When Lil Yachty announced his debut album, Teenage Emotions, in April, most people only noticed the cover: Yachty, in a movie theater, accompanied by a diverse crew of teenagers. With it came a tracklist—an extremely long one. Coming it at 21 tracks, it’s by far his longest release to date (Summer Songs has 14 tracks; Lil Boat has 13).
For some, this could be a statement of intent; length often correlates to ambition. The College Dropout had 21 tracks too, after all. (Still, five of the tracks on Kanye’s debut are skits; Teenage Emotions contains no skits, just one interlude.) But for Yachty—a figure who’s made it plain that music isn’t his great passion in life (on an episode of Everyday Struggle, he likened himself to a brand, and suggested that music is a mean to an ends) and weighs having fun more heavily than anything else on record—it’s unlikely that he’s attempting to release his magnum opus this week. Instead, the sheer heft of Teenage Emotions is part of an ongoing trend in music, one that rewards length and breakout hits over cohesive, concise artistic expressions.
In 2014, the Billboard charts changed. Or, rather, the route to the top of those charts changed. For the first time, Billboard—along with the RIAA and Nielsen—began to account for the growing influence of streaming on the music industry. Instead of looking at pure album sales, digital services like Spotify and YouTube were suddenly in contention. The rules, as it were, are still skewed. To gather up one album sale in the eyes of the charts, an artists has to amass 10 digital song purchases (from the iTunes store, or equivalent), or 1,500 streams. The thing is, listeners could listen to any song on an album for it to count towards the streaming rule. So, if people happened to just listen to one single a whole lot, the album it comes from rises in the charts.
Lately, it seems as if labels have taken that into account to mount assaults on the charts by simply throwing more songs at listeners. Since it doesn’t matter which songs on an album get the most play, the logic goes, just get as many songs out into the world as possible, and see what happens. You never know which song will become a social media favorite, like we’ve seen happen with Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3” and Future’s “Mask Off.” Yachty is joining a growing tradition of rappers (and others) who are making long albums, not necessarily because they have a lot to say, but because it’s the smart business move.
This could work to Yachty’s advantage in multiple ways. First is the fact that anything that pushes him up the charts will lead to more diffuse benefits, like name recognition, radio play, and a stronger narrative as a pop artist. Sales, and chart position, always matter in pop music—it’s a popularity contest, and the Billboard charts are the most visible proving ground there is.
The second advantage is even simpler: No one can predict what’s going to be popular. Streaming services have accelerated the process to a song becoming a bona fide hit, but they’ve also made it harder to predict what’s going to build steam. While labels used to agonize over a new artist’s first, second, or third single, it’s now easier than ever for songs that no one expected to blow up to take the world by storm. It’s hard to imagine a label executive hearing “Bad and Boujee” for the first time and thinking, This is going to be a No. 1 hit. Listeners did that. So, instead of playing the game of pushing a single you think could be big, just release as much music as possible and see what sticks. The penalties for releasing some unremarkable songs are nullified, and the potential upsides are career-defining.
Tonight, Teenage Emotions will hit streaming services, in the flood of new music that comes every Thursday night. Yachty may have made a massive, ambitious, thoughtful statement of purpose that sweeps everyone off their feet. Or, it’s just a fuck-ton of songs, and some of them might be good. Either way, Yachty’s going to get paid for his efforts.