“Am I the only n****a still care about mixtapes?”
This is the question posed by Chance the Rapper on the appropriately titled “Mixtape,” a collaboration with Young Thug and Lil Yachty off of his massively successful Coloring Book. It’s a simple query meant to deeply question the role of the mixtape in the modern hip-hop landscape, but it is unavoidably the wrong question to ask. The idea that Chance thinks nobody cares about mixtapes in 2016 is ludicrous, and sounds especially ridiculous on “Mixtape.” Chance, Young Thug, and Lil Yachty are all among hip-hop’s fastest rising stars, and not one of them has ever released an album. If mixtapes were a dying art form, the trio would be among the many artists that would find themselves out of a job.
However off-base he might be on the subject, Chance is an unavoidable talking point in any discussion involving mixtapes, and the idea of “free music” in general. It’s an important and interesting discussion to be sure, but one that I feel often proceeds without establishing a couple of crucial definitions; specifically, what qualities designate a project as a “mixtape,” what differentiates a mixtape from an album, and whether or not that distinction holds any importance in hip-hop today.
It would seem that getting the obvious question out of the way first would help matters; that question being “What is a mixtape?” Unfortunately, if we were dead-set on establishing a definition of the term, this article might never end. In truth there is no single, unified and objective standard that denotes a collection of songs as a “mixtape,” and there never has been. A large part of the confusion that surrounds the exact meaning of the term stems from the simple fact that it has taken on very different meanings over time. The term first described DJ-curated compilations in the early days of hip-hop, not much different than your modern music fan’s Spotify playlist. They eventually came to denote a type of project rarely seen in 2016 outside of small-time Soundcloud and Youtube accounts, one in which a single rapper or a squad of artists rap over borrowed and often instantly recognizable beats, resulting in tracks such as Watsky’s Ninjas in Paris. Out of legal necessity, these projects were distributed for free. Take these projects and replace the recycled instrumentals with original beats, and you’ve essentially arrived at the modern understanding of what a mixtape is.
With that confusion cleared up, it seems the definition of mixtape is obvious: a project that is longer than an EP and usually within the genre of hip-hop that is distributed for free. This does seem to be the definition that is upheld by most, and it is certainly the one Chance champions throughout Coloring Book, with lyrics like “I don’t make songs for free, I make ‘em for freedom.”
The trouble is that other artists, even Chance collaborators, don’t seem to agree. Recent years have given birth to the term “retail mixtape,” the existence of which only serves to further complicate matters. These projects allege to maintain the “feel” of a mixtape while commanding a typical album price. It sounds like a losing proposition, but retail mixtapes have been highly critically and commercially successful in the past, perhaps most notable among them being Young Thug’s Barter 6 and Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. This year, the “free” portion of the mixtape definition is saddled with even more caveats, with Apple Music exclusive mixtapes (including Coloring Book and Yachty’s Summer Songs 2) becoming accepted practice. Even if these successful examples don’t determine what’s an album and what’s a mixtape, they do demonstrate that the general public is not particularly concerned whether they are listening to one or the other.
With all of that being said, there is clearly plenty of room for subjectivity in the debate, and if I can’t give you the facts, I am obliged to at least give you my own thoughts to mull over. Let’s start with an important clarification: neither title denotes greater importance. An album possesses no inherent quality over a mixtape, and vice versa. There are no second class projects in this situation, simply different avenues of artistic expression that are no more telling of a project’s quality than its genre.
Here’s another relatively simple qualifier that I abide by: if you sell your project, that is, distribute digital downloads, physical copies, or otherwise offer your project in direct exchange for money, in any way, then it is an album. Hip-hop duo Run the Jewels serve as perfect examples here. Both Run the Jewels and Run the Jewels 2 are available for free download on the duo’s website, but fans are also able to purchase physical CDs and vinyl pressings of the albums if they so choose. The generally unquestioned consensus that these projects are albums demonstrates that a project being available for free does not necessitate its classification as a mixtape.
That leaves only free projects to sort out, and this is where things get even more subjective. In my opinion, distinguishing between a free album and a mixtape comes down largely to intention and feel. Intention here means the career goal which the artist hopes to achieve with a project. Personally, I am highly likely to consider a project made with the intention of garnering increased exposure for an artist to be a mixtape. Consider Joey Purp’s iiiDrops or Noname’s Telefone: both are free projects featuring more popular and well-established artists that are likely to draw in new listeners, all while sticking closely to a few sonic themes and ideas, serving to introduce these new listeners to the artist’s sound.
This segues into feel, a trait that will inevitably vary from person to person. Even in the digital age, where I could release music on the same platform as Kanye West, I find true mixtapes always have a distinct impact on me as a listener — one that leaves me feeling as if I have a deeper understanding of the artist as a person. A mixtape is a project that feels like it was made because the the world would be a better place for it; they have a creative energy to them that, for better or worse, feels distinctly unrehearsed and unique.
Thus, our judgements of what is and isn’t a mixtape can be equally unique. Just because I feel strongly that Coloring Book is an album doesn’t mean that I judge the project unfairly; it is simply another point at which you and I might have a different experience with a piece of art, which I believe is something to be celebrated.