"Dedicated To The Winners & The Losers..." - Raekwon

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Mixtapes Are Not Albums: Or How Da Drought 3 Is Like Watching Two And A Half Men

Once upon a time, not long ago, mixtapes were promotional tools used to generate “hype” for rappers you don’t care about. You know, the guys with names like Lil Dave or Terrordactyl that stand in front of the Virgin Megastore in Union Square and run up and try to annoy you into giving them like five bucks for a shitty, scratched CD-R with like 20 “songs” with him and his “crew” with names like the Hustle Murder Clique that were produced by some teenage white kid who was given a MPC sequencer that his parents bought him for Christmas. Usually, these abortions were filled with freestyles about how much cocaine they sold while shooting guns in their car while they fuck bitches in a lyrical finesse that can only be described as proto-Jeezian. I have fallen victim to these guys on several occasions so I have learned to spot them across the street before I enter the store as I always proceed to wait until they accost some unfortunate soul before I enter the premise with my head ducked down and my hat pulled low. I will not be taken advantage of, again! Goddammit!

The most famous of these Short Bus Squaders is a guy named 50 Cent. You may have heard of him. Mr. Cent when he was still attempting to get rich or die trying released a few inexplicably popular mixtapes that miraculously not only sold better than most rap albums but managed to capture the attention of Eminem and Dr. Dre. This unfortunate event not only ruined Eminem’s career but turned 50 Cent into the biggest star on the planet. This, of course, helped turn mixtapes from the province of untalented rappers on the street and Southern rappers (so I guess just untalented rappers on the street) into big business. Instead of the rejected weed carriers who used to put out mixtapes, legitimate rappers started making them as way to promote their album. Music labels started “authorizing” annoying DJs to shout all over unreleased material the label deemed too awful to put on the retail album and allow the DJ to sell their product free of charge and act as if they actually had anything to do with any completely unintentional artistic merit the mixtape might actually have. Why would the labels do this if they are giving a fourth rate DJ who can’t mix or scratch copyrighted material to sell on their own? You got me but apparently, the thinking was that it would help the annoying, washed up rapper nobody cares about anymore to sell a couple of more actual real life legitimate records at a Best Buy or something. I know, I don’t get it, either.

For the first few years of this phenomenon, people who make the taste routinely avoided these mixtapes and quite rightly wrote these glorified car commercials set to a shitty 808 beat off as the horrible, half thought garbage they were. I could live in peace...

Then Tom Breihan and the Pitchfork brigade discovered the Clipse and the We Got It 4 Cheap series and the whole world was turned upside. Suddenly, Cam’ron became a lyrical genius, the South wasn’t ruining hip hop, anymore, and Dwayne Carter became the Best Rapper Alive. What’s worse suddenly mixtapes that were being routinely ignored by the mainstream media started becoming legitimate and began showing up in Various Music Writer’s Year End Best Of Lists next to Interpol and Sufjian Stevens records. (The nerve!) Devoted hater that I am, I couldn’t let this stand. I wanted my comfortable world where Wu-Tang is the greatest thing to ever happen to hip hop, Illmatic is the best rap album ever made, and nothing remotely Southern or hipsterish broke into my closed, jaded canon back and I’m making a stand. Mixtapes are not albums!

I know this firmly entrenches me as an insufferable, Mos Def hugging, Illmatic loving elitist but a mixtape by its very nature is a completely different artistic medium than an album. Its kind of comparable to the difference between movies and television. Both mediums are very, superficially similar, they both feature music, songs, and something remotely passing as artistic vision but the fundamental difference between them makes them completely incongruous. They have different strengths and weaknesses that makes them separate. For example, a mixtape because of its “illegal” or “promotional” nature allows an artist to experiment with their sound and create the type of musical “sketches” that is often too commercially dangerous to put on a retail album. A freestyle whether its over a jacked Outkast song or an original creation is essentially a sketch. It allows the rapper to ignore the conventions of song writing and simply experiment with their words lyrically. However, a freestyle is not a song. A good song with very, few exceptions is structured and follows certain conventions. A freestyle is not. Even songs like Wu-Tang Clan’s “Triumph” or the Juice Crew’s “Symphony” plays within the conventional structure of the posse cut in hip hop and usually has a unifying theme. Mixtapes because of their freer nature can eschew the commercial and artistic responsibilities of an album. Because of the inherent experimentation going on, it allows the artist to express in some sense their true artistic goal. You rarely hear the pandering, cheesed out love song on an Uncle Murder mixtape but you damn well hear it on his album. In some sense, mixtapes are like television because you get a chance to really explore the truer side of the artist which is lot like the way a long running television show allows you to get to know a character more than a movie possibly can. The commercial aspirations most albums have usually prevent an artist even some with as delusions of grandeur if you will as Common or Talib Kweli from making an album that's full of spoken word interludes, guitar playing, and freestyle rapping. Mos Def’s Crazy Ass, of course, is the exception.

However, the strength of the album is the greatest weakness of a mixtape. Albums like movies allow for a grander perspective than mixtapes. Since they have higher budgets and feature original material, it allows the artist to create a cohesive musical statement or theme which is almost nonexistent in the mixtape world. I can’t think of an example of mixtape that has the same cohesive sound that a record like The Blueprint does or make a grand statement like Hip Hop Is Dead (if misguided statement if you are one of the people with their head in the sand). Usually, mixtapes are almost exclusively rejected album material and freestyles over other artist’s most popular tracks. You may luck out and find that you have something with great rapping and great beats like the Clipse’s We Got It 4 Cheap series but usually, you are just listening to somebody like Papoose abusing the world “like” when he confuses the concept of metaphors and similes with his tired ass punch lines.

Ultimately, I think it’s a lot harder to make a great album that to make a “great” mixtape. All jokes aside, since Lil Wayne’s coronation by the Pitchforkers and 15 year old who don’t know better, Weezy has made a lot of mixtapes that have gotten a lot of people really, really excited but he’s still not turned in a jaw dropping Ready To Die-like revelatory album. Its all fun and games to experiment with your voice and freestyle about drugs on a mixtape that only people on the internet care about but my feeling is the reason The Carter III is taking so long to be released is because Lil’ Wayne is looking to make a large, commercial smash and can’t write one. If you ask me, The Carter III is gonna leave a lot of critics disappointed when it sounds more like Kingdom Come than Reasonable Doubt. Many rappers struggle to make the transition from the mixtape scene to writing a full length album and its precisely because of the commercial and artistic demands that an album asks for that prevents them. Its a lot easier to kick a bunch of hot sixteens over somebody else's beat than it is to write a song as allegorical as “I Gave You Power” or even as ubiquitous as “In Da Club.”

If you take one thing from this post, I’d like for all of you when you make your Year End Best Of Lists to leave off any mixtapes off your best albums list. If I see Da Drought 3 or DJ “I’d Be Better Off Using Words Like Culo And Just Pretend I’m Spanish” Drama name anywhere near the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Poll this year, I’m gonna freak. Mixtapes are mixtapes. Albums are albums. Please take note.


Christopher said...

Brutal. Someone had to say it.

Although I'd contest that the South is the last vestige of hip-hop and east coast rap sucks (in present tense). At least album wise, and most recently, single wise.

floodwatch said...

THANK YOU for clarifying this, because very few seem to get it. A mixtape is most certainly not an album, it's a promotional tool for the album, and I'm going to immediately disqualify any best of '07 list that includes one.

The TV/movie relationship thing is spot-on, too. Great post.

Joey said...

Such a great post

Daniel Krow said...

Solid post. Another obnoxious feature of mixtapes is the poor mixing and lack of mastering. Even We Got It For Cheap, while a strong effort, has tinny as hell beats.

While not a masterpiece, Tha Carter 2 is pretty good album. I don't think Lil Wayne is ever going to make an album on the caliber of Ready to Die or Reasonable Doubt, but he can still make solid albums.

Christopher said...

I still stand that The Carter II had 4 good songs on it, no more.

tray said...

Yeah, I've been posting along these lines over on Breihan's blog... but do you take you to mean that Cam's not a lyrical genius and that 50's early mixtapes weren't good? I can't agree.

DocZeus said...

I like Carter II. Its a good album and one of the best of 2005 but that year was pretty barren of great albums except for The Minstrel Show, Be, and maybe, The Documentary but my point is that you can't be considered "elite" until you make a Paid In Full or an Illmatic or a consistent string of great albums (not mixtapes) like say Scarface.

As for, Cam'ron. Cam seems kind of like the idiot savant of hip hop lyricism. Judging by the way, he sincerely believes his own "G"-hood, I think that any of his weird, comedic greatness is almost completely unintentional and stems from the fact that Cam is legitimately retarded. I mean I could be wrong he could be the Tony Clifton of hip hop and be completely self-aware and conscious of his own ridiculous gangsta persona but somehow I sincerely doubt that he realzies he's a living joke to everybody.

Joey said...


Anonymous said...

I do agree to a certain extent abt fitting in with the elite -you need a body of work and a legacy of a few classic albums per se to be canonized in the long run. Can't be that team killing it in exhibition games and ruling pre-season and then choking in the playoffs. And albums I guess are the big league playoffs when it comes to making artistic statements. That being said, its not like all albums do make some grand cohesive statement nowadays. Many are just a pile of singles (Im not complaining all that much as long as the singles are good). so I then end up seeing both mixtapes and albums as merely two different mediums/avenues for release -Consequently,I don't see why anyone should complain when 'drought 3' ends up being one of the top satisfying listens on some year end list. I don't see why you would rob someone of due credit just because of the medium they chose...is what I mean -jaykay

Dallas said...

Monster effing drop.

KanYe's 'Graduation' is a reminder that great albums can still be made. I think all great albums are filled with great singles. When you string the singles together you find that the album made its statement through quality music.

With that said, T.I. seemed to be the most capable of all the medicre rappers of creating a classic album. Until the turdbomb he released this summer. Jeezy, Cam'Ron and Lil' Wang won't ever do it. Cameos and ad libs are where these rappers should remain.

Cam'Ron had a window to be great, and more importantly, important, but that shit closed down faster than a midtown Manhattan weed spot.

Monster effing drop.

Anonymous said...

i'd say doo wops live 95 part 1 and 2 are something special in their own right

DocZeus said...


Yeah, I think you're right about T.I. about being the only one of the new generation being able to drop a classic although I think I give him more credit than you do. T.I. has MONSTER, Biggie-On-Gimme-The-Loot Flow if nowhere near his lyricism. But if you can flow like T.I. can than you might be able to will your way to a classic.

To everybody-
Thanks for the love for this post. I appreciate it.

tray said...

Oh, I think Cam's self-aware. And anyone who compares his closet to a pet cemetery because it contains so many furs clearly isn't retarded. Cam's an absurdist take on the money cash hoes side of rap - he says the same things every other non-conscious rapper does, but creatively and hilariously. While Wayne is just a walking string of similes that either make no sense, aren't half as clever as he thinks they are, or are just incredibly dumb (cuckoo like birds, hot like light, in the building like the audience, we on like the television, her brain is crazy so she's insane), Cam's full of brilliant figurative language, bizarre non sequiturs, and he's so obsessed with making every rhyme a multi that he's constantly forced to say something that makes absolutely no sense, yet sounds funny anyway. Only Cam would brag about drinking coke floats on his rowboat. Anyway...

Aidan said...


Mixtapes to me highlight how fickle the music industry is and without wanting to sound country-ist (or whatever)it seems the US music fans get caught in these mixtape faddy traps all too often.

The mixtape scene is good for all these 2 second trends such as hyphy or snap or whatever else they term them because thats the only way that music will be released because its such a passing trend.

I can't listen to mixtapes really, unless I know they are a mixtape of different artists whose songs will actually appear on the album.

If you read interviews with rappers they're always like 'yeah, we did 40-50 cuts and we had to narrow it down to 15'. That's how it should be,quality control. Now they've found a place to peddle all those tracks they knew wouldn't be good enough for an album-mixtape.

Another problem i see with the mixtape market is that it is a product of obsessive fans. I have my favourite rappers/groups/acts but i don't bum them by buying all their off cuts. Kids like Lil Wayne are just riding a wave of cult overground status and are making the most of it. Live shows and good albums are what make an artist...not a mixtape and a myspace page...but that's a whole nother problem!

Analogue said...

I feel you on this one.

Can I just make sure though (in case no-one else has mentioned it - I don't always read every comment!) that the following distinction is clear.

What passes for "mixtapes", especially in the US, nowadays is surely wack as described above.


Genuine, DJ-led mixtapes - normally not focussed entirely on one artist or what would be the point - are a whole different thing. I'm talking about tapes with actual s-k-i-l-l-s, not just segues and shouting.

The whole mixtapes-as-sub-par-albums thing is I think less prevalent in the UK, although it is taking off a bit.

Check out The Colony's mixtape "Bootprints & Fistmarks" featuring Stronghold (NYC), hosted by Jehst (UK) and mixed by DJ MK (Kiss FM , London) for a good artist/ crew tape with proper, um, mixing (!) on show.

Also "Focus Mode" by Klashnekoff and DJ Skully is a classic, standard.

DocZeus said...


I agree that a DJ who uses material from multiple artists and mixes, mashes, and scratches them in an interesting way is definitely an entirely different case than a Gangsta Grillz mixtape since they are definitely contributing something unique. I was over drinking at one of my buddies apartment and they were playing a Diplo mix or something and they had mashed together Kia Shine's So Krispy with "Do The Bartman" pretty hilariously and that certainly qualifies as a legitimate medium in itself.

Of course, the exception to your point is those DJ Khaled albums or upcoming DJ Drama fiasco in which you get other artists and producers to make songs for your album and then call it your own song because you screamed out an obnoxious info. I almost lost it Thursday night when I was watching Rap City and Q45 was interviewing Khaled on the set to the
I'm So Hood Remix" Clusterfuck and he had the balls to compare "I'm So Hood" was a classic in the same league as "Hypnotize" or "400 Degreez" (WTF?!). I want to choke that fat leeching fuck out. I hate DJ Khaled.

T.R.E.Y. said...

'course calling "I'm So Hood" a clizzassic is a little stupid, but let's not front like Luda and Busta's verses on the remix aren't hot.

i happen to be a fan of Jeezy's half-assed sped-up flow and Weezy's retarded verse on it too, but that's just me.

oh, and good post too Doc. just so i'm not that douche randomly commenting on an unrelated tangent. though i'm not a huge fan of Drought 3 i would agree with some of what jaykay said, but i agree on the overarching point here. you're not a truly great rapper 'til you've released a great album.

Anonymous said...

im sure you feel really stupid for saying what you did about lil wayne since he cd has come out and it went platinum in one week. that comes to show you that not only 16 year olds listen to him. i will now and forever think that he is one of the best rappers out at this time.

DJ Lukie said...

you a bitch nigga you bitch even said

DocZeus said...

DJ Lukie-

Glad you liked the post!

Anonymous said...

Funny how off the mark you were on the carter 3, you pretentious carpet- bagger.