When albums overstay/underplay their welcome
When Kanye West debuted his new album "ye" last month, hip-hop notables and his close collaborators gathered for an exclusive listening party in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
It was a long way to travel to hear an album just hours before it was released to the public. But for all the rustic glamour of the event -- bonfires! Kim Kardashian! -- after seven tracks that spanned just 23 minutes, the set was over. "Run that back!" someone in the crowd yelled as the final track tailed off into the nighttime sky, and the album was restarted from the beginning.
"Ye" is one of five albums Kanye has delivered in just as many weeks, beginning with Pusha T's "Daytona" and continuing with his Kid Cudi collaboration, "Kids See Ghosts," Nas' "Nasir" and Teyana Taylor's latest. All run a brief seven tracks, compressed for today's listener-on-the-go, and just enough time to feel like something is ... missing. "Ye," especially, feels incomplete due to its abbreviated length.
Though the record business has been upended by the prolonged death of the CD and the boom of streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, albums remain the ideal format for performers to make a single, declarative artistic statement.
But what's the ideal length for an album? If seven tracks is too short, what constitutes too long? And can a too-brief or too-long track length make or break a great album?
Seven songs is, in most cases, the bare minimum for a set of songs to be considered an album. Anything less is considered an EP, or an extended play; Digital Underground's 1991 collection "This is an EP Release" ran six tracks, so let's consider them the authorities on the matter. Still, there are exceptions, depending on the lengths of those tracks: dream-metal outfit Deafheaven's 2015 release "New Bermuda" runs just five songs, but spans 46 minutes, and definitely qualifies as an album, as does Miles Davis' five-track, 46-minute masterpiece "Kind of Blue."
On the high end, bloat can be a problem, especially for rappers who don't appreciate the art of a good edit. Eminem's shortest album is 16 songs, and even that's long by at least four tracks, and all of Drake's albums have been hurt by the feeling that he doesn't know when to say when. Meanwhile, Mississippi duo Rae Sremmurd just released a 27-track triple album titled "SR3MM," and Bay Area rapper E-40 released a 54-track triple album in 2012. (Try getting through that in a sitting.)It has been said that houseguests, like fish, begin to smell after three days. A good album is like a houseguest, and after about 12 tracks, things start to get fishy.
Plenty of great albums clock in at 12 tracks and still feel compact: Kendrick Lamar's "Good Kid, m.A.A.d. city," Nivana's "In Utero," Guns N' Roses' "Appetite for Destruction." Bruce Springsteen nailed his best album, "Born to Run," in just eight tracks, while nine was the magic number for Prince's "Purple Rain" and Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." Smashing Pumpkins made 13 their lucky number on "Siamese Dream" and there's nary an edit to be made.
For my money, though, 10 tracks is the perfect album length, enough time to settle in and find a groove, but not enough to get antsy by the end. Plenty of room to tell a story, not enough time to want to flip ahead to the finish. A 10-track album-- ideally running roughly 38 to 42 minutes -- iswell-suited for a run on the treadmill; nine tracks and you're looking for an outside song to wind down your run, 11 songs and your legs are starting to feel like logs.
Albums with 10 songs often feel like proclamations, like flags planted in the ground. Kanye's concise, 10-track "Yeezus" is brave, brash and notable for its brevity; 10 tracks was the exact amount of time Madonna needed to go on her electronic odyssey in "Music." Weezer's first three albums all weighed in at 10 songs, so did Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall," Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon," Radiohead's "Kid A," AC/DC's "Back in Black" and Bon Jovi's "Slippery When Wet." One more track and JBJ and the boys would no longer be livin' on a prayer, they'd be overstayin' their welcome.
It's not scientific, of course. But 10 tracks gives artists a sufficient amount of time to tell a story, make a point and leave the audience wanting more, and to have them shouting "run that back," in a good way.