Editor’s Note: This was written before Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN” dropped.
If you somehow haven’t heard the good word, Kendrick Lamar is dropping a new album and it sounds like it’s going to be a big deal. Most folks are rightfully hyped for Kendrick Lamar’s new album, but I’m not too incredibly thrilled. Wait, lower those pitchforks. What I mean is I like what I’ve heard by the fellow and I think he’s one of the most talented contemporary hip-hop artists, but for me personally I don’t find myself listening to his music very often. Come to think of it, I listen to very few popular artists. A new Kendrick album will be very important to hip-hop, and “Humble” confirmed that this album has the potential to start and end some serious shit. I decided to sit and think about what I’ve done to develop my aversion to popular artists regardless of their talent, and also if avoiding popular or “mainstream” artists has any merit. I’ve certainly got some ‘splaining to do.
The word “mainstream” has adopted a negative connotation because of hipsters and critics of music. It’s like it’s synonymous with “conformist” now. By hipster logic, anything mainstream is considered too well-known to be cool because obviously, anything trending or commercially successful must be some straight butt cheek. Your definition may be different, but I consider mainstream music to be anything extremely popular, such as artists who have won several Grammys or artists with household names who have garnered mass appeal. Artists who are constantly recommended to me by people. Drake is a mainstream artist. Eminem is mainstream. Lil Wayne is mainstream but should be a tributary. These artists fall into a weird “hip-pop” hybrid, still being considered hip-hop artists but maintaining such a large audience and sometimes collaborating with pop stars, so they could be categorized as pop. Kendrick Lamar could also be considered mainstream, but fame is the only comparable factor he shares with his rivals. It would be weird to compare Kendrick’s skill level to Lil Wayne’s. There is some pushback and hesitance from consumers of strictly underground artists to listen to Kendrick, automatically assuming he is not good because he is mainstream.
Some people, usually strangers on the internet, will tell you that these artists are certified trash and you should try to disrespect and shame other humans who like these artists, and to separate yourself from what you consider to be mediocre. Are they trash, though? Some people say popular music sucks because they have a desire to separate themselves from the masses and be unique, even though so many of us try to be different nowadays that we are all obliviously conforming into an iconoclast hive mind. The irony is palpable, can’t we all just get along? Others dislike popular artists because they think there is not much skill required to produce their music. I can’t comment on that because I don’t make music, but it certainly feels like some “great” artists don’t deserve that adjective. I’ve concluded that there are several possible reasons as to why I don’t dig many current popular artists.
The first reason is overexposure. Let’s face it. We all have a little hater in us when we hear the same song over and over in an environment when it’s out of our control. The radio or your stupid roommate’s stupid speakers are sources of repetitive assault from today’s hottest artists. That’s not the artists fault, but I can’t help but be upset with someone and their fame when their voice won’t leave me alone, especially Eminem. He’s a yeller. A lifehack for this is to leave civilization and build a raft out of bottles to thrive on the ocean, where the only music you’ll hear is Earth’s ambience and whales breaching, if you’re lucky. Or turn off the radio. If we hear music that isn’t desired we’re probably not going to voluntarily listen to it.
The second reason is actual tangible or measurable talent, which is subjective. Do influential contemporary artists actually have skills and do they deserve their recognition? For example, Lil Wayne is quite famous and he had achieved a very large audience when he was a more active musician. There are people who consider him to be one of the greats. However, there are also people who think Lil Wayne is a joke. Although he does have an aptitude for entrepreneurship and I’m glad he’s not drinking lean anymore.
As a contrasting example, Kendrick Lamar is commonly referred to as the best rapper currently living, and he’s not the only one who thinks so. Is this because his rhymes are more cerebral than other popular hip-hop artists and his arrival into mainstream hip-hop has significantly raised the bar, reviving an appreciation of creative and meaningful lyricism and storytelling not practiced by other artists? You tell me, I don’t listen to him very much. Most of what I’ve heard just doesn’t stand out to me as much for some reason, not enough to listen recreationally. I’ll listen to one of his songs, be absolutely impressed by what I hear, and then never really listen again. I think he is severely talented and I acknowledge his excellence. It’s wonderfully surprising Kendrick Lamar has gotten so influential. Judging by his competition, I didn’t think people were into lyrics, just beats they can dance to. His music is meaningful, his lyrics provide perspective and artistically educate me on the struggles people of color have dealt with and are currently facing, and he has a personal desire to better himself as an artist and to take part in the evolution of hip-hop, if not steer the ship himself.
The third reason is relatability, but that’s not really fair. I like Public Enemy, but I’m an upper middle-class white man from the suburbs, so I can’t really relate to any of Chuck D’s subject matter. But I’ll use relatability as an excuse to not like songs about sex and having sex because I’m not into sex as far as I know.
These three reasons are personal and unique to me, but everybody likes what they like and knows what they don’t. Except me, I’m hopelessly fickle. There is one problem with rejecting popular or mainstream music, though, especially with hip-hop. To be as cliché as possible, hip-hop is more than a genre, it’s a culture. Observing the different eras and subgenres of hip-hop is very interesting upon closer investigation. Hip-hop music says a lot about the artists and their environments, and also of living conditions in the USA. If I choose to neglect alleged greats like J. Cole or Kendrick Lamar, I’ll be severely missing out on signature styles, trends, and sounds of this era of music. If I don’t keep up with those Migos guys, I’m choosing to not follow the major influence they continue to project on music. I don’t have to listen to these artists if I don’t want to, but I’ve concluded it would be in my best interest to know their music so I have an idea of what the hell is happening and maybe broaden my taste in music in the process. Twitter is also more fun if you know what Drake is up to.
I guess I just don’t like the sound of most popular artists, regardless of their skills, but from now on I’m diving into the mainstream. I greatly appreciate Kendrick Lamar and although I’m not ecstatic about his overall sound, I’m going to give his discography another shot because it’s interesting to see how he is affecting hip-hop. I guess I better listen to J. Cole to see what the fuss is about.
About eighty percent of the hip-hop I listen to is mostly older artists from way back when because there’s a certain sound and lyricism I like that as far as I know exists only in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and early 2000s. I’m an old geezer. The remaining twenty percent is full of locally-grown emcees from my neck of the woods and the occasional SoundCloud artist. There are a lot of great current artists right now, I just need to search harder to find the sound I’m looking for or risk my Spotify playlist becoming an echo chamber. Or I could just be less of a dingus about my taste in music. What are your thoughts on popular artists? Are you someone who dislikes popular artists because of their popularity or because you think the music for the masses is shallow and not engaging, or do you care at all? Perhaps you’re as persnickety as I am and have a very particular style you listen to, and most well-known current music leaves you as bored as you were reading this article?