlanta producer Zaytoven. It’s the first rap tape (with any real traction) to start out the year, and it’s quite the release. Zaytoven takes advantage of choir-like keys, thumping bass, and wind instrumentation he’s been known for and provides the perfect soundscape for Future to rap-warble his emotion onto. Future is fresh off the release of his seemingly slept-on 2014 tape Monster, in which he reveals his feelings about his rumored split with Ciara. Beast Mode is less revealing than Monster, and more braggadocios, which was a noticeable and enjoyable difference (not that him pouring his heart out wasn’t).

At just nine tracks long and boasting only two features (Young Scooter and Juvenile), the tape is short, quick, and to-the-point. The idea of a rapper like Future pairing himself with a sole producer as the executive beatmaker for his tapes works out really well for him; he was able to create a dark, vulnerable persona with Metro Boomin on Monster and Zaytoven provided him with a completely different palette here on Beast Mode. It’s not the standard traplanta sound you may come to expect from these two. As music writer Craig Jenkins puts it, “Zaytoven ushering us from the club to the church and back.” It’s reminiscent of some of the organ work Zaytoven did on Migos’ 2014 tape No Label 2, but now with Future recruited for vocals, there is a deeper dynamic to the production. Future has a knack for making his voice ride the wave of the music he’s singing to so easily that his voice itself is an instrument, and what he does with Beast Mode is no exception. He shows no sign of stopping on his newest tape, and it is definitely worth your time.

Trillectro 2013

 

All credit due to Jenna Zabarah.

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Ezale – Drug Funnie

The latest craze coming out of the Bay Area is the Highland Park-based Ezale, a Cambodian-American rapper who weaves in and out of flows similar to his hometown hero Mac Dre. The pill-popping newcomer has been gaining popularity on YouTube for some of his music videos, specifically “Too High“, “5 Minutes of Funktown“, and “Foreal Foreal“.

In the former, Ezale uses his humor to construct a narrative around being so fucked up off drugs that he and his crew eventually throw a party on a metro bus. In the song he borrows DJ Mustard’s “Up Down” beat provided to T-Pain, and does the instrumental justice with lines like: “I’m on full throttle cause a pill in the bottle / And looking for a model that’ll swallow!” It’s not necessarily the technicality of the lyrics that make the song so great, but the story laid out behind the what Ezale is saying: clearly the guy is a recreational drug user and wants you to hear why. “5 Minutes of Funktown” takes us through three different beat changes, with each instrumental sounding different from the other (he samples Rick James, Morris Day, and Whodini). In the entire video Ezale is dancing his ass off, getting hyphy as humanly possible. The video serves as more of an introduction to his sound and region as a whole, showing us where in the Bay he spends his time and simultaneously giving us some personal insight: “Tried to talk to God, he said ‘Go to Hell’ / Not just the police wanna see me in jail.” “Foreal Foreal”, an ode to being real, was filmed at what looks like an East Oakland ARCO (following a recent trend of Bay-area rap being visually coupled with gas stations, as Rhymejunkie points out), with Ezale menacingly scolding phonies he’s dealt with in the past: “Been down with the get down / Been around when it got down / Where was you when they slid through? HUH?!” Ezale fittingly raps over DMC’s “It’s Like That” for this track.

It’s hard to say whether or not Ezale will be as popular as current Bay-area dominators HBK Gang, but if he continues to be as consistent as he’s been, he has a bright future ahead of him. Check out his debut tape Drug Funnie below.