Everybody’s confused. And do you know why everybody’s confused? They’re confused because nobody knows what they want anymore.
I used to blame record companies for the lack of quality albums that were released. Then I would blame the artists for selling out for commercial success. I would complain that I missed that “real” hip-hop. You know, the post-golden era hip-hop of Pete Rock and CL Smooth actually making good music, or early Black Moon, or basically anything pre-Puffy’s first album Bad Boy. But I can’t blame artists or record companies at all.
I blame us. The consumer. The fan. The critics. The hip-hop heads. Basically, anybody who picks up an album nowadays. And do you know why? Because we have NO idea what we want anymore. We complain about any and everything. If we get a real street album, then we complain that it doesn’t have any radio singles to make us dance in the club. If we get a straight club record, we complain that the album forgot about the streets. If its mostly dance tracks, we complain that the album is only for the ladies.
We want growth, but we want more of the same. We want the streets, but we want to dance. We want that “real” (I actually don’t know what that means anymore) hip-hop, but we want some of that new age Neptunes, Timbaland, Swizz Beatz music. And you know who gets lost in all of this? The artists get lost. They don’t know who to make albums for anymore. I say just make records for the ladies since they are the only ones really shelling out the dough for the latest big name releases, anyway.
In the past three months, we’ve received without a doubt the most explicit examples of this phenomenon known as the confused consumer, courtesy of everybody’s favorite movement, Black Star. We have the Mighty Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Both of these cats are emcees worth listening too. In fact, EVERYBODY checks for Mos Def. Men, women, hustler, dealer, etc. Mos is everyman’s rapper. He can light up the streets or make you think. That’s a rare quality. Mos dropped Black On Both Sides in 1999 to critical acclaim and people ate it up. So what does Mos Def do?? He waits five years to drop The New Danger, an album of growth (good/bad?) and experimentation. He made an album for himself. And you know what? People were confused as hell. Some critics loved it, some hated it. There was no middle ground at all. You either listen to it a lot or not at all.
Campuses across America were wondering what he was thinking with this release. They wanted more of the Black on Both Sides Mos Def. They got different but didn’t want different. So then what happens?? Mos Def sells almost 100,000 copies in his first week. So let me get this right. Nobody is sure how to feel about it, but they go out and cop it anyway. So on everybody’s shelf sits a record that they aren’t sure how they feel about.
Then we have Talib Kweli. I must say, Talib’s plight has been a hard one. Coming from out of Mos Def’s shadow is no easy task. But I’m willing to say that he made it out. So Talib makes his first solo album Quality and folks were not feeling it. They liked “Get By” and MAYBE one or two more tracks, but they wanted some of that Reflection Eternal magic, some of “The Blast” type cuts. Quality seemed to be more of a personal type album and people weren’t feeling it. So what does Talib do???
He makes The Beautiful Struggle, an album that is clearly directed at radio and what’s hot right now. He makes an album for the fans and critics blast it. He remakes “Get By” into “I Try”, which offended me personally, (talk about taking fans for granted), throws Mary J. Blige on the track and gets some airplay. And fans STILL blast him. He gets the hot producers of right now (Kanye, Just Blaze, Neptunes), and the album gets no sales. Fans want the old Kweli sound, the Reflection Eternal sound. They want the Kweli that made an album where he said what he felt was important not what the streets want.
It happens all over music nowadays. The only rapper that has consistently given the fans exactly what they want and that the streets can accept is Jay-Z. In 1996, he told us he was still spending money from ’88. I believed him. And in 2004, he’s still got Big Chips. See, he’s the same ole Jay, different day. He just manages to come with the fire every time he releases an album, though I myself try to pretend that neither of the Best of Both Worlds, or Dynasty albums exist. My life is just better that way.
Our confusion has caused the likes of LL Cool J, Snoop Dogg, hell, basically most rappers to give us albums that are, well, crap. You can’t tell me Nas hasn’t listened everybody. I wish he would quit listening actually. Throwing songs geared towards radio play like “You Owe Me” amongst songs like “Thief’s Theme” and “Made You Look” just doesn’t fit. But Nas makes those songs anyway, because he’s trying to make the streets and fans happy, in turn pissing the streets off and confusing long time fans to no end.
The complaining just doesn’t stop at the quality either. We get 3 hot tracks, and we want 10. However, if we get an album like Illmatic with 9 tracks of straight HEAT, we complain that its too short. We’d rather have 19 tracks to choose from with 4 good songs than 12 tracks and 11 bangers. Completely…confused. And the music is suffering because of it. Our inability to know what we want to hear is causing us to receive music that is sub-par at best and horrible at worst. And it’s all because the rappers don’t know who to make music for anymore. And the albums will sell confusing both the artists and the fans, which will get us more mediocre albums with music that nobody wanted in the first place but that fans will pay for anyway.
Trying to make an album for everybody leaves everybody confused, the rappers, critics, and fans, alike. The problem is, how do you decide who to make it for?
Confusion, that is the new danger, and we are all suffering because of it.
Panama Jackson is a freelance writer in Washington, DC, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.