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Toiling In The Liner Notes

Thundercat, PBR&B, and the 24-hour news network-ification of the music blogosphere

: Toiling In The Liner Notes

INFORMATION OVERLOAD

Twenty-four hour news networks have had an undeniable affect on the way that we consume news. Channels like CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, whatever their politics may be, have given us an ability to react in real-time to political things as they happen. We can have opinions on the latest Presidential address as its happening, or stamp our feet in agreement (or dissent) as members of Congress give an impassioned speech.

But there's been a secondary affect of this inundation of news. The newsmakers have changed the manner in which they present themselves to us. The teams of political figures like Joe Biden or Sarah Palin keep them out of the media for long periods of time, only allowing them out on their own terms, and when they are out, those political figures only speak on the topics that they wish to, avoiding questions that might cause another call of gaffes (in Biden's case) or ignorance (in Palin's). Rick Perry didn't announce for President until it was too late to enter into the Iowa Straw Poll, as if to avoid a news network commentary on whatever his performance may have been in that contest.

What does this have to do with music? Well, there's a similarity between those networks and the music blogosphere that seems important to comment on. Just as there's a (sometimes ignored) responsibility of those news networks to provide their audience with news that's important more than entertaining, there's a (sometimes ignored) responsibility of online music journalism to critique music as well as present it to their audience.

We devour music at an alarming rate in our little section of the Internet. On my RSS feed, I can probably pour through around a hundred songs each day, looking for something that may capture my attention for longer than a few seconds. And if I'm listening critically, I may only afford a track fifteen to thirty seconds to grab me before I move on. There's a lot of music to listen to. To some that makes sense. To others it may seem like laziness. I kind of think of it as unforgiving. It used to be that artists had the time to grow, to toil away in obscurity while they honed in on a sound. Now, first singles can be make or break a group. What this means is that artists have to be fully formed from the onset, because to be anything less is to be ignored.

 

BIDING TIME 

Stephen Bruner-- aka Thundercat-- released his debut album last month. If you weren't paying attention, it might have seemed like he came out of nowhere with his mashup of improvisational jazz, yearning soul, and Brainfeeder electronic fuckery. But dig deeper into Bruner's story and you see that he's been playing bass for years for everyone from punk outfit Suicidal Tendencies to weirdo soul performer Erykah Badu to Brainfeeder majordomo Flying Lotus. Bruner has had time-- his first album credit is five years ago-- to craft his sound into something that would grab the attention of the ADD nature of the music blogosphere for more than a second.

For futher proof, check out this year's microgenre du jour, what's been called PBR&B, Hipster R&B, and sexgaze. The genre that combines soulful, mournful R&B vocals and classic swinging beats with anxious, minor key sonic underpinnings has brought us How to Dress Well, Balam Acab and the Weekend. And to a more outlying extent, you could add James Blake, Active Child and Frank Ocean to its number. It seems as though sexgaze came up overnight, as if "What You Need" appeared out of the ether one day from a well of nothing. But How to Dress Well was paying his dues with hundreds of songs released on his blog during last year's witch house explosion, and Balam Acab has been fine tuning his fractured music since last year's See Birds EP. James Blake released three EPs last year, the first playing up his deft programming touch, and each one from there moving more toward his flirtations with classic R&B. And Frank Ocean had a deal with Def Jam back in 2009. Hell, the man has a Justin Bieber writing credit. PBR&B may have blown up this year, but its frontrunners built up their expertise in that sound for years before embracing it fully.

This is because the blogosphere allows no room for half-baked ideas. Such experiments get tossed in the tl;dr pile that grows exponentially with each passing day. Part of the reason why the Weeknd might have intentionally hid his identity, and Balam Acab and HtDW might have unintentionally hidden theirs, was because-- like the teams of Palin and Biden-- controlling the narrative of how they were received and viewed helped them dictate their own story. They got to circumvent some of the hiccups in their gestational stages by forcing the blogosphere to also talk about their anonymity, not just their music. Regardless of whether or not it was intentional, it worked.

 

REVIEW VS. CRITIQUE

Back in 2006, Chuck Klosterman wrote an Esquire article in defense of video games as an art form. That piece argued that part of the reason why video games at that time were not considered art was because there was no system of critique in place. There were plenty of video game reviews, but very little video game critique. The difference, Klosterman said, was that a review simply concerns itself with the outcome. In terms of video games: was this good or bad, fun or boring, too easy/hard or just right. Meanwhile, critique gives points for making an attempt at something ambitious even if that attempt isn't successful.

That's part of the problem with the twenty-four-hour nature of the music blogs. It invites too much reviewing and not enough critiquing. It's probably part of the reason why blogs like Nah Right and 2DopeBoyz passed on posting Tyler the Creator's shit when it first came out, and it's likely part of the reason why talented artists like Thundercat and Frank Ocean waited in the liner notes of other records before releasing their own. When all you have is a first impression, you have to be pretty damn sure of the one you're going to make. Either that, or paint the Declaration of Independence on the side of a bus.

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