From Kanye West to Earl Sweatshirt, 2018 was the Year of the Short Rap Album
From Kanye West‘s G.O.O.D. Music rollout to Vince Staples’ FM!, there was a collection of short rap releases that embodied a creative energy that was subversive.
In 2018, rap fans were faced with a handful of mainstream albums that were over an hour long: Drake’s Scorpion, Migos’ Culture II, Rae Sremmurd’s SR3MM, and Travis Scott’s Astroworld. But this year also gave rise to a reactionary trend that challenged the climate of excessively lengthy rap albums — short rap albums. From Kanye West‘s G.O.O.D. Music rollout and Tierra Whack‘s Whack World to Vince Staples‘ FM! and Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs, there was a collection of short rap releases that — regardless of being good or bad — embodied a creative energy and urgency that was refreshingly subversive.
The Recording Academy defines an album as “no less than five different tracks and having a total playing time of no less than 15 minutes.” But the average person probably wouldn’t consider anything under 30 minutes as an album; so many are longer than that, from rock classics like the Beatles’ Revolver and Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon to rap standards like Nas’ Illmatic and Tupac’s All Eyez on Me.
The short rap albums released this year would’ve arguably be seen as EPs pre-streaming era. The RIAA defines an EP as “at least three but no more than five different songs” with an average minimum running time of 30 minutes. Music streaming services like Apple and Spotify have their own rules for EPs but share the same requirement: “The release has a total of four to six tracks and the entire release is less than 30 minutes.”
When paired with these rules, these short projects come across as an album-EP hybrid, all of them having more than five songs but being less than 30 minutes. What was once a defined line between the two has blurred; changing rules have added to the deconstruction of the album.
Kanye West has contributed to that deconstruction for the past two years. Released in 2016, The Life of Pablo saw the rapper altering arrangements, features, lyrics, and more in real time shortly after its release. He also altered 2013’s Yeezus, making subtle changes to his vocals and removing instrumental parts from tracks. The alterations were strangely intriguing. Fans were witnessing West experiment with his music in a way that added to the spectacle of his musical persona, the artist subverting the idea of what a complete and released album is.
But 2018 found West taking on the album in a more literal than figurative fashion. In April, he took to Twitter to announce that he was dropping two albums in June, with one of them being a seven-song album.
my album is 7 songs
— ye (@kanyewest) April 19, 2018
He then revealed that the rest of the albums he was involved with were also going to be seven songs long, ushering in a G.O.O.D. Music release rollout that lasted from late May to late June. West’s use of spectacle to promote new music has become something fans expect from him. But his antics and controversies prior to and during the rollout weren’t confined to his solo album. As the executive producer of his collaborative album with Kid Cudi, Kids See Ghost, as well as albums by Nas, Pusha-T and Teyana Taylor, the spectacle of West had extended beyond himself and to the artists in proximity to him. As a result, the G.O.O.D. Music rollout was a bizarre mess that undermined the music.
A contributing part of that mess was West’s unabashed support of Donald Trump. From sharing a photo of himself wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat to praising Trump against T.I. in the track “Ye vs. the People,” West’s political sidings and some incendiary remarks — most notably his slavery was a choice comment — kept West in news headlines up until he released ye.
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This only fed the spectacle of the album listening party for ye. Held in Wyoming, West flew out social media influencers, media personalities, and other celebrities on private jets for the occasion, a disorientingly surreal experience that found people from across the country in the presence of the self-proclaimed genius on a ranch. During the event, West revealed that he remade the album following his appearance at TMZ, suggesting that the album was re-recorded in a month. In separate interviews with 070 Shake, an artist signed to G.O.O.D. Music who’s featured on ye, and Kim Kardashian-West that followed the album’s release, both reconfirmed what West said about redoing the album. The former said that he was still working on it up until the day it came out, while the latter said West had cut a line from it as he was heading to the listening party.
ye wasn’t the most notable of the G.O.O.D. Music rollout. West’s reliance on spectacle overshadowed and diluted the album of one of its most central themes — mental illness. But there was something fascinating about the impulsiveness of its release — that it felt so reactionary and rushed, West adding and removing parts to address his controversies in real time.
Brevity didn’t work in ye nor Nasir‘s favor, but it did for Daytona, Kids See Ghosts, and K.T.S.E. All three found its primary artists — Pusha, Cudi, and Teyana, respectively — tackling their albums with precision and seriousness. As a result, those albums are arguably some of their best work to date. The cocaine raps of Push; the optimistic and poignant rap-singing of Cudi; the R&B smoothness and swagger of Teyana. The three showed that a short album can still be captivating and rich. West’s strategy benefited his peers more than himself.
Earl Sweatshirt made his return to music this year with his own densely rich short album — Some Rap Songs. The follow-up to 2015’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside: An Album by Earl Sweatshirt, Some Rap Songs clocks in at almost 25 minutes, each of its 15 tracks under three minutes. The album is a challenging listen, the mix of experimental and intricate avant-garde loops providing the base for Earl’s improvisational, spoken word delivery. Central to Some Rap Songs is Earl’s relationship with his parents, particularly his father, Keorapetse Kgositsile, the South African activist and poet who passed away this year.
He honors his mother Cheryl Harris and Kgositsile in the beautiful and conciliatory “Playing Possum.” Produced by Earl, the track blends a sample of Harris speaking at a keynote with a sample of Kgositsile reciting his poem “Anguish Longer Than Sorrow.” As one of the album’s last tracks, “Playing Possum” is such a deeply satisfying reflection of Earl’s growth as an artist and person. A heartfelt and vulnerable song that finds him celebrating a legacy and lineage he’s carrying on through his music.
There was one rapper in particular who made her debut with a short rap album that was one of the most fascinating and innovative releases of the year — Tierra Whack. The Philadelphia rapper dropped her debut album Whack World in May through Instagram, the project’s 15 tracks — all a minute long — accompanied by their own music videos. The brevity of it all only made Tierra’s artistic world that much more immersive, the hooks, melodies, and verses delivered with a playfulness and imagination that is brought to life through her visuals.
The upbeat bounce of “Hungry Hippos,” which finds Tierra bragging about influencing a man’s style as she eats the finest jewelry alongside some friends; the bright piano of “Pet Cemetery” that follows Tierra as she remembers her friends who’ve passed in a cemetery filled with puppet animals; and the downtempo soul of “Flea Market,” where Tierra sings to a romantic interest about wanting to take the next step in their relationship as she trims a toy dog.
The versatility of the songs and videos make Whack World such a satisfying auditory and visual experience. The album’s unusual format was a welcoming introduction to Tierra, the artist using the visual album concept and social media to create a memorable and original sample-sized project.
Some of 2018’s best rap albums came courtesy of short rap releases, showing that an artist can create something cohesive, compelling and enjoyable without adhering to a certain length. Short rap albums may never become a norm but, hopefully, the releases that came this year will inspire some artists to do the same, challenging themselves to push the boundaries of what an album can be.