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Kanye West released Graduation on September 11, 2008 – the same day that 50 Cent released Curtis. Media immediately pegged the two genre stalwarts' shared release date as a competition to stir up controversy. Kanye expressed indifference initially to the whirlwind of discussion, eventually revealing that the competition would be good for hip-hop. 50 Cent thought that Kanye's plan to outshine him on his release date with more sales was good marketing but, in the end, thought he'd win because he's 50 Cent. The extended version of his reasoning just involved how much more 50 thought he mattered to hip-hop. Just to add a little more controversy, a month before the release date, 50 revealed, in an interview with SOHH, that his rap career would come to a close if Graduation sold more copies than Curtis. Come release week, 50 had to eat his words; Graduation moved 957,000 copies in its first week, Curtis moved 691,000. The competition ended in a landslide victory for Kanye, even if both astronomical sales figures were amazing in their own right. But, regardless, September 11, 2007 was a great day for hip-hop.
If friendly competition in release dates leads to great press, then 2018 is definitely a great year for hip-hop. Many of the genre's most eminent figures have dropped albums on the same day for no understandable reason other than for it to be because of friendly competition. In the streaming age, it makes it easier to consume multiple albums of content but the overload effect is still apparent. Especially if, on multiple occasions, the albums come out on the same day, meaning that sorting and sifting through each one can become a chore. But just how is this impacting hip-hop and the artists that have to occupy these dates?
Friday, May 25, saw the release of three major albums: TESTING by A$AP Rocky, DAYTONA by Pusha T, and Trap Holizay by Zaytoven. The whirlwind of interest that came with Pusha T's release, from the beef with Drake and the $85,000 Whitney Houston picture used for his cover, quickly wrestled away the attention from both TESTING and Trap Holizay. Of course, the LPs' rollouts also played a major part in this: Zaytoven's album came off the back of a standard announcement, A$AP Rocky's came ahead of a lukewarm single called "A$AP Forever," and Pusha T's album came as part of a gigantic G.O.O.D. Music package.
When the dust cleared, the sales didn't lie. DAYTONA moved 75,000 total units—39,000 from traditional album sales, and 36,000 from album-equivalent units. This second number comes from the album's seven-song nature which ultimately hurt his sales. TESTING sold 60,000 units altogether, which, combined with the fact that his album was 15 songs, means that the lion's share of attention that Pusha T received lent to the enormous difference in the former's favor. With DAYTONA debuting at No.3, TESTING at No.4, and Trap Holizay at No.78, the large difference must take into account with the circumstances surrounding how each album released at the same time.
There's also the type of artistry that impacts the cultural receptiveness of the work. Let's speak on TESTING and DAYTONA (Trap Holizay was a producer's compilation album covering a number of styles and influences). TESTING is vintage A$AP Rocky: bold, creative exploration with styles that he has little to no understanding about—it's called TESTING, after all. When listened to with a certain ear, especially next to something starkly more created in the image of lyrically-heavy hip-hop, the appreciation for it will be strained. DAYTONA was produced by Kanye West throughout, and the exotic, luxe production combined with a fresh Pusha T collection of coke raps means that the culture will respond more to it than a collection of experiments. Reviews for DAYTONA painted it as his best solo rap album yet, with Pitchfork saying that it's "a near-airtight exercise in flair and focus." The album also served as an introduction of sorts to Kanye's five-album collection of executive-produced albums, so much of the hype went in its direction and past it. With TESTING just being an experimental third album in Rocky's catalog, its hype was tremendously overrun. Not to mention, the lackluster rollout. Doom was spelt in the weeks leading up to the release dates of these albums and, pending a change in release, there was nothing that could be done about it.
When artists do muster up the strength to change the release dates, it generates a ton of conversation. Nicki Minaj's fourth album Queen was set to originally release on June 15—the same day as NASIR by Nas, Redemption by Jay Rock, and 4275 by Jacquees. On May 24, she revealed that she was going to push the album's release date back to August 10. But on July 31, under the guise of clearing a sample from the legendary Tracy Chapman, Nicki Minaj announced (after creating a public Twitter poll debating the idea) that the album would be pushed back one more week—to August 17, which she'd share with Ariana Grande's release of Sweetener, an artist that don't necessarily occupy her fanbase's attention. For an artist as big as Nicki is, there's no way that a sample would be the reason for this. However, she'd end up switching gears back and did, in fact, release it today (August 10).
Nicki's initial move fueled speculation that she was indeed being cognizant of the powerful artists that she'd been sharing the release date with in June. Maybe Mac Miller should have had that same energy. His latest album, Swimming, came out on August 3. Seeing that he shared a release date with both Travis Scott, the internet's favorite rapper because of his relationship with Kylie Jenner, and YG, one of the West Coast's biggest stars that's not Kendrick Lamar, it might have been smart to follow in Nicki's footsteps and withhold the album's release until a better time slot was open for him. But he pushed onwards, and now he threatens to be swallowed into commercial obscurity, even when Swimming is perhaps the most musical of the three albums. Travis' ASTROWORLD is projected to move a whopping 455-475,000 units in the first week, with YG's Stay Dangerous moving much less at 52-57,000. Mac Miller's set to move 44-48,000; not much less, but still a noticeable difference. (In fact, to be quite honest, it might have been best for both Mac Miller and YG to hold off from releasing anything.)
Although artists typically say that the sales of albums don't mean much in the long run, the truth is, to the labels that they occupy, they do. Labels care about recouping investments spent on rappers and about bragging rights. This is why the scheduling of albums used to be much more planned out, why Kanye and 50's same-day war was such a big deal. Artists aren't supposed to compete for sales. In the ideal world, everyone has their own date and time to shine. But in 2018 especially, so much music has come out that release dates have been engorged. For listeners, this is an amazing time for hip-hop. The thought of having your favorite artist's work along with three or four others on the same day is an amazing possibility. For reviewers on deadline, this reality can be hell. For the artists and labels who select these release dates so far ahead of time and then have to worry if someone else will release then as well, this time can be filled with anxiousness and dread.
So, do we celebrate the craziness or look for a return to less of it? There's not an easy answer to this question. For now, let's enjoy the competition and what it does for hip-hop. The albums' legacies will hopefully be carved by their actual merit and not the sales that labels salivate over. The hip-hop world remembers Graduation being a better-sounding album than Curtis, not the sales landslide that the former won. In the end, the quality of the music will always matter more than when it was released.
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