“I got inspired by what she was talking about, and that night I did the drum beat and piano part for ‘Back to Black' and put tons of reverb on the tambourine. She’s deceivingly nonchalant, and when I played it for her the next day, she said, ‘It’s wicked,’ but I couldn’t tell if she meant it. Then she was like, ‘This is what I want my album to sound like.’
She would come in every day and play me songs on the acoustic guitar, and we’d try different arrangements to find something that felt authentic. The reason everyone goes back to those Motown records is that there were amazing musicians playing together in a room, and that’s what we tried to do.” - DJ/Producer Mark Ronson on creating the classic album Back to Black by Amy Winehouse
We are living in the most prolific time in music history, in terms of output; which is great because it offers fans a wide selection of new material to listen to from their current and new favorite artists. It's also disorienting for avid fanatics; it feels like a chore to keep up with the latest releases on a weekly basis. A project could receive critical and universal praise, only to be shuffled into the ether and forgotten about merely weeks later. Something like the Kendrick and TDE-curated Black Panther OST are a distant memory six months later.
With the rapid pace of material being produced daily (and with social media playing a role as an accelerant), six weeks ago might as well be six months ago in this current climate. There's an argument to be had about whether or not an artist should excessively drop multiple projects (3-4 or more) in the same calendar year. Experts like Curren$y and Future are revered for such a tactic because they meet the standards of what their loyal fan base approves of; at the very least, a handful of tracks can be taken away for high replay value beyond the life of "opening weekend."
It begs the question, though: is a compilation of greatest hits, in the long run, more valuable and more memorable than a discography filled with individual bodies of work with the most cohesion from front to back? What trumps all is having a bold authenticity to your craft. Far too often many artists on the urban scene catch the most popular wave, with the hopes of hitting a crest and ride it until the crash into the shore. We all hear it. Certain flows, cadences, vocal effects, drum patterns, hi-hat tempo, rhyme schemes, etc. get recycled into mediocrity. It's reheated microwave shit. It's digestible, but the quality is noticeably poorer.
Important pioneers like Chicago's laidback rapper Valee has created a new style that's catchy and infectious in the best way possible. His "Ijustwokeupgaudyrapsthatflowlikerunonsentences" is already getting bitten by other rappers. Like his overall demeanor in his raps and interviews, he's not worried about it.
"I never get the time to get mad [about other rappers stealing this flow] because I'm so happy that they didn't do it right...you're so big [popular, well-known]...but you can't do something right" - Valee
Separating yourself from the crowd with authenticity and being distinctly unique has the best chance of success beyond the life of a current wave. In this fast-paced digital age of new music, The Internet and Buddy slowed things way down with their latest efforts, Hive Mind, and Harlan & Alondra, respectively. These California natives took the scenic route, via different paths, to their most mature and complete sounding records to date.
It's only been three weeks since the release date, but Harlan & Alondra already sounds nostalgic. The foundation of this soundtrack, provided by Los Angeles residents Mike & Keys (Nipsey Hussle, Dom Kennedy, Casey Veggies), DJ Khalil, Terrance Martin, and Scoop DeVille among others, helped create an atmosphere that felt true to the region they were raised in. Without sounding forced, the production could easily replace the scores to Menace II Society or Boyz in the Hood and it wouldn't sound foreign or out of place. Sonically, Harlan & Alondra is an ode to its predecessors like Dr. Dre's The Chronic, DJ Quik's Way 2 Fonky, and Doggystyle by Snoop, who makes an energetic and youthful cameo on the groovy "The Blue." Soulful and g-funk-inspired, Buddy doesn't forget the roots that influenced him musically growing up in Compton, CA.
Despite being only 24 years old, Buddy has more than half a decade under his belt in this industry. As he raps on the introspective Find Me 2, "the last nigga signed to Star Trak" has had connections with Pharrell since the early 2010s, and they "still keep in contact," (he co-produced the final track on the album, Shine). Having that experience lends to the composure he displays throughout the album while talking about his trials and tribulations with slick raps and soulful crooning. Growth with his personal development from a reckless youth to a productive young adult is evident throughout this 12-track project. The album's peak, Trouble on Central shows Buddy's range as he melodically raps, bops and sings about his past situation and how he dreamed of something outside the view of his hood.
Just so good at being in trouble
Spending my days out in the ghetto
Papa say that I need to be careful
Heard a nigga just got popped at the Arco
Pros on the hoes stroll, junkies on narcos
Long Beach, Compton, Watts to South Central
Damn, I just can't wait 'til I get home (shit)
That's when a cop had pulled me over
Buddy has crude humor about his debut album, which was nine years in the making, but judging by how well put together it was, one can tell how seriously he took this project. From the aggressively hype and proud Black featuring ASAP Ferg, to the cool, breezy, and light Hey Up There featuring Rev. Ty Dolla $ign, Buddy's range as a captivating musician is on full display. Named after the cross-street he grew up on, Harlan & Alondra is extremely personal to Buddy, both lyrically true and sonically native to his home environment.
Hive Mind, as of December 2017, was 95% finished, yet it only came out on July 20th, 2018. The hype was plenty, but the crew wasn't bothered by that pressure. It was fine-tuned to the highest of qualities. There's a certain maturity that comes with independence; branching out to do solo projects definitely contributed to their growth as a group. The opening track Come Together literally does that, as if it's a collective "oh what's good?" to the homies you haven't seen in a while. Every single element of the band is audible on this airy song, sounding sharper than ever.
I feel like this is on a higher echelon than Ego Death. I love Ego Death, that was a great record, but I know this one is a step up." - Steve Lacy
It's incredibly grown. Like, if you get passed the aux cord at your family's annual cookout, mixed with younger cousins and great-grandparents, this album is a safe medium that'll be impressionable to both crowds. Funk, soul, jazz, RnB, and electronic music are blended together for a groove-filled entertaining mix from start to finish. Syd hang-glides as a vocalist and constantly shows her versatility. On Stay the Night for example, her verses are delivered as relaxed jabs right before she hits a breathy stride into the bridge. One of the major standouts, the somber It Gets Better (With Time) evokes strong emotions from her vocals alone.
The lyrics are even more of gut punch:
Is something wrong?
'Cause you seem mighty low
Tell me what's going on
Probably been there before
Sit up and fix your face
You see me, I'm okay
We ain't got time today
Throw on your darker shades and
Smile for the camera
Balance is important; songs like the bass and percussion-driven Steve & Syd duet Roll (Burbank Funk) and the light-hearted upbeat groove of La Di Da provide just that. Girl chasing, love makin', heartbreak, self-care are universal themes in not only soul and RnB, but life in general. The Internet connected on these from a maturely confident point of view.
Staying true to self is something that'll never go out of style. Why be a copycat in an increasingly artificial world? Eventually, hit chasing is bound to lead to fatigue and it's even worse when it's not legitimate. It's not sustainable long term.
In the quote at the start of the piece, Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson were aiming to create something authentic with lasting effects and used the Motown era as an example. He wasn't equating the two directly (I hope) but was showing how important it was to take the time to make the best possible thing as best as they can.
Slowing down the pace to focus on the long-term isn't always a bad idea. Even if wide-spread love isn't immediately shown, Harlan & Alondra and Hive Mind are two bodies of work that'll live beyond 2018. If done correctly, the culture will always accept and respect, futuristic throwbacks rooted in authenticity. The Internet and Buddy did just that.