We May be Witnessing the End of the Traditional Rap Album

Streaming is the superior format of music consumption in this day and age. Downloads and physicals, CDs and vinyl, decrease in sales year after year, allowing streaming to possess a commanding position in music industry numbers.

According to the RIAA, streaming has comprised 85% of the US’ total music industry revenue in midyear of 2020. Globally, a projection of 450 million subscribers will be a part of a digital service provider by the end of 2020 and adding over 1 billion dollars in revenue to the music industry since 2019.

These are all large numbers granting the growth of the music business for the long-term but they are also significant to the livelihood of the LP. It would seem logical that the massive impact streaming has amounted would be equivalent to a surge of “streaming album equivalents”. In other words, streaming should drive up the number of albums being sold; given 1,250 paid (subscriber) or 3,750 (non-subscriber) streams is equal to one album sale.

This is technically the case but also not the case. Instead, albums as a whole are struggling but their lead singles are flourishing. In response to this pattern, it is honest to wonder if albums will soon be a thing of the past.

Let’s take a look at two of the largest albums from 2018 and 2020 starting with Drake’s “Scorpion”. As of December 2019, “Scorpion” has sold about 5 million album-equivalent units with about 379,000 of those units being pure albums sales. Doing the math, that is an estimated 7.6% of sales actually coming from his fans’ pockets. A tiny portion in the grand scheme of sales.

If we revert to “Scorpion” streaming numbers, according to kworb.net, a real-time music data collector, only 6 songs out of the 25-track double LP carries over 85% of the streams of the album on Spotify. Lead singles, “Nice for What”, “God’s Plan”, and “In My Feelings” and additional songs “Nonstop”, “Don’t Matter to Me”, and “I’m Upset” combine for an astonishing total of almost 4 billion streams alone. The leftover 19 tracks do not even scratch 400 million streams combined.

A similar pattern is found with Lil Baby’s 2020 release “My Turn Deluxe” where only 7 out of 27 songs accumulated over 100 million streams each. Keep in mind, this is an album that is hailed to have earned over 2 billion streams. As we viewed with Drake, the majority of the album does not necessarily “sell” and instead a small handful of lead songs bear the overall weight.

If single songs are the true leaders of music consumption then why would rappers continue to make full-length albums? Rappers may be thinking the same idea considering the fluctuation of length within album releases these past two years. There are albums like Lil Durk’s “Just Cause Y’all Waited 2 Deluxe” that feature over 20 songs but flip the coin and there is Denzel Curry’s “ZUU” that only contain 12 songs and run for 30 minutes.

There has been speculation that lengthy albums may be a stream grab from artists to boost their track-equivalent units. More songs assist in obtaining more streams, even if they aren’t accumulating as much as the hit single. Track-led music consumption might also be revealing a hard truth about albums.

When physical formats dominated the decades before digital transmission, listeners had to buy entire albums to hear their favorite songs. Since there was no convenient way of listening to your jam on-demand, buying an album and skipping through the duds was the throwback version of what the industry is documenting currently.

In 2018, Kanye West made a compelling statement regarding what constitutes an LP through his famous string of 7-track and under 30 minutes “albums” he produced for Pusha T, Nas, himself, and Kids See Ghosts (a collaboration with Kid Cudi). West’s modern album innovation symbolized a cut to the chase approach where quality outmaneuvers quantity. No filler songs, intros or outros, or interludes. Simply a coherent package of high-grade singles.

Now that music is not bound to the sale of physical copies anymore, streaming has provided the artist with the creative freedom to structure their releases how they please. West may have suggested an ideal formatting but small packs of two singles have sprung up from big stars, Drake and J. Cole. Collaborations from superstar producers and MCs have become a popular trend where a short running time and tracklisting is standard. Take the 30 minutes, 10 song album from Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist as an illustration. 

Imagining a world without the classic, full-length albums like “The College Dropout” and “good kid m.A.A.d city” and “Enter the 36 chambers” feels impossible. A landscape of EPs and drastically short studio albums transforms the listening experience as we know it. Hit singles will always be a pleasure to dance to, but the unsung tracks in an album hit closer to home. As record labels and artists navigate their way through the takeover of lead singles, traditional full-length albums may take a back seat in the ride.

Written by Sophia Guerrier