For 2018’s New Music, Shorter Was Sweeter
Being a music fan in 2018 meant feeling like there were literally too few hours in a day to keep up. Blockbuster albums like Culture II, Tha Carter V, and Scorpion dominated charts and conversations with runtimes that crept well past an hour. It’s hard to blame the creators when more tracks equal more streams, which equal more zeros on a royalty check, even if quality control slips. Yet, some of the year’s best releases deliberately bucked this trend, opting instead for short runtimes and maximum impact. Rather than queue up an album that risks fading into sonic wallpaper around minute 65, why not opt for two plays through a concise collection? Call them albums, EPs, or projects, but the best hip-hop of 2018 kept it brief.
Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music conglomerate defined itself through short albums this year, and label president Pusha T kicked off five weeks of releases with his third solo album, DAYTONA. At just seven songs and 21 minutes, Pusha returns to the essence of his music: the grit and glory of selling cocaine. He drops quotables like ”This is for my bodybuilding clients moving weight, just add water, stir it like a shake.” In an interview with Vulture, Pusha described the G.O.O.D. Music strategy as an antidote to bloat, saying, “I only like two songs off of each album these days anyway.” From the exhilarating guitars of opener “If You Know You Know” to “Infrared” lurking at the end of the tracklist like a jump scare closing out a slasher flick, DAYTONA is utterly unskippable.
Pusha also popped up on a remix for Chicago rapper Valee, one of G.O.O.D. Music’s latest signees. Though his project GOOD Job, You Found Me arrived before the label’s whirlwind summer, it anticipated their brevity with six songs in 14 minutes. Split between new songs and years-old singles, GOOD Job shows off Valee’s loping whisper flow over subterranean beats, a style that is already infiltrating the rest of the culture via various loosies. Short songs are a key part of that style. The rapper told Billboard that he took notice of friends’ short attention spans when they started talking over the second verses of the top songs on Worldstar. “People don't have three minutes to listen to one song by one person,” he said. “You get a minute and a half because they need to give the next person a minute and a half.”
G.O.O.D. Music continued their seven-track album streak each Friday this June, to mixed results. Teyana Taylor emerged from label purgatory with K.T.S.E., showing her soulful voice’s skill on moody sample noir and brassy runway house. Kanye and Kid Cudi made good on their decade of collaboration with Kids See Ghosts, indulging their psych-rock influences without overstaying their welcome. The less said about the releases from veterans Nas and West himself, the better, but the fact that all five albums dropped as announced is impressive enough.
Other marquee names reaped more successful work with short runtimes. The Weeknd dropped My Dear Melancholy, six tracks in 21 minutes, without warning two weeks before his headlining Coachella slot. The singer born Abel Tesfaye successfully fuses his widescreen pop ambitions with the influential dinginess of his early Trilogy on tracks like “Wasted Times,” which teeters on the edge of an all-out house beat but prefers to luxuriate in the tension of anticipation.
In October, Usher released A, 27 minutes of eight tracks produced entirely by Zaytoven. The producer’s gospel trap piano is fertile ground for the singer to salute their shared Atlanta roots, bolstered by features from Future and Gunna. Mr. Raymond sounds transcendent doing heartbroken vocal acrobatics over twinkling keys on “Say What U Want.” Remind me again why the Pepsi and NFL brain trust picked Maroon 5 for the halftime show in Atlanta over a homegrown hit factory like this man?
Up-and-coming artists also took advantage of short runtimes to show off the depth of their work while keeping streamers’ attention. Hammond, Ind.’s Vince Ash dropped his debut Do Or Die this spring, and he only needs 21 minutes to convey his reality in the modern rust belt. Denzel Curry dropped TA13OO, his first album since his inclusion on XXL’s 2016 Freshman Class, this July. Though the final runtime surpassed 40 minutes, the Floridian spitter released his latest in four- or five-track portions over three days in order to reinforce the album’s three-act Light, Gray, Dark concept.
No artist epitomized the short album trend more than Tierra Whack, whose debut album Whack World is 15 songs in 15 minutes. Whack ping-pongs between genres, making room for country twang kiss-offs and TV channel metaphors over organs and 808s. Each minute-long song was accompanied by a music video, and taken together, they’re a window into a world equal parts influenced by Missy Elliott and “Dr. Seuss.” Whack World is perfectly formatted for Instagram, which Whack has acknowledged, and it’s impossible to succumb to other distractions while watching. “I’ve seen people drop their first projects where it’s like 17 songs, and I don’t want to hear that sh*t,” Whack told Pitchfork. “And, to be honest, when I’m listening to new albums, I’m only listening to the first 30 seconds before I know if I like it or not.” By shoving a surplus of talent into a short span, Whack has garnered spots on numerous best of 2018 lists as well as co-signs from legends Lauryn Hill and Andre 3000.
Freddie Gibbs came up dropping lengthy mixtapes full of major label recordings in the early ‘10s, but this year he opted to release two shorter projects instead. In June, he released Freddie, 10 songs in 25 minutes. Though the Pendergrass cover and informercial announcement promised smooth R&B, they only foreshadowed the hilariously profane “FLFM (Interlude).” The rest of the project is dope dealer slick talk over unstoppable beats designed to shred speaker cones. “Hundred kilos in my trunk, I might get death row,” Gibbs raps over a riff on the “Boyz-N-The-Hood” beat, with incarcerated L.A. rap hero 03 Greedo sneering like Eazy-E in his prime.
This Halloween, Gibbs released Fetti, nine songs in 23 minutes of collaboration with Curren$y and producer The Alchemist. The trio says they recorded the album in just two days, and the result feels comfortably low-stakes. Alc’s murky sample chops are a perfect middle ground for the two MCs to flex upon. Fans have been clamoring for more of this trio since 2011’s “Scottie Pippen,” and Fetti justified the wait with cuts like paranoid pop “The Blow.” “You look at where music’s at right now and if you get a project that got like 17 tracks on it—and it’s not takin’ away nothin’ from nobody—but 95 percent of the time I’m only gonna like like six or seven tracks on there,” Gibbs told Complex last year. “I want you to have somethin’ that you could hit repeat, I want you to keep playin’ this sh*t back-to-back-to-back-to-back.” On Freddie and Fetti, Gibbs has never sounded more fun. The question isn’t whether to replay his projects, but which one to start with.
Long Beach rapper Vince Staples leapt into rap’s upper echelon in 2015 with his double-disc debut Summertime ‘06, but last month’s FM! fits 11 tracks into just 23 minutes. The album is designed as a broadcast, with voiceovers from L.A. radio legend Big Boy and his Neighborhood and interludes teasing new songs from Tyga and Earl Sweatshirt. The songs swirl together like collapsing waveforms as uncredited features from Ty Dolla $ign, Kamaiyah, and Jay Rock play for a scant few bars.
The beats on FM! draw from summertime strains of West Coast hip-hop dating back to NWA and E-40 (another uncredited guest). It’s jarring at first to hear Vince spit his brittle street raps over these textures, closer to radio rap than ever before, until you realize that the tropes of street life are already dominating airwaves. Vince is telling the same story, he’s just skipping the superfluous window dressing that gets rap singles played on actual radio stations. It adds up to a commentary on the voyeurism inherent in hip-hop’s popularity, exemplified by the Google Maps surfing white teen in the “FUN!” video. In that regard, FM!’s quick runtime may be a sly self-deprecating punchline, like even he can’t sustain the fantasy of ubiquity any longer.
In the three and a half years since his last album, Earl Sweatshirt had only dropped three verses. His interlude on FM! was tantalizing for fans, 20 seconds of Earl showing off a newly jiggy flow. When Some Rap Songs dropped last Friday, it was immediately clear that the FM! snippet was a feint. Rather than ride Vince’s rap radio knocks, Earl submerged himself into a stew of loops ripped straight off wax. He emulates MCs like MF DOOM and Mach-Hommy as he wades through a stream of consciousness made murky by 24 years of life. “If you lame and you broke and you waiting for co-sign, I take a plate to go, bread I could break with my bro,” he raps. “Noose on my neck is gold, tell me how you been faking the whole time?”
Because Some Rap Songs is 15 tracks in 24 minutes, the only dissenters from its critical acclaim have been fans who had hoped for more music after years of waiting. But it’s ridiculous to feel slighted by an album this deliberate. In an interview with Vulture, the rapper explained that, like the understatement title, the album’s length is part of its artistry. “I hope what people take away is…I guess just brevity,” he said. “I’m always trying to whittle this sh*t down.” His latest is like reading a poem scraped together from a novel. You can feel the music pass through you in less than half an hour, or play each track five times over just to catch each syllable against the lurch of the loop.
If Billboard’s top 200 albums are any indication, behemoths like Scorpion and Culture II aren’t going anywhere. For artists of a certain popularity, feature-film length albums are an easy way to mine the streaming royalty gold rush. Of the shorter projects of 2018, only The Weeknd and West managed to crack the top 50. Releasing short projects this year was evidence of an artist’s faith in their vision and in their audience’s taste, even if it means sacrificing easy commercial gains. Whether incorporating brevity into a high-minded concept or simply trimming the fat, the best albums this year showed that shorter is sweeter.