Lengthy tracklists are more than just a way to offer fans a lot of music by an artist they love; they're a tool to help achieve success as regulated by the RIAA.
When Migos first released the tracklist for Culture II, the immediate response from fans and critics alike was disbelief. Two discs with a total of 24 tracks? That seemed a bit excessive. Still, many were willing to overlook the length, provided the project lived up to the already high standards set by part one of the series. Plus, the two lead singles, “MotorSport” and “Stir Fry,” were undoubtedly smash records. Yet once the release date arrived, it was apparent that no one had anticipated just how long the album would actually prove to be. With a whopping runtime of one hour and forty-six minutes, Culture II is more than just an album. It’s a monstrosity. Sure, it has its highlights: the thematic "Narcos"; the 21 Savage anthem “BBO”; and the effortlessly cool “Made Men” to name a few. The production throughout is on point and well put together, the kind of signature trap sound that fans have come to expect from the genre-shaping Atlanta rap trio.
But, it’s all a bit too much. The album feels incredibly drawn out, with the several standout tracks coming few and far between for it to be an un-skippable, enjoyable listening experience. At times, Culture II even sounds repetitive and downright lazy, packed with high profile features in an attempt to hide the fact that there is so much filler. All in all, the effort simply isn’t there from the start.
So why put out a 24-track album for the sake of quantity when the quality isn’t necessarily up to par? The answer to that question can be found in the way that streams are counted. In recent years, the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) has completely modernized the system by which albums are certified “gold” and “platinum.” Under the new methodology, streams from a long list of services such as Apple Music, Spotify, and Tidal would be included in order to account for the rise of the tremendously profitable streaming industry. This was a step in the right direction, seeing as the traditional method of sales of singles and albums has declined every year, as the masses have begun to change the ways that they consume music. Yet the process in which streams accounted for album sales is a bit more nuanced than it might seem at first glance. According to the new system, 150 song streams is equal to one paid song download. From there, ten paid song downloads equals one album download. Simply put: 1,500 song streams counts toward one album sale.
This is problematic, and one need only do the quick math to see why. For a massive 24-track album like Culture II, it doesn’t particularly matter if someone listens to the entire album from start to finish. Say, for example, that 1,500 people play “Stir Fry.” That counts as one sale of Culture II. Mind you, the song is currently sitting at the number 12 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, and has spent 10 weeks on the Chart. In addition, Migos has four other songs in the Top 100: “MotorSport” at number 30; “Walk It Talk It” at number 53; “Narcos” at number 65; and “Notice Me” at number 92. So when it comes down to it, all it really takes is one or two hit songs and boom, an artist is well on their way to racking up album-equivalent units and securing a highly coveted plaque.
None of this is a knock against Migos or their hit-making ability. Ever since their Donald Glover-approved record “Bad and Boujee” topped the charts, they haven’t looked back, churning out one hit after another and maintaining their position as one of the genre’s elite. And if we're being completely honest, we can’t entirely blame Migos for the length of Culture II. The system currently in place encourages quantity over quality, and Migos are simply savvy capitalists who took full advantage of it. They weren’t the first to game the system like this, nor will they be the last. Last year, Chris Brown released his eighth studio album Heartbreak on a Full Moon, a double-disc feature made up of 45 tracks. The deluxe version of the album features an additional 12 tracks, for a grand total of 57. And get this: with a runtime of three hours and eighteen minutes, the deluxe version is just as long as The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. It should come as no surprise that the album went platinum in January, less than three months after its release. More recently, Mike WiLL Made-It announced that the upcoming Rae Sremmurd project SremmLife 3 would be a triple-disc feature, made up of one Rae Sremmurd album, plus a solo album from both Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi. The tracklist has yet to be announced, but it’s safe to say that fans will be in for quite a long listening experience when the album finally arrives sometime this year.
There were plenty of phenomenal rap albums released in 2017 that were succinct and to the point, and vastly more enjoyable because of it: Kendrick Lamar’s 55-minute DAMN.; Tyler, The Creator’s 47-minute Flower Boy; and JAY-Z’s 36-minute 4:44. Yes, artists should have the prerogative to release the kind of music they want, when they want, and at the length they deem fit. But when it gets to the point that a chart-topping album from one of the music industry’s biggest artists has a runtime equivalent to an Oscar-winning, feature-length film, you know there’s a problem. So how can this problem be addressed? The most logical solution is for the RIAA to change its streaming standards to disincentivize the practice of stream trolling, as it were. Artists shouldn’t have to look for ways to artificially boost their numbers now that hard sales are no longer as important as they once were. Times have changed, and while the decision to move away from the old metric of success was certainly a smart move, it has had consequences that many couldn’t have anticipated. Song dumps like Culture II are proof that you can have too much of a good thing, and are watering down the listening experience such that many albums are becoming wholly unlistenable in their current form. Rather than flourishing in the leanness that comes from a carefully curated tracklist, Culture II and others like it get bogged down in their length, to the point that the strengths and redeemable qualities are lost entirely. And given how much music is already being released on a daily basis, it’s difficult enough to keep up. The bottom line is that something needs to be done to resolve the current system that incentivizes the use of mindless hacks to boost play counts. Because quantity does not equal quality.