—by Armon Sadler
If there’s ever one consistency in music, it’s the everchanging trends that artists are bound to follow. Several months ago, collaborative albums were all the rage. Stars in music were teaming up to capitalize off their popularity, but a lot of the projects were lukewarm. (That could have been the result of heightened expectations, but that’s another discussion.) More recently, everyone is seemingly trying their hand at a remix to Ella Mai’s smash single “Boo’d Up.” It’s a hit with a nice beat so of course Quavo, Fabolous, and T-Pain want in. Sadly, most sequels never compare to the original and, with the exception of T-Pain, that still rings true here. Additionally, a handful of artists have been opting to release shorter albums, and that’s worth a discussion as there are layers to it that people ignore.
In the music industry, once you’ve reached a certain point in your career and have developed enough loyalty from your fans, you have the flexibility to take more creative risks with your work. Established artists like Kanye West, Nas, and The Weeknd—who have been known for delivering hearty projects with a diverse sound—have taken a different route with their recent works, all releasing projects under 10 songs long. It’s an interesting development given the presence of streaming these days and how it can impact sales and certifications. The common argument is that artists create these big projects to manipulate the charts, get more sales, break more records and make more money. That may have some truth to it, but it’s not a black-and-white issue.
For example, at 25 and 45 songs long, respectively, Drake’s Scorpion and Chris Brown’s Heartbreak on a Full Moon—with the latter’s deluxe version clocking in at 57 tracks—really benefit from social media and the streaming aspect of sales. (That, and the fact that these two attract millions of listeners the second anything of theirs releases.) But, notably, prior to this era, they both had successful careers that boost them even further when accessibility to their music was facilitated.
Streaming started being counted toward sales in 2012, first with Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for singles. This was followed up by the addition of YouTube streams for the same chart in 2013, and then eventually streams were counted for the Billboard 200 chart for albums. Every 1,500 streams equaled one album sold. Pandora was added more recently in 2017, and just this year Billboard decided to adjust the system by giving more weight to paid subscription services for music.
Artists like ‘Ye and Abel, who have huge followings, could easily capitalize on this method and achieve record-breaking numbers by overloading listeners with music. However, they instead achieved some pretty successful releases with their more truncated recent efforts. Ye, with seven songs, moved over 200,000 units in its first week, while My Dear Melancholy,, at six tracks long, moved over 168,000. Mathematically, these albums would likely be projected to do worse than any other project greater in length and released by someone just as popular (or even slightly less popular).
In terms of intent, The Weeknd was rumored to be releasing a series of shorter albums, but we haven’t gotten anything from him since March’s Melancholy,. And as far as Yeezy’s unprecedented album roll-out, everyone knows that that was the return of G.O.O.D Fridays. Now, the G.O.O.D Music cohort ranges in popularity, and the first week performances of their albums are somewhat indicative of that. Each seven songs long—save for Teyana Taylor’s marked at eight—’Ye and Cudi’s Kids See Ghosts achieved right under 150,000; Nas’s Nasir and Pusha T’s DAYTONA garnered around 75,000; and Teyana’s KTSE earned just shy of 25,000.
The artistic vision was clear. But the relationship between intention, streaming and sales becomes clearer in the case of Lil Yachty. He’s been a rising sensation over the last two years, with hits like “Peek A Boo,” “Minnesota,” and “One Night,” and features on “Broccoli” and “iSpy.” So, many of us were impatiently awaiting his debut album Teenage Emotions in May 2017. Lil Boat gave us 21 songs and, despite his popularity and social media presence, the album only moved 46,000 units in its first week and still has yet to receive any gold or platinum certifications. So what happened here?
He had the supposed recipe for greatness with a lengthy album, a lot of build-up, and prior success with singles and features. Something was clearly missing though, and that’s the issue with a lot of these arguments about album length. They ignore that an artist has to earn the staying power and clout to do numbers regardless of album length. Very few artists come into the game automatically hot and breaking records. Nas has been doing this for over 25 years, and even he only did 30,000 more than Yachty.
Sure, you can put together a big album with hit singles, filler tracks, and throwaways and distribute it expecting to break records. But what if no one knows your music? What if the promotional rollout isn’t good? What if it’s not available on certain platforms? What if your sound just isn’t respected enough yet for people to deem it worthy of tuning in? Lil Yachty took a risk. The shelf life for a rapper like him, who is grouped with the “mumble rappers” or less lyrical MCs, is about two to three years. Yachty released Teenage Emotions about a year into really being known in the game and that, unfortunately, was not enough time to establish himself as an an artist able and allowed to take creative risks like a 21-song debut album.
The seasoned generation of hip-hop fans and the younger generation are growing apart rapidly, largely due to streaming, social media, and the advancement of technology. Artists no longer release once a year; in fact, thanks to digital services, they can drop singles, EPs, mixtapes, and albums whenever they want. And some of those services are free. Thus, there is an influx of artists and content. The market is saturated and it is a lot more difficult for talent to stand out unless already established or consistently releasing music.
Certain artists pride themselves on providing a lot of music, and the game often feels more like a sprint or relay race than a marathon. The flashier races are track-and-field events where artists opt for recognition and attention. Some artists get really hot then hit their end, like a sprint. Others tag in and out of relevance, like a relay race. Very few opt to run the long race at a steady pace the entire time, and even fewer are capable. The marathon runners though, are the ones who release classics.
Seasoned music heads describe classics as works of art and stories, strengthened by cohesion, content, production, impact, critical acclaim and longevity. Some specifically prefer brevity and conciseness. Look at highly-regarded albums like Illmatic, The Blueprint, Reasonable Doubt and The Low End Theory, all tapping out at under 15 tracks. These were all genuine masterpieces done to let you in on the artist’s lives instead of on a hunt to getting a #1 or winning a Grammy.
These projects all came before musical merit was judged differently. Lord knows what these artists would have accomplished releasing those works in this day and age. What is valued in music has evolved. People want music for the club, for car rides, and for those moments to themselves. People will tune into their favorite artists, regardless of the length of their album, but for the casual music fan, it’s easier to tune into a long album once than a shorter album multiple teams—unless that loyalty is there.
Popularity and sales go hand-in-hand, as popularity can increase sales and sales can then justify popularity. Popularity can be gained and lost very easily, but consistency provides artists the flexibility to take risks in their music. Lil Yachty cannot do the things Drake or Kanye can do at this point in his career, but he can grow into a larger artist than he ever imagined if he continues to do what he does well. Music is not linear, and not everything works for everybody.