This morning, when Google Play’s music section offered a free download of Busta Rhymes’ new album, Year of the Dragon, Google awkwardly wandered into a lane previously occupied by sketchy mixtape-hosting websites like DatPiff and LiveMixtapes. Year of the Dragon is a free download, though you still need to provide your credit card information to download it. Google conspiracy theorists are surely, right now, drumming up nefarious reasons for this, but it mostly seems to hinge on the fact that Google Play is a pay-to-download site and so, the interface demands an account and credit card.
Arguably, it isn’t all that different from iTunes, which asks for an account connected to at least, a Paypal, even for free downloads of podcasts. And Google Play has offered free downloads before, while requiring a credit card, but this one comes from a genre that has revitalized itself thanks to a dependable devotion to giving music away. Rap mixtape audiences are mostly young people who are used to downloading music for free, even the officially sanctioned stuff. The most recent comment on the album’s page reads, “i cant download this album because, no credit card. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO :(.”
Think of it this way: Datpiff, which forces users to create an account to download most mixtapes, does occassionaly open up their officially sponsored downloads to anyone on the Internet. Google, if they were aware of what they were walking into, if only for purposes of promotion — this is certainly the first time I noticed that Google had an iTunes-like music service, so it’s sort of working — would have allowed rap fans to bypass all the sign-up junk and just cop the Busta album. It wouldn’t surprise me if, within a few hours, Year of the Dragon is hosted on plenty of free mixtape websites.
The biggest threat currently haunting free Internet hip-hop is concerns over sample clearance. There was a good run of five or so years in which rap reverted back to the ’80s, before sample clearances seemed to matter. Because the mixtapes were no longer being sold on the street, but given away for free, it seemed to remove the money-making aspect. It wasn’t exactly legal but it had, for the most part, removed the “profit” part of the mixtape hustle to focus solely on using the mixtape for promotional purposes.
Last month however, producer Lord Finesse sued rapper Mac Miller for jacking one of his beats on the song “Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza.” The track came from a free mixtape, but the video, which racked up more than 20 million views on the Google-owned Youtube, surely generated revenue for Miller and his label, Rostrum Records. Finesse’s lawsuit has many rappers shook. In this video interview, Curren$y explains that his mixtape with Wiz Khalifa, Live In Concert, has been delayed due to sample clearance issues, which have also apparently, plagued a few of his previous releases. “The argument is that you get popular off the mixtape and then you on the road,” Curren$y explains, “So, you probably performing that song, you getting paid for the performance, therefore you’re got paid off the song, so they’re supposed to have some.”
There is at least, one immediately recognizable sample on Year of the Dragon. “Make It Look Easy” features Busta and Gucci Mane bouncing boasts off a loop of James Brown’s “Blues and Pants.” Hot Pants, James Brown’s 1971 album which features “Blues & Pants” was released by Polydor which is currently owned by Universal, which is also Busta’s label. So, it seems like the sample clearance issue for that are in order. This reminds me of Universal artist Jackie Chain’s official mixtape, Who the Mane?. Many of the tape’s most flagrant uses of other artists’ music came from fellow Universal Music artists’ music: An interpolation of 50 Cent on “Livin’ It Up”; samples of Lil Wayne on “Bankroll,” and Tatu on “This Is Not Enough.” Perhaps, this is the future of mixtapes: Major label artists making explicitly label-sponsored releases hosted by big deal websites. That doesn’t sound so bad, though it certainly puts musical control back in the hands of the clueless, opportunistic majors.
Separate from all this important insider baseball, you’re left with Busta Rhymes’ Year of the Dragon, an adroit, unhedged collection of Busta songs with guests that nicely fit in Busta’s world: Street rap eccentrics like Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane, and Cam’ron, fellow NYC hardheads Maino, Flipmode Squad buddy Reek Da Villain, and comforting crossover artists like Robin Thicke and Vybz Kartel. Though much of Busta’s recently raised profile hinges on him adopting a fast double-time, or even triple-time style (most notably on Chris Brown’s “Look At Me Now”), he’s primarily doing a more head-down grunting, gritted-teeth style, here. It works.
The best way to listen to Year of the Dragon though, might be to put your hands over years and close your eyes and pretend this is a new mixtape from Gunplay, the lanky, pan-regional maniac who has sort of rendered Busta useless, as of late. Just watch the wild-eyed video for “Take This,” in which Gunplay turns the lazy-ass, “lip-sync to your song in the studio” video into a compelling piece of performance art. You’re stuck in the studio with a pill-popping, weed-inhaling maniac, who convulses and babbles and well, raps or really, lip-syncs his ass off. “Take This” has been removed from YouTube for its “depiction of harmful activities.” As a result, you’ll have to head on over to one of the other, more unseemly video-hosting websites to check it out. Maybe Gunplay needs to link up with Google Play to prevent this from happening again.