[Art by khumche]
You could walk through the hallways of high school, the malls, the clubs, wherever there was a cluster of cell phones ringing and listen to the music that was dominating radio and television. The ringtones never lied, it was the sound of popularity. Shop Boyz “Party Like A Rockstar,” Chamillionaire’s “Ridin,” Flo-Rida’s “Low,” Soulja Boy’s “Kiss Me Through The Phone,” all songs I relate to Sidekicks, Razrs and flip phones. The new cell phone era made their success possible. Ringtones were going platinum before albums, it’s when I realized the power of a single. Having a hit record always mattered, for any artist seeking label deals, radio spins, gold and platinum plaques, a strong single was the key to every door. Even more doors opened when album sales started to decline and the single was deemed more important than ever. There was monetary value in having a song receive nationwide notoriety, even if it was bloody Mary to the ears. This reality lead to label’s salivating over any song with a buzzing presence, paying big money for a surfboard to ride the latest wave and pushing albums to become collections of singles. It was only a year ago music lovers were fretting, writing heartbroken eulogies for the death of the album.
Now the Sidekicks are iPhones and the Razrs are Androids. As time progressed and phones got smarter ringtones slowly became a thing of the past, an age that has come and gone, and in their place we’ve seen the resurrection of the album. Just look at MTV and BET, two huge assets that were essential in pushing singles, both platforms are now reality show shells compared to their former glory. Radio is hanging on by a thread, we are slowly growing further and further away from the system that the music industry was built upon. The systems that supported the success of singles are diminishing, somewhere an outdated A&R just had a heart attack. Welcome to 2015, when full-length albums are commercially embraced by fans without any real presence on Billboard’s Top 100.
Just a few years ago, J. Cole needed a single that would impact radio to get his debut album off Roc Nation’s shelves. Remember when “Who Dat” was supposed to be the first single off Sideline Story until it failed to meet the label’s expectations? It took a familiar Paula Abdul interpolation and a Trey Songz feature to remove Cole from the no-release limbo. This is the same J. Cole that just released an album in December with no press and little promotion and was able to outsell Nicki Minaj. Nicki’s Pinkprint sold 244K first week with four popular singles on television and radio before the album’s release. Yet, she still fell short in comparison to J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive, which sold 353K in its first week. Cole had no features, no grandiose rollout, no songs on radio, he simply went out and touched the people with an excellent album, and the people responded.
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is another example of an album with little promotion, singles that didn’t translate into hit records (the album’s biggest single, “i”, barely cracked the Top 40) but was still able to sell extremely well and become a centerpiece in conversations since its release. He approached this album with the intent of making statements that goes beyond entertaining, you can feel in the music he wasn’t seeking popularity, it’s creatively ambitious and painfully honest. Whatever forces made him feel like he had to include a song like “Poetic Justice” on GKMC were now gone, it would ruin the depth and feeling Kendrick was trying to convey throughout an album. He isn’t the kind of artist meant to have a hit and run, he’s here to stay.
2015 is the year Dr. Dre returned. This Dre, a man that is more alchemist than doctor, has spent his entire career turning lead into gold. His hits have hits, he has a talent for attracting talent, his history speaks for itself. After 15 years he brought us the album Compton. Since it wasn’t Detox I was hesitant to listen, but after some heavy recommendations I gave it an ear and can’t deny it’s prominence. I can appreciate the album, it’s one for people that truly love hip-hop. From start to finish there’s incredible rap performances, but no song jumps out as the radio wrecker or will send the club into a frenzy. The hit maker returned without a hit, yet the album sold 295,000 copies and was streamed over 30 million times globally in the first week. I could assume that Dre lost his touch but realistically I think he’s aware that times have changed. It continues to solidify the fact that albums are coming back in style.
We are living in a time where there’s balance between making albums that will last and music for the moment. Singles dominated during the internet’s uprising but we are currently witnessing the rejuvenation of more conceptual and lengthy entertainment. We still live in a microwave, Vine is creating stars daily, but we can’t dismiss the fact Joey Bada$$' album was number five on Billboard 200 moving 50K units without any major label support, and certainly not radio support. On the other side of the spectrum Fetty Wap is achieving immense success through singles, but it’s rare to see an artist dominate the way he is, and it has yet to be seen how long his single-driven domination can last without an equally popular album. Artists like Rae Sremmurd, Wiz Khalifa, and Rich Homie Quan produce music that’s catchy, entertaining, and scorch up singles charts but all saw disappointing album sales. The game is slowly balancing itself out. Really, Drake is currently music’s biggest exception, the anomaly that’s able to dominate both singles and albums. He has the magic touch, which is why his last album not only sold well but almost every song secured a place on Billboard’s Top 100.
Mac Miller recently spoke on his relationship with Warner Bros, his first time with a major label, and they practically told him to continue what he’s been doing. There isn’t an A&R or label head hounding him for a hit single, a surprise that they gave him $10 million dollars and not expect a giant radio smash. It’s a testament to the direction that the industry is headed. Artist are solidifying themselves, reaching their fans, and that’s a relationship you don’t want to ruin by attempting to be generic and force an effort that will do more harm than good. Future nearly doubled his album sales with DS2, an album that’s received very little radio play compared to his previous, lower selling efforts. Its biggest single, “Where Ya At,” peaked at number 68. Whatever prompted #FutureHive to buy the album in unprecedented numbers, it wasn’t a big hit single.
We went through a phase when singles drove the market, and that phase is certainly still ongoing, but there’s increasingly room for a renaissance, and it’s not just the music industry. The internet is moving away from disposable content. People are getting sick of fast food, there’s only so many greasy burgers and salty fries you can devour before the aches become unbearable. Lists and short articles are still popular but we are starting to see a demand in longer form articles. Vine videos and Instagram posts are still amusing, but there’s a reason people are gravitating toward podcasts. The people want more, something that they can absorb, a full course meal. Reality TV is still a conversation piece, but the shows that have been dominating are Breaking Bad, Game Of Thrones and Mad Men, shows that are long, complex and thought provoking. For artists, content creators and fans we are quickly reaching a point where the most reliable way to wealth and mass commercial success is via complex concept albums. The single will always matter, especially to those looking to make quick money, but those were the same people who pushed ringtones. When was the last time you bought a ringtone? When was the last time you said “get crunk” or used the word “bling”? Times change, and right now we’re increasingly living in the age of the album. So rappers, if you want that Maybach, you better get in the studio and start making music radio won’t touch. Once again the album is king, long live the king.
[By Yoh, aka Come Back to Yoh, aka @Yoh31]