Shaping Disco

If the Bee Gees’ folk rock phase didn’t make you smile, then I have an early Christmas present for you. It’s time for disco.

By this point, the Bee Gees have demonstrated success in folk, pop, and rock – but that’s not enough. With the emerging of disco, the Bee Gees hop on board and are at the front of the movement. As you’ll hear, and as we’ll discuss, their music changes dramatically, but they still manage to maintain their core sound. Let’s listen to our last two samples of the year: “You Should be Dancing” (1976) and “Stayin’ Alive” (1977).

In this number, you can hear a funkier groove emerging than we’ve heard in the past. There’s a more nasal quality to the vocals, and the heavy vibrato is gone, replaced with falsetto. Similarly to their rock period, the Bee Gees are selective about where to place harmonies in their songs – sticking mainly to using them for embellishments and emphasis. I especially like the horn feature in the middle.

Probably their most famous song, “Stayin’ Alive” is a little slower… its 103 bpm, a brisk walking speed (also perfect for administering CPR, apparently). Like “You Should be Dancing,” this song has a bit of funk, similar use of harmonies, and an even stronger falsetto sound.

I find both these songs interesting, because they incorporate an orchestral backing, even though electric instruments are becoming more prevalent in their sound (contrasted against early works, and even the sound they had in our rock examples). The two sounds are expertly paired, enhancing each other.

In summation, the Bee Gees:

  • Kept their harmonies, but tempered them over the years
  • Exchanged Robin’s vibrato for Barry’s falsetto
  • Embraced new instruments and genres while maintaining their signature sound and balancing the old/know sounds (acoustics and orchestrations) with the new (electronic instruments and sounds)

Merry Christmas, and goodnight.

Developing into the (Folk) Rock Scene – The Bee Gees Grow Up

If “Timber” sounded a little juvenile to your ears, you’ll be pleased to know that the Bee Gees grew up quickly. The group quickly developed into the rock scene – mostly folk and soft rock. Let’s listen to two samples, and compare them against the Bee Gees’ early works.

“Massachusetts”

You’ll hear that we still Robin’s distinct vibrato, but not as pronounced as before. There are not as many harmonies; they function as embellishments instead of the core structure. You’ll also notice the incredible orchestration of this song (done by Bill Shepherd) – they give a whole new layer to the Bee Gees’ music.

“Saw a New Morning”

This song opens with a thin guitar sound, but grows into another beautiful orchestration. Like “Massachusetts,” there is a lot more unison singing than in the band’s earlier work, but the vocals grow into the harmonies we all associate with the Bee Gees. Barry joins Robin to share the lead vocals in this song – which balances out the vocals and tones down Robin’s recognizable vibrato.

Generally speaking, this period of the Bee Gees has a much ore controlled and grown up sound than their earlier works (like “Timber”). The songs include different uses of vocal harmonies, broader and more robust orchestrations, and more complex arrangements. This allows a greater capacity for storytelling and growth both in the musical composition, as well as the lyrics.

The Early Bee Gees

The Bee Gees are an interesting group – 3 brothers (Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb) singing with tight harmonies. They’ve spanned genres from pop, to R&B, rock, and disco, and maintained popularity throughout the process.

The brothers were born on the Isle of Man, lived in Manchester, England, and then moved to Queensland, Australia. After making a splash on the Australian market, they relocated to the UK in order to be promoted around the world.

Today we’re listening to some early work, from their time in Australia. We have two samples: “Timber” and “Wine and Women”

You’ll probably notice two distinct elements:

1) Robin’s distinct lead vocal, with a very pronounced vibrato.

2) The folksy nature of the group’s sound.

The folksy sound is a notable point, because the Bee Gees’ two most prominent musical styles are rock (in the late 60’s), and disco (in the 70’s). This week, we will be listening to samples of their work in those styles.  We’ll compare them to where the Bee Gees began, and observe what developed over time as they transitioned between genres.

Growing Up, Part II

Remember how the image Miley created for “Can’t Be Tamed” didn’t resonate quite well enough? Well, her next move (which you all know) hit it out of the park. Let’s take a moment to enjoy:

“We Can’t Stop” in Bangerz, 2013

She’s brought her imagery back to the everyman (everywoman?) approach – featuring herself in situations her fans are better able to connect to, and pushing the limits. Unlike “Can’t Be Tamed,” which was centered on fantasy, this new image is rooted strongly in relatable activities, but being more rebellious, defiant, and independent than most of her fans likely are. By doing this, she puts herself in the lead of a generational movement. This is a wise decision, one that probably considered the response to her previous album as part of the concept design.

In addition to cultivating a new image, Miley has developed her voice. She’s less dark and more free, while not returning to the whine. The themes are rebellious, but supportive of things that are important to her target audience: friends, fun, and love (well, lust).

Even though this was probably the best move Miley could make, it’s not the move I wish for her. Listen to what I stumbled upon:

This isn’t an original song for Miley, but a cover of “Jolene,” which she performed in 2012 in a series called The Backyard Sessions.

This is the most beautifully I have ever heard Miley sing ANYTHING. This is artistry, technique, and quality content all in one.

WHY AREN’T YOU SINGING LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME?!?!?!

And now I am off my soapbox.

Growing Up, Part I

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but let’s talk about Miley Cyrus.

I don’t need to tell you about her career, but we can talk about her music.

Miley started out as a young singer with a young audience. This is “7 Things” from Breakout in 2008, her first album completely separated from Hannah Montana.

The song is formulaic and predictable, and Miley’s voice is a little whiney. However, she’s already demonstrating strong vocal technique – you can’t fault her there. The content is appropriate for a tween audience, but very mild. It’s not too exciting, but speaks directly to them.

In the next example, “Party in the U.S.A.” (in the 2009 EP The Time of Our Lives), Miley keeps the teeny-bopper style. She grows up in content a little bit, while still remaining within the realm of safe. Take a listen:

Do you how her voice is broadening? She has a fuller sound, and has grown in vocal dexterity since her previous album. This song is, unfortunately, very catchy… I’ve been singing it all afternoon despite my best my musical preferences. I guess that’s good news for Miley, though.

In 2010, Miley needed to stretch the boundaries a little more in order to keep up with her aging fan base. The next song we’ll listen to, “Can’t be Tamed” (featured on an album of the same name), tests the waters for a new artistic direction.

The imagery on the video is darker: less playful and more intense than her previous videos, with more explicit sexual suggestions. Miley’s voice has darkened too, and she finally looses the whiney tinge we’ve been hearing throughout her previous work. Her music has also changed: the percussive elements hit harder, and the instrumental arrangements create a sound that is more sinister than playful (such as we heard in “Party in the U.S.A”).

Miley attempted to grow up with her audience by creating an image of independence and rebellion. Considering that Can’t Be Tamed didn’t make it to #1 (although #3 isn’t bad!), this image didn’t resonate as well with audiences as it could have.

Remember the way Lecrae chose to test-drive a new strategy before committing fully? Miley is testing the waters too: trying to find an image of independence and rebellion that resonates with her growing-up fan base.

Come back in a few days to take a look at the decision Miley went with (though you already know it), and the direction I wish she’d taken!

Lecrae Part IV: Restoring the Image

“The Fever”

If Church Clothes was a disappointment and selling out, Church Clothes Volume 2 (Lecrae’s second mixtape) put forth a good effort in going back to the roots of Lecrae’s values in lyrics. “The Fever,” featuring Andy Mineo and Papa San, utilized his strategic marketing (collaboration) without compromising his content the way he has for his past couple releases.

The diversity of timbres in the instrumental were interesting, but just like Church Clothes and Gravity, the musical crafting (distinct from lyrics) doesn’t show much growth since his 5th album (Rehab: The Overdose). I found myself wishing that Lecrae would stretch the limits of his musical composition a little more.

Regardless, Lecrae’s continued strategic collaboration grew his fan base even more, getting us to this September. Here are two songs from Lecrae’s most recent release, Anomaly.

“Nuthin”

“Messengers”

Finally! Lecrae gets back to the core issues he wants to talk about, and shows musical growth as well.

Do you hear how he weaves together the melodic components with his rapping? And how the melodic and harmonic elements evolve in “Messengers”? I especially love the Bastille-like vocals in “Messengers.”

The cool thing about Anomaly is that Lecrae is making a deliberate move away from collaboration, and back toward independence. By doing this, he is able to take on more creative control, but also control the lyric content and themes of his songs. Based on these two examples, I think Lecrae is well on his way to restoring his image as a rapper who raps about his Christian life and struggle. And all of this is happening, but with a massively expanded audience.

This brings us up to date.

I am looking forward to hearing Lecrae’s music continue to grow, and to watching how he presents himself to his developing audience. Without a doubt, whatever he does next will be a strategic move.

Lecrae Part III: Selling Out? Or Maybe Not.

After tracing Lecrae’s career trajectory (an musical growth), I had high hopes for his first mixtape, Church Clothes. I was sorely disappointed.

As was discussed in Part I, this mixtape was obviously a strategic move to gain mainstream attention: Lecrae featured a different artist on almost every track. What I found, however, was that the musical quality remained stagnant, and the content was compromised. In “Special,” featuring Lester L2 Shaw, the harmonies, melodies, and (synth) orchestrations do not show growth since Rehab: The Overdose. I was hoping that bringing in collaborators would expand Lecrae’s technique and artistic perspectives, but it merely seems to box him in. On top of that, I was shocked by how much Lecrae distanced himself from his outspoken Christian lyrics. Instead, he opted for social themes in line with his religious values – a much softer approach than he used in the past. It is no surprise that the Christian community accused him of selling out.

You can hear what I mean in “Special” from Lecrae’s first mixtape, Church Clothes:

With Church Clothes under my belt, I dreaded listening to Gravity, Lecrae’s sixth album. I feared that his continued collaboration would mean a continued compromise of his lyric content and musical exploration. Lucky for me, Lecrae didn’t stagnate.

Take a listen to “Tell the World” on Gravity:

Do you hear what I hear? Lecrae included some of the lushest melodic and harmonic work in his career to date.   And just at the point when I started to get bored, he brought in variations to make his music more meaningful. On top of that, Lecrae made a move back toward his original lyrical goals: speaking about his faith and struggles explicitly.

The best part is that Lecrae became much more visible after the release of Church Clothes, so Gravity had not only a larger audience, but a more diverse audience as well. The blip in his musical and artistic integrity necessary to get to this point may prove to be a worthwhile investment after all.

To be continued…

Lecrae, Part II: Laying the Groundwork (albums 1-5)

Today, we are examining Lecrae’s musical development in his early career. I’ve picked one song from each album as a representative of Lecrae’s style for that album.

We’ll be listening to:

Take Me As I Am (Real Talk)

Prayin’ for You (After the Music Stops)

Don’t Waste Your Live (Rebel)

Just Like You (Rehab)

Battle Song (Rehab: The Overdose)

Lecrae’s first two albums, Real Talk and After the Music Stops were his introduction as a rapper to the Christian community. Released in 2005 and 2006, they maintain solid technique and his lyrics demonstrate the elements Lecrae held most valuable: his faith.

Let’s listen to “Take Me As I Am” from Lecrae’s first album, Real Talk:

As with many of he songs on this album, “Take Me As I Am” is autobiographical, and is themed around a biblical message. His beats are comfortable, though not particularly exciting; and his songs are primarily rhythmic with very little melodic or harmonic work (there’s a basic underlying chord structure, and a brief reoccurring melody in the synth).

Lecrae’s biggest selling point on Real Talk is the style and content of the rapping itself. He has an enjoyable flow and presentation, and manages to take the style of rap where it hand never been successfully exploited before: the Christian and Gospel audience. Because Lecrae raps about deep struggles he remains authentic to the themes of rap, even though the struggles his lyrics allude to are spiritual as opposed to more common themes.

Lecrae’s style doesn’t change very much for his second album, After the Music Stops. The main differences you can note by listening to “Prayin’ for You,” are the inclusion of a female vocalist in the background, as well as a few extra instruments.

“Prayin’ for You” from After the Music Stops:

The first remarkable stylistic change doesn’t come until Lecrae’s third album, Rebel. When you listen to “Don’t Waste Your Life,” you’ll notice something new: the chorus is sung. In addition, the underlying beats have a much more robust harmonic structure and instrumentation – Lecrae is expanding and developing his musical style. I believe that his expanding musical style is what helped him to be well received in the 8 different charts he made it onto (see Part I).

Take a listen to “Don’t Waste Your Life” from Rebel:

In Rehab, Lecrae makes a huge stylistic change, which I enjoy. We’ll listen to “Just Like You” first, then discuss.

“Just Like You” from Rehab:

I love what Lecrae has done with the introduction of this song… he’s incorporated a beautiful instrumental, then a sung melody. It is expressive and musical. He still raps for the bulk of it, but he is intentional about using his rapping style to control the mood of the piece.

Even though his style is growing in harmony, melody, and instrumentation; and even though he us making different artistic choices about how he uses his voice when he raps; Lecrae holds true to the autobiographical and religious themes he has aligned with since the beginning of his career.

To me, this development is a sign of artistry. It is one thing to be good enough at rapping (or any skill, for that matter), but it is true artistry when you are able to alter how you use that skill in order to more effectively communicate through your craft. With the huge artistic strides Lecrae made in Rehab, is no surprise that he was nominated for a Grammy, or that he topped 3 charts (Gospel, Christian, and Independent). It should be noted that Lecrae collaborated with several other artists for Rehab.

These musical styles and collaborations continue to grow Lecrae’s follow up album, Rehab: The Overdose. Check out “Battle Song,” featuring Suzy Rock as an example.

Tracing back to Real Talk (Lecrae’s first album), you can hear a dramatic shift in the harmonic and melodic elements, as well as Lecrae’s developing artistry as a rapper. In Part III, we will examine the albums to follow.

To be continued…

Lecrae, Part I

In the past few weeks, I have listened to more rap than the rest of my life combined. You see, rap doesn’t make it onto my top 10 genres list – it’s probably not even on my top 50; I like melody, harmony, instrumentation, and a notable absence of vulgarity and oppression in my music. It’s not that I dislike rap, I just like almost everything else more.

This month, however, I have put all that aside (except for the standards on vulgarity and oppression) in order to examine Lecrae.

I’m studying Lecrae because he’s done several notable things. Early on in his career, Lecrae became the first rapper to receive such a high level of notoriety in the Gospel and Christian music scenes. Fast forward to this September, and his most recent album (Anomaly) hit #1 on the Billboard 200, causing quite a stir. You can read about it here and here and here.

Listening to his early work, it’s easy to tell what made Lecrae well received in the Gospel and Christian niches. His flow is smooth; his beats are easy to grove to; his songs have strong hooks; and his lyrics unapologetically address the issues his audience faces. We’ll talk more about Lecrae’s musical style in Part II.

The more I heard about Lecrae, the more I began to wonder: what about his music and marketing allowed him to transfer so seamlessly from these very specific target markets to the popular industry, where the content of his raps is not in line with the content of his peers?

It turns out that Lecrae isn’t just smart when it comes to crafting raps – he’s strategic about whom he works with and how he releases his music. For Part I of this study, I am looking primarily at these two components.

Lecrae’s first two albums were well received within the Gospel and Christian communities – Real Talk (his first album, released in 2004, then 2005 with a different label) reached #29 on the Gospel albums chart, and After the Music Stops (his second album, released in 2006) made it to #5. After the Music Stops also received nominations for the Dove Award and the Stellar Award in the Rap/Hip-Hop category, though won neither.

Album 3, Rebel, was released in 2008, two years after his second album. By then Lecrae had gained some traction in the Christian community, and debuted as #1 on the Gospel albums chart. Rebel made it onto a total of 8 charts, and represented his second nomination for the Dove Awards in the Rap/Hip-Hop category.

Real Talk, After the Music Stops, and Rebel represent the development of a steady following in a select target market – Lecrae marketed himself as a quality rapper to a market where rap was a rare commodity.

Rehab and Rehab: The Overdose (albums 4 and 5, released in 2010 and 2011 respectively) continued Lecrae’s slow and steady climb, topping Gospel and Christian charts, and even made it onto the Rap charts for the first time. His work received nominations (including another Dove nomination), but no awards. Rehab was even nominated for the 53rd Grammy Awards “Best Rock or Rap Gospel Album.”

Lecrae’s 4th album was also when he changes his tune a bit: Rehab contained more collaborations than any of his albums so far in his career.

Judging by what comes next, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he made it onto the Rap chart and earned a Grammy nomination… Rehab was a successful trial of a strategy that Lecrae moved on to implement more fully, thereby changing his audience group dramatically.

Four and a half months before Lecrae released his 6th album, he released his first mixtape, Church Clothes. This mixtape changed the game. Lecrae obviously learned the values of collaboration from his 4th and 5th albums, because almost every song on the mixtape features or collaborates with another notable DJ or artist – many from outside the Christian bubble. Church Clothes was preceded by a music video teaser a week before its release, and was downloaded over 100,000 times in the first 48 hours it was available.

The buzz off of this move was huge, and positioned Lecrae for his next big move. By collaborating, Lecrae strategically positioned himself in the market as someone who could not (and should not) be limited to the traditional religious boxes. Gravity, his sixth album, was released while Lecrae’s sound was still fresh in the ears of new audience members, and followed his new strategy of collaboration. He shot to #1 on the Christian, Gospel, and Rap charts, #3 on the Billboard 200, and even made it onto charts in Canada and New Zealand! Even more exciting, Lecrae won two awards that had been eluding him: the Dove award for a Rap/Hip-Hop Album, and the Grammy for Best Gospel Album.

Lecrae maintained this magic formula for his second mixtape, Church Clothes 2, which he released in November of 2013. Although it was considered selling out by many in the Christian community (see here), it was generally well received and well ranked.

Finally, we arrive at September 2014. Lecrae released Anomaly, his seventh album, and shot to the top of almost every chart he made it onto – including #1 on the Billboard 200, as well as #1 on Gospel, Christian, Independent, and Rap charts.

Although I do not (musically) like Anomaly as much as some of his earlier works – which I will discuss in Part II – Lecrae is doing something daring: he is moving away from collaborations, and back toward independent work. Until he did this, there was no way to tell which audience members were listening because of him, and which ones listened to his work because of one or more of the artists he partnered with. By stepping out on his own again, Lecrae learned that people would listen to his music, and he regained a platform for the powerful messages he wants to send. You can read about it in his interviews here and here.

It’s a ballsy move, but knowing how strategic Lecrae is, I’m confident that it is wise. Lecrae has some powerful things to say, and he wants to speak his own voice. He has an ever-broadening audience that primed to listen, and going back to solo work gives him the freedom to bare his soul on his terms and uncompromised – what he as always circled back to as an artist.

In Part II, we will be examining the evolution of Lecrae’s music. We’ll see if there are any parallels between the development of his content and his changing audience… or perhaps what stays the same.

The Artist Who Transitions

Success is a relative term in the music industry; it is fleeting, transient, and differs based on genre, audience and more. An artist who is relevant within a genre or with a certain population today can quickly stagnate, or even lose their following. This season, I invite you to join me in exploring what keeps an artist relevant, especially as situations change. We will look at artists who have successfully transitioned between musical genres, audiences, locations, and more.

In order to make sense of this, we’ll be exploring a few key questions:

  • What was the artist’s music like early in his/her career? How did it change (or stay the same)?
  • How has the presentation of the artist’s craft and image developed over time?
  • What qualities is the artist most lauded for by their fans and critics? Have those qualities stayed consistent or changed? How so?

With a lot of listening, and a little luck, we’ll get a sense of what allowed each individual artist to successfully transition. And hopefully, we’ll learn something about success and ourselves along they way.

First up, Lecrae. After him, it’s your choice… so leave your requests in the comments section!