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Calvin Harris and DJ Khaled's newest albums are good for streaming — and bad for music

Their latest records are made solely to appeal to playlist culture.

2017 BET Awards - Show
DJ Khaled on stage with his son Asahd at the 2017 BET Awards.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

This June saw the back-to-back releases of new albums from two of pop music’s biggest producer-artists, DJ Khaled and Calvin Harris. And while Khaled’s Grateful outperformed Harris’s Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 by roughly 81,000 units in their respective first weeks on the Billboard 200 albums chart, the far more telling number about the two star-studded albums is one they share: one-third, or the rough percentage of each album’s units comprising traditional physical purchases. The rest come from digital sales and especially streaming: Both Grateful and Funk Wav Bounces can attribute more than half of their first-week impressions to streaming units.

In 2014, Billboard revamped its metrics to incorporate streaming and digital purchases alongside traditional physical purchases, focusing on an album’s “consumption,” or album-equivalent units, over its physical sales. And the consumption numbers for Grateful and Funk Wav Bounces don’t lie: These are albums that live and die not by their physical album sales but by their streaming success.

Streaming reached a critical mass in summer 2016, and since then we’re seeing more and more albums that eschew linear, front-to-back consumption and clear narratives in favor of a cohesive vibe that provides the listener with the opportunity to self-curate their favorite tracks, or to get what they want from a record by hearing its singles in another playlist compiled by a professional curator. This mentality can lead to some indispensable singles, to be sure. But the albums those singles appear on often have minimal staying power, because they don’t reward listeners looking for a deeper relationship with an album beyond as a source of bouncy background music that’ll be replaced every Friday when new releases come in.

Essentially, records like Grateful and Funk Wav Bounces are great for streaming services, but they don’t do much for listeners seeking a thematically or sonically rich record they can sink their teeth into, and they continue to put more power in the hands of the services rather than the artists. Even more so than Drake, who dubbed his last project a playlist instead of an album, Harris’s and Khaled’s new records represent the contemporary apex of streaming and playlist culture.

DJ Khaled’s latest is a lukewarm sampler of 2017 hip-hop

2017 BET Awards - Show
DJ Khaled performing his hit “I’m the One” with Chance the Rapper and Migos’s Quavo.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

DJ Khaled’s latest clocks in at 23 tracks and nearly 90 minutes, filled with enough shouts of “Another one!” and “We the best” to make it virtually unlistenable in its entirety (potentially by design). Responses to Grateful have been lukewarm and critical of its starry guest list, with New York magazine’s Craig Jenkins dubbing the record “a hopeless slog whose sporadic successes happen in spite of themselves,” and Entertainment Weekly’s Eric Renner Brown noting that “Grateful‘s major guests sound like they’re mailing it in.”

Though it has a few strong moments, like the Rihanna and Bryson Tiller collaboration “Wild Thoughts” or the bruising throwback “Good Man,” the album is an assembly of sonic trends held together by Khaled’s catchphrases and force of personality. If Khaled wasn’t seemingly the most earnest and sincere person working in music, Grateful would come off as incredibly cynical — and even so, it still feels like an album that can be shuffled or disassembled without sacrificing an ounce of its intended effect.

Grateful is an overflowing cauldron of contemporary hip-hop that essentially doubles as an ill-conceived extension of Spotify’s influential Rap Caviar playlist. It has plenty of ho-hum trap balanced out by occasional deviations into dancehall and throwback street rap, though there’s no graspable logic to the project’s structure. The record is filled with known quantities like Future, Migos, Drake, Beyoncé, and Jay-Z, all of whom sound at least one standard deviation less engaged than they did on their most recent solo projects. Younger talents like Chance the Rapper and 21 Savage pop up, but in safe, borderline edgeless contexts in which they seem present only to prove that Khaled still has his finger on the pulse even as he increasingly becomes a household name and walking/treadmilling meme.

Grateful is effectively a distillation of the past 18 months of hip-hop, but with much of the ruggedness and sonic innovation polished away so that all that’s left is a gleaming surface. “I Can’t Lie” approximates the Middle Eastern-inspired sound that Future successfully employed on his self-titled record from earlier this year, but its flute melody is smothered in layers of generic trap production. “Major Bag Alert” is the sleepiest Migos have sounded during their blistering recent run, and the track feels like it’s 90 percent grating hook.

Overall, it’s a record aimed at a rap listener who wants to have a passing familiarity with the relevant names in the culture, but not to hear them in a context where they have the time and freedom to say anything unique or especially insightful. With the exception of a couple of tracks (especially Sizzla’s part on the album’s intro), pretty much every vocalist gives the impression that they’re hurrying to get out the door in time for the next verse to start.

Funk Wav Bounces is tight and cohesive, but had its personality polished away in the process

Calvin Harris Album Launch Party
Harris performing at his album launch party in June.
Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for CH US Inc.

That same carousel feeling is all over Calvin Harris’s Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1, which might have an even more impressive (and tedious) guest list than Grateful. The veteran EDM pop producer began his career as a dependable hitmaker without a sonic signature (scroll through his discography and it’s guaranteed you’ll find at least one inescapable radio single from the past five years you didn’t realize he had his hands in), but now he’s finally got a calling card of punchy bass lines and tropical synths. With Funk Wav, he’s transitioned to a chrome-finished futuristic R&B sound that is as edgeless as the recent Twitter redesign, and while the album isn’t bound together by a single bombastic personality like Khaled, the sonic uniformity has the same effect.

With a sub-40-minute run time and just 10 songs, Funk Wav Bounces is an already meticulously shaped playlist ready for the beach, the open road, or your hellish morning commute spent fantasizing about said locations. Even its generic-yet-hip title and pink-tinted beach cover art feel like they could be the image that accompanies a professionally curated Spotify or Tidal playlist.

Though Harris has no vocal presence on Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1, his impact is felt in the album’s tight musical cohesion and in its absolute lack of stakes. As with Grateful, reactions to the record have been mixed, with the Washington Post’s Mark Kennedy praising how “Harris weaves all the voices, styles and grooves into a coherent, breezy hip-hop and EDM tapestry,” but the Independent’s Andy Gill dubbing it a “typical contacts-book R&B exercise.”

Funk Wav Bounces differs from Grateful in that it clearly prizes sonic cohesion, but its stacked guest list gives the impression that Harris is checking boxes to make sure there’s something for everyone, resulting in a record that feels more like a house tour of Hollywood than something brought to life through artistic collaboration. There are ascendant rappers such as Lil Yachty and D.R.A.M., left-field R&B acts like Frank Ocean and Khalid, and even a handful of crossover stars including John Legend, Nicki Minaj, and Katy Perry, all of whom for the most part make their presence felt and then exit stage left. “Don’t Quit,” a nondescript track on Khaled’s album featuring Harris, Travis Scott, and Jeremih, plays like a clear Funk Wav castoff.

The live instrumentation is fun, with woozy slap bass and guitar and synth lines that are a mix of Day-Glo brightness and nostalgic Miami sunset. Still, there’s so little variance in tempo and specificity in the lyrics that the entire project feels like a wave lapping over you for 40 minutes, leaving behind little but a few flecks of sand and a hazy, post-sugar-high daze.

The lead single “Slide” works because of Frank Ocean’s enigmatic delivery and a bouncy verse from Migos’s Takeoff, but even those two elements seem fused from two radically different interpretations of the subject matter geared toward very different listeners. The other best cut is “Faking It,” which thrives because of Kehlani’s unabashed candor and Yachty’s bizarre yet visceral lyrics (“Remember that time I put those pepperonis on your face / Made you a creature / Now I think about you every single time I eat pizza”). Plus, Harris makes a smart decision to have the percussion shift between a skittering Miami bass sound and a bona fide slow jam.

Still, Funk Wav is a record built around a vibe; it’s a prepackaged summer playlist masquerading as an album. That doesn’t mean the music it contains is bad — it’s perfectly solid for what it is — but it’s essentially a collection of different stabs at the song of the summer tied together by a more committed version of the ’80s pop pastiche that’s dominated pop music for the past half-decade.

These records bode well for the industry, but not for listeners and artists

An artist more focused on making a record that functions as complete artistic statement may have a much closer ratio of physical album sales to album equivalent units than that one-third figure shared by Harris and Khaled. For example, Father John Misty had 33,000 of his 35,000 first-week sales turn out to be pure album sales, but to date, no track on his 2017 record Pure Comedy has had more than 5.2 million individual Spotify streams. Even Kendrick Lamar, whose album DAMN racked up massive streaming numbers, could attribute 353,000 of its 603,000 first-week impressions to physical album sales.

But physical sales don’t mean as much as they used to, particularly for artists like Khaled and Harris. From a purely financial standpoint, what Khaled and Harris are doing with these albums is quite savvy: With streaming finally starting to drive profit for the industry, records like Grateful and Funk Wav are well-positioned to benefit from catering to a streaming-based listening model that prizes individual songs over a complete album. And because their albums are less reliant on physical sales, they stand to lose a lot less money by having their albums split up and dispersed into the various playlists they were seemingly designed to help populate.

Calvin Harris Album Launch Party
Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 2’s album release party in June.
Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for CH US Inc.

Many people turn to playlists because they trust or like the creator, and Khaled is the living personification of that. His absurd lifestyle (as documented on Snapchat) allows listeners to feel connected to him without having to do any active research into his discography or backstory, so there’s a level of familiarity built in. Harris, meanwhile, has no vocal presence on his album, so where Khaled is playing the role of bombastic Apple Music DJ, Harris is more akin to the invisible hand of Apple’s A-list playlist series or the anonymous work of Spotify’s curators.

Harris is credited as the sole producer on Funk Wav, and Khaled is a producer or co-producer on 13 of Grateful’s 23 songs, but both have had to field questions throughout their careers about just how big of a part they play in crafting their own tunes. So it’s fair to wonder whether fans of Khaled and Harris are showing up for the musical perspectives of the title artists, or if they’re simply looking for a way to get a survey of the 2017 landscape without having to shell out for dozens of individual artists’ albums.

The problem with this emphasis on streaming and playlist-centric listening is that it places more power in the hands of the streaming services on whom artists increasingly depend to disseminate their music via algorithms and playlists. As such, we’ve recently begun to see some potentially shady practices come to light from the major services, including the rumors of Spotify populating some of its playlists with cheaply commissioned music in order to negotiate reduced royalty rates with actual artists.

We’ve moved away from major labels dominating music the way they did in the ’90s and early 2000s, but streaming services hold the potential to fill that role, particularly since streaming accounted for 51.4 percent of US music revenue in 2016, up from 34 percent in 2015 and 9 percent in 2011, per the Recording Industry Association of America.

Consequently, artists need to embrace the streaming model to stay afloat in today’s industry. But few of them will have the breakout singles or established star power of Harris and Khaled. The recent struggles of SoundCloud, streaming’s most democratic and artist-friendly service, paint a picture of a listener base that continues to gravitate toward the surface-level trend hopping of playlist culture, putting more power in the hands of the major streaming services and giving artists less room to make a definitive statement with their music.

And while some artists can make major label–level money directly from streaming services, there are few musicians big enough to warrant that kind of investment. Chance the Rapper received $500,000 from Apple Music for two weeks of exclusive streaming rights to his 2016 mixtape Coloring Book, and Drake’s Apple deal is reported to be worth $19 million, though that includes work as an iTunes Radio DJ. Still, those kinds of offers are few and far between, and the massive disparity between the two amounts signals that this would be an unsustainable model for most musicians — particularly rising artists who don’t have an established record of hits like Drake — to bank on.

There will always be artists like Kendrick Lamar who buck the trend and are able to make thematically rich albums that also connect with the streaming set, and there will always be musicians who prioritize a cohesive artistic vision over their potential streaming impressions. But the continued success of Khaled and Harris points toward a musical future where that sort of artistic approach is a liability, where artists will feel more pressure to make music that conforms to the parameters of the major streaming services and their playlist curators.