Is the Album Dying? A DJBooth Debate

By | Posted November 21, 2016
Two writers debate whether the album is still alive and kicking or is slowly killed by the single and playlist. Who's right?
2016-11-18-album-dying-debate

A Note From Nathan S.: Over the course of the past few weeks, Yoh and I have been going back and forth in a Google doc debating the state of the album in 2016. Enjoy...


Dear Frank Yohcean,

I was perusing through your recent writing and came across your “Albums Are Dying a Slow Death...” article.

Per usual, it was both insightful and well-written, which is exactly the kind of complimentary thing you say right before you start arguing with someone. While I agree wholeheartedly with much of what you wrote, it was this phrase that halted me in my tracks like a sumo wrestler passing an all-you-can-eat buffet.

“Singles and playlists have a bigger impact than an entire album in 2016.”

Was that true? It certainly didn’t feel true. When Danny Brown’s new album dropped my gut instinct was “oh no.” I’d just barely begun to unpack Mick Jenkin’s The Healing Component, already feeling like I hadn’t given Mac Miller’s The Divine Feminine enough time, and I was still feeling like I hadn’t really done The Sun’s Tirade, Prima Donna and Blonde justice, not to mention how often I was still listening to Malibu and Blank Face.  

If anything, albums in 2016 felt like an embarrassment of riches. We weren’t just getting albums, we were getting the kind of cohesive, complex, layered albums that took weeks, if not months, of consistent engagement to truly figure out. My current problem is too many albums, not enough time, and those are just the hip-hop selections.  

Admittedly, I care more than most about music; I was that third-grader who saved all their allowance money to go buy cassettes at Newbury Comics. (The first album I ever bought was C&C Music Factory’s Gonna Make You Sweat, just in case I’m coming across as a music snob.) There is no denying that playlists, and by extension singles, have become enormously popular. That’s not a statement that can be agreed or disagreed with, that’s a mathematical fact. But that word...impact. Impact?

Stepping outside my own head, it seems like albums are still having an enormous cultural impact, certainly more than singles. If anything, the more I think about it, the more I think that we’ve seen this rise in great albums exactly because of the parallel explosion of playlists and singles. I feel like the future of the album hasn’t been this bright in years.

So I’ll give you a chance to expound and explain. You really think the album is dying? Don’t tell me you’re getting all 2006 Nas on me.


Dear Nathan Yohlavik,

On September 16, 2015, Nathan wrote a eulogy for trap music. It was a beautiful eulogy, writing that traced the humble beginnings, the triumphant middle and the untimely end of one of rap’s most dominating sounds. If you cut on your radio or television or go to your cell phone-friendly streaming service, you are certain to find that trap music isn’t in the casket, but still dominating like an invincible tyrant. Was Nathan premature in his reasoning? Did he try to put trap in the casket while there was life still in its 808s and hi-hats? No, he wasn’t wrong. The trap that we once knew is dead, and what we are left with is a poor substitute.

When I declared the album dead, it came from the very same foresight as Nathan’s trap declaration, but I had the statistics to support my claim. I’m a firm believer that numbers lie, but the numbers represented something that I already began to believe: that music listeners were gravitating toward playlists and singles more than full-length albums. I wasn’t stating that the album—full bodies of work—were no longer in demand because that’s far from true. People still listen to albums, and they take their favorite songs and add them to their favorite playlist. I believe this is some variation of how music is being consumed by the masses in 2016.

Billboard has reported that the U.S. record industry is seeing historic lows in album sales, but people are listening to music more than ever. It's a wild but reasonable juxtaposition. How are people listening to music? Through streaming. Streaming is booming like a Nino Brown trap house. The popularity of playlists can be seen as an effect caused by the domination of streaming services. More people are hearing music, but they aren’t digesting entire albums like they use to. Streaming is the Brutus to the album’s Caesar—one might have conquered the world first, but the other carried the knife.

We’ve received some great albums this year. For people who still enjoy albums, who still hold them dear, you have every reason to rejoice. I don’t think we will ever reach a place where the album is completely obsolete, but we are also living in a time where the single is all-powerful. This is just like when albums were struggling to go Gold, but ringtones were regularly going 3x Platinum. It’s about coming to terms with the fact that streaming is changing how music is consumed, and that the album is affected by this change. If it’s not dead, it’s suffering from a very dangerous virus. The consumers have the cure, they always will, but the question is do they care enough to save the album? I don’t think so.


Jesus, Mary and Yohseph,

Oh no, you pulled out something I wrote and used it against me. This is the danger of battling such a familiar foe. I’m sure there’s a Dragonball Z reference I could make here against you, but we both know how that would go.

Anyway, let’s get to the heart of my point….

Yes, of course, singles and playlists are huge drivers of the culture, especially now, and you have the math to back it up. But I think you’re letting the numbers overwhelm you. People have more listening options than ever, so yes, they’re listening to music in increasingly fractured ways, but that doesn’t mean the album is dead, dying or even sick. While “Hotling Bling” may be the ship that launched a thousand memes, it was To Pimp a Butterfly (which went Platinum, by the way) that dominated hearts, minds and discussions for all of last year.

This isn’t about pitting fun music against serious music, they both have their place, and I certainly don’t want to pit Drake against Kendrick. That debate is more tired than Rick Ross doing CrossFit, certainly even more tired than Rick Ross fat jokes.

But I do want to make sure that albums are continuing to get their just due because I’m worried that we’re becoming slaves to the moment. You mentioned the Ringtone Era—exactly. I can still hear the echoes of those bemoaning that not just the album but hip-hop, the whole culture, was dead.

And what happened? MIMS is somewhere (shout out to MIMS) and hip-hop, and the album, not only endured but have blossomed since. That’s because, at the risk of sounding overly artsy, there will always be a place—a prominent place—for the album. More than any other medium, music has the unique ability to weave itself into every facet of your life, and albums have the very real ability to become like family members.

So while it may be the single or the playlist that’s racking up streams on Spotify, I’d encourage you to go deep, not shallow. From A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, Coloring Book to Forest Hills Drive, Blonde to Lemonade and everywhere in between, across generations and genres, it’s still the album that’s capable of moving mountains.

In the words of Mos Def, off the classic album Black on Both Sides:

Hip-Hop is going where we going / So the next time you ask yourself where Hip-Hop is going / Ask yourself: where am I going? How am I doing?

So where are you going? Because where I’m going the album is alive and kicking.


Phife would be proud at how you’re forcing me to stay on point, Nate Dawg.

The numbers may be the sword I lean on, but they aren’t my shield. I trust them to an extent, I used them to make a point, but I know that people are what truly matters in this discussion. I recently found myself wondering what’s bigger, the song “Alright” or the album To Pimp a Butterfly? What has been more impactful, the song “Fuck Donald Trump” or the album Still Brazy?

Throughout history, single songs have always been able to travel where albums couldn’t—the radio, the club, and even protests. But we live in a time where Kendrick and YG could remove those two songs from their albums, release them as loosies, and they would still be largely impactful. Both To Pimp a Butterfly and Still Brazy would lose something important without them: the two songs that the people championed. If an album is a family member, then the single is the love you fall heads-over-heels for.

I ask you this my friend, are we not slaves to the moment? Are we not living in an age where attention spans have shortened and the ocean of music has widened? Albums demand solidarity, it commands your undivided and your utmost focus. The single is a commitment of attention, it’s like that time you promised to spend with an old friend or grandparent. The biggest difference that it’s harder to stay committed when you feel an urge to also spend time with other accessible parties. We are in the age of hypercontent—where every dying second there’s something pulling your attention away. We are a generation chained by a desire to fill every second in the day with something, and I believe singles and playlists are a better reflection of how we are living moment to moment, rather than with albums meant to keep us completely still.

The album is still appreciated, it is still adored and loved how it’s always been loved. But the album has aged much faster in this era, it is up against a different way of thinking; a different way of music consumption. The album’s only sin is the sin of all forms of art—that time doesn’t stand still. Everything dies. There was a time where disco was dominant, and hip-hop was this malnourished culture that was never supposed to live longer than a few months. Now disco is in the grave, and hip-hop has global influence. There was a time when every computer had a floppy disc driver, and now they don’t. Now we are living in a world where CD drives are being removed from laptops and cars. I don’t think it’s a matter of deep or shallow, or right or wrong, but a matter of life and death. We are in a transitional period, a period in time that’s crawling closer to the album not having the same impact that it once had. If you believe that hip-hop is still moving in the direction of the album, then you are moving backward.

Mos asked where is hip-hop going, and all signs are pointing to a dominate future of singles and playlist.

***

By Nathan S, occasional keyboard hitter and beard maintainer. This is his Twitter. And By Yoh, aka Yohlack, aka @Yoh31

Photo Credit: Instagram

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