Comeback-Album Anxiety

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I’ve had the Soundcloud page with the surprise T-Wayne album open on my laptop all day, but it’s almost midnight and I still haven’t pressed play. I think the uncertainty is what gets me. I’m stressed, but in truth, I almost enjoy the anticipation. Right now, all outcomes are possible.

The album could contain the nascent fetus of the Song of the Summer. It could be a dangerous mixture of T-Pain’s ear for viral hooks and Weezy’s ability to verbally straddle the line between corniness and cleverness like no other. Or it could be forgettable garbage. Most likely, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

I prepared to listen to T-Wayne the way any healthy consumer of music would: by tracking down every collaboration between Weezy and T-Pain I could find and listening to them. The returns made me optimistic about the album-length partnership. They’ve got a previous Song of the Summer to their combined credit in 2008’s “Got Money”. They’ve also given us what is empirically the greatest couplet of all time on “Can’t Believe It”, when T-Pain manages the superhuman feat of successfully rhyming “Put you in the mansion/ somewhere in Wisconsin.

Other efforts include the extremely going-back-to-the-same-well-but-it-still-rocks song “Bang Bang Pow Pow”, and then “How to Hate” off Tha Carter IV, which I refuse to link to. But overall these two artists seem to complement each other’s talents really well, and just as importantly, it sounds like they have fun working together.

I’ll probably end up listening to the whole thing tomorrow. But the truth is, I’m not super invested in the legacies of T-Pain and Weezy. (I do, however, maintain that Lil Wayne’s mid-2000s peak is unimpeachable, and defy anyone to find me an artist who could maintain such consistent quality with such high output). But it’s a whole different story when an artist that I totally stan for releases new music after such a long period of inactivity (thankfully, I was too young to really experience Hova’s faux retirement). In this respect, the past few months have been very stressful for me.

Criticisms fade with time, and it’s only the highlights that are remembered by the masses.

Both A Tribe Called Quest and the Gorillaz, two of my all-time favorite acts, released new albums after years away from the game (six for the latter, 18 for the former). I think in some ways it can be cowardly to rep a band that’s wrapped up their career. It’s like saying your favorite athlete is a retired great. Criticisms fade with time, and it’s only the highlights that are remembered by the masses. You can enjoy the validation of having good taste without inheriting the risk. So, being a cultural coward, I sometimes gravitate toward bands that aren’t active anymore, whose discographies can be considered complete. Needless to say, it throws me for a loop whenever they decide to upset the stasis of my fandom. Wait, you mean I actually have to defend the things I like now?

On another level, I’m afraid to have to reevaluate my opinion of a band. Before Tribe dropped We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, their discography was essentially the 1927 Yankees lineup, quality top to bottom: five albums, all going at least Gold, three going Platinum, two hitting the #1 spot on Billboard, two definitive hip hop classics. Would this new album sully their place in the hyper-competitive hip hop hierarchy? For about two months, I decided I’d rather not find out.

Tribe Album Cover
Album art for We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service.

Eventually, after seeing a critical mass of positive reviews, I caved, listening to the whole thing front to back, and then did it again. Obviously, I needn’t have been worried, and of course I felt silly for having gone two months longer than I needed to without having “Enough!!” in my life. But the Gorillaz reminded me that there is an alternative way it could have turned out. When they released Humanz, it took me about a week to get to it, despite devouring each lead-up single as soon as it was released. And this album was decidedly okay. It was no Demon Days, but then again, maybe it’s unfair to constantly hold an artist to the standards of their peaks. We celebrate athletes like Tim Duncan and Vince Carter who manage to age gracefully as their abilities wane. Maybe we should afford music artists that same acknowledgement of mortality. Maybe I should be thankful to experience my favorite artists aging as opposed to being stuck with the false visions of their eternal youth.

Yet even as I think this, I still feel my pulse quicken with each rumor of a new Jay Z album. The quality of his albums have tailed off steadily over the last decade. And even when he dusts off the mic to do an above-average feature on someone else’s song, I question his ability to put it all together for a whole LP. But still, why do I care about each piece of art he releases into the public sphere? I guess because I care about the artist as a person. Not in the way that I care about my family and friends, but in the way that the art we consume defines part of who we are. I guess I just want that part to be of high quality. I don’t want to have to see Hov slandered on Pitchfork, Vulture, and the timeline. Yes, he’s a billionaire and can take care of himself, but I feel protective of the reputations of the artists I invest in emotionally and financially. Their success becomes my validation, and their failure my own. 

On the other end of the aging spectrum, we have Frank Ocean. Ocean similarly took forever to release his follow-up to Channel Orange, but I felt different during the lead-up to Blonde than I did for the above artists. First, Ocean had only released one album at this point. Channel Orange was more a promise of what he might become than any sort of fulfilled legacy. Also, he didn’t drop off the map in the way that the Gorillaz did. We KNEW there was more to come; there was never any clue that we had seen the last of Frank Ocean.

I feel protective of the reputations of the artists I invest in emotionally and financially. Their success becomes my validation, and their failure my own.

Before he even finished his first tour, Ocean said he was already working on his second album. And during that interminable epoch between releases, Ocean made sure we didn’t forget about him. He released two singles in 2014, while also hopping in the studio with Kanye and John Mayer. This, combined with an updated album release date getting him in the headlines each month, and that weirdo video of him building a staircase, meant it would have been hard to avoid Ocean if I wanted to. Which obviously I didn’t. So I happily anticipated the release of Blonde, almost like a normal person.

I don’t know if I’ll ever stop feeling anxious and protective about the artists I love. There’s a part of me that recognizes it’s illogical, not least of all because it’s something that I have no control over. And even if a release like We Got It from Here… had turned about to be trash, it’s not like that would have changed anything about how good Midnight Marauders was and is, right?

Regardless, I have some new music to go listen to — that is, if I can ever press play.

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