As thrilling as the adoration and love from a fanbase is, it only means there’s a lot eyes looking and scrutinising every move the artist makes, judging eyes. The artist becomes a social experiment, private life becomes public and change is only acceptable if it favours these fans. In the words of Barney Stinson, “New is always better”. But immediately the new deviates from the perception or expectations created by these adoring fans, there’s a possibility the artist gets backlash.
Where the disconnect forms is when fans don’t consider that artists are also humans dealing with daily life issues and artists uses their music to reflect their surroundings and circumstances in the way they deem best. Not to say there are no bad songs or albums, but what determines if the art is bad should be a combination of circumstance and technical delivery. As far as an artist creates art and sends it into the world it is bound to be mulled over, loved or hated.
J. Cole’s third album 2014 Forest Hills Drive was the long-awaited magnum opus, the album that would push Jermaine from mixtape legend to bona fide rap superstar. Grown Simba had finally taken his place on the throne. FHD captured J. Cole’s story in an entertaining manner without the sappy radio appealing songs that bogged down his previous releases. FHD is certified 2X platinum with a total of zero features, evidence of a resounding applause. The follow up, 4 Your Eyez Only was met with the expected amount of fanfare. In following days the dominant topic on twitter timelines was J. Cole but two months since the release of 4YEO, there’s being a radio silence like the album has already gone past its allotted attention span.
Although the vine-like attention to album releases these days can be blamed, but comments about 4YEO lacking the edge of FHD also took the winds out of its sails. It is normal to have expectations from an artist and even holding a new project up against a beloved former project is only right. But it also hinders listening to the album on its own terms. By the time 4YEO rolled around, Cole was a married man and an expectant father. 4YEO represents a man sharing his fears and hopes as a husband and father, drawing parallels with the life of a dead friend who could no longer be there for his family. From discouraging the act of saving hoes to the rapping about docile act of folding clothes, grown Simba had become family Simba and it had to reflect in the music.
Coloring Book brought all the praise independent artists could only dream of for Chance the Rapper. Rave reviews from critics matched with the support of his adoring fans who sent the mixtape album into the Billboard charts from streaming numbers only. A barrage of awards followed, most notably Best New Artist and Best Rap Album at the recent Grammys. But the “day ones” always seem to always stick to their belief that Chano’s previous effort Acid Rap should be the appropriate project to receive all the praise Coloring Book was getting.
Acid Rap is filled with edgy songs depicting druggy highs and introspective uncertain lows, even the cover art perfectly depicts Chano’s anxiousness showcased on Acid Rap. Whereas Coloring Book finds Chance presenting himself as a man with less edges and a more rounded outlook, due to his newly renewed faith in God and the birth of his daughter. The cover art, a picture taken while Chance was looking down on his new-born perfectly encapsulates the solemn bursts of joy presented on Coloring Book. The guy that was asking God to show His face got his wishes and is acknowledging the blessings falling on his lap.
Prior to Yeezus, Kanye’s music was immune to flak from fans. His acidic tantrums were tempered by the “sweet” music the old Kanye created, but Yeezus was different. Yeezus was a tantrum thrown due to difficulties Kanye had breaking into the fashion industry, a man used to hearing yes all the time was getting no’s. Instead of sugar-coating his pain in sweet soul samples, Kanye poured out his feelings rant-style over cacophonous minimalist pseudo-industrial production that was destined to come out acidic. Acid that was obviously going to corrode part of his fanbase who found this new Kanye overbearing.
The Life of Pablo, the follow up to Yeezus did little to quell the “I miss the old Kanye” chants. An album as chaotic as its rollout, TLOP moved from the spiritual ‘Ultralight Beam’ to Kanye rapping about bleached assholes on the next song. The remaining songs only added more randomness to the pack. By the time TLOP came out, the biggest issue Kanye had to deal with was himself and therein lies the beauty of TLOP’s. Beauty that can only appreciated if it is understood that like Kanye, everyone has demons to overcome and it is barely ever a straight walk.
“Niggas want my old sh*t, buy my old albums”, Jay Z rapped on ‘On to the next one’. Although Hov could still take you down memory lane in impressive fashion (‘Seen it All’ ‘Drug Dealers Anonynous’), he had made the move from the street corner to a corner office and it has reflected in his music since his return from retirement. Nas suited up on his last album, Life is Good. There was a strong air of maturity surrounding his writing, embracing his divorce and reminiscing about being in the streets instead of remaining in there. Even the return of blonde Eminem couldn’t stop him from apologizing to his mother with the heartfelt ‘Headlights’.
Stylistic change by an artist is often triggered by series of events in the artist’s life, asking the artist to remain the same is stinginess on the part of fans. Not all change is embraceable, but then change is inevitable. Not wanting to understand the reason for the resulting change before dismissing an artist’s new effort is a travesty and a huge disservice to Hip-Hop as a fan.
Words by Peter Ade Dennis, aka coloring pencil, aka @ayo_dennis.