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Streaming Music: Artists’ Newest Attempt To Counter Pirating?

Yesterday was a big day for fans of music. In addition to the release of quite a few noteworthy singles, many of which you will probably hear on this site in the next week or so, three major artists made their soon-to-be-released albums available for streaming online. Grizzly Bear made their latest project Shields available to the folks at NPR, who put it up on their website for fans to listen to. Meanwhile, Band of Horses and How To Dress Well shared their respective albums on their Soundcloud pages. All three of these albums are set for release on September 18th, exactly a week from today. This comes within a week of The xx making  a stream of their highly anticipated sophomore album known to one fan and then watching news of the stream spread worldwide.

This (somewhat) recent trend of making an artist’s album available to stream online a week or two before it’s physical release suggests a calculated attempt by either the artist or the label (or both) to combat the preponderance of internet piracy that is seemingly affecting music sales. Giving people access, but not ownership, of the music they desire is an interesting market strategy; sites like Youtube and Spotify allow listeners to ascertain the quality of the music they’re most intrigued by, thus making buying a record less of a leap of faith by the consumer and more of a show of support and preference. Full album streams would achieve the same goals. It seems like an acknowledgement by the industry, however begrudgningly, that if people want to pirate music they will. Instead, artists and labels should redirect some of their focus to those listeners who are tentative about making purchases and selective when it comes to how and where they spend their money. Consumers who require conformation of quality before making a purchase are probably more abundant than we give credit for. Increased access afforded by these streams leads to increased exposure for the artist’s music and exposure is rarely a negative thing as long as the music holds appeal to a certain sect of listeners.

All of this is based on speculative reasoning of course. I haven’t conducted any of the industry studies I assume the record labels have and I don’t pretend to know the reactions and listening habits of all consumers. However it seems like common sense that streams like this would be beneficial in discouraging the desire to pirate music, even if only amongst a fraction of those who illegally obtain music. But even a small increase in sales is noteworthy; at this point the record industry needs all the sales that they can get.

Here’s the stream of Band of Horses’s upcoming 4th album Mirage Rock:

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5 Reasons Drake Is Good For Hip Hop

ImageDrake seems to have been a beacon of controversy recently, both due to his actions and due to his music. Critics of his work have been especially outspoken about his “soft” musical style and he has been dissed by a slew of established rappers and hip hop spokesmen, including Pusha TCharlemagne The God and Common (somewhat ironically). In this post I’d like to rebuke any criticisms aimed his way and argue that Drake is actually good for hip hop for the following reasons:

5) He’s really not that bad of a rapper

That’s not to say that Drake is a great rapper. He’s still prone to drop a clunky line and his delivery is a bit too repetitive despite some diversification on his latest album “Take Care”. He’s gotten better over the years but he’s never going to reach a ’94 Nas’ level of MCing. But he’s not a ‘bad’ rapper by any means. He can be incisive and witty at times, as on “HYFR” when he declares “What have I learned since getting richer? / I learned working with the negatives could make for better pictures.” He is also willing to experiment with his flow when on the same song he raps in a breathless double-time. His singing voice, while lacking the robustness to carry full songs, is the perfect tool for conveying Drake’s emotional musings during chorus’s and refrains. Although much is made by critics of Drake’s abilities as an MC, he’s really quite serviceable and at times downright good.

4) Drake is working with some of the most exciting producers making music

Over time hip hop audiences have (arguably) become more obsessed with the sonic backdrop of a song than its lyrical content. Luckily for Drake, he has a stable of supremely gifted in-house producers who are defining a certain ‘sound’, a form of airy, cerebral commercial production that fits Drake’s singing and rapping perfectly.  Synthy and echoic, the music provided by Noah “40” Shebib, Boi-1da, and T-Minus can be alternately slow and dreamy (“Lust for Life”) or hard and propulsive (“HYFR“). This style, in tandem with the similar work of frequent The Weeknd collaborator Illangelo, is beginning to define Toronto hip hop. Drake’s beat selection is a defining trait and his employment of such talented producers is another reason that he is good for hip hop.

3) The message behind Drake’s lyrics represent hip hop in a (comparably) positive light

Hip hop’s subject matter has been a lightning rod of controversy since the late 1980’s. ‘Gangster Rap’ became a favorite issue of political and social leaders around the time that NWA helped define West Coast hip hop. More recently, hip hop has come under intense scrutiny for its supposed materialistic and misogynistic tendencies. Drake’s lyrical content, while not being completely antithetical to other forms of commercial rap, displays a level of maturity and sensibility that makes it stand out.

His music seems downright philogynistic when compared to the music of many of his peers. Take the song “Fancy” for instance, in which he raps:

“Hit the gym, step on the scales stare at the number
You say you dropping 10 pounds, preparing for summer
And you don’t do it for the men, men never notice
You just do it for yourself, you’re the fucking coldest
Intelligent too, ooh, you’re my sweetheart
I’ve always liked my women book and street smart
Long as they got a little class like half days
And the confidence to overlook my past ways”

There seems to be a real attempt at understanding women in his music and he manages to paint them in a three-dimensional way that many Hip-Hop artists refuse to. Drake also manages to never sound too cloying or get tied up in ‘mansplaining’; his lyrics are palatable and reasonable without being condescending. This philogyny permeates much of his first two albums and presents hip hop music in a positive light.

Another complaint about modern hip hop is that it’s too material-obsessed and shallow. This argument becomes hard to deny when you hear an artist like Rick Ross compare women to “a bag of money” and rap about high priced sports cars that he, in all likelihood, can’t fit into comfortably. Drake’s subject matter touches on his commercial success, but offers a nuanced and balanced portrayal of stardom. Drake’s confessional style extends to the subject of his popularity and the insecurities that come with national exposure. His first album is devoted primarily to the subject, with lines like “I wish I wasn’t famous / I wish I was still in school” and “What am I afraid of? / This is supposed to be what dreams are made of.” He doesn’t take his success for granted either, rapping “I know that niggas would kill for this lifestyle/ I’m lookin’ forward to the memories of right now.” Although his music is not completely devoid of the monetary braggadocio that fills the rap airwaves, he offers enough balance to combat the critical image of rap as narcissistic and superficial.

2) Drake sells and sales are good for hip hop

One of the main criticisms of Drake, his commercial style and viability, is actually one of the best things about him. Hip hop fans and critics who are overly concerned with “selling out” and “going commercial” often disregard the fact that sales and radio airplay are beneficial to hip hop as an art form. Increased commercial success and profitability means that the market becomes more receptive to other hip hop acts. Consequently, record companies are more likely to seek out rappers and support them as long as similar music is selling. And there is little doubt that Drake’s music is some of the most commercially fruitful in the music industry today.

Drake’s first album “Thank Me Later” has sold over 1.5 million copies since its release in 2010, and his critically-revered follow up “Take Care” has been even more successful, to the tune of 1.9 million albums sold. In the present (deflated) market where only 10-15 albums a year crack sales of a million, these are pretty significant numbers. In 2010, the only rapper to sell more records was Eminem, whose comeback record “Recovery” held the #1 spot for the year. Similarly, only Drake’s mentor Lil’ Wayne, the radio-friendly Black Eyed Peas and the superstar duo of Kanye West & Jay-Z sold more records in 2011. That puts Drake in an elite group when it comes to commercial profitability.

Even more important from a visibility standpoint, Drake’s music is played constantly on the radio. It’s almost impossible to listen to a major commercial station without hearing at least one or two songs that feature Drake. His remarkable list of Top 25 singles includes “Over”, “Fancy”, “Miss Me”, “Best I Ever Had”, “Find Your Love”, “Successful”, “Headlines”, “Take Care”, “Marvin’s Room”, “Make Me Proud” and “The Motto”. At the present moment alone Drake is featured on 4 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 list. In the end, Drake’s commercial success increases his value to the genre that he represents

1) Drake’s albums are actually pretty good

None of the above-mentioned points would matter if Drake’s albums were disappointing overall. I would argue that other commercially viable artists like the Black Eyed Peas are ultimately not good for hip hop’s overall image because the quality of their music is so poor. This is not the case with Drake; not only is he well-received commercially but he is also a success with critics. His first album “Thank Me Later” received much praise and ended up on a few publications “Best of 2010” lists. His follow-up “Take Care” was arguably better. According to Metacritic, a site that compiles reviews of many of the major music publications, “Take Care” was the ninth-best rated album of 2011.

Drake’s music speaks for itself. Ultimately, what’s good for hip hop’s image is having a wealth of sonically pleasing, lyrically intelligent and monetarily successful music. Drake’s output manages to embody all three of these traits and that is why he is good for hip hop.

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