On Music as Art or Commerce

This piece was written by spechaar contributor, Luyanda Madliwa. The text is a version of a speech he delivered in early 2023.

In 2019, famous movie director Martin Scorsese came under fire for daring to say that Marvel movies “aren’t cinema.” As cult members typically do, Marvel fans were quick to jump to the studio’s defence, and the statement’s backlash was so pronounced that Martin Scorsese himself had to write an op-ed in the New York Times to defend his position. I only recently read the article – a piece of writing that gave voice to many of the thoughts and opinions I’ve had on an entirely different medium, that of hip-hop music, and in particular, the question of whether music should be seen as art or as commerce. 

Drake albums to me are like what Marvel movies are to Martin Scorsese in that they don’t have “the unifying vision of an individual artist,” as Scorsese put it – or at least they don’t anymore. In 2014, Drake’s album, ‘Nothing Was The Same’, released to lukewarm critical reception, lost a Grammy Award to ‘The Heist’ by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, a far less acclaimed album. In the wake of his loss, the hip-hop community’s outcry was less about Drake’s snub from the Academy, and more about Kendrick Lamar’s instant classic good kid, ‘m.A.A.d. City’, not winning the Album of the Year award, to the point where Macklemore posted screenshots of a text he sent to Lamar to apologise for his win. 

Macklemore’s screenshots of his texts to Kendrick Lamar, following the former’s win over the latter at the Grammys.

‘Nothing Was The Same’, which Drake himself considered his ultimate masterpiece, was one made with the express purpose of being a classic hip-hop album, and it was indeed the album that he was most proud of. What was created and sent into the world as a magnum opus was instead now being overlooked for the work of his peers. From that point on, Drake has sought the greatest amount of commercial success possible – and, we may dare to add, has succeeded deeply in his endeavour. As the music landscape shifted to the streaming era we are in now, Drake hasn’t skipped a beat, no pun intended, by making both business and creative decisions that are clearly motivated by garnering streams. 

In an evermore diluted musical market, frequent album releases are almost a requirement to remain culturally relevant. In the past eight years, Drake’s longest gap between releases has been fifteen months. In both 2015 and in 2022, he released albums twice in the same year. It has been said by many that great art takes time, but for products and what can be seen as Drake simply meeting demand, the opposite is the definitive case. Delaying output is almost just as detrimental to the success of both the artist and their product as rushing an album is to its quality – the societal trend that the product seeks to capitalise on may have passed by the time of release, and it risks being all for nothing. 

Speaking of trends, it’s well worth noting that from the watered-down dancehall of ‘Views’ to the house beats of ‘Honestly, Nevermind’, Drake has never failed to adapt his sound frequently to fit the musical zeitgeist of the time. Whilst this adaptability is something that inspires other artists and is a rare trait to aspire to, it does take away from any sense of musical timelessness and chips away at any unique identity Drake may have once had. Further to this, that lack of individual flavour that Drake has is his lack of concern with album flow. 

Zander Tsadwa, founder of a well-known rap culture publication, encapsulated this thought quite eloquently in saying that “typically, a classic album has a conceptual, thematic or sonic thread that ties all the tracks together, and most Drake projects seem to prefer to shoot for the diversity of an iTunes playlist”. This is undeniably the best way to score a large number of commercially successful hits on each release, but it does make one feel that Drake views the album experience as something of an afterthought, as tracks are almost completely divorced from one another. One may seek to question whether Drake is now just chasing clicks, rather than pushing for quality. 

Another tactic in Drake’s click-chasing playbook is to make albums with as many songs as possible so as to capitalise on the fact that artists are paid per song stream. Whilst I commend Drake for not following the trend of releasing longer deluxe albums almost immediately after an album release, that doesn’t compensate for his own bloating of his tracklists, which is arguably just as egregious as the plague of deluxe albums. 

Artist NameSongs since 2015*Songs per album
Drake 17517.5
Kendrick Lamar5614
Lil Uzi Vert10717.8
Travis Scott6713.4
21 Savage16016
Kanye West 7715.4
J. Cole7715.4
Lil Baby14816.4
Figure 1: Drake’s tracklists compared to other popular hip hop artists*Songs on album releases

Given all that he does to ensure more commercial success, I feel that like Marvel, Drake is in the business of making “perfect products” and his approach has seen similarly record breaking success, and art is what he has sacrificed to get to that point. 

This piece continues in the second and final part, set to release on February 13th, 2023.