Last week, rap/R&B superstar Drake, one of our generation’s pop-cultural icons, unleashed the rather interesting concept album, “More Life.” The unveiling of the 22-track offering had been marketed as a playlist since December, and since its release on March 18, the line between playlist and album has become clearer. Albums are meant to be listened to in order, front to back, but playlists have no chronology.
However, Drake and his team certainly didn’t invent the concept of releasing an album as a playlist. He even called his widely successful 2015 release, “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late,” a mixtape. On the surface, it is just a marketing move. But those who have been fans of rap music before the 2010s know that it is just a way for Drake’s team to rebrand and sell the mixtape, which used to be known as a free commodity.
DatPiff, a website founded in 2005 that hosts free mixtape downloads, was at the forefront of the mixtape boom before streaming services were popularized. I remember crashing my parents’ desktop in high school, anxiously waiting until midnight to download the latest Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa projects.
But streaming has changed the career of the free-mixtape rapper. In 2016, rapper Young Thug, who came up largely from sponsored DatPiff content, released three mixtapes that were available on streaming services but also sold for retail.
When I think of mixtapes or playlists, I imagine songs that can be listened to in random order and for free. For me, albums tend to be works that should be enjoyed front to back, as the artist intended, and sold on the shelf. Like great playlists do, “More Life” touches on multiple vibes without telling a chronological story. But Drake is surely not the first artist to market and profit off of this. Even though they weren’t marketed as such, here are two retail rappers that I think hit the notion of a playlist right on the head.
“Graduation” by Kanye West (2007)
When I listen to Kanye West’s music, I tend to do it excessively. Not based off obsession, but because of the thought that he and his team put behind tracklisting. “The College Dropout” and “Late Registration,” his first two LPs, are riddled with skits that push and tie together Kanye’s narratives. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and “The Life of Pablo” lay out separate plights involving fame like a metaphorical autobiography with diverse supporting artists.
“Graduation” is the only Kanye album I can hit shuffle on without feeling like I am tearing apart something sacred. There are intro and closing tracks called “Good Morning” and “Good Night,” (a bonus track) but, like “More Life,” “Graduation’s” focus is on mood-setting more than a chronological storytelling.
Kanye touches on a wide range of emotions for an album catered for the radio and stadiums. It has themes of triumph (“Stronger”), introspection (“Everything I Am”), ego (“Can’t Tell Me Nothing”) and revelry (“Drunk and Hot Girls”). “Graduation” consolidated these emotions with synth-heavy, futuristic production and paved the way for the next decade of rap music.
Although “Graduation,” like Kanye’s other albums, includes an eclectic mix of assists (including T-Pain, DJ Premier and Chris Martin), it strays from the skits that glued his two previous albums. During my mixed listen, the braggadocio “Champion” was paired with the reflective “Flashing Light,” “Good Morning,” and “Good Night” subsequently closed out my run through the LP. It is a great project to indulge in when one is not trying to focus on album structure.
“Reasonable Doubt” by Jay Z (1996)
Even before Kanye was doing it, his mentor Jay Z was selling mixtapes out of his trunk — back before the internet could not make you a star. After a failed official stint as a rapper, Brooklynite Jay Z turned to drug dealing for money. From those experiences, he learned how to market his music on the streets. Jay Z then became inspired to open Roc-A-Fella Records and release music under his own name. The result was arguably his greatest work.
Getting off the streets was the catalyst and inspiration for “Reasonable Doubt,” Jay Z’s debut album, giving way to some of the prolific rapper’s most deep thoughts. On “D’Evils,” backed by a haunting piano as he thinks back on the horrors of the streets, it feels as if he is kicking back in a psychiatrist’s chair. Along with the deep cuts, Jay Z throws in finesse (“Brooklyn’s Finest” with Notorious B.I.G.), success (“Can’t Knock the Hustle”) and easy vibes (“Feelin’ It”).
Recently, Jay Z became the first rapper to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and “Reasonable Doubt” played a big part in establishing him as one of rap music’s greatest writers. Although great writers usually tell stories from beginning to end, each track captures a different story, so shuffling does not fog the window into his life.
On the album’s closing track, “Regrets,” which also happened to close out my listen, Jay Z laments, “How can I ease the stress and learn to live with these regrets?” Ten years passed between those lines and Kanye releasing “Graduation.” During that period, the free mixtape flourished. Now playlists are being sold, again.