Remember when CDs came out on Wednesdays? You'd jump in the car after school and zoom over to Best Buy or Target, only to find that coveted NSYNC CD all sold out. That was just us? OK, well, blame Beyoncé, or blame the streaming platforms, but these days, more and more artists are taking their power back. From surprise releases to unconventional marketing tactics, REVOLT's Year End Review continues with a look at the (best) albums that broke from the norm when it comes to the modern music industry.
Frank Ocean, Blonde
Frank Ocean will not succumb to peer pressure (or even to keeping his previously made promises). We know this because a whole year and a half ago, he took to Tumblr to tease “#ALBUM3 #JULY2015” and we all know how that turned out (hint: not a damn thing). But what we should have been paying attention to was the other part of that caption — "I got two versions" — because, sure enough, come this past August, he would team up with Apple Music for a mysterious, hours-long livestream that would later become the visual album to Endless, his final contractual obligation to Def Jam Records and the prelude to, yes, Blonde — his second surprise album in as many days. He released it independently, used alternate versions of its title's spelling, initially kept secret the way in which some major artists contributed, and purposely disqualified it from being considered for a Grammy. #NoRules is right. And what he (finally) gifted us with was an avant-garde and atmospheric R&B album that was introspective but, due to its running theme of intimacy, simultaneously inviting. And for something so minimalistic, it hit you in the heart with force. — Danielle Cheesman
Rihanna spent the greater portion of 2015 teasing the hell out of us with a proposed album under the code-guise of "R8"; it was an extremely well-documented 12 month fire-watch that was so hot it broke our website while subsequently burning the Navy like ants under a magnifying glass. But leave it to RiRi to turn lemons into ... (wait, no... I'm not gonna mention my other queen's album) ... RiRi turned spurned ants into ... ANTi, 2016’s prolific powerhouse of switched-uppedness that had critics and fans praising the Bajan beaut for doing the exact opposite of what the public expected. From whiskey-dripped vocals and hot sex under a soulful umbrella, Rihanna walked, nay sprinted, away from her pop roots and crossed the finish line with her best work to date. Rihanna's always been the gawdess of #NoPhucks and with this album she snatched the crown in the most Rihanna way, which is ultimately #NoRules. All the fire emojis. —Hannah Rad
Kanye West, The Life of Pablo
Kanye West took the world hostage and charged you for your time and patience… you don’t even need to think about it. It happened! TLOP finds Yeezy expressing himself on his role as a husband and a father, and tackling the perception of his fame and musical style in comparison to his older material in the process. Nevertheless, the album’s release was one of the most talked about and just as divisive as Yeezus. The no-holds-barred approach resulted in some unorthodox artwork, a fashion extravaganza, and not even a physical release but a slew of bangers (“Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”, “Pt. 2”,“30 Hours”) that truly make up for the walking insanity that is Kanye. Pablo may not be his most acclaimed project in an already incredible body of work, but there is something to appreciate even if you can’t put your finger on it. —Rob Hansen
Kendrick Lamar, untitled unmastered.
Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered. is scattered brilliance in raw form. At eight tracks, spanning a mere 35 minutes, K. Dot delivers some of the crux responsible for To Pimp A Butterfly’s triumph, but in skeletal form. Painting vivid portraits of societal happenings ("Preacher man don't always tell the truth"), while leaving room for humble brags like “I could put a rapper on life support” ("untitled 02 l 06.23.2014."), the project is reminiscent of a line from the great GZA: “If it ain’t raw, it’s worthless.” And probably “raw” is the best way to describe this listen, because untitled unmastered. is primarily that — a batch of unfinished demo recordings from the TPAB sessions. There was absolutely no rules involved in the process of this album, seeing as how it arrived out of nowhere and featured no artwork (we had to make our own, mixing, mastering, nor tracklist. Heck, to this day it’s unclear whether or not the project is even an album or compilation. Still, all in all, even through the skeletal arrangements, the wholeness of this project holds weight and Kendrick makes untitled his starkest statement yet. — Ralph Bristout
DJ Khaled, Major Key
DJ Khaled got the world to Listennn... for 10 years, and, now, a decade in he’s made it into his own — his own Major Key. To think, Khaled was on his ninth album with Major Key and the results from the hit project superseded everything he built prior. Going from DJ to tactical maestro, Khaled redefined the blueprint to success, making 2016 his own. He went from Mr. “Another One” meme to Snapchat’s biggest success story and glowed up to Apple Music’s Roc Nation-flagbearing soy milk sipping-and-Palmers cocoa-butter’d glory. All of this culminated into Major Key, his biggest album to date featuring the biggest names (Jay Z, Nas, Drake, Nicki Minaj) and hits (“For Free,” “I Got the Keys”). On Major Key, Khaled rewrote the script and nothing’s been the same since. —RB
James Blake, The Colour in Anything
Surprise! James Blake announced the release date of his third album on the morning of. (That’s, like, a few hours more notice than his Lemonade collaborator, Beyonce.) The Colour In Anything sees his trademark introversion in the context of a static connection between sublime melodies and endless fluid production, and it's pinged an all-time plateau. The album's mix of familiar yearning with a bit of uncanny dystopian direction reveals that he’s far more subtly implied than we’d all assume at first listen. Finally breaking his silence, and essentially climbing out of his graceful safe haven, you quickly realize through a narrative of therapeutic piano ballads that the reclusive Blake is right where he’s supposed to be: sonically far ahead of his peers. —Shanté Merida
TWENTY88 , TWENTY88
Who knew what the hell TWENTY88 was earlier this year? The cryptic teasers didn’t clue us in as to whether we were watching a movie or the second coming of Ja Rule and Ashanti, but somehow, the duo formed by Jhene Aiko and Big Sean convinced Tidal to stream it exclusively for 72 hours anyway.
What TWENTY88 turned out to be was a self-titled concept album that told the story of the highs and lows of a relationship, while combining late '90s R&B with experimental ‘70s soul. Throughout the auditory soap opera, each artist held their own, going toe to toe with tales so raw and relatable they had us squinting to decipher fact from fiction.
The rollout continued with the stunning short film "Out of Love." Sean Don and Aiko really seemed to transform into their characters... but now, months later, we don’t think they’re acting anymore. Another joint effort is on the way, and we can only imagine what stories they’ll have to tell now that life is imitating art. —Driadonna Roland