Listening to a mixtape is deeply personal. Whether it’s an up-and-coming MC, a pop artist trying something new, or something created by a friend or possible love interest, there’s something intimate about hearing carefully constructed projects that sit outside the limitations of an EP or an album. Mixtapes have long been a place to uncover upcoming talent, and that act of discovery is always exciting.
The term mixtape softens the listener’s expectations: it’s a training ground for upcoming artists and a playground for established acts who want to let loose. Although the form, breadth and genre of the mixtape has changed, when an artist releases a mixtape, it’s permission to try new things, take risks, and prepare for the behemoth task of creating an album.
We’re currently at a point where mixtapes of the past are being lost to the sands of time. With the rise of the internet came digital distribution, which actually didn’t kill mixtapes in the way you might expect. Instead, mixtape websites such as DatPiff and LiveMixtapes started hosting digital mixtapes for free. This not only created an archive of underground sounds, but exposed local rappers to an international scene. The community that had been confined to the local venue or block party could now be heard around the world. Rumours of a new mixtape coming had eager fans refreshing the site daily. Premiering your mixtape on Datpiff became a badge of honour akin to radio play. The prestige of DatPiff was so strong that the rumour of its shutdown earlier this year was enough to spark a stream of eulogies. At the time of writing, the site is still up.
These days, mixtapes often have the same importance as an album, but don’t hold the same long-term value. Mixtapes are no longer a format free of restrictions, and artists and listeners both lose out as a result. More pressure gets put on artists to be album-ready from their first release, and listeners don’t get to experience going along on the journey of artistic growth with their favourite musician. In a world where mixtapes are often indistinguishable from albums, do they lose their value?
“The traditional meaning/definition of a mixtape is like a compilation of free songs. The word has evolved and in the way that pop culture has kind of pushed that word beyond its original meaning,” says 28-year-old Sydney pop artist Kota Banks. “I think it’s a little more polished than just a SoundCloud drop. For example, my first mixtape, PRIZE, it was almost an album. It was kind of skirting on that, but I dropped it on every DSP [digital service provider] imaginable and I did music videos for it.”
Signed to NLV Records, Kota is part of a new wave of pop artists utilising the mixtape format to experiment with her sound. She has also regularly collaborated with innovative electronic producer Ninajirachi, whose mixtape Second Nature was released through NLV Records at the end of last year.
The Rise Of The Commercial Mixtape
Kota enters the Zoom call with a black screen and the moniker ‘Bonjour Bitch (2)’— implying there was at least a Bonjour Bitch 1. “When I think about a mixtape, I think Acid Rap [by Chance the Rapper] or like Number 1 Angel by Charli [XCX].”
Chance and Charli both offered big moments that cemented the mixtape in the commercial space. They weren’t the first to use the form: after the dramatic 2007 arrest of mixtape pioneers DJ Drama and Don Cannon, Drake’s So Far Gone in 2009 headlined a new wave of above-board commercial mixtapes that were traditionally released through labels with any samples properly cleared. This opened the floodgates: Chance the Rapper’s mixtape Coloring Book, released in partnership with Apple Music, went on to win three Grammys at the 2017 awards (after a campaign to amend the award eligibility led by Chance).
That same year, Charli XCX released two forward-thinking mixtapes, Number 1 Angel and Pop 2. This saw the English pop star follow through on her divisive new sound first demonstrated on her Vroom Vroom EP in 2016, transitioning from the bright electro dance-pop that had brought her success with Iggy Azalea’s ‘Fancy’ and ‘Boom Clap’ to a then-nascent hyperpop sound. Charli collaborated extensively with hyperpop pioneer A. G. Cook on both projects, which established her as an avant-garde pop frontrunner. She has gone on to meld her experimental instincts with a commercial sound on later albums.
Speaking to Metal Magazine about working with Charli, A. G. Cook explained how the mixtapes came to life, after he was initially brought on board as her creative director in 2016. “It was obvious that a prolific songwriter like Charli needed to release her work in a more accelerated and transparent way. That’s what led us to the first mixtape, Number 1 Angel, which was done without her label’s knowledge and sort of became my symbolic resignation as ‘creative director’, and an evolution into something more genuinely collaborative.”
What Separates An Album From A Mixtape?
Kota’s first mixtape PRIZE dropped the year after Charli’s Number 1 Angel and Pop 2. Featuring fellow NLV Records artist Swick’s left-field production, PRIZE moves between bright club tracks to darker grime/trap influences, all linked through Kota’s lyrical versatility.
“I knew from the beginning it was going to be a mixtape. It was too many songs for it to be an EP, and I knew that I was going to write that many songs — that’s just how I am,” Kota says. She’s unable to pinpoint if it was hip-hop or Charli XCX that ignited the drive to craft a mixtape — both influence her work.
Kota holds an image of what an album should be. Throughout her career, she has kept herself to EPs and mixtapes, with the desire to one day release an album. “I didn’t want it to be an album. I knew back then deep down that I was just experimenting. I loved the process so much, but it wasn’t [the] crème de la crème. It wasn’t the thing that I wanted to put out as my debut album.”
“An album should be more conceptual; it should be more polished. There should be a through line. It should be, from start to finish, sonically cohesive.”
Kota ponders on the differences, trying to explain the distinctions. “I know whether a song is going to be a mixtape song, or an album song based on just the feeling of it. Like, if it feels chaotic or if it feels special, poignant. There’s a reason that all of my past projects have been really nutso and experimental. When it’s time for my album, I want it to be really… not formulaic, but, just well-crafted and intentional and thought out.”
Aside from enjoying the freedom of the mixtape, Kota sees two obstacles to making an album: money and prestige.
“What directs someone towards a mixtape would be the financial disincentive. To make a really good album start to finish, it’s like 30, 40, 50k or above. If you’re doing 12 songs and you’re hiring instrumentalists in a really nice studio and you’re paying production fees and mixing things and mastering fees, that really amounts to a big cost. And so, unless you have a label that’s going to flip that, it’s a lot harder.”
This is a challenge musicians have experienced forever, but in the age of affordable music distribution and bedroom producers, it’s easier than ever to release music without needing a studio or the latest and greatest gear. Regardless, releasing an album independently is still a tall order.
“A mental obstacle, or an emotional obstacle, is just the pressure,” Kota explains. ”Like someone’s debut album is different to just dropping a mixtape, which feels more for the culture, feels more, like I said, organic, spontaneous. But there’s a lot of thought that goes into releasing a project, like an album. You have to think about marketing. You have to have PR on side. Everyone pays extra attention. You get lots of features in various magazines, and you get write ups, and you get playlists on Spotify, and you’re working with Spotify with this thing. So, it’s just a lot.”
The first album has undeniable prestige. The weight of coming out the gate with a hit not only leaves artists stressed, but has also incentivised major labels to scrub pre-fame projects from the record. This pressure to be polished is tough.
“As a label manager, I encourage artists to think of their larger bodies of works as a mixtape,” says NLV Records founder Nina Las Vegas. “More [of] a moment in time, a progressive and exciting way to release music. It feels less pressure than an album too, even though it’s the same time and the same care and polish goes into each track.” This helps the focus remain on the music — something Kota appreciates. “For someone who’s making music all the time, and who’s baring it all in those sessions, sometimes you just want it to be about that.”
The Downsides To Mixtape Culture
The freedom of the mixtape is not without its costs. The rise of the ‘TikTok snippet to hit single’ pipeline has caused a rush of artists releasing under-developed, under-produced tracks. Kota says it somewhat “deters [her] from making a mixtape”. However, she doesn’t see it as a totally negative development. “I like that we’re trying to create in a more casual way [to release music] because maybe that is more accessible to people in terms of accessing their creativity and their emotions.”
Kota is similarly circumspect with her words when talking about the current state of the music landscape. “The new generation, that’s how they are built in a sense. They’ve grown up with social media. That’s the way that they experience the world. And who am I to judge to be on my high horse? But I do think that there’s something really beautiful about crafting the song and paying attention to all of the sounds and making not just a one-minute throwaway song, but a body of work that actually does have cohesion.”
“It’s like fast fashion in a sense, or fast food. It doesn’t necessarily feel like you savour it or that it takes its time. It’s not marinated. It doesn’t need to be slow roasted in the oven. There’s so many flavoursome things that come from that [slower process] … it just feels like there’s less flavour.”
“At the end of the day, I think [quick releases over a project are] becoming the pervading culture, and I think it’s a really good thing, but I don’t want it to be fast food. I don’t want it to just be so digestible that it’s like a smoothie. I want to have little chunks at least to chew on.”
Scott Hudson is a writer and musician living in Naarm who will one day finish writing that novel he’s been talking about.
Illustration credit: Matt Lauricella, @pigeonboyart