This shit is for us: a year in black, beautiful, genre-bending music

To be black in 2016 is to be hated, feared and, strangely, grateful. Major publications are starting to put together their best 2016 albums lists, and there’s a recurring theme. For the first time, a black woman’s work was crowned best album of 2016 by Rolling Stone, who went as far to say that David Bowie himself would have said the same thing. Across many lists, from magazines to furtive, unnoticed tweets, one thing remains the same: 2016 was, and still is, the year of black musical excellence. Standout black records of the year all have one thing in common — their flexibility in exploring genres, sometimes leading to outright rejection of rigid boundaries between musical styles. As a result, the best albums of the year have been both consistently black and consistently genre-defying.

Themes explored by black artists in 2016 vary widely from navigating the tight, painful avenues of black womanhood to the wonder and joy that comes from black spirituality. Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Solange, Chance the Rapper and Blood Orange are just some of the artists who were able to capture aspects of what it means to be black, and convert it into melodies and lyrics and, in a word, bangers. The exploration of our shared experiences results in collections of songs that we each are able to interpret differently; a single album can come to mean millions of different things to millions of different people, and somehow, still all the same. Lemonade is probably the best example of how albums are able to garner unique reactions and associated feelings. In Chapter 3 of Beyoncé’s powerful visual album, Anger, the heavily rock-influenced track Don’t Hurt Yourself is introduced. For Beyoncé, a child of pop and R&B, embracing the heavily male, white genre of rock was seen as a coup; upon researching the origins of rock and finding out many of its chief pioneers were black, the reclaiming of this genre by Beyoncé seems less of an anomaly and more a return to her roots. To some, the lyrics can be taken at face value to paint a picture of righteous ferocity at being replaced in a relationship. To others, the excerpt from a speech by Malcom X is much more telling; the song goes deeper to celebrate a black woman’s anger, so often taken away from her through vicious stereotyping until she is left bare. In Beyoncé’s voice, the line “The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman,” takes on a whole new, powerful meaning.

Flip the coin over, and you end up with universal albums that don’t miss a beat — pardon the pun — in reaching out to the same broad spectrum of listeners. Coloring Book, the third mixtape by still unsigned Chance the Rapper does just that; the near hour-long collection offers something for everyone with its unusual yet uplifting blend of hiphop and gospel sounds, both areas in which black creatives have pioneered and inspired. Chance’s verse on Ultralight Beam, easily the standout track from Kanye West’s latest sprawling piece, set the stage for a mixtape full to the brim with soaring gospel choir harmonies, thoughts on God, the joys of fatherhood and the independence he, and featuring artists like Lil Yachty and Young Thug, rejoice in. “Man I swear my life is perfect, I could merch it / If I die I prolly cry at my own service” are probably the lines that best sum up this deeply joyful, defiant body of work: rejoicing in Chance’s enthusiasm for life and all it entails can mean rejoicing in our own personal experiences too, whatever you take from this, frankly, masterpiece.

Albums that encourage introspection are often, quite unnoticeably, the best. A Seat At The Table, only Solange Knowles’ third full-length studio album, is 21 tracks of just that: introspection. Like her sister Beyoncé, Solange utilises those around her, especially her parents, on interludes that nostalgically vocalise the themes of the album. On Tina Taught Me, Solange’s mother Tina Lawson lends us her thoughts: “I’ve always been proud to be black. Never wanted to be nothing else.” This reverberates throughout the album, with tracks like F.U.B.U. and Scales, featuring Kelela, proving to be standout exclamations of black pride. The blend of electronic and psychedelic styles with funk and soul is both a departure from simpler styles used in her last body of work, True, and similarly comfortable all at once. The visuals that came with A Seat At The Table were simply mesmerising; Solange, already established as a fashion icon, creates images and aesthetics that take root in viewers’ minds and play out in all their dreamy wonder, over and over. Videos for the songs Cranes in the Sky and Don’t Touch My Hair are visual depictions of the airiness of the album, and its dedication to black folk in all our wonder and diversity. The use of colour and fashion in the videos were selected thoughtfuly, and in an interview with Vogue, Solange picks apart some of her most visually stunning fashion choices: “I think there is this abundance of young and incredibly talented designers and artists that are out there, and I’m always keeping my eye open, and trying to stay connected.” The inception of A Seat At The Table ties in irrevocably into its themes and meanings, and highlights just how personal the album is to Solange, and can turn out to be for listeners. Her journey back to New Iberia, Louisiana was to, in her own words, “really have a moment of self-reflection and self-discovery.” Self-reflection is felt in every song; ultimately, A Seat At The Table is an album for black women, by a black woman, and her introspection feels like our secret.

Introspection is not just Solange Knowles’ forte: stripped-down nostalgia is what Frank Ocean offered us this year, and it shone. The video stream on Ocean’s personal tumblr, the double release of Endless and Blonde, the seemingly sudden emergence of worldwide pop-up stores carrying the Boys Don’t Cry zine and the differing tracklists all made our heads spin. After four years of waiting, this was a blessing, God-given rainfall after a searing drought. The livestream, the first of Frank Ocean’s many releases, confused fans and critics. His endless teasing of the album release date had built up expectation to fever pitch, and the sudden appearance of this 40-minute long video, apparently originally 140 hours long, was disappointing. To eagerly waiting fans, maybe, but there was a lesson to learn from watching Ocean painstakingly construct this staircase. For an intensely private man like Frank Ocean, the video felt like a glimpse into both his world and mind: the thoughtfulness and calculation that went into Blonde could be seen in his construction. It serves as a reminder that the best work takes time, and Ocean knew how much he needed to construct his own sonic masterpiece. A departure from the grand scope of Channel Orange, his stunning debut record, Blonde feels bare and delicate. The famously genre-bending artist scales back on Blonde, but doesn’t skimp on experimentation. Layering and adjusting his voice to appear fuller and less alone, Frank Ocean casually subverts the very meaning of genre and leaves listeners spinning. The scarce use of drums gives the record a softer, more intimate quality, and Ocean’s voice feels exclusive; the line “Wish I was there, wish we’d grown up on the same advice” on Self Control feels intensely personal, and is as full of wistful yearning as words can ever be. Frank Ocean’s surety in both his work and himself is a rare treat in a world where everyone, especially black folk, is encouraged to adopt surface-level humility and refuse to take ownership of their excellence. “I believe that I’m one of the best in the world at what I do, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted to be,” Frank Ocean states simply in a recent interview with the New York Times. Listening back to Blonde, 17 tracks of meaningful minimalism, Ocean’s quiet confidence is heard loud and clear.

Other albums released this year by black artists excel in welcoming the listener with open arms, and establishing a personal connection. Freetown Sound from British artist Dev Hynes as Blood Orange does just that, exploring family, blackness and politics all while remaining beautifully open. The shifting genres of Freetown Sound, funk, synth-pop, R&B, and soul all tie in with the way each song moves on to tackle a new issue: from Christianity in Augustine to Hynes’ and Kelsey Lu’s alternating voices on Chance, singing about the stinging unfairness of racial inequality. Hynes’ propensity to work with female musicians (indeed, most of the collaborators on Freetown Sound were women) provides another dimension to his music, and allows a whole subgroup of black listeners to feel included in this personal, far-reaching project. Telefone by newcomer Noname also cultivates this intimacy, with 8 tracks exploring the pain of black women. The mixtape also explores genres, with Noname’s soft rapping playing hand-in-hand with complementary jazz, gospel and soul melodies. on Yesterday, the opening track, Noname raps her grandmother’s advice, “Don’t grow up too soon / don’t blow the candles out / Don’t let them cops get you”. It feels universal and painfully personal all at the same time, especially considering the song is primarily about her death. More recent albums like The Weeknd’s Starboy also tie into blackness, with Abel Tesfaye embracing rich musical influences from his native Ethiopia. Musical maturity is almost immediately noticeable with Starboy, with a move from dark house beats to more classic R&B and collaborators Daft Punk-influenced electronica. He also, for the first time, explores morality and religion on the track Ordinary Life, a sharp contrast to his famed love for a more hedonistic lifestyle; “Devil on my lap and a cross on my neck,” illustrates tensions between conflicting ideas and wants in life. The portrayal of Tesfaye on the Starboy cover with a cross round his neck doesn’t go unnoticed — black spirituality often constitutes a huge part of black identities, and The Weeknd seems to be prepared to start again.

2016 has been a phenomenal year for all music, but that of black artists has shone just that little bit brighter. The sheer depth and versatility of black music paired with its knack for beautifully executed genre experimentation, has resulted in a year punctuated with pieces of stunning art that yank at black heartstrings and make us feel heard, wanted, loved. To be black in 2016, a year more mentally, physically and spiritually exhausting than most, is to feel represented.