Drake’s new project If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late has caused a hubbub in the industry, not because of the music itself, but because of its form. In the thank you notes for the album, Drake calls it a “tape,” but it premiered on iTunes and is under the Cash Money record label, thus reportedly fulfilling Drake’s four-album contract with Baby and Slim. Arguments on Twitter ensued – “It’s an album.” “No, it’s a mixtape.” How do we know? Who makes the final decision? And does it even matter anymore?
No matter what an artist’s intention is, in 2015 it’s the fans who decide what is an album and what is a mixtape. The channel through which a new project is delivered hardly determines its category as one or the other. On April 30, 2013, Chance The Rapper released Acid Rap for free online. With all original production and a cohesive, start-to-finish feel, Acid Rap was, by all indications, an album, and fans treated it as such. The same could be said for Big K.R.I.T.’s many “mixtapes,” like K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, Return of 4eva, and 4eva N A Day. Despite being free and without beat-jacks, those projects still sound like fully fleshed-out albums, despite the fact that K.R.I.T. might call them mixtapes.
We need to let go of the idea that artists have complete control over how their works are received. It’s a fantasy, not reality. For artists, that may sound disappointing, but for fans, this can be empowering. In an industry that has tried to keep an iron grip on distribution methods since before the days of Napster, consumers have always had the upper hand, whether they realized it or not.
The mixtape versus album discussion also brings up a bigger point: the mixtape is dead, and so is the distinction between tapes and albums. Mixtapes, if you remember, used to be continuous mixes of songs on cassette tapes. Then the CD arrived, and DJs like Clue and Kay Slay began securing exclusive freestyles and never-before-heard songs. 50 Cent and Lil Wayne revolutionized the form yet again years later, remixing popular tracks with their own spotlight-stealing song structures for their own mixtapes. But besides contemporary Southern DJs like Lil Keem and Guy ATL, the idea of mixtapes as compilations has all but died. The raiding of DJ Drama’s studio was just one of many blows that the mixtape took from the music industry, specifically the RIAA, and mixtapes haven’t been the same since.
Now, “mixtapes” are “albums,” “albums” are “mixtapes,” and trying to separate the two is as futile as ever. Perhaps the most confusing example of an artist who blurs the line between the two is Lil’ B. His cult classic 6 Kiss LP, which dropped in 2009 on iTunes, featured a song called “Real Plexxx” which found him spitting over Jay Z’s “Ignorant Shit.” Nonetheless, people still call it an album. Why? Because the label doesn’t matter anymore. Nobody cares what it’s called. People only care about what it is. Even the hierarchy of the language is crumbling. People think calling something an “album” carries some sort of grandiose weight that doesn’t apply to a mixtape. Not anymore.
If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late sounds like a mixtape – loose, not always mixed so well, and relatively unrefined. One song belongs completely to PartyNextDoor, there is no ostensible single (again – the people will say it’s either “10 Bands” or “Know Yourself”), and it doesn’t seem like there are any physical copies forthcoming. But as far as Drake’s contract is concerned, it’s an album.
Call Drake’s new shit an album. Call it a mixtape. Call it whatever the hell you want, because ultimately, it doesn’t matter to anybody but you.