Music didn’t just drop in 2016; it teased, twisted, turned, and tweeted back, breaking all the rules in the process. And when albums like Kanye West‘s The Life of Pablo, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and Frank Ocean’s Blonde finally landed, they did so with an industry-shattering thud that will reverberate long into 2017.
2016 was a year where almost nothing went according to plan, and the music industry was no exception. Drops were either delayed, botched, or entirely a surprise. The year started off on a high note with Kanye West, who proved with The Life of Pablo that the release of an album is a work of art in itself. He provoked fans (and haters) on Twitter for almost a year before the release, changing the album’s name numerous times and even posting pictures of the track list from inside the studio, where it was still being mastered. West also redefined what it means to “drop” an album when he continued to edit tracks after the official release on Tidal, saying that the album was a “living breathing changing creative expression.” For him, and other artists to follow, the drop was only the beginning.
In April, Beyoncé captivated everyone’s attention with the release of her second visual album, Lemonade, which was not as full-blown of a surprise as her self-titled album last year, but still managed to retain the same level of secrecy and shock. Rather than playing with our minds, this year Beyoncé went straight for the heart by not only taking on political issues, but also revealing personal struggles with her marriage.
While Beyoncé and Kanye West were both wed to Tidal, Jay Z’s streaming service, Chance the Rapper and Frank Ocean finished out the year with albums that they produced themselves, without the corporate meddling of a record company. Both had bad experiences with their respective labels in the past, and decided to take a leap out on their own — landing firmly to find numerous, history-making Grammy nods at their feet. However, artists like Rihanna weren’t so lucky, with botched early releases and messy promotional deals with companies like Samsung. West also had a falling out with Jay Z over Apple Music drama, further making the case that there is no best practice any longer when it comes to orchestrating a release. The answer might be just doing what’s best for you.
In the end, it comes as no surprise that of the top albums of the year were also the ones with the most original releases. In 2016, sound and image are intrinsically linked; innovative music could not reach its full potential without an equally groundbreaking rollout. What’s interesting is how differently each artist chose to unfold their various projects. Kanye West screamed at the top of his lungs on social media while Frank Ocean remained a silent, analog killer. Beyoncé worked with laser precision. And Chance the Rapper, well, took a chance. In sum, to borrow a line from Ocean’s Blonde, 2016 was the year albums had not only two sides, but also two versions. And it worked.
The Life of Pablo Released: February 14
Mysteriousness: 10% West gets points for vagueness throughout the album’s creation, but he was incapable of keeping it a secret. Rumors about the impending album began to swirl in early 2015, when West dropped “Wolves” during his Yeezy Season 1 show. In March of last year, he tweeted the album cover for So Help Me God, which ended up being scrapped for Swish, and then later changed completely to The Life of Pablo. Then last September, he also dropped “Fade” at the Yeezy Season 2 show. In early 2016, West announced his G.O.O.D Friday music drop, which revealed a new song from the album each week. (All the while, he was also tweeting photos of the ever-changing track list.) Finally, just days before the album’s scheduled drop on February 14, West teased the album in full at Madison Square Garden during his Yeezy Season 3 fashion show, which was conveniently streamed on Tidal as well. Complexity of Execution: 30% In addition to the album’s fraught creation, West continued to make changes to songs on the album like “Wolves,” even after its official release, saying on Twitter that the album was a “living breathing changing creative expression.” Corporate Push: 5% At the time, West wanted to continue his collaborations with Jay Z, and decided to drop the album and Yeezy live-stream exclusively on Tidal. But in one of his recent rants, West revealed that it was because of a falling out over Drake and Apple Music that he chose to later stream the album on Tidal’s competitors as well, adding that he would not be working with Jay Z in the future. So, in the end, he still did whatever he wanted. Internet Angst: 40% West teased his fans on Twitter for almost a year before the drop, giving them a live-stream to his thought process throughout. He also made claims like, “This is not album of the year. This is album of the life,” which were beyond hype. Most notably though, West tweeted photos of a track list on a legal pad that was still being scratched and re-written just weeks before the album’s release. Every collaborator in the studio also signed his or her name as well, plus a note that read: “Kim never left.” When West finally tweeted the actual album cover, he engaged his fans to guess the title in return for free tour tickets. Meanwhile, his wife Kim Kardashian ran a Twitter poll about changing it back and forth. It was certainly the most tweeted about album of 2016, but with West himself doing much of the typing. Lasting Hype: 15% The Life of Pablo tour served as a stage for the rants West previously reserved for Twitter. But following the election of Donald Trump in November, things got out of hand, and West not only canceled the remaining tour dates, but also checked himself into the hospital for exhaustion. Despite his hiatus, however, the hype has failed to fizzle. Result: Most tweaked and tweeted.
Lemonade Released: April 23
Mysteriousness: 40% Following her last visual album, which was a complete surprise, Beyoncé maintained top secrecy regarding the shocking content of Lemonade by only revelaing a cryptic, one-minute trailer a week before the drop. Complexity of Execution: 10% While the amount of content Beyoncé put out was unrivaled, the entire hour of her visual album was released at once via HBO on the night of April 23. Corporate Push: 10% Despite Lemonade alleged revelations about Jay Z’s infidelity, Beyoncé remained loyal to her husband by releasing the album exclusively on Tidal. Internet Angst: 20% Please, Beyoncé doesn’t need to tweet. But following the release of “Formation” in February, social media began to swirl. Lasting Hype: 20% The .gifs and memes live on forever. Result: Most mysterious.
Coloring Book Released: May 13
Mysteriousness: 10% In October 2015, Chance the Rapper released “Angles,” the first single off the album, but then he went quiet until May. The mixtape’s release date was revealed by Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show after Chance’s on-air performance of “Blessings,” which took place just a week before it dropped. Complexity of Execution: 10% The mixtape dropped on time and all at once. Corporate Push: 0% Chance refused to partner with a label for Coloring Book, but agreed to stream it exclusively on Apple Music until May 27. The album soared on its own though, becoming the first release in history to chart on the Billboard 200 solely via streams. He also recently became the first rapper to receive Grammy a nomination for streaming-only project. Seven nominations, to be exact. Internet Angst: 30% Chance is all positivity and gratitude on social media, and comes off as the leader of a movement, rather than a hype-man, to his many followers. Lasting Hype: 50% Because of Chance’s young age and D.I.Y. approach to the mixtape, as well as the album’s gospel-like sound, Coloring Book was one of the few truly inspiring things to come out of 2016, with fans even in the White House. Result: Most resonant.
Anti Released: January 28
Mysteriousness: 10% After her touring for her last album, Unapologetic, Rihanna stated that she wanted to take a year off “to just do whatever I want artistically, creatively.” But her hiatus didn’t last long, and she tweeted a picture of herself in the studio in studio again in October 2014. Then, in March of 2015, she released the single and video for “Bitch Better Have My Money,” which told the world that Rihanna was still as unapologetic as ever. Anti would continue to tell it like it is. Complexity of Execution: 20% In addition to teasing singles in the months leading up to Anti‘s release, Rihanna also signed a $25 million contract with Samsung for a piecemeal mobile release of the album entitled “ANTIdiaRy.” Messages like, “She’s waiting for you. Are you in?” and “Be patient and keep your eyes open” prompted viewers to make their way through various “rooms” on the mobile site, which were opened over the course of nine weeks and included clues from the upcoming album. Needless to say, it was far to complicated to yield anything but buzz. Also, who uses Samsung? Corporate Push: 50% In addition to her deal with Samsung, Rihanna also agreed to stream the album on Tidal. But in an act of mis-management, the Anti track list was momentarily leaked on the streaming service before the official drop. It was quickly taken down, but the damage was done, as screenshots and bootleg streams spread around the internet like wildfire. Of course, Tidal blamed the Universal Music Group for the “system error,” and the Universal Music Group blamed Tidal. Regardless, it wasn’t Rihanna’s fault, but the botched release distracted people from what actually mattered, which was the album itself. She was also quickly overshadowed by Kanye West, who not only pulled out from producing her project to work on his own, but also stole the spotlight by dropping The Life of Pablo shortly thereafter. Internet Angst: 10% Anti doesn’t sound like the rest of Rihanna’s more pop-based albums, which is what makes it great. But this fact is also what caused great debate on the internet following its release. Lasting Hype: 10% Rihanna has since moved on to hype her various fashion drops instead, letting Anti take a back seat, for the most part. Result: Most botched.
Blonde Released: August 20
Mysteriousness: 100% After releasing Channel Orange in 2012, Frank Ocean went quiet for four years. In April 2015, he announced that a new album was imminent for July, and that it would be accompanied by a publication. However, when July came around, all Ocean revealed on his website was a library card labeled Boys Don’t Cry with numerous due date stamps, including November 13, 2016. Then, in August, a live-stream video appeared, unannounced, that showed Ocean building a wooden staircase. Later that month, it was revealed in full as Endless, a 45-minute-long visual album that was streamed on Apple Music. Many thought Endless was the album, but the next day Ocean announced pop-up shops in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and London, where you could pick-up magazines, which at long last included the actual album, Blonde, on a CD. Complexity of Execution: 100% Blonde was finally released August 20th exclusively on the iTunes Store and Apple Music, and only in full. However, fans quickly realized that the digital track list differed from the CD version of the album. There were also two spellings of the album: Blond and Blonde, plus three different covers of the magazine. Corporate Push: 0% Although Ocean agreed to partner with the iTunes Store and Apple Music for the release, like Chance the Rapper, he refused to partner with a studio, and clearly operated according to his own schedule. Internet Angst: 100% The anticipation of a release date alone sent the internet into a tailspin, trying to guess when, where, and how it would finally drop. Ocean became the “boy who cried album,” so much so that when Blonde was actually released, many didn’t know how to react. Lasting Hype: 100% Ocean has retread into hiding again, preserving the mystery that will embalm Blonde until his next release. Result: Best drop of 2016.