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The State of Hip Hop: The Mixtape Evolution

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Mixtapes / Street Albums / EPs / LPs
Just to get the technical language down, let’s clarify the difference between the various musical offerings an artist can present. A mixtape in it’s truest form is a compilation created by a DJ. The DJ takes certain rap songs a places their creative spin on them by blending them with other songs or changing the beat. A street album (often called a mixtape) is a rapper’s body of work that is released without major involvement from the record label. The term street album has been created to more accurately describe rapper’s mixtapes because many of them are high quality original offerings that rappers work hard to create. An EP is an album that has standard LP quality material but is too short to be considered an LP. An LP is your standard album usually with 10 or more songs.
The History

Mixtapes were once only products expected from DJ’s. DJ’s would put out mixtapes to allow themselves to come to the forefront and be appreciated for their unique talents. This practice has been around since the days of Kool Herc; however, in the late 80’s/early 90’s mixtapes became a musical mixing and blending a of different songs. By the end of the 90’s DJ’s grew away from mixing and blending and began hosting. DJ’s like DJ Clue and Whoo Kidwould assemble the material and played hype man for the rappers whose unreleased tracks and/or freestyles were on the tape. This shifted the focus of the mixtape from the DJ to the rappers.

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When I put out my first mixtape, 50 Cent is the Future, it was the first tape where an artist did the entire tape in song format. It’s been 10 years since this happened for the first time. Before, a mixtape was performing with guys like Ron G, DJ Clue, Kid Capri, these different guys that you would have to go see and put 16 bars or 32 bars on an intro maybe, but not in song format. – 50 Cent

By early 2000’s rappers began side-stepping the DJ’s to create their own mixtapes. 50 Centis one of the first and most successful rappers to do this. In 2002 he dropped his first official mixtape, 50 Cent Is The Future. His innovation changed the way mixtapes would be used in the years to come.

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“For mixtapes you ain’t really gotta worry about having hit records, you can have 40 bar verses if you want. But for an album it has to be a little more structured.” – Big Sean

The Meaning

All too often rappers have great mixtapes/street albums — which are used as marketing tools to keep buzz going about an artist or to satiate their fans between albums — but their retail albums don’t live up to the popularity or quality of their mixtapes/street albums. I think the major problem is that the spaces are different and require different skills that not all rappers possess.

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“A mixtape can’t be the songs that don’t make your album, or songs that aren’t good enough to make your album make your mixtape — unless you’re that good. There aren’t that many people that are that good. I’m not that good. That mixtape [So Far Gone] is me working my hardest. It wasn’t ‘Oh, here are the songs I’m gonna give away to you ’cause I have better songs coming.’ A mixtape has become an album. -Drake

Mixtapes/street albums are born from the underground. Their expected to edgier, grittier, and the focus is more on raw talent, flow, and content. Mixtapes/street albums only have to appease the streets. LPs are about creating a product with mainstream appeal that can be appropriate for a variety of settings. These albums have to make a return on investment in order to be profitable to the record labels that have thrown money behind the project. At this point the focus is marketability, packaging, and profit. The labels could care less about flow or talent. They are looking to sell a product.

So it really shouldn’t be surprising to find that a rapper that is killing the streets with their mixtape will put out an album that doesn’t measure up to to that mixtape you were addicted to. This isn’t actually a reflection of the rapper’s talent although it will dictate their success and whether they will be able to afford to stick around and keep making music. That’s the business. But I think the great artists will learn that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. They can give the same quality, creativity, grit, and edge that they do in their mixtapes oh their retail albums.

The Point

It’s not an easy task for a rapper to be able to deliver the same exact product on a mixtape in a retail album; however, their retail success is what will define their career. The challenge for most artists, then, how to maintain their artistic integrity while building a successful career. That will be no easy task. It shouldn’t be. The next step in the evolution of the mixtape will be the reconciliation of the raw creativity of the mixtape and the marketable structure of the retail album. That will change the game for good.

I’m not sayin’; I’m just sayin’,

An Angry Black Man

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