Poptimism, Complexity, and Musical Stockholm Syndrome: Why Some Albums Grow On Us Over Time and Others Don’t

One of the biggest musical revelations of my life, like many things, came from a podcast. It wasn’t a cool song or the discovery of a new genre, but a conceptual framework that changed how I viewed the entirety of music.

The statement, born of a drunken video game discussion, found one of the hosts outlining his definition of pop music. His parameters weren’t based on the artist’s popularity or the sound of their music, but rather something that you could “hear once and enjoy.” He went on to elaborate “I didn’t even like most of my favorite albums the first time I heard them.”

I’m paraphrasing massively here (because I don’t remember the exact quote, episode, or even year), but this general notion is something that has stuck with me for almost a decade. It’s a bit of a roundabout way to define the pop genre (which I still love and appreciate), but it’s also a slightly snobby framework that looks down on an entire genre while simultaneously glorifying your own taste. So sure it’s problematic, but I also don’t think it’s entirely wrong. Pop music is scientifically designed to be catchy, appealing, and broad, that’s inherent in its DNA.

Still, the more I thought about this framing device, the more I found it to be true. I especially latched onto the host’s claim that most of his favorite albums were “growers” he found himself enjoying more over time. As I searched through my own music library, I realized that nearly all of my favorite albums were ones I’d listened to dozens of times and seemingly got better with each listen. In fact, most of them were records that I thought nothing of or flat-out dismissed at first but eventually grew to love. Oppositely, there were dozens of other albums (pop or otherwise) that I’d listened to once and forgotten almost instantly.

So this theory seemed to hold water, and it’s a filter that I’ve used to view music through for nearly a decade at this point. Recently the idea of albums being “growers” brought up online and spark quite a bit of debate. There’s one side that subscribes to the “grower versus shower” mentality, and another that views this behavior as simply subjecting yourself to an album over and over again until you like it. As with most everything, there’s truth to both sides and neither is truly “right.” So I’ve spent some time mulling over this framework, asking people about it, and gathering opinions from both sides of the fence. I’ve uncovered ten different inter-connected elements that are at play within the “grower” concept. I’m going to outline each point below along with personal examples in hopes that I arrive at some sort of conclusion or thesis statement in the process.

1) Denseness and Complexity

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One of the biggest arguments in favor of returning to albums and the concept of “growers” is the idea that some genres/bands/records are so musically complex that they encourage it. Whether it’s lyrical, instrumental, or contextual, sometimes there is so much going on in a record that it’s impossible to take everything in on first listen. Take something like Pet Sounds or The Seer where at any given moment there are dozens of individual components all fighting for the same sonic landscape. You can listen to Pet Sounds once and “get it,” but repeated listens reward the listener by allowing them to slowly discover everything at play in these carefully-layered songs. It’s like crossing things off a list; once you know the lyrics you can pay less attention to the vocalist and focus on a different element of the arrangement. You can keep revising an album and delve deeper each time until you have the full picture; one that was impossible to see the first time you listened.

Meanwhile, pop music is almost always internationally bare. By remaining surface-level (both lyrically and instrumentally) pop songs are easier to grasp at first pass. This allows pop artists to more easily fulfill their primary purpose by transporting a single supremely-catchy hook or chorus into the listener’s brain. As a result, the pop genre as a whole actively avoids things that could “distract” the listener because those experimentations and imperfections are often things that risk detracting from the core message that’s being delivered. That’s not to say pop songs don’t require skill to make, just that they avoid anything too “out there.”

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Take Katy Perry’s “California Gurls”: it’s a song that I adore, but I’ll be the first to admit there’s almost no substance to it. The main elements at play here are Katy Perry’s voice and a warm radiating synth line. There’s a guitar and bass laid underneath these primary elements along with a handful of ad-libs from both Mrs. Perry and Mr. Dogg, but those the closest thing to musical depth that this track offers. Much like the music video, “California Gurls” is a synthetic and sugary-sweet pop song that exists to convey a single straight-forward message. As a result, you have a song that’s catchy due in large part to the fact that it’s presented in a barebones way. By being lyrically or musically complex you risk immediacy, so you must present your song in a pointed way so as to embrace catchiness.

So obviously sheer mass and complexity are major factors in this debate. Some of my favorite records are indeed sprawling epics that I’ve essentially bonded with over the course of several years. Records that have drawn me back in time and time again and improved my impression of them in the process by developing a unique and ever-changing relationship with me. A musically-dense record will always be more rewarding to return to because it rewards repeated listens and allows the listener to pick up on something new each time. Meanwhile, a pop track may keep a listener coming back for the earworm factor, but won’t necessarily be as deeply rewarding the same way that a “complex” album would be.

2) The Unknown Factor

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Sometimes there’s a mysterious, unknowable X-factor that keeps you coming back to a record. Even an album you don’t like can draw you back, if only to pin down its ephemeral magnetism. This has happened to me in 2012 with Carly Rae Jepsen’s megahit “Call Me Maybe” and (after dozens of listens) I’ve since pinned it down to her unique delivery of the goosebump-inducing line “and.. all the other boys.” Early on in his excellent 150-page CRJ-based manifesto, Max Landis does an excellent job of breaking down the song’s undercurrent of distress and subversion, but the point is in 2012 we, as a society, were collectively drawn to this song for some reason.

Sometimes it’s as simple as a weird vocal quirk, other times it’s an attention-grabbing instrumental moment, or a riff that gets stuck in your brain like jelly. In any case, these unique moments aren’t limited to one genre and their ear-worminess plays a huge part in why we return to a piece of art.

I’ve done this with countless songs. Sometimes I’ll find myself listening to an entire album just to experience a single moment in full effect. Sure I can listen to Hamilton’s “Take a Break” in isolation, but it’s only when I listen to the entire play from the beginning that I fully tear up at the song’s implication within the larger narrative. Moments in the song like hearing Phillip’s rap, coupled with Alexander’s growing distance from his family, and dark multi-leveled foreshadowing, are all made more impactful when the piece is taken in as a whole. We don’t get to pick the little things that draw us in, but this search is one of the most rewarding aspects of music appreciation and discovery.

In a third case (I’ll fully-delve into deeper this December), up until last year, Sufjan Stevens has been an artist that I wanted get into. Thanks to a serendipitous iTunes DJ Shuffle back in high school, I became infatuated with exactly three of his songs and I spent literal years listening only to these three tracks until I was ready to explore the rest of his discography.

The Carly Rae Jepsen example proves that there’s still room for these moments in a pop song. Experimentation and subverting expectations can reward the artist in unexpected ways, but if there’s not something there to make the listener curious enough, then it’s unlikely that they’re going to go back and try to figure it out on their own.

3) Critical Acclaim, Message Boards, and Peer Pressure

Like it or not, critics play a role in dictating taste within culture. I suppose it’s less like “dictating” and more like influencing, but I think we’ve all been swayed by reviews at one time or another. Whether it was being convinced to stay away from a bad movie, or giving a record a spin based purely on universal acclaim, critics have an undeniable impact on our cultural landscape.

I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. At worst it will make you more hesitant, and at best you might give something a chance that you never would have known about otherwise. I did this with Kanye West in 2010 following the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, after its perfect Pitchfork score and placement as their best album of 2010. Aside from Eminem, I’d never really listened to any hip-hop in earnest, but this level of praise couldn’t be a coincidence, right? I downloaded the album, gave it a reluctant spin, and came away from it mostly underwhelmed.

As a side note (before I get called out) it’s worth noting that I didn’t have any context for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy at the time. I had no idea about Kanye’s background, or what the album represented within his career. I also had no real appreciation for the record’s layers upon first listen (circling back to Point #1) but I went on to rediscover and genuinely love it in 2016. The point is I picked up this album solely because of critics.

Continuing the Kanye West anecdotes; I’ve already written about how the internet’s reaction to the release of Yeezus spurred me to give the album a shot. I still didn’t get him. For whatever reason, I gave the album another listen a couple months after its release and suddenly everything clicked. I loved Yeezus and soon found myself venturing back through Kanye’s discography from the beginning. I’d like to think that I came to love Kanye of my own free will, but the reason I gave him a chance in the first place (and the second place) is because of other people. Whether it was a “reputable” journalistic source like Pitchfork, or simply witnessing the unbridled joy of hip-hop heads on an internet message board, I could tell I was missing out on something, and that kept me open.

4) Personal Context, The Language of Genres, and The Passage of Time

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After “discovering” Kanye West in 2013, he was the sole hip-hop artist I listened to for some time. I would casually browse forums and keep up on large-scale movements within the genre, but it wasn’t until years later that I would find myself delving deeper into the contemporary rap scene. By the end of 2015, I was listening to everything from leaned-out trap, conceptual double albums, absurdist mixtapes and even Drake. Soon I found myself listening to goofier (then) lesser-known acts like Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, and Desiigner. I can guarantee you that I never would have latched onto any of those guys if it wasn’t for Kanye breaking down my personal barriers and dismantling my hip-hop-related hangups. It took time for me to go from actively disliking hip-hop to embracing it wholeheartedly, and that’s a journey that can only happen over time.

While your personal journey within individual genres matters, there are also things like general knowledge and maturity at play too. Once I got out of that shitty high school ‘everything that’s popular sucks’ punk mentality I opened myself up to dozens of new artistic directions. I gained a new appreciation for things I’d previously despised, and I began to understand why things like MBDTF were important. It’s a combination of open-mindedness and cultural awareness that comes with age, and one that I hope never slows as I get older.

Maturity is an uncontrollable factor that’s hard to pin down, and impossible to quantify. I’ve experienced “musical maturity” as recently as this year with the Fleet Foxes. They were a member of my generation’s pivotal “indie folk movement” and I consider them one of my gateway groups, but despite their importance, I’d never really considered myself a fan. And it’s not for lack of trying, I own all their albums, gave them multiple chances throughout high school and college, but I had always found them interminably boring. I didn’t see what other people saw in them… until this year. With the multi-month build-up to 2017’s Crack-Up, I found myself giving into the hype and giving their older albums another shot for the first time in years. To my surprise, after a handful of half-passive listens I really liked everything I heard. All three of their previous releases grew on me over the course of several weeks, and I became a fan like that. I can still see why I found them boring in high school, but I think the real reason is a lack of maturity. I now have the patience and appreciation for the kind of careful, measured indie folk they’re making, and that openness has rewarded me with hours of enjoyment.  

Circling back to Point #1: it’s often hard to fully grasp an album on first listen, and sometimes a record’s complexity doesn’t allow it to truly grab ahold of you until years down the line. In a way, this is also a point against pop music since so much of it “of the moment” it tends to age worse. It’s a genre that’s by nature the most tapped into pop culture, and as a result, it’s harder to go back and enjoy older songs when A) you’ve heard them thousands of times, and B) there’s more recent stuff that’s more tapped into the current sound. It feels like there’s more of an “expiration” to pop music which means it’s not necessarily as rewarding to venture back to.

5) Streaming, Permanence, and Getting Your Money’s Worth

A semi-recent extra-musical factor at play in this discussion has to do with how we consume music. Up until about a decade ago the process was 1) hear a song 2) go buy the album at the store 3) listen to the album. With the rise of iTunes, YouTube, and more recently, digital streaming platforms the entire process has become flattened. A song can come to mind, and we can pull it up on our phones within 30 seconds. You can hear a song at a bar, Shazam it, and add it to your digital collection within an instant.

As a result of this, albums as a concept have been diminished in both stature and importance. You have people like Chance The Rapper releasing retail mixtapes, Kanye West updating his albums after release, and Drake releasing commercial playlists. But on top of these (somewhat arbitrary) distinctions, there’s a layer of increasingly-pervasive accessibility. You can hear about an artist and have their discography at your fingertips within seconds. You can read about a new release and be streaming it by the time that it takes you to finish this sentence. That freedom has forever changed how we consume music. Comparing this on-demand accessibility with the “old ways” of going to a store and buying a physical record, it’s easy to see how the times have changed.

As a result of this shift, people are less committed to albums. If you don’t like an album you can play another just as quickly. We can jump ship with no loss at all. We’re not connected to the record, so it’s easy to abandon.

Funny enough, with the rise of streaming we’ve seen a near-direct correlation with the rise in the popularity of vinyl as it’s on track to be a billion-dollar industry this year. These are people that want and miss that physical connection with their records. There’s an undeniable difference between listening to an album on Spotify and hearing it come out of your vinyl player at home. “Warmth” and all that bullshit aside, this is an example of the format influencing our listening habits. If you’re using Spotify and don’t like an album, you can easily stop streaming and jump to any of the millions of readily-available alternatives.

Most importantly, when streaming, there’s also no reason to “justify” your purchase because we haven’t dropped $20+ on a piece of physical media. If you bought a record and didn’t like you’d damn sure try to listen to it more than a few times because you invested in it, goddammit!

There’s also a pattern of familiarity at play too. Every time you open Spotify you’re given the choice between something new and something that you already like. If you gave an album a shot and didn’t like it, you’re now given a choice between that and something you know you already like. So why would you ever opt for the thing you don’t like?

Reddit user nohoperadio explains this phenomenon and the wealth of choices that we have in the modern music landscape:

“Those pragmatic constraints on our listening habits don’t exist, and we have to make conscious decisions about how much time we want to devote to exploring new stuff and how much time we want to devote to digging deeper into stuff we’ve already heard, but every time you do one of those you have this anxious feeling like maybe you should be doing the other. It’s only in this new context that it’s possible to worry that you’re listening wrong.”

It really is an interesting psychological door that’s opened with our newfound technological access, and analysis paralysis aside, it explains why some songs draw listeners back by the millions. Drake’s “One Dance” is the most streamed Spotify song of all time with 1,330 million plays. It’s a good song, but not that good. It’s an example of a song achieving a balance of accessibility and pervasiveness until it becomes habitual and self-reinforcing. That’s something that only could have happened in the streaming world.

6) Fandom

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Up until now, we’ve mostly been talking about this framework within the context of “new” albums, but what about when you already have context? What about a non-accessible release from your favorite artist?

This has happened to me with many albums over the years. I wrote a 7,000-word four-part essay that was mostly just me grappling with my own disappointment of Drake and Travis Scott’s 2016 releases. For the sake of talking about something new: The Wonder Years are one of my all-time favorite bands. I’ve written a loving review of their second album, and I plan on doing the same thing with their third and fourth releases as well. After a trio of impactful, nearly-perfect pop-punk records, the band released their fifth album No Closer to Heaven on September 4th of 2015. While it’s not an “inaccessible” record, it’s easily my least favorite from the band and a far cry from their previous heart-on-sleeve realist pop-punk. It took me months of listening to the album to fully-realize my disappointment, and even longer to figure out why. I’m still not sure I can accurately explain why Heaven doesn’t gel with me, but that’s not what this post is for. The point is I’ve subjected myself to this album dozens of times racking up nearly 700 plays at the time of this writing. In fact, it’s my 19th most-listened-to album of all time according to Last.fm, and that’s for an album that I don’t even enjoy that much!

I was driven to this album partly by my frustration and confusion, but also my love of the band. I’ve enjoyed literally every other piece of music they’ve ever recorded, what made this one so different? I guess 700 plays isn’t something you’d afford even the most promising album, but this is an example of the listener’s history influencing their own behavior and desire to love an album. It’s trying to make an album into a “grower” when it may never be one in the first place. That leads nicely into #7…

7) Instant Gratification, Uncertainty Tolerance, and “Forcing It”

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The most common argument I see against the concept of albums as growers is the idea that the listener is “forcing it.” This is problematic mainly because everyone’s definition of “forcing it” is different. Some people have a specific number in mind ‘if you listen to an album three times and don’t like it, then you’re forcing yourself’ others base it on feeling ‘if you’re despising every second of an album, then just turn it off. Otherwise, you’re forcing it.’

The idea is you force yourself to like something out of pure habit or by subjecting yourself to it over and over again, eventually becoming hostage to something that you didn’t really like in the first place. To me, this is the meatiest discussion point here because it’s such a multifaceted issue. I’ve already discussed this concept within the context of Drake’s Views, but to briefly recap: I loved his 2015 album If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, and he had a killer summer with What A Time To Be Alive and a high-profile rap beef. I was beyond hyped for his next release in 2016 but came out of my first listen incredibly disappointed. Over time I grew to like most of the songs, presumably from sheer repetition, but I still recognize it as an album that isn’t good on an objective artistic level. So is this forcing it? I never hated any of those listens, I just grew to like the album more after time had passed, but I still don’t think it’s good.

I’ve done the same thing this year with Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy. After an impeccable 2015 release and a metamonths-longinterview-ladenlead-up to the record’s release in April I, again, emerged from my first listen disappointed. I have come to enjoy the album more over time, especially after giving myself a break from it and seeing some of the songs performed live. So maybe these two cases just have to do with unrealistic built-up expectations and already being a fan (Point #6) but no matter how you look at it, I wanted to like these albums and kept subjecting myself to them.

At any rate, the biggest flaw with this argument is that everyone’s definition of “forcing it” is different. Unless someone’s making you listen at gunpoint, there is no force. You can stop at any time and you shouldn’t feel pressure to like something just because. But I fully recognize someone could see my listening history with Drake’s Views and say “my god, why would you listen to an album you’re lukewarm on that many times? That’s torture!” but I guess what’s torture for some is simply passive listening for another.

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For a more scientific perspective, this youtube video details some of the crazy behind-the-scenes factors at play in making pop music particularly pervasive. Everything from the radio to Urban Outfitters to fucking memes spread music and have the ability to make something exponentially more popular. This circles back to “forcing it” because you may have no power in these cases. God knows after years of the same retail job I grew to hate some songs that were otherwise great just from sheer repetition. It would make sense that this then becomes “forcing it” since you have no power, but sometimes even that can circle back to genuine love if you build enough positive associations over time. I may not like “Hotline Bling” as a song, but god knows I’ve upvoted enough memes featuring the turtleneck-clad Drake that I enjoy something about it.

Furthering the pseudo-scientifical discussion of articles I that don’t have the intelligence to write of research: this blog (which cites this study) discusses “addiction economy” and explores the profiles of “explorers” and “exploiters.” The primary difference between the two groups is their propensity for either delayed or instant gratification. The study explores the idea that technology has accelerated this process which (in a music context) circles back to Point #5 of streaming’s role in our listening habits. Why bother trying to listen to something “difficult” or “weird” when you can have the instant hit of euphoria that comes with a bouncy non-offensive Taylor Swift song?

I really think this one comes down to what you’re in the mood for. If you have the attention, time, and necessary background, why not explore something rich that you may love? But if you just want something quick and easy, just put on the Spotify Top 50 for some background noise. It becomes the musical equivalent of a hearty homecooked meal versus a big, greasy fast food burger. One may be objectively “better,” but it’s not always right for the situation.

8) Expectations and The Initial Approach

Another factor that exists outside of the music itself is the listener’s initial approach. If you go into any art with a preconceived notion you’ll either be surprised by the outcome or have your beliefs confirmed. If you go to a shitty movie expecting it to be shitty, you’ll emerge thinking “well duh.” The inverse of this could also be true (a shitty movie turning out good, etc.), but the real discussion here has to do with the viewer’s initial expectation.

I do think with music it’s rare that you’ll do a complete 180 in either direction. The most likely case of a “grower” is generally a record that you go into not knowing anything about and then some unknown factor (Point #2) keeps bringing you back. It’s also true that you could dislike and album and over time come out liking it (as I did with Views). And while it’s a rare occurrence, I suppose an album could also be a “shrinker” that you love on first listen, but grow to dislike more and more.

Circling back to genres, I think pop music tends to be a shrinker more often than not. It’s something that’s (by nature) immediately accessible but slowly drives you mad with each repeated listen like a screw tightening into your skull. We’ve all been there (especially anyone with a retail job) but I can’t think of a single occurrence where I’ve done that to myself of my own free will. Oppositely, I know people that only interact with music by listening to songs until they’re absolutely sick of them. That’s not how I prefer to interact with art mainly because I feel like there’s only so much time in the day and so many other things to listen to, why force that upon yourself?

I think that the listener’s starting point is a huge concept. Reddit user InSearchOfGoodPun outlines his thoughts on the initial approach and the impact of time on your listening experience:

“My personal opinion is that if you listen to almost anything enough times with a receptive attitude, you will start to appreciate it. It might not become one of your favorites, but you’ll like it for what it is. In any case, at the end of the day, you like what you like.”

The key phrase here is receptive attitude. If you aren’t listening with a receptive attitude, then you’re forcing yourself. Then you’re just making it unenjoyable no matter what. I think this is one of the biggest points in this whole write-up and a key indicator of who you are as a consumer of art. It’s all about being receptive regardless of your starting point.

9) The Language of Genres

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Jumping back to Kanye: it was a long and winding road filled with lots of resistance, but despite my own hangups, I now consider myself a hip-hop head. I listen to the genre constantly, I’m up on the “newcomers” and I find myself devoting an absurd amount of time to researching the realm’s happenings each day. I wouldn’t have cared that much without Kanye, and I wouldn’t have discovered half of the shit that I currently love without Yeezus breaking those barriers down.

I’ve spent this entire time talking about albums as “growers,” but it’s also possible that this concept could be applied to entire genres too. I mean, after all, a genre really is like a language you have to learn, and I was fortunate enough to have Kanye as my teacher. Through his discography, I learned about the genre’s history, who its major players are, as well as the language, cadence, and frameworks that it uses. In another sense, it’s almost like “building up your tolerance” to something you previously didn’t understand or couldn’t grasp.

I’ve detailed my own history wading into genres like hip-hop and indie, but it makes sense that this personal context would impact how we would interact with albums through the broader umbrella of their genre. I wouldn’t have understood hip-hop if I jumped straight to Migos. Everyone has a starting point for their musical taste, and it spreads outward from there. Pop music is an easily-accessible taste, but most other genres take a little bit more of an adjustment to get used to. Certain albums or genres are just objectively less-accessible, and harder to get into as a result.

In fact, it could easily be argued that exploring a genre could be the biggest decider on whether an album is a “grower” or not. Contextualizing a record within a larger space can help the listener and understanding it better and appreciate it more. Listening to one album multiple times might be the exact opposite of the correct approach, because while the listener may not like it, they may find something musically adjacent that’s more up their alley.

10) Songs Versus Albums

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For the sake of furthering the discussion outside of albums, it’s also worth zooming down to a micro level to look at individual songs. While I tend to listen (and think of things) in terms of albums, it’s undeniable that songs are the main component at play. In fact, a single song is probably the reason for you checking an album out in the first place. Thinking “hey I like this one thing, maybe I should check out the rest” is how I’ve discovered most of the music in my library.

But this same framework of “growers” can easily be applied to songs too. When listening to an album the first time, occasionally only individual songs will jump out at you right away. I love Lost in the Dream by The War on Drugs, but for the first dozen or so times I played the album, the only song I could remember was the opener “Under the Pressure.” That song had a memorable chorus, a catchy riff, and a driving rhythm. It alone is the sole reason I kept coming back to the record, but each time I put “Under the Pressure” on I’d find myself thinking ‘ah, I’ll just let the rest of the album play.’ Eventually, the rest of the record revealed itself to me and individual songs emerged from what was once an amorphous blob of sun-drenched heartland rock.

I did the exact same thing with Young Thug’s breakthrough 2015 album Barter 6. I’d already had a passing interest in Thug thanks to his previous collaborative efforts with Rich Homie Quan, so I gave Barter a semi-attentive spin and left underwhelmed. After a glowing Pitchfork review (Point #3) I gave the album another shot but couldn’t find myself getting past the first track. In a good way. I kept relistening to the album opener “Constantly Hating” and every time I tried to move onto something else, this transfixing opener drew me back in. Soon Barter 6’s second track grabbed me just as hard. Then the third. Then a single. Then a late album track. Eventually, I was listening to the whole thing front-to-back and enjoying every song. Individual songs are a viable path to an album becoming a grower, and while I don’t like digesting albums piecemeal, sometimes that approach can allow an album to creep up on you over time.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, there’s a difference between feeling lukewarm on an album then giving it a few more chances and hating an album but feeling like you’re obligated to listen because you “should” like it. Usually, there’s some redeeming quality that brings you back, God knows there’s plenty of albums I’ve heard once then forgotten forever.

Patience is key, and that receptivity can lead to an album becoming better over time. With pop music, I feel like there’s an individual tipping point that everyone hits where you go from fully-embracing a song to actively combatting it. We don’t all have the time or patience to devote ourselves to “difficult” albums, so sometimes the road less traveled is less appealing.

After writing all of this, I’ve come to the conclusion that my initial theory is a flawed. Like many things, it’s not universal. There’s no one “right” answer or perfect framework that applies to all of music. This theory still works on a case-by-case basis, but there’s nuance to every genre, artist, and song, and this broadness makes it hard to view music through such a broad lens.

If anything, a big takeaway is that there’s no one “better” genre, just different fits for different people. With all these possible elements at play, it’s easier to see how someone could gravitate towards one easier genre meanwhile a different person has cut their teeth in a different genre and has a more developed understanding of its intricacies.

And whether you look at it as “a grower” that gets better over time or a “shrinker” that driver you more insane with each listen, there is a point at which you are “forcing it” but (again) that varies from person to person. The only absolute is that there are no absolutes.

The truly compelling part of music is the way that you interact with it. What you bring to the experience and how you interpret the artist’s work. Whether it’s going track-by-track or listening front-to-back, or listening to one single song until you’re sick of it. Music is special because of what we project onto it. The memories we make around it.

It’s obviously incorrect to view all pop music as shallow, just as it’s incorrect to view all rock as deep, or all rap as thuggish. Everything is on a spectrum, and your perspective within the genre, the artist, your life, and the world all come into play when listening.

I don’t think there’s any defined “conclusion” to arrive at, just many different elements to keep track of. These frameworks can help explain why I like A while you like B. The absolute most important thing to take away from this is to keep an open and receptive mind.

I’ve recently come to the realization that my dream job, the one thing I really want to do, is to share things that I love with other people. To spread art, joy, and love in hopes that someone else is affected by these things the same way that I am.

That requires an objective mind, but you still won’t ever like everything. And that’s okay. You shouldn’t have to.

I think sharing things and spreading love is productive for the world.

It’s the most positive impact we can make on the world around us.

It’s spreading beauty.

Both being able to see why someone likes something and being able to share your own experience. It’s the one universal. The human experience. We all have unique perspectives, thoughts, and lives. Sometimes sharing is the only thing we can do.

Art is a bonding agent.

What we add to it is the special part.

Remain open.

Share your love.


Mumbling Music, Soundcloud Rap, and Feeling Like an Old Man

I never thought I’d be “over” a genre within the space of a year. My obsessions tend to be longer-lasting, or at the very least, something that I can return to later even if it’s solely for nostalgic purposes. After “discovering” hip-hop in 2015 I quickly gravitated towards the “trap” subgenre whose outlandish figures like Young Thug and Future provided a much-needed break from the years of straight-laced and hyper-earnest music I’d been listening to most of college.

In addition to trap’s personable artists, the subgenre has managed to become one of the most popular and dominant sounds over the past several years. This combination made the scene feel communal and accessible as it grew to become an undeniable a part of the cultural zeitgeist. In fact, hip-hop is part of the cultural landscape now more than ever as artists are propelled to success by internetmemes which has led to a “look at me” mentality.

In 2016 a distinct new class of rapper began to emerge who utilized the path that had been paved by their trap forefathers to carve out their own niche and fortify themselves as the “next generation” of hip-hop. This group of (then) up-and-comers included people like Lil Yachty, Desiigner, and 21 Savage who quickly earned the derogatory label of “mumble rap,” a name inspired by the MC’s apparent lack of technical proficiency on the mic. These rappers took cues from people like Young Thug and Future (who are also often lumped into this group) but remain distinct for a few reasons. One: almost all of these artists blew up while still in their teens. Two: almost all of these artists used SoundCloud as a platform in their rise to prominence (paving the way for future artists). Three: Many of the most popular “mumble rappers” also happened to be members of the XXL 2016 Freshman Class.

This inclusion in XXL is the most important commonality to note because it elevated the genre instantly and placed these artists squarely in the spotlight. As these rappers gained popularity and publicity over the summer of 2016 many people criticized the freshmen class for their evident lack of technical skill. It quickly ballooned to a genre-wide discussion about what these rappers “brought to the table” if they were eschewing the things that were typically used as barometers of quality within the genre.

I’ve already put my flag in the ground on the topics of lyricism and proficiency in hip-hop in this post from last year on the importance (or lack thereof) of lyrics. In retrospect, comparing these rappers to groups like Sigur Ros may have been a step too far, but I still stand by the overall sentiment of the post.

Now, I hate to sound nostalgic for something that’s only a year old, much less hoist up these artists who I ultimately think are just okay… but these mumble rap artists were significantly better than what we see coming out of the scene a year later. Thanks to the 2016 Freshman Class, hip-hop became an ongoing debate of “style versus substance,” and we’re only now seeing the implications of this shift a year after the emergence of mumble rap with the birth of a brand new scene. But before I get into that, let’s take a look at two specific artists from the mumble rap movement to help us make a direct comparison.

Two Sides of the Same Sound

Lil Uzi Vert is a Philadelphia-based rapper who first made waves in 2015 with his third mixtape Luv is Rage. In 2016 he rose to prominence thanks to his fourth mixtape Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World which birthed two singles, ended up going gold, and solidified him a place on the 2016 XXL freshman list. In 2017 he’s reached unprecedented heights thanks to a (bad) verse on Migos’ quadruple platinum “Bad and Boujee” which paved the way for his own (much better) track, the monumental “XO Tour Llif3.” Tour Lif3 was originally uploaded to Soundcloud as a throwaway track and has since become a breakout phenomenon going x3 Platinum in 6 months, proving both the popularity of Uzi and cementing the platform as a viable test for mainstream hits.

Moving onto another “Lil” rapper from the same scene: Lil Yachty is an Atlanta-based artist who originally broke through in 2015 with what everyone presumed was a one-off viral hit “One Night.” Within a year his next hit “Minnesota” was being played on Drake’s radio show and he caught fire. This platform brought Yachty a newfound audience which elevated his just-released Lil Boat mixtape and propelled him to the forefront of the hip-hop stratosphere.

I chose to highlight these two because they became symbols of the mumble rap genre within the space of weeks. And while they’re often lumped together, they oddly represent two opposing sides of the same sound. So why these two guys? Aside from their inclusion in the 2016 Freshman Class, they both blew up at the same time, dropped high-profile mixtapes within a month of each other, and use many of the same tropes within their music. I also believe one of the more silly reasons these two were lumped together was because of their hair.

It sounds stupid, but Lil Yachty’s bright red braids and Uzi’sever-changingdreads became emblematic symbols of the mumble rap movement. Most of the 2016 class had a unique look, but these two stuck out like sore thumbs with their distinct and brightly-colored mops. What’s more, these two rappers specifically started challenging hip-hop norms by disregarding classics and even going as far to state that they are “not rappers” but instead preferring to be labeled as “rockstars.” For better or worse, they became symbols of the new school: two figures that stood in direct opposition to the traditions of the genre. It’s easy to see why they sparked debates, spurred controversy, and turned off old heads the world over in 2016.

There was a clear line being drawn in the sand over the 2016 Freshman. One side saw this crop of artists as energetic, hair-dyed teenagers with little artistic substance beyond the beats they were rapping over. Meanwhile, the other side saw this scene for the fun, carefree, and easily-digestible entertainment that it was intended as.

If it wasn’t apparent by now, I’m fans of these artists, and I resented the fact that these 18-year-olds were being cited as the “downfall of hip-hop” as if their very existence was an offense to the genre’s history. I’ll admit that it took me some time to come around to each artist, but Uzi and Yachty’s 2016 tapes quickly became some of my favorites that year. With upbeat, colorful, summery songs, these artists were just teenagers, but there is a time and place for the type of music they were making.

I was decidedly on the side of these artists. I didn’t see these guys as the "end of hip-hop” that so many classic rap fans were quick to decry them as. I’ve already linked this previous post on why a lack of substantive lyrics doesn’t equate to lack of substantive music, but The Needle Drop’s Anthony Fantano explains this subgenre’s appeal well in this video where he draws a comparison to this new sound and the punk mentality of the 70’s. These artists became unwitting figureheads for a movement that they didn’t necessarily even create, but their music doesn’t invalidate traditional hip-hop or threaten other artist’s artistic output.

At the end of the day, Yachty and Uzi are two musicians are working towards very different visions with Uzi representing more of a moody, rock-inspired crooning emo trapper and Yachty being more of an upbeat goofball “bubblegum trap” artist. They got judged unfairly, lumped into the same group, and became polarizing figures within the matter of a few months. But on a more positive note, they engaged and energized the younger generation, which led to hip-hop becoming the most popular genre in the US for the first time ever. Their techniques and approaches to music also paved the way for a new type of rapper who took their styles and carried them to their logical extremes. That brings us to 2017.

Mumbles Begat Soundcloud

Compared to this innovative wave of energy that we saw in hip-hop last year, 2017 has felt like a step backward in many ways. We’ve had fewer projects from bigger names, and less “movement” in the genre as a whole. I’m also willing to admit this perceived drop-off in quality could be chalked up to personal bias because, while I feel less enthused by the genre, hip-hop as a whole has still experienced a major influx of activity this year. The problem is its momentum that’s hyper-specified and that I feel absolutely no connection to.

I’ve never wanted to be the old guy who doesn’t “get it” yet, within the space of a year I feel like I’ve already crossed over into old man territory. A year after the rise of the “mumble rapper” we’re now witnessing the birth of a new class of artists dubbed the “Soundcloud Rapper.”

One major artist to blow up from this scene is XXXTentacion. I first became aware of his existence in early 2017 as he was gaining rapid popularity online while behind bars after being arrested for assault at 18 (you read that right). Between Lil Wayne’s infamous stay in prison to Max B’s recent memed-out sentence, rappers are no stranger to trouble with the law. XXX was let out on false charges (which I don’t buy) but I’m willing to (again) admit personal bias because I find the assault of a woman more heinous than simple gun charges. This controversy was a bad way to first hear about an artist and left me with a negative first impression of both the artist and the “scene.”

Around this same time, a Georgian rapper named Playboi Carti released his eponymous debut to surprisingly-high reviews. While not technically part of the same subgenre, Carti’s “Magnolia” blew up inexplicably, earning him a platinum and granting him access to high-profile collaborators the genre over. Carti’s music is similarly lacking in substance the same way that Uzi and Yachty are, so I can’t fault him for that. What I can fault him for is featuring on two and a halfseparatetracks this year in which his contribution is solely ad-lib-based. God knows I’m not against ad-libs, but it’s incredible to watch someone make a career being propped up by decent beats and more talented artists as they shout “what?” in between each of their bars. Oh and Carti was also taken into custody for assault in 2017 as well, only to be let off a month later.

Despite the public and controversial beatings, Both XXXTentacion and Playboi Carti have enjoyed success and made it onto the XXL Freshman 2017 list, ensuring them both a moderately-successful career. Comparing these two freshmen with the two I highlighted from the 2016 lineup provides a stark contrast between one group of mumbling trap artists and the second group of women-beating teenagers. Even setting aside the quality of their music, elevating and rewarding the abhorrent behavior of the latter two is undeniably a step backward for the genre. And as I’ve been editing this piece, TV’s Eric Andre has publicly spoken out against these artists citing a similar concern.

The Dregs

Now we move onto the two artists that inspired me to sit down to write this post in the first place: Lil Pump and SmokePurpp. These two Florida-born rappers are making music in the same style as XXXTentacion with distorted blown-out bassy instrumentals and loud aggressive chant-like vocals. Pump blew up several months ago on the back of the mindlessly-repetitiveD Rose.” The track, which finds Pump explaining why his expensive watches make him feel like Derrick Rose, was uploaded in late 2016 and has since garnered almost 30 million plays on Soundcloud. There’s honestly very little else to say about the song beyond that.

Critics and journalists took note of this subgenre’s meteoric rise in popularity and began writing Hunter S. Thompson-style gonzo journalism pieces about the scene including this one from Rolling Stone and this incredible write-up by The New York Times. I’d had these articles saved to my Pocket for later reading, but it wasn’t until I stumbled across a Noisey interview whose title was so great that I willingly dove into it.

The article in question “Reading This Interview with Lil Pump and Smokepurpp Will Make You Stupider” is a particularly glazed-over interview with the two Floridians in which the interviewer searches desperately for any semblance of a deeper purpose to these two artists. Their answers, relegated mostly to single-syllable words half-formed sentences, quickly revealed that there is no deeper level to Lil Pump and Smokepurpp. They’re not in search of anything, not inspired by anything, and their self-described “ih-norant” music is their artistic end-all be-all.

Now, look. I listen to a ton of stupid music, some of it just as “ignorant” and turnt up as this, but this new wave of music feels so baseless and devoid that I don’t see any silver lining to it. In fact, I write this primarily from a “worried mother” type perspective because these kids are fucking sixteen. Lil Pump (born August 17th, 2000) was admitted to the hospital following a lean scare just ten days before his birthday. XXXtentacion (born January 23rd, 1998) has (aside from the assault charges) put on a litany of violent concerts including fist fights, two-story jumps, and barricade collisions. I’m not the first to speak out against these artist’s carelessness, and I have a feeling I won’t be the last.

It’s music that trades out the bare minimum artistry that was there before for pure adrenaline and shock value. And again, maybe this isn’t “for me” and that’s why I don’t get it. If anything, these artists are simply a logical continuation of the mumble rap scene taking visual, musical, and artistic queues from the generation immediately before them. And Desiigner and Lil Uzi Vert have pulled equally-dangerous stunts at their shows… but it’s interesting to watch this progression take place so rapidly over the course of a calendar year.

And to circle away from the onstage antics and back to the music: I’m not saying Yachty’s music is high art. It’s still pretty dissonant, off-putting, and even bad on a technical level. But what Yachty traded those qualities out for is a unique sound and image based around himself. It may be discordant music, but it retains an undeniable sense of bright fun catchiness. Meanwhile, I feel like this new crop of artists retained that similar lack of technicality but traded out any sense of fun for pure adrenaline.

I don’t know where all this is headed. I do think it’s exciting that all this has happened within the space of a year, and it just goes to show how quickly the hip-hop genre is evolving and shifting. Maybe it’s just part of a bigger splintering and within a few years, we’ll have all these subgenres of hip-hop with dozens of artists occupying each well-defined niche with their own space carved out. I fully expect many of these guys to fall off and fade into obscurity soon (or at the very lease encounter more trouble with the law) but overall I think this energy bodes well for the genre. I just don’t want a teenager to die for it.

As long as young people continue to be inspired they’ll continue to innovate and push boundaries. I may not like the music, but I’m always in support of innovation. I sincerely hope I’m still on board for the next “wave” of explosive creativity in music, but I also know I will hit a point in the future where I just stop “getting it” and I accept that.

I don’t necessarily resent the scene, the music, or these artists. I think some of their extracurricular actions are deplorable and shouldn’t be celebrated, but that’s really about it. I see the appeal of the music, but I also know that it’s not for me. If anything, it’s exciting that real, young, independent musicians have the ability to build as much of a platform as more established artists, but sometimes that fan base is built on the back of shitty behavior that nobody should emulate.

It’s also interesting to watch the “gaze” of hip-hop move so quickly from one crop of artists to the next. It seems that nobody gets to spend much time on the throne, and now the artists that were exciting last year are practically legacy acts by the scene’s standards. It’s weird when the “primary focus” (or at least most explosive scene) of a genre is one that I fundamentally disagree with on nearly every level, but again, maybe I’m just turning into an old man.

I can’t think of any other way to end this besides words of hesitant encouragement. I want kids to keep innovating and scaring the adults (and 24-year-olds) by blazing their own trail. There’s something admirable about a sixteen-year-old throwing a song up on SoundCloud and becoming a certified star months later… but when it breeds violence and drug abuse I’m decidedly against it. It’s a fine line, and I respect everyone’s freedom/artistic choices/blah blah blah, I just wish everything was more positive.

So keep it up I guess. We’ll see where this scene goes. Who knows what the next year’s hot topic will be. For the time being, keep doing you. Just don’t do anything too stupid.

Artistic Integrity and Commercial Success | Part 4

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This is the fourth, final, and most speculative in a series of four posts on the combative relationship between artistic pursuits and commercial achievements. View the first post here, the second one here, and the third here.

Features Aplenty, Featuring Apathy

Unlike Drake, Travis Scott has yet to release an album in 2017. As a result, the final entry in this four-part series will now shift from a post-mortem into (admittedly) premature evaluation. While Drake isn’t quite out of the woods yet, he’s it at least trending upwards artistically. Meanwhile, Travis Scott has been trending upwards in terms of sales and popularity, but I feel like I’ve seen the inverse in his music. And because he hasn’t released a full project yet, all we can do at this point is look at some of the features and individual songs that Travis has worked on since the release of Birds.

Most recently, Trav dropped a trio of loosies on his SoundCloud: “Butterfly Effect,” “A Man,” and “Green & Purple.” Truth be told, none of these songs did anything for me, and for the most part, they feel just as devoid of life as Birds. Reading shitty comments online is what originally prompted me to think about this intersection between artistic purity and commercial success, but this recent drop of songs really inspired me to start getting my thoughts out on paper. If these songs are indicative of what Trav has in store for us on his 2017 album, I’m genuinely concerned.

But the bigger topic here is “what comes first: art or success?” I think most people would say the first one, and then those creations go on to achieve success (however you define that). However, once you reach a certain point, I think you can start creating from the other end of the spectrum and just let the money be your guiding light for creation. That’s the battle.

But maybe this is all just Travis Scott Fatigue at this point, so let’s look beyond the man’s own tracks at some of his 2017 features. If there’s anything that sparks inspiration, it’s working with other artists and jumping into some more varied sounds, right?

Even without an album drop, 2017 has been a banner year for Trav. With guest appearances on everything from Major Lazer to SZA and everything in between, it seems you can’t officially be a part of the music scene in 2017 without a feature from Travis Scott. One of the weirder tracks is the collaborative effort “Go Off” from the Fate of the Furious Soundtrack. Sure, it’s generic as fuck, but it’s hard to judge anything based off a watered-down lowest-common-denominator platform like Fast and Furious.

Even still, the most offensive Travis Scott feature (and quite frankly my tipping point) was his appearance on Migo’s CULTURE at the beginning of the year… but before breaking that down, I’d like to give some additional context on ad libs.

Get Hyped or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ad Lib

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For those unfamiliar, ad libs in hip-hop are distinct phrases that rappers interject within individual lines of their own lyrics. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m an ad lib-loving hypebeast (you have to be to start a Desiigner subreddit.) It’s nearly a facet of my personality at this point. Ad libs just get me fired up, and I love how much rappers have been utilizing them lately.

Adlibs are typically used to emphasize a point, excite the audience, or flex after a particularly impressive rhyme. Some artists like Migos use adlibs after nearly every line just to add context and extra texture to their bars. Meanwhile, other people like Chance The Rapper have developed their own repertoire of noises that act as a calling card.

As explained by Pigeons and Planes, ad libs at worst represent “a space-filler, a moment that allows for a word to be repeated, emphasized, or followed by an “uh-huh” or some other bland affirmation.” and at best act as “an opportunity for unique self-expression, a brief moment outside of the lyrics themselves to show character, expand the meaning of the song.”

One of my favorite examples of ad-libbing is Young Thug’s “Halftime” in which he drops a lung-collapsing 12-second “SKRR” forty-four seconds into the track. The prolonged cry lies relatively quietly beneath Thug’s yelped rhymes and just above Kip Hilson’s booming bass-drenched beat. After that, Thug goes on to discuss his eccentric fashion choices and throws off his own rhyming couplet by dragging out the syllables of “recycles” to which he laughs. He’s keeping the listener on their toes. Immediately after that subversion, Thug “winds up” into an increasingly-speedier set of overtly-sexual bars, each of which is punctuated by a series of escalating ad-libbed interjections which Thug himself then interrupts with a reserved “no” right at the rhyme’s climax. The fact that this is all happening in between rapped lines makes the track a treat to listen to and rewards repeated listens. Thug is literally his own backing track. On top of that, this barrage of ad-libs is surrounded by hilariously over-the-top lyrics like “suck my dick like Beavis no, Butthead” and “I just want that neck like a giraffe.” It’s an intoxicating display and one that all happens within the space of a minute on a single verse. Blink and you’ll miss it, but “Halftime” is an absolutely flawless example of ad libs flirting with (and improving) a song as a whole.

I’ve always been a fan of Travis Scott’s adlibs. From the hype-building Straight Up! and It’s Lit! to his trademarked La Flame! He’s made a career (and a name for himself) out of expertly-deployed soundbites. So imagine my surprise when I found myself listening to Migo’s world-conquering CULTURE at the beginning of the year and made it all the way to the album’s penultimate track “Kelly Price” which featured Travis Scott.

I entered hesitantly, given how fresh in my mind Birds was, but I remained optimistic since Travis and Quavo have had a near-impeccable track record up until that point. The song starts with a haunting beat and a hook that finds Quavo running down the typical Migos list of favorite things: Cars. Money. Drugs. Women. Pretty standard stuff so far. Then Travis Scott comes in.

He lazily floats the track by sputtering two words: Flash. Dash. and then drops a “straight-up” adlib. I couldn’t believe it. Maybe I shouldn’t be as offended at this as I am, but I was amazed that this dude just hopped on a track, said two words that barely rhymed and then dropped an ad lib as if he’d just spit some world-shattering bars. It called to mind “Biebs in the Trap” off of Birds in the Trap where Trav opened a verse in an almost identical, but even lazier way. The verse in question reads more like an unrelated grocery list of things that kind of rhyme but just sound cool when thrown together over a particular beat.

As mentioned before, I don’t go to Travis Scott for lyrical bars. So it feels weird to criticize him for verses like the two above… but at the same time, they’re just so far below his already-low bar for lyricism. I’m mainly surprised that he seems to be regressing towards such a simplistic style. One in which he relies almost entirely on production and v i b e s to carry him and his lack of personality or technical skill.

It’s also disappointing because I loved Days Before Rodeo and Rodeo so indescribably, yet I haven’t fully enjoyed anything that he’s put out since 2015. This all ties back to the first post in the series, because right now I’m just bitching that I don’t like the direction an artist is taking.

I Guess That’s It

I guess if there’s any theme to this series, it’s been about expectations, disappointments, and hope. I was expecting a lot from both Drake and Trav in 2016, and they both let me down in different ways. Since then Drake has really bounced back in my eyes, but Travis seems to be continuing down a different path. I know I started this series complaining about people online wanting to dictate artists art… so I won’t do that. All I can do is hope. Hope that he has something grander and more experimental in stock for us.

I believe that Travis has it in him to create more albums on par (and better than) Rodeo, but he could also continue down the “easier” path that’s already laid before him. And I realize it’s a shitty thing for a fan to just say “their old stuff was better.” You can’t expect an artist to just keep remaking an album forever. To do so is to wish stasis and artistic malaise on someone that you’re supposedly a fan of. It’s also hard when Rodeo and DBR are tied to such positive memories in my past, and Birds has no comparable equivalent, but it’s unfair of me to judge an album based on something external to itself.

Earlier this year I actually saw Travis Scott live at Portland’s Moda Center. It was a pretty great show (even if I wasn’t able to snag floor tickets) and oddly relevant to this topic since Drake made a surprise appearance at that show. It was a wild show, but the difference between Travis’ old and new material was night and day. It’s odd because he wanted Birds to get “straight to the meat.” The album was created with stadium tours in mind. According to Scott he quickly learned what songs from Rodeo did and didn’t work live, and that influenced his creative process while making Birds. Maybe I just like the more “intimate” feeling of Rodeo as opposed to the “broad” nature of Birds in the Trap.

Never Taking a Break

Even more recently, Travis Scott did an interview with SHOWstudio. HotNewHipHop had an interesting take on the interview, positing that he would “take a break” from music after the release of his upcoming third album. Travis Scott personally replied to the speculation on Twitter claiming “Nigga I’m never taking a break.”

Reading this exchange filled me with different emotions. First, honestly, a pang of sadness. Despite the recent perceived decline in quality, I would have been extraordinarily sad to see Travis take a break from touring or new material. At the same time, the more I thought about it, maybe a break is just what he needs. I mean, he’s released an album every year since 2013 with one (technically) scheduled for 2017 as well. On top of persistent touring and features, that output has to take a toll on even the most prolific of artists.

Working so tirelessly can be draining. I’ll be a fan of Travis till the end. The man can put on a hell of a show, and he’s released two albums that are absolute classics in my eyes. A true fan is along for the ride no matter what. The albums may vary in wildly in quality, but sometimes you have to take the good with the bad. Even Weezer still has fans, and in 2016 they released their best album since Pinkerton. I’m not saying Travis is scheduled for a 20-year stretch of disappointment, but I’m just hoping he carves out a niche that inspires.

And when I say “inspires” I’m talking about both himself and fans.

I could just be “aging out” of his music, but I hope not because even through the darkness and malaise of Birds he still dropped “Pick up the Phone” and “Goosebumps” which were some of my favorite tracks of the past year and ones I still spin on a near-daily basis.

I’m a fan. I want the best for Travis. Both commercially and artistically. The hard part is maintaining both without losing yourself.

Artistic Integrity and Commercial Success | Part 3

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This is the third (and most negative) installment in a series of four posts on the same topic. This was originally intended to be the last, but I wrote more than I expected, and I wanted to end on a more positive note. View the first post here the second one here, and expect one more wrap-up coming soon.

The New Scott

Before I fully dive into Travis Scott, I feel like it’s important to give some personal context. I can’t decide if that’s because I think memories are important, or because I’m retroactively embarrassed at my own fandom given recent developments, but either way, here’s a quick rundown:

As previously discussed, Trav has released some of my favorite hip-hop albums of the past few years. His 2015 debut Rodeo is one of my all-time favorites, and one of the handful of albums released that year that made me “believe” in hip-hop as a genre. That’s a powerful notion. And even if the album has some wack bars, it’s production, aesthetic, and sonic approach are all so impeccable that I’m willing to overlook a handful of goofy lyrics.

As great as Rodeo is, it (and Travis Scott as an entity) are prime examples of style over substance. And don’t get me wrong, there are some legitimately great songs on this album, but as a whole, Rodeo undeniably relies on textures and production to make up for its lyrical shortcomings. I’ve already made it clear that I don’t think lyrics are music’s end all be all (even for hip-hop), but I can totally see how someone approaching this album from a traditional rap mindset could leave Rodeo disappointed if they came in looking for clever writing.

But this is all me preemptively addressing valid criticism. I personally think that every track on Rodeo is great for one reason or another, and my positive memories associated with the album are more powerful than any objectivity I can ever offer up. In fact, I loved Rodeo so much that the next summer I ventured further back into Scott’s discography and found myself spinning his prior release Days Before Rodeo. I listened to the mixtape more times than I ever would have expected, and it ended up becoming my second-most played album of 2016 and currently sits at my 7th most played album of all time on last.fm. So yeah. I like that album quite a bit too.

Many of the same criticisms of Rodeo could also be applied to Days Before, but (again) I’m willing to overlook those shortcomings for the overall experience of the tape. So as I ravenously devoured these two albums I found myself rapidly advancing up the next step of my obsessive fandom staircase. I collected everything Travis-related that I could get my hands on. From tracking his features to obsessively compiling my own B-sides album it was safe to say I was in full-on hype mode.

Now is when crushing reality sets in. I’ve already linked to this reddit comment detailing the history of Travis’ broken promises in the lead-up to his second album, but I think it bears repeating. Delays and false release dates are nothing new for Travis, but this timeline highlights the absurdity of this particular album’s cycle. As someone following Travis very closely at this time, it was disheartening to have nearly weekly promises that ended up broken and eclipsed by yet another revised “announcement” the following week.

Things began to look up in June of 2016 when Travis dropped the Young Thug and Quavo-infused “Pick up The Phone.” Already a known quantity for months at that point, and fraught with last-minute legal troubles, it was a relief simply to have a fresh Travis song. I won’t get too deep into it here, but PUTP was one of my favorite songs last year and more recently has gone on to become my most listened to track of all time on last.fm within a year. It’s a breezy, ad lib-riddled summer banger. The syrupy bass line filled with intermittent 808 taps and distorted steel drums combines into a drugged-out soundscape that serves as the perfect backdrop for the three artists sharing the track.

“Pick up the Phone” felt like a positive sign to me. I couldn’t stop playing it, and it became my summer anthem within a matter of weeks. If this is the type of stuff Travis had in store for us on his next album, then maybe all the delays will have been worth it. And according to Travis, all his singles and loosies up to this point weren’t even on the album, because he wanted to give listeners a ‘fresh experience’ on their first listen. So if “Pick Up The Phone” wasn’t even good enough to make the cut, then I was officially hyped.

Travis followed that single up weeks later with a small feature on G.O.O.D. Music’s “Champions” another summer anthem that celebrates the return of Gucci Mane and showcased a rotating cast of hip-hop’s current stars and up-and-comers. Champions specifically brings to mind memories of my graduation which happened around the time of its release. In fact, my nostalgia for this track is so strong that I’ve even downloaded the version ripped from the radio because the drops evoke waves of nostalgia in me. I still remember sitting underneath Portland’s Moda Center in a cap and gown surrounded by friends and checking my phone in between conversations to see the explicit version of the track had been officially released. This comment thread specifically made me laugh so much that I still have the screencap of it saved in my phone.

But I’m getting horrifically off-topic. All signs were pointing towards a great release as Trav continued to promote his upcoming album. As mentioned above, the lead up to Birds was essentially a weekly string of broken promises and unfulfilled blue balls. And I get that it’s selfish to “expect” an album, but when you repeatedly say ‘my album is coming out in X days’ or “tonight” I’ll start to get pissed after the third or fourth time.

In early August Trav ended up droppings two loosies on his Apple Radio show: “The Hooch” and “Black Mass” they were both cool… but I was glad they were just loosies he was tossing off on his radio show. Weeks later, September 2nd he finally dropped his sophomore album Birds in the Trap Sing Mcknight.

I remember I was on vacation at the time and without a music streaming service. It agonized me that I couldn’t listen to the album until I got home. All I could do was enjoy my vacation *shudders* and read comments online.

They were exceedingly negative.

How could this be? I’d seen this happen before. In some ways I was glad. Whenever the internet mob preemptively lowers my expectations like this, I’d come out the other side enjoying what they were bitching about far more than I would have otherwise (see: Mass Effect 3, and Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book.) But I saw the bright side. I knew that when I did get back home and sit down to listen to the album, I should lower my expectations. If your expectations are low enough anything can exceed them, right?

Right?

The Problem With Birds

Birds In the Trap feels like drab, dark, and lifeless background music. That’s not to say I don’t like dark albums, there’s a time and place for them… but it just feels so incomplete and half-hearted here. Birds is devoid of life. It is (intentionally?) poorly mixed, lacking of substance, and the album art looks like an edgy Myspace background circa 2006. Look. I’m not saying Rodeo was high art or that it even had anything new to say, but it’s far more substantive than Birds ever tries to be. What Rodeo brought to the table was a metric fuckton of different ideas and sounds that were all produced impeccably. It commands attention and each track sounds different from the last. We ended up with the polar opposite on Birds.

As a person that talks about music, it feels like a cop-out to just link to someone else’s review, but The Needle Drop’s dissection of Birds is a pretty spot-on breakdown of what feels wrong with the album. Going back to the idea of an album’s substance, Birds feels like the album equivalent of an item off the McDonald’s Value Menu. It’s about the lowest of the low (even for fast food) but it still qualifies as “food” on a technical level.

At the risk of making a horrific pivot (or just to take a break from negativity), check out this video about True Detective. If you can’t watch all eleven minutes skip straight to 2:40 and watch the section on Rogue One. I can’t tell if this is a hyper-specific example, a universal one, or just something that I’m trying to crowbar in because I’m in the mood to rewatch True Detective, but this video felt oddly poignant. Specifically, the line “when the plot is motivated by a writer or director’s aesthetic needs instead of character motivation, something just inevitably feels missing.” To me, this describes Birds to a tee.

As mentioned ad nauseam, I do not go to Travis Scott for hyper-lyrical bars, so I didn’t expect that from Birds. What I did expect was thick production, varied textures, and (at the very least) some competent song structure. I ended up receiving very little of anything. It felt like Travis was chasing some aesthetic desire and forwent anything else that made his work interesting previously. And don’t get me wrong, I like some songs off of Birds, but in the year since its release, I’ve realized that it has become symbolic of him not trying.

The single standout from Birds is “Goosebumps” a Kendrick Lamar-collab with a drowsy bloop-filled beat accompanied by one of the most infectious hooks I’ve heard since “Pick up the Phone.” And speaking of “Pick up the Phone” the song ended up on the album. This is after Trav promised that Birds would be “all new material.” After he had already released the song three months prior in June. After it had already been included on Young Thug’s JEFFERY as a bonus track in August. Similarly, the sparkly weekend collab “Wonderful” ended up on Birds as the album’s closer after having already been released as a Soundcloud throwaway at the end of 2015. And that was the album’s closing track.

The whole thing just left a bad taste in my mouth. Alongside these repurposed tracks were songs like “SDP Interlude” that just come off as half-finished, under-developed scraps of songs that Travis just decided to toss onto the album. It was underwhelming in every sense of the word and didn’t clear my already-low expectations. But maybe this was just a sophomore slump. A byproduct of constant touring combined with the monumental task of following up an excellent predecessor.

This is truly my hope, but with each new piece of music emerging from Travis’ camp, I become less and less hopeful in a return to form anytime soon. I’ll dive deeper into my thoughts on Travis Scott’s current output and future in the fourth and final post coming very soon.

Read Part 4 Here

Artistic Integrity and Commercial Success | Part 2

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This is a follow-up to my last post about Drake, Travis Scott, and artistic integrity.

A Mixed Bag

We now find ourselves in the summer of 2017. Almost a year removed from both Drake’s Views and Travis Scott’s Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight. I’ve personally had enough time to fully digest each release, and more importantly to this conversation, I’m beginning to see how these two albums will sit in their respective artist’s discographies. We have just enough distance to see how these two have changed and where they’re heading next.

At the time of writing, Drake has already released a follow-up to Views in the form of a “playlist” titled More Life. Meanwhile, Travis Scott has released a slew of features, loosies, leaks, and other things that sound like a euphemism for shitting your pants. Since Trav’s position is a little more complex (and part of his inevitable multi-month-long lead up to his next album), I’ll start this by diving into Drake and his year since Views.

Personal Views

My primary complaint with Views was that it was just okay. If You’re Reading This made me a fan of Drake the year before, and I was disappointed that his next proper follow-up was so unsatisfying. I liked what Views was going for: a musical journey through the seasons in Toronto… but the album didn’t quite stick the landing. All that concept ended up meaning was that there were three types of songs on the album: R&B, hip-hop, and dancehall.

One of the reasons Drake works so well as an artist is because he walks the line between singer and rapper like no one else. Adding dancehall into the equation threw him off his own game. If You’re Reading This was almost entirely rap (which made it an easy entry point for me) but his older albums tend to walk a much finer line. On Views you just have individual songs that do one of these things (and don’t do it particularly well). “Redemption” is a classic Drake relationship slow jam. “Hype” is a braggadocious turn-up track. “Controlla” is one of Drake’s first forays into his Caribbean island sound. None of these tracks are too offensive on their own, but as an album, it proves to be a jarring jagged listen rather than a compelling journey.

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In addition to this third-wheel genre-hopping love triangle, Views came with some of the corniest lyrics in Drake’s entire career. From Cheesecake Factory namedrops to questionable punchlines, the tiredness of Views has already been covered pretty extensively by the internet at large. If you’d like a good laugh I’d highly recommend checking out Dead End Hip Hop’s discussion of the album (timestamped for maximum enjoyment).

And on top of all this, Views comes in at 81 minutes long, it was loaded with uninspired features, retreads of previous ideas, and Drake even tossed “Hotline Bling” on the end to artificially inflate his numbers. As a result, the whole thing just feels like one big overly-long incongruous jumble of Drake.

More Life, More Everything

In March of 2017, Drake released his next project, a “playlist” titled More Life. Coming in at 22 tracks stretched across 82 minutes, More Life falls victim to some of the same pratfalls as Views, but manages to improve on nearly all fronts.

First off, there’s a discussion to be had here on what the fuck it means to be a “playlist” as opposed to an album. It may just be a cop-out to avoid being criticized in the same way as an album, but perhaps because we have no barometer for it I ended up liking More Life far more than Views.

Viewing it as a playlist actually, lends credence to the different sounds that Drake flirts with. It allows freer experimentation and doesn’t bound the release to any traditional musical box. And I know I just shit on Views for being uneven, but the lack of thematic cohesion actually works in More Life’s favor. It allows Drake to hone his dancehall obsession, experiment with harder beats, dip into grime, and utilize a deeper roster of guest features. In fact, there are some songs on More Life that don’t contain any Drake at all. It’s interesting to pose “no Drake” as a point in favor of a Drake release, but I suppose that’s just another side effect of being a playlist.

Unlike Views, More Life is largely segmented by genre but allows each “sound” to exist compartmentalized in its own little section. The album opens with “Free Smoke” a hard-hitting rap intro which immediately bleeds into “No Long Talk” a UK-influenced club banger. From there the album throws you an immediate curve ball with the dancey “Passionfruit” which officially serves as the introduction to the Dancehall section of the album.

The dancehall stretch of songs peaks with “Blem” easily Drake’s best dancehall track, and one of my new personal favorites. “Blem” leads directly into “4422,” a Sampha solo track that breaks up the Drake monotony, transitions perfectly to a surprise Lil Wayne interlude and then melts into “Gyalchester” one of Drake’s best pump-up songs of all time.

“Gyalchester” is followed by a slew of traditional rap tracks with features from the likes of Travis Scott, Skepta, and Young Thug. From there “Nothings Into Somethings” marks the album’s pivot into the albums R&B section. Finally, the album’s final handful of tracks shuffle through a little bit of each sound in Drake’s repertoire.

All of this leads to the final track in the playlist “Do Not Disturb” a pensive Snoh Aalegra-sampling track that finds Drake reflecting on his life since the release of Views. In one of the songs more telling lines Drake explicitly talks about where he was mentally while making his last album 

Yeah, ducked a lot of spiteful moves / I was an angry youth when I was writin’ Views / Saw a side of myself that I just never knew

In addition to name-dropping the title of the album, it’s also tradition for the last Drake song tends to be one of the most reflective on each record. While that usually means self-aggrandizing and reflecting on his own accomplishments, the line above stuck out like a sore thumb to me upon first listen. It shows that a surprising amount of development and growth has happened in the past year, and it’s interesting to see Drake reflect negatively on an album he’d released less than a year ago. It also spoke to people like me (or Drake fans in general) who felt let down by Views.

This line combined with an equally self-aware voicemail from his Mom on “Can’t Have Everything” have completely quelled my fears of another artistically-regressive Drake album. That said, there’s still plenty wrong with Drake. From writer’s camps to being a culture vulture, to losing his soul, there’s still lots to criticize. Separate the art from the artist and all that.  

I guess it’s apparent I like More Life quite a bit. The album is as long as Views, but manages to handle everything it does better. From the lack of dumb-smart punchlines to a more varied (but organized) listen, I think releasing a “playlist” freed Drake up to experiment more which is exactly what Views was lacking.

I’m mainly happy that he got out of this apparent rut, and doesn’t seem to be compromising his artistic vision to chase a sound that will make him money. At this point, he’s one of pop’s biggest stars, and people will listen to anything he puts out, so maybe this is all a moot point, but at the very least he’s trying out new things and not chasing money. He’s essentially too big to fail, so when the money chases you there’s really no need to get validation through numbers.

If releasing a playlist frees you up to more artistic experimentation then it’s better for Drake, the listener, and the culture. If breaking out of traditional marketing cycles and release dates gives you more mental energy then go for it. Drake obviously saw Views for what it was: a flawed album. You can criticize Drake for a lot of things, but you have to admit that this level of self-awareness and reflection is pretty rare for someone as big as him. I appreciate the fact that music’s biggest star can still take risks, even when there’s an easier path that already exists. 

Read Part 3 Here