The debut album is the most honest and raw body of work an artist releases. There are no expectations of their sound, but rather it’s our first glimpse of who this artist is, well rather was. A generation of hip hop ago, first albums were where artists shined, Jay Z with Reasonable Doubt, Nas with Illmatic, Lupe Fiasco with Food & Liquor. However, datpiff wasn’t around when these emcees were first releasing material and mixtape culture has drastically shifted our first encounter with new artists. Rappers release mixtape upon mixtape that by the time their first album drops, we already have a preconceived notion of what it should sound like and at what caliber the album will rank. It is almost impossible to hear debut albums with a fresh ear these days when we are constantly comparing them to the artist’s mixtape material.
Although I love the dedication to dropping new quality music for the free, there has to be a difference in caliber between a mixtape and an album. Too often these debut albums are falling short especially after releasing classic mixtapes. Live.Love.A$AP was Rocky to the core, it depicted his New York roots while incorporating his unique Houston inspired sound. People were excited about A$AP and eager for his debut album. But with Long.Live.A$AP, he had to bring something NEW, he could no longer be the truest form of himself as an artist. Instead he tried to be larger than life, expressing his unbelievably quick rise to fame. But the raw Harlem cat who we all could relate to began to slip out of our grasps and into commercialism.
J. Cole is another example. Did Born Sinner live up to the artistry of Friday Night Lights? There are some artists who are able to deliver quality mixtapes and still drop an amazing album, Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul succeeded. But a debut album separates the legends from the rest. There was no question after Ready to Die dropped, that Big was going to be a lasting presence in the game. Too often these days, artists are not living up to the buzz they created surrounding their mixtapes. Big K.R.I.T. said “I treat my mixtapes like albums,” which is noble, but at the end of the day the albums have to be superior. Especially when quality mixtapes are just a free download away, no one is going to be inspired to purchase a mediocre debut album.
I fear for new artists who have yet to release debuts. Will Chance the Rapper be able to live up to the critical acclaim of Acid Rap? I hope so, but our view of new artists and debut albums are so tainted now. During a time when the sky is the limit and creatively there are no boundaries, artists are already forced to create a different sound then what should have been their debut and as hip hop fans, we aren’t receiving the same quality of debut albums.