Almost a year ago, Tyler, the Creator released his grammy-winning hip-pop opus, Igor. To celebrate the upcoming anniversary, I’d like to revisit a quirky conflict surrounding the release that many may have forgotten, and that I believe underscores an important evolution in the music industry.
First, let me set the stage. DJ Khaled (who you probably recognize as the philosophizing big man behind the phrase “We Da Best!”) is a paragon of the mainstream, industry player. First, the title DJ is a little bit of an exaggeration as he rarely actually makes music himself. He’s more of a “glorified A&R man” in the words of music critic Anthony Fantano. His biggest contribution to the music scene is connecting pop stars with other stars and producers to record often chart-topping, radio-friendly ear candy. That’s not to say he isn’t talented at what he does. It takes skill to put together a hit, and DJ Khaled is a hit machine who earns a lot of money for himself and his label, but his music is the epitome of mainstream, easily marketable, widely appealing pop music. He found a way to play the game, and he had been winning it for years. So when DJ Khaled was all set to release Father Of Asahd in 2019, he had no reason to suspect that this would be any different. He was ready to celebrate another #1 record.
On the other side of this story is Tyler, the Creator, an artist that up until his previous record at the time, had been a little all over the place, but never on the main stage. Early in Tyler’s career he had been a founding member of Odd Future, a music collective that housed many young artists who would go on to have impressive careers of their own, and Tyler’s solo albums in that early 2010’s era were far from mainstream. His music was edgy, often depicting disturbing scenes in excruciatingly vivid detail. His career really hit a turning point with his 2017 release Flower Boy, which dialed back the rough, aggressive qualities of his sound in favor of a more approachable lyrical and production style. The album was extremely well received, going platinum in the U.S. and gold in most major foreign markets including Canada and the UK. Tyler had gained the trust of a wider audience by showing his abilities in a more mainstream context, which set expectations high for his next project, which turned out to be one of the most compelling concept albums of recent memory (not to mention a direct departure from the mainstream sounds of Flower Boy). 2019’s Igor was definitely experimental, creating an entirely new sound that blended cutting edge hip-hop trends with old-school soul music and modern electronica. It was experimental, but crucially, not unpopular.
Finally, we arrive at the conflict: both albums are released in the same week in May of 2019, and Tyler, the Creator’s Igor debuts at no. 1, prompting a confused DJ Khaled, upset about not achieving the top chart spot, to post an angry rant on social media before quickly removing it. It went as follows:
“I make albums so people can play it and you actually hear it. You know, driving your car, you hear another car playing it. You know, go to the barbershop, you hear them playing it. You know, turn the radio on, and you hear them playing it. It’s called great music. It’s called albums that you actually hear the songs. Not no mysterious sh*t that you never hear it.”
DJ Khaled’s argument highlights a key development in the relationship between mainstream and experimental music. Khaled, being so inline with conventional industry wisdom, was accustomed to the status quo of making music with wide-appeal, marketing it aggressively, and relying on radio airtime and sales as the metric for a successful album. While this has been true since the early days of radio, the internet age has reshaped the fundamentals of the industry, so much so that one of its most successful artists was completely unprepared for the results of his album’s debut.
Streaming has created space for experimental music to coexist with mainstream music on a much wider scale than ever before. In the time before streaming, if you wanted to spend your money on some music you had to walk into a store or flip through a catalog to choose what you would listen to. This meant your options were limited from the start based on what was for sale. On top of that, the only way you could know anything about the music you could choose from was to have heard it on the radio or to know the artist from previous works. Even as the music industry shifted into the digital age, buyers still had to commit to purchasing a song with little more than a 10-second preview with which to make a decision (and that’s if you were lucky enough to not get slapped with an album-only type deal).
This all meant that the line between mainstream and experimental music was clear and rigid. Only a few venerated artists were able to transcend these categorizations, perhaps most notably Miles Davis with Bitches Brew. However, these limitations on experimental music were shattered when people suddenly had access to a massive global catalog of music at a low monthly rate. All of a sudden, artists could deviate from the traditional pop formula and still find large-scale success through the internet. While it is true that it can still be difficult for experimental artists to grab people’s attention through all the noise on the internet, the dynamics of streaming mean that it’s not impossible for artists to release something that might not make it big on the radio but spreads like wildfire on digital platforms. Even the sudden rise of the album that surpassed both Father of Asahd and Igor just days after their release, Billie Eilish’ When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, owes a lot of its success to the ways streaming has reinvented the music industry.
And that’s what DJ Khaled gets wrong in his analysis of the pop charts. The world isn’t what it used to be. Conventional channels are no longer the only pathway to major success in the music industry, and now more than ever, large-scale availability doesn’t equal better music. If there is any story of this generation, it’s the story of democratized information, including but certainly not limited to the music industry. The evolving dynamic of mainstream vs experimental music is, at its core, a reflection of how society is being reorganized along new lines in the context of the internet. The future waits for nobody, not even angry bearded “DJ’s” with a soft spot for jet skis and posting life advice on social media.