There has been loads of new music hitting the collective shelves and streaming services lately. From the socially critical Father John Misty and his newest release, the string quartet Halvcirkel’s new release with renditions of pieces by composers like Philip Glass (a personal favorite of mine), and of course Kendrick Lamar. How could I not mention his new powerhouse of a release that the internet is shitting its britches over? I would be doing my first attempt at a music related article a disservice. But this isn’t a review, I’m not here to allocate number or letter grades. I’m here to touch on a line in a recent Pitchfork review on Lamar’s newest album that I found interesting. A line that I thought could have been expanded a touch more from a site whose sole purpose is to dole out number grades based on variables that I cant even begin to understand.
“Throughout it all, he’s avoided the boxed-in fates of predecessors…”
I think that quote in itself could be the basis of an entire article alone. Without any context, that initial snippet can be blanketed over a wide variety of things. Music, cooking, the art of feng shui, t-shirt folding, and any other ridiculous thing you could think of. It just works. For my purposes today, I will be talking about music, as much as I know you lovely readers would rather me write about t-shirt folding etiquette — the sleeves go behind, then fold in half twice, shoulder to waist then once more. You’re welcome.
There are many musicians out there who have their niche group, and have effectively boxed themselves in, but it has worked out incredibly well for them. This may be a terribly unpopular opinion but, for example, Phish boxed themselves in and taped that shit up with industrial shipping tape. However, it worked! That jam-band genre, and Phish more specifically, has a tremendously large following and they capitalized. Personally, I find the music wanting and bit repetitive, but their talent is unquestionable. I’m assuming our follower count dropped after “wanting,” and went back to normal after I said their “talent is unquestionable.” So welcome back. They realized that what they were doing – and how they were playing – they did it well. That’s a successful box story.
But finding artists who refuse to be boxed-in is a total treat. Too few these days are daring enough to look at their fans and say “I know you really like my stuff now, but I want to go different directions,” subjecting their YouTube comment sections to comments of disgust, some racism (because it’s YouTube obviously) and the obligatory “come to Brazil” in the process.
Now I’m going to get this example out of the way quickly, but I follow DJ Khaled on Instagram, and you should too. It’s a masterpiece of marketing and is just hysterical. Recently Justin Bieber was on there, you know, the Canadian YouTube star turned international icon/douche canoe. Well, he was in a box for years, appealing to screaming teens and the occasional soccer mom. It seems that a while back he remembered that he had a box cutter in those tight jeans and cut himself out. He’s remained true to his original melodic vocal style, but he now has a wide range of genres which gets me to the DJ Khaled Instagram part. He’s featured in a song that was partly premiered on Khaled’s instagram, a #1 song at that, where he is more or less sing-rapping with people like Chance the Rapper and Lil Wayne, all in which DJ Khaled produced. He bends now, he is all over the place. Does that make him a good artist? In my book, no. He’s still a douche canoe, but his interests and drive to pursue other genres might objectively make him one. God that hurt to type.
More recently, I’ve been listening to a band named Ceremony. They have been recognized as a hardcore band, a genre in which I’m fond of but I also recognize how easily it is to become cornered as an artist. Ceremony has become a shining exception. Giving up the quintessential tough-guy and chunky guitar façade recently for a more post-punk style akin to Joy Division. It was a huge genre change, and a bit of a shock to a good amount of their fans, but they pulled it off. If that isn’t a perfect example of dodging a boxed-in fate, then I don’t know what is. Again, does that make them good artists? The ability to change with evolving interests or maybe even boredom? Objectively, yes. Subjectively, absolutely.
Now, this isn’t a phenomenon that’s exclusive to music. For example, I see it happen in the craft beer industry as well. Many breweries make their mark in one specific style, and stay in that box effectively sealing their fate to either fade away into the haze of the mundane, or to get acquired by a massive conglomerate like AB-InBev. Others make their mark, gain notoriety and continue to explode outward into different markets because of their ambitious ideas and total disinterest in becoming static.
I’m a fan of seeing this happen, the genre changes. Regardless of the artist, or the medium. If an artist can pull something like this off, they have my attention. I think it shows a bit of maturity, and more importantly it shows skill and consciousness. While fans may not like certain genre changes, it’s likely that they will continue check-in for future releases. I know I have.
With the exception of musically switching from one genre to EDM.