Why I Love Concept Albums

I FINALLY got my hands on the major label debut of Kendrick Lamar.  At first, I didn’t want to believe that any of this “New Generation” of MC would be as high quality as the guys I grew up listening to. And by High Quality I mean deep, thoughtful and complex lyrics over something other than Southern Trap beats or Urban pop. I even scoffed at the possibility of K. Lamar besting out my favorite rap group (The Roots) for the best Rap album Grammy. But then, somebody sent me one of Kendrick’s mixtape tracks (Rigamortis) and I was blown away. It’s one thing to hear an MC rap double-time over a slow beat. Just about every rapper does it, and with the exact same cadence and delivery style, too. But Kendrick not only rapped double-time over an uptempo beat (something I haven’t heard done since the 1990s), but later on in the song he kicked into a higher gear and seemed to rap triple-time. All the while, he’s lacing the tracks with the clever metaphors that I prefer to hear in my rappers. This guy was everything I liked about Hip-Hop, and immediately earned my respect.

Flash forward about a year, and I finally get around to buying his Aftermath Debut, “Good Kid, m.A.A.d.City.” I wasn’t really interested in the album, although I respect K. Lamar. I just wasn’t trying to buy a lot of new hip-hop from artists I don’t trust. But I was transporting one of the kids in the children’s center I work at, and his song “Swimming Pools” came on, and the kid explained that it seemed like a song about getting drunk in the club, it was actually an ANTI-drinking song. That piqued my interests, so I looked up the song on Rapgenius.com, and sure enough, the boy was right. What clinched it though was the notes saying this was part of a larger narrative chronicling the growth of Kendrick as a person. That was the clincher: I HAD to get a listen to this album.

I admit it: I’m a sucker for concept albums. Even in this single-dominated music world. I absolutely love it when an artist takes the time to craft together a cohesive, thematic music project where every song is interconnected and all of the parts combine to make a greater whole. Most of my favorite concept albums are stories, with each song being a chapter. I think this takes a lot of thought and planning, and not every artist can pull it off. And the better ones are really engaging, with a LOT of layers to them. I eat that stuff up.

After hearing K. Lamar’s CD all the way through a few times, and looking up the lyrics on Rap Genius, I am thoroughly impressed by the depth of the lyrics. The beats aren’t half-bad, either. This is honestly, the best rap album I’ve heard, well, since “Undun,” which – you guessed it – is another concept album, this time by The Roots.

So, here’s my list (in no particular order) of my favorite concept albums:

  1. Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, by Kendrick Lamar
  2. Undun, by The Roots
  3. 12 reasons to die, by Ghostface Killah
  4. American Gangster, by Jay-Z
  5. Black Materia, by Random
  6. Disposable arts, by Masta Ace
  7. The Long, Hot Summer, by Masta Ace
  8. Castlevania: Nocturna, by Random
  9. Language Arts, vols. 1-3, by Random
  10. 4-Eva In a Day, by Big K.R.I.T.T.


and yeah, I’ve got a lot of Random on this list. So what? He makes good concept albums.

This makes me wonder if I will, or could ever make a cohesive, album-long narrative. I think I could, but it would have to be a subject matter that I’d be totally engaged with enough to write 13 songs totally about it. It’s not impossible, after all, I do have a 3-song trilogy written that tells the story of me and a ladyfriend I was interested in courting. But 3 songs is NOT a full length album. I thought about making a concept album about my favorite video game (Zelda) in the same vein as Random’s video game albums, and I thought about doing a full album chronicling the adventures of my super spy alter ego, James Quan 008 ½. And of course, I could just tell MY story, about the things I experienced growing up in my own “MadCity” of Flint, MI (to quote DJ Quik, “It’s Jus Like Compton.”). but I don’t know. Right now, my schedule is so hectic I have no idea when I’ll get in the studio to record “The Third One,” much less a concept album after that. Oh well, c’est la guerre.

To Free Or Not To Free?

For the three of you who don’t know, in addition to all of my other creative exploits, I also dabble in music. I co-run a songwriting company / small record label with my father (www.expectusmusic.com) and I use that as a platform to put out the occasional music project. My last two projects have been underwhelming successes, in that after I failed to sell any copies of them, I started giving the projects away as free downloads. To date, I’ve given out at least 200 copies of my solo debut “48505,” my gospel collaborative effort “Winner Take All,” and my demo mixtape “From The Archives” to friends and family via Facebook on their birthdays. I plan to continue this, btw.

But now, I’m on the cusp of having two major music projects released. First, I’m almost ready to release my second solo album “Chapter 2” and I want it to make as big a splash as it can make given my limited resources. And after that, right around the time my next novel “Godmode” is released, I plan to release a movie score to read the book by.

The main issue for me is how much to charge for the projects, or whether I should charge anything at all. I actually want to have the Godmode soundtrack be available for free IF you buy a copy of the book. With me releasing the project through Bandcamp, that might actually be possible because they make discount codes available. But the big issue is with “Chapter 2.”

See, for me, getting my music heard is more important than turning a profit. The music is just something I do to express my ideas musically, and it’s not my primary creative focus (writing books takes that title). It’s basically another way to build my brand. I know a lot of music insiders (most notably my man Sid UncleJamz Johnson of Cincinnatti) cry foul at the mixtape and free album craze, but you can’t deny that it can work. It’s the way guys like 50 Cent, Yelawolf, Drake and Kendrick Lamar established themselves and built audiences, which caught the attention of major labels. Now, I’m not saying I’m at those guys’ level, but then again, why can’t I be? They all started exactly where I started. Heck, even two former rhyming partners of mine (Hookdiggy and Zod) were able to create a buzz for themselves by giving out free music.

There are two sides to this argument. On one side is the fear that people in my network would balk at paying anything for my music. That’s one reason why I gave away my first few projects, so people could hear my stuff and it would create value and interest in future projects. Whether that was successful or not I don’t know. Out of the 500+ people in my network, many of which have paid me lip service as far as supporting my music endeavors, I wonder which of them would actually shell out 5 bux to support their boy, especially if the music is good (which I think it is). Don’t forget that this is a group of people who, as a collective, wouldn’t spend $5 to download a copy of my last book. And I won’t lie: I’ve seen the entrepreneurial endeavors of my peers and I haven’t been quick to shell out loot to support the majority of them myself. In my defense, though, I have and I do support my peeps whenever and however I can: this very blog you see is hosted by a company owned by a very good friend of mine (www.grefuga,com), I’ve done pro bono and reduced price graphics work for friends like www.snackcetera.com, I’ve recommended the webcomics of friends  – not to mention offering free advertising – at my own webcomic www.theseizurecomic.com, and I’ve ordered jewelry from a graphics client of mine who does really good hand-crafted work (www.neferene.com). But I understand if people are reluctant to pay up.

But on the flip side of that argument, does not charging for the CD show fear or a lack of confidence in my product? Is offering my CD for free practically begging people to give me a listen? I don’t know. I do know this: I don’t have the means or the time to go out and promote this thing traditionally. I don’t have the connections or under-the-table money to get my songs played on the radio. I don’t have the time or the following to get love at shows, and I don’t have a management team who can get me booked if I did have the time. The “get your music heard” music services like Reverbnation require upfront cash or subscriptions, and I don’t have the loot for that. Heck, I don’t even have the money to get a decent video made of one of my songs to post on youtube. There’s a video for one of the songs on “Winner Take All” currently in post-production, but that has been entirely up to the rather busy schedule of the guy editing the video for me, since I can’t afford to pay him to make it a top priority. So giving the album away for free may possibly be the only realistic way I can get the word out about my Album that would actually entice people to give it a listen.

And on top of that, if I do charge for it, then how much should I charge? I first toyed with charging a buck for the whole CD and .50 apiece for individual songs, but why stop there? If people would pay a dollar for my CD, why not 5? I am including the “name your price” feature on my CD, but what should be the minimum price? I don’t know if my ego can take me offering the CD for, like, a buck, and STILL not getting any downloads.

Whatever the choice is, I need to make it quickly. I want to have this CD out by next week, so I can focus my attention on other projects.

So if you’re reading this here blog, and you’re interested in some good Hip-Hop, then check me out at http://jugghead.bandcamp.com, and however much I’m asking for the CD (I promise it won’t be more than 5 bux), show ya boy some love, give a listen to the songs and pick it up if you like it. I’d really appreciate it.