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The Rap Mixtape Bubble Has Burst

Mixtapes used to scratch an itch that albums couldn’t. But with a saturated market and little distinction between mixtapes and proper albums, the future of the form is in doubt.

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

Like many young and restless rappers, K Camp is never not recording new music. In 2014, the Atlanta native’s breakout single, “Cut Her Off,” got him signed to Interscope Records. There, he followed his career-making hit with a debut album, Only Way Is Up, released in September 2015; but since then, he’s also released three free mixtapes. In total, K Camp has released 30 songs on mixtapes since his debut, hustling toward his next hit.

K Camp got his start making club records, and, like many of his peers, he makes no great distinction between mixtapes and retail albums. Instead, he talks in terms of songs, released to strike at pockets of press attention or genre trends, and “projects,” with release dates dependent on momentum as much as the need to keep pace with the vagaries of the hip-hop marketplace. “I used to drop one project every year on my birthday, April 27,” K Camp says. “Now, artists drop music every damn day.”

That music is largely free, and it’s everywhere. Sites such as DatPiff and HotNewHipHop host countless mixtapes, which in turn are promoted weekly by websites like The Fader, Pitchfork, and Complex, amounting to a glut of music that no other genre sustains. The proliferation of independent, digital projects — distributed through self-service platforms such as YouTube and SoundCloud as well as the mixtape-hosting services — has rendered moot the idea of global release day (Friday) as an industry choke point. In rap, every day is release day. If you’re a rapper, and you’ve recorded new music, and there’s no record label to prevent you from releasing it, you can do so as soon and as often as you’d like.

This freedom is a creative boon for the artists, but it poses certain problems for consumers: Thanks to the major streaming services, there’s a theoretically infinite cache of music at our fingertips to begin with, and now, each week, there are a couple dozen new mixtapes dumped atop the pile. If you’re a rap fan, it’s tough to keep up. And if you’re a fledgling rapper, or even an established-but-flagging rapper, it’s increasingly tough to stand out.

The mixtape is largely to blame for this saturation. The format has evolved wildly over the past quarter century. Throughout the 1990s, DJs like Clue would host mixtapes to curate exclusive cuts from in-demand rappers. In the 2000s, G-Unit, the Diplomats, and Lil Wayne flipped the paradigm by recruiting DJs such as Whoo Kid, Drama, and Green Lantern to produce mixtapes consisting primarily of freestyles over popular beats, mixing in some original material. In the 2010s, with freestyles largely obsolete outside of radio, rappers and big-name producers host mixtapes to premiere all-new songs, including original productions, guest verses, and potential singles. To cite one highly successful example of this model, 21 Savage’s star-making mixtape, Savage Mode, is produced and cohosted by Metro Boomin.

As a format, the modern mixtape is indistinguishable from the studio album in all but marketing costs and commercial stakes; albums can “flop” at retail, whereas few rap fans will scrutinize the sales, streams, or free download figures of music presented to them as “just” mixtapes. (Arguably, Apple Music markets Chance the Rapper’s expensively produced, collaboration-heavy albums as “mixtapes” to exploit this critical loophole; there’s no functional distinction between Chance’s latest “mixtape,” Coloring Book, and Frank Ocean’s latest album, Blonde, which was also distributed through Apple Music.) Since successful artists now generally live off of touring revenue and merchandising sales anyway, albums aren’t the lucrative record-company investment they once were. In fact, two of rap’s trendiest stars have yet to release an official album. Philly rapper Lil Uzi Vert’s most successful songs, “You Was Right” and “Money Longer,” spawned from his 2016 mixtape, Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World. And Atlanta rapper Lil Yachty blew up off two singles, “Minnesota” and “1 Night,” before he’d ever even released his first mixtape.

“If you’re an artist who has a high output, you don’t really have too many downsides to releasing a lot of music,” says Nima Etminan, a vice president at Empire Distribution, a San Francisco–based record label that works with Anderson .Paak and D.R.A.M. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money doing it,” Etminan explains. “If one of the songs takes off, then you can put money behind that song, go to radio with it, and shoot the video for it. You could put out a mixtape every other month, look at what people are gravitating toward, and then strategize your single from there.”

Many contemporary rappers at all levels of commercial prominence execute some version of this formula — from street-level promotion to a regional fan base — which can afford them a modest but sustainable touring strategy until, God willing, they break onto the Billboard charts. Drake, the most popular rapper of his generation, famously “got rich off a mixtape” with the commercial rerelease of his So Far Gone mixtape in September 2009. He’s lately alternated between releasing interstitial mixtapes, such as If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, and proper, high-profile albums, such as Views. He charges retail prices for both kinds of projects.

More broadly, rappers have replaced the mixtape-vs.-album distinction with alternative commercial tiers: free on-demand streaming (e.g., YouTube and SoundCloud), versus paid subscription services (Spotify and Apple Music), versus purchase-download services (Bandcamp and the iTunes Store). Many new releases live across various tiers, with various price points, all at once. “Now the only reason why you would put out something only for free, without selling it, is if you have uncleared samples or features,” Etminan says.

When it comes to releasing new music, K Camp spends less time worrying about pricing — only his debut album is purchase-only, and the rest of his music can be bought or downloaded for free — and more time strategizing his frequency and timing. “You don’t want to drown yourself out by dropping too much shit, but you don’t wanna not drop too much shit and then get forgot about,” K Camp says. “In this day and age, fans forget about you quick.” Coach K, cofounder of Quality Control, the label home to Migos and Lil Yachty, says the internet has revolutionized both production and consumption. “The whole ecosystem changed,” he says. “Now, a kid doesn’t have to buy anything. You have access. You can find a kid in Atlanta that’s rapping in a closet when all he has to do is put his project up on Spotify or SoundCloud. These kids can go find him themselves.”

Even hip-hop’s oldest gatekeepers — the DJs — have once again started to reinvent their role in the marketplace. Instead of hosting whole mixtapes, some DJs will host individual songs. For upstart rappers, a sponsored DJ drop functions as a coveted cosign. “I’ve had artists submit songs for me to premiere and then hit me back five minutes later saying they’re gonna have a DJ put tags on it,” says Andrew Barber, founding editor of the popular Chicago rap blog Fake Shore Drive. “Ten years ago, you’d obviously prefer the tagless version. Now, it’s a good thing to have a cosign from a DJ and to have the tags. It’s just a different ballgame.”

Chicago’s DJ Hustlenomics, who has hosted songs and mixtapes with Chief Keef and others, agrees that rappers have lately been channeling their efforts toward individual song releases. “The mixtape game is kind of dying down,” he says. “Not all together, but it’s just easier for artists to drop one song with a DJ drop — that one cosign — and then they drop another song. It can be anywhere from the next week, to two weeks later, to a month later.” Importantly, Hustlenomics describes the modern release cycle as a measure of days and weeks, not months, and certainly not years.

The dramatic tapering of commercial half-life can feel especially pronounced given the sheer volume of music that’s now in the mix. Etminan tells musicians, especially developing artists, who work with Empire that their ideal format is the four-to-five-song EP — such as singer Lloyd’s recent project, Tru — which gives potential listeners a fuller impression of an artist than a single offers, but doesn’t test their patience with an hour-plus run time. But, K Camp says, “It’s really up to the artists. You’ve really got to have this shit down to a science and know when to drop, and what to drop, and you gotta drop some flame. You can’t put out no bullshit.”

In theory, K Camp is describing a “rising tide lifts all boats” outlook on the overall quality of rap music, with intensifying competition bound to benefit fans first and foremost. But what’s happening in practice is that the value of any given song has plummeted below even the commercial floor set by the massive proliferation of online piracy, as the average rap fan’s attention has shrunken, all while the supply of music has expanded. Songs come and go; stars are born, and they burn out overnight. Of those aforementioned 30-plus songs that K Camp released this year, none has surpassed his first hit, “Cut Her Off.” His latest mixtape, RARE, isn’t his first attempt to find a follow-up hit, and it won’t be his last — hell, given the pace of things, it might not even be his final project of 2016. The music never ends.