(Post from this time last year)
I’ve written before about my love for the app Genius, which holds explanations and analyses of pretty much every music and poetry lyric in existence. So, for me, Genius is like Disneyland in an app. Why don’t they have real-life libraries like this? So we can just go in and read about Jay-Z’s latest album and feel like we’re studying Plato. Hey, maybe I’m onto something…
Anyway! I thought it could be cool to start sharing my favourite lyrics, or just lyrics that make me think and that perhaps go a bit deeper than your run-of-the-mill, poppin’ bottles poppin’ tags malarkey (I’m looking at you, Future), and hopefully you guys might offer up some alternative interpretations and make me see the lines in a different light. I spent two years in Sixth Form studying English and picking apart layers and layers of meaning in poems, so I figured, why not delve a little deeper than Genius and do this with songs? I mean, they’re basically a form of contemporary poetry, right?
My first set of lyrics is from the Drake song, Furthest Thing, which appears on his 2013 album Nothing Was The Same. I’m actually writing this while sat in a Nothing Was The Samehoodie. I’m not sure why that’s relevant, so moving on…
One of my earlier post titles (on my old blog) is actually a cheeky nod to this song’s hook, if you fancy it you can read it here :) - https://themaximoblog.wordpress.com/2016/10/03/furthest-thing-the-travails-of-being-a-perfectionist/
So these are the lyrics I’ve chosen. They’re the opening lines to the song -
Somewhere between psychotic and iconic
Somewhere between I want it and I got it
Somewhere between I’m sober and I’m lifted
Somewhere between a mistress and commitment
I don’t know if it’s because I’m on a Gap Year, and I kinda feel in a bit of a limbo between High School and University, and the lyrics are based around a feeling of being inbetween emotions, but even though they’re nearly 5 years old I still get a tingle in my spine when I listen to them. I love the juxtaposition, coupled with the almost chilling honesty and the vulnerability that comes with this. Rapping has always had a braggadocio attitude associated with it, so whenever I hear a rapper just laying themselves bare for everyone to see and pick apart, I can't help but admire them.
And I think everyone can relate to the feeling of being unsure of your feelings, and having a sense of being stuck between where you started and where you want to get to. Even the last line, ‘Somewhere between I’m sober and I’m lifted’, I feel as though I can empathise with. I don’t take drugs (unless caffeine counts) and I don’t drink much, but for me the lyric is about the mentality of being super alert and ready to seize the day, and being serious about your future, i.e. the sober part, and then trying to balance this with being more spontaneous, laidback and carefree about your worries, i.e. the lifted part. The whole stanza is like the constant flipping of a coin, showing us both sides of the artist's personality, and how he is trying to find a middle path between them, a way of striking a harmony.
The contrast between ‘pyschotic’ and ‘iconic’ is really interesting to me as well, because I think everyone wants to leave behind some kind of legacy, whether it be through their children or through their work. But the assonance in this lyric hints at how closely linked an unyielding determination to succeed can be to an unhealthy obsession. Perhaps there’s a little ‘live for today, not tomorrow’ motif being weaved in here.
Too deep? Maybe, but as a great man once said, ‘the deeper it gets boy the pressure increases…but pressure makes diamonds’. Wait, I think I might be mixing my MCs as well as my metaphors here…!
Please feel free to agree, disagree, say the lyrics aren’t actually all that. I’m open-minded on this, so hit me with your best and wackiest interpretations :)
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
P.S here's a link to Drake's Furthest Thing...https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2lTZ7YU0T8
I wrote a piece earlier this year questioning how far music is about the lyrics and the concepts contained within a song, or whether it is more about the melodies and the audial agreeableness of a song. I concluded that it was about striking a balance, underlining that I personally like some songs because I really connect with the lyrics, even if the actual music isn't all that spectacular, and vice versa – sometimes it sounds great but the lyrics are trash.
And it is this second instance that I want to focus on in this post, taking it beyond whether we simply like or dislike a set of particular lyrics. Recently, on the advice of my friend at University, I have started listening to a lot of the rapper Young Thug. He assured me that his vocals are exceptional, but warned me to ignore the lyrics, because they are well and truly abominable. And I found, interestingly, that despite the name and despite the aura of negative publicity Thugger seems to carry around with him, a lot of his songs are indeed quite soft and vocally delicate.
However, his lyrics, as my friend warned me, are entirely the opposite. While his croons may tempt some to place him in a genre other than Hip Hop, his subject matter anchors him firmly in the rap realm. And it's a shame, because the explicit and often crass lyrics jar starkly with the innovative vocal techniques Young Thug uses, meaning it is hard to really empathise with the song. We’re left unsure as to whether we’re supposed to feel in awe of all the money, drugs and girls Thugger supposedly has at his disposal, or be moved by the vulnerability in his voice. It seems my friend got it right, and you can only really appreciate the rapper's masterstrokes if you block out his lyrics. But surely we shouldn't have to do this? Although we admitted earlier that you can enjoy music without loving the lyrics, at the same time, surely the lyrics are still important to the overall listener's experience. Music is, after all, often about identifying with the artist as they supposedly reveal the innermost layers to their soul. So if the voice is beautiful, but the lyrics are unpalatable, how can we truly latch onto the song's wavelength?
But okay, perhaps if the vocals are really that good, we can look past the lyrics. How many pop hits have had earth-shattering rhyme schemes and cleverly interweaved metaphors anyway? Good lyrics are not, it seems necessary.
Or are they…?
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
Photo credit Tom Øverlie NRK P3, flickr.com
Back in sixth form, I remember being sat in the computer room, and my best friend tapped me on the shoulder. He was pinching in between his eyes, you know, like when you mock cry at something. Except when he looked up, there seemed to be genuine despair etched into his expression. What was wrong?? Had his girlfriend broken up with him?! Had he just gotten a detention?!
He answered my frenzied questioning with a pained point towards his computer screen. It was displaying a YouTube video of some indie rock band song, the visuals being in black and white, the vocalists displaying gloomy expressions, like the cameraman had just told them their budget’s been restricted so they’re having to drain away the colour – along with any life that might once have occupied the singers’ eyes – from the video. As I realised that they were actually the cause of my friend’s distress, a puzzled look stretched across my face.
‘Bro, seriously, what are you doing? Why would you want to listen to music that makes you sad? Music’s supposed to be a form of entertainment,’ I remember complaining as I rolled my eyes and returned to my own work. “It’s a good song though”, I heard a grumbling voice mutter from my left.
And this is where my confusion began. I used to try and limit my phone’s music repertoire to upbeat tracks and albums with a positive message. That stopped when I was introduced to the grimy world of American Hip-Hop and Rap, and as you will have gathered from previous posts, the often moody and melancholic Travis Scott is now one of my favourite artists. The so-called Emo-Rap, although I didn’t initially realise it, has probably been my favourite genre for the past few years now.
However, I often encounter a dilemma regarding the conflict between my old musical habits and my new ones: When we’re feeling a little despondent or upset, should we listen to upbeat music to try and drag ourselves out of our rut? Or, should we listen to music that mirrors our mood, and that we can relate to in that moment?
I used to opt for the first one because I thought this was common sense, but now I almost always go down the second route. Does it make me feel better having someone else reciprocating my mood down my earphones? Ultimately, I’m not sure it does. But in that low space, I definitely don’t feel like putting on some chirpy country music.
I find it interesting that many artists nowadays seem to be at their most creatively productive when they’re feeling their most desolate. Look at Adele, Drake, Beyonce’s Lemonade, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, and Kanye West. Their most revered work is undoubtedly their most despondent. Is this because critics feel as though they’re seeing the real artist when they lay themselves bare and open up to us about their deepest doubts and fiercest fears? Perhaps despair causes the artist to become more introspective, and subsequently more honest?
But I’m not completely convinced. Pharrell Williams, arguably the most prolific hit-maker of this decade, is almost exclusively positive in tone and in message. Calvin Harris’ latest album saw a return to the days of carefree disco-funk. And my dad’s favourite Country artist at the moment, Zac Brown Band, have a running theme throughout their songs of forgetting your worries and sitting back on a beach deck chair with a cold beer and a guitar, which is certainly a refreshing attitude to life, isn’t it?
It seems, as always, that there are two sides to the story. There are now songs for every mood. But which shade should we go for, brilliant gold or gloomy blue? Does musical wallowing just cause us dive even deeper into our dejection? Should I have stuck to my sixth form guns, is there really any sense in listening to music that makes us sad? Or do these tracks have more artistic value than bright, free-spirited, but perhaps less substantial ones?
Whose side are you on?
Stay down or turn up?
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
Call me old fashioned, but last Friday, I bought a song on iTunes. No, I haven’t got Spotify, Apple Music, nor Tidal. I still like paying for music that I’ll be able to keep, not paying for music that I can keep as long as I pay £10 a month for the rest of my life. Maybe, if you psychoanalysed me, you might find this streaming stubbornness is something to do with an inner desire for some kind of permanence in these times of constant flux, or maybe it’s some deep-rooted sense of greediness that leads me to want to actually own the piece of music… Whatever, all I know is I’m still on Team iTunes, even though Apple, I’m sure, would much rather I transferred to the more profitable Team Apple Music. Well, in all honesty, I’m not sure I feature that highly on the multi-billion dollar company’s list of interests, but anyhow…
Sorry for the diversion! Rant over, that’s for another post…
Where was I – oh, yes, I bought a song on iTunes. For those of you interested, it was Coldplay’s out-of-the-blue collaboration with Big Sean, Miracles (Something Special). I’ve never been too keen on brackets in song titles (to me it looks like the artist couldn’t make up their mind what to call it), but I decided to overlook that minor sticking point on this occasion…
It’s a very motivational, carpe dium, ‘ah but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp’, kind of song – which is why I like it. I’ve written before about the ‘Gap Year mentality’, where you constantly feel like you need to be productive. So the Miracles vibe really resonated with me, because I’m currently trying to push myself and reach for the stars with my golf, my writing, my song-writing, and my academic career.
I’ve mainly gotten this attitude from my dad, who’s always instilled in me a sense of pride and aspiration. So, I thought I’d play him the song.
Now, as you might imagine, my Radio-4-loving dad isn’t exactly too fond of my rap/hip-hop predilections, so I thought ‘hey, let’s ease him into a bit of Big Sean on a song without any swearing, nor any drug references or innuendos, and on a song with my dad’s own crie de coeur at its core. He’s bound to like it, right?’
So as we were driving to golf that same day, I connected up my phone to my cherished aux cable and pressed play. My dad winced, expecting some heavy basslines and hard-hitting rap to jar through the speakers, but instead was greeted with a light, mystical piano. His expression eased, shifting from surprised, to relieved, to contemplative.
As the song meandered through the warm vocals, the upbeat synths and the inspiring lyrics, finishing on a high with Big Sean’s verse, I glanced across eagerly at my dad. What did he think??
He shrugged nonchalantly, and then grinned at me, saying, ‘It sounds to me like they’ve written this pretty dodgy song, and thought, ‘Hmm, lets put a rap at the end to make it sound a little less boring.’’
But…what about the stirring message??
Another shrug, ‘I’m sure the lyrics are great. It just doesn’t sound to me like that good a song.’
And that got me thinking. Every car journey, I try and convert my dad to the wonders of my musical penchants, and every car journey, I fail miserably. I think he once said he liked a Lil Yachty song, which I’ll give him credit for, but apart from that – nada. And in all honesty, that’s fair enough, it’s good of him to even put up with my constant Travis Scott, Kanye West, Drake and Big Sean merry-go-round in the first place, when I know he’d much rather be listening to Test Match Special. And anyway, since when are our parents supposed to share our taste in music?
But my frosty Coldplay reception made me realise something. My dad had criticised its catchiness as a song, looking at it purely as a piece of art, and judging it objectively, as a music critic would. And, listening to the song again, I actually get what he’s saying. The chorus doesn’t really go anywhere, the vocals are perhaps a little restrained, and Big Sean’s verse is tight, but he’s written tighter.
Yet, I wasn’t drawn to this song because of its abstract, musical quality. It might not be an earth-shattering piece of art, and it probably didn’t get amazing reviews in the papers and magazines. However, the lyrics made an impression on me, they made me feel inspired, excited to go out and make the most of life, and they still do every time I listen to the song. And that’s how I judged it, purely on how it made me feel, regardless of whether I thought the song had any objective value.
So what does this mean? Should we judge music how my dad and impartial critics might judge it, or should we just go purely with how it makes us feel, whether it provokes an emotional response from us or not? And how far is music now about the lyrics, the message, what the artist has to say underneath all the shimmering synths and driving drums? Or is it still mainly about the music, and should artists focus on this, rather than trying to deliver any real substance to their listener?
Or should artists be able to strike a balance between the two?
Food for thought…let me know what you think!
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
*2018 Update, seeing as this post was written roughly a year ago - call me week-willed, but I now have Apple Music
When my friend and I arrived in Birmingham at roughly 3 in the afternoon, we headed straight for the hotel. On our way, we caught a glimpse of the O2 Academy across the road, with ‘TRAVIS SCOTT SOLD OUT’ emblazoned in big letters across the front. The pre-concert butterflies began to stretch their wings in my stomach. Then, as my eyes drifted down below the billboard, my mouth dropped. I turned to my friend, and she was doing the same. There was a queue stretching from the venue doors right down to the end of the block. At 3pm. The show wasn’t set to start until around 9:30, for crying out loud!
After we’d checked into the hotel, gone out to get something to eat and had a couple of cocktails, we started back to the hotel to get changed. On our way, we saw the line had gotten even longer. It now snaked around the end of the block, about 200 metres down that street, and then back around to pretty much where the queue started, in a massive loop. Ugh, we were never going to get in at this rate.
By the time we actually came out to join the line, it was about 7pm, which, for someone who seems to live in a timezone that’s 15 minutes later than everyone else, judging by my inherent lack of punctuality, I thought was pretty early. But clearly, this view wasn’t shared by the 800 people in front of us.
Fortunately, they were letting people inside at this point, so the queue moved along fairly quickly, and before we knew it, we were at the security checks. As the steward scanned my ticket, a frown creased her forehead. My ticket hadn’t been accepted by the machine. No! My home-printed ticket had failed the vital test! She wasn’t going to let me in! I’d travelled all the way to Birmingham just to be turned away at the door. Stupid tickets, I knew I should have bought them off Ticketmaster instead of Viagogo…
It was with these panic-stricken thoughts swirling around my head that the steward casually ran my ticket through the machine again, and a green light flashed on. She smiled up at me, waving me through. Oh. Okay. Well, maybe I overreacted a little.
We were in! And the butterflies were in full force. As we navigated the winding staircase and numerous brightly coloured doors, it felt like we were climbing to the top of the most exhilarating rollercoaster in Universal Studios, a mixture of surging excitement and nervous anticipation pulsing through our veins. We finally reached the balcony where we were set to sit, and spotted a pair of good seats by the far side, which we swiftly claimed. The DJ was playing the Migos hit 'Bad and Boujee', with the mass of people standing below chanting every word and every ad-lib at the tops of their voices. The buzz of excited energy fizzled through everyone, all waiting eagerly for a ‘Straight up!’ or ‘It’s lit!’ to let us know the man himself was about to prowl onto the stage.
By the time it struck 9pm, everyone was already drenched in sweat. It was absolutely boiling, but no one really seemed to care. Everyone was too absorbed in the expectation of the main event. At about 9:30, Travis’ personal DJ, Chase B, hit the stage to start playing some hype tracks, which seemed to be 80% bass judging from the rattling vibrations in our chests, and bellowing out ‘ARE YOU READY FOR TRAVIS SCOTT?’
As everyone screamed ‘YES’ in unison, the black curtain dropped, revealing a huge, red-eyed hawk, its wings flapping mechanically, surrounded by cages. A string of entrails drooped from its mouth. Then the eerie intro to 'the ends' started up, greeted by a roar of approval from the audience. I’m pretty sure my scream was one of the loudest, but hey, I don’t want to brag.
Then he walked on, dressed head to toe in black, a single gold chain sparkling in the darkness. This was the moment we’d all been waiting for.
From the offset, Scott’s energy was electrifying, contagious. I’d heard a lot about his concerts beforehand, and I was worried I’d built it up too much in my head and I was going to be let down by the actual event. Gosh no. It was even better than I’d expected! His ferocious, swaggering rapping, embroidered by his spooky Auto-Tuned vocals that frequently broke into crazed screams only added fuel to the crowd’s jubilation. I’m not ashamed to say I knew most of the words, and yelled them at the top of my voice, which is probably why I’m now nursing a sore throat, but it was worth it! Hits such as 'pick up the phone', 'goosebumps' and 'Antidote' received the most vociferous responses from the mosh pit, which seemed to move and writhe as one giant mass, all thrashing into each other and punching the air frantically every time the orchestrator encouraged them to.
Travis Scott has previously described his concerts as ‘no-holds-barred’ events, and the feeling inside the arena was definitely one of anarchy and lawlessness, which, looking back, could have been pretty scary, but in the moment just felt awesome and liberating. The crowd whooped and gawped in disbelief as Scott clambered up onto a speaker, and then leapt up onto the balcony, shimmying along as he yelled the hook to his hit single, 'Butterfly Effect', before springing into the heart of the mosh pit below. When he could contain himself to the stage, he’d call up numerous members of the crowd to stand beside him, and then get them to run up and fling themselves into the mass of people, crowd-surfing their way back to their friends while the Houston rapper started up another track.
It was pure, breath-taking, theatre. He entered giving 100% and he maintained it throughout, and the crowd fed off that, reflecting his exuberance back at him. He even extended his set by a few songs as though he, like the rest of us, didn’t want it to end. It was a truly unforgettable experience, a night that reinforced to me that there’s nothing like a live performance. The feeling of seeing your favourite artists in their element, in the flesh, and to be surrounded by people who love them just as much as you do, is simply awesome. If anyone ever decides to go to a Travis Scott concert, I would recommend choosing a balcony seat, because you feel as though you’re part of the atmosphere while still feeling safe and being close enough to the bar and toilets. Maybe one day I’ll be brave enough to take on an infamous Travi$ mosh pit…but for now, I’m just grateful to have had such an amazing time at the O2.
So inevitably, cue a post-concert Travis Scott obsession, where I’ll probably download every song he’s ever breathed on and listen to him non-stop for a few weeks…Maybe my next post should be on the artist that manages to break my trance…!
What’s the best concert you’ve ever been to? If you could see anyone in the world perform, who would it be?
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
How would you define your favourite musical genre? What makes pop, pop? What makes country, country?
More and more we are seeing a blurring of the lines that used to keep rowdy rockstars separated from just as rowdy rappers, and prevent fisticuffs breaking out over who got cow muck on the soul singers’ suits, as a sheepish Blake Shelton guiltily averts his eyes in the country section.
Nowadays, Hip Hop’s Kanye West can claim from the Glastonbury stage that he is the ‘Greatest rockstar on the planet’. Well, I’m not sure he strictly can claim it, if we’re talking conceptually, but credit to him he went ahead and did it anyway.
And on iTunes (yes, call me old-fashioned, but I’m still standing firm against the streaming revolution), the genre R&B/Soul seems to be far more prominent than R&B or Soul on its own. Even our own music curators can’t seem to figure out this whole genre business. And does Taylor Swift still really make ‘country’ music? I mean, her songs are the closest I can get to finding a pure and simple definition of ‘pop’. Yet her 2014 album, 1989, which was full of rural romances and small-town love stories, such as in the song Welcome to New York, was classified as ‘country.’ It’s as though the editors have forgotten what a Genre even is anymore, taking it to be some little-known French village, or a neo-Americanism meaning ‘Generational Replica.’
But perhaps this is a good thing. Maybe the music execs have realised that fixed genres are an anachronism, a relic in this era of albums continuing to be edited after they’ve been released (Kanye’s TLOP) and playlists instead of albums (Drake’s More Life). Perhaps the agents and managers are worried about upsetting some human rights movement by pigeonholing their musicians into stereotypical categories. Katy Perry, of course, would have every right to call herself a rapper, just as Lil Wayne shouldn’t feel there is anything stopping him from being deemed a classical chorister.
And why stop there? Who should be so narrow-minded as to say that Donald Trump can’t be President of the United States, British Prime Minister and the President of France, as well as fulfilling a side role as King of Thailand? Who says Mo Farah isn’t eligible for America’s Next Top Female Model? How could anyone be so bigoted as to suggest that circles can’t be called squares?
So, it is as I listen to world famous rapper Travis Scott professing ‘I am everything except a rapper’, that I seal the envelope containing my application to be the World’s Best 100-year-old Greek Bison.
You won’t catch me being called a Generational Replica.
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
It's been 7 years since Jay-Z, with a little help from Kanye West, released the song 'D.O.A', standing for 'Death of Auto-Tune'. Two rappers, standing up for what they believe in. Nothing wrong with that, right? Well, I suppose the fact that Kanye had brought out an album the previous year comprising 11 songs, 11 of which contained solely Auto-Tuned vocals, was obviously beside the point. He must have just suddenly changed his mind. And then changed it back again the following year, as he released a fairly Auto-Tune heavy My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But anyway, leaving Mr West's apparent hypocrisy aside for the minute, I felt it was time we readdressed the Auto-Tune dilemma. Since the technology's inception in 1997 by an American oil engineer, it has stirred up controversy and divided the music industry. Good singers on one side, bad singers on the other side, supposedly. Auto-Tune gets a bad name because of its ability to make off-key become on-key, to basically mask poor vocals. Although, I'm not sure how relevant this point is, because Kanye West regularly uses Auto-Tune whilst still somehow managing to stay off-key.
Critics claim this technology completely destroys the integrity and the artistry of music. And I would be minded to agree with this. If Auto-Tune is simply being used to correct poor singing, then surely the vocalist isn't really good enough to be singing on the track in the first place.
But as you can guess from the title of this piece, I am actually a supporter of the use of Auto-Tune, when it's used right. Earlier joshing aside, Kanye West's use of the facility has undoubtedly produced some of the most innovative sounds and songs of this generation. The restless, cacophonic, surging beauty of Lost in the World; the eerily restrained agony of Love Lockdown; the anxious shriek of Blood on the Leaves; and the peaceful warmth of Only One. Without Auto-Tune, Kanye's creative landscape would have been reduced drastically, and the aforementioned treasures would have remained undiscovered.
Hip Hop's latest pioneer, Travis Scott, serves as an even greater example. The special effects he heaps onto his voice would cause many a purist to have kittens, but the outcomes are absolutely awesome. On Champions, his cavernous vocals bellow out like a symphonic earthquake, and his immensely successful sophomore album had an emotional depth and intensity most rappers could only dream of.
While I disapprove of Auto-Tune being used as a purely corrective facility, when it is used artistically it becomes another magical string to a musician's bow.
It has given Hip-Hop a fourth dimension. It has allowed the likes of Drake and Kanye to pioneer a softer, more reflective style of rap, unwinding the aggro that has always seemingly been woven into its core.
So looking at the charts now, with the likes of Kanye, Drake, Travis Scott, Tory Lanez, Young Thug, Playboi Carti, Future and the Migos all spearheading the Hip Hop charge, is Auto-Tune really dead?
If you ask me, it's just coming alive.
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
Hello! I'm currently studying Philosophy & Theology at Oxford University, UK. Having always loved writing and music in equal measure, and having always hated decision-making, I figured hey, why do I need to choose between the two?