The Critic: Jaden Smith seems to occupy a peculiar space in modern Hip-Hop. Most people have heard of him, but almost none have actually heard him. He has inevitably so far stood in the megastar-sized shadow of his father, Will Smith, and the mediocre success he has enjoyed is, perhaps unfairly, dismissed by cynics as being a result of Will. On ‘ERYS’, Jaden makes a mockery of them.
It is heavily experimental, and the plot of Jaden being some kind of futuristic drug dealer who sells a mind controlling substance called ‘Pink’ to the world, and everyone subsequently degenerates into masses of zombies, is wacky to say the least. It’s interesting, but I wouldn’t say that when I listen to the album, it’s a story that can be easily gleaned from the obtuse lyrics.
The opening track is peppered with left-field musings such as, “The gold and diamonds could dissolve his pride”. It’s the sort of whimsical statement I put in my University philosophy essays to try and con my tutors into thinking I’m cleverer than I actually am.
But Jaden never comes across as someone who is trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. As a whole, his plot makes sense, and he deserves respect for providing us with often witty lyrics that do not succumb to the Hip Hop stereotypes of sex, money and drugs. Of course, such references make their appearances, but as a whole this album plays with a higher purpose than merely flexing and impressing the listener.
It is deep, but also kind of accessible. The spacey production, vocal distortions and mercurial features come together to form a project packed full of beautiful moments, with each off-kilter idea improving the overall effect of the album. Some artists experiment for the sake of experimenting, and even use this to hide their actual lack of originality, with the only result being music that is nigh impossible to make any sense of.
Jaden is not one of these artists. Admittedly, it could be argued that his auto-tuned, emo rap style is heavily derivative of Kid Cudi and Travis Scott. There are definitely moments, particularly when rapping alongside Cudi on ‘On My Own’, where it is apparent where Jaden gets a lot of his inspiration from. His outlandish, self-assured antics coupled with the twitchy, euphoric nature of some ‘ERYS’ tracks provoke easy comparisons with Kanye West. Equally, Jaden’s move to regularly opt for soul-baring laments over braggadocious bars could render him a student of the Drake school of Hip Hop.
But what is this really to say? Quite frankly, 80% of rappers in today’s charts have drawn stylistic influences from at least one of Kid Cudi, Kanye and Drake. Jaden is in his own lane, and that lane sounds pretty darn good.
Some artists experiment for the sake of experimenting...Jaden is not one of these artists
The Fan: My favourite three rappers are undoubtedly Kanye, Travis Scott and Drake, so to see Jaden combining numerous strands of these artists’ styles, and then putting his own stamp on the resulting concoction obviously plays right into my hands (or my ears, I guess…).
I love experimentation in rap, but often artists such as Tyler, the Creator, Daniel Caesar and Frank Ocean are a little too introspective and cryptic for me to really get on their wavelength.
I feel like Jaden strikes the perfect balance here between being innovative and being intelligible to the listener. Oh, and there’s also the small matter of it sounding awesome - you can turn up to the electric, hard-hitting rhymes of some songs, and then wallow in the fragile sorrow of other tracks.
Standout Track: ‘Summertime in Paris’
Hidden Diamond: ‘K’
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
I don’t know about you, but whenever I listen to new music, there are two voices in my head.
Considering there is usually just the one, and that one voice is more often than not preoccupied with repeating the phrase ‘I’m hungry’ all day, this struck me as odd.
When I’m there with my headphones or speaker playing out the latest track from a hip hop heavyweight, or perhaps a country megastar, the first voice is always my initial reaction.
This is ‘The Fan’ in me, who is a sucker for an electrifying beat and a blistering hook.
Preferably, if it’s hip hop, I like a good helping of auto-tuned emo-rap, or if it’s something more poppy or country, then just a simple earworm of a chorus and some warm, nostalgic lyrics will do the job nicely. ‘The Fan’ knows exactly what he likes, and can usually tell within the first few lines of a song whether it fits the bill or not.
Then there’s the second voice - ‘The Critic’.
Obviously in running this blog, and in having worked as Music Editor for various student newspapers, if I let ‘The Fan’ do all the talking, then it would result in some very biased reviews. ‘The Critic’ is that voice inside us that we all have whenever we make a decision or judgement call. It’s the voice that coughs a little disapproving ‘ahem’ whenever we reach for that tenth chocolate bar, or that sighs as we opt to watch yet another episode of Black Mirror instead of working on that essay due in for tomorrow.
It might seem strange that this voice pops up when I’m listening to music, as surely there is no real right or wrong in terms of what we listen to - if you enjoy it, go for it, if you don’t, then feel free to steer clear, right? But donning the prestigious title of ‘Music Writer’ (I swear they should give me some letters after my name for that) generally means adhering to the assumption that there is some objective standard of which music is good and which is not so good. Otherwise, why should anyone take any notice as to whether the New York Times’ top Music Writer says a new album is great, or that it’s terrible?
Having said this, personally I think music is clearly subjective, and I think most would agree with this. How else can you explain the fervent adulation given by some fanbases to Kanye West, and of others to AC/DC? Of course, certain artists such as The Beatles or Elvis Presley are generally accepted to have made ‘good music’, and few would contend with this.
So it’s a bit of a murky picture - which voice should I listen to more? ‘The Fan’ who immediately streams anything that Travis Scott so much as breathes on, or ‘The Critic’, who hears ‘The Fan’’s snap judgment, but asks, ‘You might like it, but is it actually good?’
So from now on I’m going to split some of my reviews into two sections. The first part will be ‘The Critic’ speaking, and will generally be how I would go to write a standard article. The second part will be space for ‘The Fan’ to let his opinions run wild.
I’ll leave it up to you to decide whose tastes you prefer, and whether we should generally listen to ‘The Fan’ within us, or ‘The Critic’…
Stay tuned for my next review, on Jaden’s ‘ERYS’, which will be posted in the next few days.
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
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’.
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?