Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Year of The Blockbuster Album Rollout

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This week, Future and Metro-Boomin are returning to the rap game grandly with We Don’t Trust You, the first half of a two-part album — the sequel, rumored to be an R&B-focused project, drops April 12th. Their release will compete with Ye and Ty Dolla $ign’s Vultures 2, the second volume in a series of three albums over three months. There’s also Beyoncé’s upcoming record, Act II: Cowboy Carter, which drops next week and follows 2022’s Act I: Renaissance. The country-focused album already has fans speculating on where Act III will go sonically. Together these projects signal an evolution for the so-called event album—how superstars create moments big enough to take up cultural space. 

Album sequels are of course nothing new. Jay-Z’s Blueprint and Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter series are hip-hop staples. There are also thematic collections like Kanye’s College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation, or Flo Milli’s trio of cleverly titled releases starting with 2020’s Ho, Why is You Here and culminating with this month’s Fine Ho, Stay. In those cases, sequels dropped years apart and weren’t part of a broader promotional push. Westside Gunn’s HWH8 dropped in two parts in 2021 but did so because of mixing issues. This latest trend — superstars announcing a franchise of projects dropping in quick succession — has more in common with Marvel movies than any of the album sequels that came before. 

Jonathan Tanners is a former music journalist and a manager at the artist management firm Blood Company. He says that more than anything, these releases reflect superstar artists’ desire to garner as much attention as they can in a crowded music industry spectated by fans with ever-shrinking attention spans. “The main goal feels like marketing,” he says. “It feels like, ‘How do we create ‘meaningful’ conversation in a time when it’s so hard to break through?’ It’s so hard to maintain public consciousness that even an artist as big and seemingly unstoppable as Taylor Swift feels like she needs to put out a new record every year and also announce [it] at The Grammys as she’s winning a Grammy for the record that she just put out a year prior.”

In recent years, artists have utilized a variety of methods to capture the zeitgeist. Anyone with an X (formerly Twitter) account has seen a meme celebrating Future’s four critically lauded projects in 2015, including What A Time To Be Alive with Drake. In 2010, Ye bolstered the leadup to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with a slew of singles he deemed G.O.O.D Fridays. And in 2018, he released a quintet of 7-song albums in quick succession. 

But perhaps the most exciting manner to engage fans has been for artists to drop out of nowhere, like Beyoncé’s self-titled album in December of 2013. The album hit so hard on the Richter scale that it permanently shifted music releases to Friday. After Beyoncé, artists like Kendrick Lamar (untitled) and Drake (Dark Lane Demo Tapes) dropped surprise projects, while J. Cole’s 2018 project KOD dropped after just four days of leadup. Surprise drops don’t have the same effect in 2024, but it’s hard to understate how unprecedented the release was from major artists at the time.

Tanners notes that beyond conversation for conversation’s sake, this latest set of album series have distinct narratives attached to them. For one, he notes that as duos, Future and Metro Boomin as well as Kanye West and Ty Dolla Sign have so much prior musical chemistry that it makes sense they’d record a lot of good records. But, referencing the recent sci-fi blockbuster Dune 2, Tanners says this dynamic goes deeper:

“If you were to give certain people $250 million, they are not going to know what to do with it, and they might not make something amazing. If you give a director like Denis Villeneuve $250 million and you say, make whatever’s in your heart and your mind, he’s going to make—it’s a stunning visual feast.” He says that despite the moral quandary of listening to Ye, a MAGA advocate accused of antisemitic comments, it’s hard to ignore that “stadium-level aspiration.”

For the umpteenth time, Kanye pissed off the whole world in 2022 with his spree of antisemitic comments. But, as “Carnival’s” number one Billboard spot demonstrated, he still has a loyal fanbase willing to overlook his controversial statements. The 44-year-old has always been open about his creative process being fueled by digging himself a PR hole and vying to climb out of it with great music. Tanners says that’s the case with Vultures, adding, “It’s the first time in probably six years where the music has been at the center of the conversation.” Still, some of Ye’s detractors might disagree. 

As for Beyoncé and her latest album series, it’s not just her music that’s at the center of her conversation, but the entire history of music. ”I could listen to Stevie Wonder every single day for the rest of my life if I wanted to. I have total access to the entire history of recorded sound, so now it’s not just about music anymore,” he says. “It’s about ‘how I create a sustained conversation that extends so far beyond whatever my album is going to be that it shapes pieces that aren’t even about my album?’” Like LeBron James once noted of himself, Beyoncé is chasing the ghost of MJ. And she’s exercising her subversive genius to catch the greats not by sonically “going where no one’s ever been,” but by re-exploring genres where Black artists always were.

Right now, the music industry is being upended by the impending consequences of A.I., a perceived lack of superstars, and the overall saturation of artists that no one seems to know what to do with. We’ve seen artists and labels collude to game streaming platforms and album charts with a range of ploys over the years: YouTube loops of song choruses, long albums with short songs, songs pandering for the TikTok moment, album bundles, and now the Deluxe album. Tanners says he sees the music industry going the way of the movie industry, which subsists on big blockbusters and smaller films with more artistic ambition but less investment. 

“There’s always going to be someone at the label going, we should do this, you’ll be in the conversation for another week,” he says. “You’ll be on the top of the Billboard charts for another week. [And] also, algorithms are fickle. We know how Spotify works right now. TikTok is getting fucked with, it might be all A.I. music and people selling you toothbrushes through affiliate programs soon.”

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For now, Tanner believes good songs will outlive mediocre music propped up by label schemes. “If [Future and Metro] make an amazing album and it’s 12 songs, they’re going to game Spotify, because people are going to talk about it and they’re going to go back,” he contends. “Big songs stay big for long periods because of the way that Spotify works, because of playlisting, because of how these things get sort of fed into people’s algorithms.”

Tanner notes that Vultures has ignited a conversation about the value of music. Kanye and Ty Dolla Sign are reportedly considering making Vultures 2 available exclusively for purchase on the Yeezy website. That decision may be about Ye continuing the anti-establishment “fuck you” campaign that he commenced during his interview with Big Boy, but could also encourage more artists to join the pack of indie acts exploring direct-to-consumer models. “This has happened every few years in the post-Napster era,” Tanners says. “We are constantly re-litigating the value of music, the relative value, the current value, the catalog value. All we’ve fucking talked about in the last 24 years or so is the value of music. That’s why it’s all a chart game now, because everybody’s sort of weaponized their fans to make them seem like the biggest, the best, whatever.” 

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