With only five months left in the year, it won’t be long until social media is flooded with debates over the year’s best album. I’m certain that Kanye’s ever-evolving The Life Of Pablo will be included in mosts of those lists. The music can be argued, but the album’s rollout can not - absolutely terrible. Nathan was a bit hyperbolic when declaring, “The worst album release in music history,” but his frustrations encompassed how many felt during the bizarre days leading up to and after it was released on Tidal. Kanye can be a visionary, innovative, and a genius when it comes to music and marketing, but The Life Of Pablo’s rollout was one of the sloppiest, unorganized, and erratic moments of his career. Rihanna’s Antialso suffered from a rollout that felt like trying to cycle up a hill with two flat tires instead of a perfectly new luxury vehicle peeling off the lot.
Rihanna and Kanye status is perfect for the surprise album era, too famous to fail in terms of sales and streams, but many artists aren’t in the position to treat their album release like a surprise party and expect the world to cease turning when the Tidal link drop. Most of the active rappers in the game are still forced to come up with plans to release their album in a more traditional sense, and looking at the year so far, Royce Da 5’9” had one of the best rollouts with his album Layers.
It all started with the album’s lead single, “Tabernacle.” Far from what you would consider a radio record, the opposite of what’s being played in the clubs, “Tabernacle” wasn’t a record that was going to be a commercial success. Royce gave listeners a story, his story, and it was refreshing. The day his son was born, the day his grandmother died, and the day he met Eminem went into a rap record that reintroduced an artist that some have been listening to since the early 2000’s. The day that changed his life, was also the day that potentially reinvigorated his solo career.
The story illustrated on “Tabernacle” was retold through the music video - young Royce played by his son, a young Kino, a young Marshall, all bring the story to life. There was also a behind-the-scenes release that gave people a glimpse into the makings. It all came one after another. Being that Layers was his first solo album in four years there was plenty to talk about - “Tabernacle” and his sobriety were the perfect conversation starter. When he walked into rooms to do interviews, he had a story to talk about, details to elaborate, views to expand upon. Every release was followed by another release, another visual, another interview - there was plenty to keep people talking that went beyond highlighting his lyrical capabilities. I usually frown upon an artist releasing a mixtape before his album, but Trust The Shooter was a strategic release. It gave him more content to play around with - the Twitter interactions with fans, releasing a video for “Which It’s Cool,” and the perfect Eminem tease that can be heard on “Rap On Steroids.” You already have Royce and Black Thought rapping like titans, but knowing that a version exists with Eminem guarantees when the final version comes out there will be another surge of attention with all eyes on Nickle Nine.
“Tabernacle,” Layers, and the album rollout proved that Royce was more than a microphone monster, he was stepping into his own as a complete artist, and the way he showcased that is through every step of his album release. Layers is the first Royce album to appear No. 1 on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop albums chart selling 16K in the first week. Slaughterhouse as a group is signed to Shady Records, but Royce as a solo artist is independent. We can assume he has the connections, but without being under a major, he doesn’t get the major resources and benefits. Despite this, he was able to do more with less. I believe the success of Layers is deeper than a good rapper making good music, the method of execution was unlike any of his other projects. There’s benefits in the traditional album release if you treat your rollout with the same care and ambition as you treat recording the music. Royce was able to get Lucas' attention on the review, so I can only imagine the other ears and eyes he opened due to the release. It’s just like Lyhor told Young Thug about treating his songs like orphans - results will always be in the execution.
TDE’s rollout for Kendrick’s Untitled Unmastered had been in the works since Kendrick started performing unreleased music on late-night television. Instead of releasing singles, they presented listeners with music to desire. They created a demand, made fans want the songs, and even convinced Lebron James to be the voice to articulate these desires. It was the surprise release we should’ve seen coming. With ScHoolboy Q they went the more "traditional" route. The problem in this area, sometimes the single feels like a throwaway. When I first heard “Groovy Tony” I thought it was a promo record that wouldn’t make the album, a song to get the streets talking, the very opposite of “Tabernacle” that felt like the beginning of something much bigger.
With so much music being released it’s hard to recognize what will live on an album and what will die on SoundCloud. But the marketing really took off after the release of “THat Part." Q’s visuals really stepped up, and the four part short film/music videos gave him the added push to really entice rap fans. Producing a visual narrative to watch and coincide with the album gave Q an extra layer that was missing on Oxymoron. There were plenty of videos, but they lacked in the direction that is executed with Blank Face.
During his interview with the Breakfast Club, ScHoolboy talks about a friend who recently received a sentencing of 100 years in prison. He admits that this friend is the one who really brought him into gangbanging. The way he sees it, without him there’s no ScHoolboy Q to rap about that life on his album. Similarly, Royce isn’t able to make “Tabernacle” if his wife wasn’t in labor, if his grandmother wasn’t in the same hospital, and if he didn’t decide to perform the show where he met Eminem afterwards. The lives of both artists are simply interesting and they were able to turn their reality into art. I think about how Vince Staples' debut studio album is based on the year 2006, events that transpired 10 years ago. I can’t go to Hooters without wondering about Courtney because of one lyric in a Drake song. That’s the power of bringing listeners into your world.
The story is important. The album rollout is important. Finding balance between the storytelling and the album promotion is what can truly connect an artist to the kind of fans who will buy music. They’re doing more than buying music, they’re buying into the story. The story is something that artists coming up have to understand. Go out and live your life before wanting to make music. If you don’t have a story, something that people can feel, you won’t last. There will always be someone with a better flow, a tighter delivery, a more melodic hook, but only you have your story. Only you have your vision. That could be the deciding factor if you have fleeting followers or a cult of supporters ready to listen the moment a song drops. I’ll always be more interested in an artist with a story to tell than a song to listen to.
Don’t just sell music, sell your story. Royce sold his and his career has been looking up ever since.
By Yoh, aka Yohnonomous, aka @Yoh31
Photo Credit: MaximilianImages