Column: Treat Everything Like It’s Your First Project

After so many mediocre debut albums from new rappers in the last three years I started to wonder where’s the magic that got me excited about some of these new artists in the first place? I’m not implying that all these new rappers just became bad overnight. Clearly they’re not without skill because they’ve managed to get my attention. However, lackluster product is being force-fed to us when these artists finally drop their so-called debut LP. While mixtapes continue to serve as the springboard to many a rapper’s career, those early mixtapes are proving to be highly more entertaining than the debut albums these labels are churning out. When I think of my favorite emcees their debut album is more than likely my favorite in their catalog: Ready To Die, Illmatic, Paid In Full, Doggystyle just to name a few. The passion, personality, raw energy and the ability to convey their story is all on full display. Not to compare those freshman efforts to artists of today because all the above are seminal debuts. However, the sentiments I described just don’t come across in a lot of these recent debuts. They feel empty and hollow in the same way product placement has sucked the life out of videos and turned them into four-minute corporate commercials. Why pay for an album when your free mixtape has more to offer me as a consumer?

In this Internet-era of releasing free music in the hopes of being recognized, artist debuts resemble something closer to many sophomore LPs. The target demographic has been identified. The overall sound is too polished and clean-cut. The projected BDS spins along with all the bells and whistles have been accounted for. At least that’s the sense I get for artists signed to the majors. Jay-Z once said, “You spend your entire life making your debut album.” He was referring to the 26 years of life experience that helped capture the magic and imagery on Reasonable Doubt. Looking at the current crop of new artists, their debuts are something closer to a trickless magician. Where’s the trick? Let’s look at the current crop of popular rappers on the scene in then last three years with debuts: Wale, Drake, Asher Roth, B.o.B, and Blu. Jay Electronica should be on this list but quite frankly he’s allergic to releasing an album, free or otherwise. Kid Cudi is another artist who fits the criteria. Unfortunately, his music isn’t exactly just hip-hop. It’s more of an apples to oranges comparison when you look at other acts who are primarily hip-hop. I deliberately focused on artists signed to majors since indie releases don’t face the same constraints as far as creativity.

Wale might be the most be disappointing of this bunch. He first came on to hip-hop scene in ’05 but really started to make some noise once his 100 Miles & Running mixtape dropped along with his single “Nike Boots” in ’07. The Osinachi-produced single really put him on the map in terms of up and coming artists to watch for. It captured that Go-Go sound from D.C. and it was an anthem for his hometown. He followed that up with The Mixtape About Nothing, which was inspired by the sitcom Seinfeld. While it was a concept mixtape, it was brilliantly executed. His debut, Attention Deficit, had so many R&B guest spots I thought Ja Rule executive produced it. Gone was clever wordplay, uptempo bounce and Best Kept Secret on most of the production. Too many producers, features and emo songs drowned out whatever impression he was hoping to make. Bottom line, if “Nike Boots” is the best song you’re known for, your album better have something better or comparable otherwise it’s a failure. To make matters worse, his mixtape and debut are so different as projects that it’s even harder to gauge what his sophomore LP will sound like. Good luck with any anticipation you might have.

The first time I heard Asher Roth was on the The GreenHouse Effect mixtape back in ’08. He was the rapper from suburbs, “the other great white hype,” and whatever other label you could extract to say he couldn’t rap. The “Roth Boys” joint and his “A-Mill” freestyle were actually both pretty damn good. I can’t say I knew what to expect for an album but he could definitely rap. I also knew the Eminem vocal tone would be a turnoff for most people but I wanted to see how that would translate for a full LP. Asleep In The Bread Aisle sonically is the equivalent of being college meets Weird Al Yankovic. It’s happy-go-lucky frat-boy music without any real voice. The whole album just sounded like background music for a kegger. Asher clearly has talent and he’s young but he needs to find his voice before even attempting a sophomore LP. His mixtape showed glimpses of that ability, so hopefully he can put more effort into his songwriting. His talking about being in college is not the problem, but lack of creativity definitely is. His latest song showed some promise.

After downloading Little Brother’s Carolina Agents compilation back in ’07, I came across Drake’s “Don’t You Have A Man”, which featured LB and Dwele. I thought it was smooth joint and was interested to hear more. I thought his Comeback Season mixtape was a very solid effort. Granted, the majority of the songs were over established radio hits you could hear glimpses of songwriting ability with Drake. By the time So Far Gone dropped he clearly had that duality in his music firmly established. He was definitely a rapper but also a singer on the certain songs. My worry after hearing So Far Gone was: Would Drake provide a more polished version of that for his debut? Or would he relent and try and maintain some balance with songs like “Fear”. He opted for the former. Album sales aside, Thank Me Later just doesn’t really convey anything more than fame and materialism. I can’t really fault Drake for discussing material things if that represents his current existence but that fancy shit gets repetitive after two or three songs.

I take it back. Bobby Ray aka. B.o.B is the easily the most disappointing of this bunch. Just based on individual talent alone he should be wiping the floor with these new artists. I know what you’re thinking; why include B.o.B and exclude Kid Cudi? B.o.B is actually a good rapper, good singer as well as a trained musician. Kid Cudi is just confusing to me as an artist. I can’t tell if wants to be rapper, pop artist or do alternative/electronic music. He’s a jack of all trades and master of none. Until he figures that out he should really just stick to hooks. Ironically, B.o.B’s debut suffers from the same things I just described. B.o.B dropped three good mixtapes and followed that up with an uninspired and very pop debut album on Grand Hustle. He spent too much time identifying himself as different as opposed to just making music and allowing the audience to have that impression. It sounded like he was trying to reach every audience without a distinct sound. I’m all for versatility but his debut fell very short of being memorable. It’s such a stark contrast to his mixtape material which begs the question of artist development.

Lastly, we have Blu of (Blu & Exile) fame. He’s the exception to the rule because he hadn’t released a real mixtape before Below The Heavens. But he did release the Lifted [EP] in 2006 that had six songs. Four out of six songs ended up on his debut. I realize Below The Heavens was on indie label but the success of that album help secure a major record deal for Blu. Apart from that, creatively it’s the last hip-hop debut that really got me excited for a new artist. He channeled everything he possibly could into that album, like being broke, struggling, love and pursuing your dreams. His debut is an autobiographical look into an artist who knows he isn’t perfect but creative enough to convey the layers of his world to engage the listener. Exile’s production provided the perfect backdrop sonically for that album. I don’t look at Blu like he’s necessarily a road map for success as a new artist. But, there are definitely some things to be taken from his approach. He gave the public just enough to keep them interested and delivered with solid LP. You can clearly hear the Nas and Common influence in his music. There’s even some De La Soul when you hear the chorus on “Dancing In The Rain”. It’s very reminiscent of the vibe from Stakes Is High. Between having a unique voice, style, passion and good storytelling, Blu had a number of elements in place to succeed.

Far be it for me to expect a rapper to come in and change the game with a debut album. It’s a rare occurrence in nearly any genre much less hip-hop. I feel like labels are selling hype and potential [which they’re supposed to]* for new artists that are underselling on actual good music. Thus we have a disconnect. A free mixtape is a taste-test for people you hope can become supporters of your music. I don’t expect mixtapes to be the blueprint for the eventual debuts. However, if you’re a new artist and you’ve built a loyal following on one image, when I buy your album it shouldn’t deviate too far from the norm with your music. Don’t sell me “Superman” on your mixtape only for me to find out you can’t fly when I listen to your first album. Personally, that’s false advertising. I don’t appreciate being bamboozled.

It’s easy to state that artists succumb to label pressure and follow the same formulaic guide that will ensure them radio spins for their debut. But, that all seems too obvious. I’m somewhat surprised this happens as often as it does nowadays. If the Internet has provided one thing; it is transparency within music quality because we can download anything. Are artists and labels naive enough to think we can’t tell the difference? Does it just not matter because of some perceived sense of success now that you’re on a major and the machine will still promote it? Also, how much does the attention span of the average consumer play into all this? Clearly timing is key in this microwave generation we’re living in. It is definitely a balancing act for artists to remain creative, maintain a “buzz,” be able to market your brand, online presence, social media, etc. With all that said, making good music has to be the focal point because it sustains all the other things.

At the end of the day, artists need to save the best material for their debut because you only get to make that album once. I also believe labels need to invest more time into artist development versus short-term profit because they’re derailing careers as well as long-term profit as a business. The ability to share your music with larger audience is always available thanks to Internet mixtapes but over-saturation in the marketplace dilutes the product. I wish more artists understood that. Creativity is like lightning in a bottle. It is not easily replicated but that hunger and passion for your craft should be the inspiration that fuels your music. Technology aside, that feeling still needs to resonate with your music audience. As Biggie once said, “The key to staying on top of things is treat everything like it’s your first project…”. A good number of debut albums being released represent something closer to the “sophomore jinx.” My excitement for new artists is cautiously optimistic because in recent years it doesn’t materialize into an album I want to buy. I think it’s more prevalent then we’d like to admit but mixtapes have eclipsed debut albums in terms of quality. Look no further than Freddie Gibbs and Big K.R.I.T. Two very promising artists delivering good hip-hop this year without a debut album. Here’s hoping they buck the current trend.

28 thoughts on “Column: Treat Everything Like It’s Your First Project

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  1. Skyzoo’s “The Salvation” is what all these young MCs should be on from a debut standpoint. Maybe cuz he’s not on a major label.

  2. It’s 2011 and Jay Elec still hasn’t dropped anything and he’s signed to Roc Nation.
    It’s 2011 and J. Cole hasn’t dropped an album just amazing album material on mixtapes … smh … Tracks like “2Face”, “Enchanted”, “Whos World Is This”, “The Autograph”. I will be SHOCKED if his debut has the same level of material. Smh … he’s dropped 2 classic worth of material and i’m talkin 13-14 tracks.

  3. Criticism should not follow criticism.it should follow good delivery..thats where i come from..

  4. @Kid Captain Coolout Sadly, I think between mixtapes & digital downloads the likelihood of finding a good debut much less a good album is becoming harder.

    “With everyone knowing what criticism is, we should know what we’re willing to have criticized.” [well-put]

    Thanks for the comments.
    peace.

  5. Sorry about the name mix-up… i meant to say Justin instead of Josh.

  6. True indeed, the art of making an album needs to return. If every rapper stopped making mix-tapes, we’d have much better albums and less over-saturation. I can understand what Josh is saying about an artist’s first album but, we also have examples of artists excelling after-wards (Outkast). Recording artists are like visual artists, the more practice you put into the art, the better you get at it. With everyone knowing what criticism is, we should know what we’re willing to have criticized. Not everything we do is dope… and if we strive to be our own worst critics, we’ll all be much better people.

  7. @afan It’s ironic that you say;”…create a backlash against diddy” and Jay Electronica’s last song featured Diddy. I don’t see him attacking Diddy anytime soon. Furthermore, until Jay Electronica releases an album I’m not giving that any light. It’s been three years put out an album/mixtape or stop talking about it. As for Dr. Dre, he’s such a perfectionist that release dates don’t really apply. It’ll drop when it drops.

    Thanks for the comments.
    peace.

  8. @RiS I thought the “Who Dat” song sounded more like a street single or something for a mixtape. The song didn’t really move. I’m waiting to hear J. Cole’s album because he can definitely rap.

    Thanks for the comments.
    peace.

  9. @Justin Boland The funny thing is I’m not even opposed to the sophomore slump because it happens. No artist ever puts an album you love every time. You just hope in between them “f*cking around/experimenting” that you have a good album to go back to.

    Thanks for the comments.
    peace.

  10. @Will “I’d rather find someone like shad who was unknown to me and already put out a few albums than force myself to like the industry’s chosen ones. ” [that’s exactly how I feel at times]*

    The industry definitely wants to create stars but without good music what’s the point? Hopefully J.Cole’s album delivers.

    Thanks for the comments.
    peace.

  11. @D. $cience In an era where there are so many more outlets to get your music heard these debuts have been terrible. I’m cool with mixtapes but some of these rappers need to understand that less is more. Save your quality material for the LP. Also, as far as debuts it’s not even limited to the Golden Era per se (see below)* We’ve had great debut albums for the longest but the lack of quality in the last 3-4 years is evident.

    97′; Camp Lo, CNN, CRU, Company Flow, Missy Elliott
    98′; Big Pun, Lauryn Hill, Black Star
    99′; Eminem, Mos Def, Blackalicious, MF DOOM
    00′; Reflection Eternal, Dead Prez, Dilated Peoples, Slum Village
    01′; J-Live, Cunninlynguists, Hi-Tek
    02′; Clipse
    03′; 50 Cent, Little Brother
    04′; Kanye West, Foreign Exchange, Madvillain
    05′; The Game, Young Jeezy
    06′; Lupe Fiasco

    Thanks for the comments.
    peace.

  12. @TH The Wale album never made any sense to me. I still have his mixtapes that I listen to on occasion but that LP is horrible. Glad you liked the column.

    Thanks for the comments.
    peace.

  13. @nobody It’s a recession man. Hard to support albums that don’t deliver.

    Thanks for the comments.
    peace.

  14. Well the first album curse has been around for the last 3 or 4 years now.
    It used to be the second album curse but now artist first album don’t live up to the hype.

    Reason is because of Mixtapes.

    Ive said it for awhile that mixtapes more so then internet downloading has ruined hip hop.

    Back in the 90s the mixtapes back then made famous by puffy and made insane by Dj Clue were great.

    but even before that there were mixtape demo’s on cassette tapes. cassettes gave you a sample of what to expect. the quality wasnt great but you knew when the album dropped all there effort will 100%.

    The problems with mixtapes now is artists have an excuse for releasing average albums.

    There excuse is that the commercial stuff will be on the album and the hard stuff will be on the mixtape.

    theres no balance.

    If Ready to Die came out now you’d probably have one more chance big poppa and juicy and 8 other commercially driven tracks.

    and the mixtape would have warning, respect, who shot ya etc.

    I think with now day artists there albums dont mean anything. theres no message. no theme. no substance.

    In my opinion mixtapes are trash too. try find a mixtape without having fake deejays speaking all over the tracks. without gunshots and jamaican sirens.

    ridiculous.

    But if you look back to the first half of last decade.

    Black rob, Shyne, Dead PRez, G-Dep, 50 Cent, Eminem, Clipse, The Game, Kanye West, Little Brother etc

    they all released albums just like artists in the 90s that you can call classics. they were worked on for awhile. and you could tell.

    you dont get that no more.

    artists these days make albums far to quickly in my opinion.

    i liked the fact that Lupe Fiasco featured on a Kanye West track and not long after he released a solid first album.

    and thats how it should be. not 10 mixtapes like papoose coming out every week.

    just kick a sick verse on a track or 2 with Nas or Jigga or whoever and then release your album.

    get some buzz the old fasion way.

    Jay Electronica is in danger of becoming a papoose of soughts.

    and with the quality of his work so far. hes album is almost as anticipated as Detox. if not more.

    so he has alot to live upto.

    but im 100% sure he will have a album out by the end of the year.

    because he thinks like a old skool cat.

    BUT THE BIGGEST PROBLEM WITH HIP HOP AT THE MOMENT ALONGSIDE MIXTAPES, EXEC PRODUCERS and THE INTERNET.

    Is the fact that hip hop has sold out.

    there are no leaders like KRS-Ones, Public Enemys, NWA etc

    Hip Hop was anti industry it was like Grunge Music to white kids. etc.

    We were cool for being rebels. we were outspoken about anything and everything.

    now hip hop is so cheesey and uncool people make fun of it.

    hip hop was a lifestyle now its a gimmick.

    seriously if i see one more down south artist with a gun in his video???

    anyway there are many reasons why the cursed first album is now in full effect. but the sad thing is what can we do.

    later this year will define hip hop in my opinion.

    Dr Dre will release Detox and if it is dance music oriented and cheesey corny etc then there will be a backlash.

    Jay Electronica in my opinion has enough buzz about him to release a non commercial album that does well on the charts. and that can influence the way hip hop is recieved. and can create a backlash against diddy, snoop, jay-z, 50, eminem, fat joe, and all those commercials artist releasing no substance music.

    if that happens. and thats a big if. but if that happens then i believe hip hop has just found its new leader.

    PS. The rapper called Drake recently asked ANDRE 3000 to be on a track with him.

    ANDRE 3000 said no. he said. you have to prove yourself first.

    wow. now thats hip hop.

    you got earn respect.

  15. Haha word. Fans never want to move on, which isn’t a good thing. They don’t have to like the new stuff, but have some respect for the artist. Don’t expect them to make a second version of what you consider to be a classic. It’s also funny because when an artist tries to recreate their classic, a lot of fans say “oh, it sounds exactly like so and so, it isn’t fresh”.

    Speaking of which, AZ is working on Doe or Die 2……….. eh.

  16. adding to Freddie Gibbs & Big K.R.I.T, J. Cole is also another artist who’s mixtapes have been worth listening to. Jay-Z has an eye for business & perfection so i’m hoping he won’t let the new face of roc nation produce a sub-par debut album. I liked his ‘Who Dat’ single, the hunger is evident, but i hope his whole album isn’t like that. I have big hopes for J. Cole & i hope he doesn’t let me down.

  17. I actually completely agree with you about Radiohead, Emay, haha.

    But what I wanted to say here is that yeah, we love those seminal debuts, but what albums do we really love after that? There are plenty of acts with good/solid debuts that have gone on to match or do better than what they first released. That being said, though, all this shit is really a matter of our ADHD-riddled society going, as Jay-Z said, on to the next one.

  18. Justin is 100% right. One that first project comes out, the attention the individual receives tends to change their lifestyle, and since music is a reflection of the lifestyle, the music will change. It’s typical. Especially with labels dropping due dates on artists. I think artists need more time to complete their projects when they’re in that situation. I myself as an artist can’t be inspired to make music if I’m not in my comfort zone. That comfort zone is probably different for every artist, and that comfort zone also changes as time goes by. Treating every release as your first project is a good idea to stand by because it keeps an artist “hungry”. A lot of my favourite bands like Radiohead seem to be extremely consistent while progressing their sound. Obviously somebody else that’s a fan of Radiohead wont agree with me on that, but that’s what I think.

    peace, Em

  19. In rock this is called the Sophomore Slump, though…you get you whole life to make that first project. Then you need to make a second project in the next 12 months? And people wonder why quality takes a dive?

    On the plus side…once bands or songwriters get into that faster groove…and they’re doing music professionally, full time…usually a couple albums later they’re back in peak form.

    Blu gave us more than most rappers ever do, already. Expect artists to wander…experiment…”do shit you aren’t really feeling”…make you question their sanity, management team and sexual orientation…don’t expect them to match an album they put a decade into with some shit they put together while they adjusted to a new life and got a minute of spare time between touring and business.

  20. Personally speaking, I think we get spoiled pretty easy when it comes to “perfect” or “near-perfect” debut albums. Considering the spread of the technology age, it’s kind of hard to be hyped for a debut album nothing less than astonishing. You’d find a more easier time in listening to a seasoned vet on their 3rd/4th effort, than you would their 1st.

    Maybe the whole reasoning behind it is artists are trying to navigate a treacherous water of expectations that will never show any mercy. I mean, it’s hard to make the type of debut like a Straight Outta Compton, or Amerikka’s Most Wanted.

    But I’d say an artist now a day that an artist still needs time, and even to say that is beating a dead horse.

  21. JustPlans|

    Only applies to majors

  22. great read. can’t emphasize enough how tough it is to like so many of these rookies. blu is definitely at the top of that list. i do hope j.cole’s debut doesn’t fit the drake and wale mold. i’d rather find someone like shad who was unknown to me and already put out a few albums than force myself to like the industry’s chosen ones.

  23. D. $cience|

    This reminds me of why Illmatic, Doggystyle, Ready To Die, and other golden debuts you’ve mentioned from the past can be the blueprint to new rappers today. Nas didn’t release 4 mixtapes before Illmatic. Snoop wasn’t all over the airwaves force-fed into people’s throats before Doggystyle. Biggie didn’t have a song leaked every damn day until Ready To Die came out. You hit the nail on the head with Blu; he kinda did what these guys did…he didn’t release a bunch of mixtapes and songs before Below The Heavens. These new rappers need to realize that you can’t keep on throwing sh** at the wall waiting for something to stick. The more you perfect your craft and care about the art form, the more you realize you don’t have to keep releasing music to get hot or create a buzz.

    This was a great article, good job.

  24. RM London|

    Someone forgot what record labels do.

  25. The article really spoke to me. “Treat everything like your first project” is a good mantra to live by.

    It’s a shame that a guy like Wale put out such garbage for his debut (only compared to what he’s capable of). New listeners will be disappointed and that hurts his brand.

    I wonder why those songs showed up on his album. Did he really think these were the best songs? He did a whole mixtape with 9th wonder. What’s the point? Why not just release it as an album?

  26. i ended up buying wale and b.o.b.’s debut albums almost out of a feeling of obligation to support them since i dug their mixtapes so much.

  27. disappointed with the drake praise but otherwise not a bad article. I like that you talked about blu not putting out anything close to below the heavens yet.

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