Written by I.S. Jones @isjonespoetry
Last year (a few months back), it kept coming up that I am a music critic, or rather people were saying that they feared my opinion about their music, their friend’s music, their cousin’s / nephew’s / boyfriend’s music. I’m focusing on men and not women simply for the fact that this has exclusively happened to me with male rappers. In the wake of writing what my one of my colleagues would consider a damaging album review, they said to me: “Why would you review an album you don’t like?” “How could you damage this person’s career?” Group chats went as followed: “I don’t want to dirty my hands” “I would never touch an album that I don’t like” “I wouldn’t say anything bad, I just wouldn’t review it” “Album reviews aren’t a good idea” and so on. I’m not a music critic, but I am critical of things I love as we all should be. I’ll say it one more time for the people in the back: I am entitled to my opinion. I won’t be silenced. I am allowed to say what I want. Don’t tell me to chill and we won’t have a problem. So understand nothing I do or say is personal. If it was personal, I would say it to the artist’s face. I would never fix my mouth to say, “Please quit now and try to get your money back.” I don’t operate like that. I think everyone who loves an art form so viciously and will chase after it at all costs deserves the mountain top. Yet unfortunately many of us won’t reach the mountaintop because we don’t have the right tools, so here’s why you won’t make it.
1) You Don’t Have The Right Look
Taking it back to some of our founding fathers: Run-D.M.C., Grandmaster Flash, N.W.A., Boogie Down Production, Public Enemy, Doug E. Fresh & The Get Fresh Crew. Now to more modern rappers / song-writers: Erykah Badu, Common, Andre 3000, Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, Nas, Tupac, Lauryn Hill, Biggie.
The emerging voices in hip-hop now: Oshun, Joey Bada$$, Mick Jenkins, Chelsea Reject, Tink, Dyme-A-Duzin, and so on. Despite the generational differences, the urgency of what the world needed to hear during each respective era, and how much hip-hop has evolved since its first steps out of The Bronx, what do all of these artists have in common? They all have a very distinguishing look. With Tribe, they have a red, green, and black color scheme along with the robotic woman who shows up on Midnight Marauders and several other album artworks. Erykah Badu is head-wrapped with coconut oil, shea butter, and all her sexy Black Woman Magic. Tupac was thugnificient but had a soft side. Run DMC had huge chains and fuzzy golf hats or fedoras. More contemporary artists such as Oshun quite literally blend West African tradition with American aesthetic to produce a message of self-love, light, and awareness. Each of these artists, and artists that I didn’t list, all have a very distinct identifying theme or image about them. People are shallow and need a reason to be invested in you, a reason to follow and to like you. This is why you must establish a look early on.
2) You Don’t Have The Right People In Your Circle
Do you have someone being mindful of the group’s spending, financial literacy? Do you have someone pitching your work to the right blogs and platforms? Do you have someone who will give you critical feedback on your lyrics? Who is pushing you to be a better you? Who in your circle can get you on the stages you want to be on? Who is saving you from embarrassing yourself on Twitter or Instagram? Do you even have a press packet or music videos on YouTube? Who is the one saying ‘yes’ to everything you do? Keep the "yes man" out of your circle because that person will stop your forward progress. Everyone on your team needs to have the same goals in mind in order to be successful; egos and selfishness will destroy you. If you don’t have a circle, or a collective of like-minded artists with a common goal, then you need to figure out how to become a cause worth believing in.
3) Your Social Media Presence Is A Mess
There are a lot of artists that don’t have a real bio. When I say real, I mean a lot of artists will say something to the effect of “My music is my bio”. No, it’s not. I can listen to your music and figure out that 808’s & Heartbreak heavily influenced your first mixtape, but who else influenced your work…? Is it only rappers? What about poets? Art? News headlines? Speeches? Important moments in pop culture? You need to promote yourself. I’ll say it again: in order to be successful, you need to push your shows, make promotional flyers, create short video clips to promote a show, push you mixtape every day (but in a way that won’t get you labeled as spam), four times a day, and every week until its released date. Do you know your engagement on Twitter, YouTube and Instagram? How many likes do you average a photo? A video? I know it’s a lot and a pain. Personally, I don’t care about social media like that, but people take that shit very seriously. You are competing against millions of other images, memes, gifs, videos of bunnies eating fruit to capture an audience on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram. As an emerging artist, an audience needs a way to feel connected to a person or the group that makes the music they love. You need an actual bio, you need to push your look and your music on your platforms, you need plug names that are easy to remember, and you need be consistent about it.
4) Your Stage Presence Doesn’t Make People Get Their Life
Whenever I do a review of a show, audience engagement is always huge for me. I don’t go to shows to stay on my phone and act too cool to sing along with the music. I’m screaming, dancing, jumping, and sweating by the time I leave. I treat concerts and shows like the gym: I came to sweat and get my whole life. As an artist, I hope you’re here to give your whole life to an audience, to live your work again and again. Don’t just rap at us, take us with you. Point to us in the audience, let go and be in the moment. Fuck looking cute. This is your moment. I’ve seen too many artists half-ass their performance: drag themselves across the stage, mumble their lyrics, and get breathless too easily. Live performances are a way to attract a new audience and should be one of your main revenue streams. You must make strangers to into believers. How does your stage presence liven up an audience? How do stand out amongst other emerging artists?
5) You’re Not Innovative Or Ambitious Enough
So you’re making music and putting out mixtapes, but no one is really picking up your work even after you promote it. Then you must ask yourself: "Am I forging my own sound or am I just a Kanye / Jay Z clone?" And that is important as we all draw from artists we grew up. There is not a human alive that is not the end product of their influence, but that’s the key word: influence. To be influenced means you already have something inside you that seeks to push form and boundary, you just need to see how others did it before you. You have to think light years ahead of your time and this is one of the critical points that will separate an artist from a legacy. Hip-Hop is still a really young genre but it is the most influential avenue of music, so what are you doing to push the envelope? If I listen to a track of yours, does your voice stand out or do you just sound like Lupe?