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30 Minutes or Less: The Art of the Short Album
By: Cameron Rogers
What a relief that 2020 was not a lacklustre year for music. Artists such as Charli XCX, Gorillaz, Black Dresses and most notably Fiona Apple have released head turning material while we’ve been confined to our bedrooms. The last thing that we needed in 2020 was a lull in content as some predicted, and fortunately this did not materialize.
For me personally, the stand out project of 2020 was UNLOCKED, an eccentric hip hop album by future rap great Denzel Curry and “MF Doom” inspired producer Kenny Beats. This project is watertight. There isn’t a dull moment on the album, with every Curry bar being killer while also being supported by an eclectic range of samples by Beats. Another thing that stands out about UNLOCKED is its brevity, being just shy of 18 minutes.
There is always a risk in restricting a project's run time. Sacrificing minutes can result in ideas not being developed enough, leaving many albums or EPs feeling half baked or unfinished. However the flip side to this is when one has a short project that has been executed well, it’s so goddamn delicious that it's like you’ve used up a months worth of dopamine in one sitting when you get through it. UNLOCKED is a case in point.
Listening to this project (repeatedly) did get me thinking about the value of the short album. In this day and age when attention spans are notoriously terrible, these types of albums may need to become more widespread. People fool themselves into thinking they don’t have the time to sit down with a long or even normal sized album. I am often guilty of this. If someone tells me to check out an album, I’ll usually pass if it is over 45 minutes long. However, if someone suggests, say, Kids See Ghosts, seeing the length endears me to check it out as I know it won’t take up too much time. That album then acts as a gateway to the artist in question's other material. Using the prior example, I would have never bothered exploring Kid Cudi if I had not come across Kids See Ghosts (though I am not entirely thankful that I did end up diving into his back catalogue).
The short album can also serve as a gateway to a previously unexplored musical genre. There are plenty of people out there who think they might enjoy thrash or punk and want a bitesize sample. How convenient it is that Slayer’s Reign in Blood and Ramones’ self-titled album are adequately petit lengths to get a good taste for the respective genres.
The more salient point is that if an artist can produce a quality short album, its execution will be so spot-on that the album itself is “being concise” as an art form. This is where the expression “all killer no filler” comes to mind. In order to work, a short album needs to avoid feeling rushed in its delivery, while still fleshing out the musical ideas enough to resemble something conceptual. This is why it is so ridiculously impressive when this delicate balance is achieved.
I am not trying to disregard longer projects. There is a reason why The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is as long as it is, and it’s not because it is dragging. However the experience of digesting a long album to consuming a short album is so different that they are almost two entirely separate artistic mediums. A long album really encourages you to chew over the concepts being explored, whether those be foreboding or heartwarming. On the flip side, a well executed shorter album captures the same lofty themes and presents them in a way that packs a punch within the run time. It is the music equivalent of a film director talking about how they had to cut their favourite scenes from the film because they either didn’t fit the run time or were not absolutely necessary.
Again, take Kid’s See Ghosts as an example. Within this album you get a full view into Kanye West’s struggle with bipolar disorder and Kid Cudi’s battle with depression. Within the 24 minute run time you get hope (Feel the Love), hubris (Fire, 4th Dimension, Freeee), recovery (Reborn), with everything being resolved through a transition back to hope and the opportunity for a better life for our two artists (Kids See Ghosts, Cudi Montage). All of this is done alongside beautiful production, original songwriting and heartstring pulling lyricism. Neither artist really needed to say anything more.
This well-roundedness can equally be extended to themes of bombastic audacity explored on UNLOCKED, the resilient anti-establishment themes of protest on Fela Kuti’s Expensive Shit, and the grim picture of humanity painted on Reign in Blood. All three of these are under thirty minutes, and needn’t be longer. All of the aforementioned themes have been explored through longer albums that are equally as acclaimed, yet this does not make these longer projects intrinsically better. Matter of fact, the two separate art forms of the long album and the short album stand very much shoulder to shoulder if they are done well.
I won’t stop listening to UNLOCKED for a while. The same can be extended to several other projects mentioned within this article. This is not despite the album's short length, but because of it. The point of this article is to encourage those of you who might be opposed to petit projects to give them a fair shot. We are told size isn’t everything (thank God), and this applies in spades to music projects. The art of the short album is a difficult art to execute, yet a rewarding one to consume.