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A Rational Conversation: Can The Delayed Album Curse Be Lifted?

Azealia Banks. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the artist

Azealia Banks.

Courtesy of the artist

"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on instant messenger or the phone with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.

Flashing back to 2012, Harlem-raised rapper and singer Azealia Banks was riding high after the surprise success of her self-released single "212" and began talking about her debut album, Broke With Expensive Taste. Over time, release dates, labels and names of producers for the project changed. Again and again. A collaboration with Pharrell went nowhere. Her combative Twitter presence did little good for her reputation. At the start of 2014, she publicly asked Universal, the major label that she says had already spent millions on her album, to drop her, and it eventually did. By the beginning of November she was considered by most within the music industry to be a nuisance at best and a pariah at worst. And Broke With Expensive Taste still wasn't out. Until it suddenly was.

On November 6, Banks announced via Twitter that the album was available on iTunes through the indie label Prospect Park. Not only was its release a surprise, so was the fact that most in the press and those early-adopter fans who had given up actually really like it. While some might have expected a jumble of commercially motivated compromises and outdated sounds — which would have been a fair assumption given the debuts from artists who found themselves in similar situations, like Angel Haze, Lil Mama or Saigon — they instead are celebrating Broke With Expensive Taste's experimentation and strong perspective.

In these financially unsteady times for the music industry, new talent is frequently being picked up, only to watch long-awaited albums released after being tinkered with to death, if they're released at all. Sure, it's been happening for decades, but now listeners feel more aware of forever-delayed albums because of the constant contact most artists (or artists' support teams) have with their fans through social media. In the wake of Broke With Expensive Taste's release, Ducker spoke with Lindsay Zoladz, New York magazine's pop music critic, about what else we haven't heard that is out there and whether the whole concept of the label-scrapped album will soon be a thing of the past.

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Did you think Broke With Expensive Taste would ever come out?

You know, within the last few months I finally reached the point where I believed it never would. And then, behold.

Right before you played it, were you excited, or was it more of a resignation thing where you felt like you had to do it as part of your job as a music journalist?

Ha, it was absolutely a resignation thing — which, as I wrote in my review for Vulture, made me feel a little guilty, given how much I was into her when she first came on the scene a few years ago. My resignation was half due to my disappointment with her post-"212" output, and half that "Oh great, another SURPRISE album that I have to review" feeling that every music journalist in 2014 is now intimately familiar with.

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At what point in your listening did you realize, "I might like this"?

Like, the second I hit play. The first track, "Idle Delilah," is great, and it opens with this unhurried, scene-setting confidence that really says, "This is an ALBUM, not just a collection of singles." What I like best about BWET is how it flows as an entire listening experience. It's more about the overall arc and vibe than any stand-out single, which is clearly the problem Universal had with it — they didn't hear an obvious hit.

Do you think that's really the culprit when there seem to be so many albums that never come out? That there's a cool artist that kind of knocks a segment of listeners' socks off and a major label sees potential in them, but in reality the artists are incapable or uninterested in producing obvious hits for a bigger audience?

You know, the irony of Azealia Banks's story is that it feels like something of an anomaly now. Sure, we've seen it with records like M.I.A.'s long-delayed Matangi and Angel Haze's debut earlier this year, but these days there are so many avenues through which artists can self-release music that this narrative (major label scoops up underground artist, imprisons her in a creatively restrictive contract, etc.) feels strangely old model.

I don't know. Maybe this stuff is in the front of my mind with this Azealia Banks album, as well Teyana Taylor finally putting out an album and Kid Sister's self-released thing from a few months ago. Those other two are somewhat different situations, but may come from a similar issue. It's got me thinking of the hot acts who signed to majors around 2008 to 2011 that didn't flourish. Maybe every generation of indie artists has to see labels not work for people who were ahead of the curve before everyone else figures out different models that are better for them. But what if Das Racist had fulfilled their deal with Sony in 2012 instead of breaking up? Do you really think we'd have a major label Das Racist album by now? I'm not sure that we would.

Yeah, although I wonder if this will be the last generation that has to see that play out. Now that any new artist can put their stuff up on Soundcloud or Bandcamp, I'm not even sure young musicians sitting around dreaming of million-dollar contracts with major labels is even a thing anymore. Or maybe it's only a dream of the kind of artists who are hell bent on world domination, as Azealia Banks claimed to be when she first came out. The artists that you still see thriving in the major label system seem to be the ones who have come to terms with the fact that they have to link up with brands, genetically engineer monster hits and rely on a lot of extra-musical work too. Of course, I'm thinking of Taylor Swift and her huge sales, but also someone like Nicki Minaj (an artist Banks was compared to a lot in the beginning), who often talks about herself as a kind of rapper/mogul in the tradition of Jay Z and Diddy. (She makes it sound like a threat on "I Am Your Leader": "I'm a brand, b——, I'm a BRAND.") But of course, we're still waiting on her long-delayed record too...

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Maybe all young musicians aren't sitting around dreaming of a million-dollar contract, but if one is put in front of them, it's hard to turn it down, especially if they've been broke for a while. Then it's a question of whether they can accept what is necessary of them to thrive in that situation. And as you said, there seems to be a limited number of artists who not only can accept it, but also are willing to make all the decisions and put in all the work to make it happen. Then they're still not guaranteed to get their albums out, much less have the hits that are hoped for.

There's also the whole complication of artistic development happening in the digital fishbowl. New artists used to be able to work on their first albums with anonymity and privacy and without really engaging in the narrative forming around them. What was detrimental to Banks is that she was watching — and in a lot of cases, prodding — the conversation happening on Twitter about her album while she was making it. Contrast that with someone like Lorde, who uploaded "Royals" and her whole first EP to Soundcloud when she was a nobody (albeit a nobody with a major label development deal).

So are there still remnant artists who signed deals somewhat recently who have never put their debut album out or who haven't put out a new album out in years that you want to hear?

For me, the Holy Grail of as-yet-unreleased albums is the official debut from the reclusive London artist Jai Paul. He's signed to the indie label XL, but I still think he fits the bill here. Last year there was that whole mysterious incident where something that someone was passing off (and selling!) as his debut album made its way to Bandcamp, but it was quickly pulled when the album was revealed to be just demos stolen from his laptop. (Or were they? There are probably still some conspiracy theorists who believe it was a way-way-way in advance publicity stunt, and it certainly drummed up quite a bit of buzz.)

So why haven't we heard the real album yet?

No one seems to know but Jai Paul! I've heard rumors that he's a perfectionist who has been tinkering with it for years, but he's managed to maintain an aura of mystery for a long time. No small feat on the internet.

It's funny that Iggy Azalea's The New Classic, one of the biggest pop albums of 2014, had its release date pushed back for over a year and needed four singles before it finally came out. We have this idea that these types of albums are damaged goods, either commercially or artistically or both, but do you think that maybe that's not the case?

Good point. I never could have predicted Iggy's popularity (and still fail to understand exactly how it happened).

Are there gender issue in all of this? Do female artists who built followings for themselves, usually online, have a harder time getting the albums they want to make released by others? I'm thinking of Azealia Banks here, but also the aforementioned Teyana Taylor, Angel Haze and M.I.A with her third album, plus Maluca and others.

I'm sure that's at play here somehow. As a culture, we definitely adhere to sexist language when it comes to artists who refuse to compromise their art — an uncompromising male artist is "a genius," an uncompromising woman is "difficult." The whole #FreeFiona controversy with Fiona Apple's long-delayed 2005 album Extraordinary Machine is evidence of that, too.

It's interesting you bring up Fiona Apple. We've mainly been talking about new artists since as listeners and journalists we're more acutely aware of when new talent doesn't put out their first big album because, as you said, the artist development process now feels so much more public. When the album doesn't come out, it feels like we witnessed a huge buildup to nothing. I'm sure there are many more follow-up albums that are "long gestating" or being continuously futzed with than we are aware of. And I'm not talking even about the big ones, like D'Angelo's Voodoo follow-up. For example, I had no idea Jenny Lewis had been trying to make a new album for years until she talked about her struggles doing it when The Voyager finally did come out this year.

Yeah, I think we're seeing that a lot this year, with release dates getting pushed back. Nicki Minaj's Pinkprint keeps getting pushed back, Charli XCX's new album got pushed back, Lil Wayne's Carter V, and so on. A lot of times, I see those kinds of delays as label panic, too, but maybe we're always primed to think pessimistically of the old "label doesn't hear a hit" scenario. Last week I interviewed Usher, who recently pushed back his eighth album, UR, indefinitely and decided to tour instead. When I asked him about it, [his explanation] seemed very logical — an artist who's that established in his career should be granted the time to step back and do it right, outside of the frenzy of the album-every-two-years cycle.

It almost seems like in some cases it would be better for artists to just keep releasing singles to keep their name out there (if necessary) and not even mention an album or a release date for it until both the artist and the label are satisfied with what they have.

Exactly.

When I worked at an "emerging music" magazine last decade, during a time when musicians were becoming more and more accessible, we repeatedly had to teach new staff members that the artists were the least likely people involved with the album to know when it was really coming out. Instead, you had to ask the label people or the manager to get the real answer. Do you think that's still accurate, or have artists gotten more control of when their music comes out?

It's case by case but I would say artists have more control over music they release outside of the album cycle, which has become just as important.

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Are you surprised Action Bronson hasn't put a major label album out yet?

I didn't even realize he hadn't! What I'm realizing is that I don't think in those terms — major label vs. indie label — as much as I used to. Again, that's why something about the Azealia Banks story feels old model to me. More and more there's a sense that, although those sorts of distinctions might influence the way a record does (or doesn't) get made, once it is unleashed into the ceaseless flow of the internet, music is just music.