How the Serialization of Hip-Hop Is Changing the Way We Listen

Posted November 9, 2017 by
How the Serialization of Hip-Hop Is Changing the Way We Listen Pic
Photo Credit: Joe Baraka

What if I told you that, only two weeks ago, one of hip-hop’s most prominent figures and one of its most eccentric and electrifying ones released a collaborative project.

Even as the sounds of “Patek Water” echo in one’s mind during the quietest parts of a drunken night, Future and Young Thug's SUPER SLIMEY already feels like it was released months ago. The surprise announcement, the release, and the subsequent Twitter conversations all feel like hazy memories pushed to the back our collective consciousnesses by the relentless churning of social media.

Despite first-week sales exceeding 75,000 SPS units, as well as moderately favorable reviews, there isn’t a SUPER SLIMEY track to be found anywhere on the Spotify Top 50 Charts, and one would be hard-pressed to find continuing conversations over its quality or impact anywhere on their respective timelines. Since being replaced discussion-wise with everything from Migos’ “Motor Sport” to Offset and 21 Savage’s joint mixtape with Metro Boomin, Without Warning, and as its songs fail to find footing atop streaming charts, questions of SUPER SLIMEY's actual success feel inevitable, even if we are all asking the wrong question.

The entire cycle of SUPER SLIMEY’s shelf life, from anticipatory tweets to eventual best-of-the-year ranking revisits, feels eerily familiar, especially within the scope of hip-hop and the way we have consumed particular projects and artists as of late. A record like SUPER SLIMEY, one that finds two of hip-hop’s biggest and most polarizing names together, should feel more monumental regardless of the material’s quality or other releases. Yet, even with two rap superstars, it's reign over our attention spans never grew legs.

What if the problem doesn’t lie within the music itself, but in the way we have transitioned into a new way of listening? Moreso, what if these records we might consider as long-term failures are part of a bigger pattern we haven’t yet fully comprehended?

Like movies and books, music releases have always felt like substantial events. For decades, the album release carried with it the emotional reactions and critical conversations of mediums that carried much larger investments in each of their releases. Although hundreds of albums may drop in any given year, the subjectivity of the musical experience for each listener always reinforced the value of the moments we were spending within our favorite artists’ albums, and that true satisfaction as a listener came from staying as present with those moments as possible.

In short, like movies and books, a music release always felt like the discovery of a lost treasure; something finite in our initial experience, but everlasting in memory, no matter the quality. Each project could be parsed, critiqued, and revisited separately. Auteurs, specifically in hip-hop, such as Kanye West or OutKast, crafted albums that were single-celled organisms, where each project’s experience was unique in and of itself as opposed to part of a larger narrative.

The art of the album release, again, specifically as it pertains to hip-hop, was never something that relied solely on either the artists or the listeners, but its transition feels gradual and reasonable considering the way we consume information in the 21st Century. Cultural mediums, hip-hop especially, have shifted into operating much like Twitter—a constantly refreshing timeline of new songs, albums, and mixtapes that essentially guarantee the listener is never without a new piece of music to process and discuss. Our shortened attention spans, our desire to be apart of every cultural conversation happening all at once, and the subsequent need to recapture that feeling with every new conversation has only enhanced this music listening behavior, and rappers are finally beginning to see success by adhering to it.

In the same way that TV has shifted from the golden age of must-see programming on designated days to binge-watching and a streaming platform arms races, hip-hop has begun the serialization of rap music for some of its biggest artists. In other words, albums, mixtapes, and even songs no longer feed off of their individuality in an artist's discography but instead have become smaller episodes, if you will, of a much larger series and narrative.

We must start thinking of catalogs from certain artists under different terms because the way they are reaching and maintaining success is under different terms.

Take SUPER SLIMEY. Although it was the third release of the year for both Future and Young Thug, it was also Future’s third surprise project of the year as well, with back-to-back releases FUTURE and HNDRXX capitalizing on the surprise and spontaneity of such a feat. Yet, as DJBooth scribe Yoh wrote earlier this year, the long-term effects of this methodology, coupled with the sheer volume of music in the span of two weeks, undercut the brilliance of his second, and more personal, offering.

As a singular project, HNDRXX felt like a missed opportunity drowned out by its creator. However, what if we think of it in terms of rap serialization, in which FUTURE, HNDRXX, and SUPER SLIMEY are no longer projects meant to serve standalone purposes, but rather chapters in the much larger narrative of Future’s career? Much in the same way our favorite, binge-worthy TV shows operate, the three projects are actually catering to the allure of endless satisfaction.

Trap's other biggest stars, such as Young Thug and Migos, have capitalized on that same narrative. Migos, for example, released their breakthrough Culture album this past January. What is easily the most defining project of a career built off of a constant feed of mixtape releases should have felt like the trio's year-defining moment, too. Yet, just a few months later, Migos were already hinting at its successor. Soon after, we not only were treated to the first single from Culture 2, "Motor Sport," but also Without Warning, a full-length surprise album from Migos member Offset, along with 21 Savage and Metro Boomin (both of whom had also already dropped full-lengths this year).

Whereas traditionally, an album like Culture may have felt like the main course for Migos fans, promises of Culture 2 only reinforce the idea that Culture may have been nothing more than the first plate in a long buffet of new material.

This isn’t a trend solely designated to trap artists, either, even if some of its most prominent figures have serialized their material using successful models. BROCKHAMPTON have employed this strategy in 2017 with its Saturation trilogy. The third installment is due in December, at which point the boy band will have released three full-length albums in the span of seven months. At first glance, such a formula would seem detrimental for both fans and critics alike, as it's difficult to properly parse through each project if each release is only a priority for a few short weeks—months, if they're lucky—before the next project. Following the trend of rap serialization, what matters most is keeping the BROCKHAMPTON name in the conversation. The group knows this, and their announcement that the Saturation trilogy will be released as an eventual set proves that while each album so far has been spectacular, we haven't yet reached the full scope of their success and the story they are telling is far from over.

Hip-hop, of course, didn't just stumble into this release strategy. Lil Wayne and Clipse both employed such strategies in the mid to late 2000s, with their mixtape series like Da Drought, Dedication and We Got It 4 Cheap carrying many of the same components. They weren't just flooding the market for the sake of flooding, though. Rather, they were creating bridges between their bigger releases in the same way TV episodes bridge the gap between season premieres and finales. Each volume of We Got It 4 Cheap was an episode in Clipse's bigger narrative, but they were clear appetizers to true albums, not to be confused for Hell Hath No Fury or Til the Casket Drops. In today's landscape where every project is available on (almost) every streaming platform, the lines are blurred, and it's becoming less clear which projects should demand extra attention or whether they are all just another set of tracks to keep us occupied until the next reelase.

As much as We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 2 or Da Drought 3 are revered, the appetites of listeners have significantly developed over the past decade. In fact, the rap consumer is the variable of this model that matters most. In the latest iteration of the genre's mainstream success, artists are finally finding sustained notoriety by catering to the way we consume information.

In other words, releases like SUPER SLIMEY, Without Warning, and Saturation 3 understand the needs of their audience, as well as the comforting idea that every rap fan's favorite artists never stop making music. Although a closing to a trilogy, Saturation 3, much like Future’s releases, is banking on its audience’s perpetually unsatiated palette as a marketing scheme to churn more buzz, views, and conversation about every subsequent BROCKHAMPTON release. Artists like Future and BROCKHAMPTON don’t need you to love each of their releases forever. They just need you to care about them just long enough until the next release.

In a world where the fastest and most expedient results are often the most popular, hip-hop’s biggest artists servicing this model is really nothing more than natural progression. Drake delivering a bloated “playlist” instead of a traditional album or the way fans clamored for a second Kendrick Lamar album right after the release of DAMN. only further prove that even rap’s biggest stars are not free from the pressure to fill the bottomless pit of fandom.

Now, the mere idea of new hip-hop music is as stimulating to the fan’s appetite as the music itself, and as this behavior grows, so too will the strategies with which artists find success.

We are truly in uncharted territory.

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