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The Rise of the 20-Minute Album: How the distinction between albums, mixtapes and EPs blurred and why it may be good for music

With Kanye West’s new 7-song releases being billed as albums, the once-clear lines between albums, EPs and mixtapes have been blurred

If all goes as planned, Kanye West will have dropped five albums by the end of summer. Two are out already: Pusha T’s Daytona, released May 25, and West’s own Ye, released June 1. A Kanye West/Kid Cudi album will probably drop June 8, and there are Nas and Teyana Taylor records to come from the same studio sessions in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It’s one of the most audacious market-floodings since Stax dropped 27 albums at once to save itself from bankruptcy in 1969. It’s also hard to imagine it working if the albums surpassed seven songs.

A short album means less fatigue for listeners. Pusha’s album is 21 minutes long, West’s is 24, and it’s unlikely that any of the upcoming albums will have proggy ten-minute suites on them. They’re meant to be consumed quickly, digested, talked about and cast to the annals of music history. Their length means there’s really no excuse not to listen and join the conversation. It’s a great marketing strategy, but one that might not work if streaming hadn’t been slowly chipping away at the physical boundaries of the album for some time now.

It would be easy to brand these releases as EPs — those low-stakes things unknown bands use to shop for labels and bigger bands use to hide tossed-off covers and remixes between their grand artistic statements. But if anything’s clear in the Wild West age of the music industry (as critic Zoe Camp and, later, Lars Ulrich called it) it’s that the physical boundaries of music formats such as albums, EPs and mixtapes are now defined more by the size of the ideas than the size of the work itself. Besides, could you imagine West releasing anything and calling it an EP?

These aren’t the only recent “albums” this short. The experimental electronic producer Elysia Crampton’s recent self-titled album is only 6 songs and 19 minutes long. Grouper’s Grid of Points is 7 songs and 22 minutes long. Lil Peep’s Call Me When You’re Sober, Pt. 1 is 7 songs and 23 minutes long. All of these releases want to be known as albums. (Also worth noting: The Weeknd’s new whatever-it-is, My Dear Melancholy, is 6 songs and 22 minutes. Though it’s credited as a “studio release by the Weeknd,” it’s telling that he doesn’t want it to be called an EP.)

The first EP-length product I was aware of being sold as an album was To Be Close To You, an obscure 2013 Bandcamp release by the indie-rock project Julia Brown (a.k.a. Sam Ray, better-known as Teen Suicide and Ricky Eat Acid). That’s a wonderful album, a dusky little gem that combined suburban ennui with a palpable sense of space, and I forgave it for being only 19-minutes long because it created such a distinctive world of its own. It feels so much more like a self-contained thing than a lot of albums twice its size.

Almost two years later, Drake dropped If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. He called it a mixtape — a term that in hip-hop typically implies a free, low-stakes project full of uncleared samples. But it was for sale, so it became the first-ever “retail mixtape.” Since then, the term “mixtape” has held almost no meaning in rap, referring to a lower-stakes project between two tentpole albums as often as a scrappy DatPiff product. Since then, Drake’s dropped not only another retail mixtape with Future but an 82-minute original album, More Life, sold as a playlist.

Had If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late been the proper “album” follow-up to 2011’s Take Care and 2013’s Nothing Was The Same, it might have flopped. Those albums were decadent orgies of luxurious production and gold-plated success raps, while If You’re Reading This was a sparse, paranoid collection about his label woes. It allowed Drake to make money off a more experimental product while keeping fans waiting for the real “album” — 2016’s Views, which is almost universally regarded as one of his worst releases despite selling boatloads of copies.

Thanks to streaming, these products are now easily accessible for free, meaning one of the fundamental differences between the album and the mixtape has fallen away. (If Kanye’s new album is any indication, artists releasing “albums” don’t bother to clear samples anyway.) Now the album and the EP are drifting together, and with physical music formats arguably a niche product in 2018, the last meaningful distinction between physical formats in pop is now passé.

But is this good for music? Though there’s certainly the risk of artists releasing lazy six-song compilations of unfinished dross and calling them albums, I’d argue it is. It’s hard to imagine risky projects like If You’re Reading This being so embraced if they were sold as albums. Likewise, Daytona works so much better as an album. It’s so dense it packs in as much detail as most full-lengths, and the mere branding as an “album” packs oomph. It forces us to think bigger, it refuses to let us underestimate it, and it wouldn’t work if the content wasn’t so strong.

It’s also an antidote to an unfortunate trend. Albums in the streaming age tend to run long thanks to the laws governing “album-equivalent units.” 1,500 plays of any given song from an album equals one album sale, so the more songs you have on your album the higher it charts — hence interminable albums like Migos’ Culture II, Drake’s Views and More Life, and Lil Yachty’s Teenage Emotions. It’s such an insidious profit-over-art move that it’s a tremendous relief to see it countered by a trend that prioritizes the art, that tells you exactly what you’re getting into.

Short albums are great. Albums that are too long are forgotten. Albums that are short are played over and over, and it’s only self-indulgence or greed that motivates anyone to make an obscenely long pop album. Sometimes these things pay off; you couldn’t imagine Voodoo being 30 or 40 or even 50 minutes. But not everyone can be D’Angelo. A shorter album is usually a better one, and if the trend of super-short albums continues, we could be entering a renaissance of the album form — or just a deluge of lazy five-song trifles. I’m excited to find out.

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Feature image courtesy of Hernán Piñera/Flickr 

dbromfield@splittoothmedia.com

Daniel Bromfield is a writer and musician from San Francisco. His work has appeared in Resident Advisor, San Francisco Magazine, the Bay Guardian, Eugene Weekly, Pretty Much Amazing, and Spectrum Culture, among others. More of his work can be found at danielbromfield.com.