Consistency Is the Greatest Artistic Achievement in the Streaming Era

It’s the mark of a dedicated artist; an artist unafraid of monetary fears and label pressures.
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ScHoolboy Q, Kanye West, Tyler, The Creator

I’ll admit, I was nervous to sit down and listen to Tyler, The Creator’s IGOR. I enjoyed his 2017 release Flower Boy so much I was sure that IGOR wouldn’t live up to an album I believed to be a once-in-a-career release. But Tyler surpassed every expectation and quenched every anxiety with his hyper-focused compositions. In some ways, IGOR is a logical sequel to the vulnerable work he delivered on Flower Boy; in other ways, it’s unpredictable and glorious.

After reflecting on the record, it became clear my anxieties about IGOR had nothing to do with my trust in Tyler’s artistic ability and everything to do with the fact that achieving consistency in hip-hop—in music, period—is a rare feat. Name 10 rap artists who have released back-to-back classic or near-classic albums this decade. I tried. It’s a lot harder than it sounds.

To be fair, consistency, inside and out of hip-hop, is difficult. Even Shakespeare didn’t tally a Hamlet with every shot attempt. Yet, the streaming era presents an even greater challenge. Some artists look at their bank accounts and feel the pressure to hit the studio, while others feel the pressure put on by their major labels to “flood the market” with more material over a shorter period.

Atlanta’s Quality Control Music, the label home to Migos, Lil Baby, Lil Yachty, and City Girls, among others, is one of the principal offenders, ironically enough, of the “quantity over quality” method. In an interview with Complex last year, co-founder Pierre “Pee” Thomas boasted about their label’s success. “You’ve got major labels that haven’t put out as much product that we are doing in the fourth quarter in a whole year,” he said.

Fellow co-founder Kevin “Coach K” Lee further divulged QC’s motivations, stating “I love domination. Market share, domination. When you go to Apple Music, you go right now, three of the projects that we are involved with are in the top five. In the top 20, maybe six are our projects. It’s all about market share. We love domination.”

Thomas and Lee's off-putting, money-minded sentiments are, in part, the reason a quality run—as we’ve seen from Tyler—is so rare today. When an artist’s primary promoter is more interested in “product” and “market share domination” than artistry and career development, they risk their music resembling a color by numbers drawing instead of a masterpiece by Basquiat.

QC’s product-centric philosophy seems to be the unfortunate norm across major label hip-hop, with projects becoming longer even as they become more frequent. In 2018, we saw shameless attempts by Rae Sremmurd, Drake, and Migos to manipulate Billboard with 20-plus album track listings full of fluffy playlist fodder. Despite their middling critical reception (scoring 76, 67, and 69 respectively, according to Metacritic), all three albums were a success. Rae Sremmurd’s SR3MM debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and is certified gold, Drake’s Scorpion debuted at No. 1 and is certified platinum, and Migos’ Culture II also debuted at No. 1 and is certified 2x platinum. 

There are a few artists (and labels) who understand that consistency and longevity require patience and devotion to the art, despite the clear lack of incentive. As Andre Gee wrote for Uproxx, Top Dawg Entertainment, more than any other record label, has excelled in this space over the past decade:

“It can be difficult to balance the demands of industry with the delicate, maddening process of artistry, but the LA-based label does it as well as anyone in rap. The patience they maintain with their artists has resulted in thoughtful, thematically rich work like SZA’s CTRL album, [Schoolboy] Q’s 2016 Blankface LP, and Kendrick Lamar’s entire oeuvre.”

With their countercultural business plan, TDE encourages its acts to take at least two years between project releases, which, according to data compiled from Album of the Year, has led to an aggregate critic score of 80 across every label release. For context, Quality Control’s best-scoring album, Migos’ Culture, has an aggregate score of 74. While Quality Control has hit its market share goals, TDE’s culture of patience proves its product has been more than worth the wait.

For Schoolboy Q, TDE’s patient approach facilitates another important ingredient of artistic consistency: an opportunity to experience life outside the studio. “A lot of rappers put their music before their kids,” he told SSENSE in an interview this past May. “It’s impossible for me to drop two albums in one year, or even four albums in four years because that’s a lot of time in the studio and away from family.”

Q, 32, recognizes that family, community, and life outside music are heavy contributors to an artist’s craft. Without an intentional balance of social life and studio time, artists are prone to become further detached from reality, repeatedly dipping into themes of fame and luxury instead of delivering nuanced commentary (see “Black THougHts”).

Another proponent of artistic patience as a means of achieving consistency is Kanye West, who, except in 2018, waited multiple years between studio releases, ensuring he delivers innovative and unforgettable performances. On the intro to Scotty ATL’s 2015 record “N**** Concentrate,” West says, “You know it’s hard when you’re trying to do something different in the game. A lot of times people don’t accept it, but I’d rather have a slow grind where you build a really strong fan base than just to bust out.”

West’s approach to creation allows him to distance himself from controversies and take time for invaluable self-reflection—usually. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, released in 2010, resulted from Kanye’s storied self-exile to Hawaii, a retreat he needed to process his VMAs debacle and struggles with mental health. Though Kanye would work on collaborative projects in the years to follow, he waited three years before releasing his next solo project, Yeezus, a minimalist reaction to the maximalist approach he used on his previous record. In the case of both records, patience and reflection were necessary to further his innovation and cement his 2010s run as one of the most influential in hip-hop history.

Kanye, ScHoolboy Q, and Tyler, The Creator are always quick and careful to remind fans that music is a beautiful tapestry of history and culture, not a commodity. It’s a connecting force able to unite millions—even a ‘90s country star, a 20-year-old TikTok sensation, and a roomful of elementary schoolchildren. Music represents a meaningful conversation between the artist and the listener; being able to carry on that conversation over multiple projects and years is difficult.

In the streaming era, a successful run of project releases may be an artist’s greatest achievement. It’s the mark of a dedicated artist; an artist unafraid of monetary fears and label pressures; an artist focusing on their personal progress as a performer, musician, and conveyor of truth.

As Tyler tweeted in May, “Again, trust your ideas, be your biggest cheerleader and be smart about it cause fuck em.” Considering Tyler is the most recent artist to display artistic consistency (Flower Boy and IGOR), I’m compelled to agree.

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