Adele, a silence well-orchestrated

adele-hello-video-still-2015-billboard-650

One week ago, nobody would have expected to get so much news and content from Adele, the world critically-acclaimed pop-star. On October 21st, she published a letter on Facebook in which she explains the creative process of the album “25” and apologizes for the long silence because “you know, life happened”. One day after, she reveals the release date of the new album which is basically one month after. On the same day, the new single and video “Hello” is released. That’s a brilliant commercial coup from Adele that makes all the internet crazy and enthusiastic about hearing the singer in a new production.

12017562_10153471860189279_12877880934909346_o

The strategy of the management and label was pretty clear : Get the most out of the last album (which is full of hits and sold 11,2 millions copies in the US) by making it highly profitable for a long period of time (4 years till now). Creating silence and mystery really worked well, Adele announcement came like a bomb! I personally don’t think the reasons of that absence were so “philosophical” as described in the letter, it’s a mix between the time needed for the new album production including the songwriting (and I even wonder if most of the songs were already written way before) and marketing strategies. This is not a coincidence if the release date is just before Christmas, that’s a holy period for the music business. Imagine how much albums of Adele will be wrapped under the tree : “How thank you, that’s exactly the CD I wanted, Adele is amazing, …”

It’s also important to mention that Adele worked a lot on her image by loosing a lot of weight for example. She needed time to fully perform that new strategy and now she gets the benefits of that effort even though I’m sure she would have sold a lot even without working on that aspect. Her voice is far beyond any superficial judgments.

The recent numbers of sales and streams are unbelievable : more than 70 millions views on Youtube 4 days after the release of the video. According to Billboard, Adele would have sold already 450,000 single digital songs in US.

The radio critics are ultra-positive about the new song. For example, Mike Mullaney, WBMX Boston assistant pd/md says :“The amount of passion for this artist and this song is truly incredible. Just look at social media, people’s reaction to the song and support for her as an artist. She is just dominating Facebook and Twitter”. Sharon Dastur, iHeartMedia senior VP programming integration adds : “It’s incredible. With an artist like Adele, expectations are already set so high, and she’s far exceeded those expectations. She draws you in with her compelling storytelling and really has a voice like no other. I can’t tell you how excited I am for this project.”

We can be almost sure that the new album will break records and go beyond the sales of “21”. Adele has everything to be highly competitive : Powerful songs, powerful voice, high effective image, a big database of fans, a wide social media presence… Everything is ready to make the new album of Adele a unique success in the music industry history.

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 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!

Religion, an extra support to reach stardom

There seems to be a very strong correlation between success and belief. This belief can take many forms. Some people refer to it as religion, others as positive thinking, or in the case of many artists, being egocentric. And this is good for an artist that wants to make it big. If you want to reach very high, you have to accept that you might fall from very high. The more successful you get, the more savage the criticism becomes. If you’re big deal, you will get haters no matter how good you are. The real question is : do you believe you deserve to be big?

I read an interesting article written by a journalist that interviewed many celebrities where he explains how religion has helped many artists to succeed. In his interview with Lady Gaga, apparently she mentioned that “a higher power has been watching out for me”. This journalist explains that overall, the vision of many celebrities is the following : “God wanted me to be famous, that this was his plan for me, just as it was his plan for the rest of us not to be famous”. This kind of thinking makes you almost invulnerable when people try to take you down. He also says that many equally talented artists but slightly less famous have felt their success was accidental rather than meant to be.

Believing in god won’t necessarily make you succeed but it will very likely increase your chances of reaching your goals and help you when difficult situations arise. During the times when you get criticized and booed, it’s easier to stick to your vision if you have in mind that god sent you to earth with the mission to spread your message.

Why aren’t Asian artists successful in western countries?

Why is it so hard for Asian musicians to break in the United States? Western acts are successful in Asia, but Asian acts aren’t highly recognised in the west. Among many well known barriers such as language, there seems to be a few implicit but important factors explaining this.

Image

Firstly if we take a closer look to which Asian music started becoming popular in the west, or at least which Asian music had the highest chance of becoming popular, we realize that Japanese acts came first. Interestingly enough, western people connect fairly easily with the image of a Japanese act. Why is that so? Mangas have certainly been popular all over the world for a while now, and this could be a reason why people have such a strong stereotyped portrait of the Japanese. We know that the image of an artist is very important for success. This strong stereotyped portrait could be one factor explaining why fans felt that Japanese acts were new and interesting but somehow familiar at the same time.

Secondly, it’s important to take into account that the USA has been the economical leader over the past 50 years. Moreover, they have also been the leaders for the entertainment industry, especially in music and in cinematography. This implies that the USA (UK also) has been establishing the trend for pop music over the past years. This I believe is one of the main reasons why worldwide pop acts are usually Americans or British. It’s not surprising that what we see in the music industry is also happening in the film industry. As Asian musicians are having trouble breaking in western countries, Asian actors too are having a difficult time reaching top success in western movies. Most of the time, Asian actors that are popular are successful for the image instead of their personality. The most successful Asian actors in the west are usually martial art fighters, not comedians. Again, it’s image instead of personality.

From this point of view, the future is going to be very interesting with the uprise of China. The latter being the new economical leader, and soon to be the new entertainment leader, are the Chinese going to be the new worldwide pop acts? On the long term, is it going to become a lot easier for Chinese, and generally speaking Asian acts, to break in western countries? I do think that Americans and Europeans are still going to have a strong position in Asian countries do to their strong historical presence in music, but also do to a large market being available.

White girl rapping… the next bit hit?

Give me one famous rapper who is a white girl. Do you know any? 

Image

Human beings like to have leaders in many things they do, especially in music. In the early 90s very few white guys dared to get up on stage and rap. A few years later, once Eminem was out and getting big, there where white rappers all over the place, because they finally had a leader. Eminem became the trademark for white rapping. If you ask any average person in the street, who is the white male icon for rapping, they will answer Eminem. 

Girls rapping is slowly becoming a new trend. There are many female black people rapping and a few of them are already world wide famous. But no white girl… “Yes but white girls can’t rap”. Are you kidding me? That sounds oddly familiar to what people said before Eminem came out. “White guys can’t rap”. And he proved them wrong. There’s a gap in the music industry for the white female icon of rapping.

There’s a few white girls on youtube rapping, but none of them are real rappers. I’m not talking about a girl with a good voice and rapping skills. Nor am I talking about cheesy rap and wearing all kinds of popstyle clothing to attract attention. The girl I’m talking about, she’s got to have the “don’t fuck with me” attitude, she’s got the guts to stand up and get criticized and she dresses like a rapper in her every day life. She raps in her everyday life, and that’s all she does. In other words, she’s got the identity of a rapper, and she’s got something to say.

Real success… What does it take?

What are the similarities between a musician’s success and business man’s success? A guy has a great idea, launches his company, has a huge success, but then gets fired by his own people, the people that he put together. Did he make the same mistake as an artist who takes off, creates a huge fan base, and then crashes a few years later?

No matter who you are or what you’re doing, authenticity is one of the main features that are necessary to last a long time. People feel it when you’re fake. They sense it when you don’t love what your doing, or when your doing it for another purpose than what your saying. The artist who uses music as a tool to become famous will rarely have a faithful fan base. It’s the artist who’s creating his music for himself that will be respected.

Oddly enough, the artist that is liked and respected the most is the one who does art for himself rather than for the people. The very successful artists say they want to help people, they say they have a message. And people say they love this artist because his message is good. In reality the reason why people love this artist isn’t because of their message. It’s because the artist loves what he’s doing and is authentic to his message. One artist can have the simplest message and be respected for that, while another artist can have the most interesting message but be disliked. In the end it all depends on how true you are to your words.