Trying to Make Sense of the Double Album in the Streaming Era - DJBooth

Trying to Make Sense of the Double Album in the Streaming Era

As long as the music is still connecting, aren’t the added streaming benefits just the icing on the cake?
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Streaming has proven to be both a blessing and curse for the way we consume media. You can lose hours or even full days attempting to binge-watch your favorite shows on Netflix or Hulu; if Amazon’s your thing, you can even get lost in a show before getting lost in your Wish List. It is the constant streamlining of information that puts millions of songs, videos, products, and Instagram moments in the palm of your hand. In a world where the second season of Marvel’s Luke Cage and albums by Westside Gunn, Teyana TaylorFreddie Gibbs, and Freeway are all readily accessible on the same weekend, where do we find the time to properly digest it all? Can we?

In other words, this is not the ideal world for Drake’s latest effort, the double album Scorpion, to exist in.

As a concept, the double album seems counterintuitive to the world of streaming. First originated in 1950 from recordings of a Benny Goodman concert at Carnegie Hall, it was an excuse for Columbia Records to show off the storage space on vinyl LPs, which they themselves had introduced to the world of music only two years prior. The idea of a “Side A” and “Side B” had officially doubled to welcome sides C and D. Artists like Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix relished the opportunity to give as many songs as possible to their fans in one fell swoop, while albums like Pink Floyd’s The Wall used the extra room to flex conceptual storytelling muscles. It’s an idea that’s both more accessible yet less enticing in a landscape where G.O.O.D. Music’s seven (and eight) song projects choose to stay in one corner of a massive room of giga and terabytes of storage.

Hip-hop got its first taste of the idea when DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince released He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper in 1988, the same year that CD sales began to supplant vinyl. Jeff and Will Smith’s sophomore album was 10 tracks of upbeat jams and scratches—bolstered by singles like “Nightmare On My Street” and the GRAMMY-winning “Parents Just Don’t Understand”—supplemented with another disc of live performances and extra songs that weren’t included in the CD version, a common practice at the time. The 73-minute album didn’t push the conceptual boundaries of music but instead proved that rappers had just as much content to unload as their musical peers, whether it was in front of their parents’ faces or not.

As the 1990s chugged along and the face of rap turned dour, the genre’s double albums branched out in different directions. Ice Cube’s 1991 sophomore album Death Certificate split itself into conceptual halves depicting the police violence and racism of then-modern Los Angeles (“The Death Side”) against his vision of Black prosperity, heavily influenced by his new friends in the Nation of Islam (“The Life Side”). Both Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. released double albums heavy with thoughts of death and paranoia next to club hits with 1996’s All Eyez On Me and 1997’s posthumous Life After Death, respectively. Wu-Tang Clan’s run of solo projects set the stage for their group sophomore album Wu-Tang Forever to exist as a two-disc victory lap in 1998. These and other albums were certainly bids to get as much music out as possible—one sale of a double album counts for two units shipped—but some also stood as bold artistic statements in a time where rap was still looked at as juvenile by the rest of the industry. They were no doubt bolstered by the format that had gained Pink Floyd so much acclaim.

The trend continued into the early aughts. JAY-Z flaunted his Gift and Curse on both sides of The Blueprint 2. Andrê 3000 and Big Boi predicated their splitting musical interests as OutKast by marketing two separate albums as a double disc with 2003’s massively influential (and 11x Platinum certified) Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Artistic statements were still being made as sales and consciousnesses went digital near the close of the decade. Double albums weren’t nearly as en vogue as they had once been, but as the 2010s began, Danny Brown was working to bridge the two eras.

His skinny jeans lost him a record deal with G-Unit, but his debut album The Hybrid caught the attention of Fools Gold co-founder Nick Catchdubs, who signed the Detroit rapper to the label, where he released 2011’s XXX. The freely-released project was a kaleidoscopic ride through Brown’s mind, a world where the production beamed down from Mars and everything tasted like Cool Ranch Doritos. In 2012, he told Passion of the Weiss that the raucous, drug-fueled first 12 tracks comprised Side A and that the last six more sobering tracks delving into his personal life and demons made up Side B. The excess of “Lie4” and “Blunt After Blunt” upset the stomach once you make your way through Danny’s family tree of drug use on “DNA” and the bittersweet release of closer “30.”

Brown’s rise turned meteoric in 2013, once he released his third album, Old. Sides A and B remained, but the more reflective cuts came first, almost as if Danny wanted to lighten the load for his fans. The tinge of ennui after fighting for survival is the drive that infects even the most banging cuts on the album; he's still trying to outrun the old Danny Brown with mixed results. That ambition and passion are what makes XXX and Old such good connectors between decades: Brown has always been a rapper’s rapper, but his ear and relatability led him to the Paul Whites and Purity Rings of the world as much as the Tony Yayos and ScHoolboy Qs. His sound is eclectic but all roads lead back to the "Greatest Rapper Ever," a fact that endeared both of his breakthrough projects to fans even as the streaming boom eventually took over the music conversation.

So where does that leave Drake in 2018? Before its release, Scorpion was billed as a double album, a lofty claim that led many to call it his most ambitious project yet. Both sides play to the opposing duality within everyone’s favorite Canadian sad boy: Side A is mostly dedicated to Drake donning his passive yet doubly aggressive battle rap armor in the wake of Pusha-T’s scathing “The Story of Adidon,” while Side B leans more toward the softer, manipulative, R&B-laced album he’s been threatening to drop since Take Care. Both sides have outliers but mostly play to the established formula. Drake wants acceptance from his rap peers, and if he can’t get it from attempting to bring down one half of the Clipse, then why not with the ultimate signifier of pomp and circumstance in music: the double album.

It’s a very Drake move to make, but he’s not the only one making it. PnB Rock declared his upcoming sophomore album TrapStar Turnt PopStar would also be a double album the day before Drake dropped Scorpion, but much like the double albums of yesteryear, loaded projects like these also double as padding. A single track being streamed millions of times is enough for an entire album to hang a Platinum plaque on, nevermind a whole 25 tracks. The game changed when people got hip to the suggestion that Quality Control releasing Migos’ Culture II as a 24-track double album was a ploy to boost numbers. In practice, it isn’t that much different than one copy of Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below counting as two more units to tack onto that album’s millions. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Ultimately, the double album serves more than one purpose in the age of streaming. It will be both the steroid shot used to bump those Spotify numbers and a landscape of potential gems awaiting listeners who can spare the time. It's true that attention spans are too short and the social media news cycle is too swift to handle the brunt of a double album. Being a part of the conversation is half the battle for artists and consumers these days, after all. But artists keep dropping lengthy projects that people want to sit with regardless. Vince Staples split hot California boredom in half with the sandy thump of Summertime ‘06. Big K.R.I.T. reconciled his rapper’s ego with his everyman insecurities on both sides of 4Eva Is a Mighty Long Time just last year. Rae Sremmurd took it a step further and rolled two solo albums and a group album into SR3MM this past May. And yes, Drake will continue to rack up streaming milestones that will be broken every other week thanks to Scorpion

As long as the music is still connecting, aren’t the added streaming benefits just the icing on the cake?

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