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Music

The perfect swan song: when should musicians retire?

 In such a creative field, can there really be a right time for musicians to call it a day?

Music is a unique business in that there isn’t really a retirement plan. We’ve seen acts like The Band take their last waltz, only to return a decade later with some of their original lineup missing. We’ve also seen instances of artists like the Rolling Stones slowing down their musical output to a halt but continuing to perform their classic hits. There are even a few who’ve retired completely, like the legendary Bill Withers, who released his final album in 1985 and never released another original recording.

 The thing with music is that, on top of the lack of a retirement plan, there’s no set age or album limit on creating quality music. Some artists peak higher than others, some peak later in life, some burn out quickly and some just never really get it going.

With that in mind, when is the right time for an artist to throw in the towel? And how much does missing that window of time impact an artist’s legacy?

In July of this year, Grammy-nominated, multi-platinum rapper Logic announced that he was retiring and stepping away from music at the age of 30, after dropping his final album, No Pressure. The Maryland-born artist has his personal reasons for retirement (fatherhood and a new deal with livestreaming behemoth, Twitch), but has also made it clear that there is another major factor involved in him quitting music.

Logic’s last few albums, prior to No Pressure, had been receiving increasing amounts of criticism from critics and fans alike. He went from the up-and-coming sensation to being one of the most consistently bashed rappers of his generation within the span of a decade.

This wasn’t just fans being petty or making a joke at the expense of the rapper because they felt like it, this was a direct reflection of the direction Logic was going musically. His early mixtapes showed a young rapper with immense talent and potential, and as he grew in popularity, that potential was squandered. After such a tumultuous decade in the music business, he finally called it quits, delivering his best album in about five years.

While he may not have gone out on the top of his game, No Pressure did serve as his redemption after years of lacklustre output and criticism. He may not have gone out with a bang, but he certainly didn’t go out with a whimper either.

The interesting thing about his retirement is that, while his track record isn’t expunged of the subpar releases that plague the latter half of his catalogue, Logic still retired on a fairly high note. On top of that, he himself noticed the downward trend of his music’s reception, even if he was proud of the music itself, and corrected his course for one last release. While No Pressure isn’t a ground-breaking album sonically, it showed that he is still a capable rapper, and left fans content with his final farewell.

The foresight it took to recognize that his window was closing is impressive, but it’s also something that music fans don’t see often — if ever. In fact, it’s more common for listeners to watch their favourite artists sell out or fall off while attempting to maintain their relevance or refusing to evolve at all and running their sound into the ground.

Louis Armstrong once said that “musicians don’t retire; they stop when there’s no more music in them,” but what if that wasn’t the case? What if musicians did retire, and they did so because they had no more quality music in them? As subjective of a concept as that is, what if artists recognized themselves being passed their prime and prevented any legacy-damaging musical output?

When you look at a band like Maroon 5, who have been a chart-dominating group since the early-to-mid 2000s, you can see that they’re a shell of what they once were. The group has essentially morphed from a solid pop-rock band to Adam Levine latching onto popular sounds, genre-hopping and churning out trendy singles with little-to-no substance. They’re so far removed from what they once were that if you played the biggest single from their first and last album back to back, you wouldn’t be able to tell that it’s the same group.

As the times have changed, people’s musical tastes have too, and in order to survive in the mainstream/pop landscape, artists like Maroon 5 must adapt to these changes, or fade away. In adapting to these changes, they started pandering to different demographics, sacrificing the integrity and quality of their music for increased popularity and longevity.

This degradation of quality in an artist’s music isn’t always the result of selling out, pandering or changing too much. Sometimes artists refuse to grow or evolve musically and that lack of growth leads to repetitive, boring music. 

Eminem is nearing 50 years old, and he’s still hurling around homophobic slurs and dissing artists for shock value in his music, and it feels like no matter how negatively his music is received he just doubles down on it. He raps like an old man, sitting in a room and yelling at the walls about how great things were in his heyday, and it’s because he’s run out of things to say.

He hasn’t really had a potent idea for a record since Recovery, which isn’t very good itself, but at least it had clear intentions and something to say. Now the music is just hollow syllables laid over more contemporary production.

Along with both Eminem and Maroon 5’s respective music decreasing in quality, they share another massive commonality, and that’s their stature in the industry. Both of these acts, and even Logic to a lesser extent, are massively popular major label artists. They’re not the same extremely passionate artists that worked on their earlier albums, they’re part of the machine that is the music business, and that plays a huge part in their decline.

At a certain point, after such lengthy and successful careers, these acts have become less focused on the art and more focused on maintaining their relevance. Maroon 5 through their blatant trend-chasing, and Eminem by having albums with a few poppy singles and a bunch of songs that attempt to re-hash elements of his classics. They’re not creating for the purpose of creation or passion, they’re pandering to maintain popularity, but these are the pressures of the industry.

In both of these cases, these artists reached a crossroads: do they stop with their legacies and reputations intact, or do they continue and risk damaging their names? They chose the latter, for whatever purpose, and are taken less and less seriously with each release. Maroon 5 are now regarded as nothing more than an obnoxious group of sellouts, and people are now questioning Eminem’s status as an all-time great rapper.

That being said, just because a popular artist is in a decline doesn’t mean they’ve got nothing left in them, just that they may need to step away — at least for a while. We’ve seen artists like Jay-Z, Judas Priest and Bob Dylan all hit late-career home runs, even after a few middling-to-poor releases have piled up in their catalogue. They were all able to step away for a while and come back with some of their later works being some of their best. They are rare cases but they prove that the late-career return to form is possible.

So, when is it the right time for an artist to step away from recording for good? It’s possible that there is no right answer to the question, as a lot of knowing when to call it a day comes with hindsight. But in an ideal situation, an artist would either recognize their decline as it begins, or soon after and fade away, either temporarily or for good.

In such an artistic and individual profession, it’s easy to overlook the signs, but acknowledging them could save an artist’s legacy. Not everyone can go out on top, but with that self-awareness, they can come close.

 

Graphic by @the.beta.lab

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Music Quickspins

QUICKSPINS: Big Sean – Detroit 2

The Motor City rapper’s latest highlights his personal and artistic growth, but suffers from a bloated tracklist.

Over the course of the last decade or so, Big Sean’s inconsistency has become the biggest hindrance to the quality of his projects. Historically, the Motor City rapper’s flashes of greatness have often been overshadowed by an abundance of corny punchlines and weak deliveries. Detroit 2 tries to correct this trend, as Sean is at his most refined — but while it makes for higher highs, it also makes the lows more apparent.

One of this album’s clearest strengths is Sean’s growth. It’s apparent that the man who made juvenile and shallow singles like “IDFWU” and “Dance (A$$)” has left those days behind him. In spending years meditating and reflecting, his newfound clarity and focus has also manifested in him becoming a much better rapper. Detroit 2 sees Sean improving lyrically and sees an exponential boost in his confidence on the mic, making him much more interesting to listen to.

The majority of the album’s tracks are his most mature to date as well, dealing with anxiety, depression, romance and emerging from his darkest period with a newfound sense of purpose. Songs like the Nipsey Hussle-assisted single “Deep Reverence” and “Everything That’s Missing” see Sean discussing his struggles with mental health and his lack of fulfillment despite his fame and accolades. There’s a level of introspection and depth present on this album that we’ve yet to see from Sean up to this point, and they result in some of the best songs in his catalogue.

Unfortunately, while the album does have a lot of quality tracks, a chunk of its songs range from mediocre to bad. “Friday Night Cypher” which features 10 of Detroit’s finest rappers, including Eminem, is a mixed bag, to say the least. With some jarring beat switches and some extremely phoned-in guest contributions, it’s a jumbled mess even with its bright spots. The album’s lowest point though is “Time In” performed by Sean and Jhené Aiko as TWENTY88, a song that sees the pair harmonizing about their relationship over an airy, synth-laced instrumental. It features Sean’s worst performance on the album, as both his rapped verse and vocal harmonies are horrible.

This album could’ve used more quality control, as there is a great album hiding in Detroit 2’s overly-long, 71 minute runtime. There are enough highs here that if the 21-song tracklist was cut down to about 15 or so tracks, including the fantastic guest stories, it could’ve been his undisputed magnum opus. Still, in spite of its flaws, Detroit 2 is Big Sean’s best album in years, maybe his discography, even if it doesn’t quite live up to its potential.

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Music

The death of rap punchlines

A talent that was once renowned is now deemed corny–what happened?

Punchlines once ruled hip hop. In the ‘90s and 2000s, rappers like Big L, Lil Wayne and Eminem dominated the genre by rapping some of the most clever lines imaginable. Then, towards the end of the decade and at the beginning of the 2010s, it seemed hip hop began to turn its back on punchlines.

Rappers like Childish Gambino and Drake have coasted on barely passable punchlines that are more cringe than clever. Drake infamously rapped “Got so many chains they call me Chaining Tatum” on the egregious Views track “Pop Style.” Gambino’s 2011 track “Freaks and Geeks” was a haven for corny punchlines that, to a teenage version of myself, sounded astoundingly clever but in reality, are lazy and frankly gross (“An elephant never forgets/ That’s why my dick remembers everything”).

In fact, Childish Gambino, an artist who essentially blew up because of his punchlines, has never really been good at them. The entirety of his debut album, Camp, was based on them. On “Bonfire,” he raps “Okay, it’s Childish Gambino, homegirl drop it like the NASDAQ / Move white girls like there’s coke up my ass crack.” While those lyrics may have been clever for a young audience, they’ve aged like milk.

The juvenile lyrics were a foundation for Pitchfork’s devastating 1.6/10 rating that baffled all his fans. I asked myself: “How could something so clever and funny be so bad to them?” TheNeedleDrop also infamously gave him a 2/10 after primarily critiquing the weak bars. He followed with the album, Because the Internet, which fared better with critics but was still largely criticized for Gambino’s poor punchlines; he raps “Got no patience, cause I’m not a doctor,” on hit single “3005.”

While Gambino isn’t solely responsible for the steady decline of punchlines in rap during the 2010s, he was certainly a catalyst. But what made Lil Wayne, Big L and Eminem’s punchlines from hip hop’s rise to prominence so incredible?

Lil Wayne is constantly debated as one of the best rappers of all time for his smart play on words and unique ability to create punchlines. On “6 Foot 7 Foot,” Wayne raps “Real G’s move in silence like lasagna,” a bar that might seem like nonsense on first listen, but a quick backtrack will show how sneaky the pun in the bar is. True, the song is one of Wayne’s more recent songs, but the punchline is a reflection of how clever Wayne was in his prime.

Big L was also as iconic before his untimely death in 1999. Known to be a master of punchlines, some of his bars are truly hilarious, like on “98 Freestyle” where he raps “Before I buck lead and make a lot of bloodshed/ Turn your tux red, I’m far from broke, got enough bread/ And mad hoes, ask Beavis I get nothing Butthead.”

Punchlines haven’t exactly left; Eminem is still writing some, as can be found on his newest album Music to be Murdered By. However, the bars are substantially weaker than the rhymes back on his earlier works like The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP, both of which remain some of the best-written hip hop albums of all time.

Music to be Murdered By featured lyrics like “How can I have all these fans and perspire?/ Like a liar’s pants, I’m on fire.” It’s evident that Eminem has become lazy. It’s no secret that his lyricism has been questioned all decade.

Lil Wayne has also toned down the number of punchlines he’s rapped since Tha Carter IV. In 2020, punchlines seem to have become a thing of the past; no one particularly likes them anymore.

The most popular songs from the latter half of the 2010s offer less on the rapping front and more on melodies and captivating instrumentals. Rappers like Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti, and Roddy Ricch have written songs with fun, albeit simple lyrics about their lives that are ultimately more compelling than a forced joke that tries to act as proof that the rapper is sharp with their pen.

Lyricism has been about more than just wordplay. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is lauded for its smart lyrics and substantive subject matter. While certainly not everyone’s favourite album from the Compton rapper, it’s a hallmark of lyricism with raps that tackle complex themes without breaking them down into cheap one-liners.

Hip hop fans at the end of the 2010s couldn’t care less about punchlines. They’ve become an important piece of history within hip hop but the genre has moved past them. Rest in peace to rap punchlines—it’s been real.

 

 

Graphic by @justineprovost.design

 

Categories
Music Quickspins

QUICKSPINS: Eminem – Music To Be Murdered By

Eminem continues his streak of horrible albums with his newest surprise release.

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the public that Eminem is the greatest rapper alive. On Music To Be Murdered By, his latest offering since 2018’s Kamikaze, the Detroit-based edgelord tries to maintain his relevance by rapping fast and recruiting modern producers.

To the chagrin of my ears, Eminem has somehow managed to top Kamikaze’s awful raps by including some of the worst bars ever written (But I’m contemplating yelling “Bombs away” on the game / Like I’m outside of an Ariana Grande concert waiting).

Before heading into everything wrong with this album, there are a few interesting moments that distract from Eminem’s terrible lyrics. The hook on “You Gon’ Learn” is engaging and pleasant over the richly-produced beat from frequent collaborator Royce Da 5’9”. Juice WRLD and Black Thought’s inclusions on “Godzilla” and “Yah Yah,” respectively, are nice but can’t save the tracks from a jarring Eminem desperately trying to convince the listener he’s still got it.

The best track on the album comes from the Anderson .Paak-assisted “Lock It Up” that sounds much better than it should have been. Paak adds a fiery hook and Eminem isn’t that bad on it, which makes it digestible.

For the most part, the instrumentals are sound and Eminem’s rapping is technically decent, but not much else can be said about the positive aspects of this project.

Once again, Eminem decides to collaborate with pop singers like Ed Sheeran and Skylar Grey in which the song with the former sounds like a five-year-old created a beat on a Fisher-Price toy piano. Both singers sound sleepy and disengaged from the songs they’re on.

The most glaring issue with this new album is Eminem’s failure to put the spotlight on Griselda, the group of rappers he signed to Shady Records. It’s almost a certainty that their inclusion would have elevated this album in every conceivable way given that their recently released project, WWCD, is a breath of fresh air in rap.

The album is also painfully long and clocks in just over an hour with 20 tracks, including some skits. 

Despite all these issues, this is Eminem’s best work since The Marshall Mathers LP 2, though that’s not saying much. It’s a step in the right direction as Eminem smartly drifts away from the pop songs that made his previous efforts so unbearable.

Unless Eminem starts rapping about interesting topics and stops sounding like an adult baby, he will never return to making compelling music again. Can someone please teach Eminem that rapping fast does not equate to rapping well?

Rating: 4/10

Trial Track: “Lock It Up (feat. Anderson .Paak)”

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