The Strengths and Shortcomings of the Short LP
by Owen Murray
At this point, we’ve heard enough about Culture II and Scorpion. They’re ridiculously long, have a lot of filler; really, just a waste of time. It’s no secret the many artists in hip hop have an issue with quantity over quality. Drake and Migos aren’t the only perpetrators. Stand out artists like Young Thug and Future frequently release albums that are over an hour, when their talents could be put to better use if they selectively released their best work. Ironically, the last couple of years have also brought an influx of hip hop albums that are clocking in somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes, with mixed critical responses. Earl Sweatshirt’s avant-garde Some Rap Songs, Vince Staples tight FM! and of course, the infamous string of G.O.O.D. music releases in 2018 all come to mind. While it’s easy to write off ultra-long albums as an unfortunate by-product of the streaming age, the phenomenon of shorter albums has shown some more potential.
In 2015, Earl Sweatshirt dropped I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside on the same day Kendrick Dropped To Pimp a Butterfly. At the time, I was a big Earl fan, but the album’s 36-minute runtime made it seem feeble in comparison to Kendrick’s masterpiece which ran nearly an hour and a half. The albums had entirely different goals: Earl gave us a look into his state of mind and anxious, depressed, anti-social attitude, while Kendrick confronted the world at large and the struggle of being black in America. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel like Earl wasn’t even trying. What was there was good, but I was never satisfied by the end, especially since To Pimp a Butterfly has such a clear progression and narrative.
It took months before I could listen to I Don’t Like Shit without unfairly comparing it to the album it just happened to share a birthday with. After a long time— and a huge change of heart—I came to see the album’s short runtime as complementary to its lyrical content and sound. Earl is aloof and antisocial, and he’s exposing his frame of mind. No chance is he going to let us overstay our welcome. At the same time, the darkness of I Don’t Like Shit is so potent, I don’t think I could handle much more than half an hour of it.
When Earl followed up I Don’t Like Shit with Some Rap Songs close to 5 years later, I wasn’t disappointed that the album was only 25 minutes. Instead, I was excited for another dense, engaging listen. Some Rap Songs outdid I Don’t Like Shit with its disorienting yet organic instrumentals, and a new level of darkness but also social awareness in its lyrics.
Earl Sweatshirt releases ideal short albums. Albums that are complete, not despite their length, but due—at least in part—to their brevity. Milo’s wordy 2015 album So the Flies Don’t Come and Tierra Whack’s Whack World (2018), which is comprised of 15 quirky one-minute songs, also fit the bill.
Unfortunately, albums like these seem to be the outliers. And the majority of short albums suffer because of their length. Vince Staples FM! was a super-tight 22-minutes, but for no real reason. The album stays just long enough to establish its theme of sounding like an FM radio program but could have further developed the idea had it taken some more time.
2018’s G.O.O.D. music releases fall into the category as well. While DAYTONA was a strong start to the 5-albums-in-5-weeks streak, it still is hindered by its length. Pusha was on the top of his game lyrically, and Kanye’s production complimented Pusha’s intensity perfectly. But this was the album that was trumpeted as the grand triumph of King Push. I was expecting some Twisted Fantasy level rap. It had been teased for years, with Pusha T’s previous album being billed as its prelude. Instead of a grand triumph, we got a watertight 20 minutes. While DAYTONA will still go down as one of Pusha T’s best works—and maybe even a classic—I can’t help but wonder what it could have been if it had been scaled up.
Kanye’s own Ye suffered even further because of its length. For the first time in his tumultuous career, Kanye’s music played second fiddle to his antics. Ye essentially combined musical ideas from The Life of Pablo and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with a loose focus on Kanye’s own mental health, but the 20 minutes of music we received just didn’t carry the same ambition as its predecessors. While “Ghost Town” is a standout track that shows Kanye still has the potential to make fantastic records, Ye proved what we already knew: there are some statements that just take longer to make. There can be no 20-minute version of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
In the end, the shortcomings of short LP’s are mostly forgivable. After all, an album of 7 near-perfect songs wouldn’t be improved by the addition of three mediocre ones. And a bloated album like Scorpion will always be more disappointing than a brief, lean album like DAYTONA or FM!
As music listening gets increasingly invaded by interruptions and notifications, 20-minute albums could easily become the new normal. My daily walk home is precisely the same length as Ye, and because of that, I listen to it on routine. Even if it ranks among my least favorite Kanye albums.
It’s hard to pack a poignant musical statement into 20 minutes, but it’s a challenge that Tierra Whack and Earl Sweatshirt have proven is possible. I hope that more artists will be able to follow their lead.