Drake, Future & The Inverse Relationship Between Album Length & Critical Acclaim

By | Posted April 13, 2017
Artists are incentivized to make longer albums these days, but it's hurting their ability to leave a lasting impact.
2017-04-13-album-length-vs-critical-acclaim

The job of an editor is a thankless one. To paraphrase an expression I once heard, if an editor does their job perfectly, it should be impossible to notice. Admittedly, this expression is most frequently used in reference to film editing, but it could be applied to the art of editing more sweepingly. Just as the most polished films make it difficult to discern the work of editors, heavily edited pieces of writing often feel like the work of a singular voice, and obsessively engineered compositions of music often feel like the untouched work of divinely possessed artists. Unfortunately, the opposite of this expression also rings true: if an editor does their job poorly, it’s heavily apparent to almost everyone who consumes the final product.

I’ve thought about this adage a lot lately, as I’ve complained to anyone who will listen about my rapidly dwindling attention span and my newfound aversion towards longer album releases. To listen to More Life’s 22 tracks—or to consume either of Future’s recent 17-track offerings—in one sitting, isn’t a proposition that excites me, so much as it feels like an oppressive chore. In making a 22-song album in 2017, Drake has somehow musically simulated the feeling I get when a friend buys me an uninteresting book as a gift, and then continuously follows up with me as to “whether I’ve had the chance to read it yet.” Despite the various redeeming qualities of all three of these albums, I couldn’t help but think how much each one of them could have benefited from the work of a good editor.

More Life

Of course, just as the internet’s click-based revenue models have deprioritized written editing in favor of content volume, the proliferation of streaming has had a similar impact on the music industry.

Artists in 2017 are actively incentivized to make longer albums to increase metrics for sales equivalents, to maximize the penny fractions they receive in per-stream royalties, and to optimize instances of song inclusion on playlists. Excessively long tracklists are certainly not a new phenomenon, by any means, but the streaming model directly rewards overstuffed albums in a way that was unprecedented in the previous era. Even the confusing RIAA anomaly—where each sale of a double album has historically been counted as two units—is comparable only on a much smaller scale.

Missing on this list of the apparent advantages of longer album releases, however, is artistic virtue. Artists that purposefully bolster their tracklists to rig the streaming metrics are perfectly within their rights to do so, but overwhelming historical evidence has shown that they’re likely doing so at the cost of impact and longevity. It’s a bit like the trade-off one faces when trying to pack too many clothes in a carry-on bag to avoid checking in a piece of luggage. It may seem prudent in the short-term, but it becomes problematic when you forcefully attempt to close your bag, break the zipper, and debate whether you can board your return flight wearing all the clothes you’d brought with you.   

Intuitively speaking, it’s easy to appreciate why shorter albums have historically garnered more acclaim than those with comparatively longer tracklists. If the purpose of an album—and this is frankly up for debate at this point—is to create a thematically consistent body of work, then any inclusion of extraneous songs is only bound to detract from this goal.

If artists were hypothetically forced to abide by a rule which stated that every song they include on their album must serve some sort of predefined artistic statement, I doubt we’d hear many albums hovering around the 17-song mark. This isn’t to say that there aren’t any albums that merit this length, but that these albums are typically few and far between. It’s been said a million times before, but it bears repeating: if Nas managed to say everything he needed to in 10 songs on Illmatic, then what possible artistic justification could Future have for releasing 34 songs in two weeks? If he’d only created a more focused effort that had consolidated the best songs from both FUTURE and HNDRXX, he may have had an album of the year candidate. Instead, he chose to cash in on the streaming metrics and the resultant hype of the media cycle, and now both albums already feel like they’ve lost relevance.

 

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I suppose there’s an argument to be made that these excessively long albums serve as fan-service for an artist’s most dedicated supporters. I can’t imagine that the most emphatic fans are as concerned with cohesiveness, they’re probably just happy to have an excess of new music from one of their favorite artists. And yet, much like the killjoy that I am, I’d argue that there are diminishing returns here. Lengthy albums by my favorite artists are a lot like an amazing buffet where I’ve forced myself to eat an extra plate of food simply because the option was available. The extra plate was great in theory, but I would’ve probably enjoyed my experience more had I just stopped eating when I was full. I guess what I’m trying to say is, much like the extra food at the buffet, albums that exceed 14 songs in length can cause digestive issues.   

I wouldn’t be nearly as confident about my assertion regarding the relationship between album length and quality if I hadn’t first done the leg work to prove that this isn’t just my own subjective assessment. My methodology for doing so involved looking at the top five albums of each of the past 10 years (2007 to 2016 inclusive) as per Metacritic’s aggregated review scores, cataloging their tracklist length, and performing some rudimentary data analysis. To help standardize the process, I made the assumption to omit bonus tracks from tracklist length—given that these songs rarely factor into review scores—and eliminated three different outliers from 2009 which would have skewed the data in a non-meaningful way: a concert album, a 54-track box set, and a re-release of a 1971 record. You can review my incredibly unsophisticated spreadsheet here, should you want to take a look for yourself.

Here’s a short overview of some of the most notable results:

  1. Out of these 50 albums, only 11 of them exceeded 14 songs in length. Incidentally, 8 of these 11 albums belonged to the hip-hop/R&B genre.
  2. The average tracklist length of these albums was 12.34 songs.
  3. The median tracklist length of these albums was 12 songs.
  4. The shortest album on the list was 7 songs, while the longest album on the list was 25.
  5. The shortest hip-hop album on the list was RTJ2 by Run the Jewels, which was 11 songs long. The longest hip-hop album on the list was Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II by Raekwon, which featured 22 songs.
  6. Saigon’s album The Greatest Story Never Told was apparently the second-best-reviewed album of 2011 according to Metacritic, which momentarily made me question the legitimacy of their service, and wonder whether it’s worth going back and revisiting that album.

Of course, 50 albums isn’t the largest sample size by which to glean conclusive results, and any real scientific study would likely have to account for a number of other, disparate variables. Nonetheless, it does seem like these limited results point towards a larger correlation between album brevity and resonance.

To be fair to artists, however, it certainly seems like they are making slow concessions to adjust in light of this conclusion. The increased prominence of EPs, for example, allows artists to have the best of both worlds. An artist can satisfy their artistic urge to create a cohesive body of work with their EP, and thus worry less about these goals when releasing a meandering album, transparently designed to chase streaming numbers.

Drake, of course, has inventively tried to sidestep this question altogether by calling his album a “playlist.” On either side of the equation, however, it feels like we’re losing something meaningful. No project from this year better highlights this loss than Sampha’s Process, an album that is conclusive proof that, at their best, albums still have more gravitas than EPs, and that the lasting acclaim of a piece of art is still more rewarding than temporary streaming supremacy.

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By , a writer from Toronto who one day hopes to parlay his work into a career as an ironic aux-cord DJ.
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