Originally published at phaser.com
There is a unique quality that only the upper, upper echelon of artists ever have. I’m not talking about the way their melodies are strung together, the way their charisma shines through on the track, or the way their lyrics shake you to your core. Of course, these are qualities that great artists possess. But only a handful of artists reach a point in their career where you don’t listen to see if the album or single is any good. You know it’s going to be good, so you just relax, and enjoy it.
Surprisingly, not many of today’s musical icons seem to possess this quality. Drake, who keeps breaking record after record after record, even ones held by The Beatles, still brings out an album to hesitant ears. ‘Will it be as good as the last one?’, they ask. The same is true of Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, Post Malone - most of today’s musical heavyweights still turn up with a sense of something to prove.
Ed Sheeran literally has nothing to prove. Every album he’s ever brought out has been a smash hit, and every single he drops is draped with a VIP pass to Number One before anyone’s even listened to it. A significant number of your favourite songs were probably written by him, with his writing credits stretching all the way from The Weeknd to One Direction via Justin Bieber. And what’s more, he seems like the nicest guy to set foot in the music industry.
He recently announced his upcoming No.6 Collaborations Project, following on from the No.5 that he released before he’d even been signed to a label. The two lead singles feature Justin Bieber, Chance the Rapper and PnB Rock, and are - surprise surprise - currently sitting on top of the charts. Like I said, Ed Sheeran is one of those artists you can’t help but sit back and appreciate. He said he had a bucket list of artists he really wanted to work with, so that’s what he’s going to do. And why not? He’s one of the most successful artists of all time, so why not tick off those collaborations he’s been wishing for. What do you have left to strive for when you’re the best? In Ed Sheeran’s book, it’s to simply enjoy yourself.
This album should definitely be regarded as a complete love project, with Ed simply following his heart and working with the people he genuinely wants to work with, and not just names on a list handed to him by his record label. However, while we shouldn’t overanalyse it, it could also end up being one of his most interesting albums yet. The only slight criticism that people can possibly muster against Halifax’s most prized export, is that his music is at times a little derivative. Chance the Rapper and PnB Rock are certainly not features we could ever expect on a ‘standard’ Ed Sheeran album, so maybe this is his way of answering that final question as to how versatile he really is?
To be honest, I really don’t think this has crossed his mind. No.6 looks set to simply be a fun, eclectic journey through a whole host of musical styles and genres, one that is enjoyed just as much by the artist as it is by the listener. Who can we expect on the guest-list? Ed has made no secret of his love for Hip Hop, with the ‘favourite song’ referenced in the go-to wedding track of this generation, ‘Perfect’, being revealed to be Future’s hard-hitting gangster anthem ‘March Madness’. He also worked with Future on Taylor Swift’s ‘End Game’, so an appearance from the Atlanta rapper can perhaps be presumed. Travis Scott is almost certainly on there too, with a collaboration between Scott and Sheeran leaking earlier this year, and judging by the lyrics, seems to be Track 7 on the project, called ‘Antisocial’. There will undoubtedly be some curveballs thrown at us, but all the more reason to look forward to No. 6’s release.
This is a guy at the peak of his powers, nothing to prove, and just enjoying the artistic freedom his success has brought about. Is there any pressure on Ed Sheeran to deliver us another blockbusting, record-breaking smash hit of an album? 100% not.
But are we expecting one? Absolutely.
No. 6 Collaborations Project is out on July 12th, and is available to Pre-Add on all streaming platforms now.
Shorter version of this interview published at phaser.com
Exciting new R&B duo THEMXXNLIGHT, comprising of identical twins Akash and Krish Chandani, made waves in the music industry when Wiz Khalifa featured them on three tracks off his 2018 album, Rolling Papers 2. On 20th April, a few hours after the release of a new Wiz Khalifa album, which contains two more THEMXXNLIGHT features, I sat down to chat with the 22-year olds about what’s been an unforgettable year for them...
Well, this is really the perfect time to talk to you guys, because you’ve pretty much come full circle! This time last year, Wiz Khalifa had you all over Rolling Papers 2, and then just today his latest project, Fly Times, Vol. 1: The Good Fly Young, drops and you have a big presence on it once again. How are you guys feeling after such an amazing year?
“We’re feeling good, it’s pretty crazy. The feedback last time was similar, but they were mainly newer people that never knew about us. This time it was more like, ‘You did it once again!’”
How was the process different this time around, working with Wiz a year on?
“Well, the first time was through Sledgen [Taylor Gang’s in-house producer]. We had about eight songs, he probably just took three of them for the album. This time we actually went to Club Nightingale in LA, and then Wiz comes up to us and says, ‘Yo I need you to come to my house to record.’ We go to his house, and then we’re there for like twelve hours, we record like five songs, some with Chevy Woods. It was crazy because that was the first time in the studio with him. He was writing his verses in front of us. We just wrote something for the hooks pretty fast, just recorded it, both songs were on repeat the whole time. It was really different, a lot of the Taylor Gang were there, it felt like more of a family.”
Could you clarify, because there’s been a lot of speculation online, are you signed to the Taylor Gang label, or are you still independent?
“No, we’re not signed to Taylor Gang, but we are signed to Will Dzombak, who’s the CEO and founder of Taylor Gang Entertainment. He’s also Wiz’ manager”
There’s a new EP, XX, on the way, as well as the full length album, MOOD. Any word on when we can expect those to drop?
“XX is going to be first, we want to drop that in the next couple of months. Then MOOD will hopefully come out later in the year.”
I wanted to ask you about the origin of your name, THEMXXNLIGHT, and the reasoning behind switching the O’s out for X’s.
“So in Hindi our last name means ‘the moonlight’. And then we just felt spelling it with the X’s made it more mysterious, as well as being symbolic of us being twins.”
A year before you secured the Rolling Papers 2 features, you were recording in your dorm room on the 2004 version of GarageBand. I wish it could make me sound like that! Have you upgraded your kit since then?
“(laughing) No! It’s still hella old, a really, really old version of GarageBand. I think it’s the 2007 version.”
You rejected offers to play basketball at MIT and California State, and instead ended up graduating from RPI in New York with an engineering degree. A lot of readers will be at that point in their lives where they are having to choose between what they’re being told they’re supposed to do, i.e. get a degree, get a Masters, get a secure job, etc., and their hobbies. What made you take that leap of faith and opt for music over engineering and sport?
“That’s a good question! Somehow it worked out perfectly with the timing. At first, we imagined we’d play basketball for four years while doing our degrees. But within the first two or three months, we just didn’t feel a connection with the coach. It was a new coach, as the coach that recruited us had left. So we decided to drop from the team. Initially, we just made songs for fun, but by the tenth song, Wiz discovered us! That was two and a half years into making music. We graduated, then Rolling Papers 2 dropped in July. So it didn’t really involve any leap of faith before then, it was after that album released that our parents were like, ‘Ok, you can take some time away and focus on music’. It was a family decision, it wasn’t a rebellious, 'We’re running away from home’ kind of thing. Our parents said, ‘We’ll support you, and you guys can pursue this, and see how it goes’.
You’ve spoken in the past about how your sound has been heavily influenced by one of your favourite artists, The Weeknd. What drew you to his style of R&B?
“In high school, we were kind of shower singers. We always took instrumental lessons, but we were never trained vocally, and we still haven’t been, even though we do want to be. We were kind of singing around campus, and then we first heard ‘The Zone’ by The Weeknd one morning before getting dropped off at school. We just thought, ‘Yo, he sounds super unique, he sounds like an angel.’ He’s Ethiopian too, and his music actually has close tie-ins with Indian music, so immediately we felt very accustomed to his sound. We did a few The Weeknd covers and put them out on Soundcloud. They got shared by a couple of OVO and The Weeknd fan pages. It was crazy, it felt like our idols were slowly turning into our reality.”
Speaking of Drake’s OVO label, you recently shared a photo with Roy Woods on your Instagram. What features can we expect from the upcoming EP and album?
So we have one song with Chevy Woods, that’s going to be on his album in the summer, we can’t say what it’s called just yet. Then for our own projects, yeah, we have Roy Woods and Ye Ali. We've also worked with Megan Thee Stallion, she hit us up after the Wiz songs. She sent us a song which had two verses, but the hooks were blank. We recorded something, and she replied saying, ‘Yo, my mum loves it, my whole team loves it’. To be on her album would be a major honour, she’s an amazing female artist doing great things right now. Also TM88 is producing his album sometime this year, we have a song on there that’s co-produced by Sledgren. Also, Roy Woods has a full EP in the works. We have a collab project with him too that we’re excited about.”
Wow, so a lot to look forward to! I wanted to talk to you about your Indian heritage, and how big a part that plays in your music.
“It definitely plays a big part. Jay Sean inspired us a lot, it feels like the entire world still doesn’t know he’s British Indian. Obviously, NAV with XO, signed to The Weeknd, we would love to be a part of that. It’s clear that The Weeknd supports artists no matter what their culture is. Him putting on NAV was pretty crazy, and a great step for our community. Again, NAV paved the path for South Asian artists to really make it in genres other than Bollywood music.”
How does it feel to be role models for minority groups pursuing careers in music, particularly Indian Americans, because apart from NAV, there aren’t many in the game at the moment?
“There is a lot of pressure to please the community, because we can’t do a lot of the same things. Obviously there are a lot of drug influences in NAV’s music and videos, his background is more from Rexdale from Toronto. So it’s hard to find the balance for us. Based on feedback from the community, I think we can be good role models. Local high schoolers come up to us like, ‘Yo, you guys are legends, you’re the biggest inspiration for the Indian community’. We wish we’d have had an Indian rapper come to us and say, “Yo, you should pursue music’, then we would have been way more inspired from a younger age. What’s great as well is that people from all over India are also noticing us.”
You mentioned how NAV has the freedom to make a lot of drug references in his music, and modern R&B as a genre definitely contains numerous themes of drug use, with The Weeknd, for example, also following this trend. Do you feel, as artists that are just coming into R&B and are perhaps still seen as outsiders, that there is a pressure on you to conform to these stereotypes of R&B music?
“Yeah, good question. Not really, it’s kind of the theme of R&B to be on a druggy vibe, to put you in a high mood. We don’t feel pressure to do any of that stuff. Obviously singing about it makes sense because that’s the style of music, R&B is typically very sensual. If you want to do drugs, if doing drugs helps you in listening to that kind of music, then we’re not going to judge anyone for what they want to do. But there’s no pressure for us to partake in that. Our music is not heavily drug themed, there are very, very few references to drug abuse. We focus more on passion, and love story type stuff. There are some references, because like I said, it comes with the territory, but generally that’s not what we aim to sing about.”
Finally, for my blog I have this concept called Self-Help Songs, where I pick certain lyrics that people can learn something from, and I thought it could be cool to ask you about some lyrics from one of your newest Wiz features, ‘All For You’. Your chorus reads, “If you need someone to treat you right/If you need someone to talk to, call me/I’ll do anything you like/I wanna do it all for, all for, all for you”. What was the inspiration behind these lines?
“Yeah, so it’s kind of the beat that carried it. We heard it and it had that really reminiscing, slow jam R&B vibe. But we could also imagine Wiz going crazy hard on it. We thought we could make something that pleases both R&B and Rap fans. In terms of what inspired the lyrics, we came up with this story. We were kind of imaging a scenario where one of us was with a girl, maybe taking her around a shopping mall, treating her right kind of thing. Basically it means using your success in the music industry, to give back to your girl, and being unselfish, like ‘Everything I do, I’ll do for you’. Both songs are kind of about greatness, and giving back, and reminiscing.”
Interview by Maxim Mower
Hear THEMXXNLIGHT on Wiz Khalifa’s latest album, Fly Times, Vol.1: The Good Fly Young, and stream their brand new single, ‘Good Things’.
After the immense success of the Migos’ debut album, Culture, and their smash hit 'Bad and Boujee’, you would have thought they’d earned the right to be taken seriously. But they are talked of as something of a novelty, and a lot of people claim their popularity is merely the result of the ease with which they are turned into memes.
This seems a tad unfair, but regardless, the decision for each of the trio to release solo projects this year has provided Quavo, Takeoff and Offset, respectively, with the opportunity to show why they should be held in higher esteem, both collectively and as individual artists. However, Quavo’s solo album was disappointing, lacking the vocal innovation and melody that has made him such a sought-after feature, despite containing a handful of highlights. Takeoff’s project came and went without so much as a ripple in the unusually calm waters of the charts. So the onus was on Offset to redeem the rap group, and prevent critics from scratching their heads and wondering why they ever thought these solo experiments would be worth the risk.
Did he deliver? Well, he definitely succeeds in distancing himself from the typical style of the Migos, as well as the standard subject matter. There seems less self-assurance in Offset’s voice, as for the first time on a Migos album the loud posturing is replaced by hushed honesty. The title track, ‘Father of 4’, sets the mood for the rest of the project. After a very philosophical and perhaps overly poetic intro from Big Rube, Offset spares no time getting on topic - “I was 17 years old when I had you/ Trying to find my soul when I had you”. He names all his children, and unravels the layers of his relationship with them, opening up to the listener about how he perceives his identity as a father. While other rappers have often cited their offspring as their central motivation, these tributes can often sound trite, as the expression of love is enshrouded in trivial lyrics about Gucci belts and diamond chains.
Offset makes it clear this is not going to be one of those albums, with the artist being incredibly candid, often painfully so, about his personal life throughout Father of 4. ‘North Star’ is an emotional wade through Offset’s mental struggles, with the funk-oriented Cee-Lo Green seeming an odd choice at first, but ends up combining well for an outro that adds sentiment to the track. ‘After Dark’ is not catchy at all, but the chorus is uttered so statically that it gives you time to chew over each line, something unusual for Migos tracks, where the verses rattle along at such a speed that there is no time to think, or to stop and digest what is actually being said (albeit it normally not very much). ‘After Dark’ epitomises Offset’s move away from the typical tone and themes of his group.
He balances the melodies well with the quick fire bars that he has become renowned for, but Migos fanatics will inevitably ask where the celebratory anthems and triplet-fuelled explosiveness has gone. The attempts to satisfy this expectation are there, with ‘On Fleek’, ‘Clout’ and ‘Legacy’ all threatening as firecrackers, but ultimately lacking the necessary spark.
On the whole, though, Father of 4 is a pleasantly surprising listen, with Offset removing his Saint Laurent mask and baring his soul to the world, spinning the Migos blueprint on its head. When he rose to stardom and married Cardi B, Offset became one of the golden boys of Hip Hop. On Father of 4, he walks with the 24-carat necklace dangling as a heavy weight on his shoulders, rather than a symbol of his success.
Lyric of the Week - Florida Georgia Line, People Are Different
"Slip on a pair of another man's shoes
You'll see by the time you get back
This old world would be a whole lot better place
If we'd all just embrace the fact
That people are different"
The country duo speak the truth. If anything, it's sad they even have to say it, but in this odd world where we still seem to struggle to accept one another, you can't blame them for re-iterating. A similar theme was covered in my Self Help Songs post on 6lack's Switch - check it out here.
Album Cover of the Week - Dave, Psychodrama
An album cover of a guy with his head set on fire? Yawn, seen it all before. But an album cover of a guy with his head set on blue fire? THAT. IS. AWESOME. For those of you wanting depth, you'd better move swiftly onto Song Title of the Week, because I chose Dave's Psychodrama on the basis of one criterion: it looks pretty darn cool. It's quite sparse and basic, but in a minimalist, artsy, electro-future-fire-mutant kind of way. And I like the colour blue.
Song Title of the Week - Drake, Lust for Life
An homage to the great Van Gogh's biography, this title on Drake's recently re-released So Far Gone mixtape is succinct, meaningful and evocative. The fact that this was the career-defining mixtape, one that dropped as Drake stood on the brink of his destiny to become the biggest rapper in the world, only serves to add to the poignance. Drake eventually got the life he so publicly lusted after - just maybe not the woman (but what was there not to love, Nicki?).
Music Video of the Week -
James Blake- Mile High (feat. Travis Scott and Metro Boomin)
Trippy and, perhaps a little guilty of self-indulgence, but nonetheless it's fun to watch, and matches the mood of the track perfectly. The video starts with Travis Scott's confused face disappearing into a tunnel of blackness as he tries to wake Blake up, before we become immersed in the UK artist's mind, which, spoiler alert, exclusively features himself and Travis Scott swirling around aimlessly. Hey, I'm not judging, 'aimless thoughts' sounds a lot like the inside of my mind. Like I said, the video's a tad over-the-top, but maybe that's what makes it so entertaining.
So these are my Aesthetics of the Week! Feel free to let me know of any good lyrics, titles, covers or videos I may have missed...
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
P.S. If you're looking to buy the Aesthetics of the Week:
There was a time when an offer to perform on the Grammys stage was one of the most coveted honours in music, where if the Grammys adjudicators deemed you an artist worthy of showcasing, then you’d made it. It was the seal of approval most musicians pined for.
But today’s awards ceremony is very different to how it once was. Two of the biggest artists of the day, Kendrick Lamar and Drake, both rejected opportunities to perform; Song of the Year and Music Video of the Year winner Childish Gambino didn’t turn up; and neither did the industry’s power couple Jay-Z and Beyoncé.
Notably, most of the artists that continually turn their noses up at the Grammys operate in the Hip Hop arena. This is partly because the genre has quickly become the biggest in the US, with Nielsen Music’s report suggesting 8 out of the 10 most streamed artists in the world are rappers. However, this surge has arguably not been mirrored by the genre’s award tallies, with the Grammys coming under fire for its problem acknowledging artists of colour, as well as consistently under-representing women. Clear attempts were made this year to shine the spotlight on female artists, with Kacey Musgraves winning Best Album and Dua Lipa winning Best New Artist.
But Hip Hop continued its troubled relationship with the industry’s most prestigious awards ceremony, with the biggest incident of the night arriving during Drake’s acceptance speech for Best Song. Instead of thanking the adjudicators (whoever those mysterious people are) for choosing ‘God’s Plan’ as the winner, he criticised the very existence of the Grammys. He addressed the crowd, “I want to let you know we're playing in an opinion-based sport, not a factual-based sport”, before elaborating, “Look, if there's people who have regular jobs who are coming out in the rain, in the snow, spending their hard earned money to buy tickets to come to your shows, you don't need this right here. I promise you, you already won.”
Half of this speech was ‘accidentally’ cut off, so that viewers didn’t get to see it, but it seems like Drake had a point. Although it may appear a little paradoxical for a music critic to claim that we are wrong to judge music, I think the Canadian rapper is right in that we cannot really take an objective approach, and the eclecticism that expresses itself through people’s music tastes highlights this. You’d be hard-pressed to sit a Heavy Metal fanatic opposite a Jazz connoisseur and get them to agree as to which is the ‘better’ form of art. By the same token, it seems futile for some unbiased umpire to conclude Jazz as superior to Heavy Metal, or vice versa. They’re just different, not necessarily better or worse. You could argue that the charts are this independent referee, so to speak, as the more popular a song is, the better it must be. But how come critics so frequently give an album a very bleak review, yet it subsequently leaps to number one in the charts? Whose opinion should we trust more? We can only really talk in terms of preference, rather than quality, and this is the notion Drake was trying to convey.
Can we compare Travis Scott’s Sicko Mode to Mozart’s 21st Symphony? Can we rate Tracey Emin’s ‘Unmade Bed’ higher or lower than Dali’s ‘Lobster Telephone’? Can we even judge songs within the same genre to be better than others, or is it always going to be a matter of personal palate? Some Hip Hop heads might be obsessed with the Migos, while others will complain they are garbage compared to the old guard of 2pac and the Notorious B.I.G.
So really, who are the Grammys to say that Childish Gambino had a ‘better’ song than Lady Gaga, or Shawn Mendes? How can they profess such insight as to be able to do what nobody else seems able to do, and rank music, not only within genres, but across genres. Perhaps Drake summed it up perfectly in saying, "This is a business where sometimes it's up to a bunch of people who might not understand what a mixed race kid from Canada has to say or a fly Spanish girl from New York or anybody else, or a brother from Houston right there, my brother Travis [Scott]. But my point is you've already won if you have people singing your songs word for word, if you're a hero in your hometown.”
Music is made for the public and for the fans, it’s not aimed at critics or Grammys adjudicators. By the same token, for me to talk of ‘good music’, it should really just be interchangeable with ‘music that I like’. This isn’t a fact-based sport, it’s an opinion-based one - your playlist is your pantheon of Grammy winners.
So I guess that leaves me awarding Travis Scott the Best Metal Performance, Drake the Best New Age Album, and Future the Best Jazz Vocal Album. Who knew Hip Hop was so versatile?
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
So the jury is still out after my first attempt at being a psychic. One of my predictions was given hope recently when Quavo admitted the Migos have a huge store of Drake collaborations, which could eventually form an album. Wahoo! I can now profess myself to be the next Mystic Meg - I’ll call myself Mystic Max.
Well, you’re probably thinking one out of three predictions is not really enough to warrant a second round of trying to guess what will happen in the music industry. And lets be honest, it’s more like 0.5 out of three, if that. I should’ve just stuck with predicting that Travis will offer me a record deal, the only real dead cert.
Nonetheless, I’m back behind my proverbial crystal ball, and I’m looking at some potential new Hip Hop releases. In this day and age, the beauty of pre-ordering and pre-adding albums means there is little in the form of surprise releases in the pop world. For some reason, though, it is often the case that you wake up on New Music Friday to an unexpected Lil Yachty mixtape, and maybe a couple more Future albums that he recorded in one evening. It is perhaps because of the breakneck pace at which new Hip Hop music is packaged and produced that we get so many surprise drops from this genre. I can imagine Atlantic’s PR department pulling their hair out when Gucci Mane keeps popping up in their office with a new album, having only just started promo for his previous one. But in many ways it must be a bonus having the ability to flood the market, especially in this era of dipping your toes into the stream of a track, and then before you know it they’ve disappeared and a different set of songs are flowing past. I guess Heraclitus got it right when he said, ‘You can’t stand in the same river twice’.
As I see that I’ve just listened to the same Travis Scott song three times in a row, I realise that perhaps I should leave the philosophy to my weekly essays. Anyway, I think I’ve procrastinated enough (again, I should leave that to my essays). It’s time for my predictions as to who will be releasing new fire this week. Or this month. Or this year. Is it too vague to say at some point in the rest of their career…?
1. Big Sean
The Detroit MC has been oddly quiet over the past year, enjoying the spoils of his successful I Decided. album (which I reviewed on my old blog). But photos of him in the studio with Hit-Boy hint at an imminent return to the fore, and over the past week I’ve had a sudden urge to stream a load of his best songs on Apple Music. Coincidence? Um, most definitely. However, something still tells me he’s dropping something soon…
2. Young Thug
Why would Thugger drop a project so soon after his On The Run EP, which only came out a couple of months ago? Well, Young Thug has a work ethic that more than matches that of his trap counterpart, Future, and judging from the way the stars have been arranging themselves recently, and the astronomical calculations I have made from this, I think Young Thug is preparing some new music for us. Ok, ok, I’ll admit it’s just a hunch. But watch this space - no solar system-based pun intended...
3. Zac Brown Band
So this is more of a wish than a prediction. Zac Brown Band is one of my favourite artists, and having recently announced a summer tour (which sadly does not involve a trip to the UK, ugh), I feel like they must surely have a single or two up their sleeves to help promote it. They must do, right? Right?? Considering they usually tour off the back of an album, and this one is called ‘The Owl’ tour, maybe we can expect a new project of the same name? Hopefully…
So while I spend the next few weeks waiting on the Migos and Drake collaboration, as well as that inevitable phone call from Travis' Cactus Jack Records, I'll be frantically refreshing the 'New Music' section of Apple Music, to see if any of these predictions prove to be more fruitful than the last batch. Fingers crossed, and excuses at the ready...
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
This may seem like the least relevant question I could possibly ask, given that over the past five years Hip Hop has surged up the charts to become the leading genre across all streaming platforms. It is currently in the purplest of patches, with Drake and Kendrick Lamar now consistently leading the nominations across the biggest award shows.
However, the increase in rattling hi-hats and booming bass streaming down our headphones is partly due to Hip Hop’s malleability as a genre. Pop songs frequently feature a verse from a rapper, and have done since the early 2000s, while the introduction of Auto-Tune has led numerous Hip Hop artists to lend their vocals or a production credit to Alternative, Electronic, Rock and World songs.
But is this genre blurring specific only to Hip Hop, or is this something that can be seen across all genres? It is certainly not exclusively applicable to Hip Hop, with plenty of novel cross genre collaborations hitting the top of the charts, such as Country and EDM. But undoubtedly the most prominent of these, as well as perhaps the most unusual, involve Hip Hop. Who would have foreseen that Essex’s Charlie-Charmer Olly Murs would come together with West Coast gangster rapper Snoop Dogg on their recent hit Moves? Or that Stevie Wonder would agree to play the flute on Travis Scott’s Stop Trying to Be God?
A lot of these partnerships can be put down to record label manoeuvring, with the two artists often recording their pieces separately and never actually meeting. Certainly in the case of more commercial pop hits, this seems to nearly always be the case. However, Hip Hop seems to spark unlikely but genuine friendships. Elton John, for example, is a self-professed Young Thug superfan, combining forces with the Atlanta warbler on his recent High remix of John’s Rocket Man. Stevie Wonder and Travis Scott did actually meet, as proven in a very staged ‘Oh look who I bumped into’ photo on the latter’s Instagram. But they met, nonetheless.
The success of James Blake’s new album, Assume Form, was partly propelled by features from Hip Hop super-producer Metro Boomin and the aforementioned Travis Scott. Blake’s style tiptoes around the fringes of alternative and electronic music, his sound distinguishable by its contrasting ambient warmth and falsetto chills. Scott wades into Blake’s sonic universe with ease, providing a clear, downcast anchor in amongst the whirling, euphonic fog surrounding him. Personally, I think Blake often lacks this lucidity to counter the wavering, fleeting melodies that permeate his other works, and perhaps this is why Hip Hop comes into its element when complimenting an artist from another genre. Its directness and ferocity often lights up a track that is otherwise in need of a lift. Tranquil synths and dreamy pop vocals are the taste of the day, with Ariana Grande, Swae Lee, Halsey and newcomer Summer Walker all perpetuating this style. This works brilliantly on isolated tracks and brief chart-toppers, but this ambience can often struggle, in my view, to sustain the listener’s interest over an entire album. It works if you are on the right vibe, but the truth is you rarely stay in the mood for the hour it takes to digest an album of this ilk. A rap verse keeps the listener guessing, and gives hardcore fans of the featured artist a reason to stick with the song through to the end.
So now that Hip Hop has clambered to the top of the musical pedestal, albeit partly through a few helpful leg-ups from cross-genre features and the odd guest verse, can we expect it to stay there? Or will it be usurped by another mercenary genre leapfrogging its way to the top? Perhaps Country stars Florida Georgia Line’s collaboration with Pop’s Bebe Rexha, and Zac Brown Band’s venture into EDM with the late Avicii, are precursors to a Top 40 dominated by Nashville?
In reality, I think Hip Hop is here to stay for the next couple of years. Young Thug, Travis Scott and, most recently, Future, have all honed a sound that perfectly combines the spacey with the hard-hitting and fierce. If they can just add a little more depth to their lyrics, I think their armoury will be very difficult to defeat. But nonetheless, I’ll keep my checked shirt and cowboy hat at the ready, just in case…
Originally published at www.phasermagazine.com
An earlier version of this article was published at https://phasermagazine.com/main/2019/1/9/why-hip-hop-needs-to-change-its-approach-to-sexual-assault
The recent furore surrounding Hot 97 radio host Ebro Darden’s mild interrogation of Kodak Black, a rapper currently awaiting trial for a sexual assault case, is worrying to say the least. After the #MeToo movement’s attempts to cleanse Hollywood, one might have thought Darden’s stance would have been championed for being ‘woke’ in an era where the US President can (allegedly) pay off a porn star to keep quiet and still stand in front of his supporters like some kind of toupee-wearing god.
But no, if anything the response to the Kodak incident was overwhelmingly hostile towards Darden, with commentators criticising him for making the rapper feel ‘uncomfortable’. Ironic, considering he is being charged with doing things to someone which will have made them feel just a tad worse than ‘uncomfortable’. I get the whole innocent until proven guilty approach, because it is important to remember that the charges may indeed be shown to be false, and the media are right to avoid jumping the gun and producing another Cliff Richard smear debacle. But there is a difference between suspending judgment, and turning in the opposite direction and assuming that the accuser is lying. Chance the Rapper recently spoke out saying that he regretted working with R. Kelly, who has been the subject of a recent documentary reaffirming numerous allegations of sexual assault involving women and teenage girls. Chance admitted that he ignored the accusations because of the R&B singer’s celebrity, and had presumed the women were merely seeking publicity. It is just as dangerous to adopt this kind of attitude, as it is to adopt the mentality that Kodak Black is definitely guilty.
Of course, when celebrities are involved it has been known for sexual assault allegations to have been proven false, and submitted merely with the intention of getting in the papers. However, the truth is that this is usually not the case. The FBI puts the number of ‘unfounded’ rapes, i.e. those found to be false, at 8%. When you consider that the US Bureau of Justice estimates that only 35% of all sexual assaults are actually reported to the police, this figure becomes even more significant. Some cases will be submitted purely for publicity, and there are no statistics specifically in relation to sexual assault charges involving celebrities. But at the end of the day these rappers and singers are role models to a tremendous amount of people, so we surely have to treat their allegations with only the same amount of scepticism as we would a case involving the average Joe. Otherwise, if our immediate reaction to a sexual assault charge against a celebrity is ‘They’re probably lying’, then this will inevitably translate into our treatment of normal cases.
Ebro is 100% right for not merely sweeping the Kodak issue under the carpet. People should be aware that the man being interviewed is being tried for sexual assault, rather than simply ignoring the case and promoting the rapper’s new album like everything is hunky dory. People tend to get on their high horses at this point in the debate, arguing that if we refrain from listening to certain artists simply because of their private lives, then we are on a slippery slope to censoring art in general. They claim art should be treated as amoral.
But it is not about censoring music, it is about giving people who may be tempted to listen to Kodak Black the relevant information, which they can then choose to use as they wish. Many may be aware of his trial, but don’t believe music and the artist should be linked so concretely, with the credited artist not even being the main contributor to many songs that will have involved writing teams, producers, mixers, etc. Others, though, will undoubtedly choose to avoid buying a record that is linked so heavily with a potential sexual offender.
The problem runs deeper when the artist has already been shown to be guilty. My friend recently recommended an Xxxtentacion song to me, saying how beautiful the music is. But she wasn’t aware of his history of quite horrific domestic abuse, involving battery of a pregnant woman and attempted strangulation, and when she was made aware of this, she was shocked, and felt guilty for listening to his music. But the guilt should not lie with the listeners, for everyone is of course entitled to endorse whichever music they please. The issue is that she wasn’t even aware of his history, due to the overwhelmingly positive publicity the rapper has received after his passing. It is virtually impossible to listen to an Apple Music or Spotify Hip Hop playlist without almost accidentally listening to Xxxtentacion or 6ix9ine, the former of whom has been recorded admitting to his crimes, and the latter of whom has already been charged for sexual misconduct. Morality is treated as such a malleable concept in the modern era, with the increasing popularity of cultural relativism as a philosophical worldview, and I am not suggesting we start telling people not to listen to certain music and ranking some songs as morally superior to others. The point is that sexual crimes should not be glossed over simply because a rapper is popular. Hip Hop needs its own #MeToo movement.
For too long casual sexism has been an inherent part of rap music, with people like myself ignoring it with the justification that a lot of rap lyrics are purely fictional, written with the intention of fulfilling the gang-member, drug-dealer stereotype. But while Film is clearly making the effort to give women the respect they deserve, Hip Hop is flailing way behind.
People should be free to listen to these artists if they choose to. But in my view, their music should not be actively endorsed in the way it has been, simply to increase revenue for streaming services and record labels, in the process ignoring their sexual misconduct cases. At the moment, it is harder to avoid these artists than it is to listen to their music. Over the past couple of years Hip Hop has become a burgeoning feature in the charts, and I am as happy as anyone about this. However, it is crucial that the flourishing of this overwhelmingly male-dominated genre is not accompanied by the undoing of the positive steps made by numerous powerful female chart presences, such as Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, Little Mix, and Jess Glynne to name a few.
The Hot 97 backlash is the last thing that Hip Hop needs. The genre needs to start showing more respect to victims of sexual assault, just as Ebro was trying to do in his Kodak interview. If you ask me, Hip Hop needs to start showing more respect to women in general - we need fewer songs objectifying women, and more songs made in the ilk of Lil Yachty’s ‘Worth It’, for example, which subverts this culture in his tackling of the issue of body image:
“I love you for who you are,
God don't mess up at all,
Even when he make us with flaws”
This attitude should be standard, rather than the exception.
Album Art - The 1975, A Brief Enquiry Into Online Relationships
You might have gathered from previous posts that I’m not a fan of modern rock. But for the past two ‘Album Arts of the Week’ I’ve chosen cover art from rock bands - perhaps this means they should all quit their day jobs and become artists instead of singers? I speak in jest, for rock music obviously has a lot to offer in the today’s times, especially, it seems, The 1975. Which is ironic, considering their group’s name is over 40 years old. The title of their upcoming album, A Brief Enquiry Into Online Relationships, draws intrigue, and pokes fun at the pervasiveness of technology in the 21st Century, a subject that will undoubtedly provide numerous points of interest when the album is ultimately released (See, at Maximoco Review HQ we’re so ahead of the charts, we review albums that haven’t even come out yet. That way, no-one can tell if our review is way off the mark or not).
But you may be staring at this random arrangement of coloured dots, and wondering why it’s sitting under the ‘Album Art of the Week’ heading. I confess that I’m not artistically learned enough to be able to explain to you the subtle machinations and hidden messages behind this picture. As much of a cop-out as it may be, I simply chose it because I find it aesthetically pleasing, and it definitely gives off a minimalist, AI-fax-machine (is that a thing?) kind of feel, which ties it in perfectly with the album title. It looks like the sort of thing you’d find at a modernist art exhibition, where everyone stands around it nodding and hmm-ing pensively, when really no-one has the slightest clue as to what they are looking at. And that’s why I like it.
Song Title - 'Look Up Child', Lauren Daigle
I think this is the vocalised thought of every parent and grandparent in the world right now. Children and teenagers are glued to their phones, living their lives through the eyes of social media, which inevitably entails living life through the eyes of someone else. As Drake wisely raps on ‘Emotionless’, “I always hear people complain about the place that they live…Cause they been staring at somebody else’s version of s***”. It seems Daigle is offering a similarly poignant message for our society. There is a wonderful world to see out there, but we miss most of it because we’re too busy looking down at our phones. If you’re reading this on your phone - look up! (But of course, don’t forget to return to us later. Sorry, page-views over scenic-views). Still, see the sky, see the birds, see the trees. It’ll inspire you. Also, on a less practical note, it’ll mean you’re less likely to walk straight into a telegraph pole.
Music Video - 2 Chainz ft. Quavo, Drake: 'Bigger Than You'
Watch as child-lookalikes of three of the biggest names in rap strut around in a school and cause anarchy for the teachers. Ah, reminds me of my days of young rebellion at High School, only reading four out of the five books on the reading lists, and some days, if I was feeling really naughty, not even doing any extra work during lunch time. I know, pretty scary stuff, but don’t fret, my life is firmly back on the rails now. Anyway, it’s a fun video - check it out here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r26bNe0MTzs
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
Doesn't it get dark, right before the sun peaks?
Chance the Rapper, Work Out
I was going to call this edition of Self-Help Songs ‘How to Handle a Break-Up'. Because, initially at least, that’s what this song is about. But then the core message is so overwhelmingly one of love and peace that I had to put it in the ‘How to Be Positive’ category. It’s interesting because it does involve an on-off relationship, but Chance gives us insight into how to continue loving through these testing times, and to not react with resentment to periods of distance within a relationship.
Work Out is infectiously uplifting. What makes it resonate so much more than the usual, bubblegum-pop, happy-clappy songs that we might also deem exceedingly positive, is that he starts off on a more prickly note. And when I say prickly, I mean as prickly as the ever-smiling, man-of-God Chance the Rapper is ever going to be, which isn’t very. Chance begins his verse rapping, “Luckily my ex ugly, I don’t eat so she can’t get no lunch with me, I don’t reach so she can’t get in touch with me, Can’t be buds with me”.
This is an unusual tone for the Chicago rapper in that it feels kind of bitter. Is Chance making a…God forbid…diss track?
Before any of you start to wonder whether the world has just turned upside down, have no fear. Because before the first verse is even finished, Chance restores life to normality, crooning, “But I must confess, I must confess, For every single ex, I want the best, I really wish you nothing but success”.
Ah, that’s more like it. Although I speak in jest, it does contain a vital point about having the right outlook in life. Having feelings of bitterness or anger is only going to fester and have a negative impact on you in the long-run, especially if it’s about an ex-lover or someone you used to be super close to. I think Chance is preaching acceptance here, and more than anything love - because thinking selfishly, love not only brings warmth to its recipients, it also makes the giver feel so much better and happier.
How to Be Positive #1 - Love unconditionally
This isn’t the only thing we can learn from Work Out, though. Chance goes on to reference the earlier statement about his ex, rapping, “No you is not ugly I just said it to be/Funny we both know that you look better than me”. Now, there’s not many people who've gone through a break-up, and would be able to bring themselves to say something like that. So this obviously ties in with the ‘unconditional love’ note, but also what I get from it is how important it is to not take yourself too seriously. Yes, it’s vital to have self-esteem and to be confidant. But equally it’s refreshing and healthy to be able to laugh about yourself. A lot of artists get too involved in the intense introspection that music often entails, but watching Chance the Rapper speak on Genius about this song reinforces how it’s usually a lot better not to be so po-faced. Life can be sombre enough without adding extra, unnecessary seriousness to it. It’ll only weigh you down.
How to Be Positive #2 - Don’t take yourself too seriously
Finally, just a point on the fact that Chance is now engaged to the woman he is singing about on this song. I guess it goes to show that in the end, even when life sucks and gets you down, everything ultimately works out. Hey, that would be a good name for a song…
How to Be Positive #3 - Know that it always works out in the end
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?