There’s so much rap music dropping every Friday that albums from 2018’s first quarter feel like distant memories. It’s not just that there are more hip-hop artists than ever, so many of those artists are turning up the dial on releases. Whether it’s young artists like Gunna and Lil Baby trying to entrench themselves or established stars like Migos striking while the iron is hot, so many artists are flooding the market in a chase for streams and lasting relevance in this accelerated music climate.
Artists have to know that their work is not being fully digested by fans and journalists feeling under the gun to give every project in a given week an obligatory listen or risk falling behind. Label executives have to be aware of that as they greenlight a deluge of projects every month — they’re virtually engineering artist fatigue.
While there are some younger millennial and Generation Z listeners who are accustomed to the streaming era’s inundation and see no qualms with demanding more from artists, there are other fans who are simply exhausted with the realization that too much music can be a bad thing. The popular adage is that listeners have a low attention span that necessitates more music, but perhaps they’re mired in a chicken-or-egg relationship with a music industry immersing them in content.
Halting the whirlwind of brief album cycles begins with the artists. Migos’ Offset is set to (eventually) release his debut solo album this month, following up solo releases from fellow Migos’ members Quavo and Takeoff. The trifecta should be a crowning achievement given the anticipation fans had for Migos solo albums just a year ago, but it feels anticlimactic after a two year run of constant output by the Atlanta trio. Just a year after their star-making Culture album, it feels like they’re on the downward side of the figurative mountain and need to let the public miss them.
Their circumstance reflects an inevitable trajectory for any act that floods the market with music that reflects less-than-optimal care. Quavo and Takeoff’s solo albums, like Migos’ Culture II, were panned for being too monotonous. They rested too comfortably on the laurels of their wearing formula of triplet flows and repetitious hooks, and the middling reception showed. The Atlanta trio won their place on rap’s steeple by feeding the beast of ephemerality with assembly-line efficiency, but that’s also how they could lose it if they don’t become more conscientious about delivering strong projects with more than the occasional banger.
Whereas Culture II songs were created in between 20-to-45 minutes, certain tracks from Travis Scott’s Astroworld were curated over as many as 50 sessions. Travis’ attentiveness paid off, as Astroworld is one of the most appreciated bodies of work this year. There’s no reason why the talented Migos — whether collectively or individually — couldn’t utilize their network of the game’s hottest producers, find a focused executive producer (perhaps La Flame himself) and take time on a momentous project of their own to stamp their impact on 2019 like Culture did 2017. Another great album would do more for them — or any artist — than a hoard of hastily released projects. It would also be a message to upstarts aspiring to be them to not simply Drip Harder — but drip smarter.
Lil Baby and Gunna are two of rap’s rookies of the year, following in the prolific footprints of their Atlanta predecessors. They’re steadily ascending with a growing catalog of subwoofer candy that shows off their melodic tendencies. After their joint Drip Harder project dropped in October, they could have regarded the generally positive feedback as a capper to a breakout 2018 — but instead, one used it as momentum for one more project, and the other almost did the same. Lil released Street Gossip on November 30, and Gunna said in October that he was planning to drop Drip Or Drown II for before the year is out. Their fans may be clamoring for new music now, but how will the public receive it this time next year if they release another three projects in 2019 — including two in a three-month span? Will they be able to keep the creative juices flowing by following the prolific path of artists like Migos, Future and Young Thug?
The two have had a continuous output in a year when other artists like Playboi Carti, Cardi B, Saba, Noname, Denzel Curry, and Rico Nasty have all been successful with solitary releases. Contrary to the perception that good albums can’t maintain relevance in this constantly shifting climate, each of those artists have received consistent acclaim and appreciation from critics and fans throughout this year. Tierra Whack and IDK also intrigued as much as any young artists with visual addendums to their projects that showed the potential of albums as mixed media experiences.
IDK matched his IWASVERYBAD album with multiple short films depicting a day in his life in PG County, Maryland. Tierra Whack’s Whack World project is a wildly inventive work which pairs 15 one-minute songs with vivid short videos optimized for Instagram. Both projects immediately distinguished them from the lot of artists vying for the world’s attention.
Their efforts show how artists can influence staying power not just with musicality, but with ingenuity. More artists may find similar success by following in their path. Why can’t Migos put all of their effort into a 14-track project full of hits, then pair it with a well-crafted, Streets Is Watching-esque movie on their Youtube channel? Why can’t more rappers follow in the footsteps of Jay-Z’s 4:44 Footnotes clips, which culled from the album’s dominant themes as the basis for discussions on relationships and racism featuring celebrities like Will Smith and Omari Hardwick? There are countless hungry videographers, directors, and documentarians out there who could help lengthen an album’s relevance and make projects feel like more than mere collections of songs on a conveyor belt.
The more effort artists put into an album era, the less they’d be inclined to move on from it, and the less entitled some fans may be to continuously demand new music. That environment could create more space between releases, and once again allow fans the time to appreciate projects and artists at the measure they deserve. There’s no way to completely solve the problem of oversaturation in a rap world teeming with MCs, but fewer artists doubling and tripling their release schedule could help alleviate it.
Any label executive or manager striving for greatness needs to give artists the patience that labels like TDE and Dreamville do. Whether it’s a superstar like Kendrick Lamar or an upstart like J.I.D, executives like TDE’s Punch and Dreamville’s Ibrahim ‘Ib’ Hamad give their acts the freedom and resources to refine their work and not feel pressured to placate a numbers game. That patience generally results in thoughtful work that cuts through the noise and inspires loyalty from fans. That devoted fanbase is what allowed TDE to go on a successful world tour this year without albums from two of the label’s three biggest acts in the previous 11 months.
Would the artists who push the pedal with middling releases be as lucky to maintain their relevance after almost a year’s absence? It’s unlikely while the specter of impermanence is compromising so much of their creative process. There are too many talented artists undermining their potential by focusing on maximizing their visibility instead of maximizing their greatness. That works for a time, but to paraphrase the character Vinson of The Wire, there are graveyards full of acts who’ve worn the crown at one time or another. It may feel good to be the hottest at the moment, but that’s different from being the best you can be. That’s why artists need to focus less on flooding the market, and more on being the ocean that listeners flock to in awe.