What Makes an Artist Great?

Music is truly an art form like no other. While I can’t speak for everyone, I have always felt a stronger connection with my favorite musicians than I do with most of the people in my own life. I’ve never met any of my favorite musicians (yet, at least), but they still have done more for me than the vast majority of people that I have met. My favorite artists have served as mentors and even friends to me.

It probably sounds like I’m delusional and anti-social, but music is my everything. It has inspired me in ways that nothing else can, it has helped me in ways that nothing else can, it has taught me things that nothing else can. I know that millions of others feel the same way; many of you reading this likely feel the same way.

So, what is it that makes music so powerful?

That’s a loaded question, and one that I’m not fully qualified to answer, at that. I believe that the most simple answer is the power of the artist themself.

So, in a world with millions of musicians, what separates a great artist from a just-okay artist? What separates a beloved musician from a one-hit wonder? I like to refer to the intro of the Drake classic, “Pound Cake” :

“Only real music is gonna last. All that other bullshit is here today, and gone tomorowwwwwwwwww.”

While many have turned it into a limiting term that basically condemns any music made in the 21st century, “real music” can really be anything. Any genre, any sound. As long as you feel that shit, that’s real music. Whether it’s SoundCloud rap or classical music, feeling is the most important component of music. With that being said, I believe the most important mark of a great artist is their ability to convey feeling through their art.

What makes a great listening experience? To me, visualization has always been the most important part. All of my favorite albums take me to a much different place than my physical location while listening to them, and I believe this aspect of escapism is one reason why myself and many others find music so addicting and therapeutic.

One of the most prominent examples in my mind is the 1994 Nas masterpiece, Illmatic. Every single song on Illmatic makes me feel as if I’m in New York in the 90’s, thanks to the gritty production and impeccable storytelling. Emphasis on storytelling.

Nasir Jones is a better storyteller than many authors, and Illmatic, despite being his debut album, is a flawless display of his literary gift. In just 10 tracks, Nas crafted something of a street bible - dropping his own stories, the stories of others, and pearls of wisdom gathered from the rough NYC streets. The stories told through Illmatic resonate more than many novels and films do.

Another such album is Kendrick Lamar’s classic, Good Kid Maad City. The iconic minivan album cover even reads “a short film by Kendrick Lamar” down at the bottom. As far as I’m concerned, “a short film by Kendrick Lamar” is the best way to describe the genius that is Good Kid Maad City. Lamar recounted a series of stories from his adolescence in Compton with full honesty, and the listener can feel the rawness on each track. What really hits it home is the dialogue at the end of each track - the uncensored conversations between the teenage friend group looking for trouble; the unfiltered phone rants from Kendrick’s parents; the jokes about Kendrick’s love interest, Sherane. The easy and exciting listening experience makes you feel as if you’re in the story, as well.

"A Short Film By Kendrick Lamar"

However, storytelling through music doesn’t always have to rely on lyricism alone.

Take Travis Scott’s most recent offering, Astroworld. Let’s be honest - most of us don’t listen to La Flame for deep lyrics. Most of us listen to Trav to turn the fuck up and not think too much about it. Travis embraces that; he is the king of rage. His whole career has been a testament to that rage, providing us with testosterone-driven bangers ever since Owl Pharaoh. While lyricism hasn’t always been Travis’ forte, symbolism certainly has.

Astroworld is an album (and an excellent one, at that), but it is moreso a figment of Scott’s imagination brought to life. Astroworld is a location on another planet far away from Earth; a fully-immersive musical experience with more emphasis on the experience than the music. Everything was perfectly orchestrated to bring Scott’s vision to life - the album rollout, the album art, the merchandise, the tour experience, and the other-worldly feel of the album. Travis conquered the second half of 2018 and gave us an experience that will not be forgotten anytime soon. While the real Six Flags AstroWorld has been closed since 2005, Travis’ rekindling of Astroworld is permanently open for business.

Scott's Astroworld Fest, held in Houston, TX

Even before Astroworld, the Houston born-and-bred rapper has had a gift of creating symbolic experiences for the listener. 2015’s Rodeo was almost the prototype for Astroworld, if you will. The symbolism, the experience, the wide range of collaboration. Similar aspects are found on Days Before Rodeo as well as Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight.

While many people may not take Travis too seriously due to his often lackluster lyricism and public antics, he is probably one of the most gifted artists of our generation. Time after time, he can create a true musical experience that few others in today’s music industry can compete with.

At the end of the day, listening to music is simply a sensory experience. It can make you happy or sad; relaxed or hype. Music can take you to another world where nothing else matters, and I believe that is the true beauty of music. The beauty of music is its innate ability to transcend the confines of reality. Great artists take full advantage of the beauty of music to create a one-of-a-kind experience. Great artists tell great stories and paint vivid pictures. Great artists make you feel; great artists make you think. Great artists build off of their inspirations and inspire a whole new generation. These are the things that make an artist great.

I could go on all day about what makes an artist great; the topic couldn’t be any more vast or subjective. However, some qualities are universal. I believe the qualities listed in the previous paragraph are all universal. However, if there is one universal quality, I believe it is this: great artists make you feel great. Whether you feel great about yourself, about life, or simply about the music itself, a great artist will uplift you. Inspire you. Excite you.

Go listen to some great music today. You deserve it.