Sex stories, purgatory and Adele’s tears: the album skit is back

Keen to re-establish the album in the age of the playlist, artists are peppering their work with voice notes and sketches – to profound and annoying ends

De La Soul played a gameshow on 3 Feet High and Rising, kids discussed love on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Eminem faced his irate manager on The Marshall Mathers LP, Outkast parodied themselves at a record store on Aquemini, Biggie Smalls actually received fellatio on Ready to Die, and Eazy-E probably didn’t actually receive fellatio on Just Don’t Bite It.

There was once a time where skits like these, particularly in the age of tapes and CDs, were a staple of hip-hop. Interspersed between songs, these comedy sketches or spoken-word interludes aimed to bring you deeper into the album, with records such as the Fugees’ The Score showing how poignant this could be (a child being shot at the end of Cowboys) or how puerile (the Chinese restaurant at the end of The Beast). Such interludes were not solely the preserve of rap, though: Meat Loaf’s You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth opened with an attempted seduction on that hot summer night, Destiny’s Child recited lines from the Bible on the outro track to Survivor, and Britney had an ill-fated exchange with an earnest astronaut on Oops! … I Did It Again.

But as digital formats and curated playlists took over, many announced that the album was a dead format and that skits would die with them. Why would you stick a song on, say, a sexy playlist if it had a minute-long monologue from the artist’s grandma at the end? And if it was a separate track on the album, would you not just skip it? Indeed, in his 2015 article charting the history of the phenomenon in hip-hop, writer Jeff Weiss said: “In today’s streaming chaos, few things seem more anachronistic than including skits. That’s just one more way to annoy people unwilling to pay for Spotify Premium”, where you already suffer the interruption of advertising.

But the death knell for skits hasn’t sounded – quite the opposite. In its various forms – sketches, spoken-word passages, vignettes, voicemails, voice notes – the skit has played a big role in the recent work of rappers such as Tyler, the Creator, Little Simz, Riz Ahmed, Knucks, Kojaque and Fly Anakin, and artists as varied as Adele, FKA twigs, the Weeknd, Lana Del Rey, Blood Orange, Solange, Frank Ocean, Jazmine Sullivan and Joy Crookes. At their best, these reinvigorate the album form as not just an arbitrary collection of recent songs, but a space for social gatherings and storytelling.

The most cynical interpretation is that these extra tracks rack up more listens and, therefore, more money in a broken streaming system (Spotify counts anything over 30 seconds as a play). But many of these moments are part of longer tracks – they’re more likely to be a way of cohering and curating the album format still so beloved by artists, albeit less so by listeners in the age of the playlist.

Kendrick Lamar.
Skit veteran … Kendrick Lamar. Photograph: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

This impulse actually dates back to when producer Prince Paul thought sketches would help bring structure to De La Soul’s debut album; maybe some artists now do skits simply in acknowledgement of what has come before. Kendrick Lamar has long used them as a storytelling device, as on Good Kid, M.A.A.D City with his dad yelling about dominoes: intimacies from Kendrick’s personal life that also aligned him with classic hip-hop. Almost a decade later, the Irish rapper Kojaque used funny skits on debut album Town’s Dead to paint a picture of his own city, Dublin, repeatedly referencing the pizza chain Domino’s in what might have been a knowing nod to Lamar.

The skit can amplify nostalgia: the Weeknd frames his new album Dawn FM as broadcasts from an old radio station, with Jim Carrey playing host alongside intermittent adverts that emphasise that this station is playing in purgatory. The skits create the dark, expansive universe of this album, but also pay homage to the past, with the old-school radio stylings and – a little jarring with the rest of the concept – Quincy Jones ruminating on how his childhood trauma affected his own parenting. Given how much the Jones-produced Michael Jackson has influenced Abel Tesfaye, his inclusion is a way for the Weeknd to pay respects while somewhat cheekily (but not unreasonably) inserting himself in that grand lineage, much like Lamar did on To Pimp a Butterfly, where he used an old interview recording to place himself in conversation with the late Tupac Shakur.

But it’s not just about world-building or reverence for history. Writing for Pitchfork in 2017, Sheldon Pearce examined the use of answering machine messages in rap songs, noting the “intimacy to these private moments … an unprepared statement is often the most honest”. Pearce breaks down the reasons rappers include such recordings on their albums: narrative, myth building, family business, backstories, warning shots and remembrances.

Voicemails became voice notes in the age of WhatsApp, and Adele uses them on new song My Little Love to cover much of Pearce’s list. The glib narrative around Adele’s divorce album 30 was that it would be good because she was heartbroken again – and so including conversations between the artist and her son on My Little Love made that heartbreak specific, its pain and horror reanimated – almost confrontationally so. “I feel like I don’t really know what I’m doing”, she says, her young son replying “Why?”; there is also a tearful voice note to a friend about her loneliness. Adele’s singing voice is otherworldly, but her speaking voice is famously earthy: in using the latter, she shortens the gap between her and us.

Adele: My Little Love – video

Though it might feel like an intrusion to hear it – even exploitative of her son – Adele explained that: “I thought it might be a nice touch, seeing as everyone’s been at my door for the last 10 years, as a fan, to be like, ‘Would you like to come in?’” Other family members frequently crop up in pop: Drake, SZA and Joy Crookes all receive advice from theirs between songs. Once we wanted stars to be infallible and superhuman, but now, relatability sells, and these artists are letting us know they’re just as flawed and in need of guidance as we are.

FKA twigs uses those relatable voice notes to slightly different ends on her new mixtape Caprisongs, where she explores her more fun, pop, club-going side, sounding freer and more accessible than she did amid the sculptural poise of previous album Magdalene. Part of this comes from feeling as if you’re being invited into twigs’ world – twigs as human, not just performer, with voice notes from her friends offering sweet (sometimes bordering on cloying) affirmations such as: “I wish you could see in you what I see in you, what everyone sees in you, because that’s the golden stuff right there,” twigs told BBC Radio 1’s Clara Amfo in a recent interview: “If people don’t have friends or company, then they can just borrow my friends – they can put on Caprisongs.” Rising artist Raveena even goes so far as to offer a guided meditation at the end of her new album.

During two years where our worlds got smaller and we listened alone, and in a culture where identities are strongly forged through fan communities online, artists might populate their albums with these people to help you feel a part of their network – however synthetic that connection.

Sometimes the skit takes on a more choric function. Moses Sumney has writers, poets and actors speak directly to the themes he explores more gently in his singing on Græ: multiplicities, relationships and loneliness are brought to life in fascinating murmured chants, almost amounting to a Greek chorus threading together Sumney’s album. Then there’s Janet Mock’s narration on Blood Orange’s Negro Swan, elucidating the themes – living loudly and in love with yourself and your chosen family as a Black or otherwise marginalised person – which might otherwise go unnoticed in the mixtape-y release. It is a natural progression from another powerful treatise on Blackness, A Seat at the Table: alongside Solange’s parents telling stories from their lives, rapper and entrepreneur Master P dotted vignettes that reinvigorated the theme of Black empowerment. There’s a nice collagist feel to these interjections – though some might argue the music should be enough to transmit the ideas on its own.

Emma Corrin, who appears on Little Simz’s album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert.
Emma Corrin, who appears on Little Simz’s album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. Photograph: Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP

One example of where the music should have done the talking is on Little Simz’s Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, where The Crown’s Emma Corrin channels their Princess Diana performance to portray Simz’s inner voice. She speaks to Simz’s neuroses as her career grows (“One foot out of line and you’ll be ridiculed”), but also offers up hackneyed phrases: “The top of the mountain is nothing without the climb.” Simz has said these interludes exist because she likes Corrin’s voice and the words are “things that everyone should hear”. But they are motorway-legal signposts of the album’s themes, and are ultimately heavy handed, didactic and diminish the way its mysteries might otherwise unfold. On a largely masterful release, these quickly become skippable after one or two plays.

A better use is Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales – rightly nominated for three Grammys this year – where between the engaging R&B jams, a series of women ponder sexuality and self-worth. These are not neat little bromides and positive affirmations – they are messy, funny, utterly vital stories, where Sullivan has a documentarian’s eye for kitchen-sink detail. Ari Lennox is hilarious as she laments her helplessness in the face of an unsuitable but sexually potent partner (“that dick spoke life into me!”), before appearing in sensual duet On It to explore those same tensions. On Donna’s Tale, Donna Anderson is frank about the poisoned economy that underpins so many relationships (“You have sex because you know your husband is gonna give you what the fuck you want the next day”). Unlike twigs’ community, which you never truly feel a part of, Sullivan makes you feel properly included in this circle of wronged, righteous, complicated women. In the same way that artists include guest verses from their peers, Heaux Tales weaves in these voices to strengthen the album’s sense of perspective.

The album never died, but people’s consumption of the format has become more ephemeral – and so sketches, spoken word and voice notes are often effective at reversing that trend. Some of them will amuse you, or keep you company for a moment. But Sullivan shows how they can anchor songs into something more visceral, considered and long-lasting: the album as a gallery of ideas for how to live.


Tara Joshi

The GuardianTramp

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