Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Death of Radio: The Liberating World of Hip-Hop Outside of the Airwaves

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Every once in a while, I resort to tuning into the radio in the car.  My iPhone is dead and, God forbid, the Usher “Confessions” album is skipping through my favorite verse of “Burn.”  Or maybe I just feel like partaking in a bit of brainwashing on my evening cruise–Hear the same five songs on repeat, start learning the words, jam out to a Kei$ha sing-a-long–It’s a slippery slope, that radio dial.  The music ain’t bumpin’ like it used to, and we should let it burn.

Modern-day disc jockey are shameless puppets of radio executives, plugging in pre-made playlists that repeat five or six songs on an hour cycle because they’re told such.  Your request is only honored if it plays into the game plan.  Some rich white guy approves of your song choice, because it perpetuates a societal stigma or stereotype.  He’ll just love it if you’re itching to hear songs that portray diamond laced black men bragging about their money and hoes.  He’ll make sure the volume at the main station is “turnt up.”  Oops, I didn’t mean to get that political.  Who knows if he’d block this article if it was published on a mainstream website.

And still, plenty of artists rely on radio play to propel their album sales.  Top billboard spots are the product of some bizarre, controlled popularity contest.  I find myself asking: Do I really like this song, or are “they” telling me what to like?  Of all things, we let “them” control our music, perhaps the most potentially influential sphere of our culture.  The business of radio maintains a stronghold on an art form that was created and harvested from a yearning for individual expression.

Luckily, it seems as if hip-hop has had enough. Utilizing a strong network of music blogs and well-connected fan bases, today’s rapper is far less dependent on the radio than the Nelly’s and Ja Rule’s of the last decade.  We’ve reached a point where radio play and hit singles are more burdensome than they are rewarding.   I discover new hip-hop talent by browsing hip-hop blogs and taking recommendations from friends with trusted taste.  Why would I rely on some faceless radio robot to tell me about the “hottest tracks out there.”

We’ve heard rappers bash the radio industry for years, but their tenuous relationship has certainly evolved.  Whereas hip-hop used to have a rebellious, “we can get rich and famous without your spins” attitude, present day artists treat the radio as less of an obstacle and more of an obsolete medium that has driven itself into irrelevance.

Gone are the days when rappers released hit singles to propel their upcoming album.  Instead, we have online releases from their personal websites and twitter-feeds.  We have six-track mixtapes and bonus tracks and, as of last week, worldwide video projection on inner-city buildings (thanks, Yeezy).  Artists like J. Cole release their music directly to fans, and Wiz Khalifa makes us feel like we’re hearing tracks as soon as they’re recorded in-studio.

In 2004, for example, Kanye rapped on “Jesus Walks” about radio’s barriers:

That means guns, sex, lies, videotape

But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?

Well if this take away from my spins

Which will probably take away from my ends

Nine years ago, radio’s censorship controlled rappers’ “spins,” which ultimately affected their “ends,” their monetary income.  Almost a decade later, Kanye is releasing his next album without a pre-order or hit-single.  His only leaks stem from his world-wide video projections and a live SNL performance.  He has essentially created a worldwide concert audience to spotlight radio’s recent insignificance, and he isn’t alone.

Hip-hop has had a liberating realization that a world without the radio means no censorship, no contract disputes, and no more rich white men telling us what music to listen to.  Giving out music for free is more beneficial than selling your lyrical soul to the industry.  Now, we hear rappers bragging about how much money they make off of a show or appearance, rather than how many times they’ve gone platinum.  After all, they’re making much more money proportionally from concerts and merchandise than from album sales.  A ridiculous portion of album sales go directly to the same rich white men who control the radio.

It gets better.  The internet movement allows us to discover new artists like never before.  As much as Wiz Khalifa still uses the radio to promote albums, he relied on a grass-roots twitter movement to gain fame.  Curren$y left Young Money because he was tired of record label nonsense, and harvested his own fan base through internet streams and free mixtapes.  In the early 2000’s, Curren$y would’ve just been that guy we heard on “Where Da Cash At” and never saw again.  Wiz Khalifa would probably still be in Pittsburgh, still smoking blunts.  One of my earliest posts on this blog discussed how Kendrick Lamar used the radio to trick people into hearing a socially conscious message, masking lyrical relevance with a catchy hook.  He is one of many rappers who still release radio singles, but have figured out how to use it to their advantage.

Artists who continue to rely solely on the radio are behind the times, and it’s evident. Lupe Fiasco, for example, hasn’t figured out how to escape the limits of radioplay.  His most recent albums have painfully driven by a mainstream sound to garner “spins,” and the socially-conscious that made all of us fall in love with Lupe has dissolved into a muffled corniness.  He also started beef with a popular hip-hop blog, 2DopeBoyz, for leaking his song prior to his album release.  I’ll refrain from taking sides on music ownership and sales, but Lupe certainly lost the battle with the internet.  2DopeBoyz refuses to post about his music, cutting off Mr. Fiasco from a large database of hip-hop fans.

Taking this recent movement into consideration, I’ve learned to take radio for what it is: a monotonous stream of one, decade-old joke.  Listening in is certainly funny at times, if I need my fix of censored hooks like “A long-bad-b- is not my, not my problem/and yeah I like to—I got a—problem” (Yes, it certainly sounds like you have a problem, A$AP.  You shouldn’t let the radio get a hold of your tracks.) But usually, I like to stay away from the dial, even if it means I have to clean my  “Confessions” disc every so often.

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The Compelling Duality of Kanye West: The Participatory Critic in “New Slaves”

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I didn’t get a chance to see Kanye West’s world-wide broadcast of his latest single “New Slaves,” the first track unveiled from his sixth studio album Yeezus.  For some reason, Yeezy chose to bypass Pittsburgh for the 66-building international music video projection (who knows why, but I’m thinking it’s a subtle shot at Mac Miller).  But I did have the pleasure of seeing Kanye’s SNL performance.  There he stood, shouting from the shadows, embracing this new ranting-monster-menace role into which we’ve slowly seen him evolve.  Very much by his own motivations, Yeezy has forced mainstream America to tout him as its very own exiled poet.

Although I’m sure the building premier would have been a fascinating experience, I’m much more excited for the album’s June 18th release.  If “New Slaves” stands as an appropriate preview for the nature of the 14-track work, critics best get their keyboards ready.  The single presents a bold commentary on American race relations.  West assails the racial politics of present-day consumerism, labeling it as a new form of slavery.

You see it’s broke nigga racism

That’s that “Don’t touch anything in the store”

And this rich nigga racism

That’s that “Come here, please buy more

What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain?

All you blacks want all the same things”

In the first verse, Kanye speaks from his own experience, moving from his status as a “broke” black man in Chicago to his current post among the self-crowned “new black elite.” Regardless of economic standing, he endures consumer racism.  If a black man is perceived to be in poverty he suffers from “broke nigga racism,” consistently suspected of stealing.  If he is wealthy, he’ll find himself plagued with “rich nigga racism,” forever pressured to participate in a decadent lifestyle to prove his escape from poverty.

Already, critics have blasted Kanye on his new single, calling him a hypocrite for participating in the very system he attacks.  Earnest Owens calls him “that one cousin in the family that never tends to shut up at the dinner table” in an article in The Huffington Post.

In short, Owens claims that Kanye spends too much time complaining about present-day racism, rather than putting his efforts towards fixing the problem.  In The Chicago Sun-Times, Richard Roeper dissects Kanye’s lavish lifestyle to argue that the icon spends far too much time (and money) embracing consumer capitalism to have a pertinent voice in its criticism.

There’s no denying that Kanye is an active participant in the scheme of American consumerism, and therefore perpetuates the conventions that he voraciously attacks.  Of course, this isn’t something out of the ordinary for Kanye.  Critique of American racism–through consumerism, mass incarceration, and faulty education to name a few—has always held prominence in Kanye’s work. At every level, he is the first to admit participatory guilt for almost everything he critiques.

Early on, in Yeezy’s debut album The College Dropout, “All Falls Down” portrays materialism’s plague the black community.  In the final verse, he confesses: “But I ain’t even gonna act holier than thou/Cause fuck it, I went to Jacob with twenty-five thou,” and a few lines later: “‘I got a problem with spendin’ before I get it/We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.”

In “Breathe In Breathe Out,” from the same album, Kanye calls himself part of the problem yet again:

Golly, more of that bullshit ice rap

I got to ‘pologize to Mos and Kweli

But is it cool to rap about gold

If I told the world I copped it from Ghana and Mali?

First nigga with a Benz and a backpack

Ice chain, Carti lens, and a knapsack

Always said if I rapped I’d say somethin’ significant

But now I’m rappin’ ’bout money, hoes, and rims again

Kanye is compelled to “’pologize to Mos and Kweli,” admitting that he has let down two prominent socially conscious hip-hop artists—Mos Def and Talib Kweli—by succumbing to “bullshit ice rap,” instead of following his initial goal to “say somethin’ significant.” In “Breathe in Breathe Out,” Kanye participates in the “bullshit ice rap” trend by rapping about “money, hoes, and rims.” But the track is also very much a parody of gangster rap, Yeezy’s way of demonstrating how easy it is to fall into the laziness of meaningless lyricism.

Why then, are we just starting to hear about Kanye’s so called hypocrisy?  Perhaps his most recent work is more aggressive than his earlier critique.  Whereas his participant/critic duality was more subtle in The College Dropout, “New Slaves” has very little comic relief, making for a much louder social commentary.    But seriously, do critics really think they’re making an original point by criticizing him for participating in the problems of hip-hop?  If anything, Yeezy beat the critics at their own game by embracing his participation from the beginning of his career. His honest participation complicates the very issues he attacks.  Despite Kanye’s full awareness that he is part of the problem, his continued participation shows that the issues of hip-hop are far too embedded in black culture to simply avoid.  Not to say that we should give Kanye a free pass, or let him stand alone as his own critic.  Instead, we should use his participatory guilt as a prime example of the issues within hip-hop, not simply dismiss him as a hypocrite.

As for the argument that Kanye spends too much effort criticizing rather than fixing the problems, I must question why we place that mountain responsibility on the artist. Should we criticize Richard Wright for not including practical solutions in Native Son?  That’s a bit of an extreme example, but one essential step to fixing the racial issues embedded in our country is to identify, publicize, and criticize these issues in the first place.  Then, it becomes our own responsibility to pursue action for what we believe is right.  Kanye isn’t a politician or social activist.  He’s a world-famous rapper who has a knack for stirring controversy.  We shouldn’t put his face on a stamp, nor should we dismiss him as a hollow hypocrite.  Instead, let’s take him for what he is: a worldwide megaphone of racial tension.  I’m excited to see just how many fires he can ignite with Yeezus.  If “New Slaves” is any indication of what’s to come, I hope critics can come up with a better reaction than simply crying hypocrite.  The issues here are far too complicated and important to mute that simply.