For many years I’ve been a firm advocate for “singles artists” and I’ve caught much flack over that. These are artists who seem to favour balancing their entire career on releasing singles only (or mostly) as opposed to putting together an entire album. And when they do release albums, those albums are usually few and far between and quite often than not, a good 20-30% of the album comprises of singles already released prior to the album. Apart from that, they may hop onto features here and there in order to stay relevant but that’s usually about it.
Now, from what I’ve just said, you probably feel one of two explicit ways – depending on who you are. You either feel like me, which is; you don’t see a problem with this as long as it works and (most importantly) the music slaps. Or…you may fall into the second category of people who despise this act with each and every fibre of their being, because…well – let’s dissect why…
Most people are of the notion that if you’re a recording artist, you MUST release an album. Otherwise, what are you doing bro? For reasons (which at this point still exceed me), they believe that each and every artist MUST have a story to tell and in this case, (I’m assuming) that story can only be told over a format of eight or more songs compiled & curated into one body of work. Regardless of what story there is to be told, what economic climate we live in and most importantly – what type of artist this is being expected of – they expect it nonetheless.
I’m sure this should go without saying but I’ll say it nonetheless, no two people are the same. And if that’s true, then by the same logic it is also safe to conclude that since all artists are people (last time I checked) – then no two artists are the same either. With that being said, let’s take an artist that perfectly embodies this. Enter Kiernan Jarryd Forbes, aka (wait for it) “AKA” *ba-dum-tsss*.
Mr. AKA has released 23 singles (not including as featured artist), some mixtapes, one complation album and a WHOPPING TOTAL of just three studio albums over a period of almost a decade.
Mr. AKA, who is arguably the greatest South African hip-hop artist of all time and without argument, definitely the most consistent South African hip-hop artist of all time had managed to stay relevant for a good seven years with just two albums under his belt, before releasing his third album this year. And he did all of that from the energy of just eighteen singles.
If I were to guess, I’d say that Mr. AKA was at some point a boy scout. Why? Well Law no. 9 of The Scout Law says, “A Scout is thrifty” and no other artist on the face of this country practices sparingness as much as AKA does. AKA doesn’t release quite often but when he does he treats every piece of music as if he were a pimp and it was his bottom bitch (Urban Dictionary that) and he will get every last cent and air of relevance that piece of music can bring him. Oh, what’s that you say? AKA released a new single and you heard it and it ain’t all that? Well it don’t matter if you like it or not because AKA will push that single until it can’t do anything for him anymore before you hear the next.
“Classics for you bastards, I got mad hits in the Tupperware”, raps Mr. AKA on Don’t Forget to Pray alongside Anatii. Another single that breathed more life into AKA’s 2-album run at the time. This is probably the most important bar of AKA’s entire discography because it gives us insight into the type of artist he is and how he approaches releasing and, what he expects in return from his music. He figuratively explains that he does in fact have a lot of prerecorded (potential) hit songs, but they’re still stashed away for now, waiting to be released some day if the day ever comes.
There has never been a year where this man has went cold since the day he released Victory Lap (2011) and you’d think that he must be flooding the airwaves then if that’s the case, but it’s actually the contrary. AKA usually releases one song at a time and then spends however much time and money into making that song perform the best that it can. There is no single that is left under-promoted. Even if the general public isn’t really feeling that song, he will still push it until you find yourself singing along to it when you were certain that that song was never going to make it (yes, I’m talking about One Time).
There are three years between Altar Ego (2011) and Levels (2014) and four years between Levels (2014) and Touch My Blood (2018). In that time he took between his second and third album, his main adversary, Cassper Nyovest had went on to release his debut album and two more albums after that. Meaning, within the time it took for AKA to decide to release another album, Cassper had released more albums than him even though Cassper’s first album came out three years after AKA’s first. Ok, I’m not gonna say anything about those two anymore, back to AKA…
As I’d mentioned at the beginning, this obviously drove a lot of people crazy and they went on to demand an album from AKA, viewing his lack of releasing an album in four years as some form of shortcoming (???). After that, AKA announced late 2017 that he was busy working on his third studio album and it should be expected before the year comes to an end. Not long after that announcement, he found himself making an EP (or album, if you wanna call it that) titled Be Careful What You Wish For with his frequent collaborator, Anatii – which was pretty quick to wrap up. Even after that, AKA didn’t jump back into the process of finishing his album. Instead, he put his time and effort into promoting two of the only singles of the album 10 Fingers and Don’t Forget To Pray until each song had reached its ultimate peak. This man was willing to push back his album date into the following year just to make sure no single single went to waste.
What was interesting to observe though, was how people ignored how commendable it is to achieve that. To be able to sustain one of the biggest careers in South African history for a seven year run with nothing but two albums and eighteen singles. All of this in an industry where your peers are releasing music faster than cockroaches breed. In case you haven’t gotten my point, what I’m saying is that that is fucking amazing!
But AKA isn’t an exception. He isn’t special. He’s just a more relevant, consistent and convenient example that I could write about. There are many artists like this across the world. Now, before I wrap this up, let’s quickly get into the history of “the album” and how and why it came to be…
Albums didn’t always exist. Yes, you read that right. Albums were actually reserved for successful artists back in the day. You had to (as an artist) have a number of well performing singles first, before you could ever be considered to be given the opportunity to record and release an album. So there we have it, folks, the single came before “the album”. No chicken & egg confusion here.
But that’s not just it. Back in the day, singles were not always sold. They were used as promotional material. “Promoting what?”, you ask…promoting concerts/performances/shows. Where the real money was and still is made in the music business. It’s only years later when when the way of consuming music changed did the powers that be realise that they could actually make more money from releasing albums (by repackaging singles, adding a few sleeper/filler songs in between and selling that) did “the album” actually start being a common thing. So there you have it, once again folks, albums were never about the artist’s story or voice – it has always been about the money.
This doesn’t discount the meaning behind many albums that were crafted with that intention though. No. It’s just to say, maybe we shouldn’t be so fixated on something we’ve chosen to give meaning to, because times change and we can always assign new meaning to something else. It’s also to say that not every artist MUST release album, because an album is not the end all and be all of an artist’s capabilities and not every artist’s best music even exists within their albums. We also live in a time where consuming music has changed drastically from the day “the album” used to be king. People hardly sit down for prolonged periods of time to listen to an album from beginning to end and if that’s the case, why should an artist who thrives on singles, be expected to put in the time & effort that it takes to make an album that won’t be worth any of it when they can just focus on one piece of music at a time?
The point is, no one way is the way. The most important thing is that as an artist, you should know what works for you and pummel that. If you make the best music and the best profits when releasing albums, do that. However, if you get those results when releasing your music as singles, then I specifically never want to hear a single album from you ever again!
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