Justin Sullivan, 2016 Getty Images
Perhaps the biggest artist of her generation, Beyoncé just had her biggest year. Her timeline of success is undeniable, bookended by her Super Bowl performance in February and her nine Grammy nominations in December, with her Lemonade film/album double whammy and its subsequent world tour in between.
The headlines, memes and political controversies aside, Queen Bey had some competition for her domain over 2016’s music narrative. Numbers-wise, Drake soared with his staggering sales, blazing a path through hip-hop’s hierarchy with Views, an album that — despite middling reviews from critics and fans — outsold the competition in record-breaking numbers. And if our musician of the year was determined by the outrageous headlines, Kanye West would win the title; his sweeping 2016 consisted of a boundary-breaking album, clothing line and groundbreaking tour, before his recent hospitalization.
Perhaps it helps that Beyoncé’s album, according to critics, was better than theirs — and most of her other pop peers. Remarkably, Lemonade simultaneously dominated and rejected music’s mainstream, positioned as a sumptuous audio-visual experience rather than a parade of pop hits. Continuing her trend away from the singles-chart toppers of her early career, she rejected the bloated, streaming-friendly records her competition released this year in favor of a concise, playful collection of songs that renewed our faith in the album — not the No. 1 single — as music’s most essential unit. And the Grammys, music’s most mainstream institution, reaffirmed Lemonade’s power.
But beyond her “slaying” and “hot sauce in her bag,” the singer’s social activism, while divisive, cemented her status as one of her generation’s most important voices, which she lent to the Black Lives Matter movement. Only time will tell how Beyoncé makes her voice heard during the Trump era, but as she’s proven this year, hers is among culture’s most essential.