In music, the album has always been a measure for artistry. When a career hits the twilight stages, a discography is usually the measure of a legacy.
Central to a discography that deserves a legacy is the number of quality albums and bodies of work an artist has released as against impact.
While a career with albums, but without hits can have a legacy, one with hits but without sufficient albums is fickle.
For these reasons, an album is treated with utmost importance in music. One could argue that the material nature of a discography to legacy is why Davido, who is entering the earliest of his veteran years is releasing a second album in nine months when there was a seven-year period between his debut and his sophomore albums.
The importance of an album then makes failure unacceptable at any point - especially with debut and sophomore albums. Thus, major labels and artists devised a tactic to introduce artists and endear them to an audience with a body of work that isn't as laid-back as a mixtape, as monotonous as a single or of as serious a connotation as an album. They were called EPs.
The tactic was also about finances - an EP is relatively easier to produce and promote. If it succeeds, a record company and an artist stand to make a lot of money. Artists could also tour and make money off their EPs and some songs released on those EPs could then go on to make albums.
The Nigerian EP format
An EP is an acronym for 'Extended Play.' These days, this writer calls the EP an 'abridged album.' Typically, an EP contains between four to six different songs and has a maximum run time of 25 minutes.
Until the 2010s, EPs were not commonplace in Nigeria and neither was the culture of releasing singles on CDs. Nigeria never had a structure and singles were either released for radio or Alaba playlists. The onus of an artist's physical creative release has always been placed on albums.
But through the years, certain formats have taken what is now known as the ‘EP format.’ Juju and Fuji albums usually had just four to six tracks, but they could not be considered EPs because they were made on 75 rpm vinyls and had 45 minutes to one hour of run time. A typical EP is widely perceived to have a maximum run time of 25 minutes.
Culture curator Ayomide Tayo also notes that, “In the 70’s and 80’s, a lot of Nigerian folk and alternative acts released a lot of EPs either directly by calling them ‘EP’ or impliedly. I remember that Sunny Okosun once released an EP.”
In the early 90’s, Trybesmen released an EP that had their two debut singles, ‘Gbedu Fever’ and ‘Shake Bodi.’ In 2004, 2Shotz released his debut album Pirated Copy on Trybes Records and it had just nine songs.
These days, it could be called an EP because it has a total run time of 28 minutes, but 2Shotz called it an album at the time. Those were days when albums carried great importance to the perception of an artist, damn the cost of production.
Around this time, Styl-Plus released an EP that had ‘Olufunmi’ and ‘Runaway,’ but many don’t realize that it was an EP.
By the mid-2000s, P Square, Ruggedman and others began to release video albums for their singles. The album for P Square’s Busy Body (Remix) had about four videos in it. Ordinarily, that’s an EP format but it cannot be called an EP because the songs were not exclusive to those ‘video albums.’ Thus, those albums were more like hybrid single releases than EPs - which have original songs on them.
The first set of popular EPs in Nigeria came in the late 2010s with the release of 2Face Idibia’s single, ‘Enter The Place,’ which came in a six-track CD and was marketed like an album. That Hypertek project can be argued to be the maiden EP with success in the Nigerian mainstream. Like any EP, it was released with a strategic mindset.
At the time, 2face Idibia probably needed to test the waters of a market that was ushering in a new guard of Wande Coal and other members of the Mo’Hits clan while Hip-Hop was also enjoying a golden era. This theory receives some validation in how 2Baba’s Unstoppable then onboarded some songs from that EP.
The EP as a strategic tool for Nigerian acts
In 2011, Burna Boy released two EPs titled Burn Notice and Burn Identity within the space of a few months after he signed to the Piriye Isokrari-owned Aristokrat Records.
While we now call them EPs, Aristokrat and Burna Boy called them mixtapes at the time. Nonetheless, they worked and positioned Burna Boy and in place to be a future supremo that he has now become albeit after some drama.
Acts from then-young DRB Lasgidi also released individual short mixtapes and EPs to endear themselves towards the market. While it worked for some, it didn’t really work for others.
In 2012, Illbliss released the first of his two Position of Power EPs - the second came in 2014. Some songs from Position of Power Vol. 1 made Illbliss’s sophomore album, Oga Boss while some songs from Position of Power Vol. II made #Powerful.
Around this time, the R&B market in America heavily used the EP as a strategic tool for upcoming and even niche acts. Acts like Eric Bellinger, Estelle and more were using EPs to introduce themselves to the market, manage the market and/or be able to go on tour and properly brand themselves. Some songs that dropped on these EPs would then go on to make debut albums.
Popularization of the EP by alté
By the mid-2010s, the EP had become a common part of the Nigerian sonic zeitgeist. Young members of the alte demographic heavily used the EP as a way to make their foray into the Nigerian market. It was with that demography that the ‘Nigerian EP’ first gained momentum, viral use and popularity.
The EP was used by these kids because they probably had limited funds to record the kind of music they wanted, at the quality they wanted and because an album for most of them would have been risky. They also needed to endear themselves towards an audience with minimal risks.
Thus, acts like BOJ, Ajebutter22, Fresh L, Odunsi, Lady Donli, Tay Iwar, Sute, Fasina, Minz, Nonso Amadi, AYLO and more released EPs and arguably awakened that option to most Nigerians as an alternative body of work with reduced risks and reduced financial outlay. This way, these artists could also release music on Soundcloud just for the love of it.
While most of them still don’t have the mainstream appeal that could connote ‘success,’ their EPs gave them a lot of traction and took them from obscurity to niche acts. From there, the EP became the best friend of the Nigerian underground/upcoming/emerging act.
Some mainstream acts also adopted the model around the mid-to-late-2010s. Davido released the US-geared, Son of Mercy and Tiwa Savage released the amazing Sugarcane EP. However, most mainstream and popular acts were still releasing LPs, albums and full-length mixtapes.
The new obsession with 'The EP' and its necessity
These days, the internet has taken over and we are not talking about the blog era anymore. In a 2019 article, I wrote about the fast-paced rate at which music is being released these days and how it could be hard for any listener to keep up. While we had to go out and buy music before, the music now comes to meet us.
Artists had to evolve and find a way to make the listening experience worthwhile for the average listener who isn’t a fan while also guaranteeing replay value. For that reason, the minute-per-song has reduced in global music from four minutes 10 years ago to just over two minutes these days.
In the same vein, some artists have also been thinking only for their fans, so they load their albums with 20 tracks or more to drive traffic to their albums. The aim is usually to get a lion share of ‘streaming money’ that operates on a market share model and not a user-centric model - barring Deezer.
With that being said, the greatest result of the advent of the internet and streaming is the return of the EP. A lot of artists still release LPs, full-length mixtapes and albums, but the EP has become the new obsession of Nigerian artists.
The obsession is so mind-boggling that when Wizkid released his 12-track 2016 album, Sounds From The Other Side, he called it an “EP.”
On the other hand, Teni is one of Nigeria’s biggest acts these days. But in the three years of her stardom in Nigerian music, she has only released two EPs - one of them was even like a playlist of loosies with no promo. These days, for every three albums in Nigerian music, there are probably five EPs.
But then, in the neutral space, we had Rema release three EPs within seven months. It endeared him towards fans and set him up for his debut album.
Why are EPs so popular in Nigerian music these days?
On the positive side, the EP is making a strong case to replace the album. Earlier in the year, Jamaica singer, Koffee won Best Reggae Album with an EP at the 2020 Grammy Awards. 7 EP by Lil Nas X was also nominated for Album of The Year.
That means EPs are now getting accepted by the machinery of American music capitalism and that the world might be heading to a new reality where the EP becomes an album. The relevance of albums has also reduced as a measure of artistry - except the argument becomes one of greatness or legacy.
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For example, Davido is one of Nigeria’s greatest acts ever. But in 10 years of success at the highest level, he has only released two albums - albeit with an imminent third. His success shows that you might not really need albums to succeed if you have a slew of hit singles to help you make money.
After more than five years of being in the industry, Tekno has never released an album. Yet, his video for ‘Skeletun’ has 12 million views on YouTube - two million views more than Naira Marley’s ‘Soapy’ - the most viral Nigerian song of 2019. For Tekno, that means some form of revenue from streaming.
On the neutral side, there is the issue of streaming to deal with. But on the negative side, Nigerian artists have also grown to become lazy and scared while they use ‘streaming’ as a ready-made excuse to avoid making albums.
This is because streaming isn’t mainstream in Nigeria. According to various sources related to the streaming platforms in Nigeria, less than 15% of the Nigerian listening demographic listens to music from streaming platforms and under five percent pays to stream music.
Some Nigerian artists realize the place of bodies of work, but instead of going out of their way to make “albums,” they want to dilute the seriousness of these projects and call them ‘EP.’
This reality was aided by Drake with the release of his 2015 mixtape/playlist or whatever, If You Are Reading This It’s Too Late. What would ordinarily be deemed an album was called a ‘commercial mixtape’ because Drake was scared that his predominantly trap offering could tank critically and even commercially. He has repeated the formula with More Life (playlist) and Demo Tapes (mixtape).
This reality is understandable. Streaming is fast-paced and there is an over-saturation of music content in the world. Thus, an artist cannot take risks with projects they are unsure of and call them “albums” that could tank and become an L. So, they would rather play safe.
But while Drake has gone on to release an album since, Nigerian artists are seemingly battling laziness to put in the work for intense and productive recording sessions. The default outcome of this reality is to ‘cheat the system’ and release EPs.
While some of them might get lucky and EPs will replace albums, the current reality is that most of the current crop of Nigerian artists might have to battle with tainted legacies and risk getting angry at listicles when greatness and legacy is being discussed in a few years.
We cannot dictate to artists, but the clock is ticking…