Graham: Kanye, Aretha and the musical moments of 2016

A look back at the big performances and happenings in the music world that shaped the year

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

While you’re pouring yourself a glass of lemonade and preparing to do the Mannequin Challenge, here are five musical moments that shaped 2016:

Kanye West plays his new album on his laptop while surrounded by friends and colleagues at Madison Square Garden.

Kanye West premieres “Ultralight Beam” at Madison Square Garden, Feb. 11: When the rapper decided to debut his new album, “The Life of Pablo,” at a listening event at the world’s most-famous arena and broadcast it via livestream, no one was sure what to expect. It turned out to be a surreal celebration, with Kanye playing the album on his laptop while surrounded by friends and colleagues (and models showing off his latest collection of clothing). However, there was no greater moment than the opening, the debut of the stuttering gospel testimony “Ultralight Beam.” With its repeated refrain “this is a God dream” and a powerful centerpiece cameo from Chance the Rapper, it was a transformative moment that helped rewrite the rules of how music should arrive into the world.

Beyonce’s “Lemonade” was part of a one-hour visual project on HBO that lit up the internet.

Beyoncé surprise-releases “Lemonade,” April 23: Beyoncé shocked the musical world in December 2013 when she released her self-titled album out of thin air. She managed to do it again on a Saturday night in April when “Lemonade,” an album-length discourse on hurt, betrayal and good-ol’ American heartbreak, arrived on an unsuspecting world. It showed up as part of a one-hour visual project on HBO that lit up the internet during and after, sending fans scrambling to decode its meaning (and to sign up for subscriptions to Tidal, the album’s digital home). Is it about Jay Z? Her father? Only Beyoncé knows for sure, and she continues to prove she’s one step ahead of the rest of us.

Drake performs at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit on Tuesday, August 16, 2016.

Drake performs “Hotline Bling” at Joe Louis Arena, Aug. 16: At Drake’s Summer Sixteen tour, rows and rows of basketball-sized lights lined the arena ceiling. They hung there, like an innocuous part of the set design, while the Canadian rapper ran through a string of tunes that have made him the era’s defining hitmaker. And then 45 minutes into the show, something miraculous happened. You get a sense of the moment from YouTube videos, but there was nothing like being there when dozens of orbs lit up and dropped down from above, dancing up and down like puppets on marionette strings, while Drake sang about his feelings over the tropical rhythms of “Hotline Bling.” It was not only an exercise in delayed gratification — with a visual gimmick that good at their disposal, most artists would have opened the show with it — but it was an example of how technology and innovation can revolutionize the concert space and the arena experience.

Paul McCartney does the Mannequin Challenge.

Paul McCartney does the Mannequin Challenge, Nov. 10: The “Mannequin Challenge,” where groups of people get together and freeze in place while someone weaves through and films them like they’re capturing a moment distilled in time (and usually soundtracked by Atlanta duo Rae Sremmurd’s eerie, off-balance “Black Beatles”) had already gone super-viral by mid-November. (Even Hillary Clinton did one in the final hours of her presidential campaign, time which, in retrospect, probably could have been better spent.) Then Paul McCartney hopped on board, releasing a video of himself frozen at his piano while “Black Beatles” played, paying homage to a rap duo paying homage to him. “Love those Black Beatles,” McCartney wrote in the video’s caption, proving yet again to be the coolest 74-year-old alive. A few days later, “Black Beatles” hit No. 1 in America — not necessarily McCartney’s doing, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

Aretha Franklin sang the national anthem at a Detroit Lions football game in Detroit.

Aretha Franklin sings the National Anthem at Ford Field, Nov. 24: By any measure, it was a difficult year. The presidential election left the nation bitter and divided, beloved figures from Prince to David Bowie met their end, and even the National Anthem became a political lightning rod. Aretha Franklin carried all that with her when she sat down at her piano to sing the National Anthem before the Detroit Lions game on Thanksgiving day. Across America, families were gathering to give thanks, and Franklin stopped them in their tracks and gave them something to be thankful for: an epic four-and-a-half minute rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” steeped in blues and gospel and dripping with reverence for our country and all it represents. Like anything worthwhile, it quickly became controversial, as Aretha paid no mind to anyone’s clock but her own. But it will stand as one of the Anthem’s most stirring, all-time great performances, and after the year we had, it was exactly what we needed.

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