Sometime around 1455, Johannes Gutenberg used moveable type to print a bible; 62 years later, Martin Luther used the same technology to print 95 theses dealing with corruption and reform in the Church. He arranged for them to be printed simultaneously across present-day Germany and Switzerland, in Latin and German. His ideas catalyzed a movement that brought massive change to Europe and the world.
I bring up the Reformation because of how its ideology corresponded to its method of distribution: printing technology meant many more people could now read the Bible for themselves, and Luther declared that the health of Christendom depended on their doing exactly that — grounding their faith in a personal understanding of scripture.
Half a millennium later—in 1969—a researcher at UCLA sent the first message over ARPANET, the network that prefigured the modern Internet; 44 years later, Beyoncé released 14 songs and 18 videos simultaneously to every iTunes store worldwide. With no prior promotion or even notice of its release, the self-titled LP became the fastest-selling album in the history of iTunes. It left bland, meandering, big-tent pop behind and dove into trap beats, electronic production, and themes of marital stress and sexual hunger.
If Beyoncé’s self-titled album heralded a new era, that era is now in full swing. 2016’s opening weeks comprised a three-act drama whose moral was that the Internet’s democratic reality has finally caught up with the highest rank of the music industry. Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Kanye West — three black artists, and arguably pop’s three most recognizable faces — embraced the messy, vital potential of music stardom in the Internet age.
In the first act, Rihanna released a single, “Work,” on January 27, a day before her album “Anti” leaked in full. On February 6, Beyoncé dropped “Formation.” The falling action, so to speak, was West’s album “The Life of Pablo,” made available unexpectedly in the wee hours of February 14.
Central to this story, as with Luther’s theses, is the way the works were distributed: Tidal, the music-streaming service helmed by legendary rapper, mogul and trophy husband Jay Z. Rihanna gave out 1.5 million free downloads of her album, requiring only that listeners register their email address with Tidal, and then kept the album exclusive to Tidal for a week. Kanye and Beyoncé have made their respective album and song streamable only on Tidal, indefinitely.
The company’s marketing efforts flirt with the rhetoric of returning economic power to the artist. Looking at its owners—Jay Z, Beyoncé, Rihanna, West, Alicia Keys, Nicki Minaj, Usher, and J. Cole, among others—it is hard to deny the claim: Tidal is, in some sense, an example of black artists leveraging the Internet to wrest control over the distribution of their music from third-party corporations. The Internet’s equalizing power is easily overstated, and Tidal’s rivals might yet drive it out of business, but it is the scalability of the Internet that even gives Tidal’s owners a fighting chance.
What does it mean for black artists to own their music? Film critic Wesley Morris, discussing “Formation” on a podcast last month, put it nicely. He interpreted the lyric “best revenge is your paper” as an affirmation not just of wealth, but of black ownership more broadly.
“It’s like a deed, it’s like property,” Morris said. “In the context of New Orleans, and the South, and Black homeownership, she’s talking about what it means to have something that belongs to you, that hopefully can’t be taken away. It’s a very complicated thing, black ownership of anything, your body, your house. It’s like, ladies, own your shit. Because if you don’t, somebody else will, and you won’t be happy. She’s in dialogue with an aspect of history.”
Prince, who reached the pinnacle of commercial success then rebelled against his superstar status, is an analog of today’s Black pop auteurs. In an interview last year, he said, “Record contracts are just like—I’m gonna say the word—slavery.” When asked why he released an album exclusively on Tidal, he explained, “Jay Z spent $100 million of his own money to build his own service. We have to show support for artists who are trying to own things for themselves.”
The exploitation of black musicians by major labels has a long history; it is against that background that we should read the decision by this musical trio to demand that their music be accessed only via a platform they own. The laborers now control the means of distribution.
Sure enough, the material reflects its creators’ newfound economic freedom. For Rihanna, that means freedom to be morose, to be Barbadian, to rap, to make acoustic rock and jazz, one-minute songs and seven-minute songs. For Beyoncé, it means freedom to celebrate Black culture and gay male culture, and for Kanye, to confront more candidly than ever his personal failings and even his reliance on anti-depressant medication.
Each song on Rihanna’s “Anti” taps into a specific mood and wallows in it. This imperative results, in the case of the “Work” video, in a grimy, sultry homage to Caribbean dance-hall culture. It forgoes the trappings of corporatized pop — special effects, soaring choruses, constant hair and outfit changes — and relies instead on the (admittedly, boundless) appeal of its star, who dutty wines (a West Indian dance) and twirls her hair for long stretches. Is that enough to carry a four-minute video? As Rihanna asserts, and then proves: yes. She has learned to pair swagger with restraint.
In the video that has been picked apart from WorldstarHipHop to NPR, and conservative talk-radio in between, Beyoncé’s “Formation” dispensed with respectability politics to an even greater degree than her 2013 album, shoving images of the plantation, the wig shop, the church, Katrina, police violence, and black bodies — joyful, dying, queer, dancing, still, female, male — in the world’s unsuspecting face. It mixed urban realism with historical revisionist fantasy, and its political imagery proved searing enough to make it the most widely and urgently discussed music video in recent memory.
“The Life of Pablo,” West’s manic musical collage, is almost as frustrating as its botched rollout was (the album came out three days later than promised). It finds him at his most blunt and thin-skinned, alternating chafing at the bonds of monogamy and rebuking himself, exhorting himself: “I will die for those I love.” He cedes entire songs to relatively unproved artists like Desiigner, Post Malone, and Chance the Rapper, and gives pop-music nobodies Kelly Price and Max B full spoken-word tracks. It could be argued that Kanye’s collaborative ethic is his most radical contribution; in silencing himself he makes his most interesting statement.
There is more to be said about these projects’ idiosyncratic visions. But what unites them—Kanye’s paranoid, scattered compositions, Beyoncé’s polemic against state violence, and the jagged edges of Rihanna’s heartbreak—is the anxiety that permeates them. What can anxiety do? Bryan Garsten, a professor of political science at Yale, is fond of saying that anger contains the seeds of politics, and the same might be said of these projects’ defiant attitudes. Just under their surface simmers the anger and restlessness that inspire action.
In February of this year, Taylor Swift used a Grammy acceptance speech to hit back at Kanye West for an offensive lyric about her. The lyric in question was tasteless and stupid, and her rebuke was warranted. Capping off a month of bold experimentation by fellow pop artists, though, and delivered at an event that epitomizes commercialized mediocrity, the speech also felt preposterous—like a papal decree of Martin Luther’s excommunication. The pope was still a political heavyweight in 1521, but he was also wrong in thinking he could quash German and Swiss reformers. Swift, too, wields enormous power, for the moment. She has wrung success from the old model: generically affirming, formally conventional pop music delivered in 10-song, 12-dollar units buoyed by corporate sponsorships. She has more or less refused to let people stream her albums; they are available on iTunes for $12.99.
I’ve overemphasized 2016 releases for effect, I’ll admit. 2015’s “Black Messiah” and “To Pimp a Butterfly” laid the groundwork for the current moment, as did West’s own 2013 “Yeezus,” with songs like “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead,” and Beyoncé’s own self-titled album. But the last month feels like a breakthrough, when the populist groundswell burst into full view, significant enough to warrant a condemnation from the Grammys stage by pop’s neoconservative queen.
I bet you that Rihanna and Kanye’s albums, more interesting than Swift’s by many orders of magnitude, will not win Album of the Year in 2017. But then again, Luther never became Pope. That’s the thing about new technologies: they invent new cultural standards, but also new kinds of glory. Being judged a failure by the standards of the old regime begins to matter less and less. I’m not sure I know what the Internet’s new forms of glory are, but that is precisely what makes Ye, Bey, and Rih courageous: they trust that formal recognition, whatever that means, will follow in their creative wake. Until then, hit up Twitter. Its halls are ringing with praise for “Desperado” and “Father Stretch My Hands.”