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Narrative Essay On Breaking The Rules Song

I spent a large chunk of 2016 trying to talk to Future. I hounded and pressed his P.R. team. Around the top of the year, my nagging paid off; as instructed, I flew from New York to London for an audience with the rapper. I was set to join his tour and follow him for a few days through Europe. Very soon, I would find, things would not break my way.

On the first night I found myself at a chicken shop called Nando’s, directly across the street from his overflowing concert venue, rather than backstage as planned. With great envy, I stared at the crowd flowing in as I munched my breast-and-wing combo.

Future had just sat down for an interview with the BBC’s Charlie Sloth, who asked him about his relationship with Blac Chyna, the Kardashian-affiliated reality-TV personality with whom he’d possibly been romantically involved. “Are yous two still cool?” Sloth asked, in a punchy London rumble. “We great,” Future responded, in his trademark flat-affect reserve.

Privately, though, the entreaty into his personal life enraged him. He declared an immediate media blackout. I was in line for his concert when I got the call from P.R.: The interview was decisively off. I spent a weekend eating delicious Pakistani food, watching Tottenham play Leicester City, hoping for a change of mind that never came.

At that point, Future was roughly two years into a radical public and artistic reimagining. It started in the fall of 2014, not long after his breakup with the R.&B. singer Ciara and the soft landing of his pop-friendly sophomore album, “Honest.” The failure became an important inflection point. Over the next few years, he created a swelling mass of music with a cloaking grandness to it: Take a step inside, and you were entombed. The songs were lean and incessant and almost completely devoid of any other voice but Future’s. And what that voice was intimating to us, from behind the thickest of blackout curtains, was that our man had given up on his conscience and that he was guzzling the prescription cough syrup Promethazine and downing Xanax and that he was having sex with women he did not really care about and that this was neither making him feel good nor bad but rather it was making him feel nothing.

And then, the really weird part: Suddenly, rightfully, Future was considered an artist who could not be ignored, our best next hope for rap-star transcendence. Embracing personal destruction took him there. Was it a meltdown or a rise? What were we to make of a man who made party music out of a death rattle? How should I know? I was stuck at Nando’s.

This February, after a period of uncharacteristic dormancy, Future — born Nayvadius Wilburn in 1983 in Atlanta — returned with a barrage. He released two albums in two weeks, and there are rumors of a third. On the heartbroken “HNDRXX,” he gushed and apologized and balladeered. Future has always had a cockeyed crooner alter-ego; here, it takes the whole stage, suggesting one tantalizing path forward for his discography. And on “Future,” he boasted and bragged and sounded weirdly content.

Take “Mask Off,” a down-tempo track built, by the elite producer Metro Boomin, around a bizarre but lovely woodwind sample. The song hints at a certain kind of violence and ruthlessness, the kind suggested by a criminal setting off into the night and choosing to leave the ski mask at home. And yet it’s the kind of song you would want the D.J. to slip on right when you’ve lost count of your drinks and you’re feeling buzzy and smiley and warm.

Historically, M.C.s have treated narcotics as product to be moved; today’s younger, party-happy rappers give drugs a gleeful knucklehead spin. But when Future describes his voluminous intake, he does so with all the zeal of a man popping open a days-of-the-week pill organizer. On the hook to “Mask Off,” Future rattles off drugs, unsentimentally: “Percocets/Molly, Percocets.” For him, sometimes the drugs are great; sometimes, not so much. On “Mask Off,” amid rhymes about how totally fun and good his life is, he calls Promethazine his “guillotine.”

It feels reductive to try to pin an artist down on the sins of his persona. Hip-hop’s greatest running trick has been blurring the lines of “real life” and art. But with the rate at which Future was rapping about drugs, one question was inevitably posed: Is this an addiction? If so, it was a new spin on a classic trope. The arc of pretty much every drug movie mimics the whiz-bang of the initial high and the eye-blackening horror of the inevitable comedown. Future’s music acknowledged that drug addiction isn’t that cinematically neat: It’s the high and the comedown over and over again.

After London, Future’s P.R. staff and I got back into our little dance. Emails, calls, texts, pleadings. Soon, I received word that Future was ready to talk again. It was in Toronto that we actually met, and where it was so cold that the streets had a kind of a permafrost hue. The pavement felt as if it could, at any point, shatter. For a few days, I tagged along with Future and his affable crew. The first order of business was an interview with a TV station on the 19th floor of a high-end hotel.

The interviewer, a friendly reporter in all black, was drinking a glass of white wine. She showed Future the tattoos on her arm; I couldn’t quite see them, but they were apparently inspired by his music. “Oh!” he said in delight, then waved away Shooter, his ever-present personal photographer. “Let us have this moment.” Apparently emboldened, the reporter shared more. “I’ve been drinking ’cause I’m nervous,” she told him. She had ended a long-term relationship, she said, because of his music.

In person, Future provides no outward signs that you should approach him with confessionals. He’s imposingly tall and more than a little grave. He is also beautiful. (L.A. Reid, chairman of Epic Records, who signed Future, told me of their initial meeting: “Usually I ask people to audition. Future, I didn’t even want him to move. ‘Let’s get you signed while you’re sitting there looking like that.’ ”) But the TV reporter went for it, and it was brave. And almost immediately, Future went back to thumbing through his phone. He either hadn’t heard what she said or he chose to ignore it. After a few beats of silence he finally looked up. “Ay, what’s the name of this hotel?”

The next day, I finally had my chance to connect. We were upstairs at a middlebrow bistro with a lot of bare wood, and Future had just finished off an impromptu date. His partner had off-white blond hair tucked under an actually white baseball cap and was wearing a combination bodysuit/tunic (also white). She’d brought him a late Valentine’s Day gift, a nice puffy coat: “It’s that Chanel swag!” she announced. They ate sushi, chicken wings and steak salad. She told him that when she travels, she likes to stay at Airbnbs because that way you get “immersed” in local culture.

And I know this because during the totality of the date, the team and I were sitting at the adjoining table. Eventually his date left, and Future announced his verdict on the holiday, to grins from the crew: “Man this Valentine’s Day [expletive] a setup.”

Finally, we talked. I brought up London. He smiled. I guess you could call it a sheepish smile. I told him it really didn’t seem as if he wanted to do press at all. I asked him why he was going through with it. “I don’t wanna do it,” he said, maybe even relieved to say it out loud. “My publicist like: ‘Man, why you got a publicist if you don’t wanna do press?’ I’m trying to give you the real me, but they want me to be fake, so I’d rather not even say nothing.”

The conversation rolled on, meandered. It even clicked into gear at a few points. He talked about his itinerant childhood, how he never wanted to have a fixed address so no one with an antagonistic agenda would ever be able to find him. He talked about the love and care of the family members that sorted him out. He remembered the joy of playing “Racks,” an early hit, for the first time and how the D.J. loved it so much he didn’t want to give the CD back. And he said that it all, eventually, changed everything. “Back then, I had no feelings,” he told me. “It wasn’t until I started doing music that I started to really have a conscience.”

It was nice, and fleeting. But I never was able to get a hook into him. I never could formulate a question that made him want to really talk. When I called DJ Spinz, one of Future’s regular collaborators, he told me about Future’s work ethic, his remarkable ability to unfurl a whole song after 20 minutes of hearing a beat roll. But nothing he said felt as relevant as when he told me this: “Future doesn’t speak much.”

I was reminded of a moment back in London. I had stuck around after Nando’s long enough to try to finagle my way into the show. My move was to sidle close to the stage door, in the alley, hoping for an opening. It never came. Upon Future’s arrival, his luxury sedan idled until minutes before his set time. Then he exited the back seat and walked directly through the stage door, surrounded by an imposing security detail, with the massive hood of an arctic parka over his head. I never even saw his face.

I chased Future through two separate sovereign nations and walked away remembering one thing: I love rappers. They never break character.♦

Amos Barshad is a senior writer for The Fader magazine.

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A few weeks ago, I did a talk on the History of Zelda music at the offices of Twitch, which included some post-talk Q&A. I had just finished explaining a key difference between video game music and other forms of music, which is that video game music has to repeat, that it has to play on loop for a potentially indefinite amount of time—when I got a really good follow up question:

“Do you think that games could ever move out of those kinds of constraints [of needing to loop indefinitely]?”


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At the time, I couldn’t really think of a good example of how a game could do that. The one example I could conjure up was the track that plays in New Home from Undertale—which is a 6-minute long track, easily longer than any other track in the game—clearly designed to play through its entirety, as it gradually builds up, mirroring the player’s progression through that section of the game. As a result, this track is not really meant to be looped—it’s meant to be heard from start to finish, and there’s a progression and climax to the music that traditional game music often eschews because of the Loop constraint. (Of course, if a player decided to stop progressing at that point, the music would continue and eventually repeat, but it’s all designed in a way that a situation like that would be unlikely.)

But that idea stuck with me, and after the talk I finally got to finish playing Breath of the Wild…

As a general rule, I don’t like to listen through a game’s soundtrack until after I’ve finished the game (the idea being that I want my first experience with each track to be in its intended context, i.e. in the game itself).

But of course, after finishing the game, I took to YouTube and started going through all my favorite tracks again, as well as others that had slipped by my attention. And I realized:

The music of Breath of the Wild is breaking the Loop Constraint all the time, in different ways, and for different reasons.

Let’s take a closer look.

 

Why Hate for the Loop?

Though it may be obvious, it’s worth first discussing why a game like Breath of the Wild would want to avoid using traditional looped music in the style of the majority of Nintendo games.

Since the beginning, the music of the mainline Nintendo games (and really, most games of the time) were composed by looping a section of music, usually comprising 2 or 3 melodic phrases. Because these few melodic phrases were ones that you would hear over and over, they really had to be catchy (and thus, very melodic) to avoid being annoying—this was something that Koji Kondo, the composer for Mario and Zelda was truly a genius at.

These looped sections of music are almost always the same length—with each melodic phrase taking up about 15 seconds each. Short enough to not require a ton of musical material, but long enough to not be monotonous when looped for long periods of time.

Loop Lengths:

Super Mario Bros. – Overworld1:16 (3rd melody acting as bridge)
Super Mario Bros. 2 – Overworld0:39
Super Mario Bros. 3 – Overworld0:26
The Legend of Zelda – Overworld0:33
Metroid – Brinstar Theme0:48
Pokemon RBY – Pallet Town0:32

Perhaps due to the success of this musical formula, this way of writing video game music pretty much stayed constant throughout Nintendo’s history. Of course, not every track followed this rule—deviation from this formula happened more often as composers began having more resources and license to experiment—but many, especially the most well-known tracks (the ones with the catchy melodies), tend to follow the same pattern:

1991Link to the Past – The Dark World1:00 (3rd melody acting as bridge)
1998Ocarina of Time – Kakariko Village1:33 (3rd melody acting as bridge)
2000Majora’s Mask – Clock Town Day 10:52 (3rd melody acting as bridge)
2002Wind Waker – Dragon Roost Island1:18 (3rd melody acting as bridge)
2006Twilight Princess – Midna’s Theme0:36
2012Skyward Sword – Ballad of the Goddess1:37 (3rd melody acting as bridge)

This is all to ultimately show that, structurally, video game music has not changed all that much since the beginning, at least within Nintendo, and more narrowly, within the Zelda series.

 

So why would they deviate from this formula in Breath of the Wild?

 

Well, the answer is pretty simple, I think—with the game being Open World (or as Nintendo calls it, “Open Air”), as a player you spend the majority of your time in the Overworld, which is huge and completely unfettered by loading screens of any kind. One could easily spend more than an hour just wandering Hyrule Field and its surrounding areas before coming across a town or village with its own distinct track—which means that if Nintendo were to use traditional looped music for the Overworld—and let’s give it a generous 2-minute long loop length—you could easily be listening to that same melody over 30+ times before you got something new.

So how do other Open World games handle this musical design challenge? Skyrim and Minecraft, for example, use largely ambient music, fading in and out semi-randomly, to fill the Overworld. Because ambient music is much less focused on melody, it’s much harder to actually perceive “loops” when listening to ambient music, even when it is looped—because there’s no melody to anchor your musical memory. Furthermore, by having the music fade in and out randomly, there’s no fear of over-exposure:

Skyrim:

 

Minecraft:

 

Breath of the Wild’s approach is similar, but not quite the same.

 

Fragmentation

There IS actually a looped piece of music for the Overworld in Breath of the Wild. It’s this:

 

The music here is so fragmented that for a while I didn’t even think it was a looped piece of music—initially it seemed as though they took short little musical phrases and played them at randomly programmed intervals, like the way it’s done in Minecraft. The key here is the length of silence in between musical moments—they’re long enough so that as a listener you’re no longer perceiving rhythm, and thus, no longer anticipating more music (alternately: you can’t bob your head to this). As a result, you don’t really get sick of it the way you would a looped track.

Note though, that though the music is fragmented, it’s not quite what I would call ambient—each musical cell is a little melody. Again, the real key here to making this loop work is the lack of rhythmic continuity.

(This method of fragmentation is effective even with established, familiar melodies. Check out here how the music for the Temple of Time is slowed down and fragmented to the point where, unless you stop and listen to it, you might not even recognize it as the Song of Time from Ocarina of Time.)

 

Song of Time:

Another benefit of fragmentation like this is the ease of transition in and out of the track. Without loading screens in between areas, the music has to fade in and out seamlessly as you enter new areas. With extended silences in between musical moments, this is made a lot easier. This effect is especially effective when used with some of the less-explicitly distinct area tracks in the game, like the “Cave” track:

 

You can see the way an Overworld track could easily fade into this when you enter a cave. While it doesn’t have a distinct melody that hits you over the head with “We’re in a new area!”, there’s a definite change in mood and timbre with this track. This is another big strength of Breath of the Wild—while much of the soundtrack is centered around a single instrument (piano), there are distinct timbral palettes for different areas of the game, and these timbral changes come through in moments like these.

In this case, the Cave track adds a high-pitched whirring synth and some sort of woodwind in the lower register—together, these two new timbres play long, drawn-out notes that are further emphasized by some added reverb, creating an echo effect—perfect for a Cave track.

When I discovered my first cave in my playthrough of Breath of the Wild, I was struck by how cinematic the moment felt, without the game having to resort to any sort of cutscene—accomplished simply by transitioning to this track as I entered. It’s the game’s ability to create memorable moments like this with music that make the exploration aspect of this game so strong, and a large part of it the soundtrack’s willingness to dial back the melodic writing and focus instead on timbre and harmonic color.

 

Minimalism and Rhythmic “Skips”

While fragmentation drags out loop length, minimalism shrinks it down until it may as well not be there. For example, listen to the Maze Forest (Lost Woods) track:

 

Here we get a 3-note piano loop that creates the backbone for the track, but it’s unusual in that it sometimes appears to “skip” a beat. The best way to listen for this is to use the high note as an anchor—it appears to loop every 3 notes, but then at 0:03 we hear an extra note—a deviation from the pattern, which effectively sets the loop “off phase.” As a result the listener actually feels rhythmically lost (try to count the beats for this track!)—a perfect complement to the track’s purpose.

There is a progression to this track, to be sure, which includes a shift of focus to the bass of the piano rather than the treble for the 3 note loop (note how the “anchor” becomes the lowest piano note around 0:30) and of other seemingly random musical flourishes on top of the piano, and at a macro level there is actually a moment when the track loops and starts again—but none of this is really perceivable to the listener. Instead, the tiny 3-note loop that makes up this track is the object of focus because it’s the only really melodic thing in the entire track, and because of its rhythmic “skipping” it’s nigh impossible to tell when the “larger” loop starts and stops, unless you’re paying very close attention.

This concept of irregular rhythm being used to cloud perception of a loop also appears in the Battle Theme:

 

Again, the music is written in a way that makes it hard to tell where the downbeats are (try counting the beats!). Especially in the 2nd part of this track starting at 0:33, note how the repeated strings pattern is doing the same thing as the piano in the Lost Woods track—setting up a pattern, then deviating from it, causing a “phase shift” that confuses the rhythm.

In this track, we actually get a mash of various repeated patterns from different instruments, further adding to the chaos of the track—Nintendo really did a great job with conveying the right emotions with each of their tracks.

 

Through-Composed Music

The most unusual thing about the Breath of the Wild soundtrack is how many of the important themes are contained in brief, through-composed tracks.

If infinitely looped music is one end of a spectrum, then through-composed music is at the other. The idea of through-composed music is that there are no repeated sections of music, period—so a typical pop song with repeated verses and chorus would not qualify as a through-composed song. But in Breath of the Wild, we have through-composed tracks acting as all 4 of the Champion Themes—themes that end up forming the foundation for a number of other tracks in the game.

Mipha’s Theme

 

Compare this track, which has a distinct beginning and ending, with no repeated section, to Prince Sidon’sTheme (which shares the same melody), which is a 32 second long loop:

Prince Sidon’s Theme

 

To me, this difference in treatment has everything to do with the characters’ place in the story and the gravitas of their specific narrative.

For Prince Sidon (and the other “living” characters) in Breath of the Wild with a theme (Riju, Kass), their themes loop because they are constant, persisting characters in the world of BotW. On the other hand, Mipha and the other Champions are memories—and there is a distinct moment of meeting, remembering, and farewell for each of them. And so appropriately, the themes for these characters are through-composed, representing a finite presence in the game through the music. It’s a great example of deviation from the Loop being used to deliver a specific narrative.

Even in some of the “looped” tracks, this idea of one-directional, linear music stands out—one particular track that really illustrates this is the Rito Village track:

 

This track, is, of course, based on the theme of Dragon Roost Island from Wind Waker—which makes perfect sense, as that was the home of the Rito in that game. What’s interesting to me about this track is not the callback to Wind Waker, but rather the extremely long and flowery introductory section leading up to and including the swelling strings, from 0:00 to 0:38. This type of introduction leading up to the main melody of the track, with its grand dramatic buildup, seems extremely out of place for your standard “looped” video game music track. After all, hearing the introductory buildup looped over and over is a little awkward and weakens the effect. So why use it?

I’m curious about others’ first experience with Rito Village in this game, because for me, entering Rito Village was one of the most memorable moments of the game for me. Again, like my experience with finding my first cave, it just felt so cinematic. The introductory passage sparked a lot of curiosity (it’s a theme new to the Zelda series and you wouldn’t have heard it prior—you hear it later in Revali’s cutscenes) and synced almost perfectly with my crossing the first couple bridges leading up to Rito Village; then, upon finally reaching the central area of the village, the familiar Dragon Roost Island melody kicked in. It just felt so perfect. That moment stuck with me, and it’s not something that could have been achieved without the grand introductory section. To me, it feels like there was a deliberate choice on the composer’s part to give players that cinematic moment, that memorable moment, even if it meant adding an unusually long and dramatic introductory section to a track that might sound a little awkward when looped.

 

Concluding Thoughts

As I was writing and thinking about Breath of the Wild’s use of non-looped music, one idea kept coming back again and again: that many of the most memorable moments from my playthrough of the game involved the use of non-traditional, non-looped music. I’ve talked about how some of that effect was achieved due to the game’s willingness to forgo the standard strengths and benefits of looped music in favor of things like emphasizing timbre, rhythmic effect, or a one-way, emotional progression, but I think that some of the effect is undoubtedly just be the way we’ve collectively understood video game music for the entirety of its lifespan—that it’s a 1-2 minute loop, focused on a catchy melody, looped indefinitely. When a game deviates from using that formula, we naturally take notice.

There’s much more to be said about the incredible quality of the Breath of the Wild soundtrack aside from what I’ve said above—the beautiful orchestration, creative use of piano, the undeniable influence of Joe Hisaishi’s (composer for many of Hayao Miyazaki’s films) style—but I think the game’s willingness to distance itself from the Loop may be the biggest sticking point of this soundtrack (ironically, I think it’s also responsible for a lot of negative feedback people have given about the soundtrack: “Where are all the great Zelda melodies?!”). While it’s certainly not the first game to feature this type of musical writing, it’s definitely given non-traditional looped music more exposure (especially when juxtaposed against past Zelda games). There’s a great deal of unexplored territory in terms of the structure of game music, and this is a great starting point for composers looking to do something different.

What do you think about looped music in video games, and what are your favorite examples of unconventional music structure in games? Let me know in the comments!


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