Rules. From an early age, they were the bane of my existence.
Inside homes, schools, libraries, restaurants, no matter what roof I was under, there was a set of regulations to follow and consequences for those that broke them. Being outside was the closest thing to freedom. Where you could be loud as you wanted, run as fast as you can, embrace the wild and unruly—outside is where you always wanted to be.
To be an artist is to be outside with the freedom of expression that it allows. The best kind of art is created without rules and restrictions. Ideally, every artist wants to create without having to compromise their craft to please others. No painter wants a boss moving his brush, no writer wants an editor who is going to rewrite every word and no rapper wants a deal with a label trying to change their style.
I remember the first time I heard J. Cole’s “Work Out,” cringing through every second, a painful attempt at going pop from a rapper who had never danced with that devil before. “Who Dat,” his previous attempt at radio had at least a bit of edge, but “Work Out was as dull as a butter knife. This wasn’t the rapper who made Friday Night Lights. He set the bar with a free mixtape, a project that showcased the artist he had the potential to be. His major label debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story, failed to live up to its predecessor. What’s interesting about the two projects is the rumor that Cole intended for Friday Night Lights to be his debut album but the label didn’t believe it would sell. So he created two different projects—one that was made free of outside input and another that was under pressure from executives, A&R’s, and all the other suits that sit in offices who have to worry about radio spins, ringtones, and album sales. Guess which project fans loved more?
Signing to a major means being under their roof, playing by their rules. Samples would immediately ruin any chances of Friday Night Lights being commercially released. Erykah Badu, Billie Holiday, Missy Elliott, and Stevie Wonder are just a few of the artists Cole sampled throughout the tape's self-production. Sample clearance is the reason why most of J. Cole’s best songs are just floating around the internet without an album home. He asked Lauryn Hill not to sue him while rapping over a loop of “Nothing Even Matters.” Releasing Friday Night Lights as a free mixtape is how Cole hoped to stay free from any lawsuits, something we know now is a mere fantasy. Back in 2010, it wasn’t a worry, it wasn’t until Mac Miller was sued for $10 million dollars in 2012 for a song on a free mixtape did the mentality begin to shift. Goes to show how big a difference it can make when you’re able to make the music you want versus making the music they demand.
When Wiz Khalifa released the free Kush & Orange Juice, it was a stoner spectacle. After years of grinding, hustling, and finding his sound, the critical acclaim of that mixtape pushed Khalifa into the next level of notoriety. It was announced soon after that Wiz would be signing to Atlantic Records. Rolling Papers, the album that would be released through the label, wasn’t met with the same ovation as Kush & OJ. The album sounded like it was supposed to be digestible to an audience of listeners who spend more time tuning the proverbial radio dial for the latest catchy tune than those hotboxing before class. You hear a song like “Roll Up” and can’t help but feel nauseated by how corny it is. Wiz' whole aesthetic was being a fly, cool stoner but the album didn’t reflect that. He had radio hits, "Black And Yellow" was enormous but it wasn't "Still Blazin," "Mezmorized" or "Never Been." He later would write a letter to his fans expressing how Rolling Papers was a creative mistake. The follow-up free mixtape, Taylor Allderdice, was a much better offering.
In the cases of both Wiz and J. Cole, their free mixtapes were received much better than the albums they released to retail. Both created without being strangled by stipulations. Labels will give you both money and exposure but in most cases, you will have to conform in your creativity. Sometimes the creative conditions are different. Drake released So Far Gone and it was received as a masterpiece. He was slated to be the newest star in rap, a Toronto import who had found the balance of making music for the radio that didn’t suffer in quality. When it was time to release Thank Me Later, his debut album, there was an obvious shift in quality. There were big named features, big named producers, but the music wasn’t up to par. In an attempt to seize the moment, push out a project while all eyes were on Drake, the label failed to present a product that could live up to the hype. Drake even admitted he wasn’t happy with the album and it being rushed.
“Thank Me Later was a rushed album. I didn’t get to take the time that I wanted to on that record. I rushed a lot of the songs and sonically I didn’t get to sit with the record and say, ‘OK, well maybe I should change this verse.’ Once it was done, it was done. That’s why my new album is called Take Care ’cause I get to take my time this go-round.” - Drake 2011
I think about Big K.R.I.T.’s mixtapes and how K.R.I.T Wuz Here and Return Of 4eva are incredible bodies of that would never make it through a label’s red tape. Krizzle can really flip a sample into something special but that doesn’t mean anything if it can’t be cleared. It’s almost like being denied an artist's best work when they’re forced to create by the rules. The same can be said for Wale’s Mixtape About Nothing and More About Nothing—two free mixtapes that could stand next to his albums as far as quality goes. In the early stages of his career, there’s no way those Seinfeld sketches would have been cleared. If not released for free they wouldn’t be released at all.
I constantly see discussions about mixtapes being better than albums. Every artist I’ve mentioned so far has had to approach the two differently. The times have changed some but early on, during the dawn of blogs labels still wanted radio, labels wanted album sales, labels wanted hits, and there was little you could do about that.
Fans don’t see what the labels are demanding from the artist, we aren’t sitting in the meeting when songs are being turned down or when A&R’s are requesting a song that will soar to the top of Billboard. None of this matters to us. Fans just want to listen. They hear the albums, they hear the mixtapes, and a conclusion on which is better is decided. Friday Night Lights should’ve been the debut album, the same can be said for So Far Gone and Kush & Orange Juice. The industry doesn’t work on what’s better but what will be profitable. Understandably, it's hard to see a profit when you’re releasing music that will potentially get you sued. Music done for free, without label executives looking over an artist's shoulder, will always have a chance of being better than what is sold. Less rules and even less restriction.
Fast forward to where J. Cole is today, he’s able to release an album without a single or release date. He’s sold his albums, received the plaques, and built a big enough following where he isn’t stressing about making a hit for radio any longer. That’s why 2014 Forest Hills Drives sounded more like one of his “mixtapes” than any studio album. He had the room to create without having to please anyone but himself. K.R.I.T. has also begun moving into a more comfortable position. I believe Wale has reached that level as well, I mean, he did an Album About Nothing with Jerry Seinfeld for crying out loud. Wiz is doing Wiz.
Playing by their rules and straining your creativity can be rewarding if you reach a position where your worth is proven. Remember, the goal of a major label is to make more money. Their roof, their rules, like an evil step-parent who gives a good allowance. It’s up to the artist to decide if they want to go outside and make their own rules.
By Yoh, aka Yoh Tarantino aka @Yoh31.