Following the release of his psychedelic trip of a second mixtape, Acid Rap, Chance The Rapper delivered a guest verse on Rapsody’s “Lonely Thoughts,” rapping: “They sayin’, ‘Acid was an album, retail it’/I said, ‘I got way too much soul for me to sell it.’” Since his first mixtape, 10 Day, Chance has excelled at crafting clever aphorisms. What’s special about this aphorism in particular–having “too much soul to sell”–is how instrumental Chance’s belief has been to the success of his career. He’s convinced Apple to remain true to his vision; they release his music for free. He’s the first independent artist to perform on SNL. Ever.
Along with writing credits on several songs on Kanye’s seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo–“Father Stretch My Hands Pt.1”, “Famous”, “Feedback”, and “Waves”–he arguably has the most transcendent verse on the entire album in “Ultralight Beams.” All of his mixtapes, including his most recent release, Coloring Book, has received critical acclaim from nearly every respectable music publication with ears. And Coloring Book has become the first streaming album to chart–No.8–on the Billboard 200. Chance has managed this–albeit not alone–without ever charging a red cent for his music, or signing with any label–major, “indie,” or otherwise. Everything that Chance has accomplished with mixtapes forces me reweigh the value we ascribe to them and the role they play in an artist’s success.
“Am I the only nigga still care about mixtapes?” Chance asks on “Mixtapes,” a track midway through Coloring Book that features Young Thug and Lil Yachty. Musicians often pose rhetorical questions to their audiences because musicians, like their audiences, already know who has the answer. This is a musician’s power: to cultivate enough curiosity in an audience to get them to listen, consider and internalize what’s actually being said. But considering that reviewers, listeners, and even Apple music–the company that exclusively streams the mixtape–insist on referring to Coloring Book as an album when it’s not, it’s obvious we have jumped to our own conclusions. The distinction between albums and mixtapes may strike some as inconsequential. Others may see it as a question of semantics–but language matters. This is especially true for artists who spend a great deal of their time arranging words in a peculiar order so that we may be able to hear something different.
In the cultural imagination when we say “this sounds like an album,” many of us are saying: this is valuable; worth something. I was seventeen when Lil Wayne’s Da Drought 3 mixtapes were in everything from cars to iPods, and the overwhelming sentiment I remember besides “Is this really Wayne?” was: “This sounds like an album.” I was one of those people. Reflecting now about my interaction with those tapes, I think about how I allowed myself to be corrupted by the pernicious idea that anything executed with expertise and cohesion couldn’t be a mixtape; it couldn’t be free. It had to cost something, which is ironic because I spent most of my time in high school scheming on ways to not pay, or pay as little for music as possible. Whatever it took to keep the few dollars I barely had in my pocket, I did it–Limewire, asking friends to burn and borrow CDs and flash drives, buying bootlegs (3 for $10) off the many men and women selling them in barbershops, train stations and wherever else heavy pedestrian traffic was certain.
I really didn’t give that many fucks about stealing music, anyway, but since I understood I was more likely to find mixtapes on the streets than in stores, I felt less guilty about not buying them. The cultural appeal with mixtapes had always been that you weren’t really expected to buy it from a record store. They weren’t sold there. You had to go to the streets–you had to know someone who had it; or knew enough about an artist to know where you could find it. You were supposed to get it from a friend, or lift it from an older sibling’s stereo or cd player, search every barbershop in Brooklyn for it, or go to a show. Even when people sat by their tape decks for hours—hitting record and play at the same time, waiting for their favorite song to come on—dubbing mixes for their lovers, parties and best friends, the mixtape was an intimate discovery. Time and energy spent was proof of your devotion. There was freedom.
Designating Da Drought 3 as an album was my way of saying I was willing to pay the price that demanding artistic freedom cost the artist to make the tape. I valued the time, energy and devotion. I appreciated the intimate discovery of learning, like Wayne and other artists, what they could do with beats that were and weren’t theirs. Too many albums suckered me in with a lead single, that didn’t deliver on the rest. With the seal broken I couldn’t get my money back. I’d be stuck with basura. Trash. A makeshift Frisbee. As money was something I didn’t have a lot of, I literally couldn’t afford that mistake. Mixtapes decided if an artist was worth my money. I repeated these sentiments for Drake’s So Far Gone, Kendrick’s Section.80, A$AP Rocky’s Live. Love. A$AP, The Weeknd’s House of Balloons, Frank’s Nostalgia, Ultra, and both of Chance’s mixtapes, 10 Day and Acid Rap. These mixtapes each came at greater costs to the artists who made them than the audience who listened. In many cases the audience reciprocated, galvanizing the artists until they got what we felt they deserved but were in no position to give them–record deals, million dollar advances, better studios, Grammys, coveted album placements with more established artists, world tours.
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