Monday, 30 March 2015

DIGITAL WORDS / Nicki Minaj Live Review

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It’s sad but it’s edifying: whilst one rap pretender, who shalt remain nameless, postpones an entire tour due to “production delays”, Nicki Minaj presses on with her Pinkprint arena shows in the wake of her tour manager’s murder just a month before the premiere date.
She’s said it before, but it bears repeating: Nicki Minaj is the best. And all these bitches is her sons. It’s not egomaniacal delusion. It’s cold, hard proven fact. The Pinkprint Tour is further conclusive evidence.
Support comes from Minaj’s ‘Touchin’ Love’ collaborator, Trey Songz.
Trigga Trey gets the warm kind of reception that most opening acts would donate an organ for. He’s made in the R&B heartthrob mould – all glistening tattooed muscles, a solid voice, and, yes, his vest top comes off whilst trilling on about “swimming in your body” (‘Dive In’). He’s a definite contender for those looking for a new infatuation more relevant than Usher and without the endless moral implications of Chris Brown.
It was a bold move to open The Pinkprint album with three intensely personal slowies, and it’s even bolder for Nicki Minaj to begin tonight’s set with that same trio. ‘All Things Go’ and ‘I Lied’ show off that rap rarity of vulnerability, and add a whole new shade to Minaj’s already established lyric and performance mastery. These emotionally intimate tracks are clearly important to the rapper, as a person and an artist, not a sales-baiting star.
Jessie Ware turns out for a guest appearance to provide the rousing chorus for Nicki’s most effective rap ballad to date,’The Crying Game’. So sublime is the show’s opening that it makes a later set of ballads seem slightly laboured in comparison. ‘Pills N Potions’, ‘Save Me’ and ‘Grand Piano’ are all excellent fare but the hammy ‘Marilyn Monroe’ is overkill.
The flipside to all this is the fiery as fuck, “abusive by nature not, cause I hate ya” Nicki that everyone is more accustomed to. And she holds nothing back. ‘Moment 4 Life’ is the first true “moment” of the night and typifies the life-positive attitude Nicki effuses.
For the easily distracted the girl-power-on-steroids strength Minaj preaches, embodies and encourages can get lost in translation, what with the cartoonish silhouette and unapologetic delivery. But if womankind could muster up the balls Nicki has when spitting the lyrics of a single line from ‘Lookin’ Ass’, ‘Did It On ‘Em’ or ‘Beez In The Trap’, feminism would be an open and shut case. The way that the crowd hollers en masse the opening lines from ‘Only’ (“I never fucked Wayne, I never fucked Drake/On my life, man, fuck’s sake”) implies that progress is already in motion.
Whilst it’s worth noting that Nicki Minaj doesn’t patronise her audience to do anything as vacant as scream or clap or whatever, and instead tells us all to come back with new accomplishments the next time she plays London, there is plenty of playfulness during the 27 song set too.
Her choreography, for example, is better than ever; slick and assertive, she’s playing (and beating) pop’s biggest stars at their own game. Now the face of Cavalli and being styled by Rushka Bergman, Minaj’s personal style is chicer than ever, but she still keeps her look ultra risqué on stage with various bejewelled undergarments layered with mesh and lace body stockings. Huge hits like ‘Anaconda’, ‘Super Bass’ and ‘Starships’ are tireless crowd-pleasers. And whilst the RedOne-moulded likes of ‘Whip It’ and ‘Pound The Alarm’ are banger fodder, Minaj’s latest party anthem, ‘The Night Is Still Young’, shows her stepping up her pop credentials once again.
The Pinkprint Tour is a concentrated distillation of everything that makes Nicki Minaj the all-conquering queen of all she sees. She’s a multi-faceted force for good. Any girl idolising a female music star other than Minaj is doing both herself and Nicki a grave disservice.
Written for FMS

Friday, 27 March 2015

DIGITAL WORDS / Allyson Ezell 'The Ease of Remembering Sparks - Part 1' EP Review

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Mature pop is tricky. Few do it well. But Allyson Ezell is an upcoming talent firmly in that minority.
On her current ‘The Ease Of Remembering Sparks – Part 1’ EP (out now via Universal Music) Ezell shows off how classy, intelligent and affecting leftfield pop can be.
Opener ‘Pick It Up’ is as irrefutably catchy as it is beautifully built. The track evolves from a breathy whisper to a sing-along chorus, all the while Allyson’s voice performing understated feats. She could probably match one Florence Welch in a lungful sing-off, but chooses to exercise some of the restraint the latter refuses to employ.
The gulf between Ezell’s vocal prowess and the minimal electro twinges and beats gives off a refined finish. The chilled ‘Talk To Me’ is a perfect example of Allyson’s contrasting sound. Her distinctive vocals are given room to wax and wane whilst the laid-back percussion meanders in the distance.
‘Disappear (What I Do)’ shows off the attitude that allowed this Franco-American songstress to breeze her way into a recording contract. “I’m sorry I made you love me, I’m sorry I made you care”, she sings, unperturbed and actually not really sorry at all. We like it.
From the sprightly poise of the single ‘Pick It Up’ to the darker sentiments of ‘Landmine’, this EP is a fine taster of Allyson Ezell’s varied charms.
Written for FMS

Monday, 23 March 2015

DIGITAL WORDS / The Garden Live Review

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In between playing support slots for Warpaint, Cali twins Wyatt and Fletcher Shears are spending their time wisely by bolstering their live reputation with headlining shows of their own.
Winning over the 100 Club is no mean feat, but The Garden unequivocally did so with this, their third ever visit to London. With the recent release of Dazed & Confused’s short documentary on the Shears brothers, Twinheads, they have hugely amped up their intrigue factor and made it patently obvious that having modelled for Saint Laurent and being plucked from obscurity by Hedi Slimane’s talent spotting team is actually the least fascinating thing about them.
Playing a solid hour set with unrelenting energy and merciless pace, The Garden are a thrilling live act. They thrashed through the already wide ranging material they have to their name with never a willing break in between numbers. Actually, the only halt to proceedings are unwelcome technical issues with Wyatt’s bass – but it’s a problem dealt with calmly and covered by impromptu drum fills from Fletcher.
The gorgeous grunge fog of ‘Crystal Clear’ creeps past within the first few minutes of the show. ‘Slice ‘Em’ provides around 120 seconds of menace. ‘Apple’, ‘Surprise!’, ‘I’m A Woman’ and the freshly unveiled ‘I Want That Nose I Saw On TV’ go down as the biggest crowd pleasers of the night. The latter of which made up an electro break in proceedings, along with schizophrenic ‘Cloak’ and the panpsychism-inspired ‘Everything Has A Face’, where instruments are abandoned in favour of a programmed backing track, allowing the brothers to show off their physical freak-out moves, including multiple stage dives from the now freed-up drummer.

Whilst we had hopes for a musical duo with the intense shared intuitive playing of music’s last great mysterious twosome, The White Stripes, The Garden, interestingly, barely interact while on stage. Maybe it’s down to the ever-problematic stage layout of the venue. Perhaps they’re so in sync that both verbal and eye contact are rendered unnecessary. So it’s interesting that their individual performance styles vary so wildly – Fletcher, the unpredictable wildcard and Waytt the controlled frontman. But together they combine to form an intense performance mode that they eerily snap in and out of, dependent upon the sharp punk timings of their songs.
It’s only fitting that The Garden close with two rounds of their 20-second manifesto piece ‘Vada Vada’. It causes a temporary stage-invasion frenzy, something which phases the band not one iota and shatters the moment the last “vada” is uttered.
This is a band with distinct stage presence and refreshing disregard for expectation. Like the audience who hang around for a further half an hour to fawn over The Garden, we want more Vada Vada.
Written for FMS
Photos by Andreia Lemos

Sunday, 22 March 2015

I Hate... When magazines don't have the guts to call out rubbish music acts / Dirty Pop

PREFACE: So... The writing below was supposed to be for an online column about my favourite topic: pop music. The magazine website that was supposed to publish it didn't like the funny lines and were not up for running anything even mildly amusing about acts that they have worked with in the past or hope to in the future (totally forgetting the fact the NME used to refer to Bryan Ferry as "Byron Ferrari" in the '70s even though he was one of their most popular cover stars...). If they're not willing to compromise then neither am I. Here's my first and last Dirty Pop article... 

Welcome to the first ever installment of Dirty Pop – a new column named after a lyric sung by Nsync some 14 years ago which aims to illuminate all the goings in pop music through some sharp observations and lively discussion. Dirty Pop will look at the real news, you know, actual events and significant developments (as opposed to an artist getting out of a car at a public event, going into said an event, and leaving again etc).

We know what you’re thinking, “Thank goodness. This couldn’t have come sooner. I’m constantly bombarded by popular culture news updates and am inundated with think pieces but what I really need I just one insightful source to guide me and shape my dinner party conversational fodder.” We hear you. So let’s get on with it.

February, of course, was awards season! So undernourished are the rich and famous when it comes to recognition and praise that they require numerous annual events to tell them, “Hey, just keep on keepin’ on”. Such troopers.

The Grammys were the biggest let down of the crop. Having AC/DC open the ceremony was extremely misleading as what followed was ballad, after ballad after ballad (apart from Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ performance, which, like Sia, kicked ass in many ways). You know it’s been a bad night when “Kanye doing a Kanye” is the talking point of an event. Literally, Kanye West semi recreating the same thing he did six years ago was as exciting as things got. As a result, the politics of Katy Perry’s presidentially sanctioned and Brooke Axtell prefaced performance of ‘By The Grace Of God’ to promote the It’s On Us campaign pledge to eradicate domestic abuse and sexual assault, in front of an invited audience that included Chris Brown, fell by the way side.

Every year at the Oscars actors are all forced to recognise their own uselessness when none of them are able to put on a three minute skit to amuse their peers and the viewing public. Thus pop stars (and Rita Ora) are recruited to provide some actual entertainment on the night.

Lady Gaga’s performance to mark the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music made her the biggest winner overall. She did what Madonna would never have the guts to do – stand still and sing for her life. Her marvellous medley provoked positive but, ultimately, patronising reactions: “Oh, wait she can really sing?” Yes. Duh. It’s a continuation of the widely and wrongly held consensus among too many critics that the best parts of Lady Gaga’s concerts are when she sits down at the piano and sings a cappella. Let’s clear this up once and for all; a true artist can make equally compelling auditory and visual impacts simultaneously. They need not be exclusive. Furthermore, Lady Gaga’s triumph provided further proof, alongside her recent announcement of starring in the upcoming series of American Horror Story, that she is a true pop renegade with the ability to live and thrive outside of album campaigns and tour schedules. Forget awards, Lady Gaga is winning at life.

Oh wait, don’t forget about awards as we had one final event to attend in the shape of the BRIT Awards. Ant and Dec were a great choice for hosts but the biggest laugh of the night had to be Lily Allen’s inclusion in the British Female Solo Artist category (her last three chart positions tot up to N/A, #93 and #43…). 

But just when we all thought there was going to be no headline moment, Madonna unwittingly delivered. Madonna, of course, made the most relevant move of her career since slipping her tongue in Britney Spears’ mouth over a decade ago by succumbing to gravity.

It was a definite tectonic plate shifting moment in the pop hemisphere, but let’s not forget the other significant outcomes of the night, such as One Direction’s lack of presence. Obviously they couldn’t attend, they are on a world tour that had them stationed in Japan at the time, but the fact that they only won in a category that relied on social media interaction from fans was telling. And that they didn’t even pre-record a thank you message for an award they were clearly going to win was even more pressing. Pharrell Williams managed to find the time to send along a “sorry I’m not there but ta all the same” VT – what, do One Direction think they’re busier than Pharrell Williams? Apparently so. It just served as yet another sign that the end is nigh for One Direction. Good luck, Niall!

The one life and industry affirming artist of the night was Paloma Faith who has too often been harshly overlooked. Finally, her strong voice, vivacious personality and determined attitude was formally recognised and physically rewarded. With or without a Tracy Emin designed statue, her obvious flair would be the same but it clearly mattered a great deal to her. As well as proving that true talent can win out, Paloma also stands as testament that anyone with or wanting to pursues a useless MA, such as the Time Based Arts masters she herself possesses, can still make something of themselves.

Dirty Pop’s (Inaugural) Star of the Month Prize Goes To…
*Drum Roll* *Confetti cannon burst* …Max Martin!

As proof of how hollow and ultimately meaningless officially sanctioned recognition can be, Max Martin, the hallowed father of everything that truly great modern pop is, won his first ever Grammy this year (for producer of the year). Yeah, WTF? The man who delivered unto us the likes of ‘…Baby One More Time’, ‘Teenage Dream’ and too many other mind-bogglingly perfect pop songs to recount, has only just received his gold plated gramophone-shaped acknowledgement from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. So, no wait here. Right off the bat – Max Martin you are the man of the hour. Long may those ego-driven souls seeking pop immortality suckle from your bountiful teet of talent. 

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Sunday, 8 March 2015

PRINTED WORDS / Iconic Magazine #18 OUT NOW

The latest issue of Iconic magazine is OUT NOW

The theme of the issue is Superhero. So if your knowledge on Michael Jackson's scuppered plans to buy Marvel, his love of comic books and Captain EO needs enhancing, then this is the issue for you.

I have contributed an article on Michael Jackson's own hero - James Brown. 

To whet your appetite, here is a video of Michael Jackson on stage with James Brown in 1983. It was an off-night for Prince... 

Order your copy of Iconic #18 HERE

Oh, and while you are over at King of Shop, look at some of the great MJ merchandise they stock! I want the matching Dangerous notebook and pen (it's always a good talking point when you turn up at a meeting with Michael Jackson stationary). 

Friday, 27 February 2015

This choreography is everything (especially when viewed unedited) 

Sunday, 8 February 2015

DIGITAL WORDS / Seen On Screen Dance Review

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After turning 25 late last year it suddenly dawned on me: "Oh wait. Maybe those dreams of becoming a pop star aren't going to come to fruition. Shit."

As my hope fully crumbled around me and I realised that by the time Britney Spears was my age she had already released five albums, completed four tours, married twice and had her public meltdown (with her resurrection to follow). I've skipped all the good stuff and gone straight to the burn out!
However, just as Britney rose from the ashes of 2007 to the splendor of her 'Womanizer' return, I too am fighting back. And it all begins (and perhaps ends) with some kick-ass dance training.

Seen On Screen Dance is the answer to my private prayers. SOS provide the dance classes of my dreams. Running a comprehensive timetable of sessions across London that teach all-level wannabe pop stars the choreography of their idols, SOS is an accessible, affordable, and above all, fun fitness option.

For my inaugural class I signed up to learn the footwork of the moment - Bruno Mars' 'Uptown Funk' routine. The hour-and-a-half class was a sell-out and hosted at Rambert on the South Bank. The large class of 99% female attendees varied in their dance experience - from the shy girls, initially, hiding at the back, to the sassy pros throwing in extra hairography down the front. As well as marveling at some of the other gals' moves, a key tip I picked up was that the thing to wear to these classes is leggings, a vest top, lightweight trainers and a checkered shirt tied around one's waist (that last detail is crucial. I felt oddly moronic for not thinking of such an accouterment beforehand).

After a quick warm up to Mark Ronson, Mystikal and Bruno Mars' 'Feel Right' it was straight into learning the first few phrases of 'Uptown Funk'. Teacher Elliot was impeccable - he kept the class well paced so everyone was always on their toes but picked up on when we needed to revisit any quick paced moves. Plus, any teacher who uses Jack McFarland and a drunk Tina Turner as reference points to enhance our interpretations of the choreography is A-okay with me. He also encouraged the already very welcoming and friendly atmosphere of the class by getting everyone to sing along and sass it up as our learning progressed.

As the class drew to an end and we ran through the entire song and dance twice non-stop, there's a sense of not just personal achievement but a group enthusiasm (even amongst strangers) when the whole routine comes together in such a flawless fashion. The time goes by so quickly that even before I'm on my way home on the tube I'm already planning when I can book my next installment of SOS fitness.

Written for DISORDER

Saturday, 7 February 2015

DIGITAL WORDS / "Michael Jackson Inc." Book Review

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‘Michael Jackson Inc.’ is a refreshing addition to the ever increasing catalogue of MJ titles. Zack O’Malley Greenbug, a seasoned Forbes journalist and author, has breathed life into the biography genre with his business-focused account and has addressed an aspect of Michael Jackson’s career that has been sorely neglected. Greenburg’s ‘Michael Jackson Inc.’ is an excellent counterpoint to Joe Vogel’s vital ‘Man In The Music’, providing the business, financial and legal details that underpinned Jackson’s hold over popular culture.

Just as all biographies take Michael Jackson’s money-making and business acumen for granted, so does Greenburg with Jackson’s music and artistry. It is a given in ‘Michael Jackson Inc.’ that Michael was a superlative composer and performer, so the focus is solely on the contracts he signed and the figures he hired and fired which allowed him to build, collapse and, in death, restore his business empire.

The narrative does not really pick up until attorney John Branca (now co-executor of the Michael Jackson Estate) enters the story in 1980 at the advent of Jackson’s adult solo career. The pace of Greenburg’s writing ensures that he quickly rattles through the Motown/Jackson family deals that went beforehand, but it also means he sometimes skims on detail. Indeed, anyone wanting to deepen their knowledge of the mechanisations of the music industry through reading this book may be disappointed, but, on the flipside, Greenburg writes clearly enough to ensure that novices can follow the business jargon.

The sources for this book vary in their veracity. On the one hand there is an impressive level of corroboration from the Michael Jackson Estate, with involvement from John Branca and archivist Karen Langford, plus access to personal notes penned by Jackson himself (although such input may have come with conditions, one suspects, as the closing chapter reads like an extended advert for the current Cirque du Soleil ‘One’ show in Vegas). On the other hand, Greenburg also takes on testimony from the likes of Joe Jackson and Dieter Wiesner. Whilst on many occasions the author takes the time to discredit and disprove some of the statements made by his shadier sources, one wonders why he bothered interviewing them in the first place.

Whilst the narrative of this book makes it a quick and accessible read that avoids repeating the same biographical details that we all know so well already, one way ‘Michael Jackson Inc.’ could have been fleshed out is with a little more personal input from the author himself. As a senior Forbes editor, I would have appreciated his own views on whether some of the business decisions and acquisitions Jackson made were good or bad moves. Should he have purchased the ATV catalogue? Should he have given up a stake to Sony? Should he have bought Neverland? Whilst it is admirable that Greenburg leaves his ego out of the text, his own expert analysis would be welcome. However, an interesting emphasis is placed on a soured endorsement deal with L.A. Gear as a turning point in Michael Jackson’s previously untarnished business portfolio.

Two key areas that it feels like ‘Michael Jackson Inc.’ sadly fails to get to the bottom of are the most WTF times of Jackson’s life and career: the ‘HIStory’ era and Jackson’s post-2005 trial wanderlust days. For example, who the hell was pulling the strings when Michael decided to announce Kingdom Entertainment and why did it get to the point of a press conference? Why did his recording and performing track record turn fallow after ‘Invincible’? And what exactly lead Jackson, who once earned $125 million in a single year (that fact is brought to you by the ultra-handy career earnings chart housed within ‘Michael Jackson Inc.’) to soliciting advice on a Monday on how to prevent Neverland going into foreclosure on a Friday? It would be a Herculean task to truly unfurl all of the comings and goings of Michael Jackson’s staff and bank balances around the time of ‘HIStory’ and his final years, but if anyone could rise to the challenge, it would be Greenburg.

Overall ‘Michael Jackson Inc.’ is a fantastic read with a pleasingly original angle and unfaltering focus on the topic in hand. One can only hope that this title paves the way for more forensic details of Michael Jackson’s finances and assets in the future. 

Friday, 30 January 2015

DIGITAL WORDS / Viva Las Vegas

As artists with younger fan bases than the usual Las Vegas veteran performers are making their mark on Sin City, Kate Allen considers the benefits of live residencies for artists and fans alike

In a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory, the female contingent of the programme take a trip to Las Vegas and debate what night time entertainment they’re going to invest in – seeing a male strip show or a Barry Manilow tribute act (Fairly Manilow). It’s a pretty outdated and unfair summation of what Las Vegas has to offer to its growing clientele of younger tourists.

After suffering a 5% slump in tourist rates between 2007 and 2010, Las Vegas reversed its fortunes in a major fashion last year. 2014 saw Vegas attracting over 40 million visitors – an all-time record for the resort city. The average age of tourists also significantly dropped from a median age of 50 in 2009 down to 45 today. Predictions for 2015 look even rosier and a substantial factor, alongside an upturn in national economy prosperity and increased airport capacity, is Vegas’ new adoption of younger musical acts and trends.

Celine Dion first setting up camp at The Colosseum back in 2003 set a new precedent for what artists could expect to earn from a Las Vegas residency. She paved the way for the likes of Rod Stewart, Cher and, most recently, Shania Twain to follow in her footsteps. One of Caesars Palace post-Celine stalwarts is doing better business than ever. Elton John, who first touched down in Vegas back in 2004, is now making $500,000 a night from his Million Dollar Piano residency.

However the last galvanising shock to light up The Strip was Britney Spears. Whilst the proliferation of EDM across the States saw the advent of eye-watering pay days (around $200,000-$300,000 per DJ slot) for the likes of Calvin Harris, Tiësto, and Deadmau5 in 2013 in some of Vegas’ uber-clubs like Hakkasan, Spears is the artist who had the publicity powers to show what Vegas has to offer younger stars and their youthful fans.  

Following a $100,000 announcement event for her Piece Of Me residency that involved a helicopter arrival and a thousand Britney lookalikes, Spears is now raking in $475,000 per show and has extended her original contract for shows that will now date into 2017. So successful has the “Miss American Dream” been that to celebrate her impact on Sin City November 5 was officially named “Britney Day” and Spears was presented with the key to the Las Vegas Strip.

Speaking about the arrangements of playing her stationary show in Vegas, the ‘Work Bitch’ singer flagged up the consistency that a permanent residency has given her: “The way I used to travel all around the world and do a different show every night, I'm like, ‘How did I do it?!’” In her wake, artists of a similar calibre are beginning to follow suit. Mariah Carey will be kicking off her #1s residency in May at The Colosseum and rumours persist that Jennifer Lopez – whom, like Spears and Carey, is a mother of two – will be the next name in lights on the Vegas Strip.

Not only are there the personal benefits to consider in eliminating touring from an artist’s schedule, there are also the huge financial incentives. As live music continues to be the lifeline of the music industry it would be ludicrous for popular acts not to look at the sizeable savings to be made from eradicating stage construction, transportation and staff costs of a world tour when compared to a residential stay. Also, without the limitations of having to make a show travel-friendly, artists are afforded a greater amount of creative freedom when it comes to designing their concerts; thus Celine Dion could employ a 40-piece orchestra as her backing band, Britney Spears can perform in front one of the world’s largest indoor video installations and Liberace – the Godfather of glitz – was able to pull up onstage in crystalized cars whilst wearing capes that weighed in at 60 pounds. 

Furthermore, Las Vegas residencies hold great advantages for fans too. Compare and contrast the relative intimacy of Britney Spears’ theatre at Planet Hollywood with its audience capacity of 4,600 to the venues she toured in 2011 that saw her playing to crowds of anywhere from 8000-30,000. There are also the personal touches of fans being able to shop from a dedicated Britney boutique before her shows and viewing a makeshift museum of Spears costumes and relics in the concert hall lobby. There’s even the option of heading to a post-show bar that serves Britney-inspired martinis and employs dancers dressed like ‘…Baby One More Time’ school girls. It may sound tacky but it’s giving fans what they want and then some.

With the inaugural Rock In Rio USA festival taking place in Las Vegas in May, which sees big hitters like Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars and Metallica topping the bill, it gives other sure-fire sell-out names the chance to consider what else the “Entertainment Capital Of The World” has to offer them. With the only prerequisites, really, for a Vegas residency being that an artist has A) 90 minutes worth of material that can be dressed up to the nines and B) enough fans who are over the age of 21, who’s to stay that Britney Spears’ runaway success isn’t just the tip of the iceberg?

Whilst there remains competing heritage acts and revamped legends, such as Cirque De Soleil shows using music of The Beatles, Michael Jackson and Elvis, the reality is that Las Vegas punters are getting younger and an extravagent concert is just the start of a good night out. Was Kanye West ill-advised to have turned down a recent offer of $4.5 million for a nine day residency? Probably. If Britney Spears can thrive out there in the desert just imagine what kind of damage a Beyoncé, Jay Z or even Daft Punk could do…

Written for Record of the Day