2016 has been a rough year for fans of wildly inventive (and reinventive) pop artists. Just three months after David Bowie was taken too soon, we also lost Prince. Not to claim sadness rights over anyone else, but these are two of my top three all-time favorite artists. I'm only kinda joking when I refrain from naming the third, partly claiming superstitious reasons.
The loss of two huge inspirations within the course of a few months started me thinking about icons in music today. Do we have these monolithic figures in our contemporary musical landscape? What does it mean to be a spiritual successor to artists whose defining characteristics were novelty and adaptability? Do we really want a new Bowie or Prince, or should we be grateful for the originals and let others exist on their own terms?
These questions led me to create a list of criteria that applies a rigid set of rules and definitions to what ultimately should be indefinite and undefinable. That being said, here it is:
Prolificacy: During their most artistically explosive periods, Bowie and Prince released at least one album a year. Of course this practice is much less common now, but an album every 2-3 years qualifies.
Innovation: To be a vanguard of music means pushing genres forward, melding styles together, and getting altogether wacky with it sometimes. Taking artistic risks and having them pay off at least half the time is essential.
Longevity: There are flash-in-the-pan creative artists who can burst onto the scene with a few genius works and fade away. These artists, while impressive in their own rights, don’t have the longevity required to live up to the true greats.
Asking for a new iconic figure in pop music is a fairly tall order. One factor that keeps that from happening is the increasing breadth of available music, largely due to the internet. Every possible niche has its own audience, and the democratization of this process allows listeners to jump ship on a dime and find something else that checks ALL their boxes. A huge, mainstream success story simply does not happen in the same way anymore.
Yes, there are huge, mainstream success stories today, but they are often much more calculated (i.e. Taylor Swift’s switch to out-and-out pop music with 1989, violating criteria No. 2); or fizzle out into some weird, semi-forgotten, facial-recognition-based pseudo-fame, i.e. going “Hey I know you” when you see Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga but not being able to name a single track from the last five years.
So who qualifies? For one reason or another just about every artist is disqualified. Beyonce regularly takes about three years between albums. St. Vincent, a personal favorite, falls short with the unwritten fourth criteria: renown. Now that she’s won a Grammy and is contributing songs to high-profile Disney films, we’ll have to track her as her career goes along to see if that changes. Frank Ocean, despite dropping two albums in as many days this year, has had a sporadic output at best.
Let’s think about Kanye West for a minute. He gets a bad reputation (“Walkin’ ‘round, always mad reputation”), often for good reason, but he undeniably fits this criteria. Not even counting Cruel Summer, a compilation album by Kanye and his GOOD Music labelmates, he has released eight albums since debuting as a solo artist 12 years ago.
Many of his albums feature huge stylistic shifts that have been almost immediately adopted by his contemporaries. Artists like Drake and Future built careers off the blueprint from 808s and Heartbreak. EDM-flavored synthesizers suddenly became a hip-hop radio staple after Graduation. Chance the Rapper’s gospel-infused Coloring Book followed The Life of Pablo by three months. Not to mention his instrumental production role in popularizing the pitched-up soul sample sound, ubiquitous in early oughts rap.
Like him or not, we are all always talking about Kanye. Much like Prince during his “Artist Formerly Known As” days, Kanye is in full WTF provocative mode. Also in line with that period of Prince history is Kanye’s output: inconsistent with flashes of genuine inspiration. No one’s favorite Prince album is Diamonds and Pearls, but someone’s favorite Prince song is “Gett Off.” Same goes for The Life of Pablo and “Waves.”
I started writing this long before I knew Kanye West would be performing in Houston Tuesday. When I started, I didn’t know which artist I would land on, if any. I definitely didn’t know I would eventually be unintentionally refuting this recent Houston Press article on Mr. West. Call it fate, call it coincidence, call it whatever you want. But somehow artists like Prince, David Bowie, and Kanye West always manage to be on the radar at just the right time.