Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 22:01
In 2013, labels, agents, radio stations and most casual fans beg for ‘hits’ – a single song capable of bringing an artist fame and a label fortune. ‘Albums’ are becoming a dying art.
“I make albums not hits, these rich folk don’t know about this,” underground rapper Big K.R.I.T. states in his song, “Handwriting,” venting his frustration with industry pressure and label demand on the “4Eva N A Day” mixtape cut.
Three months after the release of that song, K.R.I.T. dropped a mediocre studio debut album laden with commercial throwaways, much to the chagrin of fans and critics who had lauded his first three mix-tape projects as musical triumphs.
When was the last time you listed to a full album, uninterrupted, from start to finish? If you’re like me, you might have listened to two this morning. If you’re like my girlfriend’s roommate, a surprisingly talented amateur Pandora DJ, you might say never. Few people I know love, crave and beg for the next great album. For most, a song is all they ask.
There is nothing wrong with a great song, although in my opinion great songs are a dime a dozen. A talented group of writers, three or four skilled producers, a controlling A&R and a label CEO with money on his mind routinely turn young boys or girls with pretty faces and limited vocal skills into pop stars.
An album, however, takes more than a hodge-podge of talented individuals and motivated executives. It takes vision, patience and work. An album that’s a real, cohesive collection requires an artist. That artist must be not merely willing, but desperate to share a message, a vision of the world and an idea about what life is and what it might be, sonically and lyrically. A single is all brain. An album has a heart and soul.
Finding the next great album at times seems nearly as daunting as creating it. This isn’t the 60s or even the 90s. Great singles no longer come from great albums, or even great artists for that matter. The days when songs like “Billie Jean,” a great single, came from albums like “Thriller,” a great album, are long gone. In 2013, “Mercy,” a stellar single is spawned from “Cruel Summer,” a disappointing album. Exceptional albums (with the exclusion of West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and Lamar’s “Good Kid Mad City,” off the top of my head) rarely get any radio play. Most go unnoticed except by those who search for them.
The secret to finding the next classic, or a solid album lies in the medium of the music. Looking through iTunes for an album is like trying to navigate a dark hallway with sunglasses on.
CDs, while a much better bet, especially for sound quality and for continuous album listening, still prove unreliable. CDs will eventually become outdated. Only the best albums and motivated artists will push their music onto shiny plastic discs. We aren’t there yet.
The secret to finding great albums is vinyl. A record player might seem an anachronism in 2013, the age of the iPhone, Sham-Wow and Snuggie, but it’s worth the investment.
I got my first record player over winter break. It was given to me primarily so that I could listen to my Dad’s old collection of Michael Jackson, The Cars and Styx records, but already it’s paying unexpected dividends. In three short weeks with my phonograph, I’ve purchased three new records; Solange’s “True,” Big Boi’s “Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors” and A$AP Rocky’s “Long.Live.A$AP.” While none of three will receive, nor do they deserve, Grammy nods, they’re all strong albums. “Vicious Lies” and “Long.Live.A$AP,” have their lyrical and thematic shortcomings, but both work as albums because they take listeners on a consistently creative journey via sound. “True” succeeds instrumentally, lyrically and thematically as a cohesive unit, though Solange still sounds just a hair immature.
My point here isn’t to merely review everything I’ve bought recently. The point I’m making is that artists who are serious about their music usually craft ‘albums’ as opposed to hits. Devoted artists, like A$AP Rocky, Solange and Big Boi, push their LP’s to vinyl. All three wrote their own lyrics, and all three are listed as executive producers of their projects.
The trend, as far as I’m concerned, justifies the purchase of a record player. While digital music is no doubt cheaper, easier to use and more convenient, music has never really been about money, ease or convenience. If you love music, you likely love albums. And if you love albums, not hits, you’ll fall head first for vinyl.