In February, Drake released a new studio album that he then referred to as a "mixtape," as if it were hosted by DJ Drama and featured 90-bar freestyles over the "You, Me, Him & Her" beat. Alas, If You're Reading This It's Too Late is all new raps and proper hooks over original beats, available for $12.99 retail purchase in the iTunes Music Store courtesy of Cash Money Records. Does that sound like a mixtape to you?
Now Young Thug is pulling the same wool. Apparently, Barter 6 is a mixtape, and Young Thug's true debut album, Hy!£UN35, is dropping in August. Never mind that Atlantic, 300, and Young Thug himself promoted Barter 6 as a debut album until a couple days before its official release. Like Drake's IYRTITL, Thugger's Barter 6 is all final takes and original production from London On Da Track and Wheezy 5th, sponsored and distributed by his labels. And again, as with IYRTITL, regarding Barter 6 as a mixtape is a dilution of a term that has, admittedly, never settled on a single, timeless definition. Puffy, DJ Whoo Kid, Mixtape Weezy, and the cast of Avenue Q will all have to agree to disagree.
Since the release of IYRTITL was a midnight surprise, it's understandable that critics briefly fumbled their designation of the project, which dropped with the quickness of a mixtape but with the price tag of a studio album. It is strange and lazy, however, that so many of us capitulated to Drake's weighing in with the last and definitive word, apparently, as if Drake's calling his album a pancake would've made it buttery and delicious.
(This tweet from a rapper who, on the album in question, fronts like he doesn't read the internet on a half-hourly basis. What misdirection!)
Who started this nonsense? As I ask around the office, music industry hobgoblin David Amaya refers me to Jadakiss' I Love You (A Dedication To My Fans), which Def Jam marketed like any other solo Jadakiss album but is generally regarded as a mixtape because it is not very good. Drake's So Far Gone predates this, of course, but So Far Gone was constructed as a mixtape and was initially marketed as such in February 2009 before Universal Records and YMCMB reconfigured the So Far Gone mixtape as an EP seven months later. It's all rather confusing, I know.
You'd think G-Unit was vaguely responsible for all of this, but really the rap mixtape as always been an artform in flux. In the shiny '90s, mixtape artists would rope singles, exclusives, and leaks into compilations for street distribution, i.e., you could acquire soon-to-be rare Sheek Louch freestyles on your nearest sidewalk. Digital distribution changed all that in the '00s, of course. From G-Unit's pre-"In Da Club" run, through Weezy and Jeezy's respective insurgencies, rappers turned mixtapes into marathon beat-jacking and "remixing" songs without actually re-mixing them at all.
Going forward, how about we all agree on some parameters that'll make this terminology less arbitrary and less susceptible to the cynical linguistics of flacks and marketing departments. My proposed criteria to determine whether a solo or group compilation is a mixtape:
(1) It is universally free in its initial release, or else it is not constructed with intention to achieve a retail release date.
(2) It is mostly constructed from beats that have been repurposed from other songs.
(3) Fabolous is featured.
By this criteria, If You're Reading This It's Too Late, a nearly platinum digital release that counts toward fulfillment of Drake's recording contract, is an album, whereas OG Ron C's If You're Choppin' This It's Too Late remix tribute is obviously a mixtape. Thugger's Barter 6 is an album, whereas Thug 1017 and Rich Gang's Tha Tour Part 1 are mixtapes. Power of the Dollar is an album, whereas 50 Cent Is The Future is a mixtape. G-Unit could (and should) add 50 Cent Is The Future to the iTunes Music Store today; it'd be a mixtape regardless, since it is a mixtape in spirit and conceived form.
Rappers gotta stop throwing their latest, post-peak LPs under the figurative bus! In a decade when mixtapes are comparable and often superior to albums anyway, recasting albums as mixtapes is no longer an effective hedge against criticism, nor will mixtape billing deflate fan expectations. If you're hot, you're hot. Just because your album is boring (ahem, "mellow") and your label didn't front you an advance to record it doesn't make it a mixtape! Air horns, unwelcome drops, shitty mixing, and physical retail scarcity are what make a proper mixtape in 2015. It's what the game's been missing.