Just What Is An Album? In 2016, That Was An Open Question
In principle, music makers have agreed to a certain order — a certain way of doing things. First, pop artists work hard to put out finished albums with polished tracks. Second, music critics get those albums ahead of the release date so they can listen to and review them. Finally, albums come out on Fridays — they're events to look forward to and items to spend your money on at the week's end. And yet, says NPR Music's Daoud Tyler-Ameen, in 2016 it appeared those rules were made to be broken.
"Major artists — not people at the fringes, but people directly at the center of the conversation — are starting to say, 'You know what? An album doesn't necessarily need to be a complete statement. An album doesn't necessarily need to be under 80 minutes. An album doesn't need to have singles,'" Tyler-Ameen says of the year in pop. "They're taking the biggest swings they can, because — well, they can."
In a conversation on All Things Considered, Tyler-Ameen and host Audie Cornish talked about a few of the 2016 releases that upended industry tradition, and how the definition of an album may have changed along the way. Hear the full conversation at the audio link, and read highlights below.
On the "unfinished" album (Kanye West's The Life Of Pablo)
Tyler-Ameen: Kanye's whole thing is that he's kind of obsessed with the vanguard. Every time he makes a record, it's something totally new, and it changes the sound of pop music. This time, it seemed like what he wanted to push us to do was to reconsider the way that we consume music. So you have a year of him teasing the album, saying what the name is, and then the name is suddenly something different. ... The Life Of Pablo is premiered at a listening party at Madison Square Garden and then it makes its way to Tidal — but by the time it gets to Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, it sounds a little bit different. Even the Tidal version has changed. So it seems like the thing that he's trying to say is, "This is the way that we consume music now. Nothing is permanent. So I'm gonna use the platform in every way that I can."
On the "process" album (Kendrick Lamar's untitled unmastered.)
He made a gigantically orchestrated, calculated record last year with To Pimp A Butterfly. That's kind of hip-hop's Dark Side Of The Moon. The fun surprise this year is that he leaves this record on the internet's doorstep in the middle of the night: These are unfinished demos from the To Pimp A Butterfly sessions, and they kind of go all over the place. It seems like what Kendrick was trying to say is, "Well, there's actually a process behind this, and I'm gonna let you in on a little bit of what that's like."
On the streaming exclusive:
Rihanna's ANTI is a good example of this: To hear that record when it first came out, you had to get yourself a Tidal account. [In this case,] you could hear it without paying any money. But, this is a thing that people experienced with the Kanye record, and actually got a little bit angry about – because a lot of people signed up for Tidal [to hear] a record that they thought was going to be exclusive, and it turned out not to be. The promise of Tidal was that it was going to be a place where you could hear things that nobody else was getting, and that hasn't quite held up yet. Every major release that we've seen on Tidal so far has eventually filtered out into other places — that's true of Kanye, that's true of Rihanna, that's true of Beyoncé.
On the very long album:
There are a lot of long, long albums being released by major artists this year. Drake's Views was something like 80 minutes. The 1975, a rock band from England — their album, i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it — that's a mouthful in and of itself. You might need two discs just to fit the title — and that was something like 70 minutes. Miranda Lambert released a career-defining album and did it in 90 minutes.
On the visual album:
Beyoncé is kind of ground zero for this whole conversation, because her self-titled record from 2013 — it wasn't the first, necessarily, to do everything that it did, but it was definitely the biggest. Dropping a surprise album with a video for every song, that's kind of a shot across the bow for pop music. And what you see with all of the rest of these records that we're talking about is all of her peers trying to figure out how to catch up.