New Houston Rap

Does the Mixtape-EP Release Strategy Still Matter in Rap?

What is the difference between an album, a project, a mixtape and an EP?

The question comes at the end of a year in which the mixtape has been rendered all but dead, but EPs have ballooned to as many as 14 tracks. Free projects aren't considered albums and "projects" — full-length bodies of work with original production — are considered to not even be projects. When Charles Darwin was having fun naming things, I doubt he would have predicted that three centuries later people would have found such a conundrum in naming and quantifying music.

There is no scientific theory behind naming music, although there are plenty of rules for qualifying it — if that makes sense. Only rap music is beholden to this; other genres like pop or rock merely go by the single/album format. It is rap music for which the demand for free material grew to a fever pitch over the last decade, but now finds itself in a confusing time. A multitude of releases from one artist will either be heard or be lost to an ether of message boards, Twitter discussion or general apathy. It used to be the in-between for fans and an artist — a free release meant that a rapper didn’t have to mind the constricts of what an “album” dictated. For the last three decades or so, mixtapes have been determined as free releases. Their original bylaws called for a rapper to jump on a ton of someone else’s production (“industry beats”) and try their hand at them. 50 Cent and Trey Songz to a degree morphed the idea of a “mixtape track” when they outright made new songs out of someone else’s material. Before the turn of the decade, artists had been given a solid blueprint: build a fan base, record a string of mixtapes, and follow through with an album. It took Drake three cracks at it before 2010’s Thank Me Later. It took J. Cole three attempts between 2009 and 2011 before fans got his debut album in 2012. Mixtapes used to make stars out of people; the most current example happens to be 21 Savage, but not long after he followed his fellow Atlanta artists such as Young Thug, Future, Migos and more.

The problem with a mixtape is that in the streaming age, each one represents a lost opportunity for someone to make money. Regardless of who tells you what, musicians deserve every bit of coin for their art they can get. Now, this is not to say that people have not sold mixtapes before via various platforms. That would be incorrect. It is to say that most people released mixtapes and didn’t charge you for them, because that would mean whoever owned the original beat was entitled to some coin too. Extended Plays should last anywhere from four to seven songs, or more than likely no more than 25-30 minutes. A project was a combination of both original lyrics and production that wasn’t necessarily sold for profit. And an album? Well, we get that.

A recent contender to the difference in that model is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton Mixtape. Yes, in name it is a mixtape, yet it is merely a refining of a number of Hamilton tunes with the help of a bevy of strong rappers: Nas, Chance The Rapper, Black Thought of the mighty Roots crew. It’s not an mixtape for people who’ve never seen Hamilton, but for people who have obsessed over it and laughed at how it drew national criticism for the most ridiculous of reasons. The Hamilton Mixtape isn’t truly a mixtape as much it is an audio bow that ties those hip-hop-inspired show tunes and actual rappers together. Oh, and it’s going to be the No. 1 album in the country before J. Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only supplants it. Yeah, Hamilton.

Let it be completely understood: rap fans love albums that clock in at 10-12 tracks. They love extended plays that linger for 5-7 tracks, or don’t exceed anything beyond 25 minutes. Houston artists have gone into complete overload with blurring the lines on this. In the last three months alone, no less than six meaningful projects have skirted by being properly labeled a mixtape, album, EP or project. You may have missed them. You probably should not have missed them.

DOEMAN, Barrio God, Vol. 1
What Is This: A free project that is basically a holdover until Cassius drops. It is considered a project due to the original production from Trakksounds. It also features two songs previously on Doeman’s Outer Body Experience and those three records are all for sale, “No Limit ’91” and “American Me."

Length: 12 tracks (9 previously unreleased), 36 minutes.

So This Is a/an...: A project for the reasons I listed earlier. One, Doeman is a more than perfectly capable rapper. His only real discernible fault is that he compares himself to ghosts the same way rappers who rap way too much about actual hip-hop do. This isn’t as terrible as how J. Cole attempts to make himself a very great and engaging protagonist (cause he’s not). But it’s something that normally spells doom for young rappers. Y’know, constantly swinging at a genre and their displeasure with it for the sake of talking smack.

Best Song: It could be argued that “Same Way,” the trio cut with Dodi; San Antonio’s Bamsworth Belli (my favorite new non-Houston rapper of 2016); and Propain takes the cake for its aggressiveness and the way everyone brings it. I wanted to argue it. But Doeman has vastly improved in one approach: songwriting. “Soul Food” is the stronger version of “Left Eye x Aaliyah." Dodi comes off both cocky yet sincere about himself in the presence of the right woman; he approached something similar with “Jodeci” off of 2014’s Gold Blooded LP. “Soul Food” is the best song on Barrio God Vol. 1.

DYLAN COHL, Cowboys Jones 1.5: Days In The East

What Is This:
Dylan Cohl created a follow-up to his Cowboy Jones 2000 & Beyond tape. Rocky Banks, who has pretty much been quiet since October and Susan Carol, who is one of the more underrated DFW to Houston singers around join for Days In The East.

Length: 11 tracks, 39 minutes

So This Is a/an...: A project through and through. It’s not exactly EP length since it crosses over the 8 track threshold. You wouldn’t consider it a mixtape either since there’s original production throughout (and Cohl himself is a hell of a producer in his own right).

Best Song: The obvious answer to best song on Days In The East belongs to “Don’t Need It”. Cohl hails from Port Arthur, Texas, same home of Uncle Bun and Pimp Chad. The word trill to him means a hell of a lot more than it would in say New York or around the globe. The city already has a couple of defacto strip club anthems, “Lil Saint” should be the next. But if one really wanted to capture who Dylan is based off one track and one alone? It’s the melodic “Don’t Need It”. “Flowers” with Susan Carol allows him to let off some steam in regards to relationships. “Credit” with Rocky Banks comes off attempting to find focus but feels scatterbrained and rigid. “Don’t Need It” takes skittering snares and a sleepy guitar and puts Cohl in the middle of a world where anything is possible and nothing is limitless - even from a boy from the oil town that claims Jimmy Johnson as the greatest coach it ever produced. Well, second greatest if you consider Pimp C a CEO.

GUILLA, Rap, Trap & Drums Vol. II
What Is This? A collaborative effort between five people on a level of Houston rap that finds benevolence without adhering to stereotypes and a certain lane.

Length: 7 tracks, 21 minutes.

So This Is a/an...: Guilla’s Rap, Trap & Drums is an EP, although it could also be called a sledgehammer to whatever concept you have about rap. Or people with dreadlocks. Or your concept of Guilla in particular.

Best Song: The way this is set up, it could be separated into seven different looks at one. For starters, five different people contribute beats, from iLL-Faded to Dwillz and Folk Hero. Guilla is in full angry-stomp mode throughout. One could have argued that “OMG,” with Mark Drew, deserves the crown for Best Track on this EP but actually “OMFG,” with Gio Chamba and Buckamore, owns this EP. Not because of its xylophone-induced outright ridiculousness but because of the Spanish chorus, Buckamore’s guest verse and Guilla pushing all sensibilities of decorum for the sake of freewheeling and having fun. Latin trap FTW!

NIQUE, Dazed & Confused
What Is This? An EP where the protagonist is either coping with loss with a number of different vices. Either weed or drink. It’s a dark project from Nique because a) it's supposed to be; and b) more than likely, it was recorded there.

Length: 8 tracks, 21 minutes.

So This Is a/an...: Honest to God, for-sale EP that is available on most streaming platforms. Nique wants his dollars to match up with the quality of his raps.

Best Song: The warped strings and drums of “Crushed Ice,” combine with Nique’s croaky, almost quixotic voice to yield a solid track featuring him and and J. Greer. However, the best track here contains the familiar horns and handclaps of Earth, Wind & Fire. The happiness and rancor of “On Your Face,” from The Elements, gives way to Nique admitting he’s been confined to his own living hell. That song would be “PTSD.” Given the fact that he’s battled depression for most of the year and watched his brother die, he lists off a hundred questions while entrusting himself not to fall into the thick, molasses waters of paranoia.

PAPA G, Anxiety
What Is This? The debut from Papa G, proud owner of one of Houston’s more clever Twitter handles in @MeyerXansky. You know, a portmanteau of fabled crime boss Meyer Lansky and the drug Xanax? Yeah, it may be a better rap name than Papa G, which sounds straight off a Bronx corner in 1993, but let us move on.

Length: 16 tracks, 55 minutes.

So Is This Is a/an...: According to Papa G, Anxiety is a mixtape that appears both on a streaming service (Apple Music) or can be downloaded for free. In other words, its one of the few tapes that shoots for legitimacy by being on Apple Music while also maintaining a sense of not going there exclusively.

Best Song: “Faded” w/ Fre$h. On a tape that pretty much circles around how much smack Papa G can talk, he falls deep into a particular pocket on “Faded.” The whistle and laid-back breeze of “Dipset” would lead you to believe that it’s the best track. “Social Junkies,” with XO and Tim Woods, is armed with the most emerging star power; two very different entities at that. “Faded” jumps from the opening note and the former Short Dawg/Elvis Fre$hly doubles down on what product Papa G is already moving hard. Speaking of Fre$h, we have to have a come to Jesus moment. Not about him in particular, but for how long he’s been doing this, how consistent he’s been twisting lazy-tongued raps built around codeine and weed consumption, and how every launching point we’ve entrusted with far less talented rappers, we’ve overlooked him. Maddening.

WHYJAE, Lil Rarri EP
What Is This? WhyJae stepping into his alter-ego for a fully realized project. That alter ego is less about bars and more about having fun and catching melodies. He can't help himself at times and he can still pull a tongue-twister out of his ass. Billboard premiered this, giving WhyJae his biggest piece of press ever; well deserved and yet, not nearly enough to match his actual skill.

Length: 8 tracks, 22 minutes.

So Is This a/an...: EP: Clocking in around the same amount of time as an episode of Modern Family, it's an EP.

Best Song: “Dion Waiters." Let’s count all of the references on this sleepy yet fun record: Dion Waiters (of course), Danny Granger, the Indiana Pacers, the Texas Rangers, the Oakland Raiders, Vin Baker, the Portland Trail Blazers, Kurt Angle, Walt Fraizer, Craig Sager, the Los Angeles Lakers, Derrick Favors, Jerry West, Barry Sanders, Cam Newton, Danny Tanner and Blake Griffin. Had it any type of serious urgency? It would come close to being the modern-day version of Fat Bastard, Addiction & Lil Ronnie’s “Throwbacks.”

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Brandon Caldwell has been writing about music and news for the Houston Press since 2011. His work has also appeared in Complex, Noisey, the Village Voice & more.
Contact: Brandon Caldwell