Do We Even Need Albums Any More?

As Drake and Kanye have shown this year, artists in the digital age have far more tools at their disposal to connect with fans. Albums are no longer the centrepieces they once were.
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What a year for pop music it’s been. In the face of piracy and the controversial rise of streaming services, musicians have continued to release outstanding work. From timeless comebacks to unpredictable experimentation, 2015 has been a solid year for pop. 

There has a notable absence however, namely, the album. Several prominent LPs that were due this year have yet to see the light of day. Megastars such as Kanye West, Rihanna and Frank Ocean have all kept us waiting in vain after touting the imminent release of their respective records.

Although Yeezy and RiRi have remained in the public eye through a sporadic stream of singles, live performances and extra-curricular activity, Ocean has completely dropped off the radar. Until recently, it felt like both West and Rihanna were constantly discussing their new albums. High-profile interviews make for great, shareable soundbites but in our era of immediate gratification, a lack of output will inevitably attract the ire of fans.

This was certainly the case for Ocean earlier this year. Upon cancelling his appearance at FYF Fest, social media was ablaze with disgruntled fans who seemed genuinely hurt by his perceived neglect. Then on 20th July, the planned release date of his sophomore album, fans took to Twitter again – this time pleading with the pop maestro to give them something, anything. The request fell on deaf ears.

Meanwhile, the pervasive backlash towards Ye has continued unabated. In regards to his day job, West’s follow-up to Yeezus comes with its own baggage. Despite releasing a collaboration with Paul McCartney in the form of Only One, which hinted at a more personal direction, the constantly changing title of West’s next opus hints at a work that is still very much in progress. The negative reaction to Yeezus from within the hip-hop community (and from a sales perspective) has also put palpable pressure on the self-proclaimed trailblazer.

Rihanna, on the other hand, is putting forth Anti as her evolutionary record – the politically charged, blood-soaked visuals that have accompanied her recent music videos attest to that. Despite the yearlong debate surrounding their respective records, both West and RiRi have yet to justify the hype with an actual album release.

Let’s be clear however: we probably don’t have a Chinese Democracy-style situation on our hands. It could be argued, in fact, that musicians are putting craft before commercialism. Ocean, West and Rihanna aren’t in a rush to put out something unless they are comfortable with it artistically.

This is an incongruous approach within the wider pop music spectrum of 2015. In a year that has seen our biggest pop stars abundantly increase their output through the use of mixtapes, and streaming services have transformed pop stars into something more akin to curators, what becomes of the traditionalists? The album is now just another tool in the musician’s increasing arsenal, rather than the centrepiece it once was.

As other commentators have pointed out, the reign of the pop single has proven to be another nail in the album’s coffin. For evidence, look no further than this year’s biggest new pop star; Fetty Wap. The Trap Queen crooner released a record-breaking string of platinum singles and an album that, in hindsight, seemed like a mere afterthought.

Immediacy has its own impact. Drake, the artist who best encapsulates and embellishes this attitude, put aside working on his fourth album (Views from the Six) to release mixtapes, singles and collabs - mostly via his Soundcloud and Beats Radio show (OVO Sound). Up until recently, Drizzy didn’t even bother to make a music video for Hotline Bling – one of the biggest songs of the year.

Even the act of releasing an album in 2015 has lost its scheduled simplicity. Random album drops from the likes of Kendrick Lamar and D’Angelo keep artists in the spotlight and ignite online debate. Therefore, there may now be something bigger at work when it comes to the release of an album.

In our present environment, a pop album must be nothing short of ground-breaking in the face of becoming an understatement. Our biggest pop stars (the likes of Rihanna, West and Ocean) realise this more than anyone. West himself was the biggest advocate of Beyonce’s innovative, eponymously titled audio-visual album (another surprise release that redefined what the modern pop album could be) vocally defending it when Queen Bey lost out to Beck at the Grammys earlier this year. Ocean too wasn’t content to release just an album, with news that his follow-up to Channel Orange would be accompanied with a zine edited by the man himself (another example of the artist as curator).

All this could result in longer gestation periods as musicians tinker with the presentation of their work. That doesn’t necessarily mean that fans will be left out in the cold. The album-shaped void in our lives has been filled by the resurgence of radio, online playlists and impromptu mixtapes. These additional outlets allow artists to express themselves like never before, bringing fans and musicians closer in the process. In the interval, albums will continue to be released. As mentioned at the outset, 2015 has been a great year for music and – yes – albums. Plurality isn’t a bad thing and ultimately the art of pop music is the beneficiary. What a time to be alive, indeed.