Less than a week after the rap industry stopped to give thanks to Jay-Z for emptying his closet à la Eminem on his newest album, 4:44, the rapper turned mogul has gone platinum once again. The release, wholly produced by long-time Hov collaborator No I.D., as well as one locked down by a Tidal-Sprint partnership (though the code ‘Sprint’ on the 4:44 Tidal site grants a free download in the US) marked the Brooklyn native’s 13th platinum album, the most for any hip-hop recording artist.
More interesting than the numbers game, however, is that the physical – yes, physical, as in Compact Disc – version of 4:44 is going to include three bonus tracks, according to an interview with No I.D.
In a music industry dominated by the term “album equivalent units” regarding music streaming, the addition of bonus tracks has largely become an afterthought. When Drake released More Life in March 2017, some fans were surprised to see prerelease singles “Sneakin’” and “Two Birds, One Stone” absent from the track list. Despite being dubbed a playlist, and not an album by traditional standards, the OVO founder took a direct approach at creating an album: a collection of tracks sold as a singular item.
In a sense, Drake completely disowned the concept of a playlist, which is a collection of often times loosely related tracks (either thematically, sonically etc.) that can be updated at will. The expectation that Drake would add to More Life in his attempt to, “create a soundtrack to your life,” falls a bit flat, as the soundtrack doesn’t update, instead rests on its laurels, content with competing with the likes of Damn. on premature ‘album of the year’ lists.
This isn’t inherently bad; what Drake chooses to do with More Life is his business. That said, the hip-hop world has seen at least two acts update their works post-release lately, one of which stems from the idea of bonus track releases while the other is a manic expression of creation that has yet to be matched.
The former comes from none other than the dual-album-dropping leanhead, Future. Future, who released a self-titled project followed by HNDRXX over the span of two weeks in February 2017 also ushered in the New Year with at least one song in contention for the ‘banger of the year’ award, “Mask Off.” Some four months later, the Atlanta rapper logged back onto Apple Music to update both of his projects, first by adding the song “PIE” featuring Chris Brown to HNDRXX after the BET Awards on June 25, and continuing to add a trio of tracks including the “Mask Off” remix featuring Kendrick Lamar to FUTURE.
This practice, which Future and his Freebandz camp employed the same day Jay-Z dropped 4:44 for the second update, should be taken as a measure of visibility. Following 2015-16, a pair of years in which he and Drake were virtually inseparable including a world tour and a joint album (and 3 independent Future projects), Future’s visibility has dropped. A new wave of artists have adapted his slurred, infectious delivery into a youth driven movement. Updating albums provides a platform to continue the conversation on existing works, keeping intact that which was appreciated and praised (i.e. “Mask Off”) while allowing for discussion about the changes.
This approach is an extension of “special/deluxe edition” releases of yesteryear. When streaming was far from as ubiquitous as it is today, artists and labels collaborated to rerelease albums, often as a means to generate buzz for fan favorite projects. Most recently Ice Cube has embraced this concept with the 25th Anniversary Edition of Death Certificate, which originally dropped in 1991. Prior to the 2017 rerelease, however, Cube and then label Priority Records added the track “How to Survive In South Central,” from the Boyz in Da Hood soundtrack as a rerelease bonus in 2003.
With physical releases, limited time goodies like bonus tracks or clever inserts could generate buzz for an album, though the new pressings would require anticipating adequate purchases to cover sales (or lack thereof). Now that digital drops have superseded their physical brethren, artists don’t necessarily benefit anymore from adding a track to an album than from releasing it as a single, as far as play counts and RIAA certification is considered. Arguably, dropping a surprise single would increase word of mouth as critics and fans generally start to speculate whether a new album is in the works. However, as illustrated in this piece by Andrew Martin for Complex, rereleases, particularly towards the end of the CD’s lifespan, tried to get away with increasingly outrageous bonuses, most notable in the ‘store exclusive’ release, a procedure adopted by TDE for the Kendrick Lamar’s second studio album, Good Kid M.A.A.D. City. In addition to having separate versions for Spotify (“The Recipe” Black Hippy Remix) and iTunes (“Collect Calls” and “Swimming Pools” single version), Top Dawg decided on a physical Target exclusive that boasted “County Building Blues” and the Black Hippy remix to “Swimming Pools.”
Of course, in the current digital age exclusives run through the respective distributor, as in the limited exclusivity of Coloring Book to Apple Music for two weeks before its universal release, or even 4:44’s limitation to Tidal until it winds up on Apple Music. Now, however, album-specific updates benefit the subscriber, as those who purchase a membership to a streaming service can listen to additional tracks at no extra cost.
Where the true genius behind album releases lay is in editing existing tracks to change lyrics and instrumentation akin to Kanye West for his seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo.
At certain points in 2016, and even revisited in 2017 by Jayson Greene at Pitchfork, Kanye received the annoyance of fans after a religious cycle of updates to The Life of Pablo. In one breath, adding guest features in Vic Mensa and Sia – they were originally on the track “Wolves” anyway – tweaking his and Chance’s verses, and even giving Frank Ocean his own track was Mr. West’s attempt at creating a “living, breathing, changing creative expression.” Despite poor reception the idea itself should be welcomed attempt at revitalizing a stymied music industry tradition.
For fans of video games, updated products are the norm, a process popularized by the efficacy in digitally modifying games post-release. Though the process dates back to times before widespread online internet updates (for example, Super Smash Bros. Melee, released only on physical discs for the Gamecube saw slight differences in versions of US/Japanese release in addition to those for the European or PAL release that changed character attributes and glitches etc.), reissuing items digitally is significantly less taxing than reprinting and shipping updated discs.
Kanye’s only misstep in editing and updating TLOP was in making the former versions inaccessible. Understandably, if he updated the album once a week for a year, 52 individual listing on Spotify might be a bit excessive. But as it stands, Ye changed a total of 4 times in 2016, March 16, March 30, April 2 an June 14. All four updates could effectively exist alongside the others on a streaming platform, though Kanye’s perfectionism would make that less than likely. (Similarly, one of hip-hop’s favorite wanted men, Jay Electronica, uploaded remastered versions of his tracks to YouTube, free of charge for public listening, as recently as June 2017.)
Yes, the idea of an artist releasing a project before reaching total contentment with it is troublesome, especially in the case of a multi-platinum artist who can upend label submission dates. However, granting fans insight into the mind of a music icon is far more valuable than mere streaming inconvenience. Furthermore, killing the trend of shelling out for physical/digital exclusives is a move that yields some power to back to the artist in an industry that has seen artist increasingly take the high road away from label-hell.