Today, rising R&B-star Kehlani announced the impending arrival of her debut album, which is great news for Kehlani fans (like me) and terrible news for people who want to stop using outdated music industry terms (like me).
Once upon a time, a time not too long ago, the only way for an artist to get a large number of people to hear their music was through the release of a major label that would put physical CDs in stores and songs on the radio. That was it.
And so when an artist released their debut album, it truly was a large-scale debut in the dictionary sense of the word, "a person's first appearance or performance in a particular capacity or role."
The mere fact that you're reading this on the internet should let you know just how meaningless that term now is in the age of YouTube and social media and SoundCloud; fittingly, Kehlani's a perfect example.
Her first hit song, "FWU," dropped two years ago and now has 11 million views—at the time, she was secretly signed to Atlantic, who also understood that in this day and age it's entirely possible to build an artist into a superstar without releasing an album, period, let alone a "debut" album.
In the time since "FWU," Kehlani's been played on the radio repeatedly, toured the world, become paparazzi famous for unfortunate reasons and, most importantly, released two albums which some might call mixtapes, but come on now. You Should Be Here consisted entirely of original music, was released for purchase through a major label and was nominated for a GRAMMY. In what world is that not an album? And in what world will the upcoming SWEETSEXYSAVAGE be her "first appearance or performance in a particular capacity or role"? Not the world we're currently living in.
I hope it's clear that this is by no means a criticism of Kehlani, she's one of the few artists I endorse and hope the best for without reservation. This is about me being old and grumpy about the way the music industry (and music fans) continues to cling to outdated terms—which come to think of it, maybe makes me young and forward-thinking and them old and grumpy.
Because let's be clear: the "definitely not a debut album" thing is a widespread thing. Chance The Rapper, who in 2016 is a household name, recently announced that he was beginning work on his "debut album." For such a groundbreaking artist, Chance seems oddly attached to describing his music under old terms.
In fact, when asked to describe what will distinguish this "debut album" from his previous work, he responded that he wanted, "Something that you can consider an album. It might not be physical, or a disc or something, but an album that comes with its own live show is important.” If that sounds vague it's because this is 2016 and the difference between an album and a mixtape—between a debut album and any other album—is inherently vague. So why continue to use it?
Yes, a lot of this is me just being a writer who obsesses over words, but don't dismiss this as mere semantics. The words we attach to music help shapes how we hear it, which is why so many artists hate when writers assign them genre labels, and all I want is a world in which we can simply listen to collections of music without straining to cram them into now meaningless ideas about where it's free or for purchase, debut or not.
By all means, bring on new music from Kehlani and Chance and anyone else with great art to share. Just be careful what you call it.
By Nathan S, occasional keyboard hitter and beard maintainer. This is his Twitter.