3 Top Hip-Hop Names Rewrite the Rulebook

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- This column's name, For What It's Worth comes from the title of a song by Stephen Stills and his mid-'60s band, Buffalo Springfield. A protest anthem for the late '60s, the song's hook says simply:
I think it's time we stop, hey, what's that sound?
Everybody look what's going down

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.

Kanye West really is the nucleus, as he claimed in a recent New York Times interview.
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:

What West says and what he does are often two different things.

I 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.

Hip-hop legend, former CEO of Def Jam, co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records and the founder of Roc Nation, Jay-Z announced his latest album, Magna Carta . . . Holy Grail on a Samsung commercial. It became available for download for Samsung smartphone users first, on July 4, ahead of the proper release date of July 7.

Critics have been unimpressed. Musically, Billboard's reviewer Jeff Rosenthal sums it up best:
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."

Beats Electronics, co-founded by hip-hop mogul Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Universal Music Group's Interscope Geffen A&M Records, is in talks with AT&T ( T) regarding the launch of its streaming music service, Daisy, built from Beats' acquisition last year of the streaming portion of MOG's music service.

With Dre and Iovine's music biz connections and some serious cash behind the project, Daisy easily could be huge.

Citing sources close to the talks, CNET reported this week that the goal is to give AT&T data-package users Daisy for free for a period, in order to gain a wide exposure for the service.

Sounds like the same sort of deal Jay-Z struck with Samsung, right? In a word, no. But there are parallels and important lessons the Daisy team can learn from the shortcomings of the Magna Carta pre-release.

The most obvious difference is, Daisy is a distribution organization; Jay-Z, in this case, is an individual artist. The Samsung deal served to compromise Jay-Z's perceived integrity, barely different than had he been paid to write a song for a Coca-Cola ad. In addition, through Samsung, he was privileging an arbitrary audience, cheapening his relationship with his core fan base. In the world of music generally and pop music specifically, that's so not cool.

Daisy doesn't have either of those concerns. Any deal will only widen the existing fan base of the artists in its playlists without alienating anyone. Done right, the setting could elevate any music Daisy decides to include to a new level of recognition.

On the other hand, Daisy could take a warning from Samsung users' problems with the Magna Carta download. Daisy executives better be sure the technology performs as expected on AT&T's side. The first taste of Daisy has to be sweet, or it will surely turn into a PR nightmare.

In the end, Daisy will likely live or die based on the user experience. There is already tough competition, with users switching between Pandora ( P), Spotify, Rdio and, soon to come, Apple's ( AAPL) iTunes Radio for their listening experiences.

Beats CEO Jimmy Iovine thinks its approach of using trained musicians and musicologists to create playlists for its users will separate its service from the competition. Having Trent Reznor as chief creative officer will certainly help ensure that the music-queuing process gets the proper attention.

Most of these music services use algorithms to select tracks. Pandora has trained musicians on staff, but they aren't creating playlists; they're filling in the database behind the Music Genome Project with some 450 parameters for each track. That enables the selection process to be incredibly detailed -- a robust algorithm. But it's still an algorithm, a robotic choice.

As I wrote in the June 14 column, Music Needs Tribal Streaming, the algorithm approach creates an individuated and essentially isolating experience for the listener where music's power rests in joining members of a community.

Picking the playlists is what radio djs and music promoters used to do, back when people would gather around a radio or a jukebox to hear a song. While creating playlists detracts somewhat from the trend to individual choice, it is a more reasonable and honest approach to the actuality of music as a shared experience.

It also returns to the programmers and promoters some of their lost power to dictate listener tastes, increasing their profit potential in the process. That isn't necessarily a bad thing; some leadership is necessary to build a vibrant music culture.

True, the abuse of that power created some nasty turns in the history of the music business. But we are yet a long way off from that kind of problem. Daisy has not yet launched and others using such a curated approach, including the much smaller Songza, are generally much more limited in their reach.

The music biz contacts of Iovine and Dre will undoubtedly also help Daisy with royalties costs. The problem Pandora and others are having in this new field is creating equitable deals for content that leave everyone happy. Perhaps none of them is in a better position to craft such deals than Daisy.

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park

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