What can rappers learn from Steve Jobs's philosophy on disruptive technology? Read on...
Artists in hip hop, moreso than any other genre it seems, recycle themes. I wonder what percent of rap music would fall into the category “everything else” if you took out all the tracks that are either about having a ton of money or about not having enough. The sad part is, hip hop affords artists 5 times more words per song than any other form of music, and yet the vast majority of rappers don't utilize all those words to do anything creative or different.
After B.O.B. and Eminem on “Airplanes,” Big Sean with “Finally Famous” before that and 50 Cent's “Get Rich or Die Trying” before that, I wonder if listeners are ever going to hear the latest rapper’s story about making it, about getting rich and no longer having to be broke like the listeners making him rich, and finally say, “This story is washed up--I don’t care.” Do you still care?
If you don't, and you want to hear (or write yourself) more interesting stories, then fortunately right now is prime time for a creative upheaval.
Twitter and Facebook have killed the messenger and given every listener a vote in a new democracy of content. Artists no longer need to cater to middlemen A&Rs or stand still for lack of a marketing budget. The best marketing for an artist at any level is a Facebook share or ReTweet that spreads the message to new listeners and potential fans. This new form of marketing doesn’t cost a dime.
But have artists fully realized the enormity of this shift? A lot of musicians complain about the mainstream garbage listeners consume, and presumably want. But maybe, as Steve Jobs put it, consumers don’t know what they want until you show them.
Maybe, as newer artists take creative risks and publish inventive, groundbreaking material, the familiar rags-to-riches and brag-about-riches stories in rap will start to lose people’s interest once they suddenly have to compete with an army of hungrier, more imaginative rappers bearing no record deals nor creative boundaries.
The DNA of New Stories
Before diving into what the future of hip hop might hold, let’s take a second on some philosophical housekeeping:
Why do people listen to music?
Aristotle would argue (and I agree) that people do what they do—including listen to music—in pursuit of an experience. People go to med school so that they can get a good job to get money to get a Lambourghini to have the experience of driving a Lambourghini (and all that comes with it). Likewise, music is just a conduit that people use in pursuit of some journey or emotion. The endgame is always an experience.
With that in mind, let’s explore three categories of listener experiences that rappers in the new economy can explore in outdueling mainstream artists who will never stray from their old formulas.
Definition: Creating a listener realization is a kind of micro story, in that there is provocation (the lyrics) and a resolution (Aha! moment), in which the listener plays a key role.
Takes Some Thought
- Allusion – the listener recognizes your reference to some other thing or topic they have heard before.
[Wax: “We gets very live yo, while your live shows’ more like Terry Shiavo, man”…this, of course, assuming you’ve heard of Terry Shiavo. I’ll resist the temptation to include a picture of her here…]
- Reference to something esoteric. Here, the revelatory experience is drawn out until the audience researches or later hears about the reference and connects it back to the song.
[Prince EA: “I’ve seen the aliens described in the Book of Ezekiel”…assuming you later find out what this refers to.]
- Double Entendre – the listener realizes your intent in a clever line
[Wax: “I’m top of the line like a coke addict’s nose”]
- Direct Learning – very hard to pull off, very underutilized.
[Prince EA – The Brain]
- Narrative – a full story in verses
[Immortal Technique –Dance with the Devil]
- Reveal that the lyrics have been following a unique poetic form the whole time.
[Prince EA – Backwards Rappers; Blackalicious, Alphabet Rap]
- Reveal that you’ve been talking about something different than the apparent subject matter the whole time.
[Wax – “Killing Me Inside” framed like it’s about a girl, but is really about his relationship with cigarettes.]
Big Question: How could you plant the seeds of revelation for listeners in a way that’s never been done before?
2. Theme Music for Real Life
Definition: Making music for people to bump as a backdrop to their own life stories. If fans play your music during positive experiences, they will quickly form a positive association to your music.
- Smoking (Snoop Dogg)
- Driving (Dr. Dre)
- Working out
- Falling asleep
Big Question: What other experiences in life have rappers neglected to address?
3. Music That Evokes A Feeling
- Nostalgia (Joey Badass – 1990s)
- Violent/aggressive (DMX, 50 Cent)
- Make fun of annoying pop culture (Eminem)
- Self-deprecating humor/ being insane (Andy Milonakis)
- Calm confidence (B.I.G.)
- Swag (Waka, Lil B, etc etc)
- Self-identifying through skin color (early Eminem, Dumbfoundead)
- Displaying vulnerability (Kid Cudi, Kanye)
- Love for kids (Nas, Eminem)
Aside: one emotion that I’m loath to include is “feeling awe at a rapper’s technical skill.”
The beautiful thing about technical skill in rap is that it complements any of the above strategies…except swag rap, where skill probably takes away from that particular listener experience.
The important point about pure technical skill in rap is that making it (and by it of course we mean money) as an entertainer is not like making it as an athlete; it is not a meritocracy. The most skilled football players, basketball players, and baseball players and in the world are all multimillionaires. Is the same true for the most skilled singers, rappers, and actors?
The bad news? A lot of your entertainment value besides skill is more or less fixed--obviously your looks and the sound of your voice on record are big ones.
Still, if you can make music that evokes a feeling, nothing else really matters.
Ask Adele and all her millions about that.
Every Artist Has His (or Her) Niche
Until I hear otherwise, I’m going to bet that Wiz Khalifa isn’t capable of jaw-dropping technical skill. Rick Ross can’t show emotional vulnerability. Soulja Boy can’t do self-deprecating humor. I personally think Eminem was/is so dominant because he was that once-in-a-generation artist that could write to almost any emotion and make it work…Really, what bullet point above has he not done?
But every artist is not Eminem. It’s much easier to write songs like your influences, which have proven formulas—and, with them, self-imposed creative boundaries.
It’s much more difficult to grab listeners with something different. More often than not, you will waste hours of your time and fill the trash bin up with crumpled notebook paper. Even if you do write something you think is dope and you release it, you run the risk that it will be corny to others and you could get laughed at.
Or, you might make a name for yourself with something incredible. The beauty of being unsigned is that you have nothing to lose. That’s an enviable position to be in, from the perspective of any big-name artist with an image to maintain and expectations from fans and execs about what kind of music they need to put out next.
The next big thing in hip hop, then, isn’t coming from any artist you know about today. It can’t. Those artists are already successful, already content, already too marred by expectations to try something insane because they know how failures at that level can derail careers. If you’re writing raps in your basement, and most of your fans are friends, failure is not in your vocab.
A Final Thought: Good Stories Spread by Themselves
Look at your video or song. Ask yourself, is this something that a complete stranger would watch and feel that they had to share?
Good music markets itself. If you’re a fan of Wax (as I am), look at New Crack. When a friend first showed me that video, I said “goddamn this is dope” and I went out of my way to show it to a bunch of my other friends the next time we were all huddled around a computer—all without ever interacting with a promotion from Wax.
It’s my opinion that people today want to be genuinely intrigued. They are bombarded with stupid content every day and even spend their own time sifting through materials in hopes that they’ll “stumble upon” something unfamiliar and awesome.
Make something that will stand out enough to compel an average stranger to post it for all 700 of their Facebook friends to check out and do the same.
Hip hop needs it.