Rihanna — patron saint of Twitter clapbacks and toying with Drake’s emotions — is still teaching us how to understand who she really is as an artist. Over the course of seven albums, she has bounced from single to single, each new one more notable than the last: “Rude Boy” launched her Rated R album; “Diamonds” and “Stay” were the foundation beneath Unapologetic. Like clockwork, every one of Rihanna's singles debuted as perfectly packaged, dance hall-primed hits. From 2005 to 2012, she released or remixed a new album to great success every year. And then, for four whole years: nothing. Fans waited impatiently for Rih’s eighth release, furiously asking for updates via her Instagram, demanding a new set of anthems. What they got were more singles (notably “Four Five Seconds” and “Bitch Better Have My Money”) released just far enough apart in 2015 to remind the world that Riri was still alive, mostly chilling but still making music. The album that would eventually become Anti was evasive, the drop date a moving target, not unlike the singer herself, who canceled shows to ostensibly to spend more time in the studio. In January 2016, when the record finally hit, it was met with curiosity and confusion. Which songs would soundtrack our sweaty club make outs? Rihanna’s music had morphed during the hiatus: Her new songs were still brassy and explicit, but sewn together with a fresh rawness. After a decade of delivering pop chart primed singles, Anti broke the mold. The overall effect was as though the real Rihanna had finally let loose. In the eight months since it hit radio waves, Anti has become emblematic of a paradigm shift among certain artists. The reverberation of this record and three other buzzy 2016 releases — Lemonade, Coloring Book, and The Life of Pablo — have broken away from conventional music industry rules — and what it means to drop a new album in general. Selena Gomez, One Direction, and Taylor Swift can keep their elaborate rollouts: Rihanna, Beyoncé, Chance the Rapper, and Kanye West are making (and unmaking) the bedrock of popular music in real time — and, along the way, forcing fans to reconsider if albums themselves actually matter anymore.
Like all the best albums, Anti is a complete package: a full narrative arc that carries the listener from beginning to end, one track at a time. But that’s not how you have to enjoy it. These days, an artist like Rihanna can drop a single on Soundcloud, to be cut and pasted into a listener-curated playlist, a musical mosaic of their own making. Chance the Rapper has embraced that ethos: He doesn’t make albums — never has — and instead has gone the mixtape route throughout his career. By definition, a mixtape is homemade and intimately imperfect, which perfectly befits Chance’s style: independent, unexpected, personal. His latest, Coloring Book, is the final installment of a trio of mix tapes looking back on his life: On 10 Day he was a truant teen, tickled by a school suspension; on Acid Rap, he did drugs and began to make his way through adulthood; Coloring Book paints a full future, in vivid color. Chance’s release style treads the same territory as another one of Chicago’s native sons: Kanye West. But while Chance is evolving the mixtape, Yeezy is redefining what it means for an album to be complete. Or, in the case of The Life of Pablo, forever incomplete: So far as we can tell, Pablo will never really be finished. Since its February debut, many of the songs have been made and unmade, scratched out, chopped up, and pasted back together before our very eyes. One afternoon the record was called “Swish.” Months later it was called “Waves.” At one point it was “So Help Me God.” Kanye posted a tracklist; then he changed it. And then he changed it again. That gave us, the fans, a front row seat to his frenetic creativity, as well as the anxious way he works. What’s more: February wasn’t the first time we heard a lot of these Kanye tracks, some of which had been floating around on the internet for years. As of this moment, they’re being more than simply remixed: The songs are being “fixed,” and always changing.
Of course, we can’t talk about the evolution of the album without talking about Beyoncé, an artist who is at once one of the most traditional yet innovative creators at work today. Her peers may drop singles like loose change, but every Beyoncé release has been in service to something greater than an individual song: She's always building up to something bigger than just a catchy song or even just an album. To prove that, you only have to look to Lemonade — to the Super Bowl performance that previewed "Formation", and the 17-part visual album that followed — and how Beyoncé didn't just release a new record: She pledged her allegiance to Black women, again and again. One thing that Anti, Lemonade, Life of Pablo, and Coloring Book all have in common: They are all highly introspective albums. Another: They all reject the limitations of what it once meant to make and release an record. Lemonade isn't just a record: It's a rally cry. Pablo encapsulates what it means to make music in the digital age, when you can literally tinker and re-release forever. Coloring Book rejects the idea of the record in the first place. And Anti eschewed radio-ready singles, choosing instead to finally reveal the woman behind the music. Today, you might call each of those releases an album. But the truth is that artists are evolving toward something entirely new.