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.