Genre-Switching and the Question of Artist Identity

Originally published by Inkport.

When 2016 was good to us, it was really good. Though I was underwhelmed by many of the albums released throughout the year, we truly were blessed with some real gems: Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, The 1975’s I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It. That said, some of the records we heard this year were not at all what we expected — and I don’t mean they were disappointing because they’d been hyped up for five years, ahem, Frank Ocean. I mean we saw artists bouncing from one genre to another without warning — R&B artists pushing into the canyons of country, rappers crooning soul funk, quiet singer-songwriters tip-toeing into electronica and EDM.

This idea of switching genres isn’t new at all — some of the most prolific artists of the century are known for their ability to transcend genre and evolve over time. The Beatles’ shifts between a poppy boy band and a psychedelic rock group are something they’re lauded for. David Bowie’s cyclical genre changes were what marked him as the eclectic artist we loved. While artists have been creating well-received albums with diverse sonic themes for decades, the idea of a fundamental genre change remains controversial. It seems an artist has the right to experiment from album to album, but not to change their own identity. If the tides of sonic change have influenced nearly every major artist throughout history, why am I not obsessing over Childish Gambino’s funk album Awaken, My Love the same way I obsessed over his rap album Camp? Is it because Donald Glover has evolved, or because this album doesn’t speak to me? Perhaps it has something to do with why genre changes happen in the first place.

We live in an interesting era for music, because its accessibility is no longer an issue. We don’t line up to buy new records anymore. We’re living in a constantly evolving mixtape, where the song that comes next isn’t decided until we want it to be. We aren’t slaves to the tracklist — we can jump between artists and albums with a few clicks — we don’t even have to change the CD. Because of this, the art of the album has changed. Album tracklists, curated in a specific order by the artist, are now polluted with the click of the shuffle button. We jumble artist intention in favor of sonic personal preference.

So what does this mean for an artist? Is it easier or harder to make the music they want to make? That depends. On the one hand, we have Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, which underwent multiple track changes and evolutions even after it had been released. The evolution of an album post-release is something we haven’t seen very frequently before. While many artists curate new deluxe editions or B-Sides of their releases, Kanye fundamentally changed the album itself. Then there are artists like Justin Bieber, who before the release of his album Purpose was releasing new tracks online weekly for his fans. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have an artist like Frank Ocean, whose album release was pushed back multiple times in favor of perfection. His album wasn’t about clutter or change, it was about curating the perfect package. In terms of critical reception, I think most people agree that The Life of Pablo was an overall better album than Ocean’s Blonde. So is a perfect package more influential than a work in progress? Maybe not.

Are our consumption patterns to blame for the way artists shift genres? Probably, but I think that the way we relate to musicians has also had a huge effect on the music they’re actually creating. Because we have such unlimited access to musicians via social media, we feel more connected to them as people and as artists. This increased connection might make one artist feel much more comfortable with their audience, while making another feel more self-conscious about their work, as we’ve seen with artists like Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith who have both taken social media breaks while writing their new music.

This year Beyoncé, known for her R&B and pop stylings, released “Daddy Lessons,” a down and dirty country track which she performed alongside twang veterans the Dixie Chicks at the Country Music Awards. Over the past few years, Beyoncé has become a huge cultural icon, thanks to the rise of social media and the rapid succession of music she’s released.

The Grammy-nominated “Daddy Lessons” was received with praise by Beyoncé fans and many in the country music community. As an artist born and raised in Texas, it musically seems like a natural step for her, and the record excelled in the style it imitated. However, because of the issues within the country music scene for people of color, it wouldn’t be surprising if this was her first opportunity to even consider releasing music in the genre. In this case, the experiment feels true to the artist’s identity — the track feels like Beyoncé, and it remains a groundbreaking move for other artists and people of color who perform in genres typically dominated by white, Southern men and women.

Two years ago, we heard country artist Taylor Swift’s official ascent into pop music. While 1989 topped the charts, I couldn’t help but feel slightly skeptical about Swift’s decision to make pop music after years of Grammy award winning country records. Recently, a source released a statement saying her next album would be influenced by R&B, and that she was working with Drake on new music. When we see artists shifting genres, it’s almost inevitable that their intentions come into play. With Beyoncé, her move into country made sense — she grew up in Texas, the country music style was part of her upbringing. With Swift, the intentions are confusing. Maybe Swift wants to make an R&B album because the genre is a big influence on her music, but it’s hard to imagine that R&B was inspiring songs called “Tim McGraw” and lyrics about “slammin’ screen doors.”

The thing about Taylor Swift is that no matter what her next album is, she will sell millions of copies of it. At a certain point, it’s possible that artists just do whatever they want because they know it can’t really hurt their career. In that respect, I’d say more power to you, Taylor.

In some cases, the newfound access to new producers and talent that comes with a growing career can influence an artist’s style. Taylor’s work with Bleachers’ frontman Jack Antonoff heavily influenced 1989’s synthpop tracks. Swift and Drake both have close ties to Apple Music, so maybe her access to Drake played an influential role in her ideas for her next album.

One genre-bender that both puzzled and actually impressed me this year was Rihanna’s cover of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” on her 2016 release Anti. The track is the closer on Tame Impala’s Currents, and the cover was received well both by fans and the band who penned the original. Rihanna’s album is an interesting one — blending her traditional R&B sounds with both modern pop and soul. Tame Impala — known for their psychedelic pop sound, are an unlikely match for the Barbadian singer, but somehow the cover comes to life with her unique vocal delivery. I am not surprised that Rihanna listens to Tame Impala — and the fact that she is covering an artist who is less well-known than she is makes the cover feel really genuine. She’s not using this cover for publicity.

Similarly, indie folk band Bon Iver wowed fans with their folktronica-pop release 22, A Million. Moving from the era of “Skinny Love” and “Holocene” to more intricately produced tracks like “22 (Over Soon)” and “715 (Creeks)” seems like a huge leap for the group genre-wise, but a mindful move artistically. Singer Justin Vernon is known for his trance-like vocals, and they fit really well with the group’s new style. The album was rated highly and received well by critics and fans alike, and marked a new and interesting period for the group. The songs on this album are great songs, and they still feel like Bon Iver, even though they sound new. As a fan, you totally absorb and detect the band’s original identity even though the sound has evolved. That’s how a genre-shift is meant to feel. Listening to “Tomorrow Never Knows” by The Beatles isn’t like listening to “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” but you can feel that The Beatles are living and breathing within both songs.

It appears that genre-bending only works when the songs are still true to the artist’s essence as an individual. I think the reason why Awaken, My Love didn’t grab me was because the genre was just not what I wanted from Childish Gambino. While his switch into a new genre feels genuine, it didn’t align with what I wanted to listen to. It feels like a one-off rather than a complete artist identity overhaul. I’m assuming that his next album will probably a completely different shift. I totally respect a dive into something new and I don’t think less of Glover for making an album I personally didn’t enjoy, because I believe that his artistic experimentation is genuine.

Fans can tell when you’re trying something new to expand artistically, or if you’re looking to make hits and money. When I see 1989 I see a pop album and a Grammy-grab. I don’t see a genuine interest in pop music. The songs are good but the switch feels fake. If Taylor Swift releases a hip-hop album, I might listen to it, but it won’t feel like the work of an artist. It will feel like a woman who hired hip-hop artists to write songs for her. To me, where Glover maintains a strong artist identity through genre changes, Swift totally loses hers.

We as listeners have a ton of albums to look forward to in the new year. I intend to go into this year’s music with an open mind and open ears. But here’s to innovation, evolution, and growing for the sake of expanding identity, not expanding wallets.