American music is black music — and vice versa. We can’t begin to comprehend the complexity of the American musical tradition, at least within the past 125 years, without breaking down the contributions of black musicians. Music is born through a ripple effect, a call-and-response method of creation. For black artists, this means experimenting with the conventions of familiar genres to arrive at something newer, fresher, and more sonically progressive. Whether it was guitarists making rock and roll by restructuring blues rhythms to entice more dancing or Frankie Knuckles creating house music by speeding up disco beats to keep the party going at the Warehouse, black musicians have not been afraid to push the creative limits.
Black musicians today continue to experiment. New subgenres of music, such as drill, footwork, and trap, have made gains in the hip-hop and electronic music world. Last year’s Billboard charts featured both black and white artists making trap or trap-influenced music. Derived in the late 1990s and early aughts from Southern black hip-hop artists, trap has proven to have immense staying power, with artists in such disparate genres as pop (Miley Cyrus), R&B (Jeremih), and EDM (Diplo, Hudson Mohawke) experimenting with its sonic textures.
But as more artists fight to gain control of their work in an increasingly competitive music world, many have also turned to alternative distribution models to protect their vision and revolutionize the music industry in the process.
The most consistent change to the music distribution model is the surprise album drop. First popularized by Beyoncé, the practice gained traction in the early to middle part of the current decade through artists like D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and Kendrick Lamar. Artists establish themselves in the consciousness of music listeners, simultaneously surprising and delighting.
“I didn’t want to release my music the way I’ve done it,” Beyoncé told Vogue on the day her self-titled fifth album dropped. “I am bored with that.” In the online documentary Self-Titled: Part 1—The Visual Album, the singer expresses frustration over the current release-hype structure that prioritizes singles over complete albums. It would take a performer with a keen visionary sense to attempt to redirect the conversation surrounding album releases, and someone like Beyoncé, newly liberated from previous management and revered enough by a consistent and loyal fan base to take a risk with something new, would have be the one to do it.
The album was a surprise for most outside the entertainer’s close circle, including Columbia Records — Beyoncé’s record label — and Apple’s iTunes store, which exclusively sold the album for a full week. According to data from Twitter and reports from Billboard, the release generated more than 1.2 million tweets in 12 hours. After its first three days out, the album sold 828,773 copies worldwide, setting a new record for the fastest-selling album in iTunes history. It worked for a number of reasons: Beyoncé is a one-of-a-kind artist of her generation with a loyal, global fan base. Anything she releases will be successful. But with no extended promotional period, Beyoncé’s self-titled album was a surprise and something of a gift to her fans. The artist essentially cut out the middleman of the excessive hype cycle and delivered her art straight to her followers. At the time, no major pop artist had ever attempted such a release. The album was new not only in the literal sense—it was also new in the revolutionary sense.
Surprise drops eliminate the possibility of an album leak for overeager fans, and they let fans avoid the vicious cycle of the publicity machine. There are no cross-platform partnerships with big-box stores or major prime-time specials. Rather, surprise drops allow the music to speak for itself. In turn, since fans have only enough time to focus on the art, they no longer need to pay attention to extraneous promotional tactics surrounding the art. The release is the real story.
Badu released her album But You Caint Use My Phone in 2015, after a five-year hiatus. Deemed a “mixtape,” the release is a cheeky, playful collection of tunes referencing the ubiquitousness of telephones and communication through the R&B genre. Badu reworked Drake’s popular “Hotline Bling” in her rendition, “U Use to Call Me.” The mixtape also includes an update to New Edition’s “Mr. Telephone Man,” giving the track a female perspective.
But You Caint Use My Phone was a far cry from many of Badu’s releases in the ’90s and aughts, which were decidedly more jazz-influenced and political. In essence, the mixtape was a moment for Badu to experiment with her sound and image. And the use of the terminology “mixtape” continues to grow with artists looking to branch out of the confines of their major-label deals, which often offer the same packaging from record to record.
An early staple of the hip-hop and rap genres, mixtapes have begun to reach mainstream utilization by artists in genres from pop (like Charli XCX’s Pop 2) to R&B (Jojo’s Agápe). Creatively stifled by their record labels and attached to draconian contracts, many younger artists now use the mixtape as a means of making the music they want to make without the pressures to reach specific sales goals or conform to only one idea of their artistry. For an artist like Charli XCX, creating a slew of mixtapes with experimental producers allows the singer/songwriter to dip in and out of different music genres and channel her already successful songwriting efforts (Charli wrote the number one singles “Boom Clap” and Icona Pop’s “I Love It”) in new directions.
Like their rejection of structured release cycles, many black artists are now bypassing labels entirely. Frank Ocean released his visual album, Endless, which technically fulfilled his contractual obligation with Def Jam Recordings, one day before he self-released Blonde, his second proper studio album, to critical and commercial acclaim. “While the credits at the end of Endless name Def Jam, the metadata on Blonde simply credits ‘Boys Don’t Cry,’ which is also the title of Ocean’s new magazine,” wrote Pitchfork about the release. Since then, Ocean has rejected other musical institutions, namely the Grammys, which he claimed in an interview with the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica, “just doesn’t seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from and hold down what I hold down.”
Frank Ocean isn’t the only one. Other artists, like Chicago’s Chance the Rapper, also release work without labels. His most recent, Coloring Book, which came out in May 2016, was the first album to reach the Billboard 200 based solely on streams. Many cite Coloring Book’s success as the main reason why the Recording Academy changed its rules to allow Grammy eligibility for streaming-only albums. The album went on to win Best Rap Album in 2017. When artists successfully forge their paths, the institutions surrounding the music industry change their methods in response.
Just how long it will take additional institutions to jump aboard these radical new methods of music distribution remains to be seen. As our consumption of music continues to deviate from profitable resources (CDs to MP3s to streaming), the most powerful players in the music industry have taken a more conservative and controlling stake in their artists’ career trajectories. From quirky televised ad placements and 360 deals (which ensure that labels get as big a piece of the pie as possible), many younger or newer artists might find themselves with less creative agency than ever.
But that doesn’t mean only big names like Frank Ocean or Beyoncé or Chance the Rapper can make radical creative decisions as they introduce themselves to the world. If 2017 has taught us anything, it is that there is a new generation of artists making waves on the charts and in popular culture. The previous year gave us Logic and even dancer turned reality TV star turned MC Cardi B. These artists, among many others, broke out in large part due to their universal domination through streaming. Once the Billboard charts officially began accepting song streams as single sales, artists who have relied on unique distribution models such as the mixtape or the surprise drop in genres like R&B and hip-hop found crossover attention. The artists changed their methods, and the institutions finally caught up. For now, it is one trend that shows no sign of stopping.
Can black musicians remain revolutionaries? From the creation of music genres such as blues, jazz, and rock and roll to the utilization of the mixtape for creative experimentation, black musicians are not afraid to experiment stylistically, sonically, or structurally to express themselves. History and our very understanding of American music and pop culture have proven the success of black musicians as genre creators and genre breakers. From capitalizing on the surprise album drop to rejecting music labels altogether, black musicians prove they have as much room for creative freedom as ever — as long as they pursue it. The future of music was black. The future of music will always be black.