While each passing year leaves a unique fingerprint on the ever-evolving music industry, it’s become increasingly clear that 2016 will be eulogized in a way unlike any of its predecessors.
The voices that reverberate throughout this year’s most notable releases—the albums that will outlast 2016’s demise—have been overwhelmingly and confidently black.
“This year has definitely been a year for the black artist and for the independence of black artists,” said Tae’Shaona Matthews, a Boston University junior who majors in Cultural Anthropology and minors in African American Studies. “Everyone has gone in a different direction and done something we haven’t really seen from them before.”
The year began with two of today’s most prominent artists taking it upon themselves to push the capabilities of music production: Rihanna’s Anti boasts more depth and elegance than any of her previous releases and Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo was continually edited and tweaked even after its release.
Later came the continued reign of Beyoncé, whose expansive masterpiece single-handedly set a new bar for artistic ambition; inadequately labeled a“visual album,” LEMONADE blended music, film, dance, poetry, feminism, personal storytelling and social commentary into a single body of work.
Each of these albums has predictably received individual veneration by music critics, but lesser-known black artists certainly haven’t been lacking in the praise department.
Rolling Stone called Chance the Rapper’s newest mixtape Coloring Book “the richest hip-hop album of 2016,” and others lauded Vince Staples, Travis Scott and Solange Knowles for producing their most conscious works to date—Prima Donna, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight and A Seat at the Table, respectively.
Moreover, many black artists have used music this year to unapologetically embrace blackness (Beyoncé’s “Formation”), validate the struggles of their community (Solange’s “Cranes In The Sky”), make a political statement (Jay Z’s "spiritual”) and express an enduring love for life despite black adversity (Chance the Rapper’s “Blessings”).
This year’s experience with public and critical acclaim for black music is encouraging in such a divisive time.
“I think the current racial climate has a huge impact on music right now, with Beyoncé especially,” Matthews said. “LEMONADE was very much Beyoncé’s declaration, saying like, ‘okay white folks, I know y’all thought I was this neutral person but I am black, I am a woman, and these issues are very central to my identity.’”
But the individual acclaim of these works, while important, may point to yet another divide soon enough. As 2016 winds down, yearly “Best Of” and “Top 10” lists will saturate the world of music criticism.
“It’s the nature of a top 10 list. You start coming up with your favorites and then it ends up being this sort of strange game where critics are not really choosing the 10 best albums,” said Elijah Wald, author and former music critic for The Boston Globe. “They’re choosing what they want people to think they think are the ten best albums.”
Next comes award season: here, black artists no longer stand in solitary reviews but rather alongside white contenders.
After Taylor Swift won the coveted 2015 “Album of the Year” Grammy award for 1989—in the wake of the Kanye West “I made that bitch famous” controversy—Swift spoke about taking pride in your own accomplishments.
And while that is an important message, the West/Swift saga continued to create a media vortex, obscuring the real truth of that night.
Kendrick Lamar should have won that award.
Lamar’s third studio album To Pimp a Butterfly was, by many accounts, the most impeccably produced, rhetorically powerful and culturally relevant album eligible for the 2016 Grammys.
Yes, 1989 was an excellent body of work. But tracing back to the notorious “I’mma let you finish” stunt, Swift’s lineage of West-themed controversy masks a larger, systematic problem. West knows it needs to be addressed. He may go about it in the wrong way, but that might be because nobody seems to be listening.
When the nominees for the 2015 Grammys were announced, West had secured just two nods for his electrifying album Yeezus, which featured songs highlighting the black experience like “Blood on the Leaves” and “New Slaves.”
“Out of all [my] 21 Grammys, I’ve never won a Grammy against a white artist,” West said to the crowd at one of his concerts. “What are they trying to say? Do they think that I wouldn’t notice?”
While West’s assertion isn’t technically true—he has bested white artists twice in rap music categories—and awards should arguably be irrelevant to a musician as committed to the artistry as West claims to be, the Grammy ceremony does not exist in a vacuum.
West lost both of those 2015 nominations to white rap duo and novelty song specialists Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. What we see in these instances is a struggle between white mediocrity and black excellence.
“You see black artists constantly inventing new ways to represent themselves and to do all these different things, and then white people will say the same thing, the same way, with the same melody, and people will praise them like crazy,” Matthews said.
In a white-dominated society, black artists need to work harder to be recognized—and not because diligent, gifted artists like Taylor Swift don’t deserve recognition, but because white privilege allows her music to be graded on a curve.
Black-created and black-dominated genres have always held a large white audience, from swing to blues to rap, but an anxiety exists between appreciation for the art and discomfort with the culture.
“When the blues first hit, it was still in the days of segregation. Black blues was heard by black people and white blues was heard by white people, until records took over in the ’50s,” Wald said. “That’s when black music began to grow in popularity within the white community. Because you can have white people dancing to black music without having black people in the room.”
Recently, Beyoncé received backlash for invoking the Black Panthers during her Super Bowl performance, prompting Saturday Night Live to spoof a horror film titled The Day Beyoncé Turned Black, “rated NC-17 for white people and G for black people.”
The clip highlighted the hypocrisy of white listeners who embrace black artists but reject blackness.
Mindful moments like these, paired with the overwhelming praise black artists have received this year, could indicate a much-needed shift within the music community.
“It feels very much that this year specifically, black artists have decided that we’re not going to cater to that white audience anymore,” Matthews said.
The teaser video for Young Thug’s new mixtape JEFFERY featured the artist sitting in a police station, telling the white officers over and over, “no, my name is Jeffery.”
The mixtape also caused a stir when its cover art depicted the rapper in a dress (for fans, it was no surprise coming from the man who once said “I feel like there’s no such thing as gender”).
These are powerful images and testaments to the artist’s fluidity, his ability to evolve. He doesn’t want assumptions to follow him.
Frank Ocean’s sophomore album also toys with the limits of gender; the work is formally titled Blonde but is represented in some promotional images as “blond,” a play on the masculine and feminine versions of the French word.
As a queer musician, Ocean has always been pressured—and has always resolutely declined—to label himself. He is in charge of his own definition, a point he made clear when he released Blonde on his own label after sneakily sliding out of a Sony Music contract.
"I think a lot of the music this year has been very much like, 'You’re not going to make us into these stereotypes or these archetypes; we are individuals and this is how our individual lives connect to other black people,’” Matthews said.
When the nominees for the 2017 Grammys are announced, we might see LEMONADE sweep categories or we might get another Kanye West rant.
But arbitrary nominations can’t control a powerful movement, and voices like Beyoncé’s and West’s are the ones we should be listening to.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of the Buzz magazine. Photography and page design by Eva V. Gallagher.