While Kanye West has certainly had a knack for staying in the news of late, one item that didn't see a lot of air time was the controversial hip hop figure's popularization of the "Medium Play" or MP album format. Here we examine what the state of "Ye" means for the state of music.
Guest post by Martin Connor of Soundfly's Flypaper
Lost in all of the hullabaloo of Kanye West’s annual summer distractions — the tweeting, the clothes, the why-oh-why SNL appearances — was the fact that he consolidated a completely new format for the album as we know it. And before you stop reading right here, no, he wasn’t the first one to develop what we’ll now call the “MP” — that is, the “medium play.” But, as West is wont to do every now and then, he basically made the dang thing his own in a matter of weeks.
Alright, let’s back it up — what is an MP?
We’re defining an MP as an album that contains a number of tracks somewhere between what is traditionally found on an EP, or “extended play” (between three and five, slightly larger than a single), and a full-length LP, or “long play.” Around six or seven tracks is appropriate for a medium-play record, but in West’s case, all five albums that he dropped over the summer of 2018 (both collaborative and true solo) had exactly seven songs each.
Yet while the number of tracks is somewhat of a compromise between the EP and the LP, the MP’s song execution bends more towards those of the EP and its even smaller sibling, the single. There’s no filler here — no interludes or skits to be found, no intros and outros, and barely any songs lasting longer than five minutes. On the MP, everything is tightened up.
You can hear this play out on West’s recent releases, ye and KIDS SEE GHOSTS, as well as Pusha T’s Daytona. Early reports (rumors) of track listings for West’s mysterious forthcoming album Yandhi seem to suggest another go around the MP ferris wheel. It’s also no surprise that other innovators to adopt this format consist largely of the always-savvy iGen artist community, including Lil Peep’s seven-song Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 1, and XXXTentacion’s album 17, which contains 11 tracks but lasts only 22 minutes.
So, thinking about all this, is the MP the ultimate release format for the modern artist?
It’s short, so it lessens the time spent writing or recording in the studio, in favor perhaps of touring more. Artists can drop albums more frequently, and keep their name in the public eye with greater frequency. These albums seem to be optimized for streaming, and for the consumer, one could see this format being a bit cheaper than a traditional LP album (if it ends up catching on, that is).
But the rise of the MP is not the only significant “tidal” change we’re seeing around the hip-hop sphere these days, either. Artists are finding new ways to either drop tons of new material, like Young Thug’s recent slew of releases, (Hear No Evil, Slime Language,On The Rvn, and his forthcoming Super Slimey), or withhold limited copies of records, as in the case of Wu-Tang Clan’s single copy album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. Lil B sends out songs like text messages, Earl Sweatshirt drops albums without announcing them, and daily YouTube channels have come to make every video a “music video.”
Where is the album format going to go next?
One thing is for sure: music releases these days seem to be settling into a more fragmented and granular state. People seem less concerned with the nomenclature of what they’re releasing; what a record is officially called really doesn’t matter to artists today. Artists already have a ton more opportunities to succeed than they did 20 years ago. In the future, artists will have an even wider variety of career paths and revenue streams to follow, and release formats being fluid and variable certainly supports that.
It’s important to note that we have now raised two generations for whom it’s completely alien to pay money for online content. In the Age of Plenty, how do you convince someone that music is more valuable than its free price tag? And yet, paradoxically, there are more professional musicians making a living off their music today than ever before, despite each one being, on average, less popular than the “average” musical professional was 30 years ago.
Perhaps this long-tail dynamic will continue radiating outward. Perhaps the future of the album will be fully collaborative, between creator and customer. Perhaps Wu-Tang Clan’s auctioneering model will find a market beneath the $1 million mark, to the point where pop music becomes custom-made and bespoke for each individual consumer.
I guess these are meditations for another day. For now, though, if you’re a recording artist considering your options for your next release, I hope this has given you some food for thought.
Martin Connor: A musician and writer with a B.A. in Music from Duke University, Martin recently received his M.A. in Musicology from Brandeis University. His research is focused on rap's vocal melodies, and has appeared at the Harvard Hip Hop Music Archive, The University of Cambridge's Popular Music Journal, and at the University of Colorado's rap-focused humanities lab. He's a contributing writer for HipHopDX, Complex, and Pigeons and Planes, and has had multiple articles from his website go viral on BET, The Source, XXL, and MTV. His recent book, The Artistry Of Rap Music (2017 via McFarland Publishing House) is an in-depth music theory analysis of 130 songs by 60 rappers which charts rap's evolution as a music from 1979 until today. It was a follow-up to his 2014 contribution to the McFarland anthology Eminem & Rap, Poetry, Race, the research for which informs the weekly rap lessons that he teaches rap lessons online through the music school LessonFace.