A long time ago in a record store far, far away, there was a simple formula:

An artist (or group) creates an album, completes it, perfects it and gives it to the record company. In turn, the benevolent (ha!) record company chooses an album release date a few months in the future and immediately begins to promote the album through a variety of methods – magazine covers, promotional appearances, etc – but the two most effective were airplay on FM radio and video rotation on MTV.-C. Pierznik

As we all know, that all changed when two things happened: first, MTV decided that they would rather show the lives of spoiled rich kids and put their videos on channels like MTV Hits, MTV2, MTV Jams and MTV Tr3s; and second, the Internet literally created a universe that was previously unheard of and, shortly thereafter, sites like Napster appeared. While Napster may have been shut down, the list of Peer-to-Peer sharing sites is seemingly endless, led by RapidShare, Kazaa and BitTorrent, just to name a few.

While the music that once cost $19.99 at The Wall (complete with that lifetime guarantee!) became cheaper (and ‘freer’), something else was happening. Mixtapes, long thought of as a street compilation of the hottest tracks of the moment mixed with a few freestyles while somebody yelled “Clue!” over them, became a way for artists without a deal to get their product out there.

50 Cent has often been credited with popularizing this type of mixtape – no longer signed to a label to put out music? Who cares? Make a bunch of songs, talk a ton of shit, and put it out there to be consumed by underground heads and promoted by word of mouth. Best of all, you can rhyme over the hottest beats and not have to pay for them! It’s ideal for the artist. Of course, from there the story is famous – Eminem heard the tapes, saw something other execs didn’t, met with 50, introduced him to Dre, and made a ton of money over the next few years. It’s not just Curtis anymore. The LOX haven’t dropped a group album in 10 years, but I have a catalogue of songs that they’ve dropped on various mixtapes that could fill a box set.

But another market has popped up for artists that already have a deal. Now, they can release the album they really wanted to, but weren’t able to, because of the labels and/or as a promotional tool for their upcoming album. This list of artists is even longer and brings me to my ultimate question: Are mixtapes now better than the actual albums?

I can remember when I heard Jada’s “The Champ Is Here,” I couldn’t wait for “Kiss Of Death.” However, when the actual album dropped, I was so disappointed. Yeah, there were a couple of hot songs (“Why” of course and “Shoot Outs” with SP), but the mixtape was a collection of straight fire and Kiss isn’t alone.

I’ll take a Lloyd Banks mixtape over a “Rotten Apple” any day. I loved Luda’s “Pre-Release Therapy” with Green Lantern and was almost appalled by the full-length “Release Therapy.” Termanology’s “Politics As Usual” is a hot disc, but it can’t compare to any number of his street tapes. Could Walé have made an album anywhere close to “The Mixtape About Nothing?” Even though “Hell Hath No Fury” was lauded by many as a neo-classic, they really made heat with their “Got It 4 Cheap” series of mixtapes.

Rob The Music Ed touched on this last week about the lack of classics these days. With the way the industry is going and mainstream radio being dominated by ringtone rap and rhymes about dumb dances, are the days of the great album over? There are a ton of mixtapes I’ll listen to front-to-back before I do the same for an actual LP. I know that the album has to be more well-rounded than a mixtape, but does that ultimately make it better? I’m not so sure…