In 1998, it was almost unheard of to just up and drop two albums in a year. That was why, when DMX released It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot and Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood just six months apart in 1998, he became the first rapper in history to have released two No. 1 albums in the same year. The feat made him a living legend. An essential component to any profile of the dark-thinking, gruff-voiced rapper — even now, over twenty years later — is the audacity and sheer work ethic it took to drop two albums in a single year.
These days, Coach K and Pee of Quality Control Music probably look at DMX’s accomplishment as more of a business blueprint than an impressive, unmatchable feat. If DMX planted his flag on the peak of Mount Everest in 1998, Quality Control sees that peak as base camp in 2018. In this year alone, the Atlanta-based independent label will put out no less than nine full-length projects in a 12-month span, with the bulk of those albums being one-two efforts from new roster additions Lil Baby, Lil Yachty, and City Girls, and the remaining projects all coming from Migos, both individually and as a group.
The upstart, trap-centric label has taken the idea of doubling down and made it their standard; every artist on the label could very well be considered a DMX. And while the saturation model isn’t anything new in rap music, the approach of releasing full-fledged projects is still innovative. Even at the height of his powers, Lil Wayne, considered by many one of the originators of the “flood the streets” approach, actually spaced his retail projects out by quite a lot, squeezing three years worth of freestyles, free mixtapes, and unofficial compilations in between Tha Carter II and III.
Likewise, though 50 Cent and his G-Unit clique used a blizzard of mixtapes in the lead-ups to his major label releases, they were never expected to chart or generate a significant return on investment. They were cheaply made, barely promoted throwaways designed to build anticipation for the retail releases that would ultimately turn a profit (this in itself was an innovation on the usual strategy of using an album as a loss-leader and recouping the expense on live performances and tours).
The QC model, however, seems designed to take full advantage of innovations in both technology and in recording industry counting standards. The biggest change, of course, is the advent of streaming services, which make it easier to distribute an album nationwide, removing the cost of pressing, shipping, stocking, and tracking sales of physical media like CDs. Each stream is tracked natively, giving an accurate summation of each record’s performance, and generating royalties through the algorithms from Apple Music, Spotify, and Youtube. Even though the royalties received are calculated differently than the simple retail cost of a CD, because the label doesn’t have to pay anything to produce physical media, the difference is offset by the relative lack of expense.
Likewise, the label doesn’t have to budget as much toward promotion either. In 1998, multiple music videos would need to be produced on six-figure budgets and serviced to MTV and BET. Radio stations would have to be enticed through expensive PR campaigns to spin the singles on-air. A press run could run up quite a tab, figuring in wardrobe and travel costs to hit stations in every major market. Now? iHeartRadio makes everything simple. One or two studio visits can service almost the exact same expanse of real estate; the taped interviews landing on Youtube to be consumed anytime by anyone with internet service means awareness is being increased almost nonstop. A music video can be shot on location in a matter of hours using even less crew and equipment than ever and edited within days on a laptop. The savings are passed onto both the label and the fans; rather than waiting months to hear a newly cut single, the label can deliver online in a matter of hours, stoking buzz at a fraction of the cost.
The double-release attack has also benefitted QC’s artists as well. When City Girls made their debut in May with Period, they generated curiosity and a modest amount of publicity. However, the buzz from their seemingly endless supply of music videos and newly received notoriety thanks to a placement on Drake’s Scorpion helped drive their November-released sophomore follow-up, Girl Code, to a No. 63 placement on the Billboard 200. By accelerating the cycle of releases, QC also helped to accelerate the buzz cycle, increasing interest in their burgeoning Miami rap duo that would normally take years of steady promotion to accomplish. Fans are more likely to follow up because the last project is still fresh in their minds.
Lil Yachty, who was signed to the label in 2016, made use of this strategy as well, releasing the No. 2 albumLil Boat 2 in March and Nuthin’ 2 Prove in October. Lil Baby, who debuted on Quality Control in May with Harder Than Ever, doubled down this past weekend with Street Gossip after going half on Drip Harder with Gunna in October (landing at No. 3 on the top 200). This constant stream of new music has kept Quality Control at the forefront of the public consciousness and in more or less permanent residence on the Billboard charts all year.
However, there may be a drawback to so much saturation. If a project is poorly received, like Yachty’s Lil Boat 2, it can have a depressing effect on the next album. While Nuthin’ 2 Prove only slid ten spots behind its predecessor on the charts, it possibly could have surpassed it had it been given a little more time to cook. And while the numbers are still out on Street Gossip, it’s hard to predict it matching Harder Than Ever‘s No. 2 debut or Drip Harder‘s No. 3 slot. By making the releases harder to get away from, it also makes it more evident that the label’s assembly line approach is fittingly turning out a lot of product that’s so similar, it’s almost indistinguishable. One thing DMX did do on Flesh Of My Flesh is distinguish it from It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot by making it darker and more introspective. Flesh‘s lead single “Slippin'” displayed a more vulnerable side to the gritty, combative rapper introduced on “Get At Me Dog” and “X Is Coming.”
For now, though, Quality Control’s approach seems to be working. Offset’s solo project is still on the docket for a December 14 release, and whether or not Street Gossip turns in as impressive a debut as its earlier counterpart, it’ll make money for the label and for Lil Baby. Right now, the formula is proving profitable and keeping its masterminds on the industry’s watch list. Don’t be surprised if, in 2019, even more rappers on other indie labels begin to follow the same strategy. The risk is low, the rewards are high, and it ain’t broke, so why try to fix it? Just don’t also be surprised if, by this time next year, fans are ready to throw in the towel; there’s more then enough music out there as it is, and eventually, with the supply so high, the demand might not be able to keep up.