Everyone else gets to put their opinions out there around this time of year, so why shouldn’t I!? I have no qualifications other than just listening to a ton of music with a pretty eclectic taste, so OBVIOUSLY my opinions are more important. Before we start: no, David Bowie’s Darkstar is not on this list. I felt like I was unable to remove myself from the emotion surrounding his passing to give the album an objective listen, so if I had included it, it would’ve been at the top, easily. In any case, here we go.
#20: Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
We’re kicking off the countdown with an album that may not be what it appears on the surface. Chance the Rapper’s verse on Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” was spiritual in nature, and his long-awaited album Coloring Book took the spiritual vibe and ran with it. It would not be wrong to call this a secret gospel album, just with a lot of rapping. On first listen, I was almost caught off guard by how much Chance’s spirituality and religion were in the mix. Upon repeat listens though, even someone who isn’t spiritual can get behind the music. It’s a weird identity crisis for an album to have. One the one hand, you have a song like “Finish Line / Drown” featuring contemporary gospel star Kirk Franklin asking Jesus to rescue him and a church organ/choir backing track. On the other hand, you have “Mixtape” featuring plenty of cursing and verses from Young Thug and Lil Yachty rapping: “All my bitches lovin’ me and they spoil me / Rub me down with that lotion, babe oil me”. This is an intensely personal album for Chance, showing how important his religious views are to him, and also establishing in place among the modern rap hierarchy. It’s layered, complex, and certainly earns a spot among the best of 2016.
#19: White Lung, Paradise
Is “thrash pop” a genre? Because if not, White Lung has carved out a nice little niche for themselves. The production on this album just screams big arena, but the music itself is begging to be heard in a dingy dive bar. The album oscillates between pavement busting punk (like the ode-to-a-serial killer “Sister”) and shiny pop power ballads (like the denouncement of beauty and glamor on “Below”). Lead singer Mish Barber-Way snarls and sneers at the “establishment” from the microphone. The album takes aim at so-called feminism, beauty standards, and even tosses in some self-deprecation for good measure. Nobody is safe from Barber-Way’s venom — not even herself. It would be enough to be straightforward about this, but the album goes a step forward and wraps the meaning in layers of poetry: “They’ll bury your beauty / Transient living stone / A broken crystal carcass reflects in all the light / I see it fading now but it’s so bright”. If you like your punk angry, sweeping, and thoughtful, then you’ll eat up everything White Lung has to offer here.
#18: Miike Snow, iii
In what is sure to be the most controversial selection on the list, Miike Snow’s third album grabs a spot. The band is comprised of a trio of producers and songwriters with a storied history in the pop industry. Between the three of them, they’ve have an impressive résumé when it comes to pushing artists into the mainstream radio spotlight: Bruno Mars, Mark Ronson, Katy Perry, Charli XCX, Beck, Flume, Florence + The Machine, Britney Spears, Jordin Sparks, Kylie Minogue, and many more owe the members of Miike Snow at least partially for their success. It’s no surprise, then, that when they get together, the focus is more on style over substance. It’s a risky move to make, considering how easy it is to roll your eyes at some of the lyrical work here. But on iii, the tactic works. Just about every song is catchy and could just as easily be blasting on a sound system at a club, or gently playing in the background of your living room during a cozy night in. The earnest soul of the album is buoyed by the production. “Genghis Khan”, a song likening the singer’s possessive tendencies to a violent warlord, is contrasted with the catchy beat and affectionate vocal lilts. “The Heart of Me” removes all pretense from the music and puts it like it is: “I can’t stop this hurtful shit from happening”. Like the album, it’s not Shakespeare, but its endearing in how authentic it is.
#17: Lady Gaga, Joanne
Say what you will about Lady Gaga, but she did the entire music industry a favor with The Fame and Born This Way. With Gaga pushing weirdness into the charts, it let pop music break out of its mostly stale holding pattern and allowed more artists to experiment and get downright weird without fear of label repercussions. Then she released ARTPOP, and everyone collectively let out a sigh of indifference. Now, with Joanne, it’s obvious Lady Gaga has moved on from her need to be the weird pop queen and is simply exploring themes and ideas that matter to her. The album is self-conscious and timid with Gaga putting her heart on display. The songs here feel ripped straight from personal experiences, and such a bearing of the soul requires a bit more modesty than the glam-pop-and-glitter stylings of her earlier attempts. In a single album, she jumps from country girl twang on “Sinner’s Prayer” (my personal favorite on the album) to a more personal, acoustic ballad mourning the passing of her aunt in “Joanne”. The album is yet another step in the evolution of a truly talented artist, and its one that renews hope in Gaga’s career and opens up the avenues she can explore moving forward.
#16: Young Thug, Jeffery
This is an album best appreciated if you can understand Young Thug’s aesthetic. He has torn a course through hip hop as an androgynous ballet dancer with swagger. This album was accompanied by an explanation that this album is his “coming out” as Jeffery. He doesn’t want to be known as a young thug anymore (as he explains, because of the connotations associated with “thug” in the real world outside of hip hop). In that sense, you could view this album as a reaction to the volatile racial climate in America. Each track is named after one of Young Thug’s idols, including Kanye, Floyd Mayweather, and, yes, Harambe. This is an album swimming in swagger and rap cred on the surface, but a closer listen reveals a sensitive voice yearning for romantic family values (“I just want to have a baby by you, girl!”). Jeffery reaches further than any rap album in recent memory. We see a morality play happen in real time on “Harambe”, where he struggles between the Devil and God (and, I guess, Godzilla). And really, that’s an apt microcosm of the whole album. On the surface, it’s just a fun time borderlining on becoming a meme. A closer listen and analysis shows us something much deeper, much more thoughtful, and much weirder.
#15: Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!”
Donald Glover is the modern renaissance man. He’s an actor, rapper, showrunner, and writer. He can be avant-garde like his show Atlanta, broad and cheesy like his standup comedy and role on Community, and claim the mainstream spotlight like his upcoming role in the Han Solo spin-off film. His hip hop pseudonym, Childish Gambino, has always been known for dropping albums that featured clever wordplay requiring several listens to get every joke. His previous albums have been raw and revealed his insecurities, like drinking too much, being alone, and being susceptible to his own racial biases. Safe to say, very few people expected “Awaken, My Love!” to be a Parliament/Funkadelic-style homage with no rapping at all. The release caught many people off-guard, with long time Gambino fans renouncing the album as not a real Gambino project. I wonder, often, if the reaction would be so vitriolic had Glover released the album under a different name. As a stand-alone album, it’s a masterpiece of rich atmospheric work. But the authenticity and sappy romanticism that was a hallmark on previous Gambino albums is ever-present here. Donald Glover is, after all, still a sensitive and self-aware twenty-something. He just chose to bear his soul through a different music, and in doing so, seems to make a real emotional connection. This is a one-way interstellar funk train to the cosmos, and I’m more than happy to buy a ticket. I miss the wordplay and raps, too, but it feels like shedding the need to feel clever has allowed Glover to craft something real and from the heart.
#14: Various Artists, The Hamilton Mixtape
If there’s one pop culture phenomenon that will define 2016, it will be the omnipresence of Hamilton: An American Musical. It has been a very long time since Broadway has existed in the consciousness of popular culture in such a dominant way. One of the best tricks the musical pulled off is packaging rap and hip hop aesthetics with American nationalism and patriotism, forcing even the ultra-conservative right to applaud its sensibilities. Repackaging Hamilton’s songs in a mixtape feels a bit unnecessary, at first glance. Many of the songs here are simply covers by mainstream artists, and the guest list seems like someone threw darts at a dartboard and invited those people to join. But the eclectic, disjointed artist list actually keeps the album fresh. Divorced from the performances and narrative of the musical, the songs are able to grow and breathe and take on new life. “Dear Theodosia” lets Ben Folds and Regina Spektor imbue the original song into a cutesy nursery rhyme quality. Some of the songs aren’t simple covers, though. Many songs take a single line from the play and riff on it to great effect. “Immigrants (We Get The Job Done)” takes a throwaway line from “The Battle of Yorktown” and invites a quartet of multicultural rappers to wax poetic about the state of immigration today in America. “Wrote My Way Out” riffs on a line from “Hurricane” and invites Nas, Dave East, and Aloe Blacc to rap about how they used their lyrical mind to build themselves up out of their respective shitty situations. The Hamilton Mixtape is an excellent cultural artifact that ponders the impact and meaning the hit musical has had on our society and shows how people from all walks of life can derive meaning from art.
#13: Hamilton Leithauser + Rostom, I Had A Dream That You Were Mine
Both Vampire Weekend and The Walkmen have been indie darlings with heaps of critical acclaim. When Leithauser left the group to pursue a solo career, he enlisted the help of Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, who had set off from his respective indie collective to make a name for himself. This year, the two of them joined forces for a joint release, and as it turns out, perhaps they aren’t better solo, they just needed a new creative muse. Rostam’s instrumentation and Leithauser’s vocals blend together to create a unique musical mixture. On “A 1000 Times”, Leithauser bobs back and forth from a Bob Dylan-esque dreamy crooning to a screeching, defiant shout. The album pays homage to musical styles of the past without feeling like a retread. There’s the Spanish guitar and Morrisey-esque ruminations of “In A Black Out” and the Dylan-by-way-of-Johnny Cash country stylings of “You Ain’t That Young Kid”. And yet, despite its myriad of musical inspirations, the album feels like a cohesive whole. It would be very easy to swing wildly into being pulled in too many directions and feeling unfocused, but Leithauser/Rostom stay focused and pull off something many people have sought: an album that immediately feels timeless, yet relevant and modern.
#12: Anderson .Paak, Malibu
Anderson .Paak delivered one of the most soulful projects in a decade this year with his third studio album. He leans into his unique cultural upbringing here, gaining the perspective of an immigrant from his South Korean mother mixed with the typical American experience of having a military dad, and of course he gets to relay his experience as an African American growing up and succumbing to America’s racial prejudices (his father was later arrested, sent to prison, and Anderson never saw him again). Musically, the album is sprawling. Part of the album feels like a gospel record, calling back to Anderson’s childhood performing in church. The album has something for everybody. “Lite Weight” is a downtempo toe tapper; “Put Me Thru” is a soulful rumination on what role pain plays in a relationship; “The Season / Carry Me” is an epic journey through a faith crisis, fatherhood, relationship troubles, and the struggle to survive. Every song on this album is a knockout punch, and each song has a strong identity that separates itself from others. Nothing sounds similar, and yet, it all sounds like Anderson .Paak. In reviewing these albums on this list this year, I’ve noticed a trend: personal anguish and authenticity seems to be king this year, and those traits are certainly on display on Malibu.
#11: Pinegrove, Cardinal
I never would’ve thought I’d be putting an alt-country album on my countdown, and yet, here we are. Cardinal, the debut album from Pinegrove, is a short romp of eight songs barely clocking in at over half an hour. Pinegrove have put together an album that can only be described as an uplifting pessimist’s manifesto. Every song laments past mistakes and ruminates on how those mistakes have affected the present. It’s like an entire album of moments that every socially anxious person knows well–when you’re going about your day and a cripplingly embarassing memory suddenly crops up. But rather than run from that feeling, Pinegrove’s frontman Evan Stephens Hall confronts those memories head-on to learn and grow from it. These memories make us who we are, whether we like it or not, and though the album is sparse and a bit depressing, it’s done with an undercurrent of shining optimism peeking through from time to time. “Yeah, the past was fucked up, but look at how bright the future can be!” seems to be the theme, and while you may sit in a darkened room staring inward for thirty minutes while you listen to Cardinal, when all is said and done, you’ll throw open the curtains and be ready to face whatever life throws at you.
#10: Solange, A Seat at the Table
Solange stunned me this year with what I could only describe as an album for grown ups. One thing that is apparent from a first listen on this album is that she does not overreach. Solange can recognize that she doesn’t have a powerful, blasting voice — and as such, the album is crafted to let her vocals play perfect accompaniment to the music instead of trying to play center stage. This is an album about what it means to be black, a woman, and specifically a black woman. A Seat at the Table is not afraid to confront Solange’s insecurities derived from her identity head on, but it does not stop there. The neo-soul instrumentation and quiet/gentle vocals evoke Civil Rights-era anthems. In that respect, this album is almost a post-mortem of the Civil Rights movement and a state of the movement report on where the movement goes next. The album floats between conversations and sketches with people discussing what it took to climb to where they are. It’s not the most accessible listen, but it’s one that, even on first listen, you know is important. And I think this is one of those literature-like cultural texts that we’ll be analyzing for years to come.
#09: Kanye West, The Life of Pablo
An anecdote: I took a while to decide which cover art to use for this entry, because Kanye has used several different versions. I’m also having trouble deciding which version of the album to use, because Kanye has gone in and reuploaded, removed, and tinkered with songs on it. The Life of Pablo is an unfinished work, constantly under review, constantly being made greater, because Kanye is a perfectionist who is never happy with his work. The album is disjointed and messy, purposefully. And Kanye has made the album a piece of living art. Will we wake up tomorrow and find a new version pushed to Spotify and Apple Music? It’s entirely possible. Putting your personal feelings about the guy aside, it’s impossible to deny that Kanye West is one of the most eccentric and creative kingpins working in hip hop today. This album is starkly different from anything else Kanye has released, and it’s unlikely to awaken a new wave of wannabe rappers and hip hop artists. It feels distinctly un-Kanye because the album is mostly well-intentioned, even if his version of good intentions can still come across as egocentric. He sings about his family (“I just want to wake up with you in my eyes” and “they don’t want to see me love you” sung to Kim). There’s still the moments of Kanye vitriol lashing out at those he feels have wronged him, and the story about him getting bleach on his t-shirt in “Father Stretch My Hands” is pretty fucking stupid. But the whole album seems to tell the story of how Kanye West’s celebrity is at war with Kanye West’s desire to be an actual good person. That kind of struggle being put on display is fascinating and has historically produced great art. I’ve often told people who hate Kanye that he is best appreciated as performance art. Every facet of his life is a component of his art. He’s not just creating art on his albums: he’s creating art by simply existing, and those pieces and components all come together every few years to make an album. That’s why it’s so appropriate for the album feeling so unfinished — because it’s a living, breathing collection of what makes Kanye… Kanye.
#08: Modern Baseball, Holy Ghost
Wow. Who am I? I just included a pseudo-emo-pop-punk album in my top ten albums of the year. I’m someone who uncontrollably gags as a reaction to anyone mentioning the words “emo revival” with a straight face. It took me an ashamedly long time to give Modern Baseball a chance because they simply got lumped in with all the other bands I thought were doing similar things. Turns out, I was very wrong. This album is mature in astonishing ways. In the front half of the album, Jake Ewald grapples with losing someone close to you. Some of his lyrics here even touch on similar themes to Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs of feeling disconnected and unfamiliar in the place you used to call home. The songs here are fierce and vibrant, the kind you want to crank up and blow out your car stereo speakers while you shout along to the lyrics. On the back half of the album, Brendan Lukens belts out distorted, arrhythmic shouts about uncertainty and paranoia and intense mental illness episodes. When taken as a collective whole, the album is mature and poignant, even when couched in melodies and vocal styling typically attributed to middle schoolers whining about girls. This is something transcendent– it’s nostalgiac, yet new, and it contextualizes our adult experience by using those comfort triggers from our childhood. The music is the same, but the lyrics are different. “You ate the words you always used to say / There will be no more fucking around today” shouts Ewald, seemingly through a rift in space-time at his younger self. And don’t we all want to do the same?
#07: Angel Olsen, My Woman
This is Angel Olsen’s best album yet. I’ll miss the sparse folk sounds that got her here, but I’m almost indescribably excited to see where she goes from here. This is no longer a sparse album — this is sweeping, grand, and full of bravado. This is a free spirited album full of burning folksy guitar riffs and finds Olsen playfully exploring the full offerings of the world she inhabits. This is rock n’ roll, uninhibited. But Olsen, ever the clever lyricist, can trick you sometimes. The songs carry an upbeat tempo and melody, but the lyrics are just as heavy and soul-searching as her previous work. “Shut Up Kiss Me” is the end of a relationship, and even as she blasts through the breakup chorus “Shut up kiss me / Hold me tight / Stop your crying / It’s alright” you’ll find yourself bopping along like it’s a pep talk. “Sister” laments the death of the childhood dream of figuring it all out when you’re older (“All my life, I thought I’d change” repeated ad infinitum). My Woman is about growing up, realizing things are shitty, and that you may not ever figure out how the hell this world works… and, most importantly, that it’s totally okay to be unsure. Get back on the saddle, be the best you that you can, and try your best.
#06: The 1975, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it
This is another album I unfairly judged by its cover, because come on, how stuck up your own ass do you have to be to title your album something like that? I’m incredibly glad I took the chance here, because this album is the panacea to the year 2016. The 1975 is a very weird amalgam of different things. They have the look and fanbase of someone like Backstreet Boys, but have crafted an album with some weirdly abstract interludes and songs that range from 1970’s pop slap bass homage to haunting power synth ballads. “Somebody Else” is a baring of the fear and insecurities that come from seeing someone you love move on from you, and it’s a song I openly admit has brought me to tears. The guys of The 1975 have crafted a fully immersive album that allows you to be transported into the shoes of Matty Healy and experience what he’s experiencing. Some of that is owed to the from-another-time quality of the music. Pick out any song from this album and you can imagine hearing it in another decade. You can easily hear Bowie and The Cure and Huey Lewis and John Mellencamp coming through on these songs. This is an album full of love songs, but they’re written from a feminist perspective. Frontman Matty Healy took a public swing at Justin Bieber for his lyrics that assume a woman doesn’t know what she wants (typical mass market top 40 love songs feature the “when you say no you mean yes” theme frequently). That sort of chip shot isn’t just for attention, and it’s clear from the lyrics written here that Healy is writing love songs and songs about relationships while understanding that love is a two player game. His emotions are on display, but they’re respectful. “Please Be Naked” is a polite request. “This Must Be My Dream” laments how he screwed up and realizes he was wrong too late. It’s a mature, ambitious, and beautiful album that will hopefully catch you completely off guard, like it caught me by surprise the day I found myself in tears in my car while listening.
#05: Mitski, Puberty 2
I’m always a sucker for albums that so willingly put mental illness and struggles on display, and there’s plenty of that on Mitski’s fourth album. While it’s not exactly a soliloquy on the nature of depression, it’s a search for happiness. And not just a quest to become happy — Mitski really is confused on what it even means to be “happy”. “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” is indie punk ennui with Mitski screeching and railing against the mundanities of daily life. “I better ace that interview / I should tell them that I’m not afraid to die / I better ace that interview” and “I work better under a deadline / I pick an age when I’m gonna disappear” become self-aware mantras that say “I fucking hate doing this shit, but this is life”. And really, that sense of being stuck where you are but sucking it up and going with the flow is present everywhere on this album. On Puberty 2, Mitski applies that idea to meaningless sex (“Happy”), romance (“Once More to See You”), and more. This album is circa-1994 Weezer coated in modern millennial frustration at the way the world was left for us, and we had no choice and lyrics like”Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me” vents this frustration at being America’s middle child generation. The album’s sound embodies the “too soon for nostalgia” nostalgiac nature of modern life. Mitski is stuck in life between what she thinks she wants and what she feels when she imagines getting what she wants. Even the album’s title alludes to that “second puberty” most millennial twentysomethings are experiencing right now, where you realize growing up wasn’t enough, now you have to adapt to a world that isn’t what it was supposed to be. If you’ve ever sat alone in a room drinking a whisky on the rocks while some Netflix show played in the background and you scrolled through the same Facebook news feed for the fifth time that day — this album is you, personified. It has only grown on me more after repeated listens, and I expect this will be one I return to year after year.
#04: Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead is known for their paranoia and anxiety that works its way through in their music. That is all certainly on display in A Moon Shaped Pool, but it’s also more emotional and personal than anything we’ve seen from them previously. Consider 2003’s Hail to the Thief: we had a protest song entirely aimed at Tony Blair and George W. Bush. Here, we still have the political commentary, but “Burn the Witch” comments on the refugee crisis not by lashing out, but by creating an immersive environment in which the listener can imagine the emotional turmoil that someone in that position must be going through. And it’s not just by accident that the lyrics are more personal and connective than before. Radiohead’s signature electronic tinkering that brought us Kid A and Amnesiac are mostly gone here. It’s still present, but it takes a backseat to the sweeping orchestral arrangements. Even Thom Yorke seems to have grown on this album, as on Desert Island Disk he unironically sings, “The wind rushing around my open heart / an open ravine / with my spirit light / totally alive” and he means it, which is a far cry from Amnesiac‘s morbid lyricism. “Glass Eyes” is full of strings and piano being ever so subtly manipulated by the electronic sound, and Thom is getting off a train and being vulnerable about his oncoming panic attacks. It’s in the mundane that he finds the bold. This is more hopeful and personal than Radiohead has ever been on their record, and it’s all the better for it. There are so many intricacies here that I’m sure it’ll take dozens more listens to really wrap my head around. I never thought I’d be going to a Radiohead album to try and pull myself out of an anxiety spiral, but here I am, empathizing with Thom and going, “If you can do this, so can I”.
#03: A Tribe Called Quest, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
After almost two decades, ATCQ finally delivered their long awaited final album. We didn’t think it would happen. We saw the group splinter and split. Phife Dawg passed away earlier this year. I woke up last month, saw the album sitting, ready for a listen, and prepared myself. “The Space Program” began, and I was on board. This sounded like classic Tribe, and nobody can pass the mic like Tribe. The jazzy production doesn’t let up, but it doesn’t sound like a relic of the past. It sounds like a very modern album with jazz influences. It helps (unfortunately) that many of the themes ATCQ has wrestled with throughout their career are just as important now as they were over twenty years ago. This is grown up hip hop; a reaction to what Q-Tip has interpreted as a genre that had lost its way in mostly being marketed to youth. In stark contrast to the rap game of 2016, the eloquent flow and thoughtful ruminations on politics and prejudice show what the genre is capable of. This isn’t a protest album, though, or one that is overly political. It’s an album about life (and yes, how politics and oppressive forces effect it) packed front-to-back with great bars and jazzy beats. And for Tribe’s final album to be released just after the 2016 election, it’s a punctuation mark on their legacy to end on “The Donald” — a red herring title that completely ignores the President-elect and chooses instead to give a heartfelt tribute to Phife Dawg, known by the nickname “Don Juice”. They grapple with the state of the world and the pain people are experiencing, but in the end, they want to take turns on the microphone dropping rhymes and giving their former friend, rival, and group member the last sendoff he deserves.
#02: Frank Ocean, Blonde
Ocean’s debut, Channel Orange, is one of my most-played albums of all time. Part of that is because of Ocean as a person. He famously shattered perceptions years ago when he posted a note on his Tumblr, revealing that he had loved a man and was at least partially bisexual. Given that revelation, it was easy to go back and re-contextualize his first album and find hidden meanings. His long-awaited follow-up, Blonde, is a hazy trip through the romantic and broken heart of Frank Ocean, and while he’s not clamoring to be some gay icon, he is not shy about addressing that part of him. “Good Guy” deals with a blind date with a guy at a gay bar. “Futura Free” is the album’s closer and seems to give an indication of his sexual preferences (“I don’t cut bitches no more / but your bitch my exception”), but the song goes a step further as a stream-of-consciousness ramble about everything from sexuality to religion. Frank’s voice rambles and competes against his own voice singing in the background. The album’s opener, “Nikes”, is purposefully autotuned as Frank laments the state of the world and comments on the black experience in America (“RIP Trayvon, that nigga look just like me”) while “Nights” pitches Frank’s voice up two octaves while he struggles with the circular nature of addiction (“Every night fucks the day up / Every day patches the night up”). It’s etheral and spacey. Playing with the sound of his voice is a constant technique all over this album, almost as if Frank cannot bring himself to address his thoughts in his own voice. For Frank, hearing his thoughts through someone else’s voice is the only way he can cope with the past. Knowingly, he dons the rose-tinted glasses as he looks back on the thing he misses from his past, but does not dwell on them. He’s not exactly moving forward, either. He’s content to exist in that moment between the past and the future, holding onto the moments both painful and pleasant. Blonde is a remarkably mature take on identity, growth, and finding your way. Frank Ocean hasn’t found his way quite yet, and his music feels like a way to reach out to us and say, “Give me your hand and let’s figure this shit out together.”
#01: Beyoncé, Lemonade
Very few artists have the Earth-stopping presence of Beyoncé. She dropped a new single the night before the Super Bowl, and by the next night, was performing it in the most watched event of the year and had everyone singing along. Queen Bey had been silent for a while, not taking any media inquiries or answering any questions. She just flashed a smile and kept on walking. Nobody knew what was going on after the elevator confrontation between Solange and Jay-Z. People had sort of moved on and figured whatever it was would stay buried. And then, finally, Beyoncé released Lemonade, and starts us in media res: she’s found out that Jay is cheating on her, and boy, is she pissed. “You can taste the dishonesty / It’s all over your breath / as you pass it off so cavalier” she scolds in the opening moments of the album. This sets us up for an album full of righteous anger and fury, tempered by her legitimate love for Jay-Z. At first, she’s furious. “Hold Up” shows Bey full of rage and resentment, accompanied by the visual album’s images of her destroying property with a baseball bat. She contemplates letting Jay get away with it — but doesn’t want to look crazy. Eventually, though, she decides “I’d rather be crazy” than jealous. The album traces her thought process through the fury, including an empowering guitar thrashing anthem featuring Jack White, as she begs women not to hurt themselves by sticking with worthless men. “Sorry” seems like it’s going to be the end as she tells Jay “boy, bye”… but we’re only a few songs into the album. Her defiance gives way to reflection, as she contemplates how her relationship with her cheating father could’ve lead her to this situation on the country-twanged “Daddy Lessons”. She pleas to stop this “Love Drought” in a relationship riddled with insecurities and trust issues, and “Sandcastles” reflects on what would be lost if everything went away. She decides to move “Forward” and equates this as just another struggle she has faced as black woman (referencing slavery, Black Lives Matter, and more). “All Night” is a love song that acknowledges the very real pain someone you love can put you through, and how a relationship has to be stronger in order to get through it (“Our love was stronger than your pride / beyond your darkness, I’m your light”). And we finally arrive at “Formation”, the lead single, which is a black power anthem that needs no introduction.
Only a powerful, visible artist like Beyoncé could take an excruciating personal experience and turn it into a story of personal empowerment. She gets angry, sure, but she uses it to reflect on her past. It’s fitting that her moment of flashback/reflection is the one moment of country on the album, something traditionally associated with the past/history. “Formation” being the lead single was very intentional — the song takes on entirely new meaning when viewed through the context of the rest of the album. It’s a meticulously crafted album that doesn’t sidestep the empowerment that has become her personal brand, but instead contextualizes it. “It won’t always be easy,” she’s saying, “but I’ll still slay.” For these reasons, and many more, Lemonade is my album of the year.
Will Hare is a web marketing and digital media professional residing in Durham, NC. When he’s not on the job, he likes to consume and critique board games, video games, films, and television.