“Who has time to listen to a Mahler symphony, for God’s sake?” said Leonard Bernstein in a 1989 interview with Rolling Stone. He bemoaned the fact that so few people were willing to sit through a 90-minute symphony anymore—to let an artist take the time to work up to a crescendo and return listeners back to earth. In the years since, our musical attention span has only gotten shorter. Thanks to the rise of online music streaming and MP3s, it’s easier than ever to cherry-pick individual songs without giving a second thought to their original context.
I came across that Bernstein quote the other day while listening to Solange Knowles’s new album A Seat at the Table from beginning to end—all 51 minutes and 43 seconds of it. I didn’t expect to listen to the whole album when I put it on, but I found myself hooked within the first few minutes. While it’s not exactly a symphony, A Seat at the Table—along with concept albums released by Beyonce and Frank Ocean in the past six months—suggest Bernstein would be pleased with the millennial generation’s evolving musical tastes.
All three artists released works that demand holistic listening, rather than albums that merely act as padding for hit singles. Laced with suggestive interludes and constructed with a distinct beginning, middle, and end, these albums are best appreciated in the order their songs are listed and in their entirety. Shuffling the songs on these albums—or just listening to them independently—does a disservice to both the artist and the listener. And they’re helping me and other millennials, who were practically born with iPods in our cribs, discover the pleasures of listening to albums as our parents once did.
For me, it started with Beyonce’s Lemonade, which was released April 23, 2016. I heard a few of the hits on the album in stores and workout classes right after it came out but resisted watching the visual album for almost two weeks. Because who has time to spend 45 minutes watching a music video anymore? But the think pieces about Lemonade kept filling up my newsfeed. So I signed up for a free trial on Tidal, turned my laptop to airplay, and watched Lemonade unfold on my flatscreen.
I hated it at first. The album was dissonant, repetitive, sometimes ugly. But when I was done watching, I started it again. By the end of my second viewing, I felt as if I was inside the mind of Beyonce, experiencing her passion and pain in a way that I never had felt through her singles before. The next day, I put on Lemonade and went for a run. I ran harder and longer that day than I had since I moved to New York.
I thought it was just the Lemonade effect. I listened to the whole album hundreds of times—at home, while running, at work. Then, four months later, it happened again: this time with Frank Ocean’s Blond(e).
As with Lemonade, I was turned off by the album at first. The tracks were jerky, experimental, nothing like the smooth R&B hits on Ocean’s previous album, Channel Orange. I picked the more palatable songs, added them to a playlist, and listened to them for the next few days whenever they came on.
A week or so later, I went back to Blond(e) again. This time, the complexity of the album sunk in. I listened and relistened to the clips of Ocean’s mother warning him about marijuana and a man lamenting the way Facebook made him want to break up with his girlfriend, drawing connections between these decontextualized scenarios and Ocean’s lyrics about growing up and dealing with relationships.
Most millennials have stopped letting artists curate our music for us. Instead, algorithms do the job. After Blond(e), I began to think about the musical experiences I’d been missing out on by primarily listening to music as part of a shuffled playlist. Thanks to the iPod’s release in the 2000s and now Spotify’s various playlists, most millennials stopped letting artists curate our music for us. Instead, algorithms do the job. It’s no surprise that so many recording artists responded by focusing on producing singles, rather than attempting to tell a story over the course of 10 to 15 tracks. Why bother making a thoughtfully constructed album when your listeners treat tracks like single sticks of gum, chewing them up and spitting them out one by one?
In the case of Beyonce, Ocean, and Solange, there’s a clear answer: all three of their new albums deal with the weighty topic of being black in America today. Beyonce approaches the issue through the prism of a romantic relationship, drawing parallels between a personal experience of infidelity and the complicated experiences and emotional lives of black women in America. Lemonade takes time to let this theme build, treating it with grace. When Jay-Z shows up in the album’s slowest track “Sandcastles,” and again in “All Night”—arguably the crescendo of the album—we understand why Beyonce is letting him back in.
Ocean’s album, Blond(e), centers on the experience of being a black teenager. The opening track, “Nikes,” begins with an overtly political statement—”RIP Trayvon,” a reference to Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old shot dead by George Zimmerman in 2012, whom Ocean says “look just like me.” The rest of the album is made up of Ocean’s memories of growing up—relationships, parties, sex, drugs, and poverty. It’s sad and joyful at the same time, in keeping with the complexity inherent in being young, queer, and black in the US.
A Seat at the Table is the most overtly political album of the three. The interludes on the album speak directly to the listener about racism, segregation, and inner strength in the face of violent adversity. They ground the album’s ethereal, atmospheric tracks in the real world. Solange and Beyonce’s mother, Tina Knowles, sums up the power of all three of these albums in “Interlude: Tina Taught Me.” “I think, part of it is accepting that it’s so much beauty in being black. And that’s the thing that, I guess, I get emotional about because I’ve always known that,” she says, just before Solange belts out “Don’t Touch My Hair.” Like Beyonce and Frank Ocean, Solange makes use of the sweep and scope of the album to counteract the reductive social narratives of race that so often dominate the conversation in the US.
Thankfully, these artists have faith in the album as a platform to talk about important issues—and because of their star power, they can actually get fans to sit down and listen. While at least half the tracks on Lemonade were stand-alone singles, neither Blond(e) nor A Seat at the Table has more than one or two obvious hits on it. Yet both have managed to set the internet buzzing and net millions of dollars in record sales. This bodes well for the future of pop music, and music in general: Even in the post-LP era, listeners will still reward artists who put the time and effort into making an album worth listening to the whole way through.
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