September 15, 2009, Drake drops “So Far Gone” and the world crowns it as the greatest mixtape ever. Yet when his same fans get a glimpse of the leaked version of Thank Me Later, it’s met with fierce criticism and harsh feedback. But this isn’t the first time this has happen. Wale’s freshman LP (does anybody know what that stands for?) Attention Deficit suffered the same fate, and naturally, everyone is beginning to fear that J. Cole (on a side note, I wonder why BET cut his performance short last night??) might not be able to top The Warm Up. But why? As of late it seems to be a reoccurring them of artists who release great mixtapes, but can’t seem to follow up that performance with the album. Well, I’ve got a couple of theories of my own.
Theory 1: Mixtape = No Expectations
When a rapper releases a mixtape, it’s 100% free. Free from the influences of the record label (which I’ll get to in Theory 2). Relatively free from critics. And most importantly, free from expectations. In most cases, an artists simply releases a mixtape to create pub for the actual album andto gain new followers. As more people catch on, the more others like to take claim for “the discovery”, or “the put on”. Every music junkie loves to be the reason a fellow music lover fell in love with the next best thing to make it. So this almost creates a sense of ownership for the music, thus a reluctance to be over critical of the artist. Also, in general, you can’t fail if you under promise and over deliver and the mixtape is the perfect example.
Theory 2: Record Labels are Album Killers
As if you didn’t already know, record labels are usually only good for two things. Forcing an artist to release a “radio” single to widen their fan base, and squeezing the creativity out of an artists with limits on content, a forced number of album releases under a contract, or completely screwing an artist over money with a contract. Both scenarios effectively suck the life out of every artist. Just ask Jadakiss and The Lox who constantly make it a point to tell you how happy they are to be free from Puffy and his shiny suits. On the mixtape you’ll find dream collaborations (Like Talib’s Just Begun featuring Mos Def, Jay Electronica, and Jay Cole) from artists that you may never see on an album because of the money issue and other rights that I don’t completely understand. Also, it appears that labels haven’t quite caught on with the internet era and all of the new technology at bay. There was once a point in time when to get a new single we had to press the play and record butten simultaneously on our tape deck. Now, it takes us 30 seconds to pull it from YouTube or download it from DatPiff. When labels find a way to profit from this, just maybe we’ll find peace in the music industry again.
But my point is this, be mindful of the hurdles that one has to face when releasing a study album. It’s hard work. Jay-Z has mastered art and has still managed to dodge making a mixtape. But everyone isn’t Jay-Z. Many artists have to conform to the “system” thus putting a ceiling on their creativity. Not to say that we shouldn’t lower our expectations, I just ask that we don’t raise the bar too high either.