Kanye and the emerging anti-pop star?

This week, the boys had some thoughts on Kanye, long albums and an interesting trend among pop stars.

Welcome back,

At the start of the year, I’m not sure we thought two of rap’s heavyweights would drop their highly-anticipated albums within a week of each other, but here we are. Drake’s Certified Lover Boy is out after a nine-month delay. We’re going to let it digest before weighing in, so look forward to that next week.

In the meantime, our attention is still on Kanye West. Donda is out in its full, 27-track, 1 hour and 48-minute glory. Its rollout inspired quite the hot take from Nnamdi. More on that below.

Also on tap this week,

Noah breaks down his beef with long albums, a la Donda.

Avery asks what it means to be a pop star in the age of Lorde and Kacey Musgraves.

And Grant Sharples joins us on The 97 Demo podcast to help us review Lorde’s new album, “Solar Power.”

Speaking of which…

97 Demo Review: Lorde, “Solar Power” - 6/10

Listen to the podcast!

I wish Kanye West’s confidence extended to his music

Nnamdi, @NnamEgwuon

Kanye West is a music genius. I don’t say that as a fan unable to scrutinize him, I say it as a 90s baby who grew up with a succession of albums that included College Drop Out, Late Registration and, his magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

His legacy is why even when he puts out bad albums, you still check out a few tracks.

Because it’s Kanye West, and deep down you know he’s capable of producing instant classics.

The problem is I don’t think Kanye knows that. Because when an artist is confident that they put out great music, they encourage all the focus to be on the music. But similarly, I’ve noticed that when mainstream acts are insecure about the quality of their work, or worried that it won’t hit whatever sales metric they’ve had set for them, they rely on drama to fuel public attention. And Kanye, to my deep chagrin, does that a lot. 

There’s the drama of the album’s 401 day rollout.

The theatrical stadium tour that grew out of that delay, but still felt more like Kanye’s attempt at a live focus group.

There was the tracklist drama that predated the actual album release. Fans were worried a highly anticipated Jay-Z feature was cut after Kanye played an alternate featuring DaBaby at his third listening session. That did not happen. Soulja Boy was apparently promised a verse on Donda. That also did not happen. Something happened with Chris Brown that got him upset.

Considering Kanye seemed to send up the rap Bat-Signal to find features for his 10th album, it only made sense that some didn’t make the cut. The album likely would have been received better if he managed to cut a few more.

There was the actual theater of the listening tour: Starting in Atlanta to represent the city he was born before transitioning to Chicago to reflect the city he was raised. Recreating his childhood home inside of Chicago’s Soldier Field. It was almost poetic.

But then there was everything else: From his marriage reenactment with wife (?) Kim Kardashian-West, to his literal setting himself on fire to his platforming of DaBaby and *Marilyn Manson,* who’s currently embroiled in multiple lawsuits from women who allege he threatened, assaulted, groomed and raped them. 

Now, there’s the Drake beef.

Did Drake throw the first stone in his recent spat with Kanye? Perhaps. But it was Kanye’s ominous screenshot of his group chat with Drake-foe Pusha T and purported leak of Drake’s address that really got people talking. 

There was the release-date drama -- again. After Kanye’s third listening party, Donda’s release date was updated to September 3rd. Drake later confirmed “Certified Lover Boy” would drop the same day. And then Donda was abruptly released on Sunday, August 31st -- which could have made sense considering the album’s strong religious undertones. But then Kanye accused Universal of leaking the album without his permission… despite the fact that his own managers confirmed the album had been turned in. Was the abrupt change Kanye’s attempt to avoid a chart battle against the guy with the most Billboard hits in history? Probably.

Things between Kanye and Drake are apparently good again, so long as the latter keeps it cute on Certified Lover Boy, even though Kanye didn’t extend Drake the same courtesy. But it all still begs the question of why this feud even had to happen? Why Kanye chose to escalate? Why Kanye, throughout the entire rollout of this album, consistently removed the focus from the music, a shame since Donda just may be his best album since 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Tracks like “Hurricane”, “Jail 2”, “Moon” and “Before I Let Go,” mark some of Kanye’s highest highs in decades. He should have believed in that.

Insecurity fueled by the success of some of his mainstream challengers seems to have pushed Kanye into a corner of sorts. One that has him doubting his own ability as one of hip-hop’s greatest acts. And one that seems to make him think he needs controversy and drama to mask any potential negative feedback an album gets. I think it’s an ego thing, because a musical genius can only stand to have so many releases panned as subpar. But as a fan aware of Kanye’s ability; who’s seen how some of those “subpar” albums have aged surprisingly well (see Yeezus and TLOP); and who sees Kanye’s influence throughout the current sound of rap -- I wish Kanye West was confident enough in his music to lead with it.

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Stop making long albums

Noah, @noahamcgee_

Long albums have started to become normal in music. Frankly, it’s something I am starting to hate more and more as they continue to come out. And with the release of Kanye West’s Donda, which is an hour and 48 minutes, I have reached a boiling point with these lengthy albums. Now, long albums have always existed, but in the last five to eight years with the weight of streaming increasing, they have become more prevalent. That is where my problem lies.

First things first, why are albums so long nowadays? Streaming. Having more songs on an album gives fans more songs to stream, which results in number one chart debuts and gold and platinum plaques for everyone involved. But you know what also results in a lot of streams, high chart debuts, and platinum plaques? Good albums.  

Second, what is a long album? I base it on the runtime of the album, not the tracklist. The amount of tracks on an album does not matter to me if the runtime is reasonable. For example, MIKE’s 2019 album, “tears of joy” has 20 tracks but is only 42 minutes. A long album to me is anything that is over an hour and 10 minutes. (I almost said an hour, but I like too many albums that are between 60 and 70 minutes). Now there are exceptions to that rule, like Blu’s 2014 album, Good to Be Home. I freaking love that album and it’s an hour and 16 minutes. But those are RARE exceptions. 

Third, why do I hate long albums? I have a short attention span. There are few things I can focus on for one hour straight. For me, albums are no different. I need an album that will retain my attention but will also not overstay its welcome. My time is important. I don’t want to feel like I’m doing homework when listening to an album. I get that feeling when I’m listening to an album that is an hour and 19 minutes long, like H.E.R.’s debut album, Back of My Mind. (Which we reviewed on the podcast). There is also a better chance that filler tracks are included on the album, which are songs that are there to just take up space. 

"But Noah, what if every song is still good"? I still don’t want it. Ever heard the quote “good things don’t last forever”? Well, I happen to live by that quote when listening to music. Last year, Blu & Exile released Miles, it would’ve been one of my favorite rap albums of last year except, it was a daunting hour and 35 minutes. Every track on that album is good. But, whenever I thought about listening to the album, I thought about the length and as a result, elected to listen to something else. I think there is beauty when an album knows when to end. Just because you have 25 fire songs, doesn’t mean you have to include all of them. You run the risk of your album dragging on.

Finally, what is the perfect length for an album? I do believe there is a sweet spot when it comes to an album’s length. Not everyone loves short albums like me. For example, in 2018 Teyana Taylor released her second album, K.T.S.E. Many fans and Taylor herself voiced frustration with her label, GOOD Music, because after waiting four years to release her sophomore effort, they only got an eight-song, 23-minute project. For me, the sweet spot is an album that is between 35 and 60 minutes. I wouldn’t mind if it’s below 35 minutes. But, if it’s over 60 minutes, you better have a DAMN good reason and if it’s over 70 minutes, it’s unacceptable. Pick your absolute best songs, get rid of the fillers and get out of there.

Now on the 97 Demo Mix:

Songs from: Baby Keem, WizKid, 10issues, Solange, Pink Siifu and Lorde.

Kacey Musgraves, Lorde and the emerging anti-popstar

Avery, @AveryDalal

In a recent New York Times profile, Kacey Musgraves was asked if her ambition was to become a big pop star. She responded with: “What’s a pop star?” 

That really got me thinking. Musgraves is a current country music star, who seems to be angling herself for pop stardom with her upcoming album, star crossed. The new album is a follow-up to her Grammy-winning psychedelic country album, Golden Hour, and is set to release on September 10. It’s more or less a divorce album that will be accompanied by a film, much like her fellow Texas queen Beyonce did with Lemonade

Upon first glance, Musgraves seems to be following the steps of someone like Taylor Swift, who gained prominence through country music and used her broad appeal to launch into pop stardom. 

So, what is a pop star? It’s changing. A couple of weeks ago we had the release of Solar Power, by Lorde, who herself seems to be challenging the idea of the traditional pop star. Instead of capitalizing off of her hit album Melodrama, Lorde dipped from the public spotlight for four years before the release of her new album, aside from, of course, her Instagram account dedicated to reviewing onion rings

I think we are at an exciting time for pop music, where it seems like those who are entering the fold are at odds with the traditional idea of a pop star. Whether it is constant public appearances, public romances and large collaborations. It seems that the days of Britney Spears are coming to a close, or at least that the Ariana Grande’s and Justin Bieber’s of the world are becoming less and less. 

I would say that this is becoming the case because of the insane amount of choice and access we are gaining to public figures. Maybe this is some sort of reaction to social media, or maybe the social-media generation of pop stars has a different idea in mind of what it means now. 

Traditional thinking, maybe three or four years ago, would have you say that with social media and the growing number of platforms, it would be near impossible for a prominent musician making popular music to disappear. Our attention spans as fans are too quick to care what someone who was famous four years ago has to say now. A lot can change in that time. 

This is proving not to be the case, however. I wonder if we will see more pop stars follow the mold of a Lorde, which may be an extreme case, or a Kacey Musgraves, who did not disappear entirely after her last album, but certainly laid low following the release of an incredibly popular album. Even the aforementioned Swift, seems to more or less disappear after the release of any one of her albums.

I think it can make for more interesting music down the line, where maybe artists have a bigger chance to write music reflective of the years or span of time that they were gone. 

Maybe the modern pop star will go the way of the modern movie star, or maybe this is just a trend among a small number of current artists and it ultimately means nothing. 

However, the question remains, what is a pop star? Sound off in the comments or tweet us, what do you think?

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Ep. 58: Lorde - Solar Power Review

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Coming up on the 97 Demo Podcast: A review of ‘DONDA’ by Kanye West