Where can albums go from here?
Written by: Thompson Urhiofe
In the past 10 years the music industry has changed dramatically. Every component of the industry has undergone some sort of change - more often for the better. Except for albums. Albums have been and continue to be the same year in year out. Many things have changed such as the instruments used, audio quality, how we consume music, the image of artists and how albums are marketed with visual albums now slowly being favoured. What I am discussing is how despite such innovations in all areas of music, you can easily pick up a recent album right now and compare it to another album from 10 years ago and the themes and topics remain pretty much the same.
Before I go further I want to clarify that this does not relate as much to instrumental albums (they have no lyrics), electro music (they barley have lyrics) and drum and bass (you can just about make out the lyrics). This relates to vocal albums where you can follow the lyrics and consume what’s being said whether consciously or not.
My main argument is that album content needs a refocus. This is because more often than not, in most albums you will most likely notice that of all the 8-15 tracks – give or take, they could easily be divided into the following themes “falling in love” “heartbreak” “death” “partying” “back in the day” “uplifting” and “political/deep”.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing because from a lay person’s perspective, this must be easy for music managers and artists. You give a set of themes to an artist or songwriter and then they write about it. I can imagine this helps guide the musicians and writers creative process and allows them to tick boxes when creating an album. And this I get. However, as a consumer of albums - a consumer that judges artists based on the quality of their album rather than the singles they put out - I can wholeheartedly say that this gets boring.
You get used to hearing the same themes and topics again and again in albums from artists that you love. As the years have flown by, the topics and themes stay the same and only the lyrics and style of delivery ever changes. To me, music hasn’t really advanced in terms of content. Everything we hear now has pretty much already been said and done. I know It’s easy to say because I’m not a musician but I do believe we’re in need of some sort of a musical paradigm shift where artists can begin to make music that focuses on obscure topics rather than obvious topics that will garner commercial success. There are many singles and artists that have created amazing music that don’t fall into typical general themes. One recent track from the UK is Cadet with his Letter to Krept. To my knowledge the last time a similar track was put out was by Wiley with Letter to Dizzee in 2007. With this, Cadet opened up in a way that no other artists were really doing in the rap/Grime. Soon after, many artists followed suit. This is the power of not following commercial trends and success. When something seems authentic and real like that, people tend to follow.
I think the music industry knows this too. I think artists and labels know that there’s something wrong and repetitive about the topic and content of albums. Call me sceptical but this could explain the rise of alternative and sub genres like Alt RnB and Trap Soul. In reality, artists that fall into this genre aren’t creating anything new in terms of their topics and content but because they have a different style and delivery, buzz and excitement is easily created as they become poster artists for a new generation of music. Listen more closely however at these new artists and as amazing and talented as they are – they bring nothing new to the table but a new style, delivery and lyrics. And as we know with fashion, styles die out and fade away. It’s content and character that lives on.
What can be done about this? That I cannot answer. But I can say that a lot of artists making albums now won’t be remembered in years to come because their albums have not made any significant ripples in the music industry. That’s not to say they won’t affect their fans lives but when you can pick up another artist’s album and hear the exact same things being spoken about, it opens up the question about the artist’s relevancy. There are not many albums I can credit for not repeating themes from their own or other artist’s albums but albums that do come close include Hawk House “A Handshake to the Brain”, A Tribe Called Quest “Midnight Marauders” and Joey Badass “1999”. Albums/mixtapes like these, for me, break the mould because of they don’t to cater to the commercial requirements of having a track to cover many different themes. Have a listen to them, let me know what you think.