Anderson .Paak and Drake take residency in Dublin this week.
It’s been 30 years since the Grammys/Recording Academy created its first rap category – its confused attitude towards hip-hop, illustrated as far back as 1989, when Best Rap Performance wasn’t televised, indicating a lack of understanding or respect for the form. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis winning Best Rap Album for The Heist in 2014, over Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. also comes to mind. The idea of a cohesive value system for award-giving is inherently problematic, but the Grammys have consistent form when it comes to hip-hop.
This attitude has pervaded for years, with various artists boycotting the awards, and a new generation of rappers placing no value in performing or attending the show. There is a sea-change happening in the industry, and hip-hop which, at its root, came up with a DIY sensibility. So it seems timely that many artists are channelling the attitude of ‘for us, by us, about us, and near us’ posited by the great W. E. B. DuBois.
Watch: Drake - In My Feelings
This year, Drake won a Grammy for Best Rap Song for God’s Plan. In his speech, (which saw him prematurely cut off) he said, "We play an opinion-based sport, not a factual-based sport," expanding – "this is a business where sometimes it’s up to a bunch of people that might not understand what a mixed-race kid from Canada has to say, or a fly Spanish girl from New York" (referencing Cardi B). He had already declined to perform, adding his powerful name to a hefty list. Interestingly, he has previously referenced the awards in his song Grammys from his 2016 record Views, where he acknowledges that he doesn’t need the outdated awards system, "OVO we a gold mine/ But I'm going gold no time/ Doing plat, plat only/ Boys better back off me/ Hall of fame, hall of fame" putting faith instead, in his own star and selling power, which cannot be disputed. While this sense of swagger might seem crude – beneath those words is something far more interesting, about wrestling back control from the hands of an industry that has historically ill-used artists; in his speech, Drake conflates music with sport – another field with a tense history towards its participants, particularly those of colour. Recently, De La Soul have gone on record to talk about their difficult relationship with Tommy Boy who own their records, and their distress at having to negotiate better terms for potential streaming possibilities, with a label that has no real interest in protecting its artists.
Watch: Anderson .Paak's Tiny Desk Concert
.Paak has also been exploring this tense dynamic. In 2013 he released an EP inspired by "race records," a term popularized in the 1920s, referring to the exploitation of black blues artists by white musicians and label heads. On Cover Art, .Paak takes classic rock records from the 1960s and 1970s, along with more recent work, and infuses it with a subtlety that reveals his seriousness of intent.
This year he also won a Grammy - Best Rap Performance for Bubblin, but while the Grammys might still carry some currency in the music industry, there is an increasing sense that it is no longer a relevant measure of success for black artists. Drake adding his voice to that dissent, is particularly potent – considering his power, and there are threads with he and .Paak, in that they have emerged in a period where the music industry is redefining itself, which poses issues, but equally, opportunities.
Watch: Anderson .Paak - Bubblin
Both Drake and .Paak have previously spoken about their difficult experiences growing up mixed-race, which perhaps lends an interesting anxiety to their work, they are both genre-bending, and both consistently surprise. Drake is the more well-known of the two, but an interesting connection is that in 2016, at SXSW, they both provided two career highlights, with Drake showcasing his labelmates – in turn showcasing his eclectic tastes and influences (interestingly, both he and .Paak have also sampled Hiatus Kaiyote). And .Paak provided a break-out performance - he is another magpie, veering from slick R&B to more radical, socially-conscious rapping, and, like Drake, straddles many facets of hip-hop, often employing a kind of hyper-reality, with some rich musical touchstones; funk, jazz, neo-soul, and more.
Watch: Drake - Hotline Bling
They emerged around the same time, and both had mentors early on - Lil Wayne for Drake, and Dr Dre for .Paak, both have had relationships with major labels, as well as independents, and both are constantly looking for ways to reinvent the wheel, and create better deals. This trickles down to their creative practice – and their openness to collaboration, not just with other artists, but ideas, and forms. .Paak can move easily between working with Madlib and Dr Dre, just as Drake moves between working with Majid Jordan and Rihanna – and it makes sense. .Paak often performs live with The Free Nationals, a collective of multi-talented musicians, and Drake folds in similarly talented artists to his live shows – reaching back to an idea that this work stands on many shoulders. In the last decade, creative pinnacles are probably 2011’s Take Care for Drake, and 2016’s Malibu for .Paak, which both share a similar idea – that no matter what you have endured, you can transcend. And perhaps they seem like the purest statements from them so far – there is always something interesting in their work, but those records seem like their touchstones, their clarity.
Both Drake and .Paak have previously spoken about their difficult experiences growing up mixed-race, which perhaps lends an interesting anxiety to their work, they are both genre-bending, and both consistently surprise.
There is also an element of the polymath between the two, an obsessiveness, and ambition. .Paak has talked about ambition as "missing" from today’s music – this amibition is key to not only their progression, but their desire to leave a legacy, an influence on hip-hop, and other forms. In a way, both of their sounds are equally impossible to define, because there isn’t one sound to define – they are adaptable, using hip-hop as the flexible form it truly is, and live, they make this count – creating an immersive experience; entertaining, and compelling, as well as edifying, at times. And because they have benefited from patronage, they are paying that forward, and in doing so, they are working towards embodying DuBois’s hope of "for us, by us, near us, about us". It’s going to be interesting to see where they are going to go next – a collaborative record?
Anderson .Paak and The Free Nationals play The Olympia, Dublin, on March 19th and 20th, while Drake plays the 3Arena, Dublin on March 19th, 21st and 22nd.