Whatever other criticisms can be lobbed at 2016, no one could say it was a predictable year. Throughout the year, in art, politics, and culture, it seemed no one could predict the next event, and it was a year full of surprises no one saw coming. This trend was no different in the world of music, where a number of artists decided to go out of their way to do the unexpected, for better or worse. From the indie world, to the hip hop world, even to the usually more predictable world of pop, surprises abounded, and artists took risks that changed the course of music and pop culture history. Here are some of the most surprising, and innovative, musical moments of 2016, that will influence music for decades to come.
Kanye Releases a Half-Finished Album
In a year that has been pretty insane, Kanye West's latest album The Life Of Pablo
may not seem like the biggest deal in the world, but the way he released it completely changed the way music could be made and distributed. As the creator of any work of art knows, one of the most difficult things to do is to decide when something is complete. Behind the finished art that the audience consumes, there is the hidden "sausage-making" aspect of the creation, where the artist goes through countless ideas and permutations of ideas before finally settling on a finished product that is published. Up until its release, a work of art is an amorphous set of shifting ideas. In The Life of Pablo,
Kanye allowed the public into this process, releasing various drafts of songs off of the album, revealing, and then editing, his track list, and asking the public to help him choose the title of his album (personally I preferred SWISH
This level of involvement of fans into the creative process was impossible before social media allowed artists to communicate directly with fans. But the most outlandish part of the development of this album was how even after the release of the album, Kanye continued to tinker with the album. The album was officially released for streaming on Tidal in February, but Kanye continued to alter the album for the next two months, sending updates both to Tidal and other streaming services where he changed the track list, mixing, and even the lyrics on many tracks. The barrier between the creation process and the finished product has been demolished, and now a work can be released and edited at any time.
Thousands of People Watch Frank Ocean Build Some Stairs
This year, after we had lost all hope of ever getting our hands on new music by Frank Ocean, he surprised us with the release of not one, but two
. Those who were closely following the release of the first album, Endless,
were treated to a fairly surreal experience of watching Frank Ocean build a staircase. The promotion for Frank's album began suddenly with a live stream on his website of an empty warehouse. This continued for a day before being replaced by a video of Frank woodworking in that same hall while playing instrumental loops in the backgrounds. Fans clamored to watch a video in which Frank merely carved wood, in a desperate attempt to glean any information about the album. Then, finally, four days later, the visual album was released, which featured Frank continuing on this woodworking project, and eventually building a flight of stairs while his album played in the background. Visual albums, and avant-garde visuals, are not a new phenomenon, but few times before has an artist with so much mainstream popularity created an album promotion and release so cryptic and difficult. This same year indie darling Bon Iver
released his immensely cryptic, but equally popular, 22, A Million
, with odd symbols and confusing lyric videos. Together the two proved the appetite the mainstream has for more experimental art surrounding a musical release. With this release, Frank shows that he has created music that resonates with people so much to the point that they're willing to endure days of watching him build a staircase, just for the promise of new music from him. This opens the door for more artists in the mainstream to experiment to a greater extent with their music and the art surrounding their music, and to be less constricted by the expectations of the industry or fans.
Martha Stewart And Snoop Dogg Star in a Hit Show
Snoop Dogg has spent the last ten years transitioning from an artist into an icon at the center of pop culture. Since the 90s, the Long Beach rapper has transformed from merely a rapper, into a cultural avatar for weed, and this position places him in the perfect space to collaborate with one of the ultimate purveyor of munchies: Martha Stewart. The two of them began working together early this year, appearing in videos and on shows, until finally coming together to create the hit VH1 show "Martha And Snoop's Potluck Dinner Party." On the show, celebrities and athletes join Snoop and Martha to help them cook various themed foods.
This pairing of the two celebrities might have seemed ridiculous on the surface, but the two are actually a perfect comedy duo. Snoop Dogg plays the part of the joker, smoking weed and goofing off, while Stewart plays the straight man, not understanding his innuendo and giving him someone to bounce his jokes off. This partnership could have never happened 20 years ago, but now with Martha's reputation already tarnished by her conviction and jail time for insider trading, Snoop Dogg's transformation from gangster rapper to weed smoking uncle, and the building acceptance of hip hop in the mainstream, it's a perfect time for these celebrities to collaborate. This new show represents the way that hip hop and urban culture has permeated pop culture, and is one more move towards the collision of these two worlds. Along with other shows, such as Action Bronson's Fuck, That's Delicious
and 2 Chainz internet show for GQ
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, Snoop's new show displays how much hip hop entered pop culture in 2016, and hints that it may continue in the future.
Music Went Political
Despite 2016 being an election year, at the offset of the year, no one could have predicted how embroiled in politics pop culture and music would become. Since the 80s punk movement, music, especially in the mainstream, had steadily become less politically charged. Yes, hit albums like American Idiot
by Green Day, gained mainstream exposure and had political messages at the forefront, but for each one of those, hundreds of hit albums were released with no political agendas. In the beginning of 2016, I think most people expected that trend to continue. The general opinion among many observers of the election process was that the crowded Republican race would tear each other apart, and Hillary Clinton would win the presidency and continue the policies of Barack Obama. For the majority of mainstream artists who exist on the left of the political spectrum, this meant that they had no obligation to speak out politically, as they believed their preferred outcome was coming to pass.
This all changed as the year progressed, and the presidential election became more and more contentious. As the two candidates sparred, the deep divisions of our country came to light and coaxed many artists out of their comfort zone and into creating political music. This began in large part with Beyonce
, the deeply personal album that spoke to the Black experience in America and called for changes to be made. It continued with artists like YG
and Aphex Twin
, generally apolitical musicians, creating music calling for political action. Already politically involved artists like Lady Gaga
and Vic Mensa
protested conservative policies. This culminated in the 30 Day 30 Songs project, where artists like Jim James, Death Cab For Cutie, Josh Ritter, and many more contributed songs against Trump. With Donald Trump now president, it seems unlikely that all this will die down, and many expect a new era of political and protest music to emerge in the next couple years.
Chance The Rapper's Coloring Book Gets Nominated For A Grammy
To be fair, this was an event that built throughout the year, to the point that by the time that nominations were to be released many people would have expected it, but at the beginning of 2016, few could have predicted that Chance The Rapper would be nominated for a Grammy. The nomination represents the culmination of a number of trends in the music industry that have been building for many years. The first is the rise of streaming, and the death of sales, both physical and digital. Physical sales have been steadily declining for years, but with the popularization of streaming, even digital album and track sales are plummeting. Chance is the first artist to chart or to be nominated for a Grammy with a streaming only album (or mixtape, depending on how you classify it).
This nomination also represents the diminishing role of labels and distributors in this new era. Although other independent artists have been nominated, and even won Grammys, Chance exists on a different and more modern form of musical independence. Unlike independent artists like Macklemore
, Chance's album was not only released without a label, but without a distribution deal. Unlike independent albums like The Heist,
that are created independently but use distribution companies like Warner Music Group's ADA to manufacture and distribute the album, Chance's only agreement was directly with the streaming services. This allowed him a greater level of bargaining power than would be possible through a deal through a major distribution company. Chance The Rapper's rise in general points to the immense changes happening in the way music becomes popular. Rather than attempting to gain attention by courting labels, Chance's music grew through blogs and by building fans locally and then globally. Through the nomination of this album, it's been proved that an artist can move from local success to international, all without the label. Even if that's not a model everyone can follow, it's created a new lane to success for future artists who might never have gained prominence or success in the older music industry.