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The Weird, Unexpected, and Entirely Exhilarating Album Renaissance

Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper, and Kanye all questioned what it means to make an album this year — and reinvigorated the format in the process

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The 2016 album renaissance technically began in the early morning hours of December 13, 2013, when a former Star Search runner-up from Houston changed the game (as she’d later put it) with that digital drop. As we approach the third anniversary of Beyoncé’s self-titled visual album, it does not feel hyperbolic to compare it to Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper’s in the invigorating influence it has had on the shape, scope, and future of the pop record. Beyoncé’s impact was so seismic that it’s taken the rest of the music world about two years to catch up. Sure, in the immediate aftermath, surprise albums became an unavoidable trend, but now it’s also clear that many of pop’s A-list auteurs spent 2014 and 2015 lying low and returning to the drawing board, challenged by Queen Bey but ultimately liberated by the fact that a mainstream pop album could be at once more panoramic and more personal than a collection of would-be radio hits.

2016 shouldn’t have been a great year for the album, which is, by so many accounts, a format in a slow decline towards obsolescence. Streaming, we’ve been reminded time and again, is oriented toward the single. Even iTunes downloads (an already antiquated form of listening) freed listeners from the old, CD-era burden of having to purchase the entire album just to hear the one song they liked. In July of this year, Forbes ran an op-ed titled “The Album Is Dying — and Good Riddance.” A sampling of its logic: “Albums are expensive and time consuming to make and, for the most part, amount to a lot of wasted effort as consumers only listen to one or two songs (the singles) anyway even if they buy the album.” Last year, it certainly felt as though artists like Rihanna, Drake, and Kanye West agreed with this, focusing more on individual song releases than albums; year-end lists were boring because no artist made anything even approaching the ambition or capital-I Importance of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which at the time felt like it may have been the last dying gasp of The Album As Culturally Important Artifact. If you stuck solely to the trends, the narratives, the numbers, you wouldn’t have predicted that 2016 would be a great year for the album. And yet somehow, it turned out to be the best one of the decade — if not the century, so far.

This year the album underwent an exhilarating renaissance, and pop’s biggest stars felt compelled to poke and prod at the previous limitations of the format. Albums in 2016 are now collages, mood boards, family albums, audiovisual experiences — dynamic, ever-changing works of pop art. The best of the year’s biggest releases — Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Frank Ocean’s Blonde, Rihanna’s Anti, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book — all in some ways represented something so new that we didn’t quite have the nomenclature to describe them accurately, or even to adequately measure their success. Is it a “mixtape” if it’s behind a major corporation’s paywall? Can music uploaded for free on the internet be eligible for an Album of the Year Grammy or a top spot on the Billboard charts? Is it even an “album” at all if you can’t hold it in your hand? But these debates about what an album is anymore have distracted a bit from the wealth of 2016’s musical achievements. Far from proving it obsolete, these blurred boundaries have injected an exciting new sense of possibility and experimentation into the format.

Blame Beyoncé once again. Nobody topped her year — her monolithic Lemonade proved her uncanny ability to one-up even herself — but 2016 will go down as the year that a lot of her peers at the very least made a run for it, too. Rihanna released her first actual, cohesive album qua album, the moody and sumptuous Anti. Pop recluse Frank Ocean re-emerged first with a kind of anti-visual album (he debuted the piecemeal Endless over a glacially paced stream of him … assembling furniture) and then that same week he unfurled the aching, impressionistic Blonde, his most impressive achievement to date. All of these records were as visionary as they were popular, but the only release that rivaled Lemonade’s artistry and spoke as intimately to the mood of the current cultural climate was made by, of all people, Beyoncé’s own sister.

It’s hard to forget that grainy, elevator security-camera footage: A man in a white tuxedo and two sisters in long gowns. The younger one suddenly unleashes a torrent of fury, punching and screaming and kicking. The older sister — either too poised or too shocked or too famous to resist — stands eerily still.

Solange and Beyoncé Knowles are two very different people, but until this year, that was most apparent in their respective personas and sartorial choices than in their music. Listen to Solange’s first collaboration with Lil Wayne, 2008’s “Champagne Chronic Nightcap” — a perfectly competent, perfectly faceless piece of fizzy, B-Day–era R&B. Now fast-forward eight years to her masterful 2016 album A Seat at the Table and to, in particular, her second collaboration with Lil Wayne — the sparse slow-burner “Mad.” It’s a perfect song. The tempo has a lived-in confidence about it, and there’s no hiding amid such an elegantly naked arrangement. Over this simple beat, Weezy feels comfortable enough to deliver some of the most vulnerable lines of his career (“When I attempted suicide I didn’t die / I remember how mad I was”), and Solange lays out an uncompromising mantra that rang true to so many this year: “I got a lot to be mad about.” Most songs about anger burn fast and hot — see Beyoncé’s seething primal scream “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” one of Lemonade’s highlights — but “Mad” is something rarer. It is an ode to resistance over the long haul, something that the black women and men that Solange’s record celebrates have been practicing for decades, setting a potent example for all as we grimly gear up for the next four years. “Mad” is a fitting battle cry for the road that stretches ahead: Seldom do songs about anger feel so steady, so purposeful, so in control.

Lemonade, too, is a record about resistance — let us never forget that Beyoncé is a woman who snuck Black Panther imagery into the Super Bowl halftime show and spliced a stirring Malcolm X quote into one of her music videos — but it follows a more traditional and uplifting arc of catharsis than Solange’s record. Strikingly, those personas we saw in the elevator have flipped: Whereas A Seat at the Table has an almost Zen-like poise, Lemonade is a forceful roller coaster ride. Watching the film that April Saturday night on HBO felt like watching a thriller, a redemptive horror movie in which the body count is high but the heroine lives to save the world. I cheered when she (and Hot Sauce) smashed those windshields. I held my breath, waiting for a song about divorce papers. And then I recoiled when Jay showed up in the video for “Sandcastles,” momentarily feeling cheated by Beyoncé, who had taken us on such a raw emotional tour of the other side of infidelity only to end it with what seemed, at the time, like a deus ex machina, an easy happy ending. (And not to mention a directive to stream the album exclusively at her cheating-ass husband’s streaming service.) But to reduce Lemonade to simply an album about infidelity overlooks the richness of songs like “Freedom” and “Formation” — deeply felt odes to the rage, stoicism, and spirit required for black women to exist (and resist) in America. Anyway, maybe its ending isn’t such a fairy tale after all. Living with this record for seven months, I no longer see its conclusion of reconciliation as a cop out: Love, in all its forms, is fucking hard, and few records have explored this truism with as much grit, poetry, and depth as Lemonade. To smash in his car windows is human. To forgive — like Beyoncé — is divine.

Solange’s album offers a different kind of salve. There is something so soothing about its arrangements — the single “Cranes in the Sky” sounds like being slowly hugged by a cloud — which give Solange’s direct, unsentimental lyrics an added bite. These songs, as their titles attest, do not placate. “Don’t Touch My Hair.” “Don’t You Wait.” “Don’t Wish Me Well.” A Seat at the Table is a celebration of black personhood in all its complexity (and a spiritual sister of Blood Orange’s excellent 2016 record Freetown Sound), woven through with monologues from perspectives as disparate as Tina Knowles and Master P. “It really saddens me when we’re not allowed to express that pride in being black,” Solange’s mother says on an interstitial called “Tina Taught Me.” “And that if you do, then it’s considered anti-white.” In a year once again dominated by stories of police brutality and white supremacists assuming an alarming degree of political power, Solange’s intimate, gimlet-eyed A Seat at the Table offered much-needed solace for weary hearts. Like Lemonade, it is a work of bold, defiant humanity. Tina taught them both well.

Maybe, though, there is danger in caring too much about the sanctity of the album. Last year, Drake put out two quickly recorded, off-the-cuff releases, both of which had a casualness and an agility that we don’t often hear from him. Compare that with his official 2016 release, the overcooked blockbuster Views, which sat atop the Billboard album chart for longer than any other release this year (13 non-consecutive weeks) and delivered unprecedented streaming numbers (it was the first album to reach 1 billion streams on Apple Music). But it was also reverse-engineered to do just that. Views would have you believe that sacrificing artistic innovation is necessary for commercial dominance in the ever-changing streaming sphere. But his favorite duet partner, Rihanna, proved that you can have it both ways. Her sultry Anti, released in partnership with a cellphone company, is her best album by a mile, a genre-bending exploration of croak-throated soul, digitized dancehall, and weed-hazy booty jams. Even at her most artistically adventurous, Rihanna was as popular as ever this year, with Anti spawning the monster hits “Needed Me” and “Work.”

Another strike against Drake in 2016: His musings about disappointing women and chain-restaurant arguments rang a little hollow in a year when everywhere you looked, culturally and politically, the stakes felt so much higher. A similar problem befell the Weeknd’s recently released double album Starboy, a sleek, pristine triumph of space-age style over substance. (It was also too long; it also shattered streaming records.) Abel Tesfaye can write a killer hook, but there’s something hokey and myopic about the persona he embodies in his songs. “I’m like, goddamn bitch, I am not a Teen Choice,” he sings on “Reminder,” seeming freshly peeved about his nominations for Fox’s adolescent award show and appearing to care about minor slights like this more than anything else happening in the world. Not every artist has to be politically engaged, of course, but in 2016 it was much more appealing to take respite in Bruno Mars’s breezy fantasyland than the Weeknd’s gilded, moodily lit bunker. Like Drake, his focus on his own fame and self-image placed the listener at a distance, when plenty of other records, made by people just as famous, pulled us in so close this year.

“I may be younger, but I’ll look after you,” Frank Ocean promises on “Nikes,” the first track off Blonde, a tone-setting swirl of offbeat humor and radical tenderness. Like so many of the others Ocean put out this year, it’s a very weird song: shape-shifting, celestial, disorientingly pretty. He made a video for it, though I’m not sure you’d call it a single — it’s hard to imagine radio making sense of waking dreams like “Nikes” or “Solo” or “White Ferrari.” Blonde validated Ocean’s position at the forefront of pop’s vanguard, honing a vision too sprawling and gloriously messy to be put into any kind of box. More than any other big release this year, it rose to the occasion of weird — to this moment of formal experimentation and enigmatic Tumblr cults-of-personality. If Blonde had come out 10 years ago, it’s hard to imagine it finding an audience. In 2016, in its first week of release, it sold a quarter of a million copies.

Depending on what you choose to call an album these days, it may have been the second one Ocean released this year, or even that same week. A day before Blonde, Ocean put out Endless, a 45-minute collage of song snippets and covers that he most likely released to fulfill his remaining contractual obligations with his ex-label Def Jam. (Another of the many things an album could be in 2016 was a fuck-you.) Blonde was self-released through the artist’s own imprint, Boys Don’t Cry.

Ocean clearly takes pride in his independence, a quality he shares with Chance the Rapper, another major star currently untethered to a label. He boasts about this on “No Problem,” the most exuberant song on the most exuberant record of the year, Coloring Book. (He gestures toward the very problems that record labels can cause by inviting Lil Wayne on the track.) A record as scrappy and freethinking as Chance’s further proved that the distinction between “indie” and “pop” artists is increasingly becoming obsolete — even artists who usually fall under the former grouping are pushing their sounds to exciting extremes. Guitar-toting crooner Angel Olsen channeled her inner glam-rocker (partially as an homage to David Bowie) in her charismatic videos for “Intern” and “Shut Up Kiss Me,” and her fantastic album My Woman bespoke her increased artistic confidence. Even the lo-fi maverick Mitski felt compelled to go anthemic, as her soaring Puberty 2 highlight “Your Best American Girl” attests. Still it’s interesting that, in the company of the year’s other best records, these supposed “indie” releases feel more traditional and less sonically weird than the mainstream pop records to which music snobs used to hold them in opposition.

All of these artists must navigate the limits of what “independence” actually means for an artist in the streaming era: In this light, it’s worth noting that Chance the Rapper and Frank Ocean initially released their albums as Apple Music exclusives. Chance has taken pride in the fact that (minus those two weeks that Coloring Book was an Apple exclusive) all his music so far has been available to download or listen to for free on the internet, and at times this sensibility has placed him at odds with the more traditional measurements of success. “I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy,” he said of Coloring Book midway through his sea-parting, year-winning verse on Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam.” Ocean, though, seems to care even less about such old-fashioned matters: He decided, with a grand shrug, to submit neither Blonde nor Endless into consideration for the 2017 Grammys. And they say every millennial wants a trophy.

Beyoncé may have ushered in the aesthetic renaissance of the post-digital pop album, but 2016 proved Kanye West to be the most radical innovator of its form. After endless delays, one-off singles, and scratched album titles, West released his wild and excellent The Life of Pablo in February — or at least one version of it. For weeks afterwards, he continued to tweak the album (as his infamous tweet, “ima fix wolves,” became a meme), chopping up tracks, incorporating new collaborators, and even adding a final song, “Saint Pablo.” It just may be the most quintessentially 2016 record for this reason; an artist couldn’t have dreamed of doing that in the CD era, nor could fans have imagined such an intimate look into a visionary’s creative process. To experience intimacy is to risk seeming uncomfortable, though: West’s endless revisions to Pablo have since taken on an ominous cast, as this bleak year ended with his forced hospitalization for undisclosed mental health issues. This hasn’t rendered it unlistenable, though: Pablo certainly contains some of the saddest songs West has ever released (“Real Friends,” “FML,” any and all versions of “Wolves”), but its range of emotions also contains some of his most exalted, most earnest proclamations of faith. The record has continued to evolve as we learn more about his personal struggles; I get chills when I hear Kirk Franklin promise him, at the end of “Ultralight Beam,” “You can never go too far where you can’t come back home again.” Albums routinely contain these sorts of multitudes now; they’re free to be more human. “Life of Pablo is a living breathing changing creative expression,” West tweeted back in March. He may as well have been talking about the pop album itself.