For once, Vince Staples wasn’t sure what to say. Five days after dropping another incredible collection of songs, the Long Beach rapper and reigning Twitter MVP logged into his account and wrote, “I was about to tell y’all FM! not an album but I don’t even know what an album is anymore so I’m just about to eat some catfish.”
The rest of us remain equally confused. For years, the distinctions between different types of musical releases have been disintegrating. In the streaming era, most mixtapes are now distributed through the same official channels once reserved for albums, removing any practical distinction between the two forms. (Young Thug, who has 11 full-lengths on Spotify, has yet to release his “debut album.”) Drake famously dubbed his 2017 behemoth More Life a “playlist.” More and more often, artists are defying definition by simply referring to their latest release as a “project.”
Traditionally, such categories have helped us understand how an artist wants their work to be perceived. An album is the definitive creative statement; an EP is more minor and not to be confused with a mini-album, a major work at EP length; a mixtape is part of a messier, less official canon; a playlist is an act of curation that blurs the line between musician and DJ. These words still mean something or else artists wouldn’t be so finicky about trying to control and subvert them. But changing trends and technology have inevitably yielded differences in the way artists release music and the way listeners process it. For musical taxonomists, it’s anarchy out there.
The longstanding linguistic battles continued to rage in 2018. Usher and Zaytoven’s reps insisted the media refer to their eight-song collaboration “A” as a “project” and not an album, presumably to emphasize its lower stakes. Aminé called his surprise release ONEPOINTFIVE, a title that implied stopgap status even before he labeled it an “EP/LP/mixtape/album.” Inspired by Kanye West’s “living breathing changing creative expression” The Life Of Pablo, producer Benny Blanco announced plans to release an album and keep adding to its tracklist for months to come. As the New York Times explained, “By early next year, Mr. Blanco said, he hopes to have grown the album (playlist?) to some 30 tracks.”
This year, much of the contention had to do with how to categorize shorter releases. For years A-list stars have been edging toward endlessly bloated tracklists designed to rack up big streaming totals, a trend exemplified by 2018 chart mainstays like Post Malone’s Beerbongs & Bentleys and Travis Scott’s Astroworld. The trend may have reached its tipping point this year when both Migos and Drake released double albums and were richly rewarded for their excess. Perhaps reacting against that trajectory, quite a few artists in the mainstream unveiled projects that challenged the distinction between an album and an EP. Rarely did they want to call them EPs, though.
Sometimes it was about gaming the streaming services in a different way: Nine Inch Nails recategorized Bad Witch, the third installment in their EP trilogy, as an album so that it wouldn’t get buried on Spotify and other DSPs, where EPs are filed away with singles rather than albums. Sometimes it was about not having enough music for an album but wanting to make a statement anyway: The Weeknd — who himself was guilty of goosing his stream counts with 2016’s endless Starboy — scrapped an entire optimistic LP in the wake of his breakup with Selena Gomez; when the time came to release new music ahead of his headlining Coachella set, he unveiled the six-song “project” My Dear Melancholy. Sometimes the refusal to call an EP an EP felt like stubbornness for stubbornness’ sake: Chance The Rapper — who insists his first three albums are mixtapes even though they’re produced and promoted like albums — released four singles simultaneously back in July, with thematically consistent cover art, but did not package them as an EP.
On the other hand, some of the EP-length releases certainly felt like albums despite their short runtime. Vince Staples’ aforementioned FM! clocked in at only 22 minutes, but its 11 tracks formed a complete arc that was more rewarding than most projects twice its length; we ended up putting it on our year-end albums list. Tierra Whack’s audiovisual project Whack World matched 15 wildly inventive one-minute songs with their own colorful music videos, each one a sonic cartoon adapted to live-action absurdity; we (perhaps wrongly?) opted to put it on our list of the year’s best EPs. Like I said: anarchy.
And speaking of anarchy, there was also a procession of albums out of Wyoming at the dawn of summer, each one produced by Kanye West, all but one limited to seven songs. These projects — credited to Pusha-T, Nas, Teyana Taylor, Kanye himself, and his new group Kids See Ghosts with Kid Cudi — were billed as albums, and even at their sloppiest, they felt like albums. Yet each of these cohesive documents was also pointedly concise, with runtimes ranging from 21 minutes to a robust 26. In the larger economy of mainstream hip-hop, a genre in which artists have released “EPs” with double-digit tracklists and have been packing on the filler since the CD era, this felt like a distinctly contrarian gesture. It also maybe marked the moment when the countering the album-sprawl trend became a trend in and of itself.
Superstars weren’t the only ones gravitating toward shorter releases. Every era yields a wealth of great music in all formats, but subjectively, more EPs caught my attention than ever in 2018. I can’t remember a year in which so many of my favorite releases were so short, when artists seemed to be putting so much care into their briefer dispatches. Many of them were advertised as EPs without all the fuss about classification, yet they felt like landmarks all the same. As SOPHIE put it in an interview announcing four upcoming releases, “I do not know what a damn album is! The barrier between the EP and the LP is becoming more diffuse.”
Headlining 2018’s EP bumper crop was, of course, boygenius, the Julien Baker/Phoebe Bridgers/Lucy Dacus supergroup, whose six-song debut somehow managed to live up to their audience’s impossible expectations. Here were three widely beloved young singer-songwriters teaming up and coming away with folk-rock splendor beyond our wildest imaginations, harmonizing their way through heartbreak until it felt like euphoria. Picking a favorite was almost impossible because whichever boygenius song you’re listening to feels like the best boygenius song. There were no duds in the bunch. Had we opted to include EPs on our albums list, boygenius easily would have cracked the top 10.
It wasn’t just boygenius, though. Open Mike Eagle, one of rap’s reigning underground laureates, delivered What Happens When I Try To Relax, a stunning self-reflection in six tracks that doubled as a sort of meta career report card. Raspy R&B upstart Jessie Reyez crammed more compelling autobiography into Being Human In Public than many artists manage in a whole career. The darkly dreamy indie rocker Ellis came through with The Fuzz, a debut EP so impressive and fully realized that it did the legwork of a full-length. Rock experimentalists Empath made a splash with their volatile Liberating Guilt And Fear. So did producer-violinist Sudan Archives via Sink’s sophisticated liquid sonics. Hatchie’s sparkling Sugar & Spice compiled enough killer singles to anchor an album but didn’t burden us with the filler that might have padded it out. On Ark, each of Westerman’s new-wavy chamber-folk compositions was sculpted to perfection. I could go on in praise of Channel Tres, of Warthog, of Bristletongue, of Spielbergs, of Valee.
Some of this was just standard operation procedure, in which young musicians introduce themselves with an EP and follow it with a proper full-length debut once they’ve established a foothold in the industry. There were also gems among the annual onslaught of stopgap releases, with artists from Waxahatchee to DRAM to Protomartyr to Aphex Twin to Moses Sumney to Young Thug making the most of the gaps between bigger projects. In a sense, this is all business as usual, but the sheer volume of mini-masterpieces felt like something new — especially when you factor in the compact brilliance of Pusha-T and Teyana Taylor and the line-blurring genius from folks like Tierra Whack and Vince Staples.
These ripples almost certainly have something to do with the internet. Maybe, as previously speculated, musicians are reacting against all those overlong albums. Maybe they’ve realized, as born out by a new Rolling Stone report on the decline of the album, that listeners are more interested in fixating on a handful of favorite tracks: 63% of track streams for Drake’s 25-song Scorpion derive from its three chart-topping hits, “God’s Plan,” “Nice For What,” and “In My Feelings.” Maybe the rapid decline in physical album sales has liberated artists from piling up enough songs to make a purchase worth a listener’s while — focusing on quality over quantity would certainly be a silver lining to a disconcerting trend. Or maybe attention spans are just growing shorter. Whatever the reason, in 2018, short was sweet.