Write. Record. Release.
Tour. TV. Repeat.
Every year—two, tops.
Exceptions notwithstanding, things were much simpler before the internet changed the game. Marketing suits crowded around marble conference tables, a collection of would-be Don Drapers flipping through briefs and tracing timelines. They’d outline the next campaign centered around the beating heart of the music industry, the pinnacle of creativity that all artists should aim for.
That perhaps outdated yet indefinitely appreciated format we use to soundtrack our lives and to make sense of an artist’s career. The thing we can point to, like one might with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, as if to say, “See, this is why she matters.” For the time being, albums still play a major role in constructing legacies. The delivery of the album however, the traditional scheduling and marketing campaign, has been challenged in recent years.
Gone are the days when time could be marked out by album releases. Fans could once count down the days to album anniversaries like sand in an hourglass, knowing it couldn’t be long until the next project descended from the heavens and crash-landed on our iPhones and Androids. Drake was slated for a fourth-quarter drop in 2011 long before there was any official news of Take Care—Thank Me Later had hit stores in the summer of 2010, which would make for a year-and-a-half project gap.
Nowadays, you’re just as likely awakened by roommates or unbridled neighbors because BEYONCÉ JUST DROPPED GOOD GOD GRAB THE SPEAKERS. What Radiohead pioneered on a semi-major scale with 2008’s In Rainbows has become a major part of the mainstream rollout scheme.
Times have changed, and music is a more dynamic landscape because of it. Abnormal rollouts that veer from the conventional protocol are commonplace, even expected in 2016. Future liberated what felt like a thousand songs before the release of Dirty Sprite 2. Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo resembles the Agile development methodology of the software industry, at best, and trademarked a new scale of public indecisiveness at worst.
Acts of all shapes and sizes subscribed to the original, aging rollout model. Plenty still do. Things get interesting when artists sidestep the traditional campaign, even if it still means arriving at the traditional outcome: a capital-“a” Album. Although the Album often continues to serve as the final light that guides the traveling artist through his or her metaphoric tunnel, the path to reach that end point is changing.
What Radiohead pioneered on a semi-major scale with 2008’s In Rainbows has become a major part of the mainstream rollout scheme.
On paper, hip-hop’s indie prince and the reigning champion of the major label circuit have little in common. Different backgrounds, different styles, different mission statements, different tiers of relevance. On paper, Drake’s audience is 20 times larger, and that’s just going off Twitter followers. Radio impressions would further widen the divide between them.
Yet even as they operate at different stages of their career—Drake a mechanical, high-flying vulture nearing escape velocity, Chance a renowned eagle rising below him in the stratosphere—both profited by ducking the norm. In 2013, Drake was a star who was touring the world. He’s a superstar who is taking over the world now. That same year, Chance was about to blow, but he had yet to join the ranks of his idols.
The two artists, along with the teams that stand behind them, appear to prefer a rather similar strategy: stay nimble, embrace the unexpected, deviate from the tried and tired blueprint. Views From The 6 (now simply titled VIEWS), is fast-approaching. Chance’s third solo project, for now known and referred to here as Chance 3, is on the horizon if recent remarks at concerts are taken to be true. An April release for both artists would be a picturesque, an all-to-perfect conclusion to a three-year period that began in 2013 with Acid Rap and Nothing Was The Same.
Since their last “official” projects three years ago, both ascended to great heights. Drake is on the cusp of a world takeover as his influence both spreads to and feeds from the creative communities of other continents. Chance has arguably become the most successful independent recording artist in music. He’s telling Kanye what to do in studio sessions and juking on a Saturday Night Live stage that had never opened its doors to an unsigned act.
And they both did it with no Album.
Side-projects, more side-projects, loosies that became runaway hits (“Hotline Bling”) and joyous SoundCloud anthems (Towkio’s “Heaven Only Knows”), but no Album.
When Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment shared Surf last May, Chance took care to emphasize that no, this was not the followup to Acid Rap. Most of us still thought of it as just that, but Surf was, in fact, a project preceding The Project. The decision to frame Surf as a collaborative effort could be taken as an act of selflessness by Chance, but it just as easily (and perhaps concurrently) reads like a simple act of positioning. Any offering from Chance that resembles a body of work is immediately, instinctively categorized in our minds as the logical succession to Acid Rap. To try and prevent that perception from lasting, we received constant reminders of the contrary.
With Surf, Chance released a buzz driver. He even gained SNL-caliber single “Sunday Candy” in the process. Better still, he did so without the pressure or expectations that the followup to a project as formative as Acid Rap entails. As acclaimed as Surf was, it largely served to sustain anticipation for what most of us were really eager for: the project that was supposed to slide down the chimney last Christmas.
With If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and What a Time to be Alive, Drake achieved a similar result. OVO labeled both efforts “mixtapes” despite the typical price point, even spinning the head-scratching word choice into an official “How’s My Mixtape” hat that now sells for $90 on eBay. It was another simple act of positioning, even more overt than the decision to underscore that Surf belonged to a band, not one man.
Although mixtapes continue to resemble free albums that rival or surpass the quality of studio debuts (Exhibit A: Acid Rap), most of us have not yet shaken the traditional sequence of events ingrained by the genre’s history.
The mixtape comes first, and the album—theoretically more “professional,” “official,” “polished,” “cohesive,” “improved” etc.—comes next. IYRTITL and WATTBA were instantly discredited in that way, delivered with an asterisk. They were not the real deal. They were not VIEWS, just as Surf wasn’t Chance 3. Yet Drake owned the first and fourth quarter of 2015—everything in between, really—and further cemented his status in rap, and even Taylor Swift is now not just aware, but emphatically in agreement, that Metro Boomin on production is wowing indeed.
Drake first announced Views From The 6 in July of 2014, an exclusive story broken by Billboard. The minuscule factoid stands out as surprising in retrospect. Between the time Drake announced VFT6, his fourth “proper” studio album, and the actual release of said album, he has shared not one, but two different projects. And even though those projects were treats before the meal, they affirmed his place in pop culture, ballooning his fame further still.
To emphasize their overlap, Surf, IYRTITL, and WATTBA all debuted exclusively through Apple Music or iTunes, and the respective teams behind those releases worked to manage expectations. If someone was disappointed by Surf, it was easy to defend Chance. If someone felt IYRTITL sounded uninspired, it was easy to frame as a collection of throwaways that still had enormous commercial impact. Chance the Rapper and Drake arguably shifted what it means to make and promote an album as a medium between 2013 and 2016, and they did the same with singles during that span.
Peruse Chance the Rapper’s SoundCloud page for a moment and you’ll find a playlist. “The Social Experiment or SoX” is the most recent of three. The others? 10 Day and Acid Rap. This 14-song compilation—album length, notably—includes much of Chance’s work post-2013. Unlike Surf, which has songs where he’s sparse or not present at all (e.g. “Nothing Came to Me”), here he’s clearly in control.
The playlist has changed, losing a song here and there to make room for more recent releases, but the overarching message still sticks: this set could have been released as a project without anyone blinking an eye. Much of Chance’s continued ascension is in large part attributable to these songs, a string of “singles”—seemingly without a “proper” home—that lifted his career to heights he had not yet reached. The decision to present them in the same format as his two free albums is, in itself, almost a winking deconstruction of the weight we as music fans attach to the Album.
And then we have the curious case of “Hotline Bling.” The loosie that really made Drake international. The song that topped “Hold On, We’re Going Home” and “Best I Ever Had” to become his greatest commercial success to date. Drake’s freebie-turned-tropical smash speaks to the atypical stretch of time separating NWTS and VFT6. He debuted “Bling” in the midst of his summer scuffle with Meek Mill: the song premiered beside “Charged Up” last July, and “Back to Back” would arrive just five days later. A quick glance at press archives reveals much of the same: “Hotline Bling,” albeit instantly screaming “hit,” was overshadowed. A look at our own headline—”Drake Fires Back at Meek Mill on ‘Charged Up’”—speaks for itself. “Bling” was embedded in that same post, nothing more than a promising afterthought, the definition of a slow-burner that swelled into an engulfing flame.
Drake, along with other artists such as Post Malone, has made a habit out of posting songs to SoundCloud before stripping them when they appear to reach a tipping point and become lucrative. OVO recognizes the stature of its commander-in-chief. When Drizzy drops, a significant majority of the music world stops. They could, and can, afford to toss darts at a board and see what sticks. For the current commercial titan, the stakes are low-risk so long as listeners are encouraged to think of a release with a grain of salt. Only when the Album, or the Single, drops do the expectations skyrocket. That’s why there’s so much riding on VIEWS being a project that not only carries Drake’s fame, but also appeases an expanding legion of dissatisfied fans who believe Drake has grown stale, inhuman.
Not unlike Chance with C3, Drake didn’t select two singles to carry his name all the way to the grand finale of VIEWS. Before Drake shared his tracklist yesterday, the day before the long-awaited release via Beats 1, we still didn’t actually know if any or all of the songs he had released would appear on the project. “One Dance” and “Pop Style” seemed like probable options, especially given the reported double-album format that’s half-rap, half-pop/R&B, but we’re still a far cry from the norm. Three years ago, “Juice” was labeled an Acid Rap single. “Hold On” was labeled a NWTS single. Now, we’re left guessing.
That’s why there’s so much riding on VIEWS being a project that not only carries Drake’s fame, but also appeases an expanding legion of dissatisfied fans who believe Drake has grown stale, inhuman.
On his 2014 song “Draft Day,” Drake raps, “And if I left this shit to chance I would have picked a name like Chance the Rapper.” To this day, it remains unclear as to whether this was a fully formed diss, an attempt to downgrade Chance’s potentially threatening takeoff (Many argue that Acid Rap was the best release of its year or at least the closest competitor to NWTS.), or a mildly innocent and quizzical remark. Regardless, it’s clear neither Drake nor Chance relinquished the reins to their respective careers, paradoxically minimizing risks by taking more.
With just a few weeks left in the summer of 2013, and with just a few weeks remaining until Drake’s drop date, Chance the Rapper tweeted that if Acid Rap bested NWTS in quality, he’d have nothing to fear for 10 summers to come. In retrospect, while the ten-year projection was a tad hyperbolic, Chance fulfilled his own prophecy. His last Album is still well-loved, still consumed, still relevant. He’s met Kanye West. He’s never going to fail.
What’s certain is both Drake and Chance refashioned the album cycle to fit the times they’ve come to define. They effectively juggle expectations, suggesting their insightful understanding of how we think about albums even as detractors (understandably) trumpet the album’s death. Surprisingly, parallels abound between them. Their subversion of a rigid campaign still bows to what’s waiting for fans at the finish line. In the end, the Album is important, and for these creators especially.
Drake’s superstardom is continuously judged, every move analyzed by observers under a microscope while the memes become ubiquitous on social media (The reaction to his photoshopped album cover is the latest development). Chance, a star in his own right, can cement his place in the hip-hop pantheons of the 2010s with an Album that meets fan expectations and then some. Both are pivotal in their own way, but the road that brought them, and us, from 2013 to 2016 is where the real story lies.
Here’s to hoping it was all worth it.