Lana, Taylor, & Miley: Navigating Modern Music Criticism

Childish rants on Twitter don’t solve the problem, but only grow tensions. It’s the key virtues of restraint and maturity which will allow artists to navigate the constantly changing world of modern music.

Last Friday, Lana Del Rey dropped her fifth studio LP, Norman Fucking Rockwell! Just a few days later, legendary pop music critic, Ann Powers published a fantastically in-depth review of the LP. The review featured all of Powers’ trademark nuance and intelligent deconstruction and celebrated the album is an impressive step forward for Del Rey. She did, however, draw a few unflattering comparisons of Lana to singer/songwriter legends like Joni Mitchell, and called some of the ideas on the project “uncooked,” and criticized her reliance on her “persona as a bad girl to whom bad things are done.” This was a relatively benign criticism, especially when set against the backdrop of a rather flattering review, but Lana certainly didn’t think so.

“Here’s a little sidenote on your piece,” the vocalist tweeted in response to the review, “I don’t even relate to one observation you made about the music. There’s nothing uncooked about me. To write about me is nothing like it is to be with me. Never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will.”

“So don’t call yourself a fan like you did in the article and don’t count your editor one either,” she continued. “I may never have made bold political or cultural statements before — because my gift is the warmth I live my life with and the self reflection I share generously.” Needless to say, this is not a good look for Lana Del Rey. The majority of the music industry seems to agree as Twitter has been flooded with support for Ann Powers and defense of the critic’s excellent catalog of work and right to voice her opinion however she sees fit.

This kind of vitriolic backlash to negative criticism, however, is becoming more and more common, particularly in the increasingly competitive world of pop music. Earlier this year, Miley Cyrus responded to a relatively brutal critique of her newest EP, She Is Coming from online blog, High Snobiety. “I finally found a shitty review of SHE IS COMING,” Tweeted Cyrus, before adding “Ps thanks for putting buy/stream link at the end of your shitty article although I’m pretty sure everyone has bought and streamed but I’m sure it was helpful for those who are as out of touch as you are.”

In all fairness, this is not new by any means. Tool’s 2001 track “Ticks and Leeches,” was a clear shot at the industry as a whole and more directly at metal critics who had accused the band of going soft. Sonic Youth directly name dropped longtime critic Robert Christgau in their 1983 track, “Kill Yr Idols.” Even the great Bob Dylan went after music journalists in his song “Ballad Of A Thin Man.”

Love it or hate it, music criticism and the artist’s response to this criticism, has long been an integral part of popular music. But like every other aspect of life, social media has dramatically changed the landscape of this relationship. When Dylan wanted to respond to a journalist, this had to be done either through a new release. Miley Cyrus and Lana Del Rey, on the other hand, can fire off a tweet without a second thought and make their displeasure known. Unfortunately, this won’t change anytime soon.

And so, it may be time that every participant in the music industry, from the artists down to the fans and even the critics themselves, come to a robust appreciation for the role which critics play in the ever evolving world world of music.

First and foremost, critics can act as a trusted curator in the crowded field of new releases which come every week. Sometimes, a strong review may tell readers about an obscure project which they may not have found on their own. Other times, critics can let you know which of mainstream records may not be worth your time.

Additionally, when an otherwise successful artist drops a project which doesn’t live up to expectations, thorough, constructive critiques of the album can help that artist get back on track. All too often, when a musician is surrounded by a team, the lack of objective, outside opinions can begin to weigh on the creative process. In this instance, thoughtful reviews like those written by Ann Powers can help an artist course correct.

Of course, not all reviews are created equal, and there are plenty of awful sights who focus on sensationalized, simplistic reviews which add virtually nothing to the discourse. However, it’s the job of artists to tell constructive criticism from sensationalized nonsense, and it’s the job of respectable critics to combat the voices of those who only cloud the water.

Perhaps no modern artist had toed this line quite as well as Taylor Swift. Her first public run in with criticism came in the form of her 2011 mega-hit, “Mean,” which, though a bit cheesy, does quite a great job of pinpointing the distinction between thoughtful critique and vitriolic nonsense. However, it’s her newest album which shows her excellent ability to take in criticism.

When her 2017 release, Reputation was released, it performed predictably well on the billboard charts and caught the usual, fawning reviews from several mainstream outlets. However, many independent critics and writers for smaller publications were clear in articulating a concern with the inorganic and forced direction which Swift seemed to be taking.

And so, just two years later, Taylor’s newest release, Lover seems to planted her directly back on track with yet another enjoyable LP which addresses nearly every complain brought forward by Reputation’s negative reviews. Taylor’s perfect 180 is a perfect example of an artist taking in critiques and adjusting in the perfect way.

Ultimately, tension has always been thick between those who make music and those who review it. That hasn’t changed, nor will it anytime soon, and so artists will need to learn to take criticism in stride and use it to improve their sound.

Childish rants on Twitter don’t solve the problem, but only grow tensions. It’s the key virtues of restraint and maturity which will allow artists to navigate the constantly changing world of modern music.

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Death Grips and Dadaism in Modern Music

Gmail and the Restraining Orders is a violent attempt to rip the comforts of melody and rhythm away so that music, and by extension the world, may be seen more clearly.

Death Grips is an underground, experimental hip-hop trio based in Sacramento, California. They rose to popularity in 2011 with the release of their self-titled and Exmilitary EP’s. These two projects circulated quickly through internet communities and eventually landed them a deal with Epic Records where they released their first two full length LP’s, The Money Store and No Love Deep Web, before leaving the label on less than amicable terms to release the bulk of their work independently. They’re known for an aggressive style which defies genre, but does draw heavily from hardcore, punk, EDM, and math rock elements. Their last album, Year of the Snitch received mostly positive reviews from fans and I, myself, enjoyed their absurdist take on metal and hardcore music and the irreverent cynicism which flowed through every beat. Gmail and the Restraining Orders, however, is a different story.

I sat down to this EP with the intension of giving it a full review. This was already made difficult by the fact that the project was only released as one long youtube video without track names or even any separate tracks at all. However, I was still determined to give it the classic Brendon’s Beats treatment until I heard the actual music. There was a moment of echoing spoken word immediately sliced in half by a chilling, electrified growl and a chaotic explosion of drum work that sent the music into pure insanity. It became quickly apparent that I couldn’t review this record in the traditional sense, and so I began to approach it from a different angle.

I certainly don’t claim to understand some hidden, singular meaning within the record, nor do I think that such a thing even exists in any real sense, but I’ve listened to it a handful of times and I simply must share my thoughts. As I said, I don’t know that I’ve discovered a true meaning to the piece, but I would rather say that I’ve discovered a few interesting lenses through which once might view this project in order to even begin parsing out the jumbled chaos Death Grips has given us. For the purposes of this article, I’d like to take a stab at viewing this EP through the lens of one of the most subversive movements in all of art history.

Gmail and the Restraining Orders maps quite closely to the early 20th century avant-garde movement of Dadaism. Dadaists aimed to reject societal norms and capitalist pressures on art by creating works which were the antithesis of all which had been called art up until that point. By crafting pieces which eschewed all semblance of aesthetic and even logical norms, the Dadaist movement hoped to encourage their audiences to question their own reality and the systems of power which had enforced such artistic standards in the first place.

This falls exactly in line with the artistic goals of Death Grips’ entire career. From using a photo of drummer Zach Hill’s erect penis as an album cover to refusing to use any social media platforms, the trio seems to actively defy conventional wisdom in the music industry and one must wonder at some point if this decision is a statement in of itself. 

Gmail and the Restraining Orders is certainly the most Dadaist piece of music in the band’s catalog to date. Every sound is caustic and unpleasant, there are no recognizable song structures, the vocals are heavily effected often made even harsher than MC Ride’s already brutal delivery, and while some beats and grooves do develop, they’re often at odds with one or more sections of the full sonic landscape at the time.

Of course, it’s impossible to hear a piece like this and not have my mind rush to perhaps the most popular example of dadaism in music, Captain Beefheart’s 1969 classic, Trout Mask Replica. In it, listeners are treated to the sound of extremely talented jazz musicians at the direction of a madman in Captain Beefheart. The result is excellent and not dissimilar to this latest effort from Death Grips, except in one key aspect.

Trout Mask Replica is, at its heart, fun. It’s a man with wild ideas being given a chance to bring them to life and its packed with youthful exuberance and moments of absurdist comedy. On the other hand, I can’t imagine someone listening to Gmail and the Restraining Orders for fun. Instead, it’s a violent, unforgiving assassination attempt on the concept of traditional music and art. It’s far more aggressive and alienating than any of the band’s work to date and I thoroughly enjoy that aspect. 

It would seem that Death Grips believes, like other Dadaists before them, that our concepts of aesthetics, be they symmetry and color in visual art or rhythm and melody in music, are vices; dearly held comforts which we use to shield ourselves from any difficult realizations about the world which may be brought to us through the art we consume.

Gmail and the Restraining Orders is a violent attempt to rip the comforts of melody and rhythm away so that music, and by extension the world, may be seen more clearly.

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

HEAR THE EP: https://youtu.be/j1Kxol_6Ezk

My Thoughts on the Lineup for Woodstock II

With a very strong lineup and a creative marketing campaign, Woodstock II stands a chance of being one of the best festivals of the summer, and a fairly fitting tribute to the event that changed it all.

Mid-August, 1969, White Lake, New York. Thousands of hippies were gathered for what had been billed as “Three Days of Peace, Love, and Music.” What they may not have known is that the event would dramatically change the nature of the way music is viewed in our culture, bringing to a head many important evolutions happening in the industry. The modern music landscape is what it is today largely because of the hippie movement and its culmination at Woodstock, and this is felt very much in the prescience of music festivals in modern culture.

The original Woodstock lineup was as star studded as a lineup has ever been. The 32-act list includes icons like Santana, Credence Clearwater Revival, Janice Joplin, The Who, The Band, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, and of course, Jimi Hendrix. It was a veritable who’s who of the early psych and arena rock movements, and though an argument can be made that other festivals at the time had better or more interesting lineups, there is absolutely no denying the cultural impact of Woodstock. With the 50th anniversary fast approaching, Woodstock II is scheduled the same days and same town this summer, and my outlook is fairly positive.

First and foremost, the lineup, though not lacking its fair share of duds, features quite the array of artists. There are, of course, the legacy acts who couldn’t and shouldn’t have been left off, namely people like Santana, Dead & Company, John Fogerty, and Robert Plant. However, the collection of young and established musicians is notable as well.

The first day is headlined by The Killers, an unexpected but strong choice, and Miley Cyrus, who is often overlooked despite a powerhouse voice and a multitude of impressive, live performances, most recently at the memorial for the late Chris Cornell. Earlier in the day, Run the Jewels will likely carry the torch of protest music in addition to bringing quite a bit of energy. Akon and The Head and The Heart will likely be quite fun, though both are somewhat odd choices. The dark horse artist of the day is easily Maggie Rogers who’s debut LP earlier this year was very strong, built on a modernized version of the 70’s aesthetic. Easily the highlight of the day, though, will be the Jack White lead Raconteurs. Put simply, Jack white knows how command a crowd, and the band’s blues rock sound will easily fill the large venue.

Day two is maybe the most impressive. Greta Van Fleet and Gary Clark Jr. were extremely obvious choices, and their styles will likely play extremely well here. Portugal. The Man will likely give a fun performance, as will Dawes, though nothing jaw dropping. The top row, however, is quite fantastic. Chance the Rapper is one of the most creative and exciting artists at work today, The Black Keys’ garage rock sound is tailor made for this kind of event, and Sturgill Simpson’s unique brand of psychedelic country fits this festival well. It will be an interesting battle between the three for the best act of the day.

Day three leaves a bit to be desired, though it’s not without it’s bright points. Jay-Z is nothing short of a legend in his own right and will easily give the best performance of the day. Cage the Elephant and Judah and the Lion will bring a diverse selection of rock to the heavily rap-centric day. Of course, Brandi Carlile and Janelle Monae can’t be overlooked as powerful songstresses in the lineup. Vince Staples and Earl Sweatshirt have both dropped solid projects in recent months. Imagine Dragon’s doesn’t belong within 10 miles of this event, let alone in a headlining slot, but underdogs like Amigo the Devil and Pussy Riot are welcome sites on the list.

Ultimately, the lineup may be the strongest of any festivals I’ve seen in a few years, and the mix of new and old is much appreciated. It should go without saying, though, that the event itself will carry on cursory similarities to its namesake. What seems to be an intentional move by the promoters to bill this more as a celebration of Woodstock’s legacy than a second coming of the historical even itself is a smart one. In that sense, I’m fairly optimistic.

With a very strong lineup and a creative marketing campaign, Woodstock II stands a chance of being one of the best festivals of the summer, and a fairly fitting tribute to the event that changed it all.

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

My Thoughts on the Return of the Jonas Brothers!!

What could a Jonas Brothers reunion mean in 2019?

The mid-2000’s are often characterized, musically, by the explosion of pop-punk music and the Fueled by Ramen label. As with any music trend, Disney quickly set to work replicating it.

This fell on the shoulders of one of the most talented classes of musicians in Disney’s history, which included stars like Miley Cyrus and Demi Lavato. While the latter’s debut album captured much of the magic of groups like Paramore, the brunt of recreating the Fueled by Ramen sound fell, by and large, to the Jonas Brothers.

While their debut was fairly nondescript and unimpressive, their self-titled sophomore release in 2007 went double platinum and netted them a Grammy nomination for best new artist. This netted them staring roles in the 2008 Disney Channel smash hit Camp Rock, and from here they were absolute Disney Royalty.

They dropped another double platinum record that year and another platinum album in 2009. For those keeping score at home, that means the Jonas brothers had sold roughly five million copies in just three years. Their last two records peaked at number one on Billboard charts and they’d had a multitude of massively successful EP’s, tours, movies, and music videos. In 2012, however, after several delays had plagued work on a new record, the brothers announced that they were leaving Hollywood Records, their tie to Disney, and began a messy, drawn out process of splitting up.

Nick Jonas, who had already done some minor solo work while the band was still together, found quite a bit of success as a solo act. He abandoned much of the pop-punk influences on which he’d cut his teeth in favor of heavily produced power-pop. Tracks like “Jealous,” and “Chains,” did extremely well on the radio and he quickly became a big name in pop music.

Joe, on the other hand, found the well a bit dry with his 2011 solo LP, Fastlife, but in 2015, he debuted as the front man funk-pop four piece, DNCE, and their explosive single, “Cake by the Ocean.” Their self-titled record the same year was quite impressive and may be the best piece of music to come out of any Jonas Brother. The brothers seemed to be set for somewhat impressive careers in their respective projects.

That all changed on February 28th when the trio announced their return with the release of a new track and music video, “Sucker.” The cut is certainly listenable and a bit more mature than their previous outfit. The video is actually quite impressive, with on obviously large budget and a fairly clear artistic vision, but, of course, the questions are swirling. What will a Jonas Brothers reunion look like in 2019?

There are two key questions when it comes to this reunion, the first being what influence the brothers’ solo work will have on this record. With Nick and Joe having found a voice in genres that are quite different than the sound which brought the trio to their commercial heights, there seems to be an inherent conflict arising. The new track seems to suggest that the work they’ve done over the decade since the band’s last release will inform the new album quite heavily and I think that’s an excellent choice. The bubblegum form of pop-punk they made in the mid-2000’s has simply no place in todays scene, but the danceable power pop of a group like DNCE absolutely does.

The second and more pressing question that arrises is one of marketing and fanbase. This reunion is, obviously, an incredible economic opportunity for many people. Similar reunions for groups like New Kids on the Block and Boyz II Men have made millions by playing the hits to the same crowds that supported the groups in the first place. This is the route which I would’ve expected the brothers to go, but it doesn’t seem they are for a few reasons. Most noticeably, “Sucker,” sounds absolutely nothing like the hits that made them famous, but another clue can be found in the fact that they’ve signed Republic Records instead of returning to the Hollywood label owned by Disney. It may be possible that the trio is gearing up for a serious push toward creating new and interesting music together under the moniker which once stamped them as property of the Disney Channel.

These questions will likely be answered quickly as Republic will want to strike while the iron is hot, and it is white hot after an ecstatic reception by the internet of the “Sucker,” video and track. One can only hope we’re in for a new and unique experience on their first album in a decade.

Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Is the Greatest Song Ever Recorded

In a few simple lyrics and one magnificent performance, the track tells the story of endless struggle struggle, of boundless pain, and ultimately of resilience. It is everything music can be and should be, all in three minutes.

To ask the question of the greatest song of all time will often leave many music fans scoffing and claiming the question to be unanswerable. To some extent, they’re right. This question, as with anything else in music, does come down to personal opinion, and though there is some understanding that one’s choice aught to be historically important and maybe even performed by fairly well known artist, there’s no agreement as to what balance should be struck between cultural significance and sonic quality, let alone what role one’s personal taste may play into the decision. All of this being said, I have come to the position that one song in particular is uniquely poised to be chosen. I’m speaking of Billie Holiday’s 1939 masterpiece, “Strange Fruit.”

It’s difficult to know where to begin on this track, but we’ll start with an understanding of the pedigree involved with the song’s recording. The Cafe Society Band handles the brunt of the instrumental load. They’re one of the most revered African American jazz bands of the era, accompanying the likes of Nat King Cole and Miles Davis, along with many more. Their main gig came as the house band for the Cafe Society, which was known for political cabaret performances and for being the first integrated nightclub in New York.

Of course, the real star is Billie Holliday, who likely needs no introduction, but will receive one nonetheless. She has six singles and two albums inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, in addition to 23 Grammy Awards, all given after her tragic death in 1959. She had a horribly difficult upbringing in 1920’s Philadelphia, including surviving an attempted rape at the age of 11 and losing her father to a treatable lung disorder for which he was refused care on the grounds of his skin color just a few years later. In spite of this, she went on to release some of the most popular and influential music in the entire history of Jazz music, sell out Carnegie Hall in the 1948, and is now regarded as one of the greatest vocalists in American history. And she simply has no better performance than that which she gave on “Strange Fruit.”

On the song, Holiday’s command of silence and subtlety is simply breathtaking. The emotion conveyed in her twisting, spinning vocal mannerisms is absolutely haunting, and when she uses the full extent of her vocal power, there is no listener in the world who wouldn’t feel a chill striking directly to the bone. Buried in the many facets of her voice is the howling cry of an oppressed people that simply can’t be ignored. Unimaginable anger, unfathomable anguish, and unbreakable resolve all ring through her voice. This is to say nothing of the lyrics.

Taken from a poem written by American songwriter and poet Abel Meeropol who used the pseudonym of Lewis Allan at the time for fear of anti-semitic bigotry, the lyrics focus on lynching in the American South. He was inspired by the infamous and horrendous photo of two men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, being lynched in front of an excited crowd in Marion, Indiana in 1930. It isn’t only the topic of the lyrics but the fearless way in which the lyrics describe the “Strange Fruit,” as “black bodies, swaying in the summer breeze.” They go on to speak to the state of the decaying bodies much like rotting fruit, touching on smells and horrific imagery. It is, genuinely, one of the most powerful pieces of writing put to paper and there are very few ways to describe the sense of horror and disgust it inspires without simply reading the lyrics, which I must insist that anyone reading this piece do, immediately.

Most important of all, however, is the history surrounding the song and Holiday’s performance of it. While reports vary on how she came across the song itself, she debuted it at the Cafe Society in 1939, which was, as previously mentioned, New York’s first integrated night club. The song quickly became a regular for her along with rules for it’s performance. She would close with it, the waiters would stop all service in advance, and the room would be completely dark, except for a spotlight on Holiday’s face. There would be no encore. During the musical introduction, Holiday stood with her eyes closed, both praying and preparing herself for the performance.

She had extreme difficulty getting the track recorded as her label, Columbia, denied her, fearing repercussions from record retailers in the South. She also faced great fear of retaliation for even performing the song, though she chose to keep performing it as the imagery reminded her of her father and his unfair treatment from the medical community. Holiday went to her friend, Milt Gabler, who owned an alternative Jazz label called Commodore. She performed the piece a cappella and moved him to tears, convincing him to record the track with the help of the Cafe Society band and pianist, Sonny White. Holiday’s recording of the track eventually sold one million copies upon release, which was extremely rare for the time. It would be a large hit for Holiday throughout her career and was named as the “Best Song of the Century,” by Times Magazine in 1999.

All this being said, strip away sales, political importance, and historical pertinence, and “Strange Fruit,” is still the greatest song of all time. It is the most harrowing cry of pain ever put to record.

In a few simple lyrics and one magnificent performance, the track tells the story of endless struggle, of boundless pain, and ultimately of resilience. It is everything music can be and should be, all in three minutes.

Super Bowl LIII’s Halftime Show: A Story of Missed Opportunity

If all else fails, I’ll also accept a large screen at the fifty yard line that will play the entirety of Spongebob’s “Sweet Victory,” and the episode it came from for the adoring crowd.

I think I’ll need to begin this piece with something of a prolonged throat clearing of all the things I’m not saying. I’m not saying that Maroon 5 gave the worst super bowl performance of all time or that they were inherently bad choices to headline. I thought that their performance was fine and, though I don’t love a lot of their newest music, it did send me careening down memory lane as I quickly pulled up and revisited their excellent 2002 debut, Songs About Jane. I’m also not here to complain about the absence of Spongebob’s “Sweet Victory,” and the way it was used as an intro to “Sicko Mode,” although I am genuinely irate about this and could easily write another piece all about it.

Most importantly, I’m not headed into the territory of the many controversies which were ignored here. Put simply, Maroon 5 is not the band to salute Colin Kaepernick, speak out about the president’s many scandals, or make any other gesture of political dissidence. They aren’t Rage Against the Machine and they shouldn’t try to be. When Maroon 5 was chosen, they were expected to play a few hits, put on a light show, and finish out with a shirtless Adam Levine, all of which they accomplished with admirable precision.

The real missed opportunity has to do with location of this year’s Super Bowl, which was only ever so briefly made relevant by the ATLiens jerseys that appeared during Big Boi’s performance. While older hip-hop fans will remember the East and West coast feuds of 90’s hip hop, the 2000’s and on have been defined by a North and South dichotomy far more. Specifically, this has centered in two cities, Chicago and, to a much larger extent, Atlanta.

Just a short list of possible hometown choices would include Migos, who’s last two albums have gone platinum and double platinum respectively, Childish Gambino, who’s recent track “This is America,” has become an international sensation, or 21 Savage, who is nominated for two Grammys at the moment. This is just in terms of current acts.

As far as legacy artists, icons like Cee Lo Green, T.I, Lil Jon, Killer Mike, Future, Gucci Mane, Soulja Boy, and Usher are all on call and ready to electrify a hometown crowd. These are people who forged an entirely new brand of hip-hop and R&B into existence, taking a budding scene to the MainStage with flair and power and all but creating modern rap in the process. Of course, there are two glaring omissions from this list and it’s here where I start building my dream line up for Super Bowl LIII.

Headlining and masterminding the Brendon’s Beats halftime extravaganza is the single most important group in southern hip-hop, Outkast. Of course, we got half of Outkast with Big Boi, but the absence of his partner, Andre 3000, who is often named among the greatest rappers and most brilliant musical minds of all time, can’t be overstated. They could even bring a few Dungeon Family alumni with them. Reuniting one of hip-hop’s greatest groups would be enough, but it’s Atlanta. We can do better.

Travis Scott’s admittedly energetic performance of “Sicko Mode,” could be much better replaced by an appearance from the Migos performing their quadruple platinum smash-hit, “Bad and Boujee,” maybe even with a verse from 21 Savage in place of Lil Uzi Vert’s section on the original. It’s a performance that would excite young fans as much as Scott’s if not more, and the dynamic between the two rap groups from different generations, but the same city. So who is our rock/pop artist to act as an olive branch for non-rap fans?

There is none. I’d personally enjoy a legacy act like T.I. or Lil Jon, though a Gucci Mane or Soulja Boy would be fascinating in a chaotic way. The key is that this show should be a tribute to Southern hip-hop from the epicenter of it’s mainstream success and headlined by it’s most infamous pioneers.

I’ll be the first to admit that this dream lineup could probably never translate to the real world, especially as the odds of reuniting Outkast are slim to none, but the spirit could remain intact. There has never been a rapper or rap group headline the Super Bowl, despite the fact that rap music is, without a doubt, the most prevalent genre of music in the world and has been for nearly 20 years. It’s time for that to change, and baring the possibility of a super bowl in Compton, there is no city in America which is more historically apt to host this ground breaking show than Atlanta.

If all else fails, I’ll also accept a large screen at the fifty yard line that will play the entirety of Spongebob’s “Sweet Victory,” and the episode it came from for the adoring crowd.

Thoughts on J. Cole’s Claim to the Rap Throne

Jermaine Cole is, undoubtedly, one of the best artists of the day. However, his work is still ahead of him when it comes to carving his niche amongst names like Biggie, 2Pac, Jay Z, Eminem, Andre 3000, and more.

Yesterday, J. Cole set twitter and the music world ablaze with the release of his first single of 2019, “Middle Child.” Over a bass-heavy beat and between catchy hooks, Cole unloaded on a few topics, focusing mainly on his position in today’s hip-hop scene. While the entire track was extremely well written, the following verse in particular seems to have set off an all too familiar conversation across the hip-hop community:

“To the OGs, I’m thankin’ you now, was watchin’ you when you was pavin’ the ground. I copied your cadence, I mirrored your style. I studied the greats, I’m the greatest right now.” The question we’re left to ponder, of course, is simple. Is he right? Is J. Cole the top talent in the industry in 2019? He’s certainly attempted to lay claim to the title more than a few times over the years, but having just put his fifth platinum album under his belt with 2018’s KOD, the question seems increasingly persistent.

Firstly, it’s worth looking at Cole’s case. As I mentioned, 2018 saw the release of his fifth consecutive platinum album, which is no small feat. Only 10 artists in rap history have more than five platinum albums in a row and, of the ten, only Kanye West could still be considered at his peak. Additionally, though it’s become something of a meme in recent years, J. Cole’s last three albums have accomplished their certifications without a single feature.

On top of sales, he’s shown a remarkable amount of talent over his main run. Each of his verses is well crafted and his flow is slowly becoming iconic. Not only have his albums been impressive, but his non-album singles have been even better. “High for Hours,” is one of the best hip-hop tracks of the decade, “Everybody Dies,” was a perfect response to the rise of the soundcloud/mumble rap in recent years, and “False Prophets,” was a measured and thoughtful response to the outrages actions of Kanye West. It’s in these responses and commentary where we find him at his best. While his albums can often fall short, J. Cole drops better singles than anyone in the game.

He definitely has a strong case and it just keeps getting stronger with tracks like “Middle Child,” but on the other hand, the rap game is in an impressive place right now. When it comes to lyrical ability, artists like Aesop Rock and Open Mike Eagle are doing fantastic work, and of course, legends like MF Doom, Jay Z, and Killer Mike are still creating some of their best music, but Cole still stands unique among these artists in many respects certainly above them in notoriety. Unfortunately for Jermaine, there is still one artist who exceeds him in nearly every aspect, and that man is Kendrick Lamar.

Kendrick’s major label run at Top Dawg covers Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, one of the best breakout albums of all time, To Pimp A Butterfly, arguably one of, if not the best album in hip-hop history, and DAMN. which was one of the best albums of 2017. Of course the question is subjective, but for my money, Kendrick Lamar has long surpassed any artist in today’s scene and begun jockeying for position among the all-time greats.

Where Cole writes excellent verses and singles, Kendrick puts together full albums of breathtaking scale and sound, each wildly different than the one before. Where Cole’s flow is recognizable and strong, Kendrick plays multiple characters, each with unique flows, tones, and lyrical tendencies, characters which develop across his discography to act as metaphorical stand ins for a multitude of larger ideas. Where Jermaine is beginning to settle into his sonic identity, Kendrick’s instrumentals vary wildly in each record from a masterclass in West Coast boom-bap to a jazz epic helmed by Kamasi Washington to some of the best trap beats in the genre.

Coming into 2019, we’re all enjoying a fantastic era of rap music which will continue to draw comparisons to the golden age of the 1990’s and Jermaine Cole is, undoubtedly, one of the best artists of the day. However, his work is still ahead of him when it comes to carving his niche amongst names like Biggie, 2Pac, Jay Z, Eminem, Andre 3000, and more. On the other hand, Kendrick Lamar continues to be one of the best artists in the entire modern music industry with one album after another telling remarkable stories with unparalleled lyricism and he is, without a doubt, the best rapper in the game today.

HEAR MIDDLE CHILD: https://open.spotify.com/album/3XzSOIE6zGLliuqsVGLmUc