Lurking within the 18-track, 69-minute album the Weeknd released in November, Starboy, is a tight collection of sweet, often housey R&B that’s as nostalgic as it is prescient. Drake’s Views could easily be pared down to a collection of pop containing non-obvious dance songs that eschew EDM brashness for pulsing maturity, as well as the most forward-thinking accessible slow jams this side of twigs. And absent a few songs, Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book would make it an entirely unified vision of hip-hop/gospel fusion.
All I want for Christmas is for people to edit their fucking track lists.
These albums, some of 2016’s highest-profile releases, are needlessly flabby. Artistry’s arteries are clogged by fat. For the Weeknd and Drake particularly, who continue to sing and rap (and rap-sing) about the same old things in the same old ways, the consistency that can be gleaned within their overlong track lists bespeaks the greatest evidence of their artistic progression. That is, when they aren’t interrupted by more sonically predictable material that seems crafted to work as a safety net should their ambition be received less than kindly by the public. The harder, more them-sounding stuff on Starboy and Views feels like assurance to loyal fans that they haven’t gone completely soft. We get it, you contain multitudes. We all do. In fact, my primary multitude right now is screaming for consistency.
To be clear, the “fat” that I’m suggesting be excised isn’t necessarily “good” or “bad” material, but that which deviates from the cogent vision at hand. Which is to say that while I love Coloring Book’s “All Night” and “Juke Jam” (Bieber vocals at all), clearly neither fit the choir-infused intimacy that happens almost everywhere else on the record. While it would be sad to see them go, they obviously could easily make it their way to the public in any number of ways, including one-off single releases. (I’d be less broken up to see the generic “Mixtape” excised, as well as much of the more straightforward hip-hop on Drake and straightforward Weeknd apathetic nihilism, especially that which is devoted to complaining about women who don’t act as they would have them act and/or attempts to express variations in their monochrome renderings of interpersonal detachment. We have so much of that already as it is.)
My argument, I realize, rhapsodizes relics. In another era, these albums’ motifs would comprise…fully realized albums. The rise of the MP3 in the late ‘90s wreaked havoc on how we listened (long gone are the days when you felt beholden to listen to an entire CD—even the songs that didn’t initially grab you—to get our money’s worth!) and, more importantly, how artists released. It rendered it completely acceptable for an album to be a multi-genre exercise in making potential singles. There have been masterful examples of this—2013's Beyoncé, is a towering example. Lemonade is sonically diverse, but threaded together ingeniously via its accompanying visual component. Bruno Mars manages to do the jukebox thing while also keeping his track listings short and his running times punchy. He’s a Christmas miracle all year long.
The albums singled out here by the Weeknd and Drake in particular seem crafted to be varied and cohesive at once—a goal as lofty as it is foolhardy. Simultaneity is law and everything is complicated, but opposing forces can result in art that is confused.
Perhaps I should be content to be able to detect any art in the album-assembling process at all in 2016. It’s at least a nod toward the art of album assembly. Today, selling out is no longer a taboo, it’s a goal. It’s no longer a thing that you mock others for; it’s just what people do. Recording artists want to get in, they want to get in good, and they want to get as much money as they can while they’re there. They’re adored by a public who gets it and has similar aspirations. I’m not quite sure if this is a good thing or not. While it seems foolish to ignore that commercial music is, fundamentally, a product, the best of it has transcended its nature to create something human and communal (sometimes via innovation, sometimes by being so dead-on in terms of human truths or taste as to be undeniable). Maybe that stuff I’m referring to—your Purple Rains, your Off the Walls, your Hounds of Loves, your What’s the 411?s, your Ready to Dies—was just more capable of illusion than that which didn’t attain classic status. Perhaps I’m investing in a sleight of hand that made being able to communicate with the masses in a way that felt new and vital and honest and eternally novel seem like magic, when in fact it was just the result of technical know-how and sharp marketing. It’s really something to ponder, if not the question when assessing the last 40 years of popular music—Are we more honest as a culture, or merely more crass?
In this climate of socially acceptable greed, it should come as no surprise that artists are piling on tracks as it behooves them to do so. Where streaming is concerned, if someone gets a fraction of a cent for every song someone plays on Tidal or Spotify, more songs mean potentially more money. Billboard’s current Top 200 policy creates an even more explicit imperative for long-running albums:
The updated Billboard 200 will utilize accepted industry benchmarks for digital and streaming data, equating 10 digital track sales from an album to one equivalent album sale, and 1,500 song streams from an album to one equivalent album sale.
It’s much easier to rack up those streams when you have a longer album—and a 20-song album counts for twice as many sales as a 10-song one, if purchased as a single unit. You don’t get paid more if your album goes to No. 1, of course, but you get the glory and whatever residual effects follow. And a key part of success in our literal, metrics-obsessed culture, is the ability to display it.
But just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should. It seems if idealism has any place in our increasingly cynical society, it’s in the arts. As little practical use as I found for Frank Ocean’s Blonde (@ me all day), I admire it in principle for having nerve of a limited sonic palate and the radical sense to forgo beats. Frank Ocean doesn’t seem much concerned as to whether I like him or not, as a listener, and such implicit confidence is a welcome alternative to the overt boasting that flows from speakers like carbon dioxide from lungs.
The technology that helped make the modern album so exhausting can, of course, also be its cure. We have the ability now to easily pare down track lists for seamless listening experiences that curate the visions within these larger works that we detect. “So why don’t you just do that instead of going on and on in the name of brevity,” you could ask me, and I’d just sigh and say, “Fine. I guess I have to do everything then.”