We've all experienced it before. One of our favorite emcees or groups is about to drop a new album. We get hyped about it as we think about the first album they released, which came out two years ago, but is still in heavy rotation on our iPod. Their first project had such an impact on us that we remember exactly where we were when we first listened to it. We've loved the songs they've recently featured on and now the moment is here. The new one is ready to drop. We can't wait to hear them spit over new beats and, in new ways, recapture the feeling we had when we first heard them. We didn't even listen to any of the previews that already came out because we want to hear the project as a whole for the very first time. It's Monday and we know that it will be available for download at midnight. Like a kid on Christmas morning, when midnight strikes, we rush to iTunes to download it, turn off our phone, run out to the car so we can play it in the best sound system we have, crank up the volume and drive around while we listen, fully prepared to hit rewind when necessary. And then the unthinkable happens: the emcee switched up his style! What's going on? The beats sound different. They're a talented group, so it's not completely wack, but what happened?
This is not what we were expecting. All kinds of thoughts rush into our minds. What are they doing? Are they trying to go mainstream? Is the emcee just not hungry anymore? What's going on? This is something we've all experienced as fans. Often the frustration that we feel when our favorite artists switches their sound leads to us wonder if they "sold out", meaning that they compromised their art for the sake of reaching a bigger audience. This can be a tricky question because it assumes that attempting to reach a bigger audience can't happen while maintaining artistic integrity. I don't believe that's true. While I don't deny that there are artists out there who don't care what they put out as long as it sells, we shouldn't be quick to automatically assume that's the case. Let me offer a few alternative explanations. In my experience, artists may change:
1. Because They Find Their Voice
Like everyone, artists are works in progress. It's rare that an artist is already fully developed at the time they release their first album. I'm from Philly, the home of the Eagles (no jokes about Eagles fans please). The Eagles' quarterback is Michael Vick. One of the things that made his transformation as a player so remarkable is that he was able to transition from being a "running" quarterback earlier in his career into being a quarterback who could kill defenses with both his arm and his legs in 2010. He discovered how to be most effective. The same thing happens with artists. It takes time for them to learn how to write good songs, how to use their voice as they record, what kind of tracks compliment them the best and what audiences respond to the most. For many emcees, it's not until album #3 or #4 that they find out who they really are as recording artists. By that time, their sound has usually changed.
2. Because They Travel
Traveling can have a deep impact on a people in general, and artists in particular. It's one thing to do your music at the local open mic or coffee house where the 50 regulars there know your music. It's another thing to be standing before people on the opposite coast or even another country. When you travel, you begin to get a broader sense of how your work has impacted people. You also get a sense of what's happening musically in different regions. For example, there are songs that people loved when you'd them back in Newark, NJ where you're from. But when you do them in New Orleans or Kansas City, you get blank stares and crickets. At the same time, those audiences seem to really respond to that album track that you would probably never perform back home. When the time comes to do your next album, you can either say, "Forget New Orleans and KC!" Or you can consider them as you put the new album together. If you want to serve those outside of your hometown/ region, this will almost always produce a change of some sort.
3. Because They Grow As People
Demanding that an artist stay the same would have been like demanding that Michael Jackson keep the same high-pitched voice he had as a kid that you fell in love with. Well, the reality is that puberty happens and in order for him to comply with your taste, he would have had to perpetually remain 8 years old. In the same way, it's unrealistic to expect the 30 year old Christian emcee who is now married with 2 kids and one on the way to release the same kind of music he did when he was 22, single, and hadn't experienced much life yet. A 35 year old whose music reflects the maturity level of a teenager is actually tragic and should not be encouraged. Sadly, this is a common thing in hip-hop, where there are numerous examples of men close to 40 years old and older making music that reflects adolescent cravings and sensibilities. The call of the Christian, however, is different: "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways." (1 Cor. 13:11)
4. Because They Grow Spiritually
The Christian life is a process of moving from spiritual infancy to spiritual maturity. There is a zeal in new converts that is common and often translates into great music- especially in Hip-hop, where zeal is valued over almost any other emotion. But the reality is that the commendable virtue of zeal in the new convert is often accompanied by some not-so-desirable traits, including legalistic tendencies, a self-righteous spirit, acting impulsively and pride. This is the case because the new convert simply hasn't had the track record to see the corruptions of his own heart, his susceptibility to Satan's schemes, his utter dependence on God and his need for the cross that only hard life experience can teach him.
Mature Christians know that longer you walk with God, the more He breaks you. Therefore, we shouldn't be surprised if brokenness affects an artist's music. Also, it should be expected that an emcee who is growing in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control (as all Christians are- Gal. 5:22-23) will reflect that in their music as well. In the Bible, Peter is a great example of this. In his youth, he had so much zeal that he cut off a man's ear when Christ was arrested, not to mention telling the Lord Jesus that He was wrong when He predicted Peter's denial of Him. But by the time we get to 1 Peter 5, we see a completely different man- a man who has been profoundly humbled. If Peter was an emcee, it would be silly for us to expect his music to sound the same at both stages in his life.
5. Because They Identify Their Target Audience
This goes along with #1 and it happened to me. When I dropped my first album, I didn't have a target in mind per se, other than those who would appreciate the content, lyricism and musical style. My second project was deliberately stripped down and dark because of where I was at that point in my walk, having gone through many painful trials. My aim with album #2 was to deliberately minimize the delivery and flair that accompanied my first album, in order that the truths of the cross would come through in a sobering way that produced heavy reflection. Though it wasn't my goal, the result wound up being my most successful project to date and launched me into doing music full time, going places and seeing things I could have never imagined when I made the album.
I also noticed that it split my audience. Most people preferred album #1 or #2. Interestingly, the album people preferred was usually the first one they were exposed to. I also noticed that the kinds of comments I got about each album were different. Those who liked #1 tended to focus in on style and artistry, which is fine. But those who liked #2 were saying things like, "It gave me a greater appreciation for Christ" and "I understand the cross better because of it", etc. For me, I prefer those kinds of comments. Also, that second group (by far) booked me for the most events. They seemed to be the ones who were most appreciative of and blessed by my ministry. At that point, my primary target audience was discovered. I haven't looked back because I see serving that audience as part of the good works that God has ordained for me to walk in. It seems natural (and wise) to make music that you believe your core audience will appreciate, even if that means that the disgruntled minority isn't happy.
6. Because The Listeners Change Also
One of the things that makes music so powerful is that we tend to associate it with what's going on in our lives when we hear it. In a real sense, music is the soundtrack to our lives. This is why we can remember exactly where we were when we first heard songs that impacted us. As time goes on, we get to different points in our lives, but we still have fond memories of music from the past. This isn't bad in itself, but if we're not careful, it can cause us to glorify our past experiences. Here's what I mean: I came to Christ in 1999. There are songs that I heard when I first came to Christ that deeply impacted me and changed my understanding of what it meant to be a Christian in hip-hop culture. At the time, you could not tell me that these songs weren't the best things since air conditioning in Texas. But when I go back and listen to those songs 12 years later, they don't have the same impact on me because I'm not at the same place in my walk and my life. In some songs I even hear issues with sound quality or even doctrine, that if I heard it for the first time today, I might not be feeling it at all! All that to say that I'm just in a different place in my life now and hear with a different set of ears.
Artists often have an impossible battle to fight. Not only do they have to keep our affections and attention now, but they also have to compete with the nostalgia of what we felt when we heard them the first time! This is bound to produce disappointment in us because no one can compete with an idealized memory. (Pop quiz: What's better? The reality of a good thing or what we remember about it? Go back and watch the sitcom that was your favorite as a kid and let me know) The truth is that it is almost impossible for even the best artist to make an album better than the one we glorified in our minds. This is the reason why you and I are almost always disappointed with follow-ups to albums that we consider classic. What we often don't realize is that we actually changed more than the artist did. But, hey, who said we had to be rational? We're fans! We want to have our cake and eat it too, don't we? I know I do! Much more could be said, but these are a few things to consider the next time we rush to download our favorite artist's new album.