Criticism has always been a part of our musical world – but as hip-hop has become a central component of popular music, critique has intensified.
Who’s your top 5, dead or alive?
Is 50-Cent a top 25 MC?
Who’s the best lyricist?
Does lyricism even matter?
Hip-hop has created a pastime out of criticism. A fun sphere where everyone can debate and discuss. It has built a sub-culture that I love. A place where art can be explored.
However, in all the discussion and examination of hip-hop, a theory glares out to me that has been relatively ignored: A rapper’s freshman or sophomore album is usually their best piece of work.
Here’s my case.
While art and music is a highly subjective field, we have created things that help objectify it. Music publications and blogs; we read Rolling Stone, Complex, The Source, etc., all of which help analyze and objectify music. We may also have certain media personalities, critics, or even artists/celebrities that we look to for opinion.
I remember as a high school freshman in 2007, sitting down in front of my TV and watching hip-hop media folks on MTV list the “Hottest MCs in the Game.” While I didn’t agree with every rank, I still saw their list as a sort of holy guide.
hip-hop has created a pastime out of criticism
Whether you agree with other’s opinions or not, you can’t deny that we are constantly looking for ways to objectify music. So why not use these attempts at objectifying music to help prove my objective theory that a rapper’s freshman or sophomore album is usually their best.
In 2012, Rolling Stone published their list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” I combed through that list for the hip-hop albums and pulled a top 10 hip-hop albums ranking from their larger list.
The list is as follows:
- It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back (1988) – Public Enemy
- Late Registration (2005) – Kanye West
- Raising Hell (1986) – Run DMC
- Ready to Die (1994) – The Notorious B.I.G.
- The Chronic (1992) – Dr. Dre
- Straight Outta Compton (1988) – N.W.A.
- Low End Theory (1991) – A Tribe Called Quest
- Licensed to Ill (1986) – Beastie Boys
- Paid in Full (1987) – Eric B. & Rakim
- Run-D.M.C. (1984) – Run DMC
Of those top 10 albums, 9 out of 10 are the artist’s first or second album. The only album that breaks the mold is Run DMC’s Raising Hell.
Let’s take my own personal top 5 favorite rappers/rap groups list; which is as follows:
- A Tribe Called Quest
- Kanye West
Now my favorite album from each artist:
- Illmatic – Nas
- Midnight Marauders – Tribe
- Late Registration – Kanye West
- Reasonable Doubt – Jay-Z
- Purple Haze – Cam’ron
3 out of 5 of those albums are a freshmen or sophomore release. Purple Haze and Midnight Marauders break the mold.
we are constantly looking for ways to objectify music
Now, you may be saying, “Hey! He just wrote whatever albums he wanted to make sure the majority fell in his theories favor!” Well, I also asked two of my hip-hop head friends to list their top 5 rappers, along with their congruent favorite album from those artists.
Here are their results:
Friend #1’s Top 5
(He didn’t want to give me an all-time list. Instead he gave me a kind of new millennium top 5)
- Kendrick Lamar
- J Cole
- Lil Wayne
- Big Sean
Favorite album from each artist:
- Good Kid, M.A.A.D City – Kendrick
- Born Sinner – J Cole
- Take Care – Drake
- Tha Carter II – Lil Wayne
- Finally Famous – Big Sean
4 out of 5 of those albums are a freshmen or sophomore release. Tha Cater II was Wayne’s 5th studio album, but let’s be honest, Wayne is an enigma in many ways.
Friend #2’s Top 5
- The Notorious B.I.G.
**Can you tell he’s from Atlanta?
Favorite album from each artist:
- ATLiens – Outkast
- Ready to Die – The Notorious B.I.G.
- Illmatic – Nas
- Thug Motivation 101 – Jeezy
- T.I. vs T.I.P. – T.I.
4 out of 5 of those albums are a freshmen or sophomore release. T.I. vs T.I.P. was not a freshman or sophomore release, but my friend struggled picking between T.I. vs T.I.P. and T.I.’s second album, Trap Muzik.
By twisting a subjective, artistic practice into objective scales, we can see that a rapper’s first or second album is usually their best work. At this point, people reading this might start yelling at me, saying, “OMG! You just turned a beautiful art form into science, into… MATH!” **INSERT HORRIFIED GASP** But wait, hold on a second, can’t math and science be a form of art too?
OK, so why is a rapper’s first or second album usually their best? Why is this the case?
When I was getting off the phone with Friend #1, he said to me, “Bro, you’re right, rappers really shouldn’t make more than two albums.” That struck me. I’m not trying to say rappers shouldn’t make more the two albums. I want as much hip-hop out there as my ears can consume.
But why is artist integrity cut short for rappers? What happens?
You often hear people say that rappers lose authenticity as their careers progress. But is that because they are forced into “street” narratives that they can no longer be authentic to? Nas created Illmatic, an album that vividly painted a picture of life as a young black man in Queens, but how is a 45 year-old Nas supposed to stick to a story that he no longer lives? We don’t expect the Beatles to continue to talk about childhood crushes through their career. In fact, Rolling Stone ranks The Beatles, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band as their #1 album of all-time. Sgt. Peppers is the Beatle’s 8th studio album. Rolling Stone’s second ranked album is Pet Sounds, by The Beach Boys; their 12th album. This is really a hip-hop phenomenon, and it’s caused because these hip-hop artists are set up to fail.
how is a 45 year-old Nas supposed to stick to a story that he no longer lives?
While the pioneers of hip-hop have been pushing the boundaries for years, the genre has remained virtually the same in the American music vernacular. However, with albums like Kendrick Lamar’s, DAMN, which tackles issues of race, mental health, and identity, and Jay-Z’s 4:44, an album about marriage, infidelity, and being a father; Hip-hop artists are forcing the masses to respect topics that are authentic to the artists themselves, not authentic to the stereotypes of the genre.
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Calexico & Iron & Wine
Calexico and Iron & Wine haven’t made a record together since the In the Reins EP in 2005. This month, Sam Beam, Joey Burns, and John Convertino have released their long overdue follow up, Years to Burn – eight beautiful tracks pleasantly far-removed from what passes for folk/country these days. I caught them at Celebrate Brooklyn a few weeks ago and dug them despite being surrounded by chatty Brooklynites.
What are other folks saying?
Social Media Forces the Youth to Push Bubble Gum Music
Like the setting of the sun, older generations have routinely criticized music of the now. However, something feels different in 2019 with this, “conversion to criticism,” happening at a more rapid pace than ever before. In theory, as a 27-year-old, I really shouldn’t be writing this article, right? I should be totally ingrained into the nucleus of the music being popularized today by America’s youth, and to be honest, until recently, I have been. In the ether of facebook comments, during the last year or so, I’ve defended new school artists, the likes of Lil Pump. But I’m sorry, I’m waving my own metaphoric white flag. I can’t take it anymore.
The breaking point for me has catalyzed from the viral smash hit songs that have speeded into popular culture like comets within the last few years. The song “Mo Bamba,” for example, where did that even come from? I’ve literally never in my life heard of the artist behind the song, Sheck Wes, but damn, that song somehow took over my entire existence in the summer of 2017… And I have no idea how!
OK, before this becomes another guy rambling on about how bad the youth’s taste in music is, I want to tap on the brakes. I’m not actually blaming the kids… Na, not at all. It’s not their fault. It’s the fault of social media. I’m pointing the finger at the likes of Instagram, Snapchat, Tik Tok, Facebook, etc. The universe these platforms create force these kids to gravitate towards bubble gum music.
Let me clarify what I mean by bubble gum music. You probably are picturing some pop star with bleached blonde hair and dark blue eye-shadow, but this term transcends genre and the likes of Britney Spears. To me, bubble gum music is music that reflects the exact experience of chomping down on a big wad of Dubble Bubble; extremely tasty, almost too tasty, like instant cavity tasty, but after maybe 35 seconds you’re ready to spit it out. This Dubble Bubble experience mirrors the exact formula that launches a song into the viral stratosphere; uber-catchiness, mindless easy to remember and repeat chorus’ that you’ll grow sick of in a matter of days.
Social media has altered the very nature of how kids interact. We can all see this happening. There is already scholarly research delving into how social media affects young people. We observe how it shapes their social lives, their mental state, but I haven’t noticed anyone talking about is how it’s affecting their music.
Think about it, you’re 17, you and all your friends spend all day sending each other funny videos and pictures on Snapchat. You chat all day on Instagram, tagging each other in videos and memes you think will make everyone in your friend group laugh. Oh, and there’s this catchy song soaring around the internet too, so of course you tag all your friends in it. Then you send them all a video of you dancing and singing along to it. They all send response snaps with the catchy, viral song bumping in the background. Pure Dubble Bubble. The angsty teen sitting in their room, alone, listening to CDs, cassettes, records, hell, even an iTunes library circa 2007 isn’t really a thing anymore. That angsty teen used to be a cliche, but soon we’ll be taking our kids to the Guggenheim to see a live action “Untitled” exhibit of a teenage girl, alone in a room, placing CDs into a boombox.
Let’s just go ahead and open the Pandora’s box that is the viral dance challenge. The internet dance challenge phenomenon is the definition of a bubble gum music factory. For those who aren’t familiar with a dance challenge, an easy to do dance becomes associated with a certain song. People film themselves doing said dance with said catchy song playing in the background. Then millions of people do the exact same thing, post it on their respective social media, and boom you’ve got yourself a viral dance challenge. Two examples of recent big time dance challenges were, The Mannequin Challenge and The Harlem Shake. Now do not get me wrong, I love a good dance challenge. I really don’t know of anyone who enjoys doing goofy dances to catchy music more than me, but not for a song every other week! We used to get some space between dance crazes. Even in the 2000s, we had a four year gap between the two biggest hip-hop dance videos “Crank That” by Soulja Boy, released in 2007, and “Teach Me How to Dougie” by Cali Swag District (2011).
The other big issue with viral dance challenges is they often take songs that are actually good, and scar them on your auditory cortex. Take Drake’s 2018 summer smash, “In My Feelings.” It’s a quality song that features a succulent piano intro on the music video version of the song, fire interlude vocals by the Miami female rap duo City Girls, and thoughtful samples from New Orleans rappers Magnolia Shorty and Lil Wayne. The song bumps, there is no denying it. But the song became a viral dance challenge and we all began to shut it off immediately whenever it came on the radio or our Spotify playlist. “In My Feelings” should have been a song with legs. A song we jammed to for a long time to come, a potential hip-hop banger classic. But social media killed it.
Migos’ 2016 song “Bad and Boujee” is another example of social media hurting a good thing. The song became an internet sensation after viral memes and videos accompanied it’s release. We began to hear the song everywhere, over and over again. Because people were so over-saturated by “Bad and Boujee” the masses didn’t take time to really listen to and appreciate the album that hosted the song “Culture” which was actually a fine piece of work. That’s sad. Social media is pushing repetitiveness to unhealthy levels.
The scary thing is that musicians and music executives have caught onto the massive impact social media is having on music. Music lives and dies on streaming in 2019, and social media often drives those streams. Making an album, which is usually a fuller and more nuanced piece of art, is becoming obsolete because one song can now make you more money than an entire album. Consider, for example, Sheck Wes’ debut album Mudboy which had on it his smash hit discussed above, “Mo Bamba.” The entire album minus “Mo Bamba” (13 songs combined) currently have 365,404,069 less plays than “Mo Bamba” (one song). “Mo Bamba” has 441,869,712 plays while all 13 other songs combined only have 76,465,643. CNBC estimates that Spotify pays out about $.006 per stream. That means Sheck Wes/his record company made about $450,000 from the 13 other songs on the album and about $2.6 million for just one song, “Mo Bamba.” This single ruling music culture wasn’t even the norm 10 years ago when record companies wanted you to buy full albums on iTunes because the .99 cent singles didn’t match the profit from people purchasing full albums. And obviously, during the vinyl and CD era, albums were king. Record companies are beginning to structure their entire business model off of viral songs. So by the looks of it, we can only expect these trends to intensify and the music to become subjugated even more by the bubble gum model.
Let me make clear that I’m as conflicted as anyone. I’m not saying I don’t like these viral songs or artists. The songs are catchy. Is there talent in creating a catchy song, of course. I think a lot of these artists are really talented. I’m just saying, overall, the releases aren’t great pieces of music. And that’s fine. There is a space for that type of entertainment and I consume it and enjoy it. The problem arises when, everywhere you look, every piece of music is an attempt to mimic the viral song structure. The songs are being forced and modeled by a the social media market, and the songs that are sticking, more often than not, are the songs that mean nothing.
Now… please excuse me as I go listen to “Old Town Road” and make a dance video to it on my Instagram.
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