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Deluxe Albums and the Cheapening of the Album Format

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Musical artist Kanye West surprise-released the highly-anticipated deluxe edition of his 10th solo album “Donda” on Nov. 14. The expansion includes three tracks that were previously scrapped along with alternate versions of previously-released tracks “Remote Control” and “Keep My Spirit Alive.” While these additions and changes satisfied West’s fanbase, the release of “Donda (Deluxe)” also bucked the recent hip-hop trend of artists releasing lengthy deluxe albums. This trend emphasizes loading a deluxe album with as many tracks as possible, resulting in bloated, meandering albums with songs of varying quality. Through its brevity, the release of “Donda (Deluxe)” maintains West’s high level of artistry and song selection while signaling that the trend of cumbersome deluxe albums may soon be gone.

Lately, popular hip-hop artists have been embracing a “quantity-over-quality” approach when deciding which songs will land on a deluxe album’s tracklist. This approach has led to some deluxe albums containing enough tracks to warrant being considered as a whole separate album, making albums harder to enjoy in one listen. Casual fans may even be less willing to listen to most deluxe albums since doing so feels like more of a chore than a celebration of new music. 

While the original edition of “Donda” was a behemoth in its own right with 27 tracks, its accompanying deluxe edition had just five additions. When compared to other recent album expansions, such as Trippie Redd’s “Pegasus: NEON SHARK vs. Pegasus (Deluxe: Presented By Travis Barker),” which tacked on 14 songs to the original album’s 26, the brevity found in “Donda (Deluxe)” is a breath of fresh air — a brief bonus pack of songs rather than adding a full album’s worth of music to an already lengthy project. The fact that West limited the album’s additions to just five songs prevented the release of  “Donda” from being cheapened by its expanded counterpart. If a listener knows that their favorite artist will release another hour’s worth of material through a deluxe within just a few months, why would they bother checking out the original album? Since long deluxe albums have become so expected within the hip-hop community, they are now often viewed as the definitive, full-length edition of a project that fans should wait for. This takes away focus from the original album’s narrative and track listing because it allows fans to continually beg artists to add more songs rather than listening to and digesting the version of the album that has already been released. West prevented this phenomenon by keeping the deluxe version of his 10th solo album a modest addition, rather than making it an exhaustive compilation of songs with middling quality.

Releasing too many tracks through a deluxe edition also cheapens an artist’s craft and their album’s “era.” The “quantity-over-quality” approach often means artists aren’t trimming down their albums to include only the material that represents each album’s vision the best. Lil Uzi Vert, for example, consulted fans via Twitter about which songs he should include on the bonus half of his 2020 album “Eternal Atake.” Uzi’s fans were able to curate the artist’s own tracklist based on loose material they heard through Instagram snippets. As a result, the latter half of “Eternal Atake” is a piece of fan service that doesn’t say much about the artist’s creative direction. The resultant music may be enjoyable, but the songs aren’t united under a singular vision like an album should be. 

Bloated deluxes also cheapen the album experience through “stream-trolling.” Stream-trolling refers to releasing long albums with shorter songs in order to maximize the number of streams the artist gets. This is because of how the Billboard charts count album streams. With the rise of on-demand music, artists no longer need fans to play through entire albums for their plays to be counted. Streaming just one song enough times is counted as the equivalent of giving the entire album a playthrough. This has encouraged artists to make albums longer and individual songs shorter in order to game the system, making the concept of releasing music these days more about maximizing profits than putting forth a memorable artistic statement. One could argue that “Donda” was an example of stream-trolling as well, but with one-fifth of its songs crossing the five-minute mark, the inclusion of 27 tracks feels thematically purposeful rather than an attempt to take advantage of the streaming age.

As long as streaming remains a dominant force in music and Billboard’s rules encourage stream-trolling, this problem is likely to persist. More music from our favorite artists is a good thing, but the recent embrace of quantity-over-quality has cheapened the art form of the album and has made listening to new releases more of a chore. The only way this trend will pass is if fans become burnt-out and stop streaming their favorite artists’ deluxe albums as frequently or voicing their displeasure with bloated deluxe albums. Either way, the trend has to go. The brevity of West’s “Donda (Deluxe)” hopefully signals that artists are moving away from crafting excessively drawn-out musical projects that are cumbersome for the listener and do nothing to serve the performer’s level of artistry. 

Johnny Nguyen is an Opinion Intern for the 2021 fall quarter. He can be reached at johnnln1@uci.edu