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Music

Usher: Innovator Or Follower?

Usher has long been heralded as one of music’s most celebrated artists. Ranked as the 2nd most successful act of the last decade on the Billboard charts, he managed to give R&B music a voice amidst the expanding sea of Hip-Hop and Pop artists who began to dominate radio stations in recent years.

Nonetheless,  it seems that the tide of change has finally gotten too powerful for even Usher to resist as he prepares to reinvent his sound with the launch of a new genre he calls “Revolutionary Pop”. This decision has left many of his loyal fans baffled as they wonder if he is truly being innovative or simply joining the Pop music bandwagon in an effort to remain relevant.

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Music

Analysing Ashanti

The astronomical ascension and collapse of Ashanti’s career have bewildered industry pundits for quite some time. Within a period of just 6 years – from 2002 to 2008 – the former Princess of R&B has fallen from the triple platinum success of her self-titled debut to barely selling 200k copies of her last album, ‘The Declaration’.

Although there is no obvious reason for the decline of Ashanti’s popularity, many agree that it coincided with the explosive arrival of Beyonce the solo artist – who is simply a better singer, dancer and performer – and the crumbling of the Murder, Inc. empire.

However, regardless of all that has happened, there are many who cling to the hope that Ashanti will return to relevance. Still, the key question that arises from this situation is this: what type of sound will she need to accomplish such a career revival?

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Music

Calculating Christina Aguilera’s Comeback

2010 will be remembered as the year of incredible comebacks. From the once exiled Chris Brown to Monica – who many thought had retired – several artists managed to revive their careers and recapture their former positions at the top of the charts.

However, there is one artist who failed to regain her previous glory; an artist who encountered resounding rejection from consumers and critics of both music and film. Who is that artist? Christina Aguilera.

The former Pop princess has fallen to cataclysmic career lows and where she once seemed primed to claim a spot in history as one of music’s legendary divas, Aguilera is now being labelled as a has-been despite being only 30 years old.

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Music

Keri Hilson: Searching For Solo Success

Will Keri Hilson ever get a hit as a solo act? This is the question that many critics have been asking themselves since Hilson debuted her ‘In A Perfect World…’ LP in 2009. Although she has managed to land multiple singles in the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100, Hilson has yet to do so as without the assistance of other artists featured on her tracks.

From her own massive hit ‘Knock You Down  (Ft. Ne-Yo & Kanye West)’ and the club-banger ‘Turnin’ Me On (Ft. Lil Wayne)’ to her guest appearance on Timbaland’s ‘The Way I Are’, Hilson has made her mark on the charts time and again. As a songwriter, she has crafted moderately successful tracks for both Britney Spears (‘Break The Ice’) and for Timbaland (‘Scream’ – on which she was featured alongside Nicole Scherzinger). Yet, none of the songs that she has released on her own have managed to make a dent on the charts.

For instance, ‘Energy’ – the 1st single from Hilson’s debut album – failed to make it pass #78 on the Billboard 100 and only managed to scrape the #21 spot on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs tally. Her second individual release, ‘Slow Dance’, performed even more poorly by only peaking at #49 on the US R&B charts and completely missing the Hot 100 altogether. While Hilson did accomplish a hit in Europe with ‘I Like’, many argue that the song only achieved such status a result of it being associated with the hit German film ‘Zweiohrküken’.

So what is the possible cause of the seemingly impossible task of Hilson finding her way to the top 10 of the charts on by herself? Many speculate that she simply lacks the ‘it’ factor and raw energy (no pun intended) that her chart rivals Ciara and Beyonce possess. Certainly Hilson’s material has been sufficiently promoted by her label, and she has both the talent and the looks to be easily marketed to a wide audience. Whatever the reason, Hilson needs to deliver a successful solo effort on her next LP or else she will continue to be known as the Collaboration Queen by her doubters.

Do you think that Hilson will ever get a hit on her

own?

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Music

Is The US Music Market Divided By Colour Lines?

Ciara, Kelly Rowland and Justin Timberlake. These artists are among the very best of their generation; each dominating a completely different genre of music. However, they all have one thing in common: the inability to successfully branch out beyond the confines of their primary music markets and into different genres. It seems that unlike international territories, the US music industry remains segregated; governed by unspoken rules regarding race and ethnicity; refusing to allow artists to explore new sounds that do not match established audience perceptions of what they acts “should” be performing.

Indeed, the US music scene remains intent on suppressing the talents of artists; stuffing them into box marked by  various stereotypes. For instance, when Ciara first emerged on the charts in 20o4, she was hailed as one of the hottest newcomers in R&B, partially filling the void that was left by the late Aaliyah. From her Hip-Hop-inspired sound to her full-fledged Urban appeal, she easily dominated the R&B charts for most of that year. Yet, Ciara found herself on the receiving end of severe criticism when she indulged in Pop/Dance music on her ‘Fantasy Ride’ LP, with several US critics and DJ’s claiming that she had abandoned her Urban audience in an effort to to appeal to a more “white” following.

Kelly Rowland has encountered a similar backlash in recent years as well. Despite struggling to score a hit after her initial solo smash, ‘Dilemma‘, Rowland seems to have finally found her niche with her new Dance-oriented sound; amassing incredible success in the UK, Europe and Australia. Nevertheless, such triumphs were not reflected in the US, where her 2009 hit, ‘When Love Takes Over’, only peaked at #76 on the Billboard Hot 100. Like Ciara, many of individuals in the US refused to acknowledge her artistic growth and criticised Rowland for abandoning her Urban roots.

Nonetheless, these pressures are not only encountered on the charts. Justin Timberlake had several incredible accomplishments across all formats, especially with his TI-assisted hit, ‘My Love’. However, his music was blatantly ignored by his own peers at the Grammy Awards where they refused to nominate his straightforward Urban recordings in any of the R&B categories; an occurrence many attribute to the colour of his skin.

So, while many many aspects of life in the US are slowly being liberated, the music industry remains an area of tension and unfair categorisation. In light of new reports that even Jennifer Hudson is being forced by industry pundits to rework the Euro-dance sound of her upcoming album and stick to her R&B roots, it is clear that full artistic freedom continues to be subjected to underlying pressures involving race and ethnicity. However, with Rihanna and Beyonce managing to successfully branch out and evade such conflict, there may yet be hope for other acts as well.

Do you agree that the US music market is divided

by race and ethnicity?

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Music

The Music Industry’s Age Limit On Success

The music industry has many biases against women involving skin colour, body type and even the texture of their hair. However, the most prevalent of all these issues is the one that most people overlook: age. It seems that as soon as  a female artist nears the dreaded age of 40, the clock starts clicking against her, with each passing moment being nothing more than borrowed time. Indeed, while many may herald a woman’s 40th birthday as a milestone of achievement, the music industry considers it be an expiration date.

No matter how successful or famous the act, the age of 40 presents a hurdle that is near impossible to overcome. From Toni Braxton to Jennifer Lopez, female artists struggle to find their place on the charts amongst their younger counterparts, regardless of their talent or the strength of their material. For instance, Janet Jackson’s latest album, ‘Discipline’, boasted some of the best records she has released since 2001’s ‘All For You’, yet it has been unceremoniously overlooked by the masses. Yet, there is one thing that women can do remain relevant: change their target audiences.

Female artists receive tremendous pressure from their fans and critics alike to start “acting their age” once they enter their 40’s. Suddenly, the revealing clothing and playful lyrics that defined their music before their 40th birthday become taboo. These women are automatically expected to behave more ‘maturely’ and craft material to attract consumers within a similar age bracket on the Adult Contemporary formats. For instance, Mariah Carey,whose sex appeal is almost as famous has her vocal range, is being pressured to tone down her look and “grow up”. In fact, she was slammed by various critics for her #1 single ‘Touch My Body’ (which she made when she was 38) because of its “juvenile” lyrical content. It seems that women are expected to magically transform into political analysts as they grow older; placing their sex appeal and playfulness in a box, only to be used behind closed doors.

Interestingly, male artists do not face similar criticism for their musical efforts. Jay-Z and R. Kelly, for example, are both over the age of 40 yet neither have been told to adjust their lyrics. Quite notably, R. Kelly’s ‘Untitled’ album was littered with sexual content with hardly anything resembling the ‘mature’ sound of ‘I Believe I Can Fly’.

Thus, it seems that the music industry is just another construct of the male-dominated world in which we live, where women continue to be pressured to conform to certain standards that men manage to evade. Nonetheless, many may argue that women themselves are at fault for their own downfall. While it may be true that women have to work harder to achieve success in their 40’s, artists like Madonna and Sade Adu (who are both in their 50’s) continue to enjoy similar accomplishments to what they did in their youth. Maybe some female artists get too comfortable with their earlier achievements and their declining success is simply a signal from their longtime fans to step up their game.

Do you think that the music industry has an age limit

on success?

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Music

What Happened To Brandy’s Music Career?

Brandy’s music career has come to a halt. As one of the rising stars of the 1990’s, she seemed primed to be amongst the most successful artists of the 2000’s. Yet, since the release of her ‘Full Moon’ LP in 2002, her music career has been on a steady decline, with her impact on the charts diminishing with each subsequent release. The root cause of this decrease in sales, however, remains a mystery.

Despite achieving critical success with her ‘Afrodisiac‘ and ‘Human’ albums, both records represent the lowest sales in Brandy’s entire career. Indeed, the latter of the two projects sold little over 200k units since it’s release on December 5th, 2008 although she made several major promotional appearances. It seems that regardless of how good her material may be or how hard she tries to promote it, the general public hasn’t paid attention.

There is no denying that Brandy will always have a presence on television, thanks to the massive success of her syndicated show ‘Moesha’ and her upcoming reality show, but her notable absence on radio continues to baffle both her fans and critics alike. Her brother Ray J offered his perspective on the issue, asserting that a lot of her problems result from her label conflicts. Nevertheless, many contend that EPIC Records gave her substantial support during her ‘Human’ campaign.

So what is real reason for the decline of Brandy’s chart success? Is it really her label situation? Or is it something else? Her material could certainly find a place on contemporary radio as ‘Human’ had all the elements of a mainstream hit. It’s anyone’s guess why people just aren’t interested.

What do you think is the problem with Brandy’s

music career?

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Music

The Evolution Of Mimi

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Mariah Carey is a diva. Soaring to the top of the charts with her incredible 5 octave vocal range, her  rapid ascension to the pinnacle of Pop music remains a feat unmatched by any other solo act in history. From her 18 #1 hits to her outstanding record sales, she truly is a phenomenon. Yet, in recent years, it seems that Carey’s impact has begun to wane.

With the exception of her now 6x platinum ‘The Emancipation of Mimi’, Carey has been unable to produce a record in the last 10 years that captured renowned public appeal. In fact, she only accomplished 4 chart-toppers since the year 2000, a dramatic decline from the 14 she had in the 1990’s. Indeed, the demand for Carey’s material has now reached an all-time low as her latest LP, ‘Memoirs of An Imperfect Angel’, took an embarrassing 4 months to  achieve a gold certification; a noticeable decline for an artist whose previous 11 studio releases all went platinum or higher.

The real question is: what can Carey do to rejuvenate her career? While ‘Memoirs’ received the best reviews of any album she released since ‘Butterfly’, it is blatantly apparent that Carey is remaining in her comfort zone of mid-tempo R&B and finger-snapping radio material. Most of her records capitilise on the same formula she used to re-establish her career in 2005. However, this is 2010.

Unlike her peers such as Madonna, Beyonce or even Christina Aguilera, Carey seems reluctant to experiment with her image and material in the same way that she does with her voice. She remains steadfast in her effort to hold on to her youth by crafting Sesame Street-quality material such as ‘Touch My Body’ and ‘Up Out My Face’. Even her ballads have begun to sound the same; almost all emulating the piano-driven productions of her monster hit ‘We Belong Together’.

If Carey does not reinvent herself soon, she runs the risk of slipping into irrelevancy like many of her counterparts including Celine Dion and Jennifer Lopez before her. She certainly has both the skill and the talent to reposition herself at the helm of the  game. Nevertheless, Carey needs to think ‘outside the box’ or her career may end up in one.

What direction should Carey take to revamp her

career?

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Has The Industry Been Fair To Ciara?

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Since her debut on the Billboard charts in 2004, Ciara has demonstrated tremendous growth as an artist. As one of the leading forces in dance, she has transcended beyond the butt-popping gyrations of her early career to become one of the most technically skilled performers in music today. In fact, Ciara’s precision is so acute that many consider her to be as good as or even better than modern day Janet Jackson.

Nevertheless, despite this improvement in her music and choreography, Ciara has yet to match the success of her first album, ‘Goodies’, which has sold over 3 million copies in the US alone. Indeed, her latest album, ‘Fantasy Ride’, while generating a top 10 hit with ‘Love Sex Magic (Ft. Justin Timberlake)’, has only managed to sell just over 300k units. This begs the question: has the industry been fair to Ciara?

It is no secret that Ciara’s voice is quite limited in many ways. However, she compensates for this lack vocal prowess  by outperforming almost all of her contemporaries on the dance floor. Throughout 2009, she delivered high energy performances and displayed outstanding skill that easily placed her in a completely different league from her peers, including Britney Spears and Usher. Yet Ciara has not received the level of recognition that her talents deserve, regardless of the fact that her routines were definitely more difficult than that of ‘Single Ladies’.

On the musical front, Ciara has been out-paced by artists such as Rihanna, who are known more for their beauty and fashion sense than actual talent. Interestingly, there is no doubt that Ciara is just as appealing as Rihanna in every sense of the word but many argue that because of the latter’s unwavering label support and funding, Ciara has not managed to access as wide a market. It seems that Ciara’s success has been unjustifiably limited.

Thus, it can be said that Ciara has not achieved a level of success that matches her abilities. While artists like Rihanna and Ke$ha continue to dominate the Pop charts, she finds herself struggling to make an impact. Nonetheless, judging by her discipline and drive to succeed, the old saying seems to be true: ‘you just can’t keep a good woman down’.

Do you think that the industry has been fair to

Ciara?

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Music

Beyonce; Hits Vs Classics

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She is a singer, dancer, songwriter and all-round entertainer. Without a doubt, Beyonce is one of the most dominant forces in popular music today. Ranked as Billboard’s Female Artist of the Decade, she has accumulated more #1 songs and top 10 singles in the US than any other female act during the last 10 years, creating nothing short of an empire. However, her extensive string of timely hits  prove to be her greatest strength as well as her most prominent downfall.

With each new album, Beyonce has become progressively more mainstream; slowly replacing the classic R&B sound of her solo debut, ‘Dangerously In Love’, with catchy, club-ready tracks. Despite her immense growth as both a vocalist and performer, many argue that her music has become increasingly diluted to appeal to a more mainstream audience. In fact, some critics wonder if her most recent material such as ‘Ego’ and ‘Diva‘ would stand the test of time or be quickly forgotten like some of her past hits including ‘Check On It’.

Indeed, unlike artists such as Alicia Keys who have consistently provided timeless songs, the majority of Beyonce’s material is carded as ‘flavour of the moment’. For instance, while ‘Beautiful Liar (Ft. Shakira)’ was a major success, the question can be asked: how many casual listeners beyond her fanbase will remember that song in 10 years? On the other hand, Keys’ ‘Fallin’, ‘No One’ and ‘You Don’t Know My Name’ basically have a cult following of their own.

Hence, whilst Beyonce is certainly one of the most talented and versatile artists of her generation, many wonder if her music can be considered classic material or just radio hits. The challenge is now being put forward  for people to list her timeless pieces as a solo artist. With the exception of ‘Crazy In Love’, ‘Irreplaceable’ and ‘Single Ladies’, I myself find that task quite difficult indeed.

Do you think that Beyonce creates classic songs or

‘flavour of the moment’ hits?

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Music Videos – Art Vs Recession Specials

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‘Thriller’, ‘Bad Romance’, ‘Get Your Freak On’ – each song provided one of the biggest hits in the careers of  their associated acts. What were the defining factors that helped to catapult these singles to the top of the charts? The answer is simple: music videos.

Videos grant artists a unique opportunity to project their music into the visual arena, targeting larger audiences in the process. With grand cinematic designs and artwork, such clips have allowed some of music’s heavyweights to engage consumers through an entirely new channel and bring their music to life. In fact, acts including Madonna, Janet Jackson and, of course, Michael Jackson (MTV’s King of the Music Video), were sometimes able to ascend to the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 fueled by the hype generated by their music videos alone.

However, in recent years, the epic design of such productions have begun to wane as a ramification of financial constraints. This has given rise to low budget releases called ‘recession specials’, characterised by poor editing, cheap graphics and cliche concepts. Even some of music’s biggest names have resorted to producing  such clips of the most amateur design. Mariah Carey, for instance, released two of the worst videos of her career last year with ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’ and ‘H.A.T.E.U.’.

Interestingly, artists generally fund their own videos with little label assistance, hence it is quite baffling why acts who clearly have the financial resources to afford better productions, put forward a continuous string of recession specials. In contrast, Lady GaGa, who debuted in 2008, has thus far created some of the best productions of the last ten years, spending large amounts of money to ensure that each venture is of the highest quality she can afford.

Coincidentally, big budgets are not needed to create grand productions. Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ was shot in front of a plain screen, focused almost solely on the dance routine without any other elements, yet became one of the “best videos of all time” according to Kanye West. The same can be noted with Ciara whose ‘Love Sex Magic’ video was one of 2009’s best. Conversely, Beyonce’s ability to manipulate a small budget did not channel into her other clips, which were all prime examples of the recession special.

In closing, it is becoming increasingly evident that few artists are willing to go the extra mile to create cinematic productions on the silver screen. As the economy continues to struggle and budgets continue to shrink, the recession special has taken centre stage. It seems that Michael Jackson’s vision of the “short film” is hanging on by a thread.

Is it safe to say that the era of the music video is

coming to an end?

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Music

Lady GaGa Revives The Music Industry

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She is everywhere you turn – on every television channel, radio frequency and on the cover of every magazine. Lady GaGa is the definition of a Pop star. Musically diverse and vocally gifted, she has established herself as one of the driving forces in entertainment, breaking every record in her path to the top of the charts. Indeed, over the last 18 months, GaGa taken the world by storm, breathing new life into the struggling music industry.

Similar to a young Madonna, GaGa has used innovative music videos to her stunning stage shows to separate herself from her contemporaries, capturing public interest in a way that no other act has managed in years. Her first 5 singles released on US radio managed to reach the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, all of which have gone platinum. Furthermore, she is also the first act since Christina Aguilera to have her first 2 songs hit #1 on that chart.

One has to look no further than the Billboard 200 this week to observe her impact. Both of her studio albums currently occupy the top 10 of that chart. In fact, her debut album, ‘The Fame’, was released since August 2008 and sits comfortably in the top 5, selling over 8 million copies worldwide to date. With sales figures and quotations like these, it is no wonder that many critics boast that GaGa has helped to revive consumers’ interest in purchasing records.

However, is her rampant success a result of properly executed marketing strategies and tacky gimmicks? Yes and no. There is no doubt that her shocking costumes and statements have played a key role in her appeal. I myself once thought of her as nothing more than passing fad. Nevertheless, unlike her far less talented contemporaries including Rihanna and Cassie, GaGa is musical prodigy. She is a woman fully involved in the development of her craft and in  complete command of her career. GaGa is not a puppet on a string.

It will be interesting to see what GaGa does next. As as artist who clearly dedicates 100% of herself to her music, I sense that GaGa is once again prepared to dominate the charts in 2010. Whether or not she will survive the changing tides of Pop music remains to be seen. However, even if she retires today, GaGa has left her mark on game, rejuvenating an industry that was desperate for new life.

Do you agree that Lady GaGa has helped to revive the

music industry?

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