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.