Listening to albums before they hit stores isn't a novelty, it's the norm.
Written by Ernest Baker (@newbornrodeo)
Last night was fun. Kanye West's epically anticipated G.O.O.D. Music compilation, Cruel Summer, leaked. We all got on Twitter to talk about it and most of us remained glued to our phones and computers for the rest of the night.
This is what listening to new albums is like in 2012, and really, what it's been like for the past six years.
2006 was the first time someone told me to listen to Drake's music. I was sitting in a dorm room and some kid pulled up his MySpace and told me, "I know he was on Degrassi and everything, but he's killing shit." I wasn't impressed; I had seen him in Trey Songz's "Wonder Woman" video a few months later and thought it was funny. Then "Ransom" happened, and everything changed. But the point is, that conversation started online.
2006 was when Lil Wayne released Dedication 2 and people needed a forum bigger than real life to continuously discuss how good Wayne had gotten and to keep up with the insane amounts of music he was releasing.
2006 was also when Pharrell cultivated an army of animated avatar-having, BAPE-wearing youth who dressed better than you, had hotter girls in their Top 8, and put you up on new music whenever they switched their profile song. Again, the conversation was music-based and it was happening almost entirely online.
By the end of that year, any self-respecting fan of rap music had become completely dependent on the Internet. It was five years after file-sharing site Napster was shut down, but the lawsuits and court injunctions couldn't stop what Shawn Fanning started. We all wanted our MP3. Jay-Z was releasing a comeback album and how dare we not know the status of its progress by the minute? By the time Kingdom Come finally came out, we were used to posting Facebook statuses about the music we were listening to. Pivotal fourth quarter releases from Young Jeezy, Clipse, and Nas only fueled the (digital) fire.
By 2007, we had fully adjusted to discussing music online more than anywhere else. You could only talk about the Kanye/50 sales battle with your real life friends so many times. But it never ended online. You didn't even have to participate in the discourse. Simply reading what other people had to say about new music made you feel like you were a part of something. It was equivalent to the random conversation you might have with one of the 10 strangers in the same aisle as you buying the Marshall Mathers LP on the day it came out, except now those conversations were available on-demand.
I know people talked about rap music on the Internet before 2006. Trust me, I was on rap forums arguing about Non Phixion and, like, CunninLynguists in 2002. I know. But everything changed in 2006. That's when discussing music online went mainstream. That's when artists first started getting signed to major record labels, en masse, because they were popular on the Internet.
Prior to that, the massive rap albums of 2005 (Late Registration, Tha Carter II, Be, Thug Motivation 101, The Documentary) inspired dialogue that was still analog. The leaks of those albums were in the same realm as records like Get Rich or Die Trying, The Black Album, and The Eminem Show. I definitely remember when those albums leaked online (IRC, anyone?), but because social media had yet to take off, those were albums that you talked about in barbershops. Those were albums that you sold burned copies of to less Internet-savvy people for $5, sometimes $10 at school.
When Kingdom Come hit the web in November 2006, that's the first time I remember a true "leak night" that felt like an online event. We were't dissecting the album track-by-track or joking about it on Twitter all night, but I definitely bragged about how I had it early on Facebook and the comments on that status quickly became a rap nerd festival. Ever since then, sitting on the Internet all night to talk about a new album when it leaked has been the norm.
2007 was when it was truly obvious how much the landscape of the Rap Album Conversation had changed. There was just so much happening in rap that was worth talking about and the rap news cycle had begun to resemble the insatiable beast that it is today. 50 Cent was coming off the release of two of the most successful albums in the genre's history and (gasp!) his new singles weren't connecting. Lil Wayne's entire Tha Carter III album leaked, as a mixtape. "Can't Tell Me Nothing" was establishing Kanye as way more of a rapper than a producer. Where else could we have hearty discussion about this at 4 a.m. besides the Internet?
By 2008, everyone was on Twitter. I signed up in October of that year because Lil Wayne was supposed to perform "Mr. Carter" with Jay-Z at Power 105's Powerhouse concert at the Izod Center in New Jersey and I needed a play-by-play account. It was the same way I needed to know what everyone thought about Weezy when Tha Carter III finally came out in June, after two years of delays, with hype at a fever pitch. Even though rap blogs leaked 808s & Heartbreak track-by-track, with a wide variety of mixes, it was being scrutinized on Twitter in real-time that entire fall. Kanye would later play directly to this audience with the G.O.O.D. Fridays series that lead up to the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
By the next year, 2009, Rick Ross decided to become an amazing rapper out of nowhere, and proved his point by dropping mixtapes and freestyles online. Meanwhile guys like Kid Cudi and Wale were releasing their debuts, and Jay-Z was back in the studio to close out his Blueprint trilogy. This was a time of total assimilation. Discussing music online was the status quo, and leak night became the apex of that conversation. The measure of an album's impact was no longer how many people showed up in stores to buy it, but how many people were talking about it on social media when it hit the Internet before its release date. Last November, Take Care's leak on the 6th was more exciting than its release on the 15th.
It's easy to understand why. As humans, we constantly seek reassurance. There's something comforting about seeing a flood of opinions about a new album as you form yours. That existed before, but the advent of Twitter and other social media gave us access to those opinions instantly.
That's what happened with Cruel Summer last night, but to be honest, it almost feels like we're burnt out at this point. Of course, we were online talking about the album, but there wasn't the mass hysteria that I remember from the night, say,Graduation leaked, and it's not because Cruel Summer isn't good. It is, but the news cycle is so insane now that after ripping snippets, reading and watching dozens interviews about album, and paying more attention to Kanye's Twitter than the election, we almost exhausted the Cruel Summer conversation before even hearing the album in full, and you could tell last night.
With that said, leak night is still better than release day. Leak night represents the way new music is consumed, and release day is a relic. Leak night offers an immediacy indicative of where we're at now, as modern music listeners. It's not that we don't want to buy albums anymore, but the conversation about them isn't happening in line at Tower Records anymore.
Simply put, record labels need to start dropping their tentpole projects on iTunes and Spotify on leak night. The audience and the artists are living in the future. Maybe the industry will catch up soon.