Daniel Reed On… The State of Hip-Hop in 2015

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Since D’Angelo released his first album after a 14-year hiatus in December 2014, Black Messiah, hip-hop has been aflame. When the album dropped, D’Angelo stated in the liner notes that he was not solely calling himself the Black Messiah, but that if everyone worked together and strived for greatness, they too could become their own Black Messiahs, ultimately making the world a better place.

While the world-at-large continues to struggle, the hip-hop world has taken D’Angelo’s advice seriously. In the face of adversity and tragedy, the greatest and most talented hip-hop artists on the planet have banded together and released a flood of career defining work.

Since the beginning of this current calendar year, the number of quality rap, hip-hop, and R&B releases has been both unexpected and unparalleled. Exciting music has exploded on to the scene by both veteran and rookie artists alike. Forget to check Twitter for a week and you risk missing out on the next great video, song, mixtape, or album.

Many of rap, hip-hop, and R&B’s brightest stars are between the ages of 18 and 25. These are the kids that grew up with the foundations of cutting-edge technologies, which they are harnessing to create inventive music. The energetic nature of hip-hop’s culture goes hand-in-hand with today’s evolving world.

Aside from hip-hop being as prolific as it’s been in years, rappers are rapping differently than most of their predecessors did even a few years ago. They are inflecting their voices in new and unpredictable ways that combine singing and speaking into seamless flows of melodic complexity. Today it’s hard to distinguish between singers and rappers because so many are proficient at doing both. All you need to do is listen to Kanye, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Young Thug, Travi$ Scott, Future, PARTYNEXTDOOR, Post Malone, Fetty Wap, Nicki Minaj, Rae Sremmurd, Jeremih, Dej Loaf, Ty Dolla $ign, and Makonnen (to name a very select few) to hear a hip-hop vocalist turn from singer to rapper over the course of a single verse.

Not only are today’s rappers being more inventive on the mic, they are also working with the right producers to complete their sounds. Sometimes they are even producing the beats themselves in order to deliver thoughtful music with a singular vision. It’s exhilarating, triumphant, and immersive all at once. With the same rappers collaborating with the same producers over a series of songs, the listener inevitably feels the chemistry of each of the artists involved.

This style of collaborative work between the vocalist and beat-maker has been present since the early days of hip-hop. However, the amount of times that that model was used successfully stagnated over the past fifteen years. Many major releases sounded patched together with many different musical styles. Label heads hoped that the variety in production would attract a wider audience. However, with too many tastes to please, these albums disappointed many of the artists’ core fans. There would always be a few exceptions, but between the years 2000 and 2014, you’d be lucky to hear more than ten noteworthy hip-hop albums in a single year. These days, it seems like we’re getting that many in the span of a few months.

As commercially successful hip-hop record labels such as Def Jam, No Limit, Cash Money, and Aftermath gained power over the music industry in the late-90s/early 2000s by outselling their non-hip-hop competition, artists signed to these labels achieved mainstream attention by conceding power to record label staff that were too focused on the economics to understand the creative aspect. Rather than nurturing an artist’s actual strength, record label staff dictated the direction of a project based on what was popular on the radio. Artists had to concede their favourite producers and visions in order to work with personnel whom they had marginal experience working with. Coupled with tight timelines in order enter the quarterly release queue, many of these experiments sounded musically unfulfilled.

The music industry’s implosion from a strictly record-sales-type business model to a now more malleable, varied, and unpredictable one owes much of its dues (and losses) to the Internet. To listen to music, we’ve gone from a hard copy format of CDs to the soft copy format of digital MP3s. The record labels were too slow to move with this trend. Artists started to see that they could release music more efficiently without operating through the record label and waiting for months in order for their new material to reach stores. At first, rather than adapting, the record labels held their artists hostage. Their contracts were structured to favour back-loaded deals where the label was owed multiple albums worth of music over a long a period of time. Numerous albums and songs that were recorded sat in a vault to never to see the light of day.

It’s frustrating to see a repeatedly delayed release date. And while this still happens today, many artists are using different methods in order to get their music heard on time. Surprise release dates, unexpected in-store appearances, pop-up shops, high profile performances, and aggressive touring schedules allow today’s most driven artists alternative paths to success.

Another way for an artist to boost one’s own popularity is through a ‘co-sign’ from another, more popular artist. This allows the up-and-comer to circumvent a record label contract and rely on word-of-mouth promotion from an established tastemaker. The ‘co-sign’ assumes many different forms: the established artist remixes an emerging artist’s previously existing song, the established artist invites the new artist to perform with her on tour, the established artist mentions a song in an interview or article, or the established artist simply shares the emerging artist’s material through his own media channels.

Predicting the next big musical success story has always been a hotly debated topic since the beginning of hip-hop’s history. These days, however, it seems like everybody’s got a shot at becoming it. Often, this past year we’ve witnessed career-defining moments by a diverse range of hip-hop artists. Each new day sees a swarth of hungry artists embattled in a neck-and-neck race with one another in order to achieve hip-hop glory. This fast pace and constantly changing scene is very exciting for the fans as they are now being introduced to more artists than ever before.

Additionally, there are a ton of current artists who release music directly to their own Soundcloud pages. Through announcements from their own Twitter accounts, the public is funnelled to independently maintained websites. You can directly voice your opinion back to that artist on their social media pages about the material you’ve just heard. Sometimes artists will collaborate based on fan requests or even release a project once their fans Retweet a message a certain amount of times. Music videos are uploaded to Youtube overnight. This ends up creating a much more personal and connected experience. As a fan, you feel as if you’re being rewarded for watching your musical heroes grow as artists each day.

One element that’s changed is that promoters need to be savvier – with the web being the most credible placement for publication, every second counts. The most successful music marketers strive to pick the right time during a busy news cycle by piggybacking on a current event.

An artist who is able to capitalize quickly off the success of a single track by quickly releasing more recorded material helps set the table for commercial success. Future, one of 2015’s most talked about and admired rappers, exemplified this with his latest album’s release – DS2. After releasing a string of free albums online in a matter of months, he surprise released his 3rd commercial album with very little promotional help from Epic Records (the label he is signed to). Instead, his fans carried the hype with a viral social media campaign. It worked, and DS2 debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart.

The fan enthusiasm for the current hip-hop landscape is felt the most at live concerts. No other genre of music incorporates the audience into its shows quite like hip-hop does. The performers demand vocal and physical support from the crowd throughout their sets, and most rappers aren’t content with letting their audiences sit or stand statically as spectators – participation is a must. More than ever, numerous hip-hop concerts have been captured on Instagram and Snapchat this year with the audience freaking out, jumping around, and shouting song lyrics in unison. This has helped generate more excitement for future live shows. Oftentimes the performers see these fan-made videos, inspiring them to perfect their live shows.

In 2015, the audiences are peaceful and diverse. No matter the subject matter, the principle message during most hip-hop shows is to party and feel good. When rappers take the stage with intensity, they demand the same from their audiences. This is out of their love for the music they’ve created. As an audience member, you’re bonding with the other fans in the room while giving artists reason to continue producing. There’s a certain shared solidarity in the air, and for that brief amount of time, you belong to a world entirely different from the one you usually reside in.

Check out a mix featuring some of the best hip-hop, R&B, and rap songs of 2015:

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