This June of G.O.O.D. Music Fridays was meant for the contrarians, which might have been the point of all Kanye West’s publicity stunts leading up. Lately, fans of various artists have been finding themselves questioning the extent of their investment in music— from the “Mute R. Kelly” movement to the recent murder of XXXtentacion to participating in Drake’s #ScorpionListeningParty knowing “you are hiding a child.” Idols have transformed into false role models for some, and who you listen to in your personal music library has now become the new “what you do behind closed doors.”
In my line of work, this tightrope walk is arduous (to say the least)—as it consists of balancing fandom with honest critical analysis, eschewing groupthink, and understanding the various states of the industry past, present, and future. Last September, I appeared as a guest host on Bianca Gracie’s now defunct “Besterday” podcast to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Kanye West’s Graduation. Both of us being diehard Yeezy stans—Gracie calling him “her estranged father” and myself, “a Kanye apologist”—we found ourselves at the beginning of having to be distant from his Trump-supporting antics for the sake of our personal beliefs and brands as black music writers, while simultaneously appreciating and respecting his game changing artistry.
Of course we found ourselves texting and somewhat biting our words after April 25, once he shared the infamous tweet about “dragon energy” with his “brother” Donald Trump. Then the picture of his red Make America Great Again hat signed by the President, followed by a selfie of him sporting the hat in sheer sunken place smugness, with the simple caption “we got love.” Not to mention the TMZ soundbite that “slavery is a choice.”
Still, my “but it’s Kanye” syndrome kicked in, echoing what he meant when he guilted true fans who disagreed with his opinions into understanding “Ye being Ye.” In that moment, I grappled with separating the art from the artist—being a bit real with the fact that, despite opposition with his political views, Kanye West still remains in my Top 3 producers ever to exist in music history. (To the tune of Miami rap duo City Girls: Point blank, PERIOD!)
All of that in consideration, I would further argue that the five releases from Pusha T, Kanye, Kid Cudi, Nas, and Teyana Taylor became the most important moments for hip-hop as a genre, in quite some time. It’s something that now needs to be examined and digested as a larger picture, simply for the way it exposed issues existing in music and the black experience.
For me, Kanye West’s whole production experiment started with Christina Aguilera’s comeback single, “Accelerate.” Although it wasn’t a part of the actual G.O.O.D. Music project, it gave a sneak peek into what the mad producing genius had in store. The trap&B meets afrobeats-pop club banger was released a day before West made the ill-advised “slavery is a choice” comments.
Up until that point, nothing released in the pop circuit— let alone the R&B one—sounded so refreshing and unorthodoxly catchy. It showed West was returning back to chopping his beats, letting the title and lyrics inspire the production instead of vice versa. The instrumental changeover at 2 Chainz’s refrain exemplified a readiness to think outside the box. As her comeback moment, Aguilera belted and kept up with the full throttle energy, uniquely owning the song as her own. Everyone played their part, with West furthering his agility for tailoring his production to meet the needs of the artist instead of himself.
Analogous to Aguilera, everyone on G.O.O.D. Music had something to prove: First up, Pusha T with DAYTONA. Never before had I been so drawn into an album cover with such urgency. DAYTONA‘s residue-smudged flash photo of Whitney Houston’s drug-infested bathroom—consisting of crack paraphernalia and powdered spoons scattered over a cluttered, marble counter, one of the drawers left ajar and seemingly off its track—brought both public disappointment and spiked curiosity. As a matter of fact, all the album covers made their own statements: DAYTONA just happened to be the most powerful.
What seemed like a moment to incite intense reactions actually panned out to be a strategic move. Although I felt an instant shock— wondering, thanks to misconstrued headlines, if the photo came from Houston’s actual death scene—I had some sobering moments of harsh reality. We lost a black icon from drugs; Pusha T’s hustle to survive consisted of him selling to other black people, possibly causing their demise; Kanye’s admission of being addicted to opioids might result in his own tragedy if he relapses, or worse, still experiences it.
West had been right when he said people needed to see that image in order to feel the music. DAYTONA comes out the gate swinging with “If You Know You Know,” a theme song for the best coke dealers in the trap, used to expensive watches and other luxurious perks. The hard-hitting beat and lyrics implied that only the real understood the trade. It sets the album up as a movie of seven tracks, and immediately established the overall tone of the G.O.O.D. Music project.
DAYTONA is marvelous because Pusha T is sharp in his delivery, taking his time to cruise along with the pacing of the album. The production itself recalls Kanye’s start as a budding pupil under the guise of the late great J Dilla. Tracks on DAYTONA replicate that influence, particularly Dilla’s Donuts. Pusha’s “Hard Piano” is reminiscent of the repetitive throughline exhibited in Dilla’s “Mash;” it also models after Dilla’s knack for naming his songs after a central focus in the instrumentation or a key element in a sample (i.e. “Stepson of the Clapper,” “The Twister (Huh, What)”). “Hard Piano” describes what drives the production of the song, while “Come Back Baby”— which has a thumping 808 built for Cadillac speakers—alludes to the interpolation of George Jackson’s “I Can’t Do Without Them.”
Most importantly, Pusha T flips the script on the hip-hop game, just as Nas did with NASIR (which I’ll delve into a little later). One of the album’s themes of idols becoming rivals makes itself prevalent with the feature of Rick Ross on “Hard Piano.” DAYTONA starts as the story of a true hustler before segueing into an attack on the facade Young Money/Cash Money pushes to the public.
Like Ross’ 2017 diss “Idols Become Rivals,” “Infrared” exposes Birdman for not knowing how to operate like a real CEO/President of a label. This is also Pusha’s role for G.O.O.D. Music—so the respectability went out the window as YMCMB was accused of sacrificing originality in hip-hop. The song’s slow-burning creep takes jabs at Drake as well, which would result in the Canadian’s response of “Duppy Freestyle,” setting up Pusha’s rebuttal “The Story of Adidon.”
Kanye’s role in producing “Infrared” is a bit bizarre only because it was revealed that Drake co-wrote “Yikes” for YE. In one instance, the producer is cleverly revisiting his “poopy-de scoop” line from “Lift Yourself” on Pusha’s “What Would Meek Do?”—of course, there’s also the history of the Philly rapper feuding with Drake—and the next he’s praising the 6 God on The New York Times.
This type of behavior, along with his spur of tweets and interview outbursts, all made sense when looking at the cover for YE. That image is a tough pill to personally swallow, as it’s quite relatable. While others flocked to criticize the gesture as immature and making a mockery of bipolar disorder, I couldn’t help but to think “no, it really gets like that.”
The image consists of the scenic Wyoming mountains Kanye woke up to everyday while producing these LPs during a creative retreat. Sometimes when dealing with this particular mental illness, there’s this feeling of needing to break away from the norm, in a secluded location, to center your thoughts for the sake of life epiphanies and growth. It’s always been fascinating that none of West’s eight album covers feature his face—a possible acknowledgment that it’s hard to face an image of one’s self when they don’t even know what’s wrong in their mind. YE best captures that sentiment by focusing on the nature around the rapper as a form of escapism.
The green handwritten iOS message of “I hate being Bi-Polar it’s awesome”—with the mental illness sandwiched in between the negative and positive clauses—perfectly captures the flip-side connotations associated with the disorder. On one hand, it’s a horrible feeling, as expressed in the opening suicidal track “I Thought About Killing You.” On the other, as “Yikes” explains, there is this superpower invincibility that comes along with it.
Throughout YE, the emotions of each song are extreme and drastic, intentionally. “Yikes” has a trap-mob, mosh pit consistency as if the beat is wheezing in the middle of a manic episode. “All Mine” is raunchy and filled with lust directed at Kim Kardashian—a possible commentary that although she’s his wife, his sexual appetite can be off the roof due to his disorder.
Meanwhile “Violent Crimes” is beautifully melancholic, a bit somber, as it reflects on how Kanye has to address the disorder in order to seek help, better himself, and grow into more of a mature man for the sake of his young daughters (and son). On the album, he finds himself not only deconstructing his strange behavior, but profusely apologizing to the ones he loves, not understanding why they’re still sticking around (especially after the Lexapro meltdown from The Life of Pablo), but ultimately gratuitous for their presence.
The standout from YE is “Ghost Town,” particularly how 070 Shake screams with Florence Welsh cadences, “And nothing hurts anymore, I feel kinda free / We’re still the kids we used to be” in the song’s ending chorus. That would ultimately be a planted seed for the collaborative album KIDS SEE GHOSTS with Kid Cudi, who also croons “I’ve been trying to make you love me” on “Ghost Town.”
Surprisingly, for an album produced by two black men dealing with their own mental illnesses, KIDS SEE GHOSTS is both euphoric and therapeutic. With hard-hitting tribal knocks, and Desiigner-esque ad-libs, “Feel The Love” awakens the pairs’ 808s & Heartbreak instincts, blending hip-hop with post-modern psychedelic rock as does the spookiness of “Fire,” which feels structured for a campsite. The theme of being “Reborn” in order to “move forward” is expressed on the tracklist.
In Part 2 of “Ghost Town” entitled “Freeee,”—an exaggerated vocal emphasis on the original—Kanye is more defiant in saying “I don’t feel pain anymore.” It’s a bit casual as is the “scoop” that he manages to slip in, as if a commentary to say shit (or the “poopy-di”) doesn’t bother his existence since receiving the diagnosis. It also marks a restored faith in God, as Ty Dolla $ign (who guest features throughout these projects) sings “he lift me up.”
On NASIR, Nas places the lens on black society as a whole moreso than he does himself—which to some could have its faults considering his ex-wife Kelis accusing him of domestic abuse. He does address these claims snidely on “Everything,” rapping “when the media slings mud we use it to build huts.” There have been media outlets, with a lack of diversity on their staff, dissecting all these LPs without a deep or true understanding of black art, the figures that make it, or the issues that revolve around our community. Essentially, Nas comes after them as well as other forms of injustice—the cover of five young black boys lined up against a wall, hands up to be frisked by police, sending the message loud and clear.
NASIR has the strongest opening of all the projects. “Not For Radio” starts with silence with Nas adopting his kingpin moniker: “Escobar season begins!” Diddy—who is credited as Puff Daddy, like back in ’97—starts his signature rant afterwards, which was recorded during the listening party. Diddy’s role immediately takes us to the braggadocious attitude presented in their 1999 collab “Hate Me Now.”
Nas spits “Black Kemet Gods, Black Egyptian Gods,” as the album’s first bar, a nod to his, Ye, and Diddy’s shared God complexes (or at least the belief that all black people should respect themselves as kings and queens). The song is not designed for FM or AM stations as it presents facts and beliefs usually not shared on public FCC-controlled airwaves or in school textbooks. That includes John Hanson being America’s first black president, Fox News’ heightened ratings spiking after Obama’s presidency, and Edgar Hoover possibly being black. Then there’s “Abraham Lincoln did not free the enslaved,” which brings us to a point Kanye thought he made on TMZ, but didn’t accurately articulate in the manner Nas did. What rings truest on the hard-hitting production, backed by an angelic choir, is 070 Shake’s hook “I think they scared of us.”
On NASIR, Kanye West flexes on the production drawing back to his own motifs, resembling the Yeezy of the early aughts. “Adam and Eve” has The-Dream sounding like Nina Simone over a piano that loops like her music (possibly a reference back to the “Hard Piano” of Pusha T). “Simple Things” feels like a smoothed out Late Registration throwback from West. “Bonjour” featuring the Cee Lo Green-sounding Tony Williams, recalls his days of producing more smooth, R&B-oriented records.
What was intriguing about the release of NASIR was how it was sort of overshadowed by The Carters’ surprise drop of EVERYTHING IS LOVE. It immediately reminded hip-hop fans of “Ether” vs. “Takeover,” how Nas and JAY-Z are foils for greatest rapper alive, and the art vs. capitalism debates revolving around it. As Nas puts it on “Simple Things,” “never sold a record for my beat / it’s my verses they purchase.”
On EVERYTHING IS LOVE, JAY primarily raps about his relationship with Bey and their materialistic wealth, dropping miniscule knowledge on black issues while Nas goes in full professor mode. Bey even references herself as the real Watch The Throne, a swipe at Kanye. NASIR exemplified that the alliances are where they should be: Nas is a better fit with Kanye, as Bey is for JAY. Kanye finally made the right beats to cohesively compliment Nas’s lyrics and vice versa. Lines were clearly drawn in the sand of petty beaches.
With Teyana Taylor’s KEEP THE SAME ENERGY all the rules followed by the men were broken. To say the least, the roll-out was messy, as Taylor has even specified that certain samples weren’t cleared and the album is incomplete. Oddly enough, it’s not noticeable, mainly because the production is intricately layered. While the other artists had more room to get their message across in seven tracks— due to career longevity with discography—Taylor may have needed a bit more leeway.
Essentially, K.T.S.E. was meant as a reintroduction to her music—and even for some unaware of her 2014 debut VII, their first listening experience ever. Although she seemed disappointed by the turnout, and there’s this image that the work was rushed and last minute, the tracks still go hard. Especially, the Stylistics-sampling “Rose In Harlem,” which is raw with Taylor at her most vulnerable, vocally and lyrically. It’s trap&B meets the grandiose flare of Kate Bush that’s reflected in the electro-baroque pop of Dev Hynes’s Blood Orange.
On the note of Blood Orange, Taylor’s album cover of her mid-orgasm on a bed, has a similar vibe to his cover for Freetown Sound, which features a woman being held by her mate in a bedroom. Sonically, both projects hit on 70s-tinged R&B sounds infused with orchestra symphonies, loungey jazz, and modern subject matters. But unlike that woman, Taylor is alone and in power without her husband Iman Shumpert needing to be present.
Taylor finds herself breathily suggesting a “3Way” in staccato. “WTP” is the uncharacteristic eighth track that sees her channeling the 80s post-disco energy of her leading role in West’s “Fade” music video—which made her a crossover household name—alongside ball vogueing. “Hurry” urgently slows down the funk as she accesses her orgasmic climaxes on wax. “Never Would Have Made It” puts an uplifting spin on Marvin Sapp’s gospel classic.
Back to “Rose In Harlem”; Taylor mentions “Oh no, what a shame, 10 years in the game / Niggas like, ‘you ain’t hot? You ain’t pop yet?’ / ‘What’s up with you and Ye.’” That compacted verse bares a truth that female R&B in general has a long way to go before getting the same attention as men in hip-hop. Many have accused G.O.O.D. Music of mishandling Taylor’s career, but maybe the problem has always been society neglecting her in the first place.
What’s interesting about all these G.O.O.D. Music releases is that all the artists, except Yeezy, don’t have a super mainstream following by the multi-millions—even Nas and Kid Cudi, to a certain extent. While they’re all recognizable names, they’re not generating the pop hits or the radio hits that constitute mass media attention. G.O.O.D. Music stayed true to just crafting soulful music, not caring for spins.
In ways, they managed to alter the dynamics of hip-hop by making statements: shortening tracklists to seven so there’s no fillers for easy streams, or fast record-breaking, with little to no substance behind the music. ‘Ye found himself tapping back into his core roots, deviating from the dominance of trap and bringing back a trend of instrumentation into producing and sampling.
At the same time, West gave music listeners another moral dilemma about selecting to support his releases and the people a part of them. We also saw a collective of black artists dominate the media cycles, even motivating some of hip-hop’s elite (Drake, JAY-Z) to push out their best work in order to steal back the attention. G.O.O.D. Music brought deep messages that bucked establishment, shedding a black-and-white lens on what we morally regarded as problematic and if we were willing to listen for any possible solutions offered. The overarching beauty of June’s G.O.O.D. Fridays is that it all took place during Black Music Month, as well as at a time when our music is once again receiving a shift politically and personally.
More by Da’Shan Smith: