Being known as a transcendent artist extends further than just quality songs and classic albums. The impact must be felt beyond your headphones — using methods that range from masterful live concerts to bizarre livestreams to stamp a unique imprint on music culture. Here are four innovative musicians whose creative ventures this decade have changed the music industry forever:
As polarizing and controversial a figure Kanye West was for the entirety of the decade, it’s impossible to deny the creative strides he made sonically and visually. After the Taylor Swift incident at the MTV Video Music Awards resulted in a self-imposed exile to Hawaii, West returned in 2010 armed to the teeth with a ground-breaking
album and a masterful 35-minute musical short film titled “Runaway.” The high-budget video not only stitches together nearly every track from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with cohesiveness and dazzling imagery, but is a perfect representation of West’s inner struggle to fit in — told through a romantic relationship between a man and a half-woman, half-phoenix. “Do you know what I hate most about your world? Anything that is different you try to change,” says the phoenix, mirroring the exact thoughts of Kanye himself. The film marked a turning point in West’s career and unlocked an unapologetic artistry that he still lives by today.
Kanye’s obsessive need to push the boundaries of his creative endeavors extends from his music to his engrossing live concerts. The Yeezus Tour in 2013-14 was more than just entertaining showcase of his catalog, but a theatrical triumph where all set pieces and stage elements worked together in harmony. Kanye spent the majority of his set hidden behind a jewel-encrusted mask. Jesus made a brief appearance. The stage even rose to form a 50-foot high peak, dubbed Mount Yeezus, where Kanye was perched as a larger-than-life figure. And on those nights, in the eyes of thousands of screaming fans who witnessed the performances, he really was. 2016’s Saint Pablo Tour was also a spectacle in stage design, with Kanye debuting a floating platform where he would perform shows completely suspended above his audience. When you attended a Kanye West concert in the 2010s, the music was secondary to the innovative qualities of how it was presented.
“I am the son of Kanye.” This bold statement was uttered by Childish Gambino in the buildup to the release of his second studio album Because the Internet in 2013, hinting that he hadn’t even scratched the surface of his creative capabilities. The Atlanta artist backed up his talk by releasing his album packaged with an entire screenplay, meant to be consumed while the project was playing in the background. This strategy was nothing new for an actor/writer/comedian who previously made a living crafting scripts for television shows, but the process was noteworthy for listeners looking to further connect with his hip hop material. The immersive screenplay filled in the gaps of the story Gambino was telling on his album and gave its characters a life-like quality rarely achieved on musical offerings. The success of Because the Internet and its unique packaging opened the door for Donald to reveal more of his artistic visions as his music career progressed.
The Pharos experience started off as a mysterious application tweeted out by Childish Gambino in 2016. Eager downloaders were met with an image depicting the viewer hurtling through space towards an unknown location as a countdown slowly trickled down. Once the timer hit 0:00, Joshua Tree National Park was revealed and a pre-sale for a secret festival starring Gambino and new music from an upcoming album became available. Those lucky enough to snag tickets in the six-minute window they went live before selling out were treated to an experience unlike any other. Entering the humongous white dome was like stepping into another universe. The ceiling came to life with psychedelic 3D images of skeletons and alien creatures as Gambino, decked out in other-worldly face paint, blonde cornrows and a tribal skirt, belted out animalistic screams that shell-shocked nearly 100 percent of attendees. All of the pre-conceived criticisms that plagued Gambino’s music were thrown out the window as he embarked on a completely new chapter of artistry. The innovative nature of such an event was breathtaking.
After a four-year-long hiatus post-Channel Orange, the music industry’s superstar recluse came out of hiding in 2016 with a livestream link and rumors of a surprise album drop on the horizon. Music fans flocked in droves to the cryptic post, hoping for an end to their Frank Ocean project drought, but were instead met with a black-and-white video of an empty warehouse where Ocean himself began building boxes whilst grainy instrumentals routinely played over the speakers. The bizarre livestream was both confusing and frustrating, but all eyes remained glued on Frank with the continuous hope that the woodshop tutorial would reap rewards in the end. Sure enough, as the vision of a staircase being built became more and more clear, so did the music. Viewers who were patient enough to stick around were greeted with the moody, dreamy vocals of the album Endless, but instead of becoming available on streaming services afterward, the project remained forever tied to the 45-minute visual. A track-by-track release of Endless still hasn’t emerged for the public’s ears, save for a few rough cuts you can find on SoundCloud, adding to the mystical lore Ocean has given himself.
The very next day, Frank had one more trick up his sleeve. With zero promotion or warning, the Long Beach native dropped another bombshell on the music industry, releasing the album Blonde as an Apple Music and iTunes exclusive. Not only did Ocean reinvent the streaming wars (Spotify later claimed that exclusives are “bad for artists, bad for consumers and bad for the whole industry”), but a closer look at both of the project’s liner notes uncovered the greatest robbery of all. While the Endless visual “album” was released under the typical Def Jam label, Blonde was released independently under Boys Don’t Cry, Frank’s very own label. Ocean, whose relationship with Def Jam could be best described as “fractured”, used the Endless stair-building music video as a method to fulfill his contractual obligations with Def Jam, before unleashing Blonde as his “real” album. The blindsiding move resulted in Blonde debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart and became a blueprint for artists searching for creative ways to pry themselves from a constricting record deal.
This was the decade of the surprise album, and nobody in the industry did it better than Beyonce. After the unexpected drop of her self-titled project set the Internet ablaze in 2013 (and inspired a wave of secret releases from superstar artists in the following years), Queen Bey doubled down on her strategy for her follow-up album, Lemonade, with a few twists. The California singer partnered with HBO to release a one-hour film, showcasing a mash-up of tracks off her upcoming project and visuals of Bey responding to the betrayal of a cheating partner. The music video not only promoted Lemonade by giving viewers a sneak peek of the material but also tackled the themes of infidelity and sisterhood in a medium rarely traversed by musicians. Immediately following the film, Beyonce released the project exclusively on Tidal, as well as making it available for sale in physical retailers. This strategy gave fans only a few avenues in which to acquire the coveted project — either sign up for a subscription to Tidal, where Beyonce is co-owner, or purchase the album full price at a non-streaming service destination. 3 years later, Lemonade was finally released on Spotify and Apple Music.
As Beyonce’s reign continued throughout the decade, so did her creative partnerships with colossal companies. A year after her iconic 2018 Coachella performance captured the grandiose magic of a live performance, she announced a behind-the-scenes concert film with streaming titan Netflix called “Homecoming” — delivering an in-depth look at the build-up and achievement of the first black woman to ever headline the festival. The project was released to universal acclaim, and the vocalist followed it up with Homecoming: The Live Album, a collection that included the entire recording of her historic concert, track-by-track. That’s the brilliance of Beyonce. Even when she isn’t releasing new music, she is still dominating headlines, rallying her fanbase and carefully selecting creative avenues in which to display different sides of herself and her music. As a result, her material will continue to inspire and connect with her audience in a variety of ways.