This past Saturday Drake released More Life, a 22-track collection of songs that he’s calling a “playlist.” Reviews are already out, and music writers seem to have accepted this term quickly and without any caveats. But what does “playlist” mean in this context, and is it really any different from an album?
Lizzie: Micah, I’m having some trouble understanding Drake’s (or Apple’s) insistence on calling this thing a “debut playlist.” From my perspective as a listener, More Life is still an album, even if it has several guest spots and covers a lot of musical ground. It’s a bunch of new songs from one artist. Drake is the primary writer on most of the tracks. It’s available for $10.99 on iTunes. It’s listed as an album on Spotify. What’s really non-album-y about it?
Micah: The playlist, if anything, is meant to rebrand the mixtape. Unlike most people over 25 who grew up during the 50 Cent / Lil Wayne mixtape run from 2001–2008, younger millennials may not have the same emotional ties to mixtapes. They do (presumably) have those ties to playlists. It’s a smart marketing move for brands, but I don’t think it fundamentally changes anything for the listener. Do you think the public will buy into it?
Lizzie: I think More Life will do well, but only because it’s a Drake project, and not because of any arbitrary label made up by Apple. And I would argue that, thanks to younger artists like Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, and Chance the Rapper, who are still releasing mixtapes, kids do probably know what mixtapes are (and they probably also know that mixtapes are usually free).
At The New York Times, Jon Caramanica defines the playlist as "a collection of moods, impressions, influences and references" and "a river that flows in one direction." Hypebeast points out that it has been described as a "bridge" between major releases. Rolling Stone's Brittany Spanos writes that the term might be a reflection of "how [Drake] has curated the varying locales, inspirations and relationships of his most recent years."
Those are all reasonable suggestions, but it feels like some critics have been forced to do Apple's job here. Why redefine the word playlist, when “playlist” already has a fairly universally accepted definition? It’s that thing average people make for parties and road trips.
Micah: Drake and Apple Music have a shared love of creating cultural events, and I think that’s what’s really behind the playlist push. If the rebranding works, it increases the importance of playlists, which could help Apple Music / every other streaming service. If they can change playlists from a format that’s an afterthought to something that you pay attention to, then it’s a huge win for streaming services.
This mixtape is sort of a Trojan horse. People suddenly see the playlist as an object that confers value upon a selection of music. But that’s a long shot at best. Personally, I doubt even the King Meme Maker and the deepest corporate pockets in the world can turn playlists into something critical and valuable. I do wonder how many artists will follow Drake’s footsteps and release a “playlist” of their own.
Lizzie: I think the idea of rebranding the playlist makes sense for streaming services — if you squint really hard. It makes much less sense for artists. Just because people will listen to a new Drake playlist or a new Kanye playlist doesn’t mean they’ll start listening to Apple’s in-house curated ones like Workout Wednesday or Hot Pop Hits For Your Hot Summer. And if you’re some random indie band, don’t count on changing the naming convention of your releases to help you get more listeners.
Micah: Yeah, I think it was a ridiculous plan to begin with, but I’ve got a feeling Apple — much like Spotify and Tidal — will keep throwing ideas against the wall to see what sticks. They’re all burning through cash and that will continue until they can get enough users to make the bleeding stop. (It doesn’t affect Apple like it does Spotify and Tidal, but losing millions isn’t fun no matter how much money you have to fall back on.)
It’s really going to be strange if one of Drake’s best projects is tied to a format that won’t mean anything in 30 years, but that’s where we’re at. Or maybe we’re wrong and the playlist could be the new album. Maybe normals will love it. Is it possible we’re wrong? Maybe the Drake mixtape will get people to care (and even purchase) the playlists made by MusicFanDrakeRulez420.
Lizzie: I hate to suggest that we’re infallible Micah, but in this case I think we just might be. There’s no way the playlist is the new album; the playlist is already the playlist. And no matter how many times we read the album its last rites, it keeps coming back. Music industry execs can keep trying to reincarnate a living thing, or they can make sure it’s really dead first.