Michael Jackson vs. Drake, Hype vs. Art & Rap's New Innovators

The guys reflected on the influence Lil Uzi Vert & Playboi Carti have on rap, Twitter's recent MJ vs. Drake debate and the effect hype will have on the reception to Rihanna's next album

Welcome back,

Summer is officially over and we have to say… we’re grateful.

The season gave us new projects from J Cole, Tyler the Creator, Baby Keem, Vince Staples, Billie Eilish and Kanye West just to name a few of our favorites. When’s the last time we had a release schedule like that?

On the next 97 Demo we’ll be highlighting some of our September favorites. Stay tuned for that.

This week, though, was all about the future. We interviewed up-and-coming Philadelphia rapper, NxG! If you didn’t get a chance to listen, you can check that episode out here. You should also check out his new single “React.”

Per usual, we had some things to get off our chest.

This newsletter:

Noah put an end to the Michael Jackson vs. Drake debate.

Nnamdi wrote about how Lil Uzi Vert and Playboi Carti may encompass the future sound of rap.

And Avery wrote about how hype can sour even the sweetest of releases.

Happy Reading!

97 Demo Profiles: NxG

Listen to the podcast!

It’s time to chill on the Michael Jackson vs Drake debate

Noah, @noahamcgee_

In the last couple of days, there has been a lot of discourse on two artists. One is the King of Pop, one of (if not) the biggest artists in the history of the world, Michael Jackson. The other is one of the biggest artists today and undisputedly the biggest rapper, Drake. 

Now, this is not a new discussion. In August 2020 Fat Joe said, “He’s just like the Michael Jackson of this time.” The 6 God himself has said, “Not sure if you know but I’m actually Michael Jackson” on “You Only Live Twice.”

But after the massive success of Drake’s latest album, Certified Lover Boy, people are starting to suggest that Drake is the biggest artist ever. Naturally, that is going to cause a problem for a lot of people, myself included, who believe that Michael Jackson is the biggest, best, and most successful artist ever.

Yes, Drake is the biggest artist in the world today. Yes, he broke his streaming records on Apple Music and Spotify. Yes, CLB had nine songs reach the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, the most ever from a single album. But I don’t want this to be a conversation about sales, charts, and singles because Drake and Michael Jackson are not peers. This debate going on on social media shouldn’t even be a discussion. 

For one, they both make different genres of music. One is a rapper, the other is a singer. One is a dancer, the other famously is not. One lives in the age of streaming, the other lived in the age of buying music. 

Drake has had commercial success for the last 12 years, since the release of his mixtape, So Far Gone. Michael Jackson has had commercial success since the release of the Jackson 5’s first album, Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5 in 1969. Even after the unfortunate death of the King of Pop in 2009, he still has two albums charting on the Billboard 200 TODAY! That’s over 52 years. The amount of time that Michael Jackson has been at the forefront of the industry surpasses Drake by decades.

So although Drake is the guy right now, it is too early and too disrespectful to compare any artist who has come out in this century to Michael Jackson. 

Michael Jackson has songs that are ingrained in American culture. Songs such as: “ABC,” “I Want You Back,” “Thriller,” “Bad” and “Billie Jean” come to mind. Everyone from the ages of eight to 80 knows those songs. While Drake has smash hits, the demographic of people listening to those songs are mostly a younger crowd. Michael Jackson has no demographic, he is, was, and will forever be for everyone. 

Until Drake reaches that level of immortality, please miss me with the Michael Jackson vs. Drake debate.

Y’all hear about this?

Are Lil Uzi Vert & Playboi Carti The Leaders of Rap’s Next Generation?

Nnamdi, @NnamEgwuon

Call me an old head, or maybe a rap-traditionalist, but neither Eternal Atake or Whole Lotta Red was for me. As an avid consumer of music, I gave both Lil Uzi Vert and Playboi Carti’s latest releases a fair shake -- and candidly, I didn’t make it through either album full through.

But the reality, I’m learning, is that I’m in the minority. Both of these artists have huge, rabid fan bases and I’m beginning to recognize why.

Lil Uzi Vert’s Eternal Atake not only marked his second-consecutive number one debut, moving 288k units in its first week, but it scored a jaw-dropping 400 million streams in its debut week. It also made several year-end lists, ranking in the top 5 of Complex, Billboard and Uproxx’s.

I didn’t like the album, but the world did.

Similarly, Carti’s Whole Lotta Red debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 with about 100,000 units sold. It got more than 100 million streams in its first sales week alone. Those may not be Drake numbers, but in a genre almost entirely dependent on streaming, it’s still a successful release.

But neither Lil Uzi or his “twin’s” sales are what makes them stand out relative to their contemporaries. It’s their experimental production and maddening adlibs. It’s Carti’s use of a “baby voice” on dozens and dozens of tracks. It’s Uzi’s ability to put a song called “Silly Watch” on an album with an alien theme and somehow make it work. It’s their colorful hair and commitment to fashion. It’s their ability to traverse genres and keep you guessing. In a field crowded with trap beats, witty bars and lackadaisical flows, these two artists have managed to stand out, and that’s what puts them on track to becoming two of the most influential rappers of their generation.

In a piece hailing Playboi Carti as the artist rap needs right now, Complex wrote “he’s defied the traditional conventions of rap music in a way that pisses off hip-hop purists… Carti has assumed the role of rap’s latest disruptive lightning rod, sparking conversations about how the genre should (and shouldn’t) evolve next.” 

In a piece declaring Lil Uzi “the unlikely superstar of the streaming era,” Time Magazine wrote “his strong sense of personal style—an edgy but joyful aesthetic that brings to mind Avril Lavigne, an anime character, and a hypebeast—are as much a marker of his artistry as his spacey, complex music.”

Similar to the praise I’ve given Lil Nas X for solidifying a path in hip hop for young, queer artists, both Carti and Lil Uzi have played major roles in changing the perception of rap for young fans. They’ve done so in part by dismantling stereotypes of hypermasculinity and broadening the scope of rap to include weird alien themes, haphazard rapping, sharp but lazy flows, colorful hair and, occasionally, women’s clothing.

And rap’s youngest generation is noticing.

This week on the 97 Demo podcast, we interviewed aspiring Philly-based rapper NxG. You can see the influence both Carti and Uzi have on him through his style alone: he rocks short twists, makes energetic “hype” music that could fit soundly on either of their albums and he takes risks that most young rappers are taught to avoid.

A post shared by @xgseason

“They’re literally doing what I want to be doing,” NxG said. “They’re combining rock, they’re combining rap and they’re making this genre that’s pure energy.”

Did you catch that? The nexus of this entire piece? They’re making this genre that’s pure energy. Making a genre is synonymous with innovating, and very few rappers achieve that. Not even Drake. And, when you innovate, you cement a legacy in Hip-Hop; regardless of whether or not you have more hits than the Beatles.

I may not enjoy their music, but there’s a reason that Lil Uzi Vert and Playboi Carti have Gen-Z in a vice grip. They may have started their careers as two of the many rappers from the “SoundCloud” generation, but they’re poised to end their careers as two of the biggest influences for an entire generation of younger rappers.

And that deserves an acknowledgment.

Now on the 97 Demo Mix:

Songs from: NxG, James Blake, Kehlani, Tems, Lil Nas X

Rihanna and how hype affects art

Avery, @AveryDalal

I’ve thought a lot in the last year about how excitement and hype for a piece of art, be it an album or a video game, can affect people’s ultimate perceptions about that product. 

What comes to mind in regard to video games is Cyberpunk 2077, for a tv show it would be the current season of Ted Lasso and for an album, I couldn’t help but think of Rihanna, based on her comments this week. 

Now, I know that some people may think she is lying, which is hilarious, but it really got me thinking about what our expectations are for this album if it ever comes out. 

Rihanna’s last album, ANTI, came out in 2016 (the year of our lord) and since then has seemingly moved on from making music. In that time, she’s launched her beauty brand Fenty Beauty, which is now valued at over $2 billion, making Rihanna a real-life billionaire. And honestly, if her goal is to make money and accumulate capital, then why would she focus on music? The majority of her wealth was accumulated through Fenty. 

This hasn’t stopped her from teasing the album pretty consistently in that time. Whether through Instagram comments or through interviews, she has said that the mythical album is coming. 

This brings me to the hype. When she eventually announces this project, what will people’s expectations be? In our society of instant gratification and excitement, it’s hard to think that people will be anything but insanely hyped and excited. But, the truth of the matter is that Rihanna’s next album probably won’t be groundbreaking, because most things aren’t. 

Cyberpunk 2077 and Ted Lasso season 2 are not bad products. I would actually argue that both are quite good, but the perception of these things is that they aren’t worth engaging in because they aren’t as good as people expected them to be. 

But is anything ever as good as people expect any more? I question our ability to collectively love anything anymore as a society. Will there ever be an artist as universally loved as Michael Jackson again? Or was Michael Jackson even universally loved? Now that we have the advent of social media, you can read anyone’s opinion all of the time. 

Hype is killing our ability to enjoy art, because any time you start to enjoy something, someone will be in your ear (or on your screen) telling you it sucked for various reasons. This is hardly a new observation, just a point I want to make here. 

When Rihanna does announce and release whatever project she is working on, I hope we can appreciate it rather than denigrate.

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Ep. 61: 97 Demo Profiles - NxG

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Coming up on the 97 Demo Podcast: September Music Roundup