A few days ago, Drake posted a photo with his new hairstyle. Honestly, he looks like a member of the DeBarge family. It’s hilarious, goofy, and attention-grabbing as expected. Yet lately, whenever Drake has a new cut and a new look, it often means it’s time for a new album.
Getting into character is nothing new for musicians. Pop stars have done this for decades. But in today’s crowded attention economy, new personas help artists create moments that last longer than a social media news cycle.
When characters are done well, they create an experience that connects through the songs, music videos, vinyls, merch, tour sales, festivals, and more. It takes more effort, but the rewards pay off when done right.
creating IP around an artist’s releases
Artist characters help define career moments. When Tyler The Creator released IGOR (2019), it felt different from everything he did before. His fans were in a different mindset when they saw his yellow wig, the pastel suits, and the “Vote for Igor” lawn sign.
Two years later, he created a whole new persona with Call Me If You Get Lost. The DJ Drama-produced album had a new character— the world-traveling Tyler Baudelaire. It was still Tyler, but it marked another chapter in his career.
Some artists release multiple albums from the same persona. Taylor Swift’s pandemic-inspired sister albums, folklore and evermore, are cut from the same cloth. She stayed in character in her Long Pond Studio Sessions and any public appearances. She even name-dropped “cardigan” in a Capital One commercial.
Swift announced that her new album Midnights is coming in October 2022. And since she’s no longer in cottagecore attire, it’s likely the start of her next chapter.
artist characters in a “singles” market
There’s a lot of talk about how streaming has turned the music industry into a singles market. Spotify CEO Daniel Ek’s quote on why artists releasing music “every 3-4 years isn’t enough” was a reminder of that.
But selling singles and selling albums aren’t the same. Singles are about marketing, especially in the streaming era. It’s an opportunity to get on radio playlists, top the charts, get seen on TikTok and YouTube, and spread awareness. The Billboard Hot 100 says more about a single’s marketing budget than its popularity. Singles are lucrative, but the highest-selling ones are often backed by albums.
Albums are about storytelling. The better that story is, the more experiences can be created from it. Also, it’s more likely that fans, both diehard and casual, will tune into the final product. The fan is already familiar with the artist, but the character-driven story will maximize their exposure.
This isn’t unique to music. It’s similar in Hollywood. The highest-grossing movie of all time isn’t a standalone film or even a remake. Avengers: Endgame is the closing chapter of a 22-film, 11-year saga. If that film was released as the first film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it wouldn’t have made sense (or made as much money). And if all those same actors in Endgame came together to act in an original screenplay, it wouldn’t have made as much money either. Its box office performance reflects years of storytelling with these characters to get to that point.
That’s why music’s top artists across genres are on a similar wavelength. I would love to see more hip-hop artists do the same. They have their own experiences to bring to life, and hip-hop artists are some of the best storytellers we have.