’90s Soul: Bringing That Ol’ Thing Back
It's time to return to quality over quantity in music
It’s been 20 years since Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite came out. As a millennial, I grew up with two parents who were huge music heads, so you can imagine both my nostalgia, and my sadness, at this realization.
The quality of music, particularly in the hip-hop and R&B genres, has changed drastically since then. In some aspects, the two genres have expanded and diversified greatly. In an era highly fueled by social media, we now have access to music faster, and we even get a more intimate look at the artists who create for us through platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. Whether or not that’s a good thing, is what I’m constantly picking apart.
In his recent interview on The Breakfast Club, Maxwell was asked what took him so long to come out with another album. He responded with a respectable answer: he was living life, and he just wanted the album to be right. You can’t rush art, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to.
The idea that an artist could wait over three years before releasing anything sounds just as shocking as it does refreshing in today’s climate.
The idea that an artist could wait over three years before releasing anything sounds just as shocking as it does refreshing in today’s climate. Prior to the current instant-gratification era we’re in, having a few years between an album wasn’t out of the norm at all. But now with sites like SoundCloud, everyone’s dropping albums and EPs like it’s nothing. There seems to be this unspoken pressure to release new stuff constantly in order to remain relevant. Maybe the younger millennials have subscribed to this notion, but I’m not buying it.
It was somewhere between Maxwell’s interview, and a flashback of Beyoncé’s Life Is but a Dream HBO special where she said, “People don’t make albums anymore. They just try to sell quick singles, then they burn out . . . People don’t listen to a body of work anymore,” that I realized, nothing is as good as it used to be. And I don’t mean that in the way that elders always talk about “back in their day.”
Between Bey, Maxwell, Nina Simone, and even recently, Schoolboy Q, I think artists have always struggled with the risk of getting too caught up in fame to the point of it compromising their craft. For some, it already has, and that’s why Soulja Boy’s “Kiss Me Thru The Phone” probably won’t make it onto your wedding playlist. No shade. OK, maybe a little. Granted, maybe not everyone wants to be an artist with a legacy, maybe some just want a single, and a following for a little while. But if that’s the case, maybe they shouldn’t be in the same category, and we shouldn’t expect the same things of them.
Some artists will date their music without even realizing it, by using references to things that might not last forever.
When was the last time you bought and loved an entire album? How many of those can you listen to years after their release? Some artists will date their music without even realizing it, by using references to things that might not last forever. An example would be the use of “BBM pose” in Fabolous’ “You Be Killin’ ’Em” or Bryson Tiller’s “scrollin’ through the ’gram” in “Exchange”.
Take Drake even. It totally breaks my heart to say this because I’ve been Drizzy’s number one since Room For Improvement (see the wall shrine in my childhood room for proof). But I hit shuffle on my iPod (remember the nano?) the other day, and I couldn’t remember what album “The Real Her” was from. All of his albums and mixtapes, and random 3 a.m. blog-exclusive singles, seemed to lump together into one long project.
I played So Far Gone from start to finish on the drive home the other day, and thought, “wow, this all flowed so well.” It instantly took me back to where I was when it came out, and how it made me feel. I remember that that was one of the reasons I really became drawn to his sound (which has since changed dramatically might I add), and his music. I felt that same way with The Weeknd’s House of Balloons. Though different artists, both works flowed seamlessly from start to finish. Kind of like the way Urban Hang Suite did.
I’m not sure what bothers me most: the overexposure of all these celebrities’ lives and the lack of expectations of them, or the lack of quality in the music paired with the speed it’s being released.
Before you hit me with Jay Z’s “n*ggas want my old shit, buy my old album” line, let me be clear. I’m not afraid of change. This isn’t about that at all. Change is good, it’s healthy, even. But I am a believer in the idea that change doesn’t mean your quality has to suffer. Watching (or rather, hearing) an artist grow is wonderful. Take Rihanna’s latest album, ANTI, for example. That is the first Rihanna album I’ve not only purchased (I’ve usually only ever bought one or two singles), but have been able to listen to from start to finish. RiRi has grown as an artist. I wish she hadn’t waited nearly 10 years to let everyone know she has some vocal talent, but I’m glad that she finally did.
See, I like change. Change is good. Views is good, too. But I miss waiting for an album. I miss the music industry before social media. The classless part of me loves reading about celebrity drama, and watching reels of Mariah Carey’s shadiest moments on YouTube. But the side of me that appreciates an actual body of work misses not knowing or subscribing to the personal lives of celebrities. I miss when an album was just an album and it didn’t come with a publicity stunt attached. Celebrity couples and feuds aren’t new, and neither are gossip magazines, but I just feel like we’re more immersed in it now than ever before. Since when did the artist’s personal life trump the art? How did we get here, and how do we go back?
I wouldn’t mind so much if the music coming out was still worth remembering. Do you remember who Kelly Rowland was dating or feuding with when “Dilemma” came out? How about Nelly? No? Exactly. But that is still considered one of the gems of the early 2000s.
I’m not sure what bothers me most: the overexposure of all these celebrities’ lives and the lack of expectations of them, or the lack of quality in the music paired with the speed it’s being released. I think we all need to take a step back and focus. We, as fans and respectable human beings need to stop demanding and subscribing to the lives of these strangers. And musicians need to focus on the quality of their craft. Let Frank Ocean, or Childish Gambino, or Maxwell, or Wale, or Erykah Badu, or Outkast, or Lauryn Hill (up until like last year) be an example that if you put out good, quality music, your fans will wait for you. They will buy tickets to your shows. You will be fine. You will be remembered. Because that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
2015 Archive Photo of SWV performing at I Love the 90s concert in Toronto © Chantal ‘Rose’ Gregory & Urbanology Magazine