I think it's time we stop, hey, what's that sound?That is the theme for each column: Looking at the obvious and seeing how it implies broader trends in our culture, in society. Those trends are evident in certain events, certain headlines, in the kinds of performers and songs that become popular, in the changes that are happening within the music industry, in the value that we put on music's various aspects. Lately, a confluence of trends has appeared, involving news from three top hip-hop artists, each independently reaching beyond musicians' traditional channels and so, helping to redefine the music industry. As a group, the overriding intention of popular musicmakers and the labels and promoters that support them is to make money. They'll tell you that the art comes first, but the truth is, if it's not making money for the parties involve, the art usually gets shelved. This gives commercial music a built-in tension, an inherent conflict of interest, because the true value of music can't be measured. When the goal of music becomes making money, the music itself quickly becomes almost irrelevant, buried deep under unit sales and merchandizing revenue. Balancing artistry and revenue becomes an art in itself. So when three of the most powerful names in hip-hop, in the space of a few weeks, make headlines by trying to expand the commercial territory of music in one way or another, it's worth paying attention. On the following pages, I take a look at them, one at a time.
Everybody look what's going down
I will be the leader of a company that ends up being worth billions of dollars, because I got the answers. I understand culture. I am the nucleus.He sounds like a jerk, but perhaps no less so than founders of other billion-dollar companies. And he's right. On his new album, Yeezus, he is a modern-day Mercury, managing to focus all of society's broadest contradictions, lacing them to his feet like a winged pair of Nikes, to better bring the message directly to our ears, in one angry outburst. Is he batshit crazy? Full of himself? Pretentious? Best guess: All of the above. But that's not the point. That new album, Yeezus, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 200 and was colorfully reviewed by Lou Reed, he of the once-and-eternally hip Velvet Underground. Reed gets it. Summing up the album as "Majestic and inspiring," Reed points out in an understatement:
WhatI talked about West having it both ways in my article in May, mentioning that touting his limited edition line of high-priced sneakers on Twitter and on Saturday Night Live seemed contrary to his rant against materialism in "New Slaves." But I also tried to show how that seeming contradiction is like an onion that we could peel away layer after layer and never really find the core. In his rambling review (really a joy to read, refreshing in a way that's more like a stand-up monologue) Reed notes that Yeezus is full of other contradictions: I can hold my liquor and I can't hold my liquor in the same song; throwing stones at the elite Hamptons houses when he lives like a king himself; this brilliant artist, businessman par excellence, son of a college professor, tossing out Y'all throwin' contracts at me/ You know that niggas can't read. " 'I'm great, I'm terrible, I'm great, I'm terrible.' That's all over this record," Reed writes, painting the contradictions in terms of manic depression. But if it is, it's our manic depression. Whatever West is, it is what we made him. Those two-faced mashups are our society's principal themes: Racism, classism, materialism, substance-love/abuse, art vs. money, artist vs. kingpin, business vs. crime, a respectful love for one woman vs. a misogyny-and-"bitches" trope. We built a national Olympus out of that pile of trash and now he is there on top of it, our god -- creating himself in our likeness. That is the proper role of the artist: To confront society with its own conflicts, its deepest concerns, to illustrate the nucleus. Yeezus is a beautiful, ground-breaking record and it debuted at No. 1 on Billboard. Lou Reed's signature on that review underscores the album's cultural importance. It may not be as revolutionary as The Beatles' 1967 Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band -- but then again, it may be. It's brilliantly textured, startlingly fresh, nearly sublime in the breadth of imagination and the restraint, the economy of means. The deepest contradiction, between art and money, is devastatingly resolved: Artistry undeniably served, all investors undeniably wealthier. Doesn't usually work that way.
West says and what he does are often two different things.
When Kanye is heaving bombs from across the court, you can't clap so loud when Jay lobs lay-ups. That's not to say it's not good -- it is -- sometimes you just want to see some sweat.That's one of the more favorable reviews. Washington Post reviewer Chris Richards was scathing. Here's a sample:
Over 16 joylessly professional tracks, our hero laces up his sneakers for his bazillion-thousandth victory lap around the hip-hop universe. There's no mood, no verve, no vision to this music. It's the sound of champagne being sprayed around an empty locker room.The deal with Samsung involved a million copies of Magna Carta for which the company paid $5 million. An additional $15 million went to support the rollout, including those commercials showing Jay-Z and his pals bantering over beats in the studio. The music was offered to Samsung users a few days in advance of the album's public release date, via an app on its smartphones. As a marketing campaign, it was great: Lots of publicity and it guaranteed a million sales for the album off the bat. There is speculation that Jay-Z's profit from the deal was greater than if he had sold a million copies outright. In the end, though, more went wrong than went right. A large body of Samsung users found they couldn't download the album. The well-crafted music has so far impressed pretty much nobody. The black-and-white redacted-text concept behind the album art seems tired, uninspired. But it's the music we keep coming back to. Everything else could be forgiven. Absent the artistic triumph, the deal with Samsung no longer looks brilliant. It looks like a simple corporate sponsorship. A sellout, by another name. Jay-Z, to his credit, admits there were "disheartening" mistakes with the Samsung deal, but insists the model will be emulated by others. In a radio interview quoted by the New York Daily News, he says, "The next person now knows how to go into it better, which is cool and that's my job. I took the hit for that."