Mixtapes have an iconic status in hip-hop. Their roots lie in the bootleg tapes of early rap groups’ rehearsals and performances, impromptu recordings that felt about as commercially viable as taking audio of your family barbecue and passing the resulting tape around the neighborhood. The medium took a big step forward when DJs Brucie B and Ron G began to elevate the form, releasing must-listen “blend tapes.” DJs were soon competing to be the first to get songs fresh out of the studio (often by less-than-honest means), or become the exclusive purveyor of the latest freestyle. From there it was off to the races.
By the early 2000s, this DJ-centric model was butting up against a more artist-centric take on the form, popularized by 50 Cent and G-Unit. In order to build a buzz, the crew (and countless other rappers in their wake) began taking instrumentals from pretty much everywhere—already-popular songs included and encouraged—and rapping over them. The result was a new kind of mixtape, that sat on the shelf at your local mixtape spot (R.I.P. to Burkina) next to the earlier tapes.
Of course, not long after, the internet came for the retail mixtape game the way it came for the rest of the music industry. Suddenly the same legally dubious mixtapes were spread to a huge audience, often for free or for the cost of your email address, through sites like DatPiff and Live Mixtapes.
Liberating mixtapes from their physical form led to an expanding of the concept as well. Suddenly artists like Drake were making fully-fledged debut statements of purpose with barely a stolen beat. Then you had The Weeknd and Chance The Rapper demonstrating that, if you had a great album to your name, released it for free and called it a mixtape you, too, could have a meteoric rise.
Today, the majority of projects that artists call mixtapes are indistinguishable from albums in nearly every regard. Original production, as opposed to freestyles over existing songs? Check. High-profile features? Check. Released by a major label? Check. Put up for sale, rather than released for free? Thanks to subscription streaming services, check, check, and double-check.
The question that remains, is why does everyone from ASAP Ferg to Drake to Chance to Dave East seem so desperate to call their albums anything but “albums?” At first glance, it seems absurd. A few weeks ago, rapper Dave East released a project on Def Jam that he called an EP. It’s 13 tracks long and runs for over 40 minutes—even by the flexible standards of the EP, that looks a lot like an album. Just last month, ASAP Ferg put out Still Striving, ostensibly a mixtape, despite the fact that it was put out by RCA and contained top-billed features by, among others, Snoop, Rick Ross, and Migos.
The problem appears to be simple: “Album” is a word that comes with heavy expectations. They’ve been around since the late 1940s, and pioneered by people like Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, and Stevie Wonder. You have a favorite album by your favorite artist. We still have all-night debates about the greatest album—whether Illmatic is better than Only Built 4 Cuban Linx or Ready to Die, or which Jay Z album is the greatest (even Hov himself has jumped into that one). Albums are important. They’re supposed to capture something about our time, about the way we live our lives. They should be statements about the artist.
“I feel like, [a mixtape] is more artistic freedom,” Ferg said in a recent interview with The Breakfast Club. “An album is so serious. With Always Strive and Prosper, my last album, it was so serious about my trials and tribulations, how I became A$AP Ferg, jobs I had before, all of that shit, but this mixtape was basically like an open door policy where I had, like, all my friends come and we just made music and had fun. It was, like, not so serious. We just wanted an excuse to party on the song.”
Dave East had similar thoughts. He told Billboard that he was saving his important stories, the ones with “super-detailed and specific moments,” for his album. “I don’t think it’s album time yet,” he said.
Mixtapes, on the other hand, are meant to be of-the-moment. And by definition, they shy away from being cohesive statements. After all, “mix” is in the very name. And the classic examples of the form contain 50-plus songs all blended together, or four dozen or so rappers freestyling, or even three guys rapping over a bunch of random shit. So calling Still Striving or If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late a “mixtape” changes (or, some might argue, lowers) expectations, both artistically and, by extension, commercially.
If an artist’s album sells poorly, speculation begins almost immediately. What happened? Did they choose the wrong single? Are they past their prime? On the other hand, sales expectations for a mixtape are lessened, because it’s not a full-on artistic statement. It’s just messing around, having some fun—even if that “fun” is promoted by the same billion-dollar corporation that releases those erstwhile (hopefully) blockbuster albums next time around.
Calling a project a “mixtape,” “EP,” “playlist,” or, hell, a “project”—anything but an “album”—sends a signal to fans and the press to bring a different set of expectations, and to lower the pressure a little bit. No wonder it’s such a common move. With such an easy out available, it’s a wonder people release albums at all.