On February 13, 2015 Drake released a collection of songs named ‘If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’ on the iTunes store and streaming services without any prior hoopla. Within three days it had sold just shy of half a million copies, been streamed 17.3 million times on Spotify, and debuted at number one on the Billboard 200.
Drake referred to this as a mixtape, although — unlike most mixtapes — it was commercially available, featured all-original beats and production, and was sold as an album on all formats.
So, is it an album? Is it a mixtape? Does it matter?
One year, and a day later, Kanye West released his album The Life Of Pablo, which he subsequently tinkered with over the next month or so, adding songs, changing and updating mixes, shifting the track order, and treating it like a living document. Is this an album? Is it an art installation? Perhaps it is both. Legally, he claimed each iteration was a different entity after Tidal subscribers felt robbed when he claimed the album would be a Tidal exclusive, and then it appeared elsewhere.
May 13, 2016 saw the release of Chance The Rapper’s third mixtape Coloring Book – which was released exclusively on Apple Music, then slowly dripped onto other streaming services. You cannot purchase this album — as a download or a physical specimen. Chance calls it a mixtape. Nevertheless, it became the first ‘album’ to chart on the Billboard 200 solely on streams (peaking at #8) and won Best Rap Album at the Grammys. Is this an album?
Chance The Rapper – Same Drugs
“I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy” – Chance The Rapper, ‘Ultralight Beam’.
Now, to get technical.
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The Recording Academy’s rules for the Grammys state that an album “must comprise a minimum total playing time of 15 minutes with at least five distinct tracks or a minimum total playing time of 30 minutes with no minimum track requirement.” This latter requirement is no doubt meant to acknowledge records such as Tubular Bells that contain least than four tracks, being a musical suite rather than an album in the traditional sense.
In the UK, a recording counts as an album for the charts “if it either has more than four tracks or lasts more than 25 minutes.”
Last May, Amy Shark’s Night Thinker EP debuted at #2 on the ARIA Albums chart. This EP features the song ‘Adore’ which peaked at #3 on the ARIA Singles chart in February that same year. EPs traditionally charted on Singles charts — an easy example of this was the 1990 Ratcat EP Tingles which, buoyed by the success of ‘That Ain’t Bad’, hit #1 in the Australian singles chart. The radio single was ‘That Ain’t Bad’, but the EP was where it was housed.
So, in this day and age, have the boundaries shifted, and is it a distinction that matters at all?
Chart purists may care, but at the end of the day, it may be a case of splitting hairs. Art is art is art is art – and will live and die based on its merits, not on what format it is classified as.
In this mindset, here’s to the audiobook of ‘Why Buddhism Is True’ winning the Best Rap Album Grammy.