Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Rise of Curated Albums

After years focusing my public efforts solely on the comic book industry, I found I missed writing about my first love: music. What follows is the second piece of a new series called “Hip-Hop Revue”, analyzing recent Hip-Hop/R&B topics, albums, and personalities.


In 2016, there have been four major Hip-Hop/R&B releases: Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Drake’s Views, and Frank Ocean’s Blonde. With Views being the exception, each of these releases was accompanied by outside elements ranging from fashion shows and visual albums to Twitter controversies and rumor mills working overtime. It feels like the biggest releases of the year are not JUST albums, but rather comprehensive experiences that pull listeners in based on external factors then offer a reward for diligent interest.

Beyoncé’s release of Lemonade sparked wide discussion about the level of truth behind such an unsubtle narrative about Jay-Z’s infidelity. Kanye’s The Life of Pablo came out under duress last February when even Ye himself didn’t seem to know how he wanted everything to go down – TLOP was updated four times since that initial release, keeping interest in West’s ambitious album up even into the beginning of the summer. Frank Ocean one-upped himself by releasing a visual album called Endless only to drop Blonde, a much better collection of tracks, just 24 hours later. And these are just the big ones – Drake’s Views changed names at the last minute, and Young Thug’s JEFFERY features Thugger in a skirt and parasol hat on the cover.

Each of these instances points to the rise of experimentation and, more notably, curated releases in the world of hip-hop and R&B, more effort put into making an album worth celebrating beyond just the music. And while this might sound nihilistic, remember that Kanye’s been doing this since day one – every Yeezy album is a motherf#cking event:

College Dropout was a hit before it dropped because Ye understood pop technique and how to draft a catchy tune before blowing us all away with his devastating lyrics.

Late Registration was about Kanye proving he wasn’t a fad, that he was going to be the greatest someday, and this album was simply another achievement of genre-bent hooks and catalyzed melodies.

Graduation found Ye reaching father outside hip-hop to influence his sound while maintaining his underdog persona even as he was showing signs of going full-on narcissist.

After the death of his mother, Kanye’s ‘blue period’ is marked by 808s & Heartbreak, a personal reflection he undergoes that would eventually lead to the ego-maniacal, celebrity-obsessed, culturally influential artist we know today.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (my personal favorite) is a maelstrom of innovation and pageantry for the sake of it, musings on hip-hop and himself that give credence to his own introspection on “Monster” yet feels energetic and genre-defining even six years later.

Yeezus is chaos – beautiful, awkward, eccentric chaos that everyone knew was going to be chaotic before it was released.

Which brings us back to The Life of Pablo and my entire conceit, that curated albums are nothing new, only that their prominence is growing and artists putting effort into developing a larger narrative around their work is becoming more acceptable and attractive, not only to the industry, but also to larger mainstream audiences. Kanye used his own brand recognition to push TLOP when it was only available via Tidal for the first few months of its release, a brand that is known for creating impulsive, erratic, controversial pieces of art – why wouldn’t you sign up for the free month and listen?

Similarly, Lemonade succeeded not only on the merit of its music (which is incredibly, of course), but also because of the rumors about Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s relationship which were exacerbated by the accompanying visual version of the album (think Lana Del Rey’s Tropico) and the distinct lack of comment from either Beyoncé or Jay-Z. In this case, I still believe that the Queen B simply wrote a concept album not unlike The Who’s Tommy, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, or The Mars Volta’s Frances the Mute, but I don’t discount the possibility that everything Beyoncé expresses on Lemonade could be true. That said, from both business and artistic standpoints, it makes sense for the album to be conceptual instead of a literal extension of the artist’s feelings.

Curated albums really only share this weird label I’ve made up for them because I don’t know how else to express the concept, and also the fact that they’ve all made headlines that have nothing to do with the actual music. And that’s exactly why each album has been so successful. Yes – Beyoncé, Kanye West, and Frank Ocean (to a lesser degree) are huge names in hip-hop and R&B spheres, but there’s a tension in 2016 that’s pushed these big names to try new things, to experiment and play around with the tired, traditional album release and turn it into something wholly unique.

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