News for the ‘Cover Stories’ Category

Ke$ha’s ‘Warrior’: The Billboard Cover Story – Billboard Magazine (October 2012)

When Ke$ha burst onto the scene in 2009 — rapping through an Auto-Tune filter about brushing her teeth with whiskey and boys trying to “touch [her] junk” — the then-22-year-old quickly positioned herself as pop’s resident troublemaker and made the charts her home. In sales week that ended two days after Christmas of 2010, her bratty debut single, “TiK ToK,” smashed the record for highest single-week sales for a female solo artist with 600,000 digital downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan (the previous record-holder, Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance,” sold 419,000 one year earlier), and soared to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Dr. Luke- and Benny Blanco-produced anthem took just 11 weeks to top the chart, holding the peak position for nine weeks on its way to becoming the longest-running No. 1 debut single by a female artist since 1977, and the highest-selling digital single of all time, second only to the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling,” with almost 14 million copies sold.

Ke$ha’s debut album, “Animal,” crowned the Billboard 200 when it arrived at the top of 2010 with 152,000 copies in its first week, according to SoundScan. Driven by an attractive $6.99 initial price point, it leveraged the sales record of “TiK ToK” with iTunes’ Complete My Album program and took full advantage of the holiday shopping season with a preorder program that launched Dec. 15, 2010. The result was another digital benchmark, this time for sales of a No. 1 album.

A series of top 10 hits, including “Your Love Is My Drug,” “Take It Off” and “Blah Blah Blah” (featuring 3OH!3) followed, and in November 2011, Ke$ha once again shot to the top of the Hot 100 with “We R Who We R,” the lead single from the EP “Cannibal,” which was also included in the deluxe-edition repackage of “Animal.” “We R Who We R” bowed at the peak position with more than 280,000 digital downloads. Ke$ha, who co-writes her own songs, was a hit factory, mining chart gold.

That is, until she took a break. After touring as the opening act on the North American leg of Rihanna’s 2010 Last Girl on Earth tour (which grossed $13.1 million from 18 reported shows, according to Billboard Boxscore) and then headlining the Get $leazy tour last year (grossing $2.1 million from nine shows), the Nashville-raised singer went on a month-long sabbatical before taking on her sophomore LP, “Warrior” (RCA/Kemosabe). Now, with “Warrior” set for a Dec. 4 release and lead single “D ie Young” gaining at radio (it’s the Greatest Gainer this week, despite falling 13-14 on the Hot 100), Ke$ha is back, much to RCA’s relief.

“I had the label breathing down my neck to come back and make a new record, and I kind of had to tell everybody to fuck off for a month,” says the singer/songwriter born Kesha Rose Sebert. When her solo tour wrapped in September 2011, Ke$ha dropped out of the public eye after Rio de Janeiro’s Rock in Rio Festival, making stops in South Africa and other locales before returning to the States in late October. She calls it a “spiritual journey,” a chance to get off the road and back to herself and the land: “I needed to get my head back on straight and sleep in the dirt for a little while. And then I came back and have literally been working on my record ever since.”

After a 14-month break from the top 40, Ke$ha returned to the upper reaches of the charts with the release of “Die Young” on Sept. 25. RCA chose WHTZ (Z100) New York to debut the track as part of Clear Channel’s iHeartRadio World Premiere program on the “Elvis Duran and the Morning Show,” which reaches 7 million listeners in 50-plus markets each morning. For the first day, it played the song every hour. The response was so strong that Z100 moved the cut to its “power new” category, playing the song every other hour to give it maximum exposure.

“You don’t really see reactions like this so quickly,” Z100 PD Sharon Dastur says. “It’s been a week-and-a-half and we feel like it was selling well. We put it into our research and it was enormous. It was just so interesting to see how a song could connect so quickly. I just know that this is going to be a huge, huge album for her and she’s really going to just pick up where she left off.”

The same day RCA distributed “Die Young” to digital retail, standard and deluxe edition preorders for “Warrior” were made available on iTunes for $9.99 and $11.99. (The latter includes four extra tracks.) This time, RCA opted out of iTunes’ Complete My Album program and instead offered consumers a free download of “Die Young” with every preorder of “Warrior.” Leading up to the album’s release, each of those preorder-driven free downloads counts toward the single’s total digital tally.

RCA Music Group president/COO Tom Corson says that so far, the method is paying off. “The preorder is beating our expectations and doing well,” he says. “Ke$ha had an incredible run with the first project, with ["Animal"] and then “Cannibal,” the repack. It was global. Hopefully, that’s what ["Warrior"] will do. Our intention is to cement her as an established pop star. When you listen to the album and all the possibilities on it, we have high hopes.”

That meant heeding to Ke$ha’s creative vision for Warrior. After dousing her vocals in Auto-Tune for her debut gave the critical community reason to believe that her voice was the product of technological tricks, Ke$ha set out to banish Auto-Tune almost entirely from the project and incorporate more guitars, which she had excluded from “Animal.”

“I got really sick of people saying that I couldn’t sing, because I can do very few things confidently in my life, and one of them is that I can sing,” she says. She was so adamant about proving herself that she first contemplated making “Warrior” a rock album. “I remember thinking [with "Animal"], ‘Oh, it’s just processed. People will learn that I can sing later.’ But after reading some reviews that were like, ‘She can’t sing,’ I finally was like, ‘Fuck that.’”

RCA senior VP of A&R and operations Rani Hancock notes how her abilities shine in the studio and onstage, echoing how critics often mistake the use of Auto-Tune for a lack of talent. “Ke$ha is really one of the best singers I’ve been in the studio with,” says Hancock, who served as A&R rep for “Warrior” as well as “Animal” and “Cannibal.” “She has an amazing voice and having been out on the road like she has, her voice has opened up from what it was previously. She really can sing her ass off. I think that she had a bad reputation, and her bad reputation was not justified.”

By going light on Auto-Tune, “Warrior” brings songwriting to the forefront. The LP features the collaborators who made “Animal” a pop powerhouse — Dr. Luke, Benny Blanco and Cirkut — but it also makes room for what Ke$ha terms her “dream team” consisting of the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, Iggy Pop, the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne and fun.’s Nate Ruess, who co-penned “Die Young.”



Posted: October 16th, 2012
Categories: Cover Stories
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One Direction & The Wanted Cover Story – Billboard Magazine (Mar. 2012)

When Melissa Lonner, senior entertainment producer for NBC’s “Today,” booked Brit pop quintet One Direction in January, she scheduled the group for a routine in-studio performance. But once news broke that the boyish fivesome would be at 30 Rock, a deluge of fan emails flooded the show’s inbox, forcing NBC to relocate the appearance to Rockefeller Plaza. That was when the New York Police Department got involved. Spurred by reports of swelling public appearances by the band in other markets like Toronto and Boston — the latter of which attracting some 5,000 screaming fans to Natick Mall — the NYPD contacted NBC security to ensure measures would be taken to maintain order.

When the group often referred to as 1D finally did appear in midtown Manhattan on March 12 — the day before its chart-topping debut, “Up All Night”, arrived on Columbia Records — an estimated 15,000 fans descended on the plaza, spilling onto the surrounding streets. It was an unprecedented turnout for an act that had yet to release an album stateside. (“Up All Night” debuted at No. 2 in the United Kingdom when it was released there on Nov. 21.) But even beyond that: The crowd for 1D — which consists of Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Zayn Malik, Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles (ages 18-20) — ranked among the biggest “Today” has seen. Only Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Chris Brown have drawn that kind of turnout to date.

“Keep in mind, Justin and Chris have had hits in the U.S. and are known in the U.S.,” Lonner says. “One Direction is relatively unknown with no hits yet. They basically exploded, and all the adults are saying, ‘Who are these people, and how do they know about it?’”

In April, another all-male English import, the Wanted — a quintet with a style a bit more built for the post-teenage demographic than 1D — is booked for an in-studio performance at “Today.” The appearance comes in anticipation of the April 24 release of the Wanted’s self-titled debut, a seven-track EP arriving on Island Def Jam and complemented by a 10-song deluxe edition. The group’s full-length debut, Battleground (Island Def Jam), which appeared in the United Kingdom in November and is slated to arrive stateside this fall, is certified gold there and has already spawned two No. 1s on the U.K. chart. According to Lonner, if the demand for the Wanted is anything near that of 1D, “Today” will once again move the show outside. With extra security in place, of course.

Not since the reigning days of Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync and 98 Degrees have boy bands crashed pop culture with such fervor. In the past few years, solo starlets including Bieber, Gaga, Katy Perry and Rihanna have presided over the pop charts. But as summer approaches, 1D and the Wanted are spearheading what could very well be the next boy band boom. The story is a familiar one: Backed by big-name managers, fresh-faced groups assemble, win over potential fans through grass-roots marketing, attack the charts with slick pop fare and sell out tours in seconds.

Without so much as releasing an album in North America, 1D and the Wanted have already accomplished feats that took past boy bands years to achieve. Ahead of “Up All Night”‘s U.S. release, 1D’s breakout single “What Makes You Beautiful” became the highest-charting debut for a U.K. artist on the Billboard Hot 100 since Jimmy Ray’s 1998 hit “Are You Jimmy Ray?” when it bowed at No. 28 on Feb. 22. (“Are You Jimmy Ray?” entered the chart at No. 26.)

In the United Kingdom, “Beautiful” is mammoth: The summery track entered the singles chart at No. 1, selling 540,000 copies (according to the Official Charts Co.) and winning Best British Single at the BRIT Awards in February. In the United States, 1D has shut down malls with in-store signings and appearances from coast to coast. Fans even chased the group’s car through Manhattan following a performance at Radio City Music Hall on March 9, where it appeared as the opening act for fellow boy band Big Time Rush on the sold-out Better With U tour. 1D and the Wanted have contemporaries — Big Time Rush, JLS, Mindless Behavior and others-but while all have found success at retail and on the road, that success pales in comparison to the explosive rise of the two British acts.

This week, “Up All Night” tops the Billboard 200 with 176,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan, unseating Bruce Springsteen and holding off Adele to make 1D the first British band — let alone British boy band — to enter the top spot with its debut album, something not even the Beatles could accomplish. (The Fab Four’s 1964 Vee-Jay Records debut, Introducing . . . The Beatles, reached No. 2.)

Despite still being a month out from its domestic debut, the Wanted has also soared in the States. Last August, Island Def Jam went to radio with “Glad You Came,” from the group’s U.K. sophomore album, Battleground.

Initially a slow build, “Glad You Came” took flight after the song was featured on the Feb. 21 episode of “Glee,” breaking the record for highest-charting single by a British band since Take That’s 1995 hit “Back for Good.” The Take That track reached No. 7 on the Hot 100. “Glad You Came” sits at No. 3. In January, the group made its U.S. debut on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” accompanied by a sold-out stateside trek that ran from January through February. When the Wanted returns in April, the group will have already lodged two No. 1 singles in the United Kingdom.

Simon Cowell, who signed 1D to his Syco Records imprint after the group’s appearance on the U.K. version of “The X Factor” in 2010, is no stranger to boy bands. In 1999, Cowell, working with 1D manager Richard Griffiths, helped male pop group Westlife sell more than 40 million albums worldwide, according to Griffith’s company Modest! Management. The demand for all-male pop groups may appear to be sporadic, but according to Cowell, it always comes in algorithmic waves.

“It’s a track-oriented chart at the moment,” Cowell says. “When we used to put records out years ago, two singles was the norm, three singles was a lot. And you have these solo artists now who could be, with collaborations, putting out seven or eight singles a year.”

Cowell credits Bieber and his manager Scooter Braun — who also manages the Wanted — as the drivers for putting young adult stars back on the map. “I’ve done this long enough that everything in music and entertainment in cyclical,” Cowell says. “[Even if] you go back to the Motown days, every time, it always comes back to 12 o’clock. It felt like that time again.”

A full version of this article can be found in this week’s Billboard, which arrives in two Tiger Beat-tastic versions (1D and The Wanted).

Posted: April 9th, 2012
Categories: Cover Stories
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Brandy Cover Story – YRB Magazine (Mar/Apr 2012)

Brandy is definitely in her zone. Following the release of her underrated, under-promoted 2008 album, Human, the former teen star retreated from the spotlight – a place she’s been centered since her first meeting with Atlantic Records at 15 years old. After several years of personal strife, including sagging sales of Human and severing ties with her recording label, Epic Records, the 33-year-old talent is ready to shed her skin and start anew.

“I think a lot of the struggles I’ve had are what I needed to go through to get to another place,” she says. “Everything is pretty sudden. One day I just woke up and I changed my mind about everything. I felt like I wasn’t fulfilled. I was acting simultaneously with singing as a kid, and I just felt like I have this talent, why am I not using it? Why am I not trying everything and doing everything I can do?” Snapped back to reality after a near four-year hiatus from her solo career, Brandy is back to basics with the upcoming release of her sixth album, Two Eleven, releasing in June. The LP, which features production and writing from Sean Garrett, Bangladesh, Rico Love, Frank Ocean, Drake and Noah “40” Shebib, comes on the heels of reality show stardom with her family (VH1’s Brandy and Ray J: A Family Business) and hand wave appearances at red carpets. Her public standing shrunk; her star dimmed.

But with Two Eleven, a reference to her birthday (February 11th) and the day her mentor Whitney Houston passed away, Brandy is signifying a reinvention of sorts: she’s signed with a new label, RCA Records, shifted out of her comfort zone and is embracing reality. It’s a near confrontational way to reclaim her artistry. “It’s taken a minute for me to really figure out the type of artist that I am, the type of music that I need to sing to reconnect with my audience. I just know with this album, I wanted it to be as honest and as real as possible,” she says. “Sometimes, you can get caught up in wanting to make hits and wanting to get on the radio and performing on everything that’s out there. I just wanted to stay true to who I was. That’s why it’s taken me so long to figure out the right home for me to put my music out there with. Other than that, I wanted my album to represent honesty and clarity and struggle and pain, as well as love, with a different sound and a different edge. That’s what this album is.”

Her first steps back into the pop culture arena came with a handholding counterpart. Fourteen years after their chart-rocking, she-for-all “The Boy is Mine,” Brandy and Monica reunited to record the Rico Love-penned “It All Belongs to Me,” the first single from both Two Eleven and Monica’s upcoming album New Life, due in April. On the sassy back-and-forth, the two unite instead of fight, staking materialistic territory in the wake of a breakup (“That MacBook, that shit belongs to me / So log off your Facebook,” they sass on the chorus). For Brandy, the intention was to release a solo single, but opportunity was too sweet to dismiss.

“I was so focused on my project and what I needed to do to get my music back out there, but when an idea like this comes along, this is more than just a song; it’s an event. It’s the reunion of two artists that made history together. It’s bigger than the song itself,” she says. “Of course I wanted to come out first on my own so I can stand on my own two feet, but who knew that this Monica thing would come along? I couldn’t say no to that. That would be stupid.”

The duet was more a matter of circumstance than opportunism. When Brandy and Monica paired in 1998, it was during their tempestuous teens, right when their careers were hitting full stride. The song became the best-selling track of that year, and won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group. But industry politics turned them on one another. Only once did they grace the same stage to perform the back-and-forth cut: at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards. It took years of maturity to look past their petty squabble, which was admittedly without a basis, for the girls to woman up. After Brandy left Epic Records in 2009 and resigned with RCA Records in August 2011, she found herself at the same label home as her former foe. The imprint asked her if she would consider doing a collaborative cut with Monica, and after reconnecting with the Atlanta songstress, the wheels started spinning.

“The first time, we didn’t know each other. We just went to the studio and recorded the song. There was no chemistry there, really, because we didn’t really have any time to sing with each other,” says Brandy, who has since filmed a video for the song with Monica and performed the track live several times. The two are in talks to do a summer tour together, though nothing is set in stone. “We would be dumb if we didn’t do a tour. Something has to happen in order for that not to happen, something where you’d have to be like, ‘Oh, they called me to be in Avatar 3. Sorry Monica, I gotta do that movie!’ That would be the only thing that would stop me.”

Important to Brandy was keeping Monica close in the weeks following Whitney Houston’s death. Brandy had maintained a close relationship with the late singer throughout the years, and conversed with Whitney and Monica during Grammy weekend in February 2012. They had just spoken before Whitney retreated to her room, where she soon passed. Management insisted that no questions be asked about the loss of her mentor, but Brandy was quick to reference her, explaining that she was important enough to inspire Two Eleven’s title. “Some of the titles I was working with were Rebirth, Reincarnation, Reinvention, Resurrection… I just felt like Two Eleven describes all of that. It’s the day I was born, and each year, I evolve and change with time,” she says. “It also has a whole new meaning to it because I gained my angel. My icon is my angel now. It’s all tied in there and I just think it best represents who I am and the responsibilities I have moving on.”

Shying away from the smooth piano-infused tones of Human, Brandy roughs up her sound on Two Eleven, maintaining the powerful productions of previous records but mashing in genres outside of her comfort zone. “It’s definitely R&B, but it has the crossover appeal. It’s grittier, it’s edgier, it’s just different type of R&B. It’s not your regular smooth, soft with the beat type music,” she describes. “It’s just taking risks and hearing how I sound over different types of music, and I wanted an album that different people can listen to. Not just R&B, but pop and hip-hop. I wanted everyone to have something that they can listen to on this album.”

Part of her evolution comes in the form of the team involved on Two Eleven. Normally, Brandy aligns with a particular producer such as Timbaland or Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins to helm the bulk of an LP, and uses additional beatsmiths to color the gaps. But for Two Eleven, she’s piecing together a versatile offering of “gritty” R&B with pop and hip-hop overtones, working with a spread of musicians to expand her sound.

Notable contributions come from Odd Future’s resident crooner Frank Ocean, who previously penned “1st & Love” off of Human under his government name Christopher Breaux. For “Scared of Beautiful,” Ocean lends his writing chops for a deeper cut about a woman coming to terms with her beauty. “His music speaks volumes, and I was able to experience that before everyone else knew,” she says. “I always knew he was really special and I just wanted to see how we could vibe, what we could come up with together in the studio this time around. He’s just a genius. I think his songs have so much substance and so much depth, and you need that on an album as well.”

While self-imposed, the hiatus from her solo career came after departing from Epic Records, on which she only released Human. Brandy took the opportunity to breathe – she’d been active in music for more than a decade – and make her home at a label that would back her recordings and creativity – no questions asked. It’s at RCA where she found her footing – “They would do everything in their power to get my music out there” – and got her musical career back on track. But her creative reemergence also inspired her return to acting. As far back as her early teens, Brandy was a screen diva, holding court on television as the star of Moesha and appearing in films such as 1998’s I Know What You Did Last Summer and 2001’s Osmosis Jones. It took a cameo on CW’s 90210 to get her back into character, followed by recurring roles on Drop Dead Diva and The Game. She doesn’t care for reality television anymore and is entertaining the idea of developing and starring in a scripted series a la Moesha. “That’s where I’m from. I was raised on television. I need to continue to keep that up,” she explains. “It’s just like it was meant to be, for me to get back into it and with developing my own show now, I want a show that represents everything that I am and more, and just take risks and challenge myself to be somebody different than who I am, as well. I’m ready though.”

Television paved the way for her foray back into Hollywood. In July, Brandy will star alongside Kim Kardashian, Vanessa Williams and Lance Gross in the Tyler Perry film The Marriage Counselor, where she plays a woman named Melinda. Though she wouldn’t go into specifics about her character, she describes Melinda as “running from a past that’s so hard for her to face.” It’s a familiar circumstance for Brandy, who had spent the last few years coming to terms with her future while growing from previous hardships.

“It may not be the same exact situation or the same circumstance, but no matter what, pain feels the same in any situation,” she says. “I was definitely having to pull from the most painful experiences that I had to connect with Melinda, and that’s a hard thing to do when you’re excited and happy to be doing a movie and working with Tyler Perry.”

With her singing and acting careers in full swing, Brandy looks back on her resurgence over the last year as a blessing. Stating that “positive thinking and including God in everything I do” is the key to success, she’s finally ready to take on new challenges, looking at former mistakes as stepping stones to putting her professional life back on track. “I’m just excited to entertain and discover more and more about myself, and through these great experiences like doing an album, doing different roles, all of this stuff, it’s just reminding me of why I’m here and why I’m on this planet. I just want to continue to do everything that I’m supposed to do,” she says. “It’s all a gift. I’m just so thankful. I just want to be able to do whatever it is that I’m meant to do. I’m just excited to discover more and more about me, because I forgot. I really forgot. I’m reminded more and more every time I experience things like I’ve been experiencing them over the last year.”

Posted: April 1st, 2012
Categories: Cover Stories
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Lana Del Rey Cover Story – Billboard Magazine (Jan. 2012)

Rarely is a breaking artist as polarizing as Lana Del Rey.

The 25-year-old songstress became one of 2011′s most seemingly organic upstarts. Following the release of her breakout single “Video Games” and its vintage-shaded video, apparently filmed and edited on her Macbook, the Lake Placid, N.Y., native racked upwards of 13 million YouTube views and has sold 20,000 copies of her double A-side “Video Games” single since its October 2011 release, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It debuted and spent three weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Singles Sales chart. Joining Ellie Goulding and Jessie J, Del Rey recently signed with Next Model Management.

But it’s her all-important authenticity that’s had the Internet atwitter. Multiple blogs have painted a target on Del Rey, whose previous musical incarnation as Lizzy Grant, her birth name, was almost entirely wiped from the Web. On the surface, her tactics could appear calculated: Del Rey’s 2010 5 Points Records debut, Lizzy Grant aka Lana Del Ray, was on iTunes for only two months before vanishing from the store, while her website and social networking profiles were deleted and relaunched under her current guise.

Has a major label been silently orchestrating one of 2011′s greatest indie viral success stories? With her Del Rey debut, “Born to Die” (Interscope), arriving Jan. 31, the pillow-lipped singer/songwriter is the new year’s buzziest commodity, becoming the first artist since Natalie Imbruglia in 1998 to play “Saturday Night Live” (Jan. 14) before releasing her first major-label LP. She’s confirmed for “Late Night With David Letterman” on Feb. 2 and scheduled to appear on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” later the same month. Still, character assassination attempts on the Internet are a daily threat, even if acclaim outweighs the conspiracy theories.

“The Internet’s been well-established for 14 years,” Del Rey says. “It’s not like 1962 where you can’t find out about me. My intention was never to transform into a different person. What other people think of me is none of my business. Sometimes, it hurts my feelings. But I have to just keep going. The good stuff is really good. Some of the other stuff is difficult, but I’ll be able to tour now, probably sing for a while. That’s nice for me.”

Sites like Hipster Runoff, which (at press time) has dedicated 29 posts to Del Rey since last September, have taken her integrity to task, needling her artistic reinvention and dissecting supposed misconceptions. From the start, Del Rey has felt the sting of Internet ire, which coincided with her rise in stature. “I began getting messages on my personal Twitter account, really creepy messages, like, ‘The blogosphere that created you is about to destroy you,’” she says. “And within three days, the strangest things were happening.” At @LanaDelRey, she has 93,000-plus followers. Her bio: Everything I want I have. Money, notoriety and rivieras — I even think I found God — in the flash bulbs of your pretty cameras. It’s in all-caps.

Many of the attacks question her personal history. Sharpening her octave-spanning pipes in a church choir, Del Rey initially came to New York as Grant, performing at open-mic nights with the likes of Lady Gaga (then known as Stefani Germanotta). She soon signed an indie deal with 5 Points Records to release debut EP “Kill Kill” in 2008, followed by her full-length, “Lizzy Grant aka Lana Del Ray,” on the imprint.

The record, finished in 2008, collected dust for two years before its release. During a performance at the CMJ Music Marathon in 2009, she met her current manager, Ben Mawson, an entertainment lawyer (with the United Kingdom’s SSB Solicitors) intent on untangling her contractual obligations. Contrary to reports, Mawson claims that he and co-manager Ed Millett had nothing to do with naming her, or dictating her direction, instead negotiating her out of her deal with 5 Points and agreeing on joint ownership of the album.

“I’m a lawyer,” says Mawson, also of Hear No Evil Management. “And if I gave her advice on dressing, it would not be right.” His first move was to pull the album from iTunes two months after its release, so as not to confuse future consumers of music sold as Lana Del Rey’s. He hopes to release it as a collection of B-sides and claims it’s nothing that she’s ashamed of, but is more surprised by the overanalysis of past decisions. “It’s pretty crazy, this whole whirlwind of attention. Some of it’s great, but obviously, there’s been a lot of stuff — which is basically total fancy — about what she is and where she’s come from.”

David Kahne, who produced Grant as well as albums for Paul McCartney, Regina Spektor and Kelly Clarkson, thinks otherwise. Agreeing to work with her in 2008 after 5 Points connected them, he witnessed the beginnings of her reinvention from a platinum blonde guitar-cradler to an alt-indie princess. Contrary to what Del Rey asserts, Kahne is under the impression that she bought the rights back from 5 Points to stifle future opportunities to distribute it–an echo of rumors that the action was part of a calculated strategy.

“I think Lizzy Lana owns it, so [her team] wanted it out of circulation. That’s why they bought the rights from them,” Kahne says. “I think she wanted to be Lana Del Rey and didn’t want to be Lizzy Grant. That was her family name, and she’s very dramatic. She wiped [out] this other person. I think she actually thinks that she’s that other person, and she probably is. So that was the decision that she made, that she didn’t want traces of that whole person around, as far as I can tell.” He hasn’t worked with her since 2008.

To jump-start her transformation from Grant to Del Rey, she relocated to London and spent 2010 taking meetings with “every label,” but, she says, she was repeatedly rejected. Though his work with Del Rey ceased after they recorded three post-album songs, including “Yayo” and “Gramma,” Kahne observed the physical transformation that’s become a focal point of criticism.

“She looks different. [She] doesn’t sound different to me, though,” Kahne says. He claims that she was operatically trained, which Del Rey denies. But when it comes to songwriting, he praises her abilities. “She’s a clever writer, but she definitely has a very powerful angle on the image, the perfume of the thing that she wants to be. I think she probably didn’t feel that she was far enough into that, and by making this change, she’s more like what she wanted to be in the first place.”

According to Del Rey, she wrote more than 70 songs during her time in England, and soon filmed DIY videos for “Diet Mtn. Dew” and “Video Games.” A verbal agreement with Stranger Records to commercially release the latter gave Del Rey’s camp wiggle room to reacquire the song rights in case of a major-label signing. “[It was] a very free single deal. If we got a record deal for an album, they would let her take the single back and get the rights back,” Mawson says. “I just realized the other day we didn’t sign anything… It was a verbal agreement from chatting and then we confirmed by email.”

Labels came full circle when the BBC’s Radio 1 played “Video Games” last summer, thanks to Mawson’s European connections, and her Internet buzz kick-started. The artist began fielding offers from imprints that previously denied her, deciding eventually on a joint deal with Interscope Records in the United States and Polydor Records in the United Kingdom without holding any grudges.

“Signing someone and spending a lot of money, it’s a very dangerous thing to do. Largest failure-to-success rate in any industry,” Del Rey says. “I never had any help, and I really needed help.”

The timing of the deal and her video’s viral release raised eyebrows in the blogosphere. News of her signing broke in late October, but the ink on the contracts had dried in July, fueling conspiracy theorists to assume that the machine had helped with the clearance of copyrighted material included in the videos and promoted her material. It’s not unusual for labels to pull invisible strings for new artists, but rarely is the artist afforded both the creative and marketing freedom that Del Rey has had.

It’s here where her labels, which provided her a budget for videos and album completion, as well as hired a publicity firm (Shore Fire Media) in August, deviate from standard practices. Polydor president Ferdy Unger Gamilton says, “Apart from the strength of the song and the video [for "Video Games"], this shows how the world operates now. Something like this can just gather its own momentum. So many have been reached by it without traditional media or marketing.”

The viral factor of “Video Games” paralleled several breakout Internet sensations of 2011: Del Rey associate the Weeknd, and Frank Ocean. And for Del Rey, the gone-viral marketing method, which often hangs still on quality of music and artistic mystique, was key for convincing label executives wowed by her ability to navigate different Web cultures. She was embraced beyond genre lines, a Net star on sites like Stereogum and Pitchfork, and also popping up on sites like In Flex We Trust, and 2DopeBoyz.

“I don’t think she’s any sort of heavy-handed marketer. I think she basically has it down from start to finish. That’s what’s the allure is, in terms of what I saw and what other people are seeing. You have an artist and it’s all just so honest,” Interscope executive VP of A&R Larry Jackson says. “There’s no video treatment we’ve come up with. We haven’t produced the records. It’s 100% solely her. That’s the most honest part. And that’s all that matters. The honesty is the marketing.”

Translating her music to the live stage after a two-year hiatus, Del Rey tested new material at Brooklyn’s Glasslands in September, taking the stage for a secret show under the alias Queen of Coney Island. Not meant for review, the gig drew criticism from attending writers, tipped off by rogue tweets, who criticized her shaky delivery and live band of session musicians.

“I was noticeably scared,” says Del Rey, who popped her gum into the microphone throughout the performance. “I don’t get onstage trying to be spectacular. I act like it’s sort of still about the singing for me, because that’s all I have so far, are the songs.”

Del Rey didn’t allow the litany of mostly harsh comments on YouTube clips from the show deter her. She upgraded her official New York debut to Bowery Ballroom, where she performed to a sold-out crowd, and then played to packed houses in London and Los Angeles. The reviews have turned laudatory. (“The comment-board fights and blog posts don’t detract from the fact that she can actually sing,” the Village Voice wrote of her Bowery gig.)

On her tracks, Del Rey, who initially described herself as the “gangster Nancy Sinatra,” disaffectedly intones about both eternal and finite romance over cinematic arrangements garnished with hip-hop drums. Though indie artists like Bon Iver and St. Vincent shape-shift to respectively appear on cuts by rappers like Kanye West and Kid Cudi, Del Rey casually massages hip-hop into her stand-alone compositions, working directly with such producers as Jeff Bhasker (West, Jay-Z) and Emile Haynie (Cudi). Bypassing the almighty guest feature has supplied her enveloping tracks with a unique twist on indie-pop.

“I brought Emile in because the beats were still raw and hard to get… sort of the danger I wanted to incorporate,” says Del Rey, who slings hip-hop slang (“You so fresh to death”) on her cowgirl anthem “Blue Jeans.” Friendships with the Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye bolster her hip-hop credibility, but it’s her effortless infusions that punctuate her tunes. “She wanted to integrate hip-hop into it because she loves [it] and added some beats to make it a bit more radio-friendly and palatable for a broader audience,” Mawson says.

Just last month, the Internet fanfare reached new heights following the unauthorized leak of the intensely slick video for “Born to Die,” making her a top trending topic on Twitter and earning praise from West, who broke his social network silence to post the clip to his account. For Del Rey, the relief wasn’t the assurance of reaching a global audience, but rather having a budget for her art. “The good thing is that the record is beautiful. And I get to do so many things that I love. I get to work with [director Yoann] Lemoine and finally, I don’t have to make my videos by myself anymore. Thank God. It’s embarrassing,” she says. “I’m just going to get help in all the right ways.”

For an artist whose homemade approach shifted her career out of obscurity, her labels aren’t concerned with losing her indie prowess. “It’s not about old-school label tactics and all of that crap. It’s really about helping an artist who has a clear-cut vision for herself, really bringing the muscle to make this work on a worldwide level,” Jackson says. Unger Gamilton adds: “The real brilliant artists move the mainstream toward them, not the other way around. She’s doing something that no one else is doing, and it’s just going to draw people in. It’s already drawing people in.”

In anticipation of “Born to Die,” the voluptuous-voiced songstress has been teasing the Web with sneak peeks of the project, releasing a graphic, found-footage video for “Off to the Races” and a YouTube clip of her song “Yayo.” Her single, “Born to Die” was recently iTunes’ Free Single of the Week. Del Rey also plans on “extensively touring” the international circuit through the new year. But she’s almost entirely unplugged from the online realm, save for sporadic tweets and Facebook updates.

“I’d rather it was just as simple as being just the songs and no one else talking about it at all, because it makes things more bittersweet instead of just clear and easy,” she says. “It just seems to have taken a funny turn. I’m not really sure if it’ll come back around. I don’t know. But the record is really good. I have that.”

Posted: January 14th, 2012
Categories: Cover Stories
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J. Cole Cover Story – YRB Magazine (Nov/Dec 2011)

Just two years ago, J. Cole was a rap hopeful with just a dollar and a dream. A deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation helped put him on the map, while several mixtapes paved the way for his chart-topping debut. Now, the Fayetteville, NC native has the game on lock, proving why it’s a Cole world after all.

For the past few years, J. Cole has been a little nervous. The Fayetteville, North Carolina native, who first cracked the game with his breakout mixtape, The Warm Up, in 2009, has since amassed a fiendish following, selling out shows around the globe and rewarding fans with a few free album-quality mixtapes. But when it came time to drop his debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story, released via Roc Nation in September 2011, he wasn’t sure what to expect. Was his fan base extensive to the point where his album would succeed on a mainstream level? The uncertainty alone was enough to break the otherwise stoic rapper’s confidence.

“I didn’t have a clear definition of success. I didn’t have a clear-cut sales number,” explains the 26-year-old of his trepidation. “Like, ‘If I do this number, then I’ll be successful.’ Because it was so vague, the success was so vague. I wasn’t sure if it would sell and how well it would sell, you know what I’m saying?”

Lucky for Cole, the numbers were in his favor. After years of relentless grinding and several album delays, the underdog swiftly became the overlord when Cole World bowed atop the Billboard chart with 218,000 copies sold in its first week. All of this without so much as a Top 40 single or direct co-sign from his Roc Nation boss, Jay-Z, who publicly forced Cole to stretch his LP’s deadline to include their collaboration, “Mr. Nice Watch.”

But in an era where hashtag rap reigns supreme, Cole’s success isn’t just a testament to his grind. For the self-proclaimed 2Pac aficionado, lodging his debut at the top of the charts – and wildly exceeding sales projections – was more a victory for rappers with something to say. With his second official mixtape, The Warm Up, and last year’s Friday Night Lights, Cole proved to be a double threat: not only was he capable of mining experiences from his personal life and dissecting them in rhyme, but he set them to self-helmed, soul-infused production. Cole considers the LP’s success not just a triumph for himself, but for the culture – and its future.

“I feel like because this album wins, then hip-hop and the future win. And all these other artists who are coming out now and are actually talking about real things and got musical substance will win, too,” says Cole. He raps from the perspective of both a man and woman arguing over an abortion on album standout “Lost Ones,” one of his realest – and most heralded – moments on wax to date. “Nobody knew that that type of music could be successful, commercially. I feel like if you can balance being successful and remaining yourself, you’ll be the artist that you want to be.”

Cole’s insistence on digging deeper than his peers makes for an album that’s equal parts flash and reflection. Cole World, largely produced by Cole with additional assistance from No I.D., L&X Music and Brian Kidd, features marquee guest appearances from Trey Songz on second single “Can’t Get Enough,” Missy Elliott on third single “Nobody’s Perfect” and Drake on “In the Morning.” But for every collaborative cut, there’s emotional excavation, like on “Dollar and a Dream III” and “Daddy’s Little Girl,” where he describes a grown woman on the wrong path.

Though, perhaps his biggest coup was finally landing a guest verse from Jay-Z. After Jay heard The Warm Up shortly after its release, Cole became the flagship artist for his newly launched Roc Nation shingle, resulting in a collaboration on “A Star is Born” – a pass-the-baton moment included on 2009’s The Blueprint 3. But as the deadline neared for Cole World, Hov was yet to stand next to his signee. Cole was waiting on the email containing Jay’s verse for “Mr. Nice Watch” right up until the eleventh hour, when Jay pulled some strings to manipulate the deadline. From the outside looking in, it could have been a test for Cole, who was still on edge about the album’s potential.

“That makes a great story, if he had tested me. At the end of the day, Jay might be busy and get it done but will push it to the limit,” says Cole, who debuted the duet during a listening session several weeks before his album’s release at New York City’s Santos Party House. “I do that all the time. No matter how big or small the artist is, some people are like that. I’m one of those people, too. I can’t really speak on that, I don’t know if he was testing me or not. I don’t know if he was just busy.”

Busy or not, Jay has essentially remained hands-off with Cole’s career – unusual for a rapper who knows the difficulty of getting put on. But his general co-sign – in conjunction with Cole’s lyrical abilities – has granted him access to next level opportunities. He’s landed a coveted guest spot on the remix to Beyonce’s “Party,” where he replaces Andre 3000’s verse, as well as a cameo on the remix to Rihanna’s “S&M.” He also opened for Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint 3” tour in 2009 and expanded his pop audience with a supporting slot on Rihanna’s “LOUD” tour earlier this year. The gigs have given him some shine on a more mainstream level, but he’s still got more steps to climb.

“I feel like I am officially in the game, but I also feel like I’m not where I want to be. I’m far from it. I got a lot more things to do. I got a lot more respect to get,” he says. “Kanye [West] and Jay-Z are doing arenas. I got a long way to go before I can do an arena. I want to perform in an arena or stadium one day, depending on how big this thing gets. An arena? That’s 20,000 people coming to see you. To do a tour of arenas and then headlining that? That’s incredible. So I’ve got a long way to go. I know I got a long way to go.”

But when you look at how far he’s come, his situation seems ideal. Born in Germany and raised in Fayetteville, Cole was brought up in a racially mixed household with split musical tastes. On one end, his mother cultured him with Marvin Gaye and Eric Clapton records, while his stepfather sold him on Ice Cube, 2Pac and Dr. Dre (“It was the best mixture,” he says). His exploration of hip-hop began at a ripe seven years old, with requests to his mom to foot the bill for tapes by Kris Kross, LL Cool J and 69 Boyz.

It wasn’t until he was in his pre-teen years that his appreciation for rap took on new dimensions. Cole didn’t begin studying the art of lyricism until the age of 12, when his perception of rapping shifted from being a fan to wanting in on the action. Citing Eminem, Royce Da 5’9 and Canibus as early inspiration (“All of these super lyrical rappers who had a battle rap side”), the aspiring emcee would emulate the braggadocio style in his amateur rhymes, spitting peacock couplets while at lunchroom roundtables and football games.

During his teenage years, a mentor bestowed Cole with his first rap name, “Therapist,” which he proudly wore up until he made the switch while attending St. John’s University in New York City. For Cole, the moniker represented something that wasn’t exactly himself – he always knew he felt more comfortable as his government name.

“You’d be around the city in a corner store and someone would be like, ‘Yo, Therapist!’ And it was a little awkward,” he recalls, laughing. “It feels like someone knew my secret identity or something. I’d be with one friend who knew me as Jermaine and someone would be like, ‘Yo, Therapist!’ and I’d be like ah man, what’s up? So I always knew in high school that I didn’t really love it, but my mentor had given me that name and I felt like if they liked it, then I had to like it. When I got to school, I decided I needed something different. J. Cole was just a name that a couple kids called me in middle school, like one of my homeboys. He’d be like, ‘J. Cole!’ It felt more real, it felt more like my real name. I liked that better.”

While attending St. John’s, Cole honed his craft, applying what he’d learned from listening to Nas, 2Pac and Eminem to his increasingly nimble rhymes. Under his freshly minted name, J. Cole took to the Internet to plant his artistic seeds, releasing his debut mixtape, The Come Up Vol. 1, hosted by DJ OnPoint in 2007. But it was with his 2009 mixtape, The Warm Up, that he accrued a strong enough following to make the collection of tracks one of the buzziest releases of the year. Celebrating the tape with listening parties in the Big Apple and his native Fayetteville, Cole reminisces on the time as a period of purity – one where he was blissfully blind to the hardships of the music industry and stresses that it would bring.

“I remember it being a real innocent time. I didn’t know better. I didn’t know what I know now and shit,” he explains. “I didn’t know what I was up against. I didn’t know it would take me two more years to put out an album. I was just happy to be releasing a mixtape and I felt it was great, and I was hoping the world would like it. I just remember innocence, like I didn’t know nothing about the game.”

After Jay plucked him from the unsigned circuit, he quickly got hip to the game, immediately setting to work on what would become his debut. Cole hit the studio with super producer No I.D. for the album’s first session in October 2009, though he says songs for the project were conceived as far back as 2007. His tendency to think ahead has already played into his sophomore album, for which he’s already recorded a “gang of songs” and recently revealed that he intends to release in June 2012.

He doesn’t want to gab to the press like he was doing in the preceding months to Cole World, and after wrapping up his international tour, he plans on sealing himself off from the public. “It’s so early on. But I could put out a second album right now,” he says. “I have that many songs, but of course, it’s not that simple. You really want to make a body of work. I’m saying all of this to say, I’m staying away from talking it up too early. I’m just really trying to get my direction right now. I’m making beats, I’m writing rhymes. I’m not sure what it’s going to sound like. It could be totally different from this album, or it could be a continuation. I’m not sure. But I’m working and building.”

Another project that he’s keeping quiet on is his joint studio album with Kendrick Lamar, which originated as a mixtape. Though the two haven’t hit the studio since laying down cuts including K. Dot’s “HiiiPoWeR,” Cole spoke with the Compton rapper about flying him out to London to spend a week recording their collaborative LP. “At the end of the day, you’re dealing with two solo artists who are on the move all the time,” he explains. “At some point, you’ve got to connect. I think it will happen.”

In the meantime, fans don’t have to worry about Cole entirely going into hibernation. He’s already filmed a video for “Nobody’s Perfect” with Missy Elliott, which he plans to release at the top of the year, and recently popped up on tracks by Omen, Wale, Elle Varner and Elite. There are a few more collaborations and unscheduled freestyles in the pipeline to impact while he’s recording album number two in January and February, but for Cole, the quantity of music released has nothing on quality – his newest benchmark for success.

“I just want my albums to improve and I just always want to keep up the quality. I want the next album to kill this album, and I want the album after that to kill that one. It’s not even about killing it… I just want to maintain a bar for myself – a high bar,” he says. “Of course, I want to do big numbers, but my focus is not on numbers. My focus is on the album. Like, how good can I make this album? Can I change the game musically? How can I come back and shock the game for real? I went through so many hoops of fire just to get this album out. I had to go through a lot of red tape and shit, but this [next] album, nobody can’t tell me nothing. I’m excited about that freedom.”

Posted: January 1st, 2012
Categories: Cover Stories
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Kelly Rowland Cover Story – YRB Magazine (Sep/Oct 2010)

Posted: January 1st, 2012
Categories: Cover Stories
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Swizz Beatz Cover Story – YRB Magazine (July/August 2010)

Posted: January 1st, 2012
Categories: Cover Stories
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