The last few years have been pretty great for hip-hop: Frank Ocean’s Blonde was a smash success in 2016 and 2017 saw stellar releases from Kendrick, Jay-Z and Tyler, The Creator.
However, in addition to some stand-out successes, the last few years have brought about a wholly troubling trend: the hour-plus-long album.
(Note: the rest of this piece is largely subjective. If you disagree, I totally understand)
I’m not going to declare myself a music authority or claim all albums longer than an hour are inherently flawed. Kanye and Frank both put out solid projects last year that clock in at an hour or just above. The issue I have is with projects like Chris Brown’s Heartbreak on a Full Moon.
Now, I put a link to the full album stream, but in case you haven’t heard it or have no interest in hearing it, I’ll save you some time:
This album clocks in at two hours and forty minutes. TWO HOURS AND FORTY MINUTES of Chris Brown recycling his same song-and-dance routine to overall mediocre results. This album is longer than Led Zeppelin I thru Led Zeppelin III; it’s longer than Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
While that example is an outlier, Chris isn’t the only culpable artist. Two of the three Future releases this year clocked in at over an hour, Drake’s last two albums both ring in at an hour and twenty minutes. There are countless examples aside from these, and I could spend another 400 words talking about them, but that wouldn’t answer the real question: why are albums getting longer?
One possible explanation is the blurring of the lines between “mixtape” and “album.” Drake and Future’s 2015 collaboration What A Time To Be Alive is the most prominent example. Both artists touted the project as a collaborative mixtape. However, the project saw mainstream release for profit on iTunes and elsewhere.
WATTBA opened the door for mixtapes as for-profit releases and, while the project clocks in at a standard 40 minutes with 10 tracks, some artists approached this new ideal with the old ways of thinking.
Mixtapes are generally a mess, but that’s not a negative. Initially, mixtapes (or beat tapes) served as outlets for rappers to showcase verses and bars that were left off a commercial release. Often mixtapes were produced using borrowed beats off SoundCloud or ripped from other popular songs as a remix. Rather than attempt to clear samples and sort out royalty payments for other people’s beats and songs, artists would simply release the project for free.
With the near-erasure of the distinction between mixtape and album, some artists look at commercial releases as an opportunity to throw everything at a listener. Herein lies my biggest gripe with hour-plus albums: for the most part they seem to have a lack of quality control.
Drake’s 2017 release More Life has a handful of stand out tracks on its listing: songs like “Passionfruit” and “Fake Love” were bonafide hits and saw heavy radio play in the months leading up to and after the album’s release.
Unfortunately, these tracks are standout examples among a 20-track list that could have easily been pared down to 14 or 16, bringing the album in at a more palatable hour run time.
This also points to another cause of longer albums: music sales. Since the advent of P2P file sharing and streaming services, album sales have become a shadow of what they were pre-Internet. What we see now is a trend toward rappers constantly putting out singles with their peers, some of which may end up on an album. This guarantees the artists money from radio play and streaming royalties without the commitment a full album requires. This is the system that allows DJ Khaled to keep making money selling other people’s music by shouting his name over the intro, which in turn allows him to afford the meals he eats in his big empty mansion.
However, record labels still expect artists to produce full-length projects to fulfill their contractual obligations. This, coupled with a general confidence in an already hot artist’s continuing popularity, has led to albums that read more like mixtapes, full of interludes and less-than-stellar solo tracks that would have generally been left on the cutting room floor or included on a mixtape.
The other obvious question: where does the industry go from here? I think the pendulum is still swinging in favor of long albums, but all the hip-hop releases I enjoyed in 2017 clock in right around 40 minutes. This might be evidence of a “quality vs. quantity” division in the genre, but I would never say that a longer album is absolutely equivalent to one of lesser quality. Some big name is probably cooking up the best double LP album of all time right now.