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The College Kids - On mixtape musicians and iTunes ascendancy

@CarolynJBreton: hands down best night everrrrrrrrrrrr....thank you @mikeposner and @hobboston :)

@enirehtaklu so glad i went to the @MikePosner concert tonight. amaaazing live, and so worth failing my midterm tomorrow!

@liciaax3: @MikePosner killed it tonight. Amazing concert hands downnn!

These are a few of the most recent mentions of the Duke alum on Twitter that Mike Posner has retweeted and responded to circa 3 a.m. Oct. 12, all three apparently celebrating a not-long-gone Posner performance at Boston’s House of Blues. (His additional meta-commentary preceding the retweeted content is, respectably, “It was pretty special indeed :)”; “Good luck!”; and “Thanks for coming out love :).”

If Posner’s live show is anything like I remember it when he was an undergrad at Duke—he graduated in December ’09—they are also massive overstatements, which in a way, is fitting. A few months since the Aug. 10 release of his debut record, 31 Minutes to Takeoff, Posner’s career has become itself a sort of massive overstatement, the carrying-out of a college kid’s rock-star fantasy to near its apex, and all despite a whole mess of limiting factors—including but not limited to a mediocre voice, college-kid associations and almost no lyrical talent to speak of.

I won’t dwell long on Posner’s dormroom-to-riches rise, because at this point it’s become the stuff of Duke lore. For those who came late to the party, here’s the abstract: Michigan kid, frat-boy, releases two mixtapes he made more or less on his own. (Once there was a “and the Brain Trust” attached to his name, but the recognition seems to have whittled it away.) After the second, One Foot Out the Door, which he spread largely by way of iTunesU, Posner got signed by J Records, a part of Sony Music Entertainment. Then he graduated.

Though Duke remains a common plot point in the Posner coverage, his rep has outgrown the college. 31 Minutes debuted at #8 on the Billboard 200, moving 29,000 copies, and the record’s first single “Cooler than Me”—a song that’s been around since mixtape number one, A Matter of Time—is radio-ubiquitous; I know people who have heard it as far away as Southeast Asia. He’s headlining his own tour right now. He’s appeared on Live with Regis and Kelly, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He’s collaborated with Boyz II Men.

What this means is that Posner’s a household name. More interesting, however, is the method and means by which he’s grown into stardom, and it establishes him as probably the flagship example of a new trend in pop artists: the grassroots, elite-college-educated, white kid working with historically black forms of music.

Traditionally genres that focus on urban, racial and romantic themes, hip-hop and R&B have been recontextualized by these guys as a way to vent on college and its hard-won cliches: drinking, girls, hooking up with girls, weed, disappointment, not going to classes and that particularly 20-year-old brand of sexually tinged sadness. But even though Posner, like his contemporary Kid Cudi, owes a grand debt to Kanye West’s integration of emo and every-man masochism into hip-hop, he never touches the same level of gravitas. Instead, what you have is music imitating the music played at college parties, using as its muse college parties and, in emotional depth, not reaching beyond the early morning hours that these college parties usually wrap up—about the same time Posner was responding to those tweets.

Posner declined to be interviewed for this piece. I did talk to Sam Adams, a Boston rapper who played soccer at Trinity College in Connecticut and gets painted with the same frat-boy brush as Posner. Adams—and, you could argue, the rest of the college-white-boy rap phenomenon—hitched his star to Asher Roth’s buzzed-out, Weezer-sampling, musically disastrous “I Love College”; his take, “I Hate College,” is the song’s auto-tuned bastard child, recasting Roth’s goofiness as lax-penny-wearing broisms. Adams has an edge because at least he sounds like he’s listened to rap before. But choosing between the two versions is a little like picking your favorite flavor of Pop-Tart.

Like Posner, Adams’ (born Samuel Adams Wisner) ascent was Internet and iTunes-centric. “I Hate College” went viral, and his EP “Boston’s Boy” debuted at the top of iTunes’ hip-hop charts, selling about 8,000 copies in its first week out. You can get a good read on his modus operandi from this verse off of “I Hate College”: “I can’t sleep ‘cause my g—damn teach keeps assigning essays due at the end of each week/but little do he know I got a show by the beach/watching girls flash Wizzy way more than they teeth/they mad I’d rather learn flows than they lesson plans.”

“It’s a very valuable market, because college kids, they have a lot of influence in the world and s—,” he said. “So, I think that how I got into this genre, it’s just sort of through hip-hop and through being at school and listening to what’s popular, either at frat houses or parties or at clubs. And then you just sort of build your music around everything else and obviously not straying far away from what you really care about.”

Clearly, Adams has no illusions about his place in music. So what sets his style apart?

“It’s sort of speaking to a different market, different age group. A lot of hip-hop’s more—you know, it’s very urban. In my case, it’s more college kids and high school kids listening to the music, so you have to dumb it down a lot because a lot of people don’t follow [rap]…. I take top 40 hits, a little bit of lyricism, catchy hooks, catchy beats and make that a little bit more electronic.”

But why are all these white guys in rap to begin with?

“Why hip-hop’s working now for a kid like me? First of all, loyal fans… it’s all sort of just how you do it. It’s not that there’s a whole new breed of white rappers coming in, it’s sort of how you market yourself and how smart you are about s—. And then again, it always just comes down to the music.”

This is what confuses me. Because, if it all comes down to the music, that tried-and-true aphorism used to explain and justify any level of success by any artist ever, I wouldn’t expect Posner to get played. Let’s start with his earlier work. “Drug Dealer Girl” and “Smoke and Drive” are almost laughably childish, reveling in the idea of weed as some mystical key to being both funny and badass. But “Everytime I breathe it’s like I’m taking a puff/Turn the music up” doesn’t affect any mood other than the boredom that leads most kids to smoking anyway.

I have a confession to make: I’ve never smoked weed before. Or done anything beyond drinking. But I listen to a lot of drug- and weed-rap, and what characterizes the best of the genre is a mixture of potent, diabolically weird humor and an intuitive understanding of the perversity—the threat, the attraction, the danger, the euphoria, the potential for both death and success, sometimes all at once—that comes with the presence of drugs. Posner has little of this. He raps literally about weed, like a student takes a quiz on derivatives. And beyond drugs, his beer-pong anthems and Solo-cup pontificating are obvious, dull, designed only to get you to raise the cup he’s singing about. But on these earlier mixtapes, Posner’s own idiosyncrasies are everywhere, and it gives the music a certain personality that makes his cultish following understandable. And the first version of “Cooler than Me,” before it became a David Guetta’d electro trainwreck? Pretty fun, admittedly. It had that type of vivacious, haphazard energy that made early Posner an interesting character.

On the LP, Posner tries to get deeper, tries to mature, but his lyrical handling of women—see “Bow Chicka Wow Wow” (what?), “Cheated,” “Gone in September”—roams between cheap pick-up pedantics (“’Cause I’m three shots deep/and I ain’t trying to sleep/Get your Red Bull on ‘cause I’m ready”), petty after-the-fact threats (“I shoulda cheated on you/Nobody told me I was dating a whore”), and soft-rock pseudo-philosophy (“I said I loved you in the summer/But will I love you in the fall?”). Beyond that, there’re still the parties, but he’s not even in college anymore.

So yes, the songwriting’s always been suspect, but the cop-out I’ve heard used by probably a hundred different students, and one that I’ve subscribed to as well, is that he’s got a nasally, off-putting voice, his lyrics are weak, but “he’s a great producer.” Yet even production is getting left behind. 31 Minutes to Takeoff oscillates between kitschy club-hop, what you’d get if you ran Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds through a Euro-trash filter, and the blandest of acoustic singer-songwriter fallbacks, adorned with whiny synth whirrs. Not to mention, Posner didn’t produce most of the album. He only has two solo production credits, and one of them is 54 seconds long. Beyond that, there are four Posner co-production credits against five songs produced entirely by others.

But people are listening, people are buying. And if Twitter’s any indication, people are praising Posner with serious enthusiasm.

Scott Poulson-Bryant, 42, has been around hip-hop since the beginning. A co-founding editor of Vibe magazine in 1992, he’s since written for the The Village Voice, the The New York Times, Rolling Stone and Spin, among others. His second book is coming out this year. And when he went back to Brown University in 2007 after a two-decade break to finish his Bachelor’s degree, his classmates were listening to Posner.

“[Posner is] this middle-class or whatever, white college kid who apparently loved rap and wanted to make music,” Poulson-Bryant said. “Whether you’re a fan of his or not, whether you respect his talent or quote-unquote ability or not, [with] what he wanted to rhyme about… [15 years ago] he would’ve had to go a long way to prove to someone in the quote-unquote industry that he was a viable commodity.”

Having been familiar with the white-black dynamic in hip-hop in all its stages, Poulson-Bryant could see the evolution that led to such a thing being possible, even expected.

“Hip-hop has had an incredibly white audience for years and years and years and years and years, I’m not saying anything brand new by saying that,” Poulson-Bryant said.

Obviously, these guys aren’t the first white rappers—Eminem looms large, in the rearview are goofballs like Vanilla Ice and punk-rap sample pioneers like the Beastie Boys and there’s a strong contemporary underground scene, with artists like El-P and Doseone. But as far as mainstream, widely accepted white rap goes, this is a new upswing that differs significantly from earlier iterations. Eminem, after all, hailed from a poor urban setting and came up with some of the greatest black talent in hip-hop, including Dr. Dre.

“There’s a whole generation of kids who’ve grown up on rap at this point… Rap is a very naturalized, casual phenomenon in our culture. So of course there was going to be a bunch of boys who decide this music speaks enough to me that it’s the way I want to articulate myself creatively or artistically,” Poulson-Bryant said. “What’s interesting to me, though, about this whole phenomenon, these new white kids coming out of universities, is that no one questions the way hip-hop becomes a site of transgressive behavior for white kids. It sort of becomes this place where white kids cannot be white, like they’re white but not white at the same time.”

I asked him if this was what was happening when Posner makes a song called “Smoke and Drive,” and nobody bats an eyelash.

“It’s not like he’s pretending to be black, but this black cultural space is a place where he can indulge all that sort of fantasy.”

And here you have an intriguing wrinkle to this new vein of music. Adams, Posner, Roth and a litany of other lesser-known kids spitting at sweaty crowds in frat houses, lousy with lust: they’ve moved into a traditionally black sphere. Their audiences are, I suspect, predominantly white, a suggestion that Poulson-Bryant agreed with.

Before anyone lifts the sword and shield of racial debate and gets ready to go to war, I’m not saying this is a bad thing. It’s just, like Poulson-Bryant said, interesting. In the academically driven, two-faced worlds of elite college campuses—the work hard/play hard havens of mostly well-off, intelligent youth—this white hip-hop and R&B has become another way to spin students’ need for a diversion into music that’s always provided such outlets for them but now is more relatable and more their own.

“There were times when a white kid who wanted to listen to rap music had to leave Greenwich to go to Harlem to get it,” Poulson-Bryant said. “Those days are over. You don’t have to do that anymore. It’s right at your fingertips, like anything else for your generation.

Sociology, anthropology and a host of other –ologies have had a hand in this movement, but the most easily pinned down element, and possibly the most important, is the Internet. Poulson-Bryant said the students in a course he taught at Brown predominantly got their cultural news from Pitchfork, a website known for being the principal tastemaker when it comes to indie-leaning forms of music. And college radio, a former giant of the independent music scene—the scene that Posner, though a major label artist now, emerged from—is the faded, stumbling image of its former self.

Back in the ’80s and ’90s, college radio played an essential part in the rise of bands like the Flaming Lips, R.E.M., Husker Du, the Replacements and, more locally, Superchunk and Archers of Loaf. Often run by volunteers and absolved from commercial viability, these stations were the voices that, in a time of radio dominance, served as purveyors of the best new alternative rock to a wide audience.

“The thing that’s refreshing about college radio, and this has always been and hopefully will continue to be, is that they decide on what music to play based on whether they like the music or not, and also whether their audience would like it as well,” said Steve Gardner, a music industry professional who’s worked in college radio for 20 years, many of those with Duke’s own WXDU. “And that’s extremely different than most commercial radio formats.”

College radio turned younger fans into cultural arbiters, allowing them to generate real, institutional support behind their favorite artists. But it was still an institution. With the blog-activism of the Internet, the sharing and promoting of music has become even more democratized. Sam Adams said he uses the “random associations” of Facebook to proliferate fans—almost like a virus. And, Poulson-Bryant said, you don’t even need to tour to get your music heard, you just need a track that sounds good to someone.

“Pitchfork has this sort of hipster vibe, hipster representative of hip-ness,” Poulson-Bryant said. “But iTunes has no sort of hierarchy in that way. iTunes is like, pay your 99 cents and the music is yours.”

In a way, major labels have crowd-sourced their efforts. Unlike pop stars of the past, who often needed to be marketed and created in an image that, before their music, did not exist, J Records got Posner with a preexisting fan base, one that he achieved on his own. Gardner talked about how now with college radio, you don’t have to be melodic to get played, you just need to be interesting in some way, to some set of people; in this mold, avant-garde artists like Animal Collective have almost become the norm despite their working in conventionally unusual ways.

“In the old days, you just had that one guy, who lived in that one town, and nobody’s going to do anything for that one guy,” Gardner said. “But now you can kind of make a collective of fans who are into that super-niche thing and they can band together and people can make music for them.”

Posner isn’t super-niche, but it’s the same idea. College students are arguably the most tech-savvy demographic. Tapping into a format that’s been around for years now—that of the mixtape-rapper, giving himself free to the fans—Posner spread beyond the confines of his location. Unlike rappers such as Curren$y, Freddie Gibbs and Jay Electronica, though, he didn’t even need the trumpeting of blogs to get access to the popular producers and the moneyed distributors. Instead, he relied directly on the germ of the collegiate, one that can move between geographically isolated campuses and urban environments with surprising ease.

We have here a new groundswell; we have a future. I don’t know what to make of it. I hope I didn’t mislead you. There’s no accounting for taste. I don’t have any authority. I don’t like Posner’s music, but others do, and we’re both right.

What we can learn from is the method, and the means, and the motion with which Posner pushed himself to the top of a tangled heap. His name is well-suited to a symbolism—Posner—and there’s a surprising much that he might represent.

“@leoNGalo: @MikePosner’s 31minute to take off is one of those albums you just let ride, no skipping tracks.”

“@MikePosner: Thank u sir!”

Music is different now. Everything is different now.


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