Sometimes, the single sounds better on the album than it does floating in the streaming ether. Other times, the single sticks out like a sore thumb. And, finally, there are cases where the single fails to impact completely.
What singles work, and what singles don't? We posed the question to DJBooth Managing Editor Donna-Claire Chesman and Senior Writer Yoh. Their conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
donnacwrites [10:08 AM]
Good morning, Yohsipher. How are you on this beautiful day where Mac and 88-Keys' "That's Life" has been released?
yoh [10:10 AM]
Good morning, Donna. I'm well! I won't be listening to "That's Life," but I trust all Mac fans everywhere are excited. By the way, congrats on your 88-Keys interview. Happy you were able to get that one. How are you, though?
donnacwrites [10:14 AM]
I am good, had my morning coffee, and am rifling through advances. Listening to all these albums this morning, I got to thinking about singles and albums, and if the single sounds better by itself than on the album.
My review for Megan Thee Stallion's Fever included a note that "Sex Talk," while great, sounded out of place following "Ratchet." Then we have a single like Saba's "LIFE," which crushed as a single and made perfect sense in the context of the record. Then there's a song like Tyler, The Creator's "EARFQUAKE," which was teased in snippet form, and made no sense until I heard the full album version, and IGOR itself.
So my question is: What makes a pre-release single work on an album?
yoh [10:24 AM]
That's a great question. I can't imagine hearing "EARFQUAKE" without the rest of IGOR. Even as a single, it's a valuable piece of a larger puzzle. It's how I see singles that fit the project, how well does it fit within a larger space. Some singles are made to fit in a radio space or a club. On his 2006 album King, T.I.'s official second single, "Why You Wanna," was huge on Atlanta radio. It's a rapper's R&B cut. The kind of slow jam Fabolous would've made in 2004. I like the song by itself, but on the album, it's out of place. T.I. had all these big, striking anthems, and a radio-friendly single didn't align with their energy.
This is often a matter of sequencing and how we hear singles. Do you think artists should consider where their singles appear on their albums to make them feel more fitting?
donnacwrites [10:30 AM]
Absolutely. Artists should take into consideration how the single—since we've heard it so much—will impact the pacing of their albums. My big gripe with Fever was that "Sex Talk" slowed down the seance-like energy that she built up with "Ratchet." Things got muddy. Mac's "Dang!" was such a fun single, and putting it at the front of The Divine Feminine made sense if only to offload the sound since we'd spun "Dang" so many times.
Conversely, "Self Care" had such a languid quality to it; he made the perfect decision placing it in the middle of the album. Everything is about momentum and bucking listener expectations. Sequencing should never bore, only inspire.
But now you've got me wondering, have you ever heard a single that just failed to impact across the board? A single that was fine by itself, that you hoped would come to life on the album, that just didn't?
yoh [10:45 AM]
Hmmm. That's a tough one. I was going to make a Nav joke, but God doesn't like ugly. Ah, I got one. I love ScHoolboy Q, but “CHopstix” isn't a good song—or a single. It is the antithesis of "Numb Numb Juice." There's just no life in that record. Having "CHopstix" and "Numb Numb Juice" run back-to-back on CrasH Talk is like getting both a bicycle and a motorcycle for Christmas. The motorcycle is just cooler, no contest. That's how I usually feel about Q's singles. They either hit or miss. I always skip "Studio" when I play Oxymoron. Some days I skip "THat Part" when I'm playing Blank Face.
What about you? What single didn't work in any space?
donnacwrites [10:48 AM]
You took mine! Instead of wasting time pondering, I would rather ask you what makes a single a real single, assuming it works on both the album and by itself.
yoh [10:57 AM]
A connection. A single must connect. It's a song released to the world removed from its larger home. When that song can make a new home on the radio, or inside clubs and cars, or deeply resonate with a listener, that's a success. The success Megan is having with "Big Ole Freak" shows that magic; it's connecting with people on and off the project. That's sorta what happened with Kendrick Lamar's "HUMBLE." Many records are conquerors; they are made to take over our lives in some form or fashion. What Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" is doing at Billboard should be considered a form of tyranny.
That is the power of a real single.