Lo fi hip-hop seems to be everywhere lately, filling out bandcamp recommendations and soundcloud feeds. It appears as an ideal resort for many artists for different reasons and It can have various characteristics and take many (and vastly different) forms. Rather than a broad overview, the focus of this article will be on one of the two cornerstones of lo-fi; Song Duration. I will explain why the short song durations is a problem, and the gap it creates between artists and listeners.
Let's start off by clarifying that this article expresses my subjective opinion rather than an objective truth. I probably enjoy about 10% of the lo-fi music that's out there, therefore, I might not be the most appropriate person to soberly evaluate the scene. In turn, I will just offer my raw opinion about it and explain the reason why I oftentimes find myself let down in the end of every song.
The vast majority of lo-fi beats is under 2 minutes, oftentimes being as short as 40 second snippets including long fade ins and outs. When I discovered the first lo-fi record that I liked, I couldn't see any reason for this besides lack of effort. Discovering more and more musically interesting lo-fi albums, I struggled to understand the reasoning behind artists' decision to export a 1 minute song, other than the fact that they couldn't find a way to make the track develop in an interesting way. It seemed like a wasted opportunity for a great track.
I spent a long time feeling like this towards lo-fi until I heard the full tape of nietzsche by mt.marcy. At that moment, I realized that maybe lo-fi is not about a single song, it's about the full album and the theme behind it. Listening a song from that ep alone is like listening a preview from iTunes, although if you listen the full album it feels like a collection of moods and emotions compressed into a 12-minute song. This prospective changed everything in my mind, as it transformed a rough collection of short beats into a well-thought concept album.
After this change of attitude, I revisited many albums and discovered many new, simply by observing and appreciating them from this new angle. emune - sorry, Leaf Beach - Lava Lamps, jinsang - solitude. and many more albums share this characteristic; These are themed albums, not just a collection of rough bumps. You can feel a story behind them and a unity in their sound.
Of course, that is not to prove that my initial suspicions about lack of effort are wrong; being a musician myself, I can relate to the temptation of finishing a piece early and calling it 'lo-fi' or 'experimental' simply because you ran out of inspiration or energy. The majority of lo-fi albums that I come across are a proof just that, but this is a phenomenon of music in general, not just lo-fi, and it certainly cannot be used to characterize a whole genre
Although the unfortunate difference in lo-fi is that it is very hard to thoroughly enjoy one song by itself. If an album of popular music is crap but it has a single track you enjoy, you can just dispose the rest of the album and just listen to the song you like. On the other hand, try picking one song from (the excellent) Harbor LP by tomppabeats, and imagine listening just that song. It appears torturous. The songs contained in this album can only be fully appreciated in the context of the full album, otherwise they sound like a preview of a full track.
Mt. Marcy characterized his songs as a collection of motifs, and that makes perfect sense considering that a motif needs a context in which to exist, otherwise it is just a sound without a framework or a story.
why cant u just respect the song length— tomppa (@Tomppabeats) May 25, 2016
But even now that I have cracked the code of how to enjoy lo-fi, why can't I just respect the song length?
The reason why, is that even though I understood that it takes a whole album to appreciate the journey of a lo-fi beattape, I still feel bumped that I can't enjoy single song alone. As I described in length in my article about loops and repetition, it takes a certain state of mind to enjoy Instrumental Hip-Hop. This state of mind cannot be achieved in 30 seconds. Songs this short feel like they're trying to tease my emotional chords. This, is I believe the reason people take the original medicine by joji and they make a loop for 10 minutes, and this is also the reason that a whole lo-fi album works, but a single song doesn't. We, the listeners, need time to absorb the feeling the song tries to convey. We need to relate and to reflect.
I believe there lies the gap between listeners and musicians. On one hand we have impatient, shallow and demanding listeners, and on the other pretentious, inconsiderate and detached artists. Of course that is an exaggeration, but it is also to some extend true.