Leeds Festival 2013 – Hip-hop and Dance Take Over!

Vast quagmires gorging on beloved trainers, a tsunami’s worth of rain, and the immortal cries of “Alan!” and “Buttscratcher!” – 2013 saw Leeds Festival celebrate its fifteenth anniversary in style.  While many of the weekend’s scenes were familiar to anyone who’d spent an August Bank Holiday at Bramham Park, beneath the familiar layer of sludge something had changed.

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With two new stages dedicated to dance and urban music and a hip-hop superstar headlining was the heyday of NME-indie drawing to a close, just like Kerrang-rock before it? Or, less dramatically, was this just a reflection of the new alternative scene – a festival that was branching out, abandoning the old punk-versus-disco tribal traditions and embracing artists of a high quality regardless of genre, as so many fans have already done?

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Leeds’ stylistic shift was most evidenced by the Friday night Disclosure/Nine Inch Nails clash. Though many (including Reznor) had questioned the justification of Biffy Clyro leapfrogging them to headline, Nails’ industrial rock crashed out to an astonishingly small crowd. It seemed that cult status or not, most punters wanted to cram in and watch Disclosure rattle through most of Settle.  With Ed McFarlane, Aluna “-George” Francis and Sam Smith as guests, the brothers whipped the packed tent into an utter frenzy – and the success of their dynamic house was the start of a much-repeated trend. Australians Parachute Youth delivered an excellent electro-house set early on Saturday, Charli XCX brought the house down with ‘I Love It’, and Friction’s drop-heavy DnB set delighted gurning people in all kinds of silly hats.

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Come Saturday, it was the turn of the big hitters. Rather depressingly Chase and Status’ DnB-lite drew a truly colossal crowd, as did Skrillex’s spaceship show and aggressive brostep. Major Lazer pulled out all the stops (Diplo’s zorb, an audience member tied up on-stage and aggressively twerked over by scantily clad Lazer ladies) to successfully create a dancehall rave within a “rock” festival – though Jillionaire’s shout outs to all the Jamaicans, all Dominicans, then rather desperately, to all the West Indians in the house fell tellingly flat. Diplo’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ remix may have caused chaos down the front, but you had to wonder what the veterans of ’92 would have made of it all.

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Hip-Hop

Facing a crowd that each year sports exponentially more snapbacks and a mainstream comeback not seen since the early noughties boom, it’s not surprising that this year’s Reading and Leeds had the best hip-hop line up in ages. One of the biggest breakout stars of 2013, Chance the Rapper’s short set to a small but dedicated crowd was the crowning glory of Leeds’ hip-hop. Chance looked slightly taken aback by his reception, but increasingly delighted by the rapturous reception. Radiating charisma, he raced through Acid Rap hits, bringing call and response support on ‘Juice’ and building up a crowd that finished eating out of his hand. A nod to fellow Chicagoan Kanye with ‘All Falls Down’ and too quickly it was over; the crowd left in no doubt that Chance will soon be a household name.

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Angel Haze stuck to rocknroll clichés, turning up late and encouraging a closing stage invasion – but sneaking in a funky Missy Elliott cover and finishing with a thundering ‘New York’. More flamboyant visually, Azelia Banks still played it slightly safe – sticking to her singles rather than airing Broke With Expensive Taste – though ‘212’ proved an earworm, echoing around the campsites for the rest of the weekend. On the 1Xtra stage, Austrian Left Boy performed the weekend’s most complexly choreographed set, but booing of his version of ‘Call Me Maybe’ proved that a certain level of anti-mainstream sentiment lingers at Leeds.

Ferocious, shuddering sub-bass heralded the start of Earlwolf’s set, something of a homecoming after Odd Future’s manic reception in 2012. With tracks from Doris and Wolf, Earl and Tyler stayed away from the singles, leaving a persevering crowd a little disappointed, though the puerile crowd interaction was well-received. Cutting their afternoon set 45 minutes short, it seemed as a joke at the crowd’s expense –Tyler in particular playing on their discomfort,  yelling “Give it up for black people!”. Later, opening to broad-accented chants of “ayy-sap”, A$AP Rocky’s set was an altogether easier affair, propelled to instant madness by a breakneck ‘Long Live A$AP’. Given extra bulk onstage thanks to support from the A$AP crew, Rocky evidently enjoyed himself, flashing golden grills as he grinned throughout and enthusing as the crowd sparked up en masse for ‘Purple Swag’, screaming every word back to him.

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All of which left us with a 40-year-old white guy closing out the festival. Eminem last headlined in 2001, but aside from the sheer quantity of hits and variety of his back catalogue, there were no sign of fatigue; he remained as razor-sharp and energetic as he was over a decade ago. With material from his first (and best) three albums interspersed by more recent singles (‘Airplanes’, ‘Love The Way You Lie’), it was a set that constantly astonished, with a mesmerised crowd mimicking every rhyme –continually surprised as hit followed colossal hit; the man has simply too many to hold in mind. The best-selling artist of the 2000s had come out to play. Unintroduced and initially unnoticed by many, Dido’s appearance for ‘Stan’ seemed to make Eminem more comfortable than many recorded parts – but nothing could distract from the man of the hour. It came to a euphoric close – asking “Can I take you back to back to a time when I used to get fucked up?”, he brought out ‘My Name Is’, ‘The Real Slim Shady’ and ‘Without Me’ – before ending on ‘Lose Yourself’. From laugh-out-loud to tear-jerker to vitriolic aggression, via tunes and rhymes that are seared into the consciousness of a generation – for the umpteenth time, he’s back.

 

So, Leeds was certainly sold on Marshall Mathers’ hip-hop. But will the trend continue beyond 2013? Of course, Reading and Leeds have always had a strong mainstream element with a big proportion of the crowds going more to get wrecked celebrating their GCSE and A-Level results than out of any affinity to a specific scene. There’s no real evidence that this year’s swing in style and sound will have any more staying power than when everyone was into nu-rave and Klaxons headlined – but that the line-up was so dominated by two entirely non-rock genres surely says something. Biffy Clyro, System of a Down, Green Day  – the big rock bands put on great shows, to great reception.

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 In a weird crossover, almost everyone who was into the dance and hip-hop acts went to see skate punk bands – with no discernible link beyond an affinity for snapback hats? FIDLAR, Skaters and Wavves all pulled in devoted crowds with fierce circle pits demonstrating the old popularity of energetic fury hasn’t disappeared with the riots. But with dubstep, house, and hip-hop creeping up the bill, one wonders if Reading and Leeds aren’t leaning towards becoming “young” festivals, offering a range of music and an anarchic intensity, rather than the cream of the rock acts. There’s still that preference for ferocity, regardless of genre.

The Death of Traditional Album Releases

In the wake of a slew of articles proclaiming the death of pretty much everything (guitar music, journalism, dubstep…), I’m jumping on the bandwagon, and proclaiming that traditional single and album releases are dead. Press release writers and spin doctors, better watch your backs, the end is nigh.

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In the last month alone, there have been four huge album announcements –David BowieMy Bloody Valentine, Justin Timberlake, and The Strokes– all of which deviated from the traditional early-review-release, teaser-trailer, single, single, album template which has dominated the industry for decades. Even less well-established artists are dropping the traditional pomp and ceremony, with the internet enabling many to cut out the middle-man.

The big four were all major announcements, essentially come-back records for highly-established artists with a level of anticipation that would have been strong irrespective of  publicising tactics. Bowie and MBV in particular were all but guaranteed solid initial sales and a buzz of excitement around such long awaited releases. While Timberlake and The Strokes haven’t been away for quite so long, both have retained a colossal following and have iconic releases under their belts.

If it’s not likely to bring any substantial boost to their guaranteed sales, pre-release marketing is no longer worth the risk of exposing the record to leaks and downloads (which clearly would sap initial sales). If a record comes out unannounced  – as with MBV – are the masses more likely to buy it in the shocked heat of the moment, rather than anticipating the release and deciding to download it for free?

Aside from sales figures, the lack of warning from these artists also frees them from the weight of built-up expectations. Kevin Shields’ follow-up to the adored Loveless, was a risky release, and for The Strokes, every record since 2001 has been received with despondency. Removing conjecture-time also removes the threat of over-hype too but at what cost? The  weeks of anticipation, teaser releases and obsession that traditionally herald a key release have been an important part of the relationship between fans and artists for decades.

The trend isn’t limited to recognized artists either. As ever, the internet continues to change everything. A&Rs place increasing importance on an artist’s number of Facebook likes, and we’ve known since Arctic Monkeysthat building a strong online following can break a new band. A$AP Rocky is the most recent example of this, clinching a lucrative record deal on the basis of a Tumblr-centred following.

Amongst the ocean of uploads, finding the good amongst the dire is harder than used to be, particularly using hyperbolic press releases as a filter, but it’s certainly a more-level playing field for those reaching for mainstream success. More and more artists are releasing free mixtapes alongside their official album releases, with The Weeknd being one of the few to effectively use the entire concept as a pitch for a record deal then re purpose them  a year later as his ‘debut’.

The inherent risk of Tumblr is a certain shallowness. Drawing on images far more than audio, listeners are finding their introduction to a new band shaped by sepia-tinged pictures and brashly-animated GIFs rather than actually hearing tracks. It’s an extension of the “buying a Ramones shirt from Topshop, never heard any of their music” phenomenon that plagued the late noughties. Filter-altered shots of Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky dominated blogs much more than any of their songs; yet another odd dilution of pop culture.

Weighing up the lack of building excitement for a new release against the removal of any over-hype based disappointment, the new ways of breaking into the industry against the inevitable ensuing reduction, there are pros and cons to the demise of traditional campaigns. Either way, it’s unlikely to revert any time soon, as the ruthless revolutionary force of the internet marches on.

Ultimately, putting your music out there unannounced makes success much dependent on the actual merits of the release.  And these surprise album drops give us all an excuse to refresh Twitter even more frequently, just in case there’s a new Outkast record out of the blue.

(Originally published at http://lineofbestfit.com)

Album Review: A$AP Rocky – Live.Love.A$AP

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With all the glorious judgement and perspective that comes with being one whole month into 2013, the way things stand at the moment it looks like the most revered, the most defining, and the list-topping releases of 2012 were mostly hip-hop records. Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean smashed it, dominating end of year lists and radio waves alike, whilst Schoolboy Q, Killer Mike, Roc Marciano, and tons of others put out interesting, challenging and successful albums.

And on their heels, come to dominate the decade’s teenage years with his first full release, is one A$AP Rocky. After a huge amount of hype and much spin-doctoring, Rocky had signed (a reportedly $3 million contract) with Sony, been hailed around the internet as the biggest contender for OFWGKTA’s swag-hop crown, and finally, in 2011, put out the Live.Love.A$AP mixtape. Though the hype has subdued and there have been some major careers launched in the interim, there was still pressure on Rocky to deliver with his first album proper.

Unlike Kendrick or Frank’s confessionals, or even Tyler’s pseudo-anarchic rhymes, Rocky mostly stands by straight-up, classic gangster rap content. The first three tracks stick well within familiar tropes, backed up by the familiar Clams Casino-style slick sub-bass beats and clattering spills. ‘Long Live A$AP’ is a standard rags-to-riches tale, pieced round a gliding, dreamy chorus; “Who said you can’t live forever lied”.  Next, lead single ‘Goldie’ is jammed with A$AP trademarks, and manages to be catchy without drops or gimmicks, relying instead on relentless flow. ‘PMW’ rounds it off, a case in point; “Pussy money weed, that’s all a nigger need”.

Lyrically, Long.Live.A$AP can feel somewhat shallow, with particularly ‘Fashion Killa’ (lyrics composed almost entirely of brand names) letting the side down. Just as his first mixtape dwelled almost exclusively on smoking weed, here Rocky is inclined to talk cash and hoes to the detriment of everything else. There are some flashes of potential for more though, most prominently on ‘Suddenly’, where finally there’s some humour (“Roaches on the walls, roaches on the dresser, everybody got roaches but our roaches don’t respect us”) as well as story-telling, with Rocky’s finest lines on the album; “cookouts and dirt bikes and dice games and fist fights/And fish fries and shootouts like one SIG with two rounds/And click left two down, that’s four kids but one lived/That one miss, that one snitch”.

Though evidently collaborations are in part what brings Rocky his unmistakable sound, with giants like Clams Casino, Dangermouse and Hit-Boy (amongst others) producing, his decision to incorporate a hip-hop who’s who onto his debut album has perhaps backfired. With guest spots from – (deep breath) Schoolboy Q, OverDoz, Kendrick Lamar, 2Chainz, Drake, Big K.R.I.T., Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, Joey Bada$$, Gunplay and A$APFerg –Rocky risks his own identity being lost on his own debut, and at times it is certainly unclear who the dominate voice is supposed to be. And while at times the guest rappers add to the atmosphere, especially on 6 minute self-aggrandizing competition ‘1 Train’, the additions of Santigold and, mysteriously, Florence Welch are conspicuously out of place. Although, now that Tyler the Creator is supposedly singing on Miley Cyrus’ new album  it looks quite a mundane choice. Worst of all is ‘Wild For The Night’, featuring Skrillex, with awful happy-hardcore chimes and airhorns.

It’s a confident, beautifully-produced record, which builds well on everything that made Live.Love.A$AP a success; but there is perhaps too little progress. Whilst there’s no doubting the hooks and the flow, lyrically it’s uninventive and repetitive in places, and there’s no doubting Rocky’s got more to give. Perhaps if it had come out this time last year we would have received it rapturously, but in the wake of 2012’s big hitters, it looks slightly pedestrian. Though he stands level with them as they guest on his songs, Rocky’s in danger of playing it too safe and being left behind by his cohort. Stay clear of the ridiculous collaborations though, and it’s an enjoyable, easy listen.