Another album, another lineup. Paramore drops their 5th album with yet another roster, yet what makes them shine has remained the same. Frontwoman Hayley Williams has always been the band’s driving force and what sets them apart from nearly every other alternative band that arose in the pop punk/Warped Tour scene during the mid-aughts. Their last release, 2013’s Paramore, was seen by many as a reintroduction to the band, veering away from the angsty emo pop while going in a more new wave and (GASP!) pop direction without losing any of the sing-a-long appeal they’ve always had. This time around on After Laughter, Paramore have taken what they tinkered with on S/T hits such as “Ain’t It Fun” and ran with it. The album is full of synth-laden tropical vibes with jangle pop tendencies, but the songs themselves are quite different than the atmosphere surrounding them.
Paramore have always seemed to have drama follow them wherever they go; for a band that grew up in a scene so dominated by it I suppose it comes with the territory. Paramore was a joyous explosion of bright futures and hope – a direct response to the 2010 departure of founding members Josh and Zac Farro. It was a punch to the gut, especially since they left a scathing blog post that dragged the band, specifically Williams, of being nothing more than a ‘product of a major label.’ While Zac did come back midway through recording last year, another founding member, bassist Jeremy Davis, left in an even more nasty method: opting to sue the band over royalties (the band and Davis have since settled). All this and more is present on After Laughter, where Williams bares it all amidst sunny backgrounds.
Opening track and lead single “Hard Times” gives us the first taste of what this new edition of Paramore is like. Beginning with an island-like guitar lick, Williams wastes no time telling us how she’s feeling. “All that I want, is to wake up fine/Tell me that I’m alright, that i ain’t gonna die,” she opens. This type of pleading, hopeless songwriting is nothing new for Paramore – their debut album All We Know Is Falling is full of it – but never before have the compositions been so different compared to the lyrics. “Fake Happy” follows the same formula, where amidst bubbly synths and victorious guitars, Williams describes how tired she is of putting on a fake smile all the time. On “Caught in the Middle,” the band wants us to dance to the sound of depression and failure. “I don’t need no help/I can sabotage me by myself,” she whimsically sings without a care in the world.
Near the end of the album we hear some of the best songwriting the group has ever had. “Idle Worship” is a post pop number that depicts Williams as a normal woman, unworthy of the praise that is too often bestowed upon her by the band’s fanbase. “Oh, it’s such a long and awful lonely fall/Down from this pedestal that you keep putting me on,” she spats. Williams’ awareness on this album is sky high, as nothing gets by her in the songs. “Hey baby, I’m not your superhuman,” she says on the hook. The next track is definitely the most off-kilter song the band has ever made, opting to use mewithoutYou’s Aaron Weiss to tell the story of the band in a poetic fashion, using words and phrases from past Paramore songs to do it. It’s fitting that it comes right after “Idle Worship,” as it expands on the theme the song before possesses. “I see myself in the reflection of people’s eyes/Realising what they see may not be even close to the image in myself,” Weiss sings inaudibly, as his vocals are low in the mix. It’s an almost daring thing to say, as they’re basically admitting that they’re nothing like what the fans see them as. However, it works because it’s an honest admission of humility, and judging from the vocal delivery of both songs, it seems they’ve been wanting to get it off their chests for awhile.
Depression, self-guilt, relationship problems… Paramore get it all of their chest and more on After Laughter. If Paramore is the celebratory victory lap from getting through a tumultous time as a band, AL is the much-needed self-reflection from just-as-difficult and more personal hardships. With the best lyrics they’ve ever written, the record gives listeners a detailed look at what it’s like to have a late-20s identity crisis, and what it can feel like when you finally face it head on. Whether or not Paramore stick to this new sound or try something new, one thing’s for sure: I’ll definitely be looking forward to it.
However, this isn’t just any record deal. On that day, whether they knew it or not, they were about to change the music business indefinitely; by signing the first ever new artist 360 deal.
The 360 deal, or multiple rights deal, is when the record label takes in more revenue from the artist then in a traditional deal. Instead of just cashing in on record sales, the label also rakes from other revenue that the artist generates, which may include concerts, merchandise, endorsements, etc. The label will also have more creative control over things such as release dates and the overall direction of the artist. In exchange, the label will promote the artist for a longer period of time than normal and stay committed to acquiring more opportunities to make money for said artist.
Big picture-wise, what this all boils down to is that your label basically becomes your manager. They can essentially draw your career out for you; get you tour placements, features and even sponsorships without you even lifting a finger. But the catch is you have to give them a slice of the pie.
Now the deal was not an entirely new concept. The first ever 360 deal was crafted in 2002 by Tim Clark and David Enthoven, managers for English singer Robbie Williams. In an attempt to break him into the American market, the two decided that in order to make that happen, the label (EMI) would have to have more control over Williams’ musical as well as business decisions.
According to BBC, Williams’ representatives lauded the £80m deal (then the second highest in music history), dubbing it a “multi-platform approach to the respective elements of recording, live work, film and television.”
The deal was adopted because at the time album sales were trending downward. According to Soundscan data, since its peak in 2000, album sales have gone down by the millions almost every year since. And by using more data, we find that in 2003, CD’s made roughly 93% of all music purchasing formats. By 2005 it would decrease nearly 42% to 54.1%. By 2007 it would decrease again to 27%, half of what it used to be just two years prior, with digital sales (particularly singles) making dramatic rises.
As the masses adapted to new music-listening platforms like YouTube and iTunes, so did record labels. You didn’t have to buy albums at the record store to hear your favorite songs anymore. You could just as easily listen to it for free on the Internet through various, sometimes illegal means. This meant that the labels were losing money by the boatload, and needed new ways to get cash. Enter 360 deals.
But that’s enough history; what does this mean for hip hop?
Rap and 360 deals have had a tumultuous relationship to say the least. Wiz Khalifa recently sued his former manager Benjy Grinburg and Rostrum Records, alleging that they screwed him over by not disclosing to him all the ins and outs of his 360 deal, which Wiz says cost him songwriting and merchandising revenue. Others have been more direct in addressing their displeasure. “I don’t agree with the way labels are set up. I don’t agree that anybody should sign 360 deals or sign away their publishing or take most of the infrastructure that’s included in a formal deal,” Chance The Rapper said in an interview with Beats 1 Radio. Lupe Fiasco went on a Twitter rant last year explaining how his 2011 album Lasers was held up because of his refusal to sign a 360 deal with Atlantic. “You DO NOT need a 360 deal in today’s climate,” he said. All you need is what you always needed a good manager and hard work.” “Watch out for these labels, man/They’re four finger fuckin’ y’all niggas, man, real talk, man/Make sure your lawyer know what he’s doing, man/He sign contracts right, thinking that shit real/Don’t get a 360, that shit ain’t 100, my nigga” Waka Flocka Flame said on the appropriately-named “Fuck This Industry.”
It seems that other rappers weren’t listening to Waka. Young Thug, J. Cole and Chief Keef have all signed on the dotted line to 360 deals. And while it’s worked for some, for other’s it’s become a nightmare.
In today’s music world, the internet is your biggest friend. This is especially true in hip hop, as an up-and-coming rapper can have millions of plays on platforms such as Soundcloud before ever talking to a label. This creates valuable leverage, as it proves that they can garner massive hype and fans without any outside help or influence other than their own talent.
So why would a rapper sign a 360 deal when they’ve proven that they can do a lot of what a label already does on a regular deal?
This is where the negative stigma of 360 deals come into play. During meetings, label executives are obviously going to do whatever they deem necessary to get the artist’s signature on the contract. They might throw them a big figure advance, or they might give them the whole ‘you’ll be the biggest thing since ________’ speech.
Once you sign that deal, you’re basically at the mercy of the label. If they don’t think the music you’re making is good enough to make a mainstream buzz for example, then they could put it on the shelf for the foreseeable future, because now they’re in line to get paid off of more than just record sales. Why put something out if they’re not going to turn a big profit from it? And even with your music on hold, the label can still make money off you from touring, merch, etc., which under normal circumstances they couldn’t touch.
Young Thug is a perfect example of this. The Atlanta rapper initially signed to (surprise) Atlantic imprints 1017 Brick Squad Records and Artist Partners Group in late 2013. In an article by Buzzfeed, a source speculated that Thug’s 360 deal with APG could perhaps be transferred over to 300, which was founded by 360 deal forefather Lyor Cohen. That’s looking like the case, because not only is 300 (surprise) another Atlantic imprint, according to the same article, Thug’s long-awaited debut album Hy!£UN35 was initially set for a January 2014 release – over two years ago. Thug even went on the Hy!£UN35 tour earlier this year without the album even being out. Now tell me, does that make sense?
Being a rapper isn’t cheap. The costs associated with following your dream can add up in a hurry; booking agents, tour managers, managers, publicists, lawyers, etc. are all going to take a percentage of what you make in your ventures. Now all that is before we even get to the 360 deal. Most of the time you’re giving up a large percentage of your mechanical royalties, which is the money you make every time your music is sold on a physical medium (CD, vinyl) and downloaded off the Internet. The label is also going to take a large portion of your touring and merchandise money, as previously stated. You also eventually have to pay back the label for the advance they gave you upon signing (plus possible interest) and if you’re not popping enough to make a big impact, you could have a debt over your head for a long time.
The thing is, 360 deals make more sense for pop-oriented artists. If the label is going to put that much time, effort and money into someone, don’t you think it’s going to be your stereotypical pop star? First and foremost, the label is a business, and their contract with you in this case is like an investment. In the eyes of the label, it goes something like “we’ll give you this money, put you on tour with ______, get you a sponsorship with _______ and get you off the ground. But just remember, at some point you’re going to have to pay us back for all we’ve done for you.” A pop artist, with their tendency to appeal to a wider audience than your typical rapper, is going to have an easier time recouping the money invested in them and making the label happy, not to mention land other non-musical-related partnerships, which also will all go back to the label.
Now this isn’t a “bash 360 deals” piece. There are certainly some benefits to signing the deal. They give you arguably the quickest way to reach massive amounts of people through multiple formats, and if the music is good enough then you could become a star in no time at all.
Take B.o.B for example. After signing his joint deal with T.I.’s Grand Hustle and (surprise) Atlantic in 2008, he released his debut single “Nothin’ on You” in February 2010, which reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts later that year. B.o.B’s other notable single “Airplanes” featuring (surprise) Paramore singer Hayley Williams tapped out at No.2 on the same chart. Both of those songs were initially conceived and written with (surprise) fellow Atlantic signee Lupe Fiasco in mind. However, the label instead gave the songs to B.o.B (maybe because Lupe wouldn’t sign a 360 deal?), who saw the cross-over potential the Atlanta artist possessed. Sure enough the plan worked, as B.o.B was all over the radio in 2010, not to mention his debut album The Adventures of Bobby Ray clocked in at No.1 on the charts its first week.
By carefully planning B.o.B’s coming out party, exposing him to different fan bases like Paramore’s (the latter also shouted him out in interviews) and handing him potential chart-topping singles, Atlantic planted the seeds for his success. While he had been on the mixtape grind long before “Nothin on You,” without Atlantic’s work behind the scenes it wouldn’t be a stretch to say he owes his career to them.
Cole signed a 360 deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation in 2009. In an interview with Complex that same year, Cole described his displeasure of the deal but also its highlights:
“I’m not getting raped, but it’s a 360 deal. On the other hand you want that because if I’m an artist on Def Jam, and my album didn’t sell that well, back in the day a label was so quick to shelf you. So quick to be like , Fuck you nigga, we can’t make money off you no more, your album cost too much, blah blah. But now if he had a 360 deal, the label will say, Aight let’s at least throw him on tour, let’s at least make money off them like that. And now you’re eating and the labels eating. And everyone’s happy.”
Everybody was happy indeed. Thanks to Hov’s guidance, Cole’s debut album Cole World: The Sideline Story debuted at No.1 with over 200,000 copies sold and later went platinum. Both of his ensuing albums also went plat; his latest, 2014’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive, doing so with no features, the first rap album to do so in over 25 years.
Now the difference between these two rappers is that while B.o.B’s career has floundered, Cole’s has flourished. While every rapper’s spotlight is bound to dim at some point, if you don’t make good music and stay relevant you’re not going to last long. 360 deal or not, you’ve still got to put the work in. Nowadays it seems like the former is more well-known for his flat-earth beliefs than his actual music.
With the 360 deal being a relatively new thing, it’s difficult to say with definitive certainty if it’s a winning or losing concept. However, if we look at 360 deal ‘pioneers’ Paramore, we get a glimpse of both. After being signed, Atlantic down-streamed them to indie label Fueled By Ramen, because according to A&R rep Steve Robertson, they didn’t want the band attached to any major label. They wanted the fans to discover the band. It worked, as after establishing their fan base, the band blew up in 2007 with their platinum RIOT! album. They also got coveted MTV spots and had two songs on the massively popular Twilight movie soundtrack. Now they’re arguably one of the most popular bands in the world. However, in late 2010 two founding members left the band, citing creative differences and being “pushed around by the label.” According to them, what started out as a natural band turned into “a manufactured product.”
If you’re a rapper that happens to be reading this, before you sign that 360 deal let me give you some advice. GET A LAWYER. It’s imperative to know EXACTLY what you’re getting into, because while you can benefit a lot from a deal like this, you can also lose a lot, especially if you don’t know even know what you stand to lose in the first place. You also need to think about how you want your career to go. If you want to be a star and are willing to put in the work then a 360 deal would make sense, as the label will presumably try and do everything it can to make that happen. However, if you’re just trying to get paid doing what you love then the deal wouldn’t make sense, as you won’t make nearly the amount of money you could be getting in a traditional deal.
A 360 deal can change your life. But please, read the contract first.
As the new wave of rap takes over, it seems to have caused a rift in the hip hop world. The difference between the conscious, lyrical rap and the melodic trap rap is so stark it’s no wonder it’s hard to listen to one and not the other. Terms like ‘old head,’ ‘wack rapper,’ ‘dusty’ and ‘mumble rap’ flood conversations regarding disdain for the other side and while that part of hip hop culture will never change, detractors towards a certain subgenre should at least give seminal projects of the other side a listen. For the conscious listener, one of those projects to give a listen to is Playboi Carti’s self-titled debut project.
Another one of those trendy mixtapes-for-sale that Drake made popular with his 2015 project If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, Carti, under the watchful eye of the A$AP Mob, has been waiting years for the right time to drop his debut. While some argue that it would’ve been better to release a project when his biggest hit thus far “Broke Boi” was popular, doing so probably would’ve deprived fans this magnificent collection of melodic trap. Carti isn’t the most lyrical rapper, but what he does do is fill the sometimes spacey, always lit production with ad-lib after ad-lib of random words and noises, which enhance the lyrics and keeps the listener moving. Tracks like “Lookin,” “Dothatshit!” and “Kelly K” are significantly better because of the ad-libs and showcase Carti’s ability to give the listener not only a solid trap song but one that’s undeniably his; ad-libs aren’t new, but the way he uses them is a style all his own.
The production is one of the best to come out of this era of SoundCloud rap. Filled with head-bopping, hi-hat-rattling beats backed up with atmospheric synths, it’s an impressive collection. Pierre Bourne in particular delivers a stellar performance, producing some of the best songs of the album, including the Lil Uzi Vert-featured single “Wokeuplikethis.” Carti and Bourne are effortlessly in sync, with the former riding the beat like only he can.
As ‘mumble rap’ is becoming more and more popular among hip hop fans and aspiring rappers alike, there comes a project that sets the bar – Playboi Carti is that project for this particular subgenre. In the same vein as his breakthrough hit “Broke Boi,” Carti has taken what people wanted from him and crafted 15 songs that will definitely appeal to his fanbase. The more lyrical rap fans may cringe, and if you didn’t like Carti already then you won’t now. However, if you do like Carti then you’ll be declaring this mixtape the crown jewel of SoundCloud rap in no time.
In today’s unfortunate times of social divide, music has become more important than ever. As one of the most essential vehicles of expression, music has given people the opportunity to know that their idols are feeling the exact same thing they are. Joey Bada$$ has always been one to speak his mind, but on his second album All AMERIKKKAN BADA$$, he’s using his platform to talk about what’s going on not in his life, but in black America.
The most noticeable thing about AABA is the change of direction not only lyrically, but production-wise. The ’90s boom bap beats are still there in essense, but the music is more pop than ever before, as is Joey’s rapping style. Gone for the most part are his gritty, fast-paced raps from earlier projects such as Summer Knights and his debut album B4.DA.$$. In it’s stead is slower, less intense songs with more focus on hooks, as evident in songs like “TEMPTATION” and “FOR MY PEOPLE.”
While Joey’s decision to tone it down to address more important issues are commendable, they don’t seem to stick as much as his earlier music does, especially when he incorporates pop-heavy hooks. Joey’s at his best when he’s violently spitting bars over Golden Age hip hop beats, and there’s not enough of those on here, especially in the first half of the record. The back half is definitely more rap-heavy, with songs like “AMERIKKKAN IDOL” and Pro Era posse cut “RING THE ALARM” standing out. However, longtime fans might end their listening session yearning for more from the 22-year-old rapper, assuming the messages of the songs don’t mean that much to them as others.
There’s a lot to like on this record. The production is great and Joey’s raps are inspiring and prove that there’s potential there for him to progress past the boom bap, ‘dusty’ category he’s been placed in ever since his come up five years ago. However, ALL AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ stumbles at times because Joey seems out of his comfort zone during the most important parts of it. Credit him for taking a risk musically, but you have to wonder what this album would be like if he hadn’t.
Out of last year’s most popular XXL Freshmen, Kodak Black is the first to drop a proper album. The Florida rapper is known for his gritty street anthems, where he brags about carrying weapons and doing drugs like it’s not a big deal. At 19 years old Black is street-wise beyond his years, allowing his storytelling to shine in a way that most young rappers can’t even fathom. This kind of ‘immature maturity’ continues on Painting Pictures, Black’s debut album, which combines his trap tunes with pop sensibilities.
Perhaps what makes Black stand out from his peers is his sense of melody. Like fellow XXL Freshman Lil Uzi Vert, Black’s voice is centerstage, even when the beats are booming. For example, “Patty Cake” uses a whimsical, piano-themed beat that’s reminiscent of Black’s prior song ‘Honey Bun.” The song’s prodution stands out for sure, but Black never cedes his spot as the track’s star, using his signature layered voice to rap about his success.
Somewhat rare these days, Black chooses to limit the amount of features on Painting Pictures, with only five features out of the 18-track record. Each though was properly chosen, as no unnecessary guest spots are present here. A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie gives a reflective chorus on “Reminiscing” about life pre-fame while Bun B lends a head bopping verse on “Candy Paint.” “Feeling Like” features Jeezy in an atmospheric-like setting, which plays into his echo-laced voice perfectly. Even Black’s decision to allow Young Thug to dominate the majority of “Top off Benz” was a good move, as it’s hard to top the latter once he’s in the groove. A smart decision that shows he knows how to craft a song.
The production on Painting Pictures is among the best in a debut album in recent memory. The album is littered with laidback, stripped down trap that suits Black’s flow and vibe well. Popular Black songs like “Skrt” and “Like Dat” would fit well on here, and the album should please longtime fans. “Off the Land,” “Coolin and Booted,” “U Ain’t Ever” and “There He Go” all highlight the production as well as Black’s vocals, which are mixed high into the song so his raps can stand tall. While the subject matter may not be the most varied, it doesn’t matter when Black’s delivery is solid and the aforementioned production is good enough to look past it.
Even at 18 tracks long, Painting Pictures remarkably doesn’t overstay its welcome, something other rappers 10 years older than him still have trouble with. It’s a shame legal troubles are stopping Black from properly blowing up and reaping the benefits from something he’s so good at. However, once those issues are behind him, it wouldn’t be surprising to see his star shine brighter than anyone else from the new school.
Drake has taken the leap that few rappers ever make successfully: the jump from hip hop to pop. Now don’t be confused, his songs still carry the rap flag, and he can still spit bars, but now that the 30-year-old has claimed the top spot of the genre, he’s looking past the limitations hip hop has and aiming for something bigger. On More Life, a playlist curated by himself and his business partner Oliver El-Khatib, Drake’s global reach is extended further than ever before.
On Views, his record-smashing 2016 album, we first heard Drake’s attempt at reaching a larger audience than your typical hip hop fan. Not to say his past music was exclusively rap, but on Views we received dancehall, afrobeat and even electro-pop-tinged tunes, something that very few other rappers are doing. More Life continues this appreciation of other music, especially with dancehall. There’s about a 4-5 song stretch where it’s nothing but island vibes, where Drake pushes radio dancehall further than it’s ever been. “Passionfruit” is an ideal example of Drake’s ability to craft magic. The deep house-tinged track gives off those aforementioned island vibes, but lyrically it’s about a Drake-staple: his struggle to maintain a long-distance relationship. “Get It Together,” Madiba Riddim” and “Blem” are all infectious as well as filled with relatable subject matter that anyone, not just hip hop fans, can relate to.
Of course, Drake can still rap with the best of them, and his utilization of flow remains one of today’s best. “No Long Talk” has the rapper/singer use a climactic-like voice, backed perfectly by the bombastic beat provided by Cubeatz and Murda. “Gyalchester” has Drake in a braggadocious, determined mood. “I don’t take naps,” he says. “Me and the money are way too attached to go and do that.” A fitting line, as he recruits some of today’s hottest rappers on songs “Portland,” featuring Quavo and Travis Scott, and “Sacrifices,” featuring 2 Chainz and Young Thug. Drake knows what his fans want, and that’s to collaborate with today’s most popular rappers. He doesn’t disappoint.
Being that it’s 22 songs long, there are bound to be some misfires. “Since Way Back,” featuring PARTYNEXTDOOR, is about two minutes too long, and while PND’s crooning is fine, too much of it can get taxing. “Glow” has a Kanye West feature but him and Drake don’t really mesh well on this particular track, which is somewhat disheartening since the two are slated to drop a collab project ‘in the near future.’ Some of the other songs on here aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re not really great either. “Can’t Have Everything” “Nothings Into Something” and “KMT” are somewhat half-assed in their presentation, and the 3rd suffers from a frankly terrible verse from UK rapper Giggs.
While detractors (ahem, haters) will say that Drake refuses to call More Life an album because it’s not good enough, a playlist is the apt title for a project like this. The sounds are varied and there’s something for everyone, as opposed to a more tradional album where the themes and sonics are usually similar. However, if Drake can make a project this good in only 7-8 months (he announced he was working on the project last July), who knows how great his next full-length will be.
In rap (and music), different artists have different things about them that sets them apart from the rest. In Future’s case it’s his raspy, lean-soaked voice. Drake’s is his moody, atmospheric production. For Rick Ross, it’s his overall presence. Confident, boastful and full of life, Rozay’s been a larger-than-life figure in hip hop for over a decade. On Rather You Than Me, his decadent luxury raps paint a picture of a man who not only has it all, but more importantly, understands where he’s at.
Opening track “Apple of My Eye” kicks off with saxophones and soft crooning, and Ross’ reflection over his success and life’s trials and tribulations work well with them. There are a few tracks that have Ross in a conscious mood, and his storytelling and delivery are strong. “Game Ain’t Based On Sympathy” has Ross giving his take on the gang violence in Chicago while “Santorini Greece” has Rozay denounce the double standards against African Americans. It’s somewhat surprising to hear the Miami rapper, who’s calling card is anthemic club jams, speak out on sensitive subjects, but he pulls it off.
Introspectiveness aside, this is still Rick Ross, so there’s more than a few bangers. Promotional single “Trap Trap Trap” is Ross at his braggadocious best, calling on Young Thug and Wale to join in on the fun. “Dead Presidents” recruits Future, Yo Gotti and Jeezy for an old school trap posse cut. Meek Mill lends his inspirational rags-to-riches trademark to the hook of “Lamborghini Doors.” “Idols Become Rivals” has Ross taking shots at Cash Money boss Birdman,refusing to mince words. “Catholic record labels, niggas gettin’ raped boy/Birdman’s a priest, moans in his synagogue.”
While Ross really doesn’t push the envelope artistically per se, it doesn’t matter. He knows his lane and knows it well, choosing to stick to what he’s good at rather than taking an unnecessary risk. His overall presence on Rather You Than Me is once again excellent, portraying the 41-year-old as a wise veteran amongst a landscape of barely-20-year-old upstarts. Yung Renzel doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.