In 2008, Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired, declared that “free has emerged as a full-fledged economy. Offering free music proved successful for Radiohead, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and a swarm of other bands on MySpace that grasped the audience-building merits of zero.” Although Anderson cites artists of various styles, in no genre is “free” more prevalent than hip-hop. Mixtapes, which don’t directly generate any money for rappers, have become just as important to hip-hop stars as studio releases—if not more so.
Since the genre’s beginnings, mixtapes have been a powerful tool for unsigned artists. Rappers like Drake, Nicki Minaj, and B.o.B. all released hugely successful mixtapes on their way to signing with major labels and achieving mainstream stardom. The same is likely to be true for 2011, with releases from last year’s mixtape stars J. Cole and Wiz Khalifa on the horizon. Despite having never released an album, J. Cole’s third official mixtape, Friday Night Lights, was reportedly downloaded more than 4,000 times per second when it first broke. Wiz Khalifa’s Kush & OJ became the number-one search on Google and trend on Twitter upon its release. For both, their Internet promotions greatly increased their visibility and exposure in an oversaturated hip-hop landscape.
One reason mixtapes have been so effective is the method by which they’re made. The typical mixtape features a rapper (or rappers) rhyming over other rappers’ beats. Their form allows artists to produce and release them cheaply, quickly, and frequently, and it lets up-and-coming rappers benefit from the popularity of famous beats while exhibiting a unique style and flow. Recently, everyone from Lil Wayne to Tyga to Vinny from Jersey Shore have taken turns making Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” their own.
While some rappers use mixtapes to attract new fans, others release tapes to distribute music that either did not make the cut for a recent album, or that the artist made for fun to keep fans engaged between albums. For instance, Interscope Records has delayed The Game’s latest album, The R.E.D. Album, for nearly two years. In the meantime, The Game spent one week and $40,000 of his own money to produce a 45-track triple mixtape, Purp & Patron. This mega-mixtape was downloaded over 200,000 times in its first day, and over 1.1 million times in the three days after its release.
The logic behind such self-promotion and excessive production is the rapper’s need to build hype prior to an album release. Lil Wayne is the model for strategy: he released five mixtapes between Tha Carter II and Tha Carter III. They helped make Weezy’s third Carter installment his most successful release to date—it went triple platinum in an era when music sales have been tumbling. Not to be outdone, Kanye West further popularized the trend with his weekly G.O.O.D. Friday releases prior to last fall’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which also met great success even though four of the free tracks showed up on the album.
Unfortunately, Weezy, Kanye, and their successful peers may be exceptions to the rule. With mixtapes coming out every day, there is no way that every rapper who releases a tape can live up to the Internet hype on their actual albums. Wale, for example, generated huge buzz with his mixtapes, but failed to deliver on his debut album, Attention Deficit.
Most reviews claim that Wale tried too hard to meet the Billboard-MTV standard that his irreverent, low-budget mixtapes had avoided. It just goes to show that while mixtapes, free music, and other Internet-based tactics are powerful tools for building fan bases and interest, for mainstream success, there’s no substitute for the ability to produce a solid, full-length album.
Drink purp and Patron with Akshay at firstname.lastname@example.org