There are few people in the industry who speak as delicately and passionately about the music industry as A-Trak does. The inimitable producer, DJ, and artist wrote an incredible piece for Medium last year on why 2014 was one of the best years for rap in quite some time. While most rap fans were lamenting on the lack of major label releases and, well, no new Kanye West album, A-Trak explained in depth how 2014 was the year where there were "no more rules on how to break an artist or a song."
So this year, after a whirlwind of major album releases from Big Sean, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Future, and so many more, and the drama surrounding streaming services and ghostwriting accusations, so we decided to sit down with A-Trak to talk the year in music. Who had the best run in 2015? What's the state of pop music today? Who's he checking for in 2016 and will Danny Brown dominate the game next year? And what's going on with Frank Ocean and Kanye West's next projects? Read our interview with A-Trak below and catch him at Terminal 5 in NYC on Dec. 12.
On the year in pop music:
A lot of people paid attention to pop, which is interesting. There’s this swinging pendulum between years. There are years when pop is almost foreign, a lot of people just don’t fuck with it, and there are years when it’s cool. Like, the Neptunes years. This year, people at least paid attention to pop and acknowledged pop. A lot of people even tried making pop. The word wasn’t dirty this year. Everyone knows Taylor Swift songs, for example. The Weeknd made a great pop album, which was an unlikely feat because he was always such a champion of the underground and he always had such a gritty, closed off kind of sound. He had a very successful transformation. Max Martin ran the year. Clearly the guy’s a sort of song doctor. He knows how to assemble that magic balance that makes a song stand out. I’ve heard nothing but good things from writers and producers who have worked with him.
On hip-hop in 2015 vs. 2014:
Rap was exciting last year because there were a lot of new names and some one-hit ones, too—and some of them stuck around. Last year, we got Fetty Wap, we got O.T. Genasis, we got Rae Sremmurd, Dej Loaf, all of these new artists, which doesn’t happen often in rap. Culture is so accelerated that Rae Sremmurd is an established act already. This year was a year filled with good rap albums, and it was the year that Future dominated rap. He's the Yoda of rap this year. Kendrick’s album was great. Dirty Sprite, What a Time To Be Alive, and If You’re Reading This were really important albums. Big Sean made a really solid album. Travis’ album was important. Vince Staples’ album was great. And Fetty Wap surprised people. When “Trap Queen” came out people thought he was a one-hit wonder, and then he had four really solid top 40 hits, and the whole album was good. As far as Future's output, Dirty Sprite 2 was the best of those projects. I’ve been waiting for the rest of the world to recognize his influence, and what was cool was Dirty Sprite really felt like the culminating point of those last couple of mixtapes from Monster to 56 Nights to Beast Mode. When Dirty Sprite 2 came out, it felt like he reached the top of the mountain he was climbing. Part of the reason so many rappers’ mixtapes are better than their official albums is that they don’t over think them.
On Drake's year:
Drake’s lingo penetrated culture. We saw it last year with “0 to 100.” But this year, how many Instagram captions read “With my woes.” Even with What a Time To Be Alive, people hear Drake’s voice saying that a little bit more just because of that verse on “Big Rings.” If you’re just in conversation with someone, that will be a retort to something, "What a time to be alive!" Drake is aware that we live in a time of memes, and he speaks in a language of memes, and it works for him. That’s part of the way he was able to navigate the Meek Mill situation so well, because he made memes on that stage at OVO Fest.
If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late was a pretty long album, but it was so consistent. When it came out, it didn’t even seem like there was gonna be these huge hits on it because all the songs sounded almost the same. You remember the expressions. Drake that also made a transformation: his voice changed. On "'Worst Behavior,' he premiered a new voice: screaming Drake. We didn’t know about that before. He used to be crooning Drake or rap-on-key Drake. Now there’s screaming Drake, and it’s cool. If You’re Reading This was a continuation of new voice Drake, and he’s just so good with his voice control that he played that to his advantage.
On "Back to Back" and Meek Mill vs. Drake:
Drake was really nimble in the way he manipulated the situation, because he flipped the whole thing around. He pulled the rug from under Meek’s feet in a situation where Meek was calling him out on something that, traditionally in hip-hop, would be scandalous. He put out a few free songs, put those memes up on the screen and came out the victor. Let’s not forget, that’s the context in, which “Hotline Bling” came out. “Hotline Bling” is the biggest rap song of the year. This is a song he just played on his Beats 1 radio show casually like, “Hey guys, by the way I do this. You guys wanna try to call me out? I just make great songs. Here’s three free songs just for the hell of it.” And then he casually put it on iTunes and it became the biggest rap song of the year.
The Drake and Meek Mill situation was interesting. I had Meek Mill booked for Fool’s Gold Day Off in New York. I wasn’t going to take him off the bill even though there was a point in New York when there were whispers of, "If you play a Meek Mill song in your set, the crowd’s gonna boo." We had him performing at our show a couple weeks after that, so we had to weather the storm. I appreciate Meek for signing on, for accepting the booking with us when he didn’t know me personally at the time, and we went through with it and he did a great show. But that beef was interesting because we've never seen a rap beef reach that level of mass media awareness where you had daytime TV talk shows talking about it. In reality, it wasn’t a battle. We’ve all seen battles that last over a year where people trade songs back and forth. It was just nimble. They did one song each—maybe Drake did two. That’s probably why it just felt like grabbing the rug from under someone’s feet because it happened so fast.
On West Coast rap:
There were these operatic West Coast albums this year: the Kendrick album, the Dre album, the Game album. With the return to skits and change-ups in songs. I’ve always been a fan of that kind of album. But I felt like it went a little too far with some of those albums this year. On the Game album, there’s a lot of good songs, but it’s hard to listen to front-to-back. It was a little too indulgent at times. One thing is the skits and change-up formula, and another was just how many classic old school samples that were reused and updated just to be like, "Hey I’m gonna make a classic so I’m gonna make you remember another classic." There’s a point when you want to listen and hear something new. There’s a lot of really good songs on that album.
On the state of R&B:
Melody is really dominating music this year, so R&B was really interesting. There was the D’Angelo album and the Weeknd album, and they’re very different but both very important to the genre. With D’Angelo, he just delivered something that was so needed in terms of substance. The fact that they dropped it at that time of civil unrest just felt so right. It was so good for the collective souls of America. It’s reassuring when there’s an artist you wait for for so long that you start wondering, "Is he ever gonna give us the music? Is it gonna be as good as we want it to be?" and it actually is for once. It was food for the soul. And the Weeknd just went for that leap. Let’s not forget that Kissland was very disappointing. He picked himself up and he sharpened his darts, and he got it right. "Can’t Feel My Face" is probably the best song of the year.
With the Weeknd, the even more unlikely feat was the success of "The Hills." "Can’t Feel My Face" is obviously a single. That and “Where Are U Now” are really cool songs and they deserve to be hits. They were designed and engineered as hits, but they didn’t follow a preexisting formula. They pushed the formula forward. "The Hills" staying No. 1 for six or seven weeks after that? That’s the more surprising success story with the Weeknd because it sounds like it's from The Trilogy. That’s the dark Weeknd music that was always underground. That means that middle America listened to that.
On Travis Scott:
Travis is a very important player in hip-hop this year, because Travis is almost more of a DJ than a rapper. He scouts talent, he grabs the best producers, best rappers and costars, and makes songs that sound like the Zeitgeist. Add to that he’s an excellent live performer, and that creates the cult following. People want to see him and experience him raging. The fact that OG Chase B and Metro Boomin are at his shows playing other peoples’ songs before and after each set, and the crowd sings along to those too because it’s the songs everyone listens to, all plays into Travis and his DJ movement. Writers who criticize Travis are beside the point.
On What a Time to Be Alive:
WATTBA sounds like a Future project with Drake adopting it, but let’s not forget that If You’re Reading This sounded like nothing else. Drake and his team created a sound with that album. It reminded me of Mobb Deep’s Hell on Earth—banging drums, thin, spooky samples and gritty raps. A lot of songs with no real clear hooks. That’s not where the climate was at the moment, so he had a pivot with that.
Metro Boomin is the biggest producer of the year. Rap needed a new producer that had star power in the way that we had Pharrell and Ye and Swizz. A lot of the new producers were just kids on their PC at home using FL Studio and making beats that made their way to big rappers.
On streaming services:
The more topical thing with streaming, and streaming wars, is more of a question of why certain artists are not putting their albums up for streaming. Taylor Swift and Adele ended up not putting their albums up for streaming but not everybody can play that game. Streaming is important, and it’s an unavoidable future for the music industry. In reality, it helped Adele and Taylor sell a lot of albums in the first week. It reminds me of one or two years ago when there were think pieces about how Radiohead put out an album where you can choose what you pay for and people thought, "Maybe in the future not everyone will have to sell their albums!" Radiohead has a cult following. If you’re an emerging artist, you can’t really gamble like that.
The streaming wars are not a clear war. Tidal versus Apple Music versus Spotify? Tidal is still too young to be evaluated in any way. Jay Z held that press conference that, I think, was complete smoke and mirrors, but maybe in two or three years the company will have subscription numbers. Apple won’t publish their numbers, which is weird. The launch of Beats 1 was important in music this year. I think Beats 1 was launched to make music listeners interested in Apple Music, in hopes that they will become Apple Music subscribers. Not just for the radio station but for albums, and it was tastefully done. Zane Lowe is a tastemaker, and I was happy to be a part of the rollout of Beats 1. To have a radio show alongside Elton John and Ezra Koenig and Disclosure and Josh Homme and Q-Tip! He has the best show on the whole station.
On stan culture taking over the year:
One thing that worries me is this "stan culture." No disrespect to my friend, but the Yeezys are the quintessential example of stan culture. They became this sort of necessary item. There’s such an army of fans that wants to be like DONDA and Travis Scott, and follow the whole crew on Instagram. Those are my friends and this isn’t against them, but the level of stanning that these kids follow make a lot of people just carbon copies of other people. Hip-hop was always about individuality. It’s supposed to be a subversive culture, a culture where you grab something and flip it around and use it in another way. In this Instagram culture, there’s too many kids who forget they’re supposed to add their own twist.
On alternative sounds and newcomers in rap:
Kodak Black, MADEINTYO, and Rome Fortune were all doing different types of music. There are projects that, for lack of a better word, are alternative. There are projects that from a melodic and song structure standpoint took a little bit from pop and made really interesting music. Grimes made a really interesting album. Boots made a really interesting album, so did Kelela and FKA twigs. It's forward thinking music that didn’t just stay weird for the sake of being weird. That alt R&B sound grew up this year. People learned how to make songs this year.
This all goes into this idea that R&B is having a moment right now. Even genre-less songs like "Lean On" represent this open sound that’s been working this year.My last single "We All Fall Down' did so well on Spotify"—it’s at more than five million streams with two million in the first 10 days on Spotify—and it's a song that focuses mostly on the vocals. It’s very open in terms of space and production. I realized when I made that and put that out is that this open melodic sound is something people are receiving well this year. That’s why tropical house worked this year, too. Densely produced, hard hitting music didn’t work as well this year, which is why EDM is in crisis right now. People aren’t trying to listen to music that’s too hard hitting.
On Frank Ocean and Kanye West's next albums:
There are two albums that I’m really anticipating, but I’m not sure when they’re coming out because no one will say. One is Frank Ocean and the other is Kanye West. Kanye’s not done so I've heard what he has, and I just heard such quality with both of projects. I don’t think that "All Day" is representative of the album. "Only One" is representative of parts of the album, and I love "Only One." That’s the most extreme of one facet of his new sounds, but he keeps switching it up. He'll only drop it when it feels ready, and from fall of last year up until a few weeks ago, he’s played me a bunch of stuff that is really great and new. He just needs to tie it all in and add the raps, but I’m not worried about it. He’s still the father of this shit.
My favorite mixtape this year was from the Sauce Twins. They might stay relatively under the radar next year, or they might have that one song that makes everybody know them. I’m excited for Rome Fortune. I’m excited for D.R.A.M.—he has music in him on such an all encompassing level, we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. I’m excited to see if Young Thug is going to put out an album that is the definitive Young Thug album or if he’ll remain the loose cannon that just has an awesome song every few weeks or months but never really makes the comprehensive project. Either scenario could still be cool.
Peewee Longway’s gonna shine because he’s one of the best and most creative dudes in rap. I’m really excited to hear ScHoolboy. And Danny Brown is gonna crush everybody in hip-hop. He will send everybody back to school. Danny Brown will make people take out their little composition notebooks and start working again.
Grab tickets to see A-Trak at Terminal 5 on Dec. 12 right here.