Jakarta-born college student, currently studying Communication Science, focusing in Media Studies at Brawijaya University, Malang.
Keeping yourself relevant as a musician isn’t always the case of giving up quality to reach a broader package of listeners. While we can’t ignore the fact that mainstream success is most of the time, if not always, seen as the easy and instant way to keep that relevance itself. Even some so called ‘legendary’ musicians dropped their level of musicality so distant to keep themselves ‘in the game’. For example, the once queen of pop Madonna. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one feeling bad for her after seeing her music video for “Bitch, I’m Madonna”. Well I gotta admit it’s pretty funny too though. It’s like seeing your grandmother trying too hard to make herself look cool in front of her grandchildren by making a music video with her grandchildren’s friends. For you who haven’t watched it, it’s a majestic 4 minute work of art displaying Madonna and her dancers, flourished by cameos from the biggest names in music today, such as Kanye West, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, and even the Queen Bey herself. Wasn’t really helping that terrible song though, and more so, the horrendous title. Like, come on. “Bitch, I’m Madonna?”
Apart from that one example, another example of lowering quality to maintain success is from the arguably, one of the best rappers ever to hold a mic, Mr. Jay-Z himself. But unlike Madonna, Jay is a one clever motherfucker. Not saying that Madonna is stupid by the way. Jay-Z is luckily smart enough, and more importantly good enough to have that ability to play around the very border between being relevant and being cheesy as hell. He has been playing hula hoops through that border so long that even Trump’s wall won’t stop him from doing that.
Jay’s debut album “Reasonable Doubt” was released in 1996. Aside from the impact it delivers to the drug-dealing community at that time, the album didn’t get a lot of attention until a few years after the release. It only sold around 400.000 copies by the end of the year and it only reached number 23 on the billboard 200, Jay’s lowest charting album ever. Later the album is widely considered as Jay’s best work and arguably one of the best Hip-Hop album of all time. In the album Jay delivered some of his best verses and lines with the support from a few legendary producers such as DJ Premier, Ski, and DJ Clark Kent. His honest and dark lyrics in this album are, in my opinion, the thing that really excelled this album. Packaged by a flow and wordplay so dope that he didn’t get murdered in a song with Biggie Smalls. That’s as good as a compliment can be, right?
“I gave you prophecy on my first joint and ya’ll lamed out, didn’t really appreciate it til the second one came out” – Jay-Z
As we all know, after “Reasonable Doubt”, Jay’s career come blasting like a shaken up soda bottle. Putting out works that are considered a classic by fans such as “The Blueprint” in 2001, and “The Black Album” in 2003. Around that same time of the Black Album was released, he was the only one name considered as the best rapper alive. Apart from all those success, fans realized that lyrically, Jay has been a let down compared to the ones he delivered in his debut album.
And not a small amount of people criticized him for being a sellout for the sake of money. But Jay is a hustler all along. He grew up as a drug dealer, and made a transition to music simply to make some more money. So in other words, music is just the new drugs that he is selling now. But what distinguishes him from Madonna, again, is that he sells out himself right into the perfect area of that border we were talking about, where people still thinks he’s dope, but still reached a broad audience, and you need to get it just right in order to make that happen. And what makes him so cool is that he admitted the fact that he sold out in one of his songs called “Moment of Clarity”, taken from The Black Album.
“I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars
They criticized me for it, yet they all yell ‘holla”
Jay’s an anomaly in Hip-Hop, or even the music world. Keeping himself in the game for 21 years and still be accepted and loved by the newer generation is something not every artist can do, especially in Hip-Hop. He somehow saved himself from the abyss of Hip-Hop artist that disappeared after a few hot albums such as 50 Cent, Ja Rule, DMX, and Nelly.
As I said before, keeping your relevance as an artist isn’t always the case of degrading your quality and reaches the mainstream success. Some artists kept their relevance in the industry by evolving their musicality by having experiments in their music, without affecting the quality. Radiohead is one of the very few who succeeded to do that. Their transition after the critically acclaimed and commercially success “OK Computer” to the shocking release of “Kid A” is something really brave to do considering the accolades they have in their own comfort zone. The release of “The Bends” and “OK Computer” cemented Radiohead as one the faces of alternative rock at that time, and nobody expected them to get out of that zone so quickly. A risky move to make, of course, but what did you expect from someone who wrote a song like “Fitter Happier”? or “Paranoid Android”? I guess the unborn chicken voices in his head are messing things up again.
Radiohead went from the easily digestible alternative rock hit maker, into the artsy electronica experimental rock band that some of the songs are hardly digestible after 5 listens, subsequent to the release of “Kid A”. The evolution in terms of music goes very deep that it really isn’t a hard task to identify pre-Kid A songs with the Post-Kid A ones. I remember the first time I heard ‘idioteque’, the first song I heard from that album. And I specifically remember thinking ‘what the hell is this shit? Is this even a Radiohead song?’ and it ended up as one of my favorite Radiohead songs. “Kid A” is a disclosure from the band after the success that “OK Computer” brings. The band are irritated by some new acts that tried to imitate them, which leads them into frustration, it messes up their heads so bad until lead singer Thom Yorke at one time suffered a total mental breakdown. They realized that they needed a change, and I’m sure they understood that they might lose a lot of fans after that change. But I don’t think that it is a problem coming from a band who totally hates their own biggest hit. Following “Kid A”, Radiohead maintained their ‘relevance’ by releasing a string of albums that are never short in terms of quality. Five studio albums were released after Kid A and not one of them ever disappoints, including last year’s “A Moon Shaped Pool”.
From all three examples above, we can come on terms about relevance, that relevance isn’t always reflected by the number of sales, and it isn’t always achieved by complying the market’s demands. In some cases it’s the body of work that drives the artist to maintain the quality and originality of their music that makes an artist relevant. After all, it’s all about perspectives, eh?