The Kanye Conundrum

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Kanye West, modern music’s ultimate polariser of opinion. Is he driven by genius or is he tainted by arrogance? Is he a supreme forward thinker or is he falling off? Is he Hip Hops premier torch bearer or is he leading us towards our genres damnation? Is he the man that moaned about the lack of traction for his clothing line or the man that cried in front of the world for his mother? With all those juxtapositions in mind isn’t he no more complex than any other modern man? An amplification of the subtleties and flamboyances of alpha males the world over?

Let’s be real here, very few people on this culturally corrupt planet of ours are universally liked. There are darker parts of ourselves that we keep well hidden but in the case of a global superstar, that mission is virtually doomed to failure. Someone in such a position has two choices; To live like a hermit and have virtually no real quality of life whatsoever, or to attempt to replicate the finer aspects of any modern well heeled human being and accept the consequences. It would be easy to dismiss Kanye’s outbursts as nothing more than petulance, and in some cases that is absolutely right. But as far as we the public are concerned these superstars are, for the most part, damned if they do and damed if they don’t (just ask Andy Murray).

The media does love an underdog -which is why Kanye was initially feted as Hip Hop’s next hero and saviour- but it hates an overachiever. And if on top of the overachievement you have a sizeable ego to match then all bets are off. The fact that Kanye doesn’t help himself at times is something we are all guilty of but does that make him an fool or an A typical human being? There are obvious examples of superstars that either expertly court publicity (David Beckham) or expertly shun it when it suits them (Jay Z). This is a skill that Kanye is either yet to learn or consciously (or even subconsciously) chooses to ignore. If it is the latter then should we really be on his case this much?

The most divisive aspect of the Kanye conundrum though, is his music with the release of 808s & Heartbreaks being the seed from which the vitriol grew. From creating the masterpiece that is Late Registration, the changes, although minimal were evident on Graduation….. And then came the bombshell. A few of us level headed types can see that the pluses in both eras do exist but if you regularly read any online comments attached to a Kanye story or gossip piece, you would never know that we existed. And since ‘Kimye’ entered the public consciousness things in that regard have only gotten much much worse (and it really didn’t help when you named your child North…. Really? Ye!?!).

We the public are at the point where we cannot help but make comments about the mans life while we are praising or denigrating his music. Some would say thats his own fault for the repeated flare-ups. That maybe true, but surely the paparazzi intrusion and pictures aren’t his fault are they. But again, If he doesn’t want the publicity then perhaps he shouldn’t be courting it. But why shouldn’t he be allowed to take advantage of his status? He has earned that right after all. I could sit behind this laptop all night making argument and counter argument. A conceptualised version of the eternal question if you will; What came first, the chicken (media) or the egg (talent)?

Gossip mongering and tittle tattle will always be part of becoming a superstar but there is a reason that the truly talented don’t have to countenance an appearance on Celebrity Big Brother for any reason other than to have a laugh. And even then the celebratory test of time will always be an easy exam for those talented enough to leave a worthwhile legacy. The destruction of camera equipment and attacks on the paparazzi cannot detract from one undeniable fact. Kanye West will most definitely leave a worthwhile legacy.

Originally posted at Moon Project on 3/11/2014

For the Love of $

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$10,000,000 (£6,120,000). Let me write that in words… Ten Million Dollars aka Six Million One Hundred and Twenty Thousand pounds. That’s a very big number. Too big a number for the average person on the street to even contemplate seeing at on a bank statement, let alone spending. Of those of us that are in a position to have that kind of money available, there is a reason you have it and i suspect you’d be loathed to just fritter it away. To those of us to whom seven or eight figures is deemed as something of a frivolity or an investment. there aren’t many of us about and even less of us that would spend such a vast amount of money on a piece of modern music. So the question is, who exactly are Bone Thugs N Harmony expecting to go the distance for their soon to be final group release, E.1999 Legends?

The obvious comparison to make is with Wu Tang Clans Once Upon A Time In Shaolin project. Both camps are Golden Age legends and their impact on Hip Hop culture simply cannot be overestimated. With their latest opi in mind however, the differences are stark. The gaping chasm in the marketing, concept and handling of the media is there for all to see and you have to question where on the announced arena tour Bone intend to find a single, multi million dollar investor. They no longer enjoy anywhere near the status they were once privy to and I suspect that any record labels looking for a licence to print money will not be applying through their management.

The biggest problem for Bone Thugs is the overly obvious clamour for cash. They could have spent some time getting a strategy together before coming forward with an original concept and at least showed some aspiration to take the culture to new and exciting places. There are a million and one other ways to get us fans 100% on board but the oh so obvious money chasing statements from their manager have put paid to that. “A million dollars is not enough. So, we’ll make the product and we’ll try to get $10 million for it”. Really!?! You’ve managed the five for 20 years and that’s the best you can come up with!?! I’m not a music promoter or manager so why am I already thinking up better strategies as I’m typing this?

Opening Hip Hop, not just the music but the movement as a whole to new avenues and completely new audiences is not merely a cultural shift. In many ways a social shift could also be on the horizon. We the buying public are used to going to our online portal of choice and paying for what we want. If such a shift happens then many of our favourite artists latest material could be housed alongside art in the Tate Modern, or be a ticket only 60 night stint at one of the top theatres or music halls in the world, or be revered/chastised as a guerilla artist people gravitate towards (ala banksy). Surely the significance should take equal parity with the monetary reward.

A remuneration I might add, that some would call excessive. Why the second, more conventional disc isn’t simply being released through regular channels and being used to hype up the first (to be entirely produced by DJ Uneek) and obviously more interesting half is beyond me. Even allowing for a lack of publishing rights and the fact that Dr Dre will be on the boards for a beat or two doesn’t push the figure up that high surely. Would the project carry the same value if the quintet were a duo?

People can dismiss the Wu Tang approach as gimmicky or faddish all they like but the fact is that there is an identifiable movement, an ideal that those who choose to can get behind. Bone Thugs N Harmony, it seems, from the outside looking in haven’t put any thought at all into the possible significance of what it is they are undertaking. Granted it may turn out that they become a laughing stock of their own (and their managers) creation but someone out there still holds a torch for them. I just hope for their sakes that person has enough capital to turn their wishful thinking into reality.

Originally posted at Moon Project on 11/11/2014

Your Culture Isn’t Dead

To clarify, the music industry’s mass homogenisation of a particular genre does not, mean the culture honouring that genre is dying. Anyone who says otherwise is doing thousands of lesser known but equally talented artists from those genres a disservice. The affect of the former simply means that you have to look a lot further afield than Capital Xtra or 1Xtra to discover a truer interpretation of the latter and the artists/DJs that better represent it.

Take my (somewhat) recent piece about the current state of Grime as an example. I said at the time that if certain people want to see its mainstream flame stay alight then they have to carry the torch themselves. Some artists are in a more powerful position than others and it isn’t a stretch to include one or two ‘real’ portrayals of the genre on their albums. As a commercial force Grime is clearly on a downward spiral and as much as I can’t help but dance to the music it’s former poster children are putting out there, we all know that those same tunes are nowhere near the heart of what its true fans hold dear.

But judging by some of the pieces I have been catching up on recently one would think that any form of music defined by Black culture has ceased to exist. To a novice much of it was reading as if radio is the be all and end all but to that end the people writing the features are about 5 or 6 years too late with their perspective and unforgivably failed to acknowledge the digital revolution or the resultant upward curve in new underground movements. Which is more than a little ironic seeing as they were using online media to state their cases.

Mainstream music is cyclical. There is always a fad ‘on its way out’ or a ‘next big thing’ on the horizon and a label executives job (ably assisted by his subordinates) is to take advantage of those sequences, making lots of money in the process. It has always worked that way (Elvis, The Beatles) but rose tinted glass syndrome is very hard to cure. It amazes me that there are those supposedly ‘in the know’ who expect someone’s whose job it is to turn a profit to act with any other intention.

Yes it is wrong that history is rife with evidence of Music Of Black Origin being turned into a commercial juggernaut by using artists of a more acceptable complexion. Yes it is wrong that much heralded longstanding DJs have been unceremoniously put out to pasture. Yes it is wrong that superior exponents of the arts are routinely hitting the same glass ceiling that their inferior counterparts are given the magic words (mass market acceptability) to bypass. But since when does that mean the death knell for any genre?

I for one almost bought into the ‘Hip Hop Is Dead’ mantra with gusto and commercially I still think that, to an extent, it holds true. But for some unfathomable reason, it didn’t dawn on me until later on that I was listening to folk like Little Brother, Blu, Skyzoo, Hocus Pocus, SonnyJim, Black Milk Freddie Foxx and People Under The Stairs (i could easily sunstitute those names for thousands of others) while subscribing to this notion. Anyone who knows their Hip Hop also knows that while the MCs/producers in that list (and others like them) are still doing their thing, Hip Hop music, the way that we know it, isn’t going anywhere.

Apart from Pop, which by definition is based on what is deemed ‘popular’ at the time, the same reasoning can be applied to any genre you deem worthy (yes even Garage and 2-Step). I’ve lost count of the amount of lesser known club nights that cater for even the rarest of acquired tastes. Okay so I am lucky enough to live in a city (London) able to cater for such proclivities but this is 2014. We thrive in a world where movements can be maintained without the protagonists residing in the same country or speaking the same language and as long as the modern world has access to a laptop, tablet or smart phone, those movements will always have traction.

Mainstream radio is an important factor but has not been a ‘bastion of cool’ for quite some time. It jumps on trends set elsewhere and its core listening base are thee most fickle fans of an ever more fickle industry. Those of you that know the true dimensions of your chosen genre have outgrown most of what radio has to offer. For those that aren’t yet fully initiated, don’t let others dictate what you take from the music you listen to. Expand your aural horizons. Seek and Ye shall find that your choice of music, in its most literal form, with reference to its culture, definitely isn’t dead.

Beyonce: Changing The Game

Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus. All have, subliminally or otherwise, made protestations about being the so called Queen of Popular music. Their various stunts, frolics and antics designed to put/keep themselves front and centre of the public eye. Then, with absolutely zero promotion and secret service like….. secrecy, the true Queen B shows them all how it’s supposed to be done.

Beyoncé (the album) is breaking sales and video hit records by the day. The visual concept of the album has made every other pretender to the throne take stock of their now mediocre marketing strategies (that includes you Miley). The new Drake like flow and sing song raps coupled with a new emotional courage have set new standards for what any wannabe diva is supposed to be capable of. Beyoncé (the artist) has quite simply put all of her rivals on their arse with one punch.

The planning, the timing, the concept and the execution of the plan (and you know hubby had a part to play as well), are nothing short of genius. But to do it all without a single crumb of evidence of its release being leaked is the biggest tick in the box. In this age of ever increasing online piracy the years biggest release is simply not supposed to be able to be kept away from prying ears…. Except it was. I suspect that there are some hefty bonuses in order for those who played their part in keeping things hush hush.

But think about it. This goes beyond the mere release of a great album. Beyoncé (the album) is not just a great concept and sales beast. This album could be the catalyst for change. The music industry may just have gotten the kick up the backside it needs to delve into new streams of originality and I am not just talking about the artists. Many aspects of the industry as a whole and the technology that helps drive it may have to undergo some major surgery in order to make this new found next step forward.

A new era not just in marketing, but in the way consumers purchase and listen to their music is upon us. Commuters may not only be sitting on the tube listening to their favourite artists new material as ‘Watching an album’ could sooner or later become the norm. The music video may no longer be simply for marketing purposes. Visual albums could be sold (at a slight premium) alongside their audio only counterparts. YouTube and Vevo might not have a monopoly on newly released videos unless pay walls are introduced for an artists premium material. Artists may even look at releasing movie length videos with their new albums concept being interwoven into the plot. Whole new intertwined genres of musical movie albums could be created. Imagine a twisted Pop fantasy by Lady Gaga, a Hip Hop Blaxploitation inspired pimp fest by Snoop Dogg (or maybe not if he continues as Snoop Lion) or an Electro Pop modern Anime Sci-Fi epic by Daft Punk. The possibilities are out there and artists of any level of fame can be involved as YouTube has already proven.

Technology will also have to move forward at an even faster rate than it already is. Albums will eventually start to match films in size and as such the average memory capacity of our favourite handheld devices will have to be much bigger to accommodate the change. Artists tie ins with new mobile devices is nothing new but the visual element will over time make such endorsement deals even more frequent than current trends. The fastest mobile internet data speeds will have to vastly improve their coverage and reliability to accommodate the consumers hunger for these latest releases.

I fully expect all of the above to happen. I don’t think that it will happen right away as no one will want to be seen as copying the undisputed Queen of Popular music. Anyone who tries that too soon will immediately face the wrath of critics and public alike. But… given time such a concept will definitely be repeated and probably on a grander scale. Right now there are choreographers, script writers, music moguls, A&Rs, managers, accountants and of course the primary subjects of their work, all looking into concepts and ideas that they think will match or better what Beyoncé has just achieved.

This could simply be the geek in me slowly taking a front row seat in my head. These may be the rankings of a acute eccentric. But one can’t help but recognise the creative possibilities that this album opens up. Or with the release of her latest (and greatest) achievement, Beyoncé could have set in motion a sea change that will see our grandchildren and great grandchildren view such releases as a part of their everyday existence. Beyoncé (the album) could be a more important release for music than even the lady herself anticipated.

originally written for On The Come Up TV

Bobby Womack: Bravest Man in the Universe?

Is it ironic that a man whose latest full length studio album is entitled ‘The Bravest Man In The Universe’, led such a lurid and controversial lifestyle when compared to almost all of his contemporaries? Whether it was drug binges with Sly Stone, family tragedies, near financial ruin, or a love life that made an episode of Eastenders (non UK citizens transpose for your regions worst soap opera) look like a concluding scene from Highway to Heaven, Robert Dwayne Womack lived a life that will surprise many who knew of the talent but never looked into the man behind it. I am one of the many.

One could easily be swayed by that opening statement into questioning whether that man and the one who concocted the sublime The Poet are one and the same. And even more so when confronted by a man who proclaims “I don’t wanna be a star because stars fall from the sky, and when they hit the ground they turn into a rock and a rock ain’t no good unless you bust someone in the head with it.” But that’s the thing about geniuses of Bobby’s type, they don’t get to where they are without having experienced ‘Life’….But not as many of us know it.

By the time he released what some consider to be the best song he ever penned (the title track for Across 110th Street), not only had Bobby’s musical mentor, Sam Cooke, been shot dead, but he had married the man’s widow, who subsequently divorced him for doing the ‘horizontal shuffle’ with his stepdaughter. On top of that not only did he suffer the murder of his younger brother by a jealous (and mistaken) girlfriend and the death of his 4 month old son in the same year (1978), his eldest son at the time, Vincent, took his own life 8 years later.

Many of the worlds population have been broken by a lot less, and they didn’t have to contend with the gaze of an adoring fan or eager journalist. But there is a calm belligerence and a hustlers ‘imma do me’ attitude that comes across on all of Bobby’s interviews and even when questioned about the prospect of dying he said, “If I chose to leave, and die, it’s my life. You can’t stop it. Mentally, spiritually, if I don’t feel like I wanna live no more, I don’t wanna live no more. Ain’t nothing you can do about that.”

Not so much burning the candle at both ends as taking a blowtorch them, 20 plus studio albums released over a near 60 year career is the most obvious indicator of a man not afraid of hard work as you can get. Armed with a gravel throated croon and a testifying yelp heavenly enough to earn the nickname ‘Preacher’, Bobby overcame all obstacles to become one of the most well known, and well loved of his generation. And I say that while stressing the reverence that generation should be afforded because ultimately, in such ridiculously talented company, someone of such stature was only ever going to pass the test of time through his music.

Its funny how life works. What stifles some can be a blessing for others. Everyday you see Ironies piled upon ironies laid on a foundation of yet more ironies and simply existing in such a cycle is hard enough. Yet through all of his tribulations, whether or not they were of his own making, Bobby Womack thrived. He was not a man who did things by the half measure and that is clear for all to see on all of the mans best work.

“I keep living life as it’s dealt to me. Sometimes, it’s not dealt 100 percent. Sometimes it’s dealt on the low ’30s”.

originally written for On The Come Up TV

Ahead Of It’s time: Kelis’ Kaleidoscope

When you think of 90’s Rhythm and Blues the word ‘Classics’ immediately springs to mind. The rebellious nature of the genre as it was then, coupled with the dawn of the superstar Hip Hop/R’n’B get-together, saw a mainstream adolescent become a fully fledged icon creating adult. Mary J Blige, Jodeci, Mariah Carey, D’Angelo, R. Kelly (!?!), 112, Keith Sweat, Lauryn Hill. I could obviously go on but Listen again to Kelis’ wonderfully executed, and at that time totally against the grain Kaleidoscope and then remember that it was released in the same year that Sisqo Unleashed his Dragon (pardon the pun), TLC were refusing to be scrubbed and Destiny’s Child were Writing on Walls.

I (like a few of you I’m sure) balked when I first heard the screams of the seminal single Caught Out There. Emotion has always been the most obvious way to connect with any listener but to lay it on as blatantly as that was definitely not the norm. The calm and calculated rationale of the verses spiked with the explosive ‘get the f@€k out of here’ hook are brilliantly structured but we were too busy either copying (ladies) or mocking (gents) the hook to take any real notice of its significance because until that point hooks followed (and to an extent still follow) a tried and trusted formula.

The Neptunes already had the charts on lockdown by 1999 yet they still managed to push their self made boundaries to new places with an artist that also happened to be just as forward thinking. She would have had to have been a very willing part of the equation as for the whole album to work she would have to sound supremely comfortable riding the new and unusual soundscapes.

And what soundscapes they were when compared to almost everything else that was around at the time. The antithesis of the soulful samples that were the staple diet of many a beatsmith, the programmable synth got a fairly easy ride as most of what Kaleidoscope had on show was not overly layered. Like I recently said of Pharrell’s G I R L, the sparseness of The Neptunes production is their strength. That and the insane drum patterns and sounds that they created meant that during that period they had only one challenger for the throne.

The album seemed to be a statement of intent for the Neptunes as well as a personal highlight for Kelis. She approaches the duopoly perfectly and the playful way she handles the songs should be applauded. The children’s TV friendly chords and sporadic drums of Game Show perfectly point to a place where many a producer feared to tread and Kelis simply joins in the fun where many would try to counter that effect. Even the more evenly keeled of Pharrell and Chad’s Kaleidoscopic creations were varying degrees of outlandish, futuristic takes on conventional ideas and I can’t think of many top US vocalists who would have wholeheartedly embraced the concept at that time.

Unsurprisingly Kaleidoscope went over a lot of heads (especially in the US) and seemed to make the biggest impact on UK shores, going gold and garnering one top ten and one top forty single. Our collective love of EDM (see: Hardcore, Garage, 2 Step and Drum & Bass) before it became a fashion accessory means that it has always been easier for us to digest music that our stateside cousins find too spicy for their stunted palettes.

I suspect that Kelis, when compared to her peers of the time, although possessing curves for days and being sexy as hell, was a little unorthodox for buying public, which counted against her initially. The alternative album cover, the posing naked on a horse on the album insert and the uncompromising flame coloured hair all contributed towards an eccentric image. The non conforming nature of the music meant that in the eyes of the masses she was being compared to the Britney’s (Spears) and Cristina’s (Aguilera) of this world. And in 1999 that was never really a contest to begin with.

If I factor in Pharrell’s ascension to superstardom, it’s clear that Kaleidoscope is an album that arrived at a time when the jump from Hip Hop R’n’B to its alternative cousin was simply too much too soon. The genre bending and electro sounds that are regularly topping the charts today proves that had it been released now, Kaleidoscope would have made much bigger waves critically and commercially, making a household name of its leading light in Tue process.

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Wu-Tang Clan Concept Album Thoughts

“Shaolin shadow boxing, and the Wu-Tang sword style. If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang could be dangerous”. No one had ever heard anything quite like it before on any Hip Hop album but it is one of the most easily recognisable samples in music history. Ever since the Wu Tang Clan have been breaking new ground in one way or another and that time has come again. The Wu: Once Upon A Time In Shaolin is a polarising concept that breaks down its essential components into two parts.

First, the music: The Clan have bypassed all major and independent labels to print a single copy of this body of work. Five years in the making, the double album was recorded in secret and produced by longtime Wu affiliate Tarik Azzougarh, aka Cilvaringz (his ‘I’ album is still one of my favourite Wu Tang branded releases) and according to him the ‘sacred’ Wu Tang sound is intact.

Second, the case: Made from silver and nickel, the albums hand crafted, engraved casing took three months to complete. It is the only one of it’s kind, is housed in a vault on the edges of Marrakech and was created by Yahya, an artist courted by Royalty (the law of averages say that some member of royalty somewhere is a Wu fan), CEO’s and other very wealthy patriarchs.

Third, the concept: To change the perception of music as an art form. To place it alongside the visual arts as something to be feted across generations rather than be destined to be nothing more than a mass consumable in an ever more all consuming society. To have the names of modern music’s greatest artists and producers spoken of in the same breath as Riusuke Fukahori, Yulia Brodskaya, Urs Fischer or even Banksy.

…..or…..

The alternate concept: To make money. Or more to the point, to do it without having to pay any middlemen. Using an ingenious method to create an almighty buzz around an overblown vanity project. A cynical attempt to circumvent tried and tested industry methods in order to put the Clan’s name back to where they believe it should be, but not to where is necessarily deserves to be.

But which is it? Only a fool would embark on such a project without wanting a return on their labours but surely such a visionary as Prince Rakeem has earned the right to be held in a higher creative regard than most. The reaction to such a project was always going to be split between progressives and traditionalists but I shudder to think of the vitriolic reaction that would have occurred if say, Kanye West had made such an announcement.

Yet this is not a project without precedent. Nipsey Hussle’s recent $100 Mixtape project and on a far larger scale Jay-Z’s Magna Carter Holy Grail partnership with Samsung did not carry such loft ideals but the artistic vision and willingness to find new ways to market their music, albeit with varying results, is much the same. Indeed, even certain aspects of Beyonce’s triumphant return to the top can be extrapolated and compared to where the Rza is trying to take this venture.

Which brings me to what could be thee defining factor between the project’s success and failure…. Leakage. If there was ever one long player that is odds on to take the moniker for the most sought after Hip Hop album in history, it is this one. If this album was ever to find its way online before such a time when that final seven, maybe eight figure purchase is made, the grand plan is dead in the water. Said final purchaser may choose to release the album for free to the masses but the Clan will have been paid by then and would hardly be in a position to object. The more likely scenario though, is that a record label will make the purchase and set about recouping their investment with their marketing needs already half fulfilled.

Once Upon A Time In Shaolin will have to be a masterpiece to equal or surpass Enter The Wu Tang: 36 Chambers and I personally don’t think that will happen. However, that is not to say that this won’t be a great album and I hope to be proved wrong. With the plethora of crap that is at times given a larger spotlight than the great music being released amongst it, I honestly thought that the critical commentary split would be a little more in favour than the 50/50 I am currently seeing. The problem is that some of that commentary is passing judgement on music that hasn’t yet been heard when, as far as I’m concerned, the fact that such a project exists should be commended.

Gauging the severely opposed reactions however, what isn’t in doubt is that this endeavour will either be lauded as global marketing wizardry, or laughed out of town as a cultural (and by that I mean the Hip hop culture) abomination. Whether or not you agree with the ideology The Wu Tang Clan have been blazing their own trail since their first release and will undoubtedly be doing the same on their last. They have set trends and standards that very few have been able to reach before or since and more than one of their collective and solo releases will be forever enshrined in Hip Hop folklore. Surely that is enough to countenance a more universally level headed reaction to what potentially, could be a historic release?….Who am I kidding. This is Hip Hop we are talking about after all.

Originally written for On The Come Up TV

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