I was listening to rapper J. Cole’s latest record, “Return of Simba,” ironically, in his hometown Fayetteville, N.C., admiring how the artist had skillfully added another chapter to the Simba narrative he created three mixtapes ago on The Come Up and thought to myself, ‘Wow, this would’ve taken three albums to do in the past.’
The hunger of “Simba” on The Come Up. The accomplished but not content “Grown Simba” on The Warm Up. The assured but subdued excitement of “Return of Simba”, like someone of the cusp of glory, he was eagerly waiting his chance to share with the world what he’s been brewing.
Before ever-releasing his major label debut, J. Cole had worked a storyline from start to finish without even addressing it directly on The Blow Up. What’s left to say on the album? Will listeners tire of his voice and look for something fresh elsewhere before it drops?
The explosion of mixtape culture has made every rising artist into a studio rat and given every listener ADHD because of the endless stream of free content. More importantly, mixtapes are changing the very arc of an artists’ career.
Think about it.
You used to have to have a hit single to drive the sales of your debut album. Now, artists can sell a debut based of the strength of their mixtape track records. People are touring internationally, selling out theaters and hole-in-the-wall venues alike off the strength of dope mixtapes. Some, like The Cool Kids, successfully put their initial offering on the back burner for half-decades in favor of just consistently dope music with no real purpose.
I’ve seen crowds for mixtape artists with huge viral presences sellout venues that widely considered legends draw lukewarm audiences to with everyone in the building knowing every line like it’d been released 10 years prior and played at every cookout.
The quality is so much better than the extended track list of cuts unworthy of an album and freestyles over other people’s beats we remember with obnoxious DJ screaming and cutting over them with weird echo effects. Now mixtapes are getting album love. Creative artwork, promotion and serious, thoughtful production instead of looped radio hits.
The best example is Drake. He was able to repackage So Far Gone, adding a few new tracks, re-mastering some older cuts and re-releasing it in stores to moderate success before dropping that debut that fell short of the buzz the initial mixtape offered.
Even the content is different.
Where in the past an artists’ first album told the story of the environment. Their day-to-day, the hometown anthem, the struggle as fresh as it can be. The rawness of that initial release used to me one of the things people looked back on with a smile. Thinking about how Reasonable Doubt had sewn seeds for Jay-Z or listening to I’m Serious makes you happy and ultimately blown away by T.I.’s rise from the trap to the box office. Now an artist like Big K.R.I.T. is far from a freshman in our minds after releasing K.R.I.T. Wuz Here and Return of 4eva and creating expounding on his original subject matter.
The second album was usually the one about newfound fame, the rise. It would look back on the things the artist did to get to this spot, the awkward adjustment to being a household name but the joys of having a little extra cash. This is where some artists fizzle out because they’re all rapped out. They told every story they had to tell on the first one and probably because of the rush to album two, didn’t experience enough compelling moments to begin to fill a second LP. Or they changed so much they’ve outgrown (or more accurately, jumped ahead of their fan base.)
Those lucky enough to reach a third album are either staring down from a lofty perch, ready to reign others clinging the ghost of one-hit past.
Hearing so much of an artist now before an official debut challenges listeners to remember this is their official first product and not to compare it to all the material one may have heard before it. In many cases, this fails.
Take Wiz Khalifa for example. Few would argue about the buzz surrounding its release and the ultimate success of Kush & Orange Juice. In that same token, only a few could vouch for his actual album Rolling Papers being up to the level of what we’d grown to expect from him through mixtapes. It felt like a sophomore slump of a debut. Even his shortest EP of throwaways, Cabin Fever, was exponentially doper.
A few haven’t even made it that far. Charles Hamilton was mixtape gold but dropped so much and what was dope became rapidly inconsistent, undeveloped. By flooding the market, people weren’t wanting for more of him, especially for a cost. Add that his inability to create a radio hit (I liked “Brooklyn Girls” but it didn’t go over as big as expected), and he’s dug a hole for himself.
So how can an artist fix the seemingly unfixable? Maybe controlling the flow of music is in a listener’s best interest. Forcing fans to clamor for more than being selective in what songs you decide to release may frustrate the base in the short term but ultimately keep them happy, temper expectations, and leave something left to be said when it’s finally time to drop the music that they’ll actually pay for.
This is the part J. Cole and his Roc Nation camp may have figured out. His releases have been steady albeit glacial in the minds of those waiting and consistently lived up to expectations. Just when you begin to ask aloud, ‘when is his album ever going to come out?’, a crumb falls from the sky to hold you over and make your mouth water once again for the full meal.
Sure many will have climbed on, off and back on the bandwagon again by the time that hard copy you can find in stores. Many were never going to pay for your music in the first place but the ones you’ve hooked will go support you just have to hope you avoided your debut sophomore slumping.