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A Rational Conversation Between Two Adults: What Should Become Of The Major Label Hip-Hop Album?

January 06, 2009

Every Tuesday, FADER deputy editor Eric Ducker gets on instant messenger and "discusses" a subject that's been on his mind with another member of our staff or a special guest. Looking back at 2008, it's pretty amazing how proportionally few hip-hop albums came out on major labels, and of the ones that did, how few were any good. After the jump, read the condensed (and emoticon-free) conversation between Ducker and Eskay of Nah Right about the fate of the major label hip-hop album.

Eric Ducker: How do you feel about the current state of the hip-hop album?

Eskay: I feel like it's on life support, but I don't see it kicking the bucket anytime soon.

ED: To me it seems like very few hip-hop artists (both MCs and producers) are thinking with an album mindset and everyone is just chasing the hit single. Maybe it would make more sense if rappers just continuously worked singles and sold them digitally. And if they created enough successful ones, then they could release them as a compilation album—a re-update of a real old model, the one labels worked under before Sgt. Pepper—and if people emerged as real stars, then they would put out albums that are put together as one cohesive piece.

E: Yeah, I think we're at a point where no one model is going to work for every artist.

ED: What would you like to see happen?

E: I think that there are a bunch of artists that would be best served by that strategy, but I feel like there are still a number of people who can and will put out cohesive LPs. Nothing would make me happier than to see more artists embrace digital distribution as a means of getting away from the major label system.

ED: Why don't they?

E: I think a lot of artists, particularly in the realm of hip-hop, feel like they need the majors, like they'll never make it without them. Everybody sees themselves as the next Jay-Z or 50 Cent and they are unwilling to settle for anything less. In their own minds at least. I think artists and management people need to be able to step back and take a broad look at the landscape and adjust accordingly. We've seen scores of established artists release albums over the last two years or so that ended up being huge commercial disappointments. What makes these young cats think they're going to come into the game, in this day and age, and sell a million records is beyond me. I say keep budgets low and be realistic.

ED: It's just crazy to me what you have to do to even get an album out on a major label as a rap artist these days.

E: Yeah, I mean seriously.

ED: No one knows what is going to sell so they are spending tons of money and time to create a product that they think has the best chance of selling...that usually doesn't end up selling.

E: Yeah, labels are pushing projects back and dropping artists left and right. Meanwhile, these people's careers are blowing in the wind. It's amazing to me that somebody like Saigon can't get an album in stores.

ED: Is everyone just over-thinking things?

E: I think most of the people at the majors are just confused. As they should be. The music industry worked one way for decades and now that the labels don’t have the monopoly control they've enjoyed all these years, they're panicking.

ED: Maybe if rappers just put less songs on their albums it would help.

E: How so?

ED: There's so much filler and throwaway stuff on many albums that the entire form suffers. When I get a sixteen track rap album (not including skits and interludes, though those have decreased in recent years), I'm not excited to listen to all that music. Good stuff gets lost in all that content and the bad stuff can easily dominate my opinion. With so much music out there, do people really have time to digest a seventy-two minute album, especially when thirty minutes are unnecessary?

E: Right, but shouldn't the solution be to lose the filler? There's always been filler, but when did it become okay to pack an LP with fifty percent fluff? If you're producing that much bad music, maybe you should find a different line of work, or employ the digital single strategy.

ED: I'd be happy if people just cut the filler. On Common's last three albums he's had eleven songs, twelve songs and ten songs. I don't love the last two, but I'm not at the point where I think he should stop releasing albums, because he's not inundating me with crap. It's tough because rappers think they need to flood the market with product—free digital mixtapes, song-a-day on blogs, etc—to keep their name out there. And I understand the thinking behind that, but ultimately it spreads their talents thin. Even with Lil Wayne, I get his compulsive need to create music and I like The Carter III, but do I think the eighteen songs on the special edition (plus the five extras on the second disc, plus however many iTunes bonus tracks) are the best songs he recorded over original beats since he released The Carter II? Definitely not. The track selection feels almost random.

E: I agree. Wayne wasn't even sure what songs were on the album weeks after it hit retail. I think he's a special case and very few, if any, artists will ever be able to duplicate that kind of success using the model he created.

ED: Definitely. Wayne should just put out a greatest hits album at the end of every year.

E: I'm a big believer in artists giving away free music, I just think there's a way to go about it. Like you said, too much spreads them too thin. Just because you recorded something, it doesn't mean the rest of the world needs to ever hear it. I don't understand how some stuff ever makes it out of the studio.

ED: All this being said, I do think there are rap artists who still put out cohesive albums. A lot of them are the genre's superstars—Jeezy, Kanye, Jay, T.I., etc.—but I don't know if the they are the superstars because they have that ability or if their superstardom allows them to concentrate on an album.

E: I'd reluctantly choose the former.

ED: Why reluctantly?

E: Because I think all of those artists you mentioned are who they are today because they came into the game with amazing albums. But at the same time none of them have a perfect track record.

ED: Then maybe that's the lesson for aspiring rappers. Have a product nearly ready that's cohesive and puts across who you are as an artist so it can't be killed by committee once you get signed. I know that's wishful thinking.

E: Yeah, because who's to say it won't? One of my big beefs with majors is their inability to let an artist be himself. Sure, new artists need guidance, but where does it end?

ED: Given how few rappers put out their debut album on a major label last year, it apparently never ends.

E: Now there's this whole drive to make music that sounds like something successful, and that’s where a lot of artists trip up.

ED: At this point it pains me when I see a young rapper post up a picture or a video of himself in the studio with a hit-making producer. I see that as a sign that their album will never come out.

E: Haha, exactly. Stop chasing that person's last hit and create your own. Or at least create something that is your own and maybe you'll get lucky

ED: I think labels need to embrace the idea of "luck," because "previously successful methods" aren't working out for anyone—creatively or financially.

E: Yeah, I don't envy the situation those suits are in. But I think they'll ultimately survive, if they smarten up. I don't think most consumers care where their music comes from and artists are showing no signs that they're going to stop signing those contracts.

Posted: January 06, 2009
A Rational Conversation Between Two Adults: What Should Become Of The Major Label Hip-Hop Album?