Black Star with their podcast and Kanye West with his Stem Player are among the acts rolling out albums in new unprecedented ways. But do their experiments point toward hip-hop’s future?
In the late ‘90s, Brooklyn rappers Yasiin Bey (then known as Mos Def) and Talib Kweli united as a duo before either had released a solo album. The result, 1998’s Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, launched successful solo careers for both artists, a classic of the conscious rap resurgence that helped make Rawkus Records one of the era’s most important labels.
Over the next couple decades, a long-promised second Black Star album felt like an urban legend. But in 2021 the duo united with one of their most famous friends and fans — comedian Dave Chappelle — to launch a new podcast, The Midnight Miracle. In April the following year, Black Star announced that their sophomore album No Fear of Time, produced entirely by legendary beat maker Madlib, would be released exclusively via Luminary, the podcast network that also happens to produce The Midnight Miracle. In a year that has already seen Kanye West releasing his Donda 2 album exclusively on his own Stem Player device, and Dr. Dre releasing an EP that initially could only be heard while playing a Grand Theft Auto game, change is in the air as rappers continue to use alternative means of distributing their music beyond the music streaming platforms commonly used.
Yasiin Bey is no stranger to disruptive new album release methods. His last solo album, 2019’s Negus, was available only as a 10-week sound installation at the Brooklyn Museum. But as it turns out, the idea for Black Star’s release was actually hatched by their non-musician co-host. “The idea for the collaboration was actually initiated by Dave Chappelle during the first season of The Midnight Miracle,” Luminary CEO Rishi Malhotra explained. Malhotra, who founded the Indian music streaming service JioSaavn before joining Luminary, said that he sees No Fear of Time as a natural extension of the company’s existing business.
“Our shows are intended to thread together a variety of artforms – from the art of communication to music to comedy,” he said.
Of course, the podcast industry has been deeply tied to the music industry since its inception, with audio often distributed via the same channels. There have been conflicts between the two worlds, most notably in January when Neil Young pulled his music from Spotify in protest of the streaming service’s major investment in controversial podcaster Joe Rogan. There are multiple ways to hear No Fear of Time, but Luminary subscribers get the best deal. “On Luminary, it will be accessible as individual tracks. On Apple Podcasts, the album will be one extended podcast,” Malhotra said.
Arguably, Black Star are an ideal test subject for a release like this. The two rappers have never sold huge numbers whether together or apart – Yasiin Bey has two Gold albums and Talib Kweli has one – but they do have a fanbase large enough to bring impressive numbers to a venture with different expectations. And there’s been some controversy that could get in the way of a more conventional album rollout. Talib Kweli has been permanently suspended from Twitter since August 2020, after violating the site’s rules of conduct in a long-running and ugly feud with a woman who’d criticized him on the site.
There is a danger in a splashy unorthodox release through a corporate partner, though. In 2012, Busta Rhymes released a star-studded album, Year of the Dragon, exclusively through Google Play. A decade later, it’s like it never existed. It left no footprint on the charts, and with the Google Play Music app unceremoniously shut down in 2020, you can only hear it via pirated copies elsewhere. Billboard usually declines to chart releases that aren’t available in standard formats, and the Black Star album will likely not ever appear on any charts. However, Malhotra did share that Luminary “may release data down the line that is relevant or significant to the wider industry,” in regards to how many people listened to No Fear of Time.
Donda 2 and the Stem player
Stakes were a little higher for Kanye West when he released Donda 2 in February. The album’s predecessor, 2021’s Donda, topped the Billboard 200 and gave him a total of ten consecutive no. 1 albums, a record he shares with Eminem. Had Donda 2 been released conventionally, he could’ve broken the tie with Eminem and gotten closer to catching up with his mentor JAY-Z’s record of 14 chart-toppers, the most of any solo artist. But with the album only available on the pricey $200 Stem Player, West sacrificed Billboard numbers in favor of both technical innovation and profit. “To earn the $2.2 million we made on the first day on the Stem Player the album would have had to stream 500 million times,” West posted proudly on Instagram.
The Stem Player allows listeners to isolate individual elements of West’s music — muting, increasing or decreasing the volume of only vocals, drums or other instruments — to create a unique mix. This is the way musicians creating a record have always been able to hear a song, moving faders up and down on a mixing board to create the ideal blend of sounds. But putting that kind of power in the hands of the public is a fairly new idea, and West isn’t alone in exploring it. One significant player in that arena is Moodelizer, a Swedish tech company that released its “reactive music” Moodelizer mobile app a few months ago.
“I’m not surprised that Kanye West has done this sort of thing. There’s a logic to that,” Moodelizer CEO and co-founder Mathias Rosenqvist said before breaking down what reactive music is: a new sound format Moodelizer developed over the last eight years that allows users to “interact with music on various tech platforms.”
“You can touch the screen and sort of seamlessly move around within the song,” Rosenqvist said, adding that mobile phones are the company’s number one focus when it comes to the app.
For now, Moodelizer’s catalog offers hundreds of songs, as opposed to the millions of songs offered by conventional streaming services. But those pieces have been crafted specifically for Moodelizer to highlight the fun and novel interactivity of the format. “We have quite a large network of composers working for us, filling this catalog with reactive music,” Rosenqvist said, adding that he envisions a future where Moodelizer will have reactive versions of major label releases, too.
The music on Moodelizer spans different genres, with no particular focus on hip-hop. But Rosenqvist acknowledges that hip-hop pioneered the artforms of DJing, sampling and remixing that makes technology like this possible and appealing to consumers. “Hip-hop obviously is a good breeding ground for anything that allows people to take something that exists and make it better,” he said.
The return of Death Row
Where inventions like the Stem Player serve as a complete alternative to music streaming platforms, some artists are simply trying to create their own music streaming service in hopes of not only having better control over their music but how much they earn from it, too. In February, Snoop Dogg announced that he now owns Death Row Records — the legendary label that had propelled him to stardom in the ‘90s — and it felt like a happy ending to the tumultuous Death Row saga. But reactions were more mixed when Snoop pulled Death Row releases from DSPs like Spotify and Apple Music, announcing he’d be launching a streaming service of his own.
“I’m always gonna back an artist leading people to their own platform and getting their worth in value for the music,” Michael “Big Sto” Stover, a publicist, artist consultant and rapper, said of Snoop’s plan. “In Snoop’s case, I really do wanna see how that plays out, because upon first announcement, I thought it was a good thing…he has complete ownership of his music.”
But Stover is also wary of streaming music becoming an expensive, fractured marketplace like streaming TV is now, saying: “I think it’s gonna hurt if it ends up being every single label, every single brand.”
Snoop’s move does, however, feel like an inevitable pendulum swing away from everyone fighting for their small piece of the Spotify pie. “We’ve already seen what happens when everybody has access to the music: profits go down and artists feel slighted. Now we’re seeing the other end: what if I have complete ownership of what I have and can charge whatever I want? It has to fall in the middle somewhere,” Stover said. “I thought what Roc Marciano did with his last couple releases is kind of the perfect middle ground where you can have that exclusivity — ‘OK, if you really want it, you can buy it from me for 40-50 bucks. And then when the products sell out, then I’ll put it on streaming and everyone has access to it.’”
The constantly shifting digital landscape can even catch the shrewdest superstars off guard. Beyonce’s 2016 single “Formation” was available exclusively from Tidal for three months, but Billboard did not factor Tidal streams into its charts until 2017. “Formation” eventually peaked at #10 on the Hot 100 once it reached other platforms, but we’ll never know how well the culture-shifting hit could have done.
“‘Formation’ probably should have been a bigger hit,” Slate chart columnist Chris Molanphy said. “Drake would have had his first no. 1 with ‘Hotline Bling.’ It peaked at no. 2 because he made the video exclusive to Apple Music. Apple didn’t have the mechanism for reporting video views to Billboard, and Drake missed out on a #1 hit.”
A decade after the last major paradigm shift towards streaming, we could be on the cusp of new and better ways for artists to distribute their music. But whatever the next movement is, it will need hip-hop’s huge audience and the genre’s inherent sense of adventure and adaptability to get there.
Al Shipley is a Maryland-based writer, producer and musician. You can follow him at @alshipley.
Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer