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From The Grio –I was listening to rapper J. Cole’s latest record, “Return of Simba,” ironically, in his hometown Fayetteville, N.C., admiring how the artist had skillfully added another chapter to the Simba narrative he created three mixtapes ago on The Come Up and thought to myself, ‘Wow, this would’ve taken three albums to do in the past.’

The hunger of “Simba” on The Come Up. The accomplished but not content “Grown Simba” on The Warm Up. The assured but subdued excitement of “Return of Simba”, like someone of the cusp of glory, he was eagerly waiting his chance to share with the world what he’s been brewing.

Before ever-releasing his major label debut, J. Cole had worked a storyline from start to finish without even addressing it directly on The Blow Up. What’s left to say on the album? Will listeners tire of his voice and look for something fresh elsewhere before it drops?

The explosion of mixtape culture has made every rising artist into a studio rat and given every listener ADHD because of the endless stream of free content. More importantly, mixtapes are changing the very arc of an artists’ career.

Think about it.

You used to have to have a hit single to drive the sales of your debut album. Now, artists can sell a debut based of the strength of their mixtape track records. People are touring internationally, selling out theaters and hole-in-the-wall venues alike off the strength of dope mixtapes. Some, like The Cool Kids, successfully put their initial offering on the back burner for half-decades in favor of just consistently dope music with no real purpose.

I’ve seen crowds for mixtape artists with huge viral presences sellout venues that widely considered legends draw lukewarm audiences to with everyone in the building knowing every line like it’d been released 10 years prior and played at every cookout.

The quality is so much better than the extended track list of cuts unworthy of an album and freestyles over other people’s beats we remember with obnoxious DJ screaming and cutting over them with weird echo effects. Now mixtapes are getting album love. Creative artwork, promotion and serious, thoughtful production instead of looped radio hits.

The best example is Drake. He was able to repackage So Far Gone, adding a few new tracks, re-mastering some older cuts and re-releasing it in stores to moderate success before dropping that debut that fell short of the buzz the initial mixtape offered.

Even the content is different.

Where in the past an artists’ first album told the story of the environment. Their day-to-day, the hometown anthem, the struggle as fresh as it can be. The rawness of that initial release used to me one of the things people looked back on with a smile. Thinking about how Reasonable Doubt had sewn seeds for Jay-Z or listening to I’m Serious makes you happy and ultimately blown away by T.I.’s rise from the trap to the box office. Now an artist like Big K.R.I.T. is far from a freshman in our minds after releasing K.R.I.T. Wuz Here and Return of 4eva and creating expounding on his original subject matter.

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