What Does the Third Act of a Career Sound Like?

Donna and Yoh discuss the third act of artist careers, aka musical dessert.
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Every artist career should resemble a well-made play: three well put together acts that excite and inspire the listener. We have the first act, the appetizer, where we get a sense of the artist and all they have to offer. We have the second act, the entrée, where the artist hits their stride and delivers the meat of their work.

Then we have the third act, musical dessert, where the artist delivers music that is not meant to fill us up, but rather, top off their career and fill us with a sense of accomplishment. Dessert lets us know, quite sweetly, that the meal is over, but that there is more left to enjoy. So, too, should the third act of a career let us know that the artist has more left to give, even if it's not their career-defining work.

So, what exactly does that third act sound like? We posed the question to DJBooth Managing Editor Donna-Claire Chesman and Senior Writer Yoh.

Their conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

yoh [11:09 AM]

Good morning, Donna. How is the First Lady today?

donnacwrites [11:10 AM]

Good morning, sir. I am doing well. A busy morning, but always excited for our chats.

yoh [11:10 AM]

Wonderful. What is our conversation today? Do you have a subject in mind?

donnacwrites [11:13 AM]

Well, I've been listening to Benny's new project The Plugs I Met all week without pause. I love the record, and I love featured guests Black Thought and Pusha-T. It got me thinking. There are a handful of artists in the third act of their career who are delivering what you've described to me as a "musical dessert." These artists are through giving us the meat of their career; they're merely giving us something sweet to close out the meal.

So, today I wanted to discuss what musical dessert sounds like, how artists do or do not deliver said dessert, and how second-act artists can prepare for their third act by following in the steps of Thought and Push.

yoh [11:22 AM]

I wish we would've transcribed our initial phone conversation! We went on for a minute about this subject. Black Thought and Pusha-T are excellent examples of artists who are only getting better. As rappers who continue to grow as lyricists, their talent has yet to peak. After 10 to 15 years in the game, listeners know the quality of your art. We expect a certain bar. By delivering that every time, it's like having a sweet dessert after a remarkable meal.

JAY-Z is in the dessert stage of his career. Everything from here on out is a cherry on top. That isn't to say he is incapable of releasing his best work yet, that's never off the table, but from Reasonable Doubt to 4:44 he's shown why he's elite in every way. There's nothing left to prove, but you continue moving the needle. It's the beauty of rappers growing old; we're able to see which swords grow sharper. 

I would love to hear your answer to how second-act artists can prepare for their third act? Are there any other examples outside of Pusha and Black that come to mind as footsteps worth following?

donnacwrites [11:27 AM]

Excellent thoughts here, my friend.

Second-act artists, artists delivering the meat of their work and defining who they are with their albums, a la Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, can prepare for that third act by considering their legacy as early as possible. How do they want to be remembered in music, while still with us? Secondarily, what do they want their name to signify? When I see Push's name, I know the caliber, content, and style of bar I'm going to get just as I know when I see a molten lava chocolate cake, I'm about to be treated right. Entering into the third act of a career is all about giving identity to the quality of your work.

A third-act artist that comes to mind, who just began their third act, is 2 Chainz. Rap Or Go To The League is a breathtaking dessert album. It's not the statement piece album of Chainz' career, but it is an album with an identity and high quality that cannot be achieved in any other way than by grinding out in the game and going through the necessary steps to grow. The album feels so robust and impactful, as a tasty dessert should impact and leave you feeling overjoyed. We're happy to arrive at dessert, just as we're happy to press play on 2 Chainz. It's not about a final breath, but about making us catch another wind.

yoh [11:35 AM]

Amen! We could end the convo right there. I love your perspective on career acts and your viewpoint of Rap Or Go To The League as a third act album. The mention of 2 Chainz made me realize Lil Wayne has been in his third act for a while. Somewhere between Tha Carter IV and Tha Carter V, he entered his third act. Compared to some of the other acts mentioned, Wayne’s sword isn't sharp as it once was, but he still knows how to swing it effectively. Not every verse is going to cut, but when he's in the Weezy duffle, it's glorious. "Big Bad Wolf" from Dedication 6 Reloaded is one of his best verses ever. That's a dessert performance. Every bar is a bite into a rich, double chocolate brownie. Also, his verse on the new Big K.R.I.T. single is excellent. I'll never expect old Wayne when I see his name on a track, but when he delivers, there's nothing sweeter. 

Do you have a favorite third act artist?

donnacwrites [11:39 AM]

My favorite third act artist is, surprising no one, Atmosphere. He speaks the language of grief so well. Each album in the past half-decade has not been their statement album, and it doesn't need to be. Slug and Ant have delivered a handful of classic records and EPs that have touched my life in such a way, that now when they release music, it's simply a pleasure to hear them still recording. I listen to Atmosphere's present releases for the simple thrill of hearing them. It's pure. That might be the linchpin of the third act: the purity of the listen.

yoh [11:42 AM]

Amen. I hope every artist can have a third act. One where they can make music without the concern of money. That's part of the purity, the art coming from a real place. Pusha-T doesn't make a Daytona if he's concerned with hits. Black Thought isn't going to freestyle for 10 minutes on Funk Flex because it's going to sell ringtones. It's in your third act where craft and passion can take precedence if the conditions of creation allow it.

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