Black Eyed Peas. photo: Creative Commons – Craig ONeal.
Everyone deserves a chance to reinvent themselves, including your favorite band. While the majority of artists tend to gravitate towards one genre of music, sometimes even they get bored with routine, opting to investigate the waters of personal convention. Unfortunately for the adventurous, this is not always well received by fans; most aren’t looking to expand horizons, they’d prefer to relish the tried and true. Nevertheless, it can be done successfully; think Beyonce, Kanye and Madonna.
Here are a few acts who’ve ventured outside of their designated boxes – some to greater acclaim than others – and the lessons learned from their experiments.
The Black Eyed Peas
Most people don’t remember The Black Eyed Peas when they were respectable. Those were the days before Fergie, when the group was all about conscious hip hop and the band of three stood tall for the underground movement. Check out “Karma,” “Positivity” or the entire Behind the Front album, circa ’98, and realize what you’ve disregarded. It was all over when Elephunk came out in 2004. Along came the Barbie doll, talk of humps, and highly processed music; shortly thereafter, The Black Eyed Peas took over the globe. What once was rap quickly morphed to pop and electronic, leading the group to extreme commercial fame. For those of us who knew them when, the bitter taste of capitalism lingers on. For the band… well, they’re doing alright.
Lesson Learned: Sell out.
Not an MC, yet equally prominent in the world of hip hop, RJD2 has taken on many shapes and sizes in the game of rap, including roles as DJ, producer and remixer. He began as the only artist signed to Def Jux who wasn’t a rapper, putting out two instrumental records and producing tracks for other acts. Then, XL came a callin’, and, along with the bigger deal, RJD2 made a departure from his signature beats and mixes, converting towards a more mellow, more pop, more vocal sound. His 2007 release, The Third Hand, an alt rock-ish record, was a move off the hip hop road and onto the curb. While it might have satisfied his bosses, fans did not appreciate the twist. Now RJD2 is back to what he’s good at, no longer with XL but perhaps deriving buzz from his labor. Last year, he issued Colossus, his first self-released project, distributed by The Orchard, and greatly appreciated by devotees.
Lesson Learned: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Jenny Lewis has long been the idol of indie rock aficionados, though she’s arguably as much folk and pop as she is the former. From child star to Rilo Kiley frontwoman, Lewis carved a niche for herself by sticking to her guns, proving uniqueness and spontaneity trump ritual if you have a dedicated constituency. Along with the more pop-oriented Rilo Kiley and collaborations with alt-electronic group, The Postal Service, Lewis recorded Rabbit Fur Coat, a solo folk record with country duo, The Watson Twins, and followed up with the very bluesy, Acid Tongue in 2009. The album was an attempt to capture the spirit of live music, recorded with minimal production and maximum acoustic flair. Presumably, she succeeded. Lewis later put out a vinyl release with Elvis Costello and the Imposters, and more recently, went on the road with longtime boyfriend and Scottish folkster, Johnathan Rice, for their shared album effort, I’m Having Fun Now. Whether it be Jenny & Johnny, Jenny with The Watson Twins or Jenny Lewis – plain and simple, the trademark (of course) is Jenny.
Lesson Learned: Build a brand, create a following, reinvent yourself.
In 2001, if you were listening to the radio, you were listening to “Everywhere,” a breakout record in heavy rotation by the young pop/rock chanteuse, Michelle Branch. Branch’s major label debut went on to be certified double platinum, earning the artist a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. Afterwards, she recorded a popular duet with Carlos Santana, and followed up with sophomore project, Hotel Paper, an album esteemed by both fans and music supervisors. Branch’s next move: country. In 2006, she formed The Wreckers with back-up singer, Jessica Harp. While the group never achieved widespread attention, they released one studio album, certified gold, and four singles. Additionally, they drew two Grammy nods, toured with Rascal Flatts, and had features on shows like One Tree Hill. Though The Wreckers split after one LP, Branch returning to her familiar territory in rock, the venture allotted her some street cred beyond pop, making her a multi-faceted talent and opening the door for opportunities as a songwriter.
Lesson Learned: Don’t stray too far from your core.
A few may recall the days when Tyrese was an R&B crooner. Though his career has shifted predominately to acting, the handsome soul singer released an eponymous debut album in ’98, produced by Tricky Stewart, and achieved notable buzz with the single, “Sweet Lady.” Following suit, he put out two more records, the third, I Wanna Go There, featured his highest ranking hit, “How You Gonna Act Like That.” It was all downhill from there. In 2006, Tyrese decided he wanted to be a rapper, taking on a dual “conscious” with the adoption of “Black-Ty,” his hip hop alias. He released the album, Alter Ego, a two-disc collection of R&B and hip hop tracks, with no song even worth mentioning. As an ineffective means to the end, he enlisted support from his actually talented rapper friends; the album featured cameos by Snoop Dogg, The Game, Method Man, Kurupt, and Lil Jon. It opened with first week sales of around 115K, but keep in mind, this was five years ago and only mildly impressive. Alas, all the A-list help in the world could not save Tyrese’s critical flop.
Lesson Learned: Don’t front.
We all remember the tragic fall of Kelly Clarkson. The good girl who wanted to rebel, yet wasn’t gangsta enough to pull it off. At first, America’s premiere Idol was an instant success, dominating the pop charts with tracks like “Since U Been Gone,” “Behind These Hazel Eyes,” and “Miss Independent.” Then, she decided it was time to revolt, to tarnish her dainty image with the refractory feel of alternative rock. The problem, of course: Clarkson is just too peppy to be crass; too sweet to be defiant. Against her label’s wishes, nevertheless, she gave it a shot. My December came and went; the most attention it received was over Sony’s reluctance to release it. Clarkson, on the other hand, realized her misstep and blocked it from memory; a couple years later, and she was back with “My Life Would Suck Without U.” Take it or leave it; it sold and earned her a Grammy nomination.
Lesson Learned: You’re an American Idol for a reason.