Just Gimme a Minute: On 2018’s Short Album Trend

2018 saw a great deal of excellent rap full-lengths with EP running times. Colin Gannon investigates.
By    December 20, 2018

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Colin Gannon got a Rolex collection, you duckin’ bill collectors.

The endgame of the album format, like civilization, seems within sight.

In less apocalyptic terms, the music industry is stealthily toying with listening habits and music creation precepts. In real-time, artists are adapting to the all-consuming attention economy. Time is scarce, online space is simultaneously limited and unlimited, and there’s little lag time to unload, unpack, and genuinely understand.

We’re frequently forced to hear the same apocryphal point in modern discourse: that our brain’s ability to sustain attention is somehow crumbling and disintegrating due to new technologies. While dwindling attention spans are scientifically disputed, the economy of attention, a battle for our gaze and ears, does indeed rage on. It’s not that our faculties are failing, it’s that our faculties are being tested on an unprecedented scale: an omnidirectional content explosion with Spotify and Netflix as its primary instigators.

Label executives probably speculate that jettisoning extra tracks, will cater to short-circuiting brains. This pessimism is partly founded, but it’s too easy an explanation in an age where people worship absolutism and idolize individualism. Artists themselves seem keen on the sparse album too. In hip-hop this year, the 35-minute-plus LP—whose term is now akin to the visual of a lost tourist trying to decipher a crumpled map—almost became the anomaly. The lines between mixtapes, albums, mini-albums, EPs and the oft-dreaded signifier “project,” are blurring like never before. After the release of FM! (22 minutes long), a Vince Staples’ tweet elucidated the unresolved tension which now exists in designating a piece of work released outside of the traditional album cycle as an album: “I was about to tell y’all FM! not an album but I don’t even know what an album is anymore so I’m just about to eat some catfish.”

Viewing the trend of the abbreviated album through the prism of rap — the zeitgeist-defining popular genre of today — can help broaden the conversation. Extrapolating this out to pop music, electronic music, even rock, makes sense — despite the fact that many Bandcamp-resident sub-genres of further subgenres have, and continue to, flirt with the ephemeral.

Seen in previous decades as a means of flooding the market and honing your craft, mixtapes have now been subverted or elevated (depending on your perception of the shift) by streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. The zenith of online rap consumption was once a Datpiff mixtape, but streaming has formalized the mixtape alongside the traditional album. Our eyes don’t discriminate: a collection of songs is a collection of songs. The same logic applies to the EP, the physical format’s way of packaging loosies and teasing ideas and sounds and concepts.

Over the past two years, the reemergence of the popularity of the short song, an artist-driven desire to create short, punchy statements, and an industry-minded decision to ensure artists remain somewhat ubiquitous, are possible explanations for the short album’s rise. It’s arguably a reaction to the bloated, algorithm-gaming releases of this year and last (Rae Sremmurd, Post Malone, Drake), or perhaps the dawn of a new era in music marketing as corporations wrestle for 5 seconds of meaningful human attention. Nonetheless, the short album, quietly and loudly made an impact in 2018.

Of course, as is always the case, it would be remiss not to acknowledge Kanye West’s influence. The self-styled misunderstood “genius” who “invented” sampling, noise-rap and auto-tune, had a fateful, water-into-wine hand in the popularizing of the short album. The mapping out of the Wyoming sessions, however drenched in industry pretension they may have seemed, gave birth to the idea of a major-label album that prided itself on its lack of music. Pusha-T, Kids See Ghosts, Teyana Taylor, Nas and, of course, Kanye himself, all released albums with run-times ranging from 21 minutes to 26 during the summer.

The respective quality of each album was entirely arbitrary, from the preternatural (DAYTONA) to the near-flatlining of the career of a long lionized, overzealous hero (Ye); however, the roll-out campaign perfectly encapsulated the fitful nature of quality when condensed. Songs made for fractured minds either fall flat or snatch your attention.

The pitfalls of short albums — abruptness, incompleteness, scant oversight — are easily laid bare. Ironically, stumbling blocks can also be spun as desired qualities; the abruptness translated as urgency, incompleteness as an abstractive conceit. Tracks that are strewn together hastily can double as traits of an improvisational mad genius.

Freddie Gibbs supplied a prime example of the short album’s urgent, enduring power. The Gary, Indiana rapper, whose projects’ running times have dwindled in recent years, opted for the succinct 25-minute album on his self-titled Freddie. Featuring sharply written hooks, characteristically brash lyrics, and mosh-inducing trap beats, Freddie was a lesson in how much can be achieved with concision. He wasn’t the only one.

Tierra Whack took brevity to new lengths on the cartoonish but lucid audiovisual experiment Whack World (15 mins); Earl Sweatshirt became a peerless master of the form on December’s Some Rap Songs (25 mins); Open Mike Eagle excited again with his brief yet engrossing treatise on his career and social anxieties on What Happens When I Try to Relax (20 mins); the Alchemist-produced Fetti, a Curren$y and Freddie Gibbs collaborative effort, crammed effortless and smooth rap into 24-minutes; under his Scallops Hotel alias, Milo delivered an early year rap canon-cementing album in Sovereign Nose of Your Arrogant Face (23 mins); and the irreverence and eccentricity of Chris Crack’s jazz-rap was condensed on his Just Gimme a Minute album (27 mins).

What’s shared in these cases is a commitment to the conceit of shortness as sweetness. All of the above artists either grabbed and stretched the limits of the abridged song, the shrinking album, or both. Some of the best and more clearly defined (and refined) EPs of 2018—Valee’s GOOD Job, You Found Me, Nef The Pharaoh & 03 Greedo’s Porter 2 Grape, Cousin Stizz’s All Adds Up, Young Thug’s On the Rvn—were, by and large, the products of being more visibly aligned with major record labels. Although they teetered on the edges of the album-EP-tape blend, this hesitancy may suggest that music executives have yet to become fully comfortable with the notion of a short album.

In lesser hands, unfortunately, the strategy falters (see Nas’s Nasir). Interestingly, though, the high caliber of short albums that dropped in 2018 seems to indicate, generally, that artists with fewer dimensions and layers steered clear of the form. The short album sphere could be a musically rich utopia. After all, nobody wants to see a quarter-hour Post Malone Instagram album experience.

There are (large) exceptions to the case. Drake’s double-sided 25-track Scorpion was the biggest album in the U.S. this year and helped Drake become the most streamed artist in the world on Spotify. Earlier this year, Rolling Stone reported that the figures were unevenly skewed in favor of the bigger hits. Some 63 percent of global streams from Scorpion on Spotify arose from just three songs: the mega-hits “God’s Plan,” “In My Feelings,” and “Nice for What.” A more shrewd move might have been to cull the tracklist down. In reality, Drake, as PoW’s editor-in-chief wrote just this week, is culturally unimpeachable and could probably convince Justin Trudeau to allow him to rework the Canadian national anthem into the style of a south London drill anthem [ed. note: it’s true. sighs plaintively].

Without question, the resurgence of shorter songs is inextricably tied to shorter albums. ‘Gucci Gang’, the inescapable 2017 Lil Pump hit, clocked in at two minutes and four seconds: making it the shortest track since 1975 to enter the Billboard Hot 100. In fact, 2017 was when the shorter album began to slip into vogue. Pump’s eponymous debut squeezed 15 tracks into 36 minutes, while the late Xxxtentacion’s 17 was just 22 minutes long. In February of this year, controversial New York rapper and Internet troll 6ix9ine’s Day69 — dubbed as a commercial mixtape, an even more nebulous term — spanned 11 tracks in a mere 27 minutes.

All three of the aforementioned albums debuted in the Top 5 of the Billboard 200. Some might argue that the nature of these albums’ brevity may be a coincidence. Both Xxxtentacion and 6ix9ine followed these releases up with albums flowing past the 34-minute mark. Yet these short projects were what ignited the metric-romanizing artists’ careers past Billboard hits and YouTube’s trending section. In 2018, then, the short album became the standard-bearer.

The disconcerting trend of the Spotify-gaming triple-album seems, for now, like it will coexist peacefully with the shorter album. JPEGMAFIA (47 mins), Armand Hammer (47 mins), Young Nudy (51 mins), Payroll Giovanni (56 mins), and 03 Greedo (98 mins and 70 mins!) are among the architects of some of the most compelling longer-length projects of the year. The secret, it would seem, to a good piece of art is that there is no divine secret. Formulaic strategies will more often than not succeed, yet they can also crash and burn.

Epoch-defining or epoch-ruining, whatever the case may be, the short album might just linger into a post-human future. Where cyber code faintly resembling albums are created by literal supergroups of unholy bioengineered A.I-tech-bro-hybrids with genetically-implanted pluck fingers and midi thighs. Or maybe the humble album, or the idea of an album, the membrane, will survive.

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