What a year. What a yesterday. (*see above)
Some unprecedented events are underway in 2016; a woman and an orangutan are racing to the White House, Britain decided to leave the European Union, data leaks threaten the security of our both our bank & Myspace accounts, children of color now outnumber white children in US public schools, and my hometown of Cleveland finally won a major league championship in 52 years.
Like the rest of the world, the music scene felt the incredible highs and lows of 2016. Beyoncé put Becky on the burner to create a monumental sonic and visual statement about infidelity and blackness, while Kendrick Lamar revealed even his scrapped material sounds better than just about everything everyone else does. At the same time, we lost many musicians along the way, some rooted in firmly in pop culture along with others just starting to make their imprint upon it.
Meanwhile, we still anticipate a strong set of releases as the year goes on, with acts including Christina Aguilera, Tinashe, D∆WN and (maybe) Frank Ocean planning albums as we speak. Personally, I’m starving for some new Fergie, and her latest mommy manifesto, M.I.L.F $ has me primed for Double Dutchess (which has been in production ten years, six years longer than we’ve waited for Boys Don’t Cry).
There’s a lot to look forward too, but plenty to look back on; here’s what’s managed to get me through 6 months of a very real Trump candidacy.
10. Nadia Rose, “BOOM”
The title of this song comes from the sound of Nadia Rose dropping the mic at the end of this spitfire track. In just over three minutes, “Boom” unequivocally declares Rose’s dominance over your daftness, shredding her competition with lines that make “the crowd get turnt, spliffs get burnt.” All of it seems done in one breath, a manifesto in a mouthful. “There’s no point in doing this if you’re not confident,” she recently told the Guardian, and she’s right.
9. Ariana Grande, “Greedy”
This deadly sin fits quite well on 2016’s self-proclaimed dangerous woman. The retro funk melody vibes with a Max Martin/Ilya Salmanzadeh gloss to create something not unlike the refined romp of Kpop, with Grande at the helm of the machine. Her voice reaching the high heavens with ease, Grande sounds big enough to swallow the listener whole. She’s not ashamed to say it, and for that matter, why should she be?
8. Blood Orange, “Best To You”
Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange, consistently names women as his source of inspiration, and “Best To You” takes some lovely influence from Empress Of’s Lorely Rodriguez. “But I’d rather be nothing to you than be a part of something that I didn’t do,” Rodriguez laments, before Hynes takes us on a wild ride of vibraphones and pattering percussion. Rodriguez’s voice sounds as if she’s singing off a cliff into the ocean, Hynes’ questions arriving to her on the wind. The answers she gives are bleak scenarios, but nothing so awful as the thought of being apart from her companion. Let’s hope they figure it out.
7. Kiiara, “Say Anymore”
Nothing trumps the power of a good hook, and “Never felt quite like this before” rolls off the tongue while it reverberates in your mind. Coupled with a set of feisty strings, “Say Anymore” becomes the perfect hookup hype-track. It captures the transition from night out to someone’s bed, as the highs from the club turn into the heat of someone’s touch. Kiiara Saulters’ mischievous voices bounces back and forth between wonder and ecstasy, afraid to lose her control but oh so curious what will happen if she does.
6. Azealia Banks, “Along the Coast”
This hazy track off of Azealia Banks’ Slay Z mixtape takes the sensual, aquatic themes of Aaliyah’s “Rock The Boat” to psychedelic depths. Rising from the ocean in a fog of ecstasy, Banks lures her companion into her waters with the promise of deep love. “Let your love explooode” she gushes as Kaytranada’s undulating production laps at her feet. The entire time Banks’ voice sounds soaking wet, sliding from low purrs to lofty vocals with relative ease. One sex on the beach, please.
5. Jessy Lanza “Oh No”
On the ambient title track off Jessy Lanza’s debut, one imagines Lanza as a fey, gliding through the woods with gold in her wake. Her lover stands behind in the darkness realizing what they’ve lost, and how lovely it looks as it floats away in the night. The listener remains mystified by the simple production, a drum sequence and a chord change that add a layer of fog over the track. Lanza’s voice acts as the uncertain guide through the mist, realizing can’t she guide her lover to safety without bringing them closer to herself.
4. Skepta feat. Novelist, “Lyrics”
Some say that words can never hurt you: Skepta knows better. In “Lyrics,” he debilitates haters with verses instead of violence, a reminder that the tongue can wound the deepest. A set of high pitched voices egg on Skepta and Novelist from the background, as if they’re at a battle of their own. But he does it all tongue in-cheek, shouting out his mum right before threatening to “murk” the rest of the grime scene. The real challenge he makes is for you to take this diss track for what it is, “lyrics for lyrics, calm.” Words only have as much power as you’re willing to give them, and Skepta ensures that his are sharp enough to impale if you let them get too close.
3. Baauer feat. MIA & G-Dragon, “Temple”
Take two confident global stars, place them in hands of the beat maker behind “Harlem Shake” and what do you get? A wonderful, multicultural cult of personality. MIA is a living statue laying out her forest kingdom, while G-Dragon is the warrior who guards the ruins from deep within the foliage. Baauer tells their tale on a backdrop of eastern strings and a thumping drum, pulling more bridges together for a truly international sound.
The standout of the track is G-Dragon, who demands veneration in a rousing combo of English and Korean. The message always connects no matter what language he adopts, a testament to how music relays information where spoken word fails. That, coupled with Baauer’s industrial yet natural production, demonstrates the various ways music can be made in an age where cultures mix freely. It’s a resounding rebuff to Brexit mentality; instead of closing your doors, open them, and your mind, instead.
2. Kendrick Lamar, “Untitled 08 I 9.06.2014
Who better to reflect on the flip-side of fortune than the king who found his own? Kendrick Lamar finishes Untitled: Unmastered with more questions than answers, grappling with the complexities of being a successful black man in the 21st century America. The smooth production on “Untitled 08 I 09.06.14” moves like a fast walk, as if Lamar takes a new avenue of thought with each street he turns down, only to come back to the same question.
“Why so sad” he continuously asks, realizing the materials he’s accrued leave him blue and confused, and yet can’t find someone, even himself, to fully blame for his melancholy. By the third verse, Lamar lambastes himself; “Your projects ain’t shit, I live in a hut, bitch”, wrestling with the ‘privilege’ of his own problems in comparison to those living in third-world poverty. Yet Lamar recognizes the struggles he and many others like him faced in Compton still impacted their lives, regardless of how such struggles stack up against those suffered by others in the third-world. “Bitch I made my moves with shackled feet” is his closing statement, revealing that no matter what he feels he cannot change the factors he was born into. Who’s right & who’s wrong doesn’t really matter, because circumstance has us all walking in circles.
- RALPH “Cold To The Touch”
If Emma Frost and Carly Rae Jepsen raised a daughter together, she’d probably possess the frosty feelings of Canadian-based pop singer, RALPH. Nee Raffa Weyman, her voice frolics above the 80s beat similar to fellow Canadian songstress, Jepsen, but unlike Jepsen’s schoolgirl charm, she portrays a snow-capped siren at the mercy of her cold nature.
“Cold to the Touch” acts not an apology but an acknowledgment of Weyman’s unwillingness to be the woman you want. The fact she plays it off so coolly enhances its power: it’s a statement when a woman sheds the need to please another person, especially given our societal expectations of what a woman should be. And it absolutely revels in its own defiant disinterest. “Just tryna be honest, I’m not what you wanted,” she admits, but one can’t help feeling that she’s something we need.
Flume feat. Kučka “Numb & Getting Colder,” Kaytranada feat. Little Dragon “Bullets,” A$AP Ferg feat. Missy Elliot “Strive,” Luna “Free Somebody,” Lâpsley “Operator (He Doesn’t Call Me)”