Hey, Rappers, Leave Mixtapes Out Of Your Marketing Schemes in 2016, Please

For those of us who were deeply invested in hip-hop in the late ’90s and early 2000s, echoes of DJ Clue’s a cappella, preemptive drops probably still reverberate in your head. Post millennium, it was the aggressive “Gangsta Grillz” tag, courtesy of DJ Drama tapes, atop unpolished rap realness. Mixtapes are, and have always been, the beating heart of hip-hop.

“Mixtapes are one of the most important elements of this culture,” says Rick Ross, one of rap’s biggest mixtape kings turned label executive, on a Def Jam conference call last month.

“That’s where you really build your relationship with your fans with no yellow tape involved. You create your own release date; you decide when you release material. You’re in control of that, and as an artist, I think even labels respect that.”

Mixtapes reside on the artistic side of the music industry, facing the business of albums on the opposing side. Both operate separately, but are connected to ensure an artist can exercise their passion as their livelihood and still preserve creativity. Mixtapes represent obscenities hurled at the music establishment, against all of the glamorization and expectations of an official album release. They can seal (or re-seal) an artist’s credibility and connection to the streets, allowing them to express art from a recorded safe-haven. Mixtapes allow artists to step out in their ingenuity and purify themselves of the industry’s murky politics — or, at least they used to. What happened?

No, this isn’t another lesson on the history of mixtapes; it’s a plea from a hip-hop fan. Stop commercializing mixtapes, for the love of BasedGod.

Mixtapes have now become a part of the same establishment they once opposed and have become synonymous with albums.

I know: Mixtapes are no longer what they once were. Yet, seeing Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late receive illroots’ “Mixtape of the Year” honor made me long for the “side B” freestyles over popular beats and poorly Photoshopped covers of yore. And while hearing Nicki Minaj’s plans to release a mixtape a la her Beam Me Up Scotty days gave me some hope that major artists would genuinely return to their bare-boned roots, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of concern in my gut. With artists now developing rollouts, planned releases, major production, price tags and the like, mixtapes have now become a part of the same establishment they once opposed and have become synonymous with albums. The horror.

For one, the fun formerly involved in mixtapes has been missing for some time. Big-budget beats are now carefully selected, cohesion now simulates album flow, and I’m not even sure rappers know how to freestyle anymore. Words can’t express how much I miss the days of hearing Jay Z rhyme without a care on top of jacked “Pump It Up” or “Bump Bump Bump” beats, flowing through all of his imperfections to arrive at lyrical moments.

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Mixtapes, in my humble opinion, shouldn’t be perfect. Contrary to popular belief in today’s society, not everything requires curation, nor does everything have to be broken down to cents and sales. In fact, it was once extremely unlikely for sales to even enter the conversation of mixtapes — just ask the now-retired CD/DVD man on the corner. That was the beauty of it all: artists could create without feeling pressure. If that defining paradigm still exists for mixtapes, why did What A Time To Be Alive’s sales ever matter? If all of those album-like parameters are being met, let’s just call it an album and reserve the term “mixtape” for those rappers willing to explore their artistry outside of the marketing plan. Either that, or just leave mixtapes to the smaller or newer artists not feeling as pressured to conform.

And that’s not to say we haven’t had great mixtapes in the last decade; it’s the same decade that’s produced some of rap’s current biggest stars with So Far Gone, Section 80, and Friday Night Lights, among many others, to much critical acclaim. Yet, I fear that while we continue to obsess over music consumption, lines will continue to be blurred, then altogether compromised, and intentions will no longer be pure, leading to the art’s death by excessive commercialization. Now, more than ever, transparency is key.

Since 2015 was the year of the hip-hop album, I anticipate 2016 will be the year of the mixtape to keep fans satisfied while tours get planned and the next album cycle goes into production. And I, for one, welcome it, as long as it’s not a part of a larger gimmick. It’s all about progression, but let’s not forget the original point. Here’s to a new year and a new day in hip-hop.

Images: @champagnepapi, officialrozay, Dreamville

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