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The year of the ear: How hip-hop got us through 2016

For many, 2016 was a rough year. Terrorist attacks plagued the U.S. and Europe, the Presidential election cycle was one of the most turbulent in recent memory, and another musical artist seemed to die every week. Looking back at everything that made last year terrible, it’s hard to believe that anything good happened at all.

Although 2016 will likely be remembered for the numerous deaths throughout the music world, last year’s hip-hop contributions provided an escape. While there were breakout performances across all genres, hip-hop in particular thrived.

Here’s a look back at many of the important albums released, the countless “beefs” between rappers and everything else that made 2016 the year of the ear.

While artists such as Frank Ocean and Kanye West hyped their albums for months — even years —  others took to roads less traveled, releasing their albums with little to no promotion.

Peaking at number six on the Billboard Hot 200, YG’s Still Brazy delighted fans with possibly the best record of his career. Although many anticipated a fourth studio album from J. Cole, 4 Your Eyez Only was only announced a week prior to its release. Kendrick Lamar released seven leftover tracks that didn’t make his 2015 award winning album To Pimp a Butterfly on the LP, Untitled Unmastered.

Possibly the most surprising release of the year came from A Tribe Called Quest. The band’s double LP We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service took the hip-hop scene by storm. While the lyrics dealt with the political, social and racial issues the country is facing, the Tribe stuck true to its roots with the record’s beats and production.

Beyonce performing with her husband Jay-Z (Creative Commons)

Beyonce shocked fans when her album Lemonade called out her husband, OG East coast rapper Jay-Z, for cheating while on his 2014 tour. Despite such a hefty accusation, the couple is seen kissing in bed at the end of her visual album. Some claim this was mostly a publicity stunt, but others say their marriage has been headed downhill for years.

Aside from the highly-anticipated albums that were released by industry giants, lesser-known acts such as Anderson Paak., 21 Savage, Metro Boomin, Rae Sremmurd and Chance The Rapper had breakthrough years. They reached unforeseen levels of stardom after cracking Billboard’s top 200 charts and receiving multiple Grammy nominations.

While artists were busy crafting their new releases in 2016, a lot of behind-the-scenes drama helped entertain and distract fans from the day-to-day world.

Meek Mill’s feud with Drake might’ve been the most talked about beef of 2016, but he was just one of many who were in line to attack the Canadian-born rapper. The Weeknd, Pusha T, Joe Budden and Kanye all took on Drake last year.

As new beefs were formed this year, old ones were also renewed. Kanye’s hit single “Famous” took shots at his long-time nemesis, Taylor Swift. The song’s lyrics claim that Kanye was responsible for Swift’s rise to fame after interrupting her on stage during the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards. The drama got even more captivating once Swift denied having given consent to put the song on his album. Later, Kim Kardashian posted a Snapchat story that showed West and Swift talking about the song over a phone conversation. The post revealed that Swift had actually given Kanye permission to publish the lyrics.

Bigger names got the most attention, but beefs between lesser known rappers proved to be just as entertaining.

Lil Yachty took on Soulja Boy, Blac Youngsta dissed Young Dolph and SpaceGhostPurrp went after Denzel Curry. One of the most interesting diss tracks came from a surprising artist. On his single “False Prophets,” J. Cole took direct shots at Kanye. Accusing him of not writing his own material and taking his platform for granted.

With the many ways in which the music industry entertained its followers, there were also some stories that sparked concern within the community.

Prince performing at Coachella (Creative Commons)

Along with many other beloved artists, George Michael, David Bowie and Prince all passed away in 2016. Thousands mourned the deaths of these men for their noteworthy musical contributions as well as their inspiring use of self-expression. Although we lost these amazing musicians, we were also given an opportunity to celebrate the legacies they left behind.

In early January, BBC aired a documentary titled The Last Five Years that followed the final years of David Bowie. The documentary coincided with a charity event that celebrated what would’ve been Bowie’s 70th birthday. After Prince died in late April, cities across the country hosted vigils while thousands took to social media to pay homage to the late musical icon.

While many musicians passed away last year, others faced concerning health issues.

Kanye West reportedly had a mental breakdown moments before he was scheduled to perform on Saturday Night Live. This wasn’t the last episode for Kanye. In December, he was hospitalized for mental health reasons that gossip pundits such as TMZ suspect have to do with the anniversary of his mother’s death.

Earlier in the year, Lil Wayne was hospitalized for seizures, and Kid Cudi publicly entered rehab for the first time. Being a superstar has never been easy, and in the age of the internet, it seems like the pressure has started to get the best of some musicians.

Although fans were mostly intrigued with their favorite musicians, the business side of music had an eventful year too. One of the most shocking stories of the year came from a 2016 study done by the Recording Industry of America Association. The study showed that during the first week of December, vinyl records outsold digital downloads for the first time since 1991. Many argue that this phenomenon can just be attributed to a peak in gift buying right before the holidays and that records are just a novelty that will prove to be another fad. However, some experts believe that the widespread availability of physical music is a sign of change to come.

Frank Ocean performing at Coachella in 2012 (Creative Commons)

Between a long list of albums that were critically acclaimed, a series of “beefs” that were almost too convoluted to follow and the loss of countless beloved musicians, 2016 made for one of the most eventful years in recent music history.

Along with music, pastimes such as sports, TV, film and other forms of art not only serve as entertainment, they also provide an escape from the sometimes bleak realities of our world. They’re not just distractions, they also give us the opportunity to be reminded of the beauty in the world.

It seems as if musicians realized that the world needed a strong year in sound to help distract us from the harsh realities of it.

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Zach Price

Zach Price

Zach Price is the Editor in Chief of the Emerald. He likes to write about music and watch Trail Blazer games.

Reach Zach at [email protected]