Earlier this month, Future made history. The Atlanta rapper and R&B singer became the first artist in the history of the Billboard Top 200 to have two different albums hit number one on that chart in successive weeks. The two albums, “FUTURE” and “HNDRXX,” were both staggering individual monuments to Future’s skill as a hitmaker, with the self-titled album showcasing his rap bona fides and “HNDRXX” doing the same for his more sensitive, R&B-oriented side. Yet the most revealing thing about this two-album run was the sheer amount of music that Future was able to put out – each album is 17 tracks long, running slightly over an hour – and the nonchalance with which he did so. He announced both albums with little fanfare, and his fans didn’t really seem to think that there was anything particularly exceptional about his release strategy – when rumors started to pop up that he was going to release a third album the week after he dropped “HNDRXX,” many believed them without question.
Of course, that’s because the most distinctive element of Future’s career as a musician is not really anything about his music per se. It’s not his codeine-garbled voice or the stark trap beats he alternatively raps and croons over, nor his grim, hedonistic lyrics or his ability to write a genius love song when the occasion calls for it. The most distinctive thing about Future’s music is that there’s just a ridiculous amount of it.
Over the three years since the release of his sophomore album “Honest,” Future has released 12 albums or mixtapes, amounting to eight hours and 42 minutes worth of music. Counting the songs on which he’s featured in that time span, including singles like Ty Dolla $ign’s “Blasé” or DJ Khaled’s “I Got The Keys,” adds on a few hours more. And the strangest thing about Future’s prolificacy is his sheer consistency. Within those 12 releases, there are certainly differences in quality — 2015’s “56 Nights” and “Dirty Sprite 2” are certainly highlights, and 2016’s “Evol” is, frankly, kind of a boring slog – but nothing that really would really count as a misstep. And of the six albums he released since 2014, only one, 2014’s “Honest,” didn’t debut at number one on the billboard chart, instead landing just a spot below. Future, it seems, has figured out how to release as much music as he wants without wearing out his welcome.
Yet if we look throughout the world of music today, we see that Future isn’t the only hyper-prolific artist who’s managed to achieve success. His Atlanta-trap peer, Young Thug, has also released more than 10 mixtapes since 2013, with less commercial success but equal – if not greater – critical acclaim. Consistent production serves Young Thug well – his style of autotune rap is nothing if not experimental, and dropping music at the rate he does means that his fanbase gets to witness his artistic exploration in real time.
Perhaps the kings of rap prolificacy, though, are Oakland rappers Kool AD and Lil B. Both artists have released mixtapes that are more than 100 tracks long, with Lil B releasing an 855 track, five gigabyte mixtape of freestyles in 2012. Kool AD, in addition to the six hours of music making up 2015’s “O.K.,” released 10 separate mixtapes or EPs in 2016, in addition to writing a novel, a children’s book and a parenting column for Vice.
Even in genres outside of rap, there have been plenty of musicians who put out music at an astonishing clip. Robert Pollard, lead singer and songwriter for classic indie rock group Guided By Voices, has around 2,000 songs registered under his name in the BMI songwriting license database, and he has released 40 albums and EPs with his band. In more recent years, Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo released 10 albums on the indie music service Bandcamp, including the first four in as many months in 2010, before signing with Matador Records in 2015 and releasing two more albums, including the critically acclaimed, 70-minute long “Teens of Denial” last year.
This ethos of mass production that animates artists as disparate as Future and Car Seat Headrest runs contrary to the contemporary music industry’s conventional wisdom, where an artist releases an album and then coasts on its success for a year or two after, releasing singles and touring around their main release for that entire period. That cycle is best seen with mega pop stars like Katy Perry, who released nine singles between May 2010 and September 2012 from her 2010 album “Teenage Dream” and its deluxe edition. Artists following these conventional album cycles can be prolific – Rihanna released seven albums in the eight years between 2005 and 2012 – but musicians who work within major labels are still constrained by what resources their labels provide for them.
What’s allowed these hyper-prolific artists to prosper in contemporary music, then, is the decay of traditional label systems. The mixtapes released by Young Thug or the Bandcamp albums of Car Seat Headrest aren’t tied to a traditional record label, and they don’t have the same sort of expensive marketing push a “real” album would have. Even when these artists do sign to labels, they typically sign to indie labels like Matador Records, where Guided By Voices and Car Seat Headrest are signed, or create their own imprints, like Young Thug’s YSL or Future’s FreeBandz.
The Internet has also made it easier for artists to share whatever music they have at whatever rate they want. Mixtape sharing sites like DatPiff and Livemixtapes have allowed the distribution of mixtapes, previously limited to localized fanbases, to the greater listening public. Bandcamp has been a godsend for indie artists that want to release as much music as possible. Take the case of Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Elaiza Santos, who records lo-fi folk music under the names Whatever, Dad? and 100%. Santos’ music is frequently beautiful and funny, but her style, almost whisper-quiet, doesn’t really lend itself to mainstream label-dom. By releasing on Bandcamp, Santos gets to release music on her own terms, including releasing four different albums in 2015.
Music writers tend to mythologize reclusive artists, those that suddenly release an album every few years from a secluded retreat and then just as suddenly retreat into hiding. Just look at the cycles of hype surrounding Frank Ocean and Lorde, who seemed to pop, fully realized, onto the global stage in 2012 and 2013 and then disappeared into the shadows, only to return in the past year. It makes sense for these artists to be subjects of fascination – they have a masterful control of their images, releasing only meticulously orchestrated opuses. Yet there’s also something equally astonishing about watching Future or Young Thug purposefully release a messy, at times beautiful, barrage of music. When they truly succeed, like on “HNDRXX” or Young Thug’s “JEFFERY,” it makes the whole enterprise, hyper-prolificacy and all, worth our time.
Contact Jacob Kuppermann at jkupperm ‘at’ stanford.edu.