"What the hell is he doing talking about Taylor Swift on a hip-hop site?!?"
I get it. It's weird to think that the guy who is up listening to Run The Jewels at 3 AM is the same guy breaking down "Shake It Off," but here we are. I have been wresting with that same "what the fuck am I doing listening to this?" mentality ever since I heard "Shake It Off" as I perused the kitchen supplies aisle of Target (got a great crock pot by the way). After all, I had done a great job of assuming that Taylor Swift was that same bubblegum, generic pop princess she was eight years ago and I was happy living in a world where she made shitty music my 8-year-old cousin likes. I never needed to listen, because I knew it all already.
And yet there I was, listening to "Shake It Off" as I waited in line for Chipotle, not 40 minutes after hearing it at Target, still wondering just what exactly was happening to me. It felt like I was transforming into a werewolf for the first time. A T-Swift loving werewolf, but a werewolf nonetheless. The more I thought about it, and the more I listened to "Shake It Off," the more I thought the new Taylor Swift album, 1989, could be worth a listen.
While it feels a little strange stepping from hip-hop into pop music, I'm not so sure it's a big jump. Whether it's ScHoolboy hopping on a Sam Smith remix or the guy who did a song called "Testing My Gangsta" collabing with the girl who did "Roar" (see "Darkhorse"), hip-hop and "pop" are now constantly being fused. As much as the hip-hop head may hate it, pop music is what's popular, and there is no genre more popular or influential right now. So while Taylor is considered a pop star, I'm not quite so sure that makes her so different from Drake, and it might not be long until she is working with the likes of him either. Besides, it seems silly to ignore what is sure to be one of the most popular and successful albums of the year because she is a "pop" star. I mean, does "pop" music really just mean shitty music? It was my duty as a music lover, regardless of genre, to give a shit. So I sat down and listened.
At the same time, though, while I wish I was above it, I was afraid I'd lose credibility if people found out I was listening to Swift. Whereas I bump ScHoolboy with little to no fucks given - windows down, bass at 11 - when I blast Swift I keep an eye out for other cars or pedestrians so I can quickly turn it down; heaven forbid a stranger heard me listening to an album they're probably listening to as well. My goal as a hip-hop head was to get over that mindset. I wanted to come back and report that everyone, even the rap nerd with the biggest backpack full of Dilla records, could love this album because it transcends the pop genre and is a truly great body of work.
So? Did it? Was it that good?
No. Not really. At times it was exactly that bubblegum pop I loathe. Case in point "Bad Blood." Though the song features great energy and a colorful, anthemic beat, not only does Swift give a pretty generically poppy vocal performance, but the lyrics are cringe worthy too. Sid she really say "mad love"? Sounds like something Steve Martin would say in Bringing Down The House 2. More than just one lyric, it really is the shallow, sugarcoated ear-candy sound that makes this, and a few others like "How You Get the Girl," almost impossible for a rap fan to listen to. No one who also knows the words to "Ante Up" will be able to find a single song on 1989 that makes them forget they're listening to Taylor Swift. Believe me, as hard as I tried to let go of that, I just couldn't.
While I was never fully able to let go of that preconceived version of Taylor, in the end she still won me over. I knew what I was doing was "wrong" for a hip-hop head, but I didn't care. For example, on "Shake It Off," that little break down about the dude with the "hella cute hair" made me cringe. It's so bad - like Nebraska corny - I wanted to end the song there, but I couldn't because before I knew it, she brings it all home with a powerful ending that showcases her vocal prowess. "Blank Space" has that same vibe. "Boys only want love if it's torture / Don't say I didn't warn ya." Gimmie a break. Still, the subtle lean and pace of her vocals make this a fulfilling listen. For a hip-hop head, listening to these cuts is like listening to Makonnen or "No Type." You can't tell me they are great songs, lyrically or musically, but there is no denying their energy and ability to get inside your brain. So there are few songs that you will skip ("Bad Blood"), a few you will like in spite of the song itself ("Blank Space"), and a few you will like because they really are good, and that my hip-hop loving friends is where you'll find your reward for stepping into uncharted pop territory.
For me, one of those truly great songs is "I Know Places." First and foremost, the production on this effort is exquisite. Most pop production is driven by a simple, catchy melody but on "I Know Places" Ryan Tedder (frontman for OneRepublic) uses a sample of Swift herself and some cascading drums gives the song peaks and valleys and allows it to really progress and develop. That Roots-esque, bass-driven section at the 1:18 mark and the drum break at the 2:16 mark (which is actually my favorite part of the whole album) are perfect examples; they give this track some real punch. Adding to the potency, Taylor keeps right up vocally. It was a side of her I didn't even think she had. Her ability to adapt to a more brisk, edgy sound, and the work she puts in on a poignant record like "Clean," shows there's a level of true musicianship to Taylor. While it might come in flashes, those flashes can be compelling.
On 1989 Taylor proved, to me at least, that she is worthy of a rap nerd's time. She doesn't re-invent the wheel or transcend genre classification (she may someday), but there was a level of depth and richness to her music that really surprised me. I knew songs like "Shake It Off" would get me in a catchy, almost ironic sense, but I wasn't ready for something substantive like "Clean" or something so hip-hop inspired like "I Know Places." Taylor will forever have that pop side - it's who she is - but there is also a side that sounds like a truly special artist on the cusp of greatness, one that makes music that is both fun, well-made and challenging.
So yes, I do still feel guilty. And yes, I expect some jokes thrown my way. But I'm trying to get over my biases and simply enjoy good music, no matter who it's from. Taylor Swift made some good music on 1989, and that's all that should really matter, even to a hip-hop head.
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]