Kindle 33 1/3
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Do Modern Lyricists Possess a Poetic, Literary Edge?
A few sites are spending this weekend…
looking at lyricists from all sides of the track. I have been checking out Pitchfork and a feature they ran regarding Hip-Hop scribblers from the past. The piece charts the development of Hip-Hop from the early-1990s through to the present time. It included Lauryn Hill and Tupac, through to De La Soul. Another feature, on BBC, looks at underrated lyricists and those who do not get the credit they deserve. I guess, if we all had to name the best lyricists of all time; we look at obvious names: Bob Dylan, Lennon and McCartney; Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. They are great writers but, when I think of them; they are populist and well-known. I have huge admiration for all the writers but, when I think of music that goes beyond the established and celebrated – who are those pioneers that have helped shift music forward and added their own spin? Pitchfork looked at artists like De La Soul and the watch they mirrored the (New York) streets in the 1980s – and before then. The band amazed critics with the album, 3 Feet High and Rising. That 1989 breakthrough was released around the time Beastie Boys changed Rap/Hip-Hop with Paul’s Boutique. Both records created unique environments and took storytelling in new directions. Humour, confidence and depth were brought into genres that were relatively fresh and unexpanded.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
De La Soul mixed humour and skits alongside flower-power Hip-Hop motions; vivid and colourful compositions with some of the finest production notes of the decade. Beastie Boys displayed their sizzling, street-poetic lyrics to the fore: an explosion of full-on, hardcore rhymes and dazzling skills. Look at the Pitchfork article - and they give you a better guide and look into the Hip-Hop scene. Break away from what was happening in the U.S. and here, in the U.K., we were spawning incredible writers breaking the mould and adding something fresh to music. I have admiration for heavyweight writers like John Lennon and Paul McCartney: to me, northern penmanship from Mark E. Smith and Paul Heaton stood out more. Smith’s writing for The Fall brought a slice of real life and the peculiar into a (comparatively) samey scene. The recently-departed icon consistently ripped up the rule-book and brought a stunning, spiked voice to the world. The way Smith played with phrases and elevated the average really was not the expected normal. No other writer has managed to match the scope and intelligence of The Fall’s leader. Paul Heaton, of The Beautiful South, had his own approach: another intellectual and humourous writer who strayed from mainstream tropes and delivery biting, sardonic quips and standout couplets. One listens to songs like Song for Whoever and A Little Time and you can hear a man, not only write about real life and things other writers were avoiding – he wrote great lines for women and, in A Little Time, broke from the conventional and created a brilliant two-hander.
Fall songs like Totally Wired and Mr. Pharmacist still sound bizarre and from another planet – over thirty years after their release. I can rattle off other artists but, looking back, I notice a definite shift and transformation. Those great, poetic Hip-Hop writers have gone: in their place are more commercial and ‘safe’ writers. Eminem is, perhaps, the last great Hip-Hop writer who took risks and blew minds. Modern artists like Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z, alongside newcomers SZA and Princess Nokia, are the last of a dying breed. There has always been a culture of bragging and excess in Rap and Hip-Hop: there is still a lot of it happening but very few artists who take their minds away and pen decades-lasting lines. Maybe music is too full-on and digital: I have not heard a song, for years, that stays in my mind when it comes to lyrics – that goes for most genres. Other areas of music, such as Pop and Rock, are producing fewer geniuses and pioneers. We have sharp writers at the current time: from Courtney Barnett and Field Music’s Brewis Brothers; Janelle Monáe and Laura Marling to Arctic Monkeys. That last name, ironically, has inspired a new breed of Rock and Alternative bands. One cannot think of Arctic Monkeys and not be drawn to the pen of Alex Turner.
IN THIS PHOTO: Princess Nokia/PHOTO CREDIT: Roger Kisby
The Yorkshire scribe encapsulated the desires of frustrated commuters, lovers and dreamers with his wit-filled, super-smart songs. From Fake Tales of San Francisco and A Certain Romance to Cornerstone and Piledriver Waltz – so many incredible, evocative songs. I think a lot of great modern writers are being overlooked because lyrics are not at the forefront of people’s minds: maybe lyrics have never been demanded and desired. People, now, prefer something catchy, easy and urgent: the patience to sit down and study a song is not really there, is it?! I know there are a lot of great writers in modern music; most genres sport leaders who are breaking out and showing what is possible. I think there is a noticeable shift from the poetic and socially-angled to introverted and diary-entry. Pop has seen the biggest turnaround in terms of thematic styles and tastes: moving from commercial, love-filled/themed songs to a more personal account. Hip-Hop and Rap have some sharp masters/mistresses; Rock and Punk bands are spotlighting modern-day ills and the struggle of the masses – looking out at the political world and how it impinges on all of us. I love modern music and think we have a really strong set of artists in our midst. I am lyrics-minded and pine to discover those underrated heroes and heroines.
I feel the market places less importance on what comes from the pens/laptops of modern writers. There is that desire to embrace huge sounds and strange concoctions: how often do critics and listeners highlight a great set of words as opposed a banging tune or fantastic vocal turn? Maybe artists are turning in on themselves and writing something more heartfelt, if gloomy. Whilst I argue there is a simplicity and less edgy/evocative scene right now; that does not mean we lack brilliant writers and impassioned minds. It is still a case of the underrated vs. the commercial. The fact people like the BBC have been polling people – regarding underrated writers – is a push against the ‘obvious’ writers who we all know and love. The biggest and most-famed writers in modern music, I feel, do not go as deep as some of the newcomers emerging. I look for writers who, either through personal confession or imaginative flurry, take the listener somewhere different and safe. I long for the literary-minded writers who challenged the sheep and does something truly special. From De La Soul and Arctic Monkeys to modern acts like Princess Nokia; I wonder how many artists follow their lead instead of fitting into preconceived, ‘accepted’ moulds. Perhaps music holds little patience for those who dig deep and pen story-like songs; observe modern life with unique bent and rare shades.
IN THIS PHOTO: Kate Tempest/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
The fact artists like De La Soul and Beastie Boys pushed Hip-Hop to the masses is the fact they stayed true to who they were – rather than succumb to the needs of the charts/hit-makers. I shall leave this piece by throwing it open and asking people whether, they feel, lyrics have changed and songwriters are being noted for their compositions and sense of familiarity – rather than original thought and spellbinding scope. I have mentioned a lot of male writers: there are so many great female songwriters, from Sigrid and Kate Tempest to Billie Marten and Cardi B who are adding their own stamp on the industry. I am a poet at heart and have that affiliation with words. I love discovering a song that brims with literary desire and possesses poetic flair, fresh narrative and dream-like entrance. Perhaps technology has influenced music in a way that has pushed lyrics to the background. Maybe there are lots of future-legends who are being overlooked in favour of the more sprite, catchy and familiar. Whatever your opinions; it is a good reason to think of the great lyricists who never gained the credit they warranted. Those huddled and always-inspired artists did not care about cool and following the pack: they were in music to present something far more meaningful and inspiring than cliché and routine. Whilst they did not acquire the same wealth and popularity as their bigger brothers/sisters they did, in their own, special way…
BRING something magical to music!