Mixtape vs. Album: What's the Difference?

Mixtape vs. Album: What's the Difference?

The term “mixtape” has been circulating throughout the music industry for years… but exactly what is a mixtape vs. album? In essence, a mixtape is a compilation of songs, typically stemming from hip-hop artists rapping over beats that may or may not be theirs. Similar to the contrast between an EP vs. LP, there are also a few other key differences between a mixtape vs. album. 

Indie Artists vs. Mainstream Musicians

First, a mixtape is often referred to as a “street album” and is considered a rarity for a record store, like Victrola, to carry. Mixtapes have also been used as a guerilla marketing strategy to get more people listening to and familiar with new music from indie or emerging artists. Though technically a mixtape can be a combination of any genre of music, it’s largely been identified throughout the hip-hop community. 

The concept began when cassette tapes were the main music medium, which could be easily distributed to a larger audience. This was during a time when music fans would record hit songs off the radio and piece together their own mixtapes filled with their favorite artists. DJs and underground artists built upon this concept and started producing new music over familiar beats and vice-versa. 

Over time, the mixtape became available through CDs and for digital download, but the origins of the mixtape were simply a convenient way for artists to musically introduce themselves. It replaced the more formal demo tape and was used to gain a larger following. In today’s world of online music streaming, as well as social media to boost efforts for free, it’s becoming easier for unknown artists to make a name for themselves.

Shorter Mashup of Tracks vs. Longer Curated Song List

Second, a mixtape is a mashup of an artists’ hits or a few tracks of new music. Due to their format, they are typically also more limited in length than albums are, falling into the category of an EP. Conversely, an album is a professionally produced, artistically focused lineup of songs that belong together in one place. When it comes to production, what's the difference between a mixtape and an album? 

A mixtape is free, easy to distribute, and is used to gain buzz around an artist or even an upcoming album release. An album is more polished and produced in a way to monetize directly from the singles released. Some of the biggest names in the music industry today started off by producing a mixtape that reached the masses and gained enough notoriety for music executives to take notice.

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Closing the Gap Between a Mixtape vs. Album Release

Additionally, when it comes to modern-day aesthetics, the distribution looks similar to album releases. There’s software to digitally release music in the same fashion, which has taken precedence over passing out CDs and cassettes, like in times past. In the early days of mixtapes, they’d be available at shows, clubs, and passed out by concert promoters on the street. The goal being to get as many people listening as possible. However, with the power of the internet, it’s far easier to make music travel further.

The buzz surrounding mixtapes still remains an effective marketing strategy. They are a way to shake things up for fans and give them something fresh to look forward to. Established artists may release a mixtape just for the sake of their fans or to give audiences a sample of what’s to come as they work on new music. It may come as a surprise that some of the most successful hip-hop artists today began by giving away their mixtape music for free. Here are a few of the most well-known examples that we carry at Victrola. 

Drake: So Far Gone

Prior to dominating the airwaves, hip-hop artist Drake was considered the master of the mixtape. In 2009, Drake released his third mixtape, So Far Gone, which quickly shot him to superstardom. With the professional quality sound of a studio album, he released some of his best known songs, two of which went on to become radio hits. 

“Best I Ever Had” became Drake’s first top-ten single on the Billboard Hot 100 and “Successful” peaked at #11. From there, his popularity soared. Eventually, the free mixtape music of So Far Gone was repackaged and sold as an EP and reached Gold status. Since then, Drake founded the OVO Sound Republic record label and has released album after album, hit after hit, often appearing as a guest feature on other top-selling records. 

During the height of his success, he released If You’re Reading This It's Too Late. Though promoted as a mixtape, the music was for sale with studio quality recordings. However, it had the same underground buzz as an elusive mixtape, as he took liberties with song lyrics and composition that strayed a little bit from his typical pop style. 

In addition to these mixtapes being available on vinyl, there are also several of his fully produced albums, such as Take Care and Views, that have been remastered as well. Fans can take their Drake experience from the beginning of his mixtape success to the vinyl delivery of some of his greatest work.

Kanye West: Get Well Soon

Most fans of Kanye West were introduced to him through his debut studio album, The College Dropout. However, it’s his 2003 mixtape, Get Well Soon, that paved the way for showcasing his beats and unique sound. The mixtape sparked his first hit single, “Through the Wire,” a biographical song recorded literally “through the wire” that held his teeth in place following a car accident. Right from the start, his lyrics provided fans with an inside look at his life struggles and the steps he’s taken to overcome them.

Furthermore, the introduction of Kanye West represented the harder sounds of hip-hop prevalent in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s into more pop-friendly singles that marked the late 1990s and early 2000s. His debut was quickly followed up by successful albums Late Registration and Graduation before he began to explore different layers of his music through studio albums like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and 808s & Heartbreak.

Chance the Rapper: Acid Rap

Music journalists look to Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap mixtape as one of the biggest successes in the industry. Self-released and available free for download in 2013, the mixtape features a few notable artists, including Twista and Childish Gambino, with a lineup of songs that highlight his hometown Chicago. 

The mixtape didn’t produce a single, generate revenue, or secure chart-topping hits, but it did elevate his exposure as an artist to a higher level. This strategy proved more valuable than what potential sales may have been if released as an album and is the heart of mixtapes have been known for since the beginning. 

Producing a polished studio album is expensive. As an undiscovered artist, the difference between a mixtape vs. album is performing and recording music for free versus having a label to back your efforts. Chance the Rapper has kept hold of the spirit of mixtapes, releasing a third one in 2016 that covered gospel rap songs and involved musicians from Justin Bieber to Kirk Franklin to accompany him. He takes liberties with his music to stay slightly under the radar of mainstream and make music for his most devoted fans. 

Nicki Minaj: Beam Me Up Scotty

As a protege of rapper Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj joined his Young Money family and debuted a 2009 mixtape that elevated her to the next level. Beam Me Up Scotty highlighted her talent for delivering clever, and sometimes cheap, quips and rhymes. She took on different personas and tenors of her voice to make it instantly recognizable once she hit mainstream. 

Prior to officially securing a record deal, she was featured as a guest artist on several other tracks that propelled her career before ever releasing her first full-length album. Just a year later, her debut Pink Friday was released and went on to reach Billboard’s top spot and has been certified triple platinum. It was followed up two years later by Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200.

Jay-Z: The S. Carter Collection

Jay-Z waited until he already achieved commercial and critical acclaim before releasing his mixtape. He secured several radio-friendly hits with his early albums and singles. His mixtape, however, went in the opposite direction with a grittier sound than before. The S. Carter Collection, released through digital download in 2003, had a freestyling approach that created a stir among the industry and a few musical enemies along the way, but it didn’t slow down his success. 

He then went on to release several more top-selling studio albums, including The Blueprint Vol. 3, Magna Carta: Holy Grail, and Watch the Throne with Kanye West, all of which also went on to become sold-out concert tours as well. 

These are a few examples of how the world’s biggest hip-hop artists have catapulted their presence in some way through the means of a mixtape. While it used to only be a medium to get new music played to larger audiences, it’s now an effective way to keep fans interested and shake up the industry. With music trends continuing to circle back around, the spirit of the mixtape lives on and is sure to make a significant comeback soon.


  1. https://www.vice.com/en/article/rmx446/the-real-difference-between-a-mixtape-and-an-album
  2. https://pitchfork.com/features/lists-and-guides/9908-the-50-best-rap-mixtapes-of-the-millennium/?page=2