The month of February was a relatively slow month for big music releases. However, the rap and hip-hop genres continued to gain popularity and push social issues simultaneously.
“Formation” by Beyonce
On February 6th, Beyonce returned with another surprise release – this time, a track called “Formation” and an accompanying music video. The song continued Beyonce’s progression from pop to R&B, soul, and hip-hop as she sings about her Southern roots, pride as a black woman, and success in the music industry.
The music video, however, sparked major controversy. The video’s opening shot features Beyonce sitting on a New Orleans police car, which is slowly sinking in a body of water. Later, a boy in a black hoodie dances before a line of armed police officers. The next shot shows black text on a brick wall which reads: “Stop shooting us.”
The video’s imagery has been referred to by some, including the Chicago Code Blue police support group, as “anti-law enforcement;” there has also been talk of police boycotting Beyonce’s world tour. Even so, Beyonce has yet to apologize or revoke her hard criticism of recent shootings and support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
“The Life of Pablo” by Kanye West
On February 14th, Kanye West released his long-anticipated follow-up to 2013’s “Yeezus” — “The Life of Pablo”. Leading up to the release, the album underwent a series of track listing changes and title changes: from “So Help Me God” to “SWISH” to “Waves” to “The Life of Pablo,” only releasing the album’s final name days before its release.
West also made the decision to release the album to TIDAL exclusively, a streaming service owned by rapper, producer, and executive Jay-Z.
Many questioned West’s choice considering TIDAL’s shaky launch, in which CEO Andy Chen resigned and 770,000 subscriptions were reported by Jay-Z himself (a small figure when compared to competitor Spotify’s 15 million subscriptions). Due to album’s TIDAL exclusivity, “The Life of Pablo” was feverishly pirated with half a million downloads occurring within the first 24 hours.
Critically, the album was met with mixed reviews. Popular review website Pitchfork gave the album a nine on a ten-point scale, calling it “the sound of a celebrated megalomaniac settling for his place in history.”
However, popular indie reviewer Anthony Fantano gave it a six, saying that “Kanye West [tried] to sell a lack of cohesion and half-baked song ideas as concepts on his new album.”
Like West himself, “The Life of Pablo” seemed to polarize fans with its boldness and its disorganization.
The 2016 Grammy Awards
The 58th Annual Grammy Awards were held on February 15th, hosted by LL Cool J in the Los Angeles Staples Center.
The night featured performances by popular artists Taylor Swift, Adele, Justin Bieber, and Lady GaGa, among others.
The most prestigious award, Album of the Year, was awarded to Taylor Swift’s “1989.” Swift is no stranger to Grammy success, having won ten Grammys over the course of her career.
Despite his eleven nominations, many argued that Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore album “To Pimp a Butterfly” was robbed of the night’s biggest award. The album was awarded Album of the Year by both Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, praised as a socially conscious project combining rap and jazz to deliver a political statement against institutionalized racism.
These ideas were seen in Kendrick’s racially charged Grammy’s performance. He performed a blend of his two songs “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright,” entering the stage with a line of other African American men, all shackled and chained as a reference to slavery. At the very end of the performance, a massive silhouette of Africa was shown with “COMPTON” printed over it in black text. The performance earned Lamar a standing ovation.
Other notable wins included Ed Sheeran winning Song of the Year for “Thinking Out Loud” and Meghan Trainor winning Best New Artist.
Overall, what February lacked in big music releases was made up for by the continuing popularity of the rap genre, along with music’s ability to promote social change. From Beyonce to Kendrick, popular artists have not been shy in using music as an avenue to push civil rights issues into the mainstream, thus highlighting music’s importance as both an art form and a means of communication.