Column: What’s an R&B mixtape?

Ben Martin weighs in on the R&B mixtape trend.


Ben Martin weighs in on the R&B mixtape trend.

From Kelela to SZA, these days it seems like the best way to get your foot in the door of contemporary R&B is to make a mixtape. Last year saw a deluge of R&B mixtapes, and 2014 will likely be no different. But how exactly do we define the R&B mixtape? What are its characteristics, and how is it different than a regular old album?

The word mixtape has a long and bafflingly diverse history. At a most basic level, the semantic war between those who use the word mixtape in the sense of, “Hey, I made you a mixtape of songs I like,” and those who use it in the sense of, “Hey, Kelela just released her new mixtape of songs she wrote,” is still being waged. The latter mixtape, the kind where a vocal artist performs over producer beats, has grown out of the storied tradition of the rap mixtape. Everyone from Lil Wayne to L1ef has put out a handful. The fluid definition of the R&B mixtape certainly stems from the similar lack of definition between rap mixtapes and regular rap albums.

There are a lot of factors that seem like they could qualify an R&B release as a mixtape. Nearly all of them have exceptions. R&B mixtapes generally feature an artist singing over tracks produced by a variety of producers. For example, utilizing several producers allows the unproven SZA the opportunity to show her versatility in the context of a format where overall sonic unity isn’t perhaps as important. Playing “spot the producer,” hearing the difference between a Felix Snow beat and a WNDRBRD beat on her S tape, or discovering the blink-and-you-miss-it cameo production by Dev Hynes on Tinashe’s Black Water mixtape, can often be just as fun and satisfying as discovering the singers themselves. Though the primary focus is on hyping the singer, R&B mixtapes are also a great way to explore the deep and occasionally impenetrable world of contemporary pop production.

Yet, a singer employing a variety of producers is not alone a satisfying guideline for categorizing the R&B mixtape. Most mainstream pop releases, from Katy Perry to Lady Gaga to Beyoncé, have different producers on every track, and those aren’t mixtapes. Furthermore, some mixtapes only feature one producer. Boy/Friend’s Leather Weather from last year is almost entirely produced by MNTN.

Frank Ocean’s Nostalgia Ultra—a spoiler for the definition of an R&B mixtape in many ways—is essentially produced by Ocean himself. In another deviation from contemporary mixtape practice, the tape features a lot of direct samples from the likes of Coldplay, the Eagles, and MGMT. Though familiar samples and lifted backing tracks are a staple of the rap tape, surprisingly few R&B mixtapes utilize this practice, instead opting for exclusively original beats.

Whereas the release of a full-length LP seems like serious business, a “big deal” work hoisted on the world with Herculean effort, by contrast the release of a mixtape suggests swift effortlessness. Mixtapes are presented as more casual products. Yet Kelela’s Cut 4 Me mixtape, with its cascades of vocal harmonies and sophisticated studio techniques, is no less robust and refined of a product than the latest from Ciara. There may be a perception that mixtapes are less “produced” than the more serious “full-length album,” but often this is not the case.

Many mixtapes can be seen less as albums in their own right and more as promotional devices for future releases. In this way, Nostalgia Ultra can be viewed as a promotional “preview” for the major release of Channel Orange the following year. The Weeknd’s legendary year of mixtapes in 2011 was in some ways a promotion for last year’s Kiss Land, though in that case the previews were arguably more successful and impactful than the final product.

The vast majority of mixtapes are free. This seems like a pretty hard and fast rule for R&B mixtapes. Giving away your mixtape for free means that even if your work isn’t promoting a future release, it’s at least promoting you as an artist in general. Maybe the release itself won’t make you any money, but it will get into people’s ears which (hopefully) will lead to opportunities to make money with shows, record deals, etc. As Skinny Friedman points out in his excellent Noisey article about rap mixtapes, for many young artists, “exposure [is] more valuable than potential sales.”

And then along comes Justin Bieber. Journals has been called a mixtape, but how in the world is Journals a mixtape? It features a variety of producers, yet so do his other releases (as well as the latest from his closest contemporaries, like Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry). Journals doesn’t seem to be a promotional tool for a future release, and Biebs certainly isn’t in a place where he needs promotion as a general artist in the same way someone like Boy/Friend does. Worst of all, Journals isn’t even free! In no possible way does this album function as a mixtape, yet paradoxically and insistently, it is one. In this case, it seems “mixtape” is being used to describe the way in which the record is a collection of his “Music Monday” releases. This idea hurts my head, because I thought that the whole point of the Music Monday series was to promote the release of this album. It’s like an ouroboric black hole of Bieber.

The Bieber release brings up some really heavy questions. What makes Journals more of a mixtape than it’s mega-pop peers? For example, December’s Beyoncé has so many hallmarks of a mixtape. The variety of producers, the casual vibe, the swift, under-the-radar release strategy in the no-fly zone of the Christmas holiday, after critics’ year-end lists had already been written. Though Beyoncé is certainly a major pop record, the tone of that album and its release strategy read as strikingly similar to that of a mixtape.

What if Beyoncé had released that album as a mixtape? What would that mean for the long-play album? It certainly doesn’t feel like a stretch that people could have accepted Beyoncé as a mixtape. And if that’s the case, is there anything that can’t be a mixtape anymore? The album as a means of making money has been in crisis for as long as most of us have been adults, so the idea of using a record as promotion for something else—live shows, licensing deals, sponsorships, whatever—is totally plausible.

It starts to feel as if the main criteria for a mixtape is simply that you call it a mixtape. And there are plenty of good reasons to call your product a mixtape instead of an album. The soft connotation is that a mixtape is more casual, less of a big deal than an album. You can bust your ass making a record, but if you call it a mixtape you look like a champ because it vibes with listeners as if you didn’t work as hard as you actually did, and you still sound that good!

For up-and-comers, calling your product a mixtape makes you seem more relaxed and less pretentious than calling it an album would. It makes you appear less desperate for success. You’re hustling, but you’re cool.

As Friedman points out, for big popstars, calling your product a mixtape shifts expectations away from albums sales toward other criteria for success. It’s not a big deal, it’s just a mixtape. Release the tracks with minimal fanfare, then get back to the main business of selling concert tickets and getting sponsorships. Rather than the artist working to sell the music, the music is now just one facet of the mechanism that sells the artist.

For both established R&B artists and hungry up-and-comers, there is a very real appeal to the mixtape. It’s like a malleable lump of clay, able to be sculpted into whatever you need from it. It’s a low-risk dry run for young singers and producers. It can be a promotion for an upcoming release or even for just the artist her- or himself. It’s a place for the unproven to prove themselves and for the proven to let their hair down. It implies one part street cred and another part business savvy. It’s fast and fresh. It means whatever you want it to, as long as you can spin it right. It’s a mixtape.

Illustration by Laurent Hrybyk.

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