After first hearing a single (Nasty f. Planet Asia) released by Mello Music Group, I had a pretty good idea that Dice Game was going to be a strong album. "Nasty" is a track where a gospel sample breaks the song and creates an unusual chorus. It's one of the best tracks from the album, btw. When I finally heard the full release, I realized it's so much better than I anticipated. Guilty Simpson is easily one of my favorite mc's out today and Apollo Brown really put together a a diverse set of tracks. An instrumental project I always keep around is Clouds (by Apollo Brown), so I'm not surprised by the high quality production. Apollo Brown was brave enough to sample Wu-Tang! Not many producers do that and it doesn't feel like a hack job, by any means. Chemistry and consistency was what I wondered about for Dice Game and ironically it's what makes it a must have.
Dice Game represents and idea that I've consistently believed to be true regarding production and the overall quality of any hip hop project. The fact that one producer is featured, Apollo Brown, makes it less likely to have multiple tracks with the same feel. The product is a collection of unique tracks with Guilty's signature grime all over it. Too often albums are treated as a collection of singles and it makes for a weaker album from track to track. However, Dice Game is a perfect example of how a clear vision creates a stronger and more creative project.
The Dreamer The Believer covers a lot of ground. Common manages to touch on spirituality, hip hop battling and the signature consciousness Common really explored since his second album, One Day It Will All Make Sense back in 1997. There is no questioning Common's impact on hip hop and The Dreamer The Believer is one of his best overall albums from top to bottom. The depth of the soul and the energy of the beats is amazingly credited to one producer, No I.D. I have always thought that the production is as important as the lyrical and rhythmic skill of the mc. There are too many albums where one overshadows the other, but this isn't one of them. No I.D. can easily best credited as one of the best producers around.
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In 2012, it's important to point out the soulful albums from well established artists like Common because it shows that you don't have to sell your soul to make money. Common's visibility has only increased, but his music obviously hasn't suffered. Trends fade and time shows who has the biggest impact on the music. For these reasons, I won't go into the beef between him & Drake. To establish this album as an instant classic it might help to mention that No I.D. (again), Maya Angelou, Nas and John Legend are in the credits. I swear I hear some cuts from DJ Premier, but I haven't seen him in the credits, but I digress. The final product is a balanced hip hop album to set the bar for 2012. I hope more artists can step up to the plate and keep up the momentum.
I'm going to rant a little bit, but more than that, I'm going to take a quick snapshot of our culture. Why? Because right now, there is a void of respect, attention to craft and respect for pioneers and proven talent. I know that there is nothing new about this, but I'm also interested in the way social media and the media in general affects this. I believe there is some superstar complex spreading like the plague and I believe it is largely due to social media. Everything is changing so fast that many people aren't taking a second to look at what is going on around them. So, more than getting a few things off my chest, I am curious to hear your opinions or if you think I'm just a disgruntled artist.
May 3, 2011, on the day that Q-Tip was announced as the headliner for the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival, there was some ridiculous comment that is a symptom of what I'm getting at. Some clown named Gucci Christ had the nerve to say, "Q-Tip is one of the lamest niggaz to ever rap." Besides the fact that this clown stole his name from another clown with an ice cream cone tattooed to his face, he shows no respect for hip hop pioneers, no knowledge of the art and what's worse, he said that he is better. He continued to say, "Listen to a rapper who has meaningful lyrics like Gucci Christ, OJ Da Juiceman, Fabo of D4L, Justin Bieber and Hopsin". I know this is a clown with an overinflated ego, but this weekend, I got another taste of the attitude of a large percentage of the people that think this way. Gucci Christ could be a troll, but he could very easily be some clown trying to get known. The sad part is that this could easily be real.
I brought my t-shirt line, RA-NYC to DunkXChange NYC on 4/30/2011. It's a custom buy, sell and trade show that had live hip hop performers. Now, I haven't heard of all of these acts before, but that's not important. The performers were solid, the event was well planned and the vendors all created a cool vibe for an event. Now, this is not usually the problem, but the crowd, the people paying to come into the event were the wackest group of prima donnas I've ever seen at a live performance. I've never seen a group of people too cool to get involved in a show they paid to see. That could translate to the performers not doing their job or just being weak in general, but not in this case. I found a couple new talented artists to check out this weekend and the vendors were feeling the music as well. So, I know it's not just me and my perception.
Just last week, another artistically underachieving ego maniac named Soulja Boy Tellem announced that he was going to remake Juice, the 90's classic movie, originally filmed in Harlem with Soulja Boy playing the role of Bishop, previously played by Tupac. My first impression was, "Wow!" It's like Snow coming back from the dead to play Eminem in his own remake of 8 Mile. For someone to put themselves on a pedestal equivalent to a pioneer many consider to be one of the best ever to touch a mic, you better have your shit together and really have solidified your place as an innovator in whatever it is you do. Soulja Boy has not. He can barely rap beyond a 2nd grade level. I know he has sold millions of records, but nobody claims Brittney Spears is more talented and a better singer than Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey in their prime just because Spears has sold more records than them. Records sales are often more of a reflection of money poured into promotion, distribution and marketing than proof of talent or worth as an artist. Michael Jackson is the antithesis to this argument, but that is because his talent matched his record sales, RIP.
Another example that cleary brings these ideas that I'm presenting in this article to life comes from the world of basketball. Anyone that knows me, knows that I absolutely can not stand LeBron James. Now before you label me a hater, take a second to hear me out. The reasons that I can't stand him also relates to many of my statements about the group of people that will crown themselves king before they ever step foot onto the big stage. Let me rephrase because there are a lot of people from my generation that suffer the from the same misconception. So it's not a generational thing. LeBron had the audacity to continue to use the name "The King" when he walked into the NBA as a teenager. Since then, he has proven himself as an amazing athlete and as a prolific scorer while achieving individual accolades as a result. I'm not blinded by my dislike of LeBron James, but the fact still remains that there are more than three players in the NBA that at this point have solidified their place in the NBA Hall of Fame and the self-titled "King" hasn't won any rings, yet. Those players are Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. There are others that will definitely make it in, but if LeBron James were to have a career ending injury tomorrow, I don't think he would deserve a place in the conversation of the greatest of all time (G.O.A.T). I still see the attitude and actions of James as disrespectful as Lil Wayne or Jay Z calling himself the greatest rapper alive. In my opinion, there's no possibility of that as long as Rakim is alive (among others). The point is, why is it necessary for someone to take on that title? If you let the public determine those titles, you don't look like an insecure asshole and you at least show some respect for those that you should have respect for. For a little experiment, look up the MVP acceptance speeches for LeBron James and Derrick Rose. If you compare them, you can see a clear example of what I'm talking about. Lebron James talks about himself in third person and Derrick Rose damn near made me cry with his tribute to his mom. Don't let me decide for you. As a matter of fact, I'll embed the videos here.
I will identify what I see as the root of these problems as clearly and as directly as I can. Hopefully, I can do it without bursting a blood vessel.
First, I think one reason for the new online superstar complex is the over accessible technology and the ground leveling myth of social media. Everybody might be able to record a video, but not everybody with a camera knows the artistry of film, directing, cinematography and acting. The same goes for music. Sampling and drum machines are so readily available that everyone thinks they can be the next 9th Wonder while plain and simple, they can't be. Sampling Biggie doesn't make you as good as him and making an Illmatic tribute doesn't make you a skillful lyricist like Nas. Kid Koala is an artist because he not only masters his tools, he experiments with sounds to create unique productions. The superficial superstar complex also is apparent because these people can't take criticism. Anyone that points out a deficiency or something inconsistent about the work is considered a hater. Not liking someone's work doesn't automatically make you a hater. But someone that calls any dissenter a hater because they don't like your work or because you don't get any recognition is 10x worse than being a "hater". Artists don't ride on every word of critics, but to be able to take criticism and improve/adapt work is part of an artists' nature. If it's not the criticism of others, artists should at least be able to look at their own work and see how to improve it and they shouldn't be surprised that other people will have criticism. If you don't want to hear criticism, stay in your basement and don't release half baked work. The most talented artists usually are not focusing on the business end of their work because doing, creating, growing and innovating are the most important goals to achieve. The thug/businessman lie sold every day in hip hop shows just how shallow the roles these people play actually are. Artists obviously need to know the nature of the business they make a living from so they are not taken advantage of, but the distinction between art and business is clear in the mind of the artist.
The ability to be able to post videos, music tracks and start to build an online following does not mean that the person knows anything about the music business, promotion, composition, engineering or mixing. It shows an understanding of how to use online tools to promote, but says nothing about the musical quality. The same goes for LeBron James. He came into the league with an undeserved title as "King", a shoe contract and since then, he hasn't exactly shown his mastering of the NBA as a team sport. While racking up statistics at a record breaking pace, his statistics come from a very undisciplined game of basketball. His points and assists come from the pick and roll game, open court/fast break and isolation plays. When the game slows down and he has to play a deliberate half court offense, his game suffers and loses concentration. I don't know if he suffers from ADD or ADHD, but for someone to be considered the best, they have to be able to do everything and in my opinion, he can't. The fact that he tried to create a super squad by joining Dwayne Wade's team in Miami doesn't show that he understands the game of basketball, it shows that he knows how to attract attention and didn't want to do it the way the greats have done before him. The truth is that you don't need 3 franchise players to win a ring. You need only one consistent star with a good cast. Scottie Pippen wouldn't be in the Hall of Fame if there was no Michael Jordan. You wouldn't remember who Soulja Boy Tellem is if there was no YouTube and trolls that bash hip hop pioneers for their personal benefit, wouldn't have an audience if there was no internet. The internet, 24 hour news cycle, superficial world of advertising and dedicated sports news/music channels have the ability to open the world up to the performers and artists that previously would not get widespread recognition, but instead it has created an excess of people thinking they have already mastered their craft enough and deserve credit. Why? I think it is because even though there is more media than ever before, the people in the media are not willing to stand on their own, think for themselves and give potentially unpopular opinions (other than Charles Barkley). Meanwhile, artists haven't worked hard enough to even compare to those with established legacies. I guarantee you that LeBron James would be perceived completely different if the world did not see his high school games on YouTube before he stepped foot on an NBA stage and all of his hype didn't exist. He is a media created star and has yet to dominate when it counts, the NBA Playoffs! I see how they're playing now and my words still hold true because what's done is done. It's like watching a high school play.
If people focused on their work and not their egos, their work would be able to speak for itself. Hip hop is filled with ego because everyone has to believe they can be the best. It's no different than basketball or visual arts in that sense. But the difference between visual arts and hip hop is that if you don't put in work, thought and dedicate time, you won't be given the time of day. In hip hop, the wackest mc can get airplay if they fit the role that is popular or if they use the right catch phrases (swag, kush, my fresh, etc). Also, the popularity contest in a lot of the mainstream music is based on superficial ideas like sex, appearance and all of these petty and small trends that will only remind you of when it was released. Meanwhile, Adele, Jennifer Hudson and a million other amazingly talented people will never be held as high as the egos that demand the spotlight. I think it's never been more important for people to appreciate genuine creativity and reward those that work so hard to achieve their goals. I take these things seriously and that's the main reason that I write for this blog. There are talented people out there that don't have an opportunity to get the recognition they deserve because they won't sacrifice their integrity. I appreciate their work and their ability to continue in the face of insurmountable opposition and pressure to conform. So, I share it with you the best way I know how.
Mos Def uses his own thoughts, creates his own lingo and still maintains musically advanced and lyrically advanced albums that turns these clowns back around where they came from. Bottom line.....put up or shut up. If my words aren't enough, I will leave you with his.
I make it go without a brand new car
I was fresh without a brand new song
I give a fuck about what brand you are
I'm concerned what type of man you are
What your principals and standards are
you understand me y'all?"
Sunshine, The New Danger, Mos Def, 2004