What The Game's Been Missing: Concept Albums

Two thousand years ago, the greatest story ever told took place in the little town of Bethlehem. In a narrative fit for Maury, a young woman named Mary, pregnant by someone other than her fiancé (Joseph you are NOT the father), is trying to find a place to have her baby -- the son of God. Oh, and crazy King Herod had it out for her child, so she has to hide out, not in a fancy palace, but in a dusty manger. Here she, with the animals looking on, gives birth to sweet baby Jesus. This is where Christianity begins.

Every religion and group of people subscribes to some type of creation myth. These stories help us make sense of ourselves (why the f--k am I here?) and the world around us (why does crazy sh-t happen?). The ancient Romans believed that Remus and Romulus were raised by wolves. The Yoruba believe in the orishas. Stories are a necessary part of human life, mostly because they give us a sense of purpose. The truth is that we need these creation stories just as much in our spiritual lives as we do in our music.

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The concept album is the closest thing to "mythology" or "creation stories" in modern music. Basically, a musician must form an entire universe of people, places, and things, and orchestrate them both musically and content-wise. These concepts are in many cases far-flung, but they have to be plausible enough that the audience will grant suspension of disbelief. That's a hell of a lot of work for an artist, and even more for artists that don't have a visionary team around them to support that type of undertaking. Maybe that's why there have been so few concept albums in soul, R&B and hip hop in the past 20 or so years. The Roots' undun comes to mind, as does Gorillaz and their interactive virtual band, but not many artists are brave enough to jump into that type of art. It's immersive, time-consuming, and complex.

Some artists have managed to employ bits and pieces of the concept album into their work. Beyonce's alter ego Sasha Fierce is one example, but she only brings Sasha on stage when she wants to amp up a performance. Besides, she is the only person in the Sasha Fierce universe. For a true concept album a larger overarching narrative must be woven into the music itself. George Clinton and the Parliament did this with the P-Funk Mythology. According to P-Funk lore:

"On Mothership Connection, Starchild first appeared (inspired equally by Sun Ra's "Black Noah" and Jesus); he is a divine alien being, who came to earth from a spaceship (his arrival is "the Mothership Connection") to bring the holy Funk (with a capital "F": the cause of creation and source of energy and all life), to humanity. As it turns out (according to The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, 1976), Starchild secretly worked for Dr. Funkenstein, the intergalactic master of outer space Funk, who is capable of fixing all of man's ills, because the "bigger the headache, the bigger the pill" and he's the "big pill" ("Dr. Funkenstein", from The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein). Dr. Funkenstein's predecessors had encoded the secrets of Funk in the Pyramids because humanity wasn't ready for its existence until the modern era. "
-- P-funk Mythology, Wikipedia

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P-Funk built an entire CAREER out of stitching together intricate themes, but they aren't the only ones who have used concepts for their work. Janelle Monáe's Metropolis and The ArchAndroid series charted similar futuristic territory with her Cindi Mayweather character. And these themes don't have to be all sci-fi either: Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite was a visceral trip through his luscious love life and proved that sensual soul stories sell CDs. Marvin's Here, My Dear and Digital Underground's Sex Packets all took the time to set up a story, and all these works are certified bangers.

Mythology answers the question of why -- why the music matters, why it is important to buy into the movement. This idea of creating something bigger than the music itself requires a level of depth that isn't seen often in today's music. It's too bad because there are certainly music lovers out there who want to dive into new concepts, worlds, and stories.

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