What if Reasonable Doubt had been a mixtape? Would Jay-Z still be 11 albums deep and considered the greatest of all time if In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 had been his first official "album?"
Certainly, his potential and talent still would have been present, but there’s a big question mark as to whether the public would have given him a second chance or whether the good fellas at Roc-A-Fella would have invested the money to make another “album.” Reasonable Doubt the “mixtape” would have set the bar so high that In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, the debut album, would have surely disappointed (as it did as the second “album”). People likely would have attributed the success of the Reasonable Doubt “mixtape” to it having been given away for free rather than due to the brilliance of the music.
For the last several years, it’s gone unchallenged that “mixtapes” were promotional and were beneficial to artists. The notion was people got a taste of the music and once they were hooked, they would come back and buy the product (all analogies intended). Over the last few years, however, the concept of the “mixtape” has radically changed and it might just be that rappers are doing themselves a disservice by dropping “mixtapes” as they are conceived today.
It used to be that a mixtape was just that: a mix of several different songs, usually by several different artists, that served as a sampler of upcoming and recently released music. It was almost like a permanent version of your favorite radio show where the hottest DJs played the freshest new tracks and jockeyed for exclusives. Some DJs like DJ Clue, Kid Capri and Ron G built their careers off having the dopest mixtapes in the land.
Somewhere during the early 2000s, however, mixtapes began to morph into showcases for one artist. 50 Cent was one of the early adopters. His mixtape 50 Cent is the Future primarily featured him rhyming over well-known popular tracks with a few newly-produced tracks. His follow up, No Mercy, No Fear, took a similar approach, but layered in even more newly-produced tracks, most notably, Wanksta. Many people attribute his story of being shot 9 times to his meteoric rise but it was really the hitmaking skills he displayed on his mixtapes that caught the attention of Eminem and subsequently Dr. Dre.
After 50 got signed to the much touted “million dollar” deal on the strength of his mixtapes, all bets were off. Soon, every rapper with a mic and a dream was recording mixtapes full of rhymes over the hottest songs out at the time. Lil Wayne, who was clearly already established but who had lost some of the heat he had from the late 90’s, took the art of the mixtape to a whole different level. He also primarily rhymed on popular tracks, but his prolific work ethic and creativity were unparalleled. His relentless onslaught of 9 “mixtapes” in 6 years from 2003-2009 arguably made him the hottest rapper on the planet.
There were some common themes to the types of mixtapes Wayne, 50 and others created during the early-mid-2000s. The lyrics tended to be more freestyle/stream of consciousness and/or grimy and aimed at the streets. The production, though featuring well-known tracks, also tended to be more down and dirty. But the essence of mixtapes continued to evolve and somewhere along the line in the last few years, they began to become primarily new tracks with a few well-known tracks sprinkled in just to keep the listener’s attention. They also began to feature some of the biggest artists in music. More importantly, the breadth and the quality of the lyrics and production became much more polished and the songs began to sound like they were studio quality. Some of this could have been attributable to technology getting better (any basement is a studio now) but the change in quality also was unquestionably a reflection of artists putting in the same level of time and care that they would for making an album.
Two of the best examples of this were Drake’s So Far Gone and J. Cole’s The Warm Up. By any conventional definition, those “mixtapes” were albums (and truly some of the best albums to come out in the last 5 years). If anyone can explain what the difference is between those releases and “albums”–besides the fact that they were free–I would love to hear it. But that actually brings us back to the point: given the quality of the “mixtapes” that some of our newest premier artists have been dropping in the last couple of years, are they doing themselves a disservice by labeling those products as mixtapes and giving them away for free?
Jay-Z very often says Reasonable Doubt is his best album because he had 26 years of material from which to draw. It is often the case that artists’ (even the greatest artists) debut albums are their best. Just think about some of your favorite hip-hop artists: Nas, Biggie, Wu-Tang, Snoop, Dr. Dre, 50 Cent (though some may argue for The Massacre), Lauryn Hill, Slick Rick…the list goes on and on. In fact, for a lot of classic albums, the artists were one and done. Of course there are exceptions–Tribe, De La Soul, Lil Wayne, Kanye, Dr. Dre (wait, which was better The Chronic or 2001?)–but more often than not, album 1 is the 1. Even if you want to take issue with that, how many people can you say killed it on album 4, 5, 6 or 7? Almost no one. Jay-Z is the only rapper I can think of (though Em did his thing on #6) to have put out a good album after #7 and that is part of the reason why he’s the G.O.A.T. It is EXTREMELY rare for ANY artist (regardless of genre) to put out quality material post album 5. Not impossible, but rare…
So…why are so many rappers giving away their first albums/mixtapes? You don’t see that in any other genre (and that’s a whole other conversation…). Not only are they potentially giving away their best product, they are also setting the bar for their “official album” at an absurdly high standard. Take Drake, for example. So Far Gone was so ridiculously hot that he had 2 songs in heavy rotation simultaneously, was selling out shows, featured on award shows and arguably the hottest rapper in the land. Imagine how that “album” would have sold had it not been released for sale nearly a year after the mixtape had circulated. In addition to lost sales, the expectations for Thank Me Later could not have been higher. Drake proved himself to be LeBron (the rookie–not the one you hate now) and lived up to the hype, but many rappers have not fared so well. Wale, who put out several stellar mixtapes, released an album that came and went. The pressure is so high for J. Cole that his album has been pushed back several times and he chose instead to drop another “mixtape” (which was downloaded 4000 times per SECOND initially). I still believe he will deliver, but the challenge is that much higher and he now has TWO excellent “albums” out for which he will never be paid. Even if every rapper who puts out a great “mixtape” goes on to have a successful “first album” it will always be the case that he/she gave away 1 of likely no more than 4 of his/her shots at wealth. Would you give away 25% of your money?
It’s all G.O.O.D., and in fact smart, to give away some product for people to know whether or not the music is worth buying. Kanye proved this again recently with his G.O.O.D. Fridays. Giving away EVERYTHING, however, may just be bad business. You’ll never see Jay-Z give an entire album away for free, and that’s beyond a reasonable doubt..