Kanye West stopped the world (again) on Thursday afternoon when he announced that he was going to be releasing his next album on June 1. But even more than the date, what got people’s attention was the other bit of information he let out—that the project would only contain seven songs.
In the absence of anything else to worry about—like, say, a lunatic who lobs missiles at people because the voices on TV told him to—people immediately started saying that the as-yet-unheard project couldn’t possibly be a proper album because of the number of songs.
No disrespect to the Twitterverse, but that’s nonsense. For one thing, there are plenty of albums that have had that number of tracks or fewer. That is something Kanye is certainly aware of, since he once sampled from one of them.
King Crimson’s 1969 prog-rock opus In the Court of the Crimson King has five songs (most of them, admittedly, with multiple, separately-named sections), and a running time of under 45 minutes. Yeezy sampled the record’s leadoff track, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” on “Power.” Pink Floyd’s 1977 Animal Farm-inspired concept album Animals was five songs and a shade over 40 minutes. And Yeezy certainly knows Pink Floyd—or at least their t-shirts.
It’s not like there are no short albums in hip-hop history, either. Remember that The Greatest Rap Album of All Time™ , Illmatic, is under 40 minutes long and consists of nine songs plus an intro. Paid in Full is only eight songs, plus two filler instrumentals that don’t really count (c’mon, when was the last time you listened to “Chinese Arithmetic”?) In a more modern example, Earl Sweatshirt’s latest album has a run time of less than half an hour.
Kanye is certainly no stranger to long songs (remember, the original version of “Runaway” was 20 minutes long), so the number of tracks doesn’t tell us much of anything when it comes to the quantity of music he’ll be putting out.
But more to the point, who cares? Seven songs, five songs, 12 songs, 45 songs—it doesn’t matter. Originally, albums were tied to the physical format of the LP, and thus limited to around a 45 minute playing time. If you went much longer, you either had to make it a double album or suffer a dip in sound quality. Once CDs became the norm, the allowable time went up to 74 minutes, thus leading to an endless array of “funny” rap album skits.
Now that music is primarily a digital media, the physical limitations are entirely gone. Artists are free to put as many songs as they want on an album—and they do, usually in an attempt to game the Billboard charts. This is often to the detriment of cohesiveness and quality, as anyone who’s attempted to make it all the way through Culture II will tell you.
In this new anything-goes era, no one has been more integral to pushing the limits of what an album is now than Kanye West. The Life of Pablo was truly something new—an album that changed (significantly!) after it was released. That, of course, would have been impossible (unless you were the Beatles) in the days of physical product.
Kanye has already effectively changed the definition of an album once this decade, so there’s no reason he can’t do it again. A Kanye West album is whatever Kanye West says it is, and skeptics would do well to remember that whatever outlandish thing Kanye sets his mind to—whether it’s singing, designing sneakers, or meeting Donald Trump—he usually succeeds.