For these 10 artists, breaking free of expectations is a way of life – they've blazed their own trails while transcending constraints, perceptions and the word "should." Here's 10 bright stars who spent the year pushing boundaries.
Unifying seemingly disparate musical elements – New Orleans bounce queen Big Freedia, staunch rock traditionalist Jack White, the chorus of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' bruised ballad "Maps," field recordings by the father-son musicologist team John and Alan Lomax – was only a tiny part of Beyoncé's triumph with Lemonade, the album she stealth-released back in April. Its accompanying movie, which premiered on HBO as part of the Lemonade rollout, married visual motifs from black culture with the startlingly honest poetry of Somali poet Warsan Shire, while its lyrics' focus on infidelity and women being let down by the men in their lives caused tongues to wag and Beyhive members to get in formation. Beyoncé didn't let on whether or not she was writing about her actual life, but the way she managed to blend plainly spoken pain, imagery celebrating African-American history and her singular take on music made Lemonade stunningly personal.
Taking the notion of the all-in-one artist to new heights, Kanye West has spent 2016 as a performer, a designer, a music-video visionary, a public tinkerer (his gospel-tinged album The Life of Pablo was a work-in-progress for weeks after release) and an advocate for artists, whether he's jawing about the barriers put up by streaming-music exclusives or pleading with music directors to play Frank Ocean on their stations. His Saint Pablo Tour reframed the arena-show experience, with West tethered to a floating stage that allowed crowds to churn underneath him as he rolled out tracks from his hit-laden back catalog and The Life of Pablo. And as the summer wound down, he decided to go all in on eschewing the always-on availability expected from modern pop stars: "I got rid of my phone so I can have air to create," he tweeted in September.
Gospel-tinged and filled with wryly quotable lyrics, the Chicago-based MC Chance the Rapper's third mixtape Coloring Book furthers his singular vision, which splits the difference between realism and optimism while also engaging in what might be the most important pursuit for any artist – play. It's a heady mix that listeners have responded to eagerly: Coloring Book wound up becoming the first streaming-only album to make the top 10 of the Billboard 200; the tour he went on to support it was an eye-popping fantasia that took audiences into his world (and includes a talking stuffed lion goading him to stay true to himself); and though he's taken lucrative deals with Apple Music and Kit Kat, he's still technically never been signed to a record label.
From the fur-topped slides she designed in conjunction with Puma to her habit of leaving parties with wine in to-go glasses to her eye-popping casualwear to her dense, dark 2016 album Anti, Rihanna has spent 2016 showing the world how liberating doing one's own thing can be. Her Anti World Tour, which was capped with a barnburner version of her torchy Anti track "Love on the Brain," not only showed how much she's grown as a singer since her days of "Pon De Replay," it cemented her status as the go-to woman for hooks that will remain embedded in pop listeners' brains for weeks.
In the years since Frank Ocean's critically beloved Channel Orange, the R&B singer-songwriter was held up as a model of creativity – releasing sprawling, kaleidoscopic investigations of soul music on his own pace, and hitting listeners' sweet spots every time. When, in August, the first hints of new music from the reclusive crooner emerged, it wasn't via a song snippet or a cover-art preview; instead, a video of him engaging in some serious woodworking popped up online. As an assertion of music's invisible labor, particularly the living in one's head that's required to make music as stubbornly cerebral as Ocean's, it was a sly move. As a way of increasing curiosity around a project that was guaranteed to be one of the year's most seismic releases, it was a bombshell, an extended tease that led to open-sketchbook visual album Endless and album-with-magazine Blonde being received with fervor and praise.
Eric Church took much of 2016 off from performing, but the effort put into his upcoming Holdin' My Own Tour is notable: No current megastar seems this dedicated to fan service. His tour supporting Mr. Misunderstood, his genre-spanning fifth album, will have no opening act, instead Church and his band will be performing two-act marathons in 60-plus-cities. In another example of him putting fans first, Church is going after any resellers attempting to jack up ticket prices for their own material gain. As it says on his official website: "Why are we doing this? In this era where complacency seems to be the norm, we wanted to do everything within our power to put the advantage in the hands of true fans rather than those that take advantage of the system, and by extension our people."
Laura Jane Grace's punk journey has always been singular, with her band Against Me! consistently releasing nervy, grand punk statements that also happen to have massive pop appeal. As one of rock's most well-known trans women since she came out in the pages of Rolling Stone in 2012, Grace is blazing her own trail with every album she makes: 2016's Shape Shift With Me focuses squarely on the concept of post-transition love and all the chaos it can create.
Since splitting from the Diddy-groomed girl group Danity Kane, Dawn Richard has plunged into music's deep end. She's cast aside any chart-pop constraints and followed her own path aggressively, restyling her name as "D∆WN," refracting her image so that it seems like she's a living modern art installation and creating music that's defined by its hunger for experimentation and dissatisfaction with anything even vaguely resembling a norm. Her third album Redemption, which comes out in November, has a widescreen scope that manages to invite in bass producer Machinedrum and New Orleans brassman Trombone Shorty. It will be released as a USB necklace that allows fans to flaunt their love for her and invites them into an immersive virtual-reality world adjacent to the album.
Los Angeles-based producer Mija embraced the idea of a world on shuffle with the name of her 2016 tour: Fk a Genre. The rotating cast of characters scheduled to appear onstage with her, from Fool's Gold mastermind A-Trak to Chicago MC Joey Purp, are slotted to bust outside their comfort zones and play with beats and ideas that go beyond their normal repertoires. The tour's idea stems from her approach to her own music, which is marked by a relentless appetite for crate-digging (both real and virtual) and a hunger for experimentation, combining the rave music she grew up on as a young dance-music head in Phoenix with the hip-hop and trap she became exposed to in after moving to Los Angeles.
This Minneapolis-based bundle of energy – who also hosts MTV's music-first show Wonderland – has been rapping since she was in middle school and her time in Detroit and Houston has inspired her singular take on soul, which incorporates gospel's call-and-response and Southern rap's chilled-out vibes, not to mention the theoretical frameworks (and flute playing) she picked up as a music major in college. Her major-label debut Coconut Oil is packed with what have come to be known as "Lizzobangers," songs that could only come from her highly specific vision of the world and her unflinching belief that she can help change it for the better through song.