Lots of people like to mope about the greats we done lost, and while that ain't really my thing, I'd be remiss if I didn't give shouts to the broke rapper Sean Price, who passed long before his time. RIP // moment of silence for a real dude.
Thank you. Check it - as a function of this brave new world, I spent most of the year just listening to old shit. There were, however, a handful of new joints that I really got into, so here they are in a list (Note: D'Angelo ain't here because he was my favorite from last year. Beach House released two nice records this year, but fuck'em they still ain't make the cut.):
But You Caint Use My Phone // Erykah Badu
|Highlights: "Cel U Lar Device", "Phone Down"|
Following the first two installments of her New Amerykah series and presumably preceding the last, But You Caint Use My Phone is spacier and more sparse than the warm, organic funk featured on the rest of her work during the Obama Age. The feel on this one is of an almost alien disconnect. It's cohesive throughout, though, and the almost throwaway quality of the production does have the effect of highlighting Badu's knack for developing hooks. To be sure, there are plenty of them on the tape, and its best are its simplest. In the relatively short amount of time since it dropped, I've had some combination of snippets from "Cel U Lar Device", "Mr. Telephone Man" and "Phone Down" wedged into my subconscious. Of those three standouts, the lattermost has to be my personal favorite if only because Badu's promise that she "can make you put ya phone down" sounds like an outright sexual boast in 2015 and is simultaneously the most clever insight regarding her telephone muse. Yet, as sublimly catchy as this record can be, Badu sounds pretty minimally invested the entire time, like she might have another 20 of these stored on her cloud service of choice. If so I'm trying to hear 'em, because truth be told "Dial'Afreaq" is about the only joint on this project I don't really vibe to. But I'm willing to give the piece a pass, because it's sandwiched between a couple quality features from a fake Drake and one from a real-life Andre 3K (the closer, "Hello") that is quite likely the mixtape's high water mark
The Epic / Kamasi Washington
|Highlights: "Re Run", "Rhythm Changes"|
I can say for sure, though, that Kamasi Washington's very appropriately titled debut is responsible for taking what was at best a mild curiosity and turning it into a fascination. The Epic is a great entry way to jazz because jazz is but one of its many components. It's an at times impossibly maximalist record stuffed to the gills with jazz, funk, soul, R&B, a touch of blues and a steady eye toward hip-hop. It's three hours long. It's everything at once, all the time. The emotional peaks to this record are intense, almost exhausting. The many come-downs are cushioned by the underlying everpresence of a 20-person choir likely commissioned to keep the thing from crash landing from exasperating heights. If I were reviewing it on Amazon as anything other than a novice I'd say this record reminds me of the scene in Interstellar where the supposedly inhabitable planet with mountains and water turns out to be the very unsuitable planet with rolling mountains of water, and it would make sense because I know what I'm talking about. But I don't, so: Kamasi Washington is a John Coltrane acolyte (say most reviews of this record written by professionals), so that is the most likely place you'll turn next. Then you on your way with probably little reason to turn back.
In Colour / Jaime xx
|Highlights: "Loud Places", "I Know There's Gonna Be"|
I consider this record in many of the same ways I did Darkside's Psychic, which narrowly missed my 2013 faves but only because I spent so much damn time avoiding it. With two years' hindsight in my favor, I recognize Psychic as possessing near unlimited listenability. I can say the same for In Colour, an album the praise of which I considered with measurable skepticism and the experience of which I put off for much longer than was acceptable because of some preconceived belief of self that stipulates I do not (must not) listen to electronic music, man. (Whatever, I blame EDM). Closemindedness the way it is, for both cases I'd queue up the first track, kill it a couple minutes in and call it an honest listen. Then being all high-and-mighty-af, self-assured of my own prejudices, I'd go out into the world saying it sucked, unknowing of the fact that an extra 30 seconds or so into "Gosh" was all I'd have needed to be hooked. That's me. That's what I do. That's my shit.
I'm sure it's the experience of discovery and inexperience with the genre, but In Colour feels a lot to me like Psychic's other-half. While both are meticulous in their mammoth sonic ambition and exploration, the Darkside record feels like it's in deliberate pursuit of a destination. It's like the workweek to Jaime xx's three-day weekend. From "Sleep Sound" on, In Colour feels like it could soundtrack those slowed, drug-fueled montages in rom-com movies where the protagonist is chasing the object of his affection through a crowded club and you're effectively watching euphoria happen from a first-person point of view with the music kinda canned in the background. I don't watch a lot of movies. Those might actually just be scenes from my dreams. Like I said I'm hungover. Just know the emotional peak of "Loud Places" and "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)" is gonna put you in a mood, whichever one you're looking for.
Multilove / Unknown Mortal Orchestra
|Highlights: "Can't Keep Checking My Phone", "Multilove"|
With Multilove, Unknown Mortal Orchestra sound genuinely inspired for perhaps the first time. And with good reason. The album details the dissolution of frontman Ruben Nielson's polyamorous relationship from previous year. While I ain't no expert on such arrangements, what I've seen on MTV's True Life leads me to believe they're pretty volatile and not for everyone. Take it from a dude that done been punched upside the domepiece when things been heated, I can't really imagine taking damage on multiple fronts. Neilson makes it sound about exactly how I'd imagined it would right from the jump, too. "Multilove checked into my heart and trashed it like a hotel room," dude croons over electric piano romp. Yeah, gonna take a hard pass on that. I fuck with the album, though. The band keeps it light and absolutely airtight on the very-singable/very-relatable "Can't Keep Checking My Phone". They bring it back down to more jazzy, subdued territory on "Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty" and "The World Is Crowded". (There's a pretty mean sax solo on the former that further reminds everyone the debt we owe to Dan Bejar for bringing it back.) It's a relatively short listen but only because any and all excess fat has been trimmed. I've listened to Multilove front-to-back more than any other record this year because of it. Recommended you do the same.
Summertime '06 / Vince Staples
|Highlights: "Lift Me Up", "Norf Norf", "Summertime"|
Because Summertime '06 kinda breezed its way to the role of Other Good Rap Record, there's a natural tendency to want to compare it to To Pimp A Butterfly. I really feel like Vince Staples' first full-length more than holds his own under that kind of scrutiny. In some respects he even prevails. Kendrick's magnum opus is an exercise in extremes - so many big, sweeping thoughts and so much damn music - whereas this record is decidedly not. It's rocking the same murky, mercurial beats that made "Blue Suede" and "Hands Up" so menacing. Because it's so absent anything extra, Staples often finds himself expressing in a couplet what Kendrick may expand on over a song or three. He's probably never been as sharp and concise as he is on effective opener "Lift Me Up" which is basically a collection of rare gems. "Fight between my conscience and the skin that's on my body. / I wanna fight the power but I need that new Ferrari." Yo that's like half that new Kendrick right there.
Elsewhere on the same track: "All these white folks chantin' when I ask them 'Where my niggas at?' ... Wonder if they know we know they won't go where we kick it at."
Elsewhere on the same track: "Uber driver in the cockpit look like Jeffrey Dahmer, but he lookin' at me crazy when we pull up to the projects."
Most of the references on Summertime '06 are hyper local and won't mean much to anyone that ain't from Long Beach (or, especially, the Norfside portion that Staples calls home). That's kind of the point. It's the story of a very specific time and place in Vince Staples' life (as evidenced by the title), and by namedropping localia sans footnotes, he's reminding you that you weren't there. Then he straight up tells you that you don't belong. Then when you think you've got a beat on the homie and start believing his flow gets a tad formulaic, he hits you with a no-bullshit ballad ("Summertime"). Don't underestimate the kid. He's just getting comfortable.
Griselda Ghost / Westside Gunn, Conway, Big Ghost
|Highlights: "Reaganomiks", "Rahbannga"|
You can't really consider this development outside the context of the broader New York City class war. Manhattan ain't been a place for the proletariat for some time. Brooklyn has been doomed for the same fate since the day white children of economic privilege felt safe enough to take the J across the Williamsburg Bridge. There's little reason to believe the same fate doesn't await Queens and the Bronx should DeBlasio maintain the status quo. Point is, you see the dudes humpin' it in the city's kitchens or whisking the mountains of trashbags from sidewalk to landfill-bound ferry.. those dudes don't live there. They commute in to toil and take care of the elites before slogging back home to some dump that devours more than half of their take-home (and likely feeds right back to their economic overlords). And if those dudes stake no claim to the city, neither do the real underlings. And y'all know rich fucks don't rap.
Griselda Ghost hearkens back to hip-hop's heyday in every best way. To the golden age when a 9.5-track album could rearrange the industry landscape the way a pre-prison Mike Tyson might rearrange your jawline. This shit the celebration of New York City as a warzone both literal and figurative. A callback to the days when America's largest metropolis was its murder capital, when the Donald Trumps and Michael Bloomburgs of the world used to share the same 11-mile island with grimy, vile, prolly violent cats like Conway and Westside Gunn. Back when you might go for a jog in Central Park and find yourself on the wrong side of a Law & Order cold open. Back before Guilliani used the cops and microeconomics to push the working and hustling classes to the outer outer boroughs and roll out the welcome mat for vanilla wafers like Taylor Swift and her glorification of all the worst aspects of NYC's homogenous hegemony.
Aesthetically speaking it's really hard to believe this project was born of this earth the year 2015. Like it'd been so long since I heard dudes tagteaming over the top of raw, uncut luxuriousness like this. I'd just thought the shit was illegal. This is a free Soundcloud release, so I dunno maybe it is. It's definitely NSFW (sample lyric: "Me and my brother brought the toughest to New York: Mason and Oakley / Snipe you through ya momma window, paint the upholstery" - damnnnnn). So much of this project is proudly immersed in that early-90s tough on crime kinda vibe and the environment that precipitated it. Big Ghost - who, I'll just say this right now, is by some unfathomable ability a better producer than he is a blogger - says it outright in the liner notes. Plus the artwork is a still from that time Reagan almost got murked, and the intro track is a drug war primer narrated by Freeway Rick Ross. It's for the young and the old alike.
Clocking in at a mere 20-minutes, this thing is at once an homage to the days when heatseekers like "Rahbannga" and "Brains on the Basquiat" were commonplace and a reminder that they still can and should be. Has anything actually gotten better since the days of Carhartts and Timberlands? Hip hop sure hasn't. A sea of fire emojis for this joint.
To Pimp A Butterfly / Kendrick Lamar
|All this shit the highlight to your life|
Look, there is a movement afoot. A nefarious movement, one most likely involving copious amounts of psychedelics that allow one to transport their mind/body/soul to another segment of the multiverse where it may be acceptable to pronounce any record besides To Pimp A Butterfly as tops of twentyfifteen. That segment of the multiverse is not the one we presently occupy, however, and so you must know if any of you out there try to pump up some other jam to this esteemed position, I'm going to punch your mouthhole. I'm just going to do it. If Kendrick Lamar ain't your best of, you're an idiot. If he ain't your fave, your taste is butt. That's end of discussion.
Look, let's all just be grateful, feel me? Kendrick made it easy for us. This shit was a wrap the second this beautiful, painfully important record popped up on Spotify. Why are people going out of their way to pretend otherwise to gin up the clickcount or posture like you got some great insights worth having. You ain't shit. We have so many other, better things about which we can argue. I mean there's a damn election next year and Donald Trump is gonna be on the ballot, yo. Save your energy. At least until we collectively suffer through the hate crime that will be watching the Grammy go to Taylor Swift.
Til then, let's all grab some beers and catch up. I'll let you talk all day about Bernie Sanders and why Currents was so good or whatever.
"Them Changes" / Thundercat
Stephen Bruner (aka Thundercat) has been a hired gun on so many solid releases in the past decade, including several present or referenced on this list. His ambling, nimble bass playing has an immediately recognizable style and sound that is at the same time both highly technical and easily palatable. On this year's The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam EP Thundercat sheds a lot of the pop and gloss of his first two solo full-lengths and opts instead for the kind of knotty groove reminiscent of his work with Brainfeeder trust Flying Lotus. The result is easily one of the strongest EP releases of the year. Probably my personal favorite. The centerpiece is "Them Changes" which is pretty easily the most accessible cut on the album. It might be the most straightforward track Thundercat has ever been involved with, really. It does flip the script at least a little, though, featuring a mostly airless, wordless chorus and a couple sugary, hook-laden verses where the only thing more savory than Thundercat's buttery vocals are the avant bass theatrics beneath. Try not to bob ya head along to it. Just try. For the full effect of Bruner's multi-talent, watch him shred his way through the track on KCRW.
"Dream Lover" / Destroyer
I'd never have taken a shot on Destroyer were it not for a couple iTunes gift cards I received around Christmastime 2011. I bought Kaputt, which was a record everyone seemed to love the shit out of but one I could never get myself to buy with my own money. Then I gave it a spin and wondered aloud whether what I was listening to could rightly be categorized as yacht rock. Why was there all this trumpet and saxophone and... flute(?!), and why did I like it as much as I did? Today, after devouring all of Dan Bejar's back catalog many times over, I can say that while there are a lot of old, good Destroyer albums (Destroyer's Rubies may be his best), Kaputt is far and away my favorite. There really isn't a situation wherein I'm not willing to put that one on. Coffee-fueled mornings of Facebook terrorism? Mid-summer barbecue? TSR holiday/War on Christmas party? Check, check, check.
The lead single off Destroyers follow-up LP is the only song that rekindles what made Kaputt so indelible. It also takes that formula to its logical endpoint. "Dream Lover" shuns the subdued use horns, the palm-muted guitars filling pockets in disco grooves, and Bejar's witty asides strung together into larger narratives that were so abundant on Kaputt. Instead it's louder, more bombastic and more electric. It opens with a saxophone wail so gaudy you'll be checking the cover of Poison Season for the E Street Band credit. Bejar enters and he's actually singing instead of sing-speaking, a distinction that is a lot more jarring than I thought it could be. Then the trumpet comes blaring into the fore and gdamn it's the greatest thing. There's so much sharing the mix (while somehow maintaining clarity) that I never even caught the electric guitar until I saw his performance of the track at Pitchfork Paris. The song really is almost too much fun, something the notoriously crotchety Bejar seems to notice before repeating, "Oh, shit, here comes the sun!", seeming to signal the end of the party only to have the band devolve into full-throttle grandiosity. So damn good.
"Depreston" / Courtney Barnett
Everyone loves Courtney Barnett. Be it her music, her personality or some combination of the two (since they tend to be very noticeably intertwined), it's easy to gravitate toward fandom. The best kind of cool is an unassuming cool, and Courtney Barnett exudes it in spades. She's out there strummin' without a pick, wearing t-shirts advertising her favorite bands, offering the offhand witicisms that have critics climbing over one another to laud her with comparisons to luminaries no less revered than Pavement's Stephen Malkmus. And then she just stays in character and shrugs them off, too.
Personally, I felt Barnett's Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit was a bit overrated as a whole. At least with respect to its location on a lot of year-end lists. It's good, but so much of its value is bound to what the songstress has to say, and much of the time the stakes is low or nonexistent (something Barnett seems to know and half-jokingly rebut with the record's title). There of course is inherent value of her canny observations - as on "Dead Fox" when she refers to a piece of roadkill as a "possum Jackson Pollack" - but other than a semi-recurring soft-criticism of corporatism's effect on the environment, a lot of it kinda just feels like wit for wit's sake. That's still present on "Depreston", but it's filtered through the stress of a first-time home purchase and the depressing, forced onset of adulthood. Whether it be her immediate resignation to the suburbs, or her eventual debate relative value of garage space usage, her cleverness feels like it has some weight behind it. She's confronted with her own mortality in the possessions and retrofits of the property's elderly owners. She repeats the refrain that she could tear it down and build something else for a cool half-a-mil, and it's a joke, sure, but it's the kind you tell to deflect. While this isn't the only down-tempo song on Sometimes I Sit and Think..., it's the only one where Courtney Barnett sounds genuinely downtrodden. Real Life will do that to you no matter how hard you try to shrug it off.
"Dimed Out" / Titus Andronicus
Titus Andronicus is not the band that recorded The Most Lamentable Tragedy. It's hard for people to hear that. It's harder still for them to accept it. But it's true. +@ are in their heart of hearts the band that put out Local Business. After stumbling into and executing to perfection as ambitious a concept as could have ever come by the hands of some scumbags from Jersey (The Monitor) Patrick Stickles & Co. stared down a world's worth of subsequent expectation, recoiled sharply and released a punk record. Because they are a punk rock band. I don't know why people are obsessed with the idea of punk operas or punk concept records etcetc. I guess because it seems like the least likely mash of style and ethos, but also the only one with the potential to actually materialize. But then you actually get them and they're bloated and didactic as can be with songs in suites. It's just unnecessary, especially given that, with time, records like Titus Andronicus' debut The Airing of Grievances emerge as their best. Literally pick any song from that record and listen straight through from there without having to give a shit about characters and whatnot. It's just a record. Titus is just a band.
"Dimed Out" is just a song. A simple, fast, direct punk anthem that doesn't peddle an ounce of bullshit. It coins its own rallying cry for the dudes doing damage in the pit. It reaffirms the bands belief system, one that wages war on the working world while refusing to accept anything less than maximized self-satisfaction. Lots of Titus Andronicus asskickers propagate pessimistic takes on the modern man in his modern world, but "Dimed Out" is damn near uplifting. It's the kind of thing you should listen to right before you finally go through with that long gestating plan to walk into your morning meeting, stare all your coworkers in the eye and yell as Titus yelled way back on their introductory track: "FUCK! YOU!"
Keep your chalice full, feel invincible. Bonus points for a quality lyric video.
"Genocide" / Dr. Dre (ft. Kendrick Lamar)
Ain't nothing perfect in life. The good Doctor's first release in the "new" millennium is far from perfect. His voice is noticeably gruff with age (though that didn't bother me). Shit still only available on whack ass Apple Music (can this be a crime already fuck). Easily worst of all there's a really irredeemable domestic violence skit that's an absolute vibe killer at the exact moment you forgot about Dre beating the shit out of women back in the day. The dope thing about Classic Dre records is that you didn't even need Dre. His own ghostwritten raps, those of collaborators always showing out on their A game, those of his featured proteges.. fuck all that. Yo, you can bump the instrumentals and be set. Can't really say the same for Compton. It ain't the long-awaited Detox everyone wanted to will into existence with perennial TBA release dates. This record only exists because motherfuckers just wouldn't leave the dude alone until it did. Considering the fact that it was tied to the release of the NWA biopic, and especially accepting as truth that the sterile, skant material supposedly marked for Detox was really bad anyway, we should count our blessings that Compton ain't outright garbage.
"Genocide" got me 'bout to bite my tongue, though. My gawd. Like if Dre disappeared for a decade plus and returned with only this track - fuck it, if he returned with only this beat - I'd be like "nah, man I totally get it / all is forgiven". Because this monster is on a whole 'nother level. It's a couple seconds of hot rod burnout squelch, and then the thing just absolutely melts. I mean it's molten lava. I mean it sounds like if Dali had painted a strip mall landscape off Crenshaw. That's about the only way I can think to put it. Andre and Kendrick rap well enough over the top, but honestly they could have thrown my ass on the mic and it'd have made no difference. For serious, and I mean this, if all the rest of the tracks on Compton were just Dre smokin' herb and counting his billions of dollars one-by-one, I'd probably still call it a classic.
(All you get is the beat because Dre/Apple still about some hoe shit at the end of the day)
"Cel U Lar Device" / Erykah Badu
It may sound unbelievable, but I first heard "Hotline Bling" as "Cel U Lar Device". As inescapable as Drake's hit was - and especially as ubiquitous as it became once its video made it every meme (still my fave) - I somehow managed to avoid it until after I caught Erykah Badu's take. After that, yeah, I heard it fucking everywhere. It's good and as a h8r that takes a lot for me to say. It's good, but I still prefer Badu's version. I ain't gonna pretend there's a whole lot of difference between the two or that my opinion comes from anywhere but bias. Sure, it could be because Drake outcheya sounding like a crybaby and Erykah sounds like the kind of chick that would hit the scene with her girls and document the whole thing on IG just to make him cry. But at the end of the day it's probs just because I'm still a h8r ;).
"Alright" / Kendrick Lamar
See above or see below. There are probably at least five songs on To Pimp A Butterfly that could rightly be considered better than "Alright". None of that matters. Plenty has been written about that album and this track on this blog and many others. None of it matters. No argument for its position as song of the year matters more than the fact that "Alright" became the most important song on the most important album of 2015 because the people it was written for chose to make it so. A friend of mine that's much smarter than I am once rightly said in a cataclysmically drunken state that we are so fortunate to live in a time where we don't have to learn about the plight of black people from Mark Twain. Extrapolate that outward. Minorities in America know better than anyone the problems facing their communities, and they can write and speak for themselves. They can criticize for themselves.
It's the job of white people to listen. So stfu and peep the best video of the year. And listen:
(This post brought to you by all the Hillary Clinton SuperPACs. Hillary 2016!!!)