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The Album of the Year Election

Rihanna, Kanye, and Beyoncé campaign for your vote

Luke Insect
Luke Insect

The campaign has dragged on for months, with a solid half-year left to endure. The key players — and for a while there seemed to be a shiny, new press darling every week — are insufferable in their ubiquity, and often just insufferable, period. You know you should pay closer attention and be a better citizen, but it feels so perfunctory, so mandatory. And yet the burning, vital, unanswerable question remains: What is the best record of 2016 (so far)?

There are too many albums. You know this; you have known it for some time. This year’s nefarious, exhausting innovation is that there are now too many Event Albums, all striking enough — or weird, or loud, or sloppy, or violently refined, or laughable enough — to trigger their own spoiler alerts, to require your full immersion ASAP if you want the full cultural experience.

Rihanna and Kanye kicked us off with a deranged tone but a fairly leisurely pace, in terms of absorption time. But since Beyoncé’s Lemonade slapped us (and Jay Z especially) across the face in late April, the situation has grown untenable: Drake immediately after that, Radiohead immediately after that, Chance the Rapper immediately after that. You likely love at least two of these albums and hate at least one, but these six in particular have the pompous, unavoidable, attention-throttling aura that has come to define the year, dominating the conversation to an impressive but discomfiting degree.

A few questions, then, before we run them down. What makes a great album in 2016, and what is the ideal venue for revelling in its greatness? Is it best through headphones? On premium cable? Through the prism of an awe- or dumbstruck Twitter? Do you prefer an endless, vertiginous prerelease promo circus, or would you rather have the thing more or less randomly flung at you on a Saturday afternoon, dropping out of the sky like a rare, majestic bird, or a jet engine? Do you want your expectations met, or confounded entirely? Do you have to care deeply about The Album as a concept to make a truly great one, or is it maybe better at this point to not particularly give a shit? Is this already a fantastic year for music, or just an Extra one? Which of these suckers will hold up, and which never had a chance?

Let’s do our best to make sense of this.

Rihanna

‘Anti’

Release Date: January 28

Corporate Backers: Tidal exclusive, ostensibly

Ground Game: Anti’s unveiling was world-historically botched, with months of delays and blown deadlines and awkward ads culminating in a Tidal leak and a desperate scramble to spin the chaos that followed as a disruptive triumph. Does Jay Z possibly goading Samsung into buying a million copies and giving them away on day one really mean it “went platinum”? Was that catastrophic Billboard debut — it landed at no. 27, with less than 1,000 domestic sales — rough justice or total Navy-antagonizing bullshit? Could any of the higher-ups at Tidal find their butts if you sewed bells on those butts? Rihanna is the one living human both exalted and unflappable enough to have survived this disaster; her reaction, to the extent she deigned to even bother having one, was probably just this.

Campaign Slogan: “I’m desperately lonely, but don’t even bother.”

The Pitch: The intoxicating “Work” aside, Anti is the wooziest, thorniest, grouchiest, most insular and sensually malevolent record of her career: Music for Rihanna to Take Drugs to, Alone. Even the copious sex jams have a hostile, forlorn quality; she is the insatiable seductress from Prince’s “Little Red Corvette,” and nobody’s got anywhere near enough gas.

And so. She covers psych-pop shut-ins Tame Impala at great length and with profound depth of feeling. She purrs come-ons like, “Tryna fix your inner issues with a bad bitch / Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage? / Fuck your white horse and a carriage.” (Moreover: “Man, fuck your pride.”) Drake aside, no other would-be conquering-hero rapper even makes the cut; Travis Scott gets to hoot a bit on the stabbing, jarring “Woo,” but otherwise you get the sense that he spent the entire recording process duct-taped to the ceiling. Meanwhile, the songs that initially seemed like throwaways grudgingly reveal themselves as the most profound. “Consideration,” a dazed, singsong duet with the R&B singer SZA, feels slight as an opener until you realize it’s a declaration of both independence and war: “I got to do things my own way, darling.” And “Higher,” the most striking track on first listen, only gets more so: a howling drunken-sext-as-torch-song with the rawest, craziest, and best vocals of her career.

Core Constituency: Misanthropist romantics; unromantic misandrists; lovelorn stoners; people who want to have sex with Rihanna, but are too terrified of her to even imagine it. (So, Drake.)

Album of the Year? If you’re feeling as contrarian as she is, sure. Anti will never open its arms to embrace you, but you might very well grow to love it; no full-length album better illustrates how irrelevant full-length, semi-conventionally released albums are to pop superstars in 2016. She has outgrown the form. She’s arguably better than that whole notion, and inarguably bigger; this is arguably her best album, and inarguably her least eager to please. Having cranked out seven of these suckers in eight years from 2005 to 2012, she’s practically post-content, post-music, post-human; in 2016, the mere sight of Rihanna walking through a crowded room is a solid AOTY candidate. This thing is a loss leader for her brand (and several other brands). If you still don’t like it even now, though, keep it to yourself, lest she fucking increase the fucking thing.

Kanye West

‘The Life of Pablo’

Release Date: Valentine’s Day (!)

Corporate Backers: Tidal exclusive, menacingly

Ground Game: LOL. The usual zoo. He taunted us for months (years, really) with fake album titles (Swish!), spent weeks during the homestretch trying to sabotage the whole project on Twitter, threw a garish and hardcore-FOMO-triggering Madison Square Garden soirée to celebrate, kept thousands of on-call insta-reviewers chained to their desks for days like nervous doulas, antagonized Taylor Swift for the billionth time, flip-flopped endlessly as to when, and how, and where you’d be able to hear it (and for how long), and ended up scoring a huge Hot 100–topping hit … for Desiigner’s “Panda.” Thanks a lot! Also, Pablo has been out for months now, and it’s still not done.

Campaign Slogan: “Ima fix everything.”

The Pitch: For a control-freak conceptual supergenius, Kanye West’s later albums exhibit the contemptuously half-assed, all-nighter dishevelment of a junior high dirtbag’s Earth science report on biomes, garnished in this case with unlistenable freestyles and vapid Chris Brown cameos as the sonic equivalent to wide-ass margins and giant fonts and wanton Wikipedia plagiarism. What compounds the frustration is that much of the result is transcendent anyway. Chance the Rapper’s ecstatic verse on the intergalactic-gospel opener “Ultralight Beam” is essentially a trailer for his own ecstatic/transcendent full-length Coloring Book, and the best trailer since Mad Max: Fury Road at that. (Imagine the balls you need to rap, “This is my part, nobody else speak” on a Kanye West record.)

Other highs: the meme-nurturing wake-up call “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” the Sacred vs. Profane cage match that rages from “Low Lights” to “Highlights,” the melancholy self-aggrandizement of “Real Friends.” The one that’ll really haunt you, though, is still “Wolves,” especially the eerie, wordless, ascending moan that takes over on the current version right after Kanye bails and right before Frank Ocean shows up. By now you can skip past the bullshit in your sleep — friends don’t let friends listen to “Freestyle 4” — if you haven’t already custom-playlisted this thing into oblivion.

That’s “current version,” by the way, because Pablo’s true legacy will be the “Ima fix wolves” phenomenon, with the constant threat that Kanye will jump back in and rewire the record, incessantly and unrecognizably, for better or (more likely) worse. Steve Jobs hated the idea of streaming: “You don’t want to rent your music.” And verily, unless you pirated Pablo (and you probably did), you literally don’t own it, and there’s nothing stopping the guy whose name’s on the cover from, say, replacing Chance’s verse with a new one from, say, Big Sean. (“I made Finally Famous / I’m never gonna eat kale.”) He might just futz with it forever, in lieu of whipping up Turbo Grafx 16 or whatever the next one’s supposed to be called; Pablo’s terror threat level will be bright red for years. Please fix “Facts” next.

Core Constituency: Misogynist romantics, rappers who sound suspiciously like other rappers, Kardashian Expanded Universe completists, catcalling churchgoers, oversensitive narcissists. (So, Drake.)

Album of the Year? If clumsy, vainglorious sprawl is your thing, this is the Taj Mahal built on Miami Beach’s coastline, whiplash-inducing in tone, quality, and seriousness of intent. As a deconstruction and demystification of the Prestige Album (and Kanye’s own frazzled, neurotic, colossally volatile process), Pablo is nonetheless revolutionary in its own way, contemptuous of its own self-regard, a construction sign hanging on Duchamp’s urinal. No way it’s his best work, but if you’re hell-bent on keeping his AOTY streak alive, you can talk yourself into letting him talk you into it. Don’t fall in love with anything specific, though!

Beyoncé

‘Lemonade’

Release Date: April 23

Corporate Backers: Tidal exclusive, militantly (plus HBO)

Ground Game: Precise and terrifying, as usual. The frenzied rumor mill for this thing was a hoot — the best entry on this hilarious fake tracklist is either “Beaches,” “Women of the World (feat. Mariah Carey),” or “Nature Mother” — but its true nature remained elusive, and no one dared fantasize that it was basically a catapult for launching Jay Z into the sun. Beyoncé’s internal operation is more disciplined and efficient and leak-proof than that of any government on earth; in the next decade, either she will be Elizabeth Warren’s vice presidential candidate, or Elizabeth Warren will be hers.

Campaign Slogan: “Just try to guess what I’ll wear to Jay’s funeral.”

The Pitch: That deafening, disquieting sound you heard at approximately 9:41 p.m. EST on the Saturday night of Lemonade’s HBO debut was the collective societal groan that greeted Jay Z’s first appearance onscreen: Aw, man, he’s actually IN this? (At least it was during “Sandcastles,” which owns.) As a fount of both high art and tabloid prurience, Beyoncé’s sixth full-length and second “visual album” is well nigh bulletproof, but onscreen at least — after the raw shock of “Are you cheating on me?”; and the baseball bat; and the body-horror majesty of “If it’s what you truly want, I can wear her skin over mine”; and the ring toss; and “Suck on my balls”; and all the, you know, fire; and the country song with the chorus of “My daddy said shoot” — the pivot from Fuck You, Dude to I Forgive You, Everything’s Fine was not very convincing. Or maybe it’s not so much that you didn’t believe it as you just didn’t want to, that it sucks maybe that what began as a glorious Declaration of Independence turned into a triumphant but still unsatisfying Declaration of Dependence instead. Uh, really looking forward to that joint album, guys.

But that’s love! As a purely auditory experience — though only available on Tidal, still! — Lemonade’s arc is softer, more coherent, more understandable. Plus “Formation” sounds miraculous on the radio, though every time I hear it on the radio, I think, “I can’t believe she’s letting them play this on the radio.”

Core Constituency: Pretty much everyone at this point, though only one specific person really matters, apparently.

Album of the Year? Probably! The inside-baseball joke here is that Beyoncé, once ground zero in the rockism/popism wars, is now the one artist left who wholeheartedly worships the ideal of the full-length record as an elevated, sanctified form of artistic expression. (My favorite single element of Lemonade right now is the John Bonham drum loop on “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” which is a viscerally perverse example of Missing The Point, but that’s half the fun: navigating which aspects of this project you can comfortably connect with, and which parts you can’t.) This isn’t her best collection of songs — that’s still 2013’s Beyoncé, which has “XO,” for starters — but it’s her best album, if that makes any sense, which maybe it doesn’t, not anymore. But that’s love.

Drake

‘Views’

Release Date: April 29

Corporate Backers: Apple Music, which can have it

Ground Game: Spirited but interminable, and marred by his quixotic, fetch-like quest to make “the 6” happen. This was great, by the way.

Campaign Slogan: “If you had it like me, you would whine about it like me.”

The Pitch: Let’s narrow this down real quick to Drake’s funniest punch line ever, which appears on “Redemption,” a somber, mopey, self-aggrandizing slow jam that you probably can’t recall based on the title alone, seeing as it’s surrounded here by, like, 13 other somber, mopey, self-aggrandizing slow jams. But all he wants is for you to listen closely, so please enjoy this lightning round of ex-girlfriend complaints:

Not havin’ closure, it take a lot out of me

This year for Christmas I just want apologies

Sydney gave up on me when I went missin’

Syn had a baby and treated me different

Erika sued me and opened a business

Wonder if they wish it could’ve been different

Mmm, pretty thought-provoking stuff, Drake, especially the part where of course she treated you different after she had a baby, you knucklehead. She’s changing diapers and picking half-masticated Cheerios out of her hair and sleeping 45 minutes per 24 hours, and you’ve elected to take her text-message response times PERSONALLY. “You don’t pay as much attention to me since your hair caught on fire and is still on fire.” Drake, have you ever even held a baby? Does the 6 have a daycare center or a Gymboree or anywhere that you can hang out just to gain some insight into the child-rearing process? OHHHHH JESUS PUT A SOCK IN IT.

So yeah, this gets a little grating. Views is the soundtrack to a Bond movie in which James Bond just sits dejectedly in the conference room from the end of The Social Network for two hours, hitting refresh on a laptop over and over, waiting for all the Bond girls he abandoned to accept his friend requests. There are far worse things than Drake’s Worst Album, and if you put in the time, these 20 (!!!) tracks will eventually differentiate themselves — “With You” is lovely, and more to the point lively — but this is indisputably Drake’s Worst Album, monochrome and parodically single-minded in its lonely king self-pity. And coming less than a week after a Beyoncé album, just more than a week before a Radiohead album, and about two weeks before a Chance the Rapper album, who has the time, or the patience, or the slightest inclination to put in that work? This is either exceptionally lousy timing or an act of mercy: With so many fellow heavyweights putting out the best and/or orneriest albums of their own careers, Views never had a chance, but at least this way it gets to slink off into the sunset without its sour, goofy solipsism hogging too much of a spotlight that would only burn it to ash.

Core Constituency: Ha ha ha, just kidding. This is the biggest record of 2016 thus far, by far: four straight weeks at no. 1; half a billion streams and counting; “One Dance” (which is fine) atop the Hot 100, where he’d somehow never had a no. 1 before (which is hilarious). Et cetera. This is less an indictment of the taste of the American (and Canadian) public than it is an inevitable byproduct of Drake’s ubiquity, which means that Views is benefiting from the very dizzying, isolating pulpit he spends the whole record bitching about. The only thing worse than this problem is most of the potential solutions he’s likely devising for this problem, but regardless: I’m just saying, you could do better. Tell me, have you heard that lately?

Album of the Year? Only in the sense that Donald Trump, win or lose, will inevitably be Man of the Year.

Radiohead

‘A Moon Shaped Pool’

Release Date: May 8

Corporate Backers: Every digital joint, pretty much, though preferably you grabbed it from their antiseptic, vaguely totalitarian website to really get the full experience.

Ground Game: Glum, eerie, workmanlike, not ineffective. Menacing animated videos, menacing Paul Thomas Anderson clips, the whole shit. “Radiohead Releases New, Weird, Unsettling Art-Type Thing” will be a reliable daily traffic-driver all summer.

Campaign Slogan: “[Sonorous mumbling.]”

The Pitch: Another reliable traffic-driver will be “Radiohead Actually Played One Of Their Beloved Old Songs Live,” as transpired last week in France with “Creep,” further underscoring how far they’ve traveled from their initial, grudgingly grandiose former selves, and how conflicted even die-hard fans still are about all the exquisite somnolence that followed. What you can say about A Moon Shaped Pool is that at least this time the exquisite somnolence is organic: it sounds like humans playing human-sounding music designed to appeal to other humans. It breathes laboriously, it hums, it mewls, it moans, it (yes!) snores. It’s a Nick Drake album if he’d lived to see Twitter; it’s a Sea Change for the climate-change era; it’s a valiant and erudite attempt to knock Donald Trump over with a feather.

He won’t budge, of course, but you might. Frustration has been both a dark and a high art for Radiohead for a solid decade now, and it’s hard to even be mad anymore, no matter how frustrated you get. This is not the record you want from them — obviously — but it’s most likely better than the record you thought you were gonna get.

Thank the string-section action for that, jolting “Daydreaming” and “The Numbers” out of their gorgeous stupors, and driving “Burn the Witch” from the beginning. You got two legit jams on this thing: “Ful Stop” is like gunning down the Autobahn in a hearse, with a two-note bass drone that will get stuck in your head during household chores for weeks, the guitar squalls like cats declawing themselves. And then there’s “True Love Waits,” which is technically a Beloved Old Song and sounds like it, with a rare yearning immediacy (“Please don’t leave” is Thom Yorke’s stickiest, creepiest hook in 15 years) that belies how quiet and resigned and somnolent it is. It’s the first capital-“H” Haunting latter-day Radiohead song that fully makes it to the other side of the mirror.

Core Constituency: Anyone from the “Just” video who’s still lying on the ground.

Album of the Year? Ehh. It’s all pretty boring until you squint, and scowl, and project as much pathos as you can muster onto it, so it’s all a matter of how hard you can squint and how much pathos you’ve got, exactly. They’re the exceptionally rare modern rock band with enough burn to contend in the Surprise Prestige Album sweepstakes at all — very few of their peers bother with Cryptic Announcement chicanery or vie for presumptuous appointment-listening status, or at least very few people care when other bands pull this shit — so that’s something. This is ultimately more of a time-honored New Record As An Excuse To Tour sorta deal, which is unfortunately the most retro thing about it.

Chance the Rapper

‘Coloring Book’

Release Date: May 12

Corporate Backers: Apple Music exclusive (and clandestine DatPiff sensation), triggering much handwringing over his independent status (or lack thereof) and shot at a Grammy (likewise)

Ground Game: Brief, competent, relatively unassuming, and super twee in a somehow not totally insufferable way. So very much in character.

Campaign Slogan: “[Infectious yelping.]”

The Pitch: Chance’s surface appeal — the irresistible, perplexingly childlike rasp of his voice, every word like he’s just barely not cracking up at his own jokes, every line joyously hurried like when you trip on the sidewalk and start running to disguise the fact you tripped — is also his deep-listening appeal. I actually want to spend a full album with this person begets I actually want to listen to this full album more than once. You can lose weeks just grinning like an idiot through the bumptious, endearingly unthreatening threat “No Problem,” backed by what sounds like a full gospel choir tumbling around in a very large dryer. There is more delight in his stormier moments than in most other rappers’ formal attempts at delight: The deceptively light “Summer Friends” ably withstands way too much bummed-out warbling from Francis and the Lights (a.k.a. the Desiigner Bon Iver), and “All Night” has the goofy dance-jams-for-paralyzingly-awkward-people frivolity of classic De La Soul. There are wondrous flowers growing from every pothole on his lawn.

The relentless cheeriness may eventually exhaust you; all the God stuff may eventually alienate you. But at the very least you will likely find that you have a way higher capacity for such things than you’d imagined. This moment in time is, by one measure, profoundly ill-suited for a song with the refrain “It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap,” and yet on the other hand maybe it’s the perfect time.

Core Constituency: Absolutely everyone, in the summertime. Seriously, this might be the best summer rap album since No Way Out, or Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, or Illmatic, or The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, or Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, or (someone I trust swore that this qualified) Country Grammar. It’s like drinking directly from a fire hydrant.

Album of the Year? Quite possibly! It’s notable however that all four (including the Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment album) of Chance’s projects thus far self-identify as mixtapes, and/or are explicit free-download situations. (Put “free” in scare quotes for Coloring Book, if you’re Apple-averse.) As the brooding, lumbering, Young Thug–anointed song literally called “Mixtape” makes clear, the distinction still means a great deal to Chance; as he’s the newest and youngest artist here by a long shot, it’s worth speculating as to why. Does he not care about formal “albums” at all, or does he care so much about the form that he’s waiting to fulfill very specific criteria before releasing one of his own? If he’s stalling until he’s in at least theoretical contention for Best Rapper Alive — or, better yet, Most Charming Rapper Alive — his time has already come.

In Conclusion

At press time, IMHO, it’s still Beyoncé > Chance > Kanye > Rihanna > Radiohead > Drake. But we’ve got a long, brutally hot summer ahead of us in which to think it all over, and Convention Season is not yet upon us, and Frank Ocean is liable to shock-release Boys Don’t Cry any second now, and Katy Perry’s near-total silence lo these past few years is very suspicious, and the known unknowns here are almost scarier than the unknown unknowns. Good luck out there, whatever happens. If nothing else, this is the year when we all resigned ourselves to listening faster.