Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap mixtape was one of the great success stories of 2013. Self-released for free download in April, the tape featured the likes of Twista, Action Bronson, and his good friend Childish Gambino. Chance’s bittersweet portraits of druggy teenage life in the shittier parts of Chicago were an instant hit, and made him a household name for rap fans. It even got him in the studio with Justin Bieber. What Acid Rap did not do was sell a lot of records. There was no single, and the project is not on iTunes. (Incidentally, bootleg copies of Acid Rap sold well enough for it to reach #63 on the Billboard charts, but that was only about 1000 units.)
Acid Rap is a mixtape, not an album. The exact definition of a mixtape has grown and shifted over hip-hop’s several-decade history. They've come a long way from DJ-mixed compilations of hot tracks that complement radio and club play, over the years mutating into all-star line-ups of emcees spitting hot bars over familiar beats, then to a single crew spitting bars over familiar beats, then eventually to a single crew (or artist) spitting bars over unfamiliar beats. At that point, they became “street albums,” basically just full-length projects that didn’t go through standard record label vetting and distribution.
At this point, the aesthetic difference between a mixtape and an album is slight; in the last few years—ever since it became free and easy to distribute them online—mixtapes have grown into hour-long, fully original, single-artist projects often featuring A-list guest verses and expensive beats. But despite nearly identical levels of polish, what distinguishes a modern rap mixtape from a rap album is its goals.
Albums are supposed to move units and to generate singles. They fit into the well-oiled, decades-old recording industry machinery. While mixtapes can (and often do) produce singles and sell some copies, their targets are more flexible. Mixtapes are a way to attract new fans, something for old fans to talk about on social media, a reason to tour, and a way to show off collaborations with bigger arists. Mixtapes move a rapper’s career forward, and they can do that without selling a single copy.
Albums are dicey propositions in a post-internet music industry where sales are more elusive than ever. Only the rare rap megastars even sniff platinum these days—Magna Carta Holy Grail only moved a million units because Jay-Z finessed the RIAA into counting a million copies Samsung bought for users of its phones. Even outside of rap, the numbers are grim. Despite the power of “Roar,” Katy Perry’s much-anticipated Prism only sold a paltry 287,000 copies in its debut week. Lady Gaga’s Artpop sold even less. And while Miley Cyrus inspired at least a million thinkpieces in the run-up to Bangerz, the album itself only inspired about 270,000 people to buy it. If Miley Cyrus can’t sell, what hope does Chance the Rapper have?
Chance gave Acid Rap away for free with the full understanding that at his level, exposure was more valuable than potential sales. As a bubbling but still relatively unknown artist, he knew he probably wasn’t going to move a lot of units. Free online distribution is cheap and easy and therefore a much better option for any rapper trying to further their career. The cash Chance will see for shows, licensing, and features from the success of Acid Rap is probably several times bigger than whatever he would have clocked on sales alone. (For the record, the bootleg copies of Acid Rap didn’t chart until July, three months after the tape’s release, and it’s unlikely those 1000 copies would have sold without giving the tape away for free in the first place.)
Acid Rap was far from the only mixtape success story of 2013. Migos’ YRN catapulted the Atlanta trio to national prominence and launched several club stables (including the ubiquitous “Versace” remix with Drake). Young Thug’s 1017 Thug earned the talented weirdo countless new fans. Kevin Gates’s Luca Brasi Story and Stranger Than Fiction established a place for the soulful Baton Rouge rapper despite his seemingly endless legal and label drama. The list is long.
This isn’t to say Chance, Migos, Thug, or Gates should never make an album. On the contrary, Chance is in an especially good position to follow in the multiplatinum footsteps of Kendrick Lamar and good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Both are rappin-ass rappers who excel at describing urban violence from an outsider perspective, and can sing hooks ably. It would not be surprising to hear Chance on pop radio in a year.
But Kendrick blew up after eight years on the Southern California mixtape grind, striving for local fame. He hustled for years, gained fans and kept their attention as his movement grew with a steady stream of (mostly free) music. And Chance would not be where he is now, a few smart moves away from stardom, had he tried to sell his first project out the gate.
In response to the recent drought in pop sales, perenially outspoken industry mouthpiece Bob Lefsetz wrote an op-ed in Variety proclaiming the death of the Album. In his eyes, the single is the future. With short attention spans and limitless music options, deep cuts that can’t be promoted and sold as singles are dead weight.
But this is an outdated view of an industry that priortizes sales over all else. With free and cheap distribution and a plethora of other ways to cash in on a good project, mixtapes are a format truly adapted to the modern music industry.
Skinny Friedman is a writer and DJ living in Brooklyn. He's on Twitter - @skinny412