It’,s not as if I made some principled choice not to listen to it. It’,s just that Beyoncé, released “, Formation ”, on a Saturday, and then performed it at the Super Bowl on Sunday, and as of Monday I hadn’,t gotten around to it, for reasons that are incredibly uninteresting: I happened to have been doing other stuff, which seems as if it’,s probably among my rights as an American. Rapper common beard styles.
By then, though, the song had become such an intense focus of discussion at the digital water cooler —, to the point where it felt difficult to turn on a computer without someone’,s views about “,Formation”, and its various sociopolitical valences reaching out and grasping for your throat —, that my not having heard it acquired some kind of political dimension. A decision had to be made. Either I needed to dutifully consume this object of conversation and develop an opinion about it or I needed to develop a defense of why I hadn’,t yet done so.
The point being: Here, for a moment, was music that actively dragooned me into paying attention to it, based not primarily on sound, performance or composition, but on the rolling snowball of perspectives, close readings and ideological disputes accreting around it.
It’,s songs that do this now, individual songs and mass opinion, working in tandem. This wasn’,t always the case. We’,ve spent the past century or so trying, in creaky and convulsive ways, to figure out what music is even for, and how we intend to use it. When and where will we listen to it? Will other people be there? Should people own music? Who should write it —, the performers? What’,s a normal amount to release at once? How will we find out about it? Will there be pictures? Are you absolutely, definitely sure we have to pay money for it? For the moment, there’,s only one answer to these questions that seems to connect strangers in a truly monocultural way: We shall gather in huge, fawning riots around towering pop singles to trade politicized takes on them.
It’,s not the worst thing. One of the great tricks of pop music is that no matter how much we like to imagine it’,s about musicians expressing themselves, it tends to be more useful as a way for listeners to figure out their own identities: Each song lets us try on a new way of being in the world. For a long while, the idea was that young people could use music to shape their style —, their clothes, their haircuts, their sense of cool. Then came high-speed Internet and a touching enthusiasm for the idea of playlists: With so much of the world’,s music at our fingertips, we’,d express our intelligence and taste by playing D.J. and curator, sorting through songs to assemble our own reflections. That didn’,t last, either. Showing off your eclectic, handpicked treasures? This has become such a common online performance that there’,s no one left in the audience.
So these days it’,s the song, and the scale of the event surrounding it. One song, one digestible thing, with millions of people standing in a circle around it, pointing and shouting and writing about it, conducting one gigantic online undergraduate seminar about it, metabolizing it on roughly the same level that cable-news debate shows metabolize a political speech. This is an ever-greater share of the public life of music. A song like “,Formation”, isn’,t set up as a story, or an interior monologue —, it’,s set up as Beyoncé,, the public celebrity whose biography you already know, addressing the world, like an op-ed with drums. Thus can we argue not about what the song says to us, but about what we think the rest of the world needs to be told, and whether Beyoncé, is telling it right. What do we make of her dancers’, Black Panther styling? Is she “,allowed”, to work with beloved artists from New Orleans or use references to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? How does the song sound through a feminist lens, through a queer lens, through an anticapitalist one? Can we have a conversation about her daughter’,s hair, and also about police violence? People talked about these things until, three days in, I’,d been quoted every last line of a song I still hadn’,t heard.
We’,ve found a way to collect around the handful of songs we all have in common, yoke them with our opinions and make a (mostly) joyful noise. I don’,t begrudge Beyoncé, or the world one second of it. But it does throw into stark relief the things we have a much harder time talking about, at least with strangers: the way songs make us feel, the things we discover in them that aren’,t already on other people’,s minds, the obscure pleasures we’,re willing to risk trying to explain from the darkness. The ever-larger private life of music. How do we talk about that? ♦,
Nitsuh Abebe is a story editor for the magazine and a former music critic for New York magazine and Pitchfork.
The second single from “,Purpose,”, Justin Bieber’,s fourth studio album, “,Sorry”, is an infectious confection —, a Dorito for your ears. There are two official videos for it: a dance video that stars a diverse cast of young women who seem to have been dressed by magpies let loose in a Delia’,s catalog, and a lyric video, which is sort of like that footage they use in karaoke bars, but slightly more polished. Between the two, there have been well over 1 billion views. At no point in either does the Canadian heartthrob appear. He simply doesn’,t need to.
In previous years, by contrast, he was everywhere. He had transformed in the public eye from a teen-star brat to a grown-up brat, with the D.U.I. arrest to prove it. He had become a hollow hashtag of a person. When he visited the Anne Frank house, he wrote in the guest book that he sincerely hoped Frank would have been a “,Belieber.”, Not only did he come off like Joffrey Baratheon with a Hitler-youth haircut, his callow bad-boy affectation reeked of a keening need to be cool —, anathema, as any teenager can tell you, to actually being cool. But the backlash to the backlash is here, and much like both videos, it has less to do with Bieber —, the actual Bieber —, than you’,d expect.
Because get this: The most inspired part of Justin Bieber’,s reinvention is its erasure of all previously identifiable Bieberish elements. “,Sorry”, is unlike anything Bieber has made in the past. It has been classified as “,tropical house”, and “,dancehall,”, but everyone seems to agree on one thing: It’,s a banger. The song is about a relationship Bieber has screwed up, and in the lead-in to the hook, he asks, “,Is it too late now to say sorry?/’,Cause I’,m missing more than just your body.”, But by the time the actual chorus arrives, Bieber lets the production take over: All you hear is a cooing arpeggio that feels like a gentle breeze on your brain. It’,s the best part of the song, and Bieber seems to appear in it only as a sample.
Bieber has taste and pull, which is as important to making quality pop as actual talent. And “,Sorry”, is a savvy suspension of ego in the service of the hit-making machine. Say what you will about the decisions surrounding his very public personal life, in his sonic shopping spree for “,Purpose,”, after a year of terrible decisions, Bieber made good. He became besties with Diplo and Skrillex —, together “,Jack Ü,”, —, and they made an excellent song together, “, Where Are Ü, Now,”, irksome umlauts notwithstanding. Skrillex joined him again for “,Sorry,”, but his touch is notably lighter there: zero wobbly bass lines, not even one fist pump.
This song is a triumph of music over narrative in the hellscape that is the pop music-industrial complex. Consider, for example, the confusing, protracted drama of Kanye West’,s latest album release, which involved a huge fashion show, several tweet storms and title changes all leading up to “,The Life of Pablo,”, a record that’,s being finished in real time on a platform no one wants to pay for.
So what is it, exactly, that we want from Bieber? Likability? Yes, Justin Bieber is a contrivance. Yes, Justin Bieber’,s lyrics are insipid —, worse still, disingenuous. Yes, his tattoos stink. Yes, he’,s lousy at skateboarding. But what does any of this actually matter? In case you missed it, Bieber won. You used to hate him, and now it’,s pointless. So who’,s sorry now? ♦,
There’,s being locked out of heaven. Then there’,s being locked out of “,Hamilton.”, And with all due respect to Bruno Mars (and God), being locked out of “,Hamilton”, is crueller —, as farce, but still. The musical is sold out —, for, like, ever. And the resale market has achieved spit-take-level hilarity. To wit, this Craigslist ad: “,I bought tickets for the wrong night. These are legitimate ‘,Hamilton’, tickets for Friday March 11, 8 p.m., purchased though Ticketmaster. I just want to get back what I paid for them. Great seats! $933.80 per ticket.”,
Back on Earth, there’,s the cast album: a 46-number souvenir for an experience most of us won’,t be experiencing. At less than $20 on iTunes, however, where it has been in and out of the Top 10 for months, and Amazon, this is a more-than-adequate substitute for the budget-conscious. It’,s a gateway to obsession. To know someone who has this album is to know someone who needs a restraining order.
This is to say that the cast recording is its own experience. In an age in which the album is notional —, musical Tupperware —, this one works as a complete concept and doubles as its own playlist, crammed with jams. There are King George’,s long-distance interludes, in which, under the mostly brown circumstances, white power sings the same, out-of-style song over and over and over. Meanwhile, the first five numbers alone —, “,Alexander Hamilton”,, “,Aaron Burr, Sir”,, “,My Shot”,, “,The Story of Tonight”,, and “,The Schuyler Sisters”, —, get halfway to a greatest-hits collection. Pilfered dabs of R.&,B., show tunes, rock and rap recombine until identifying whatever you think you’,re hearing becomes its own sport.
The album’,s got a lot of jams, but not a jam for me. In a given month, one or another will keep making a case for itself. Right now, it’,s Alexander Hamilton’,s extramarital seduction ballad, “,Say No to This,”, which he shares with a young stranger named Maria Reynolds (and, eventually, her husband, James). Hamilton is seduced by Mrs. Reynolds and her bogus sob story and, for three years and with many blackmail payments to James, they tryst. Scandal ensues. The song lays out the particulars of the seduction with the same wit that rhymes “,Burr, sir”, and “,bursar”, in an earlier song. It also does the remixing of musical styles and emotional tones that is part of the show’,s overall artistic achievement. But instead of political brilliance and straight-up swagger, the subject is sex. Not only is this song funny, it’,s also kind of hot.
The rapping that Hamilton, played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’,s creator, does at the start of the song sounds like some sweaty couplet from LL Cool J’,s “,I Need Love”, from 1987. The “,nos”, from the ensemble echo the “,whoas”, and “,heys”, from Naughty by Nature’,s “,Hip-Hop Hooray,”, from 1993. When Miranda gets to the chorus (“,Lord, show me how to/Say no to this/I don’,t know how to/Say no to this/But my God, she looks so helpless/And her body’,s saying, ‘,hell, yes’,”,) handclaps and guitar licks gently join the percussion and bass line. And suddenly all I can hear is Champaign’,s 1981 love jam, “,How ’,Bout Us.”, Pairing those Greek-chorus “,nos”, with the ecstatic sounds of a harp as Hamilton and Mrs. Reynolds (presumably) do it generates moral tension. The bass line is where “,Say No to This”, gets both its erogenous nerve and antique heat. Your head spins as the song proceeds to combine sounds from a half-dozen old-school districts.
When some people rave about “,Hamilton”, as a “,hip-hop musical,”, they’,re applauding the expansion of their taste —, of their artistic tolerance —, and obscuring Miranda’,s voracious catholicity. The show is a hip-hop-era musical. Not a wall of sound, but a sponge. The songs offer the illusion of lawlessness. In any number, anything appears to go, despite there being a formal rigor holding it all together. The composers begin with a keen awareness of show-tune mechanics, pop structure and rap flow. That awareness is then taken to the same garage that tricks out cars for “,Fast &, Furious”, movies. When the show’,s house of mirrors is at its most complex —, and gleamingly Windexed —, it’,s even sampling from itself, cleverly calling back to riffs in previous numbers. “,Hamilton”, is made by people crazy about connecting all kinds of pasts. Our obsession is facilitated by their obsessiveness.
A couple of months ago a friend was telling me that his daughters were part of the cast-recording cult. They hadn’,t yet seen the show, but they were desperate to know what happens between the songs. Oh, that: the not knowing. When I was 17, my “,Hamilton”, was “,Rent.”, (The first time I heard Miranda sing I thought, That’,s Mark!) I couldn’,t afford to see “,Rent.”, But it had a cast recording so vivid that I never felt I needed to. That’,s bitter comfort for anyone dying to see “,Hamilton,”, but until they get a “,yes,”, it’,s a heavenly substitute, hearing Hamilton fail at saying “,no.”, ♦,
Wesley Morris is a staff writer for the magazine.
Mark Kozelek, who used to front an epically moody band called Red House Painters, is known as something of a jerk. Onstage, when not singing in a voice like crumbling granite, he says things that usually end up offending somebody: hipsters, women, journalists, the band on the next stage. But on the records he now releases as Sun Kil Moon, he examines his life with plain-spoken brutality, saving the most cutting remarks for himself.
“,I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same”, occupies more than 10 minutes of “,Benji,”, the album he released in 2014. It begins as the story of the first time Kozelek saw the Led Zeppelin concert film “,The Song Remains the Same”, as a child, it ends as a song about nostalgia, chronic sadness and the way people drop in and out of your life. One moment Kozelek’,s admiring the electric piano on “,No Quarter”,, the next, he’,s sharing memories of being a “,very melancholic kid,”, or apologizing for the time he punched a classmate in school. The way he writes isn’,t so different from Karl Ove Knausgaard, also in his late 40s, both men spent long careers skirting the spotlight, then found new renown when they started excavating their own biographies for details.
So on “,Benji,”, Kozelek sings about his relationship with his parents, about buying lampshades, about death. A second cousin’,s death sets him thinking about family, James Gandolfini’,s sets him thinking about his prostate troubles. He approaches each topic as if flipping through a disorganized photo album, and the more insular and lived-in the details, the more enthralling they seem. At the end of “,I Watched the Film...,”, he says he’,s headed to Santa Fe to visit a friend he hasn’,t seen in 15 years. Close Googlers can deduce that friend must be Ivo Watts-Russell, who signed Red House Painters to his 4AD label back in 1992, Kozelek, grave and grateful, says he’,s going to New Mexico just to say thank you. ♦,
Sam Hockley-Smith is a writer and the deputy editor at Victory Journal.
L ate-night-television tapings attract a certain type of crowd: tourists in the mood for an uncomplicated thrill after a day at Universal Studios and Madame Tussauds. On a rainy January night in Los Angeles, the turnout at “,Jimmy Kimmel Live!”, was no exception. The overlap between the audience and the fan base for the musical guest —, the Internet, a six-piece band of black alt-kids playing retro-futuristic R.&,B. —, seemed to be vanishingly narrow. If anything, the crowd looked as if they’,d be right at home seeing Jimmy Buffett. But as the Internet cannonballed into its first song, “,Get Away,”, a thumping anthem about mollifying an unhappy girlfriend, the audience members threw up their hands and bounced along to the beat.
The women in attendance seemed especially mesmerized by Sydney Bennett —, better known as Syd tha Kyd —, the frontwoman, whose Tiger Beat sex appeal gave her performance a depth charge. Bennett, 23, brown-skinned with a blond-tinged Mohawk, has the swayback stance of an adolescent skater and dresses like one too: On the “,Kimmel”, set, she wore black vans, a black T-shirt and black jeans low on her hips. As she sang, she roamed across each quadrant of the small stage, staring deep into the throng, as if to find out whether her crush had bothered to make an appearance at the show. To create her stage presence, Bennett studied the R.&,B. singer D’,Angelo, whose 2000 video for “,Untitled (How Does It Feel)”, features nothing but his extremely defined and extremely nude upper body dripping with sweat for four and a half minutes. It showed. Bennett flirted with the crowd, peeking at them through her heavily lashed eyes, shooting sly smiles at fans and gently lifting her chin to acknowledge those she knew —, among them, her mom, Janel, and her godmother, Sheryl.
Graeme Mitchell for The New York Times
The TV appearance was a rarity for the members of the Internet, who, as their name suggests, live online and work from home. Two of the band’,s three albums were created and recorded almost entirely at the house where Bennett lives with her parents in L.A.’,s Mid-City neighborhood. But their most recent record, last year’,s “,Ego Death,”, caught the attention of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and it was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Urban Contemporary Album category. (Past nominees in the category include Frank Ocean, Rihanna and Beyoncé,.) The “,Kimmel”, performance was a dip into mainstream media that the Internet has largely succeeded without.
The band’,s name itself hints at an irreversible and inevitable shift in the way music works. For decades, the music industry fancied itself an apparatus for tastemaking, but as technology has made labels’, role less relevant, that has ceased to be the case. Listeners decide what’,s popular now, and record labels have to find a way to attach themselves to it. Aside from a few big-name acts, most artists are doomed to languish in relative obscurity with middling profits. This is usually seen as a tragedy —, the death of a musical middle class —, but it has also presented an opportunity for artists to avoid the suffocating effects of the label machine. And so the Internet has carved out an entirely new corner of R.&,B., thanks mostly to Bennett: an androgyne who sings seductive incantations about falling in and out of love with women.
After the performance, a small constellation of cousins, little sisters and girlfriends milled about, snacking on doughnuts in the greenroom and helping the band pack up. After the equipment was loaded into a caravan of modest sedans and S.U.V.s, the band stood in a circle behind the studio, and someone produced a celebratory blunt. As the smoke drifted overhead, the conversation turned to the next day.
The group needed to practice for the first stop on their upcoming tour, which would start a few days later in Japan. Jameel Bruner, who plays the keyboard, wouldn’,t be able to come until he was done with his shift at Amoeba Music, where he works as a clerk. There was drama to discuss, too. The 17-year-old guitar player, Steve Lacy, had been photographed smoking weed, and someone had texted the picture to his mother, who was not happy. Despite the chilly El Niñ,o air, the band lingered, seeming reluctant to leave and break the spell of the evening. They eventually agreed to regroup at their home base, Bennett’,s house, to make sandwiches, catch their performance on “,Kimmel,”, smoke again and, eventually, crash.
The band’,s name started out as a joke, while Bennett was still a member of Odd Future, the unruly hip-hop collective that caused a frenzy in the music industry when they broke out six years ago. In 2011, a journalist interviewing the crew asked one member, Vyron Turner (who goes by Left Brain), where he was from. “,He was like: ‘,I hate when people ask me that,’,”, Bennett recalls. “,‘,I’,m going to start saying I’,m from the Internet.’,”, The idea cracked her up and eventually inspired the name of the side project she would chip away at in her off hours.
Turner may have been reacting to the banality of the question, but his answer also illuminated a changing dynamic for rap, which has historically been categorized by regional sounds. People Turner and Bennett’,s age are defined by a completely different geography, the social networks and websites they spend their time on. Odd Future was the epitome of this new statelessness: They were neither engineered by a label nor hometown heroes, but something wildly different.
Sydney Bennett, known as Syd tha Kyd, in her home studio in Mid-City. Graeme Mitchell for The New York Times
Odd Future dominated many conversations about pop culture and the future of music by the end of 2010. They had released all of their early work —, a barrage of clever mixtapes, striking artwork and bizarro music videos —, for free on Tumblr and YouTube. Their sound was prodigious. And not only was their music different but they also looked different too, a bunch of black weirdos who skated in their free time and moshed onstage.
The frenzy surrounding Odd Future reached its peak in 2011: Cartoon Network gave the group their own television show, plans for an Odd Future retail shop were in the works. Labels were desperate to sign deals with the group, and Sony Music Entertainment succeeded. The crew had the upper hand and persuaded the label to give them their own imprint, and to award each member a cushy solo record deal. Bennett, the D.J., got one, too.
Music came naturally to Bennett. Though her parents are 9-to-5 people —, Janel is a city clerk and her father, Howard, owns a manufacturing company based in China —, her uncle, Mikey Bennett, is a producer in Jamaica. (He co-wrote Shabba Ranks’,s 1993 hit “,Mr. Loverman.”,) When she was young, the family took vacations to the island, and Bennett hung out in the studio and watched her uncle work. “,At some point, I started listening to music a little differently,”, Bennett said. “,Rather than being like, Yo, this is dope —, who made this? it started being like, I wish I made this.”,
When she was 16, her parents let her transform their guesthouse into a studio, where she worked on her own songs and recorded local musicians. In high school, she took music-technology classes and piano lessons, at night, she devoured beat-making tutorials and messed around with music software. She downloaded tracks from LimeWire (a file-sharing network like Napster) and remixed them using Pro Tools and GarageBand. She didn’,t need much capital to be a producer, just good Google skills and a wealth of persistence and patience.
Bennett gravitated toward artists who had pioneered brand-new sounds: The sonic spaciness of Missy Elliott, the stanky soul of Erykah Badu and the acid jazz of Jamiroquai. Pharrell Williams, the original black skater weirdo, is her patron saint. And like most kids interested in music and living in Los Angeles in the mid-2000s, Bennett knew about a teenager named Tyler Okonma who called himself Tyler, the Creator. He had a sizable following on MySpace, where he released his music. “,His production drew me in,”, she told me. “,It didn’,t sound like what everyone was making —, it was different and hot.”, Bennett noticed that one of the people at the top of his friend list was a kid named Matt Martin (who goes by Matt Martians). She browsed through his page, listening to the songs he posted, too. She admired his ability to create deeply complex soundscapes, and she eventually messaged him, seeking advice on ways to advance her own style.
The two became friends, trading feedback on songs, which put her into Okonma’,s orbit. And when Okonma needed a place to record the early Odd Future mixtapes, Bennett offered up her home studio. She produced some of their early tracks and eventually became the group’,s D.J. In old footage of early Odd Future shows, Bennett plays songs from a laptop on a table at the back of the stage. Tomboyish, in a muscle tee and a short haircut, she crackles with the manic energy that Odd Future shows were famous for. She was generally indistinguishable from the boys in the group.
The Internet rehearsing with a high-school marching-band drummer, second from left — including, left to right, Matt Martin, Steve Lacy, Jameel Bruner, Christopher A. Smith, Sydney Bennett and Patrick Paige II — before the band’s appearance on ‘‘Jimmy Kimmel Live!’’ in January. Graeme Mitchell for The New York Times
From the beginning, Odd Future was meant to be a galaxy of loosely knit projects, the whole point was for the members to collaborate and spin off solo efforts. Christian Clancy, one of the group’,s managers, had also been a marketing executive at Interscope Records, and around 2011 he took notice of Bennett and Martin’,s tight friendship and encouraged them to start recording together. After all, they liked the same sounds: jazz, old-school slow jams, neo-soul. So they began experimenting, and these experiments would eventually lead to the formation of the Internet.
Odd Future was a rare example of a viral sensation with lasting power, the music industry is rife with the ghosts of web talents who couldn’,t be repackaged as megastars. The terms of the Internet’,s deal with Sony “,allowed us to shape ourselves,”, Bennett says. The band is artistically cocooned, trying to create, as she sees it, an entirely new style of R.&,B., one that includes all types of desire. “,It wasn’,t a conscious thing,”, she emphasizes. “,I just like women.”,
It was always an open secret that Bennett was a lesbian, and the indirect directness of her sexuality added to Odd Future’,s wellspring of contradictions. It wasn’,t a big deal because, well, it wasn’,t a big deal. But Bennett frequently found herself having to defend her inclusion in the group because Okonma’,s lyrics were laced with homophobic slurs and rape jokes, and her presence was interpreted as tacit approval. Bennett thought this was a bit unfair given that, as the D.J., she had the least to do with the lyrical content. “,When I first heard his lyrics, I was as shocked as everyone else,”, she told me. “,I kept listening. I looked up to him. He was a very artistic guy, and I saw past the few words that he chose to use, and I never really felt any kind of way about it.”,
In a sense, she says, Odd Future’,s lack of sensitivity helped prepare her for a life in the public eye —, even if it made her a controversial figure. “,The gay community hated me for being part of Odd Future,”, Bennett says. “,They thought Odd Future was homophobic because they tend to use homophobic slang, and they were like: ‘,How can you work for and support homophobes?’, But they aren’,t homophobic, they just don’,t really care whether you’,re offended or not.”,
Bennett personally related to the themes that lent Okonma’,s music its emotional gravity: alienation, isolation, loneliness. She felt they shared a connection, one born of “,not being a typical black kid or even a popular kid.”, But eventually the hypermasculinity and caustic sense of humor wore on Bennett, who is naturally low-key. She made tearful calls to her mother from the road, wondering aloud whether she should quit. Bennett also struggled with depression, worsened by the stress of touring and feeling disconnected from her family and her girlfriend at the time. She says that no one in the group —, other than Martin —, seemed to care. “,I couldn’,t talk to any of them about it,”, she says. “,We weren’,t all that close, and they never seemed to want to hear it.”,
Not long after, Bennett began training her little brother, Travis —, who goes by Taco —, to take her place as Odd Future’,s D.J. Her musical experiments with Martin had begun to congeal into the core of their first album, “,Purple Naked Ladies,”, an amorphous but promising collection of experimental jam sessions and fuzzed-out, vibey tracks. One morning while Odd Future was on tour, when the group was watching the sun crest over a beach in Australia, Bennett broke the news that she was leaving. She says it was not well received. It felt like a divorce, like a family —, however dysfunctional —, falling apart.
“,They weren’,t happy about it,”, she says. “,I was their get-out-of-jail-free card. It’,s easy to say they aren’,t homophobic because Syd is there.”,
Bennett in her basement home recording studio, where she records most of her songs. Graeme Mitchell for The New York Times
She felt ostracized by the band for a while, but a few years after the fallout, any lingering resentment or hurt feelings appear to have faded. “,She went with her gut, and it worked out,”, Okonma says. Okonma compared the space Bennett occupies now to Lauryn Hill at her peak. “,During that time, if you were a female rapper, you were either wearing boy boxers or you had your [expletive] out on stage,”, he says. With Hill, “,you had a girl who wasn’,t doing either, smart, could rap and was musically inclined. Syd’,s more like that. She’,s just being her.”, After the Grammy nomination for “,Ego Death”, was announced, Okonma was among the first people to text Bennett his congratulations.
Bennett’,s exit came at a time when gender norms were blurring. Artists now feel more emboldened to hint at sexual fluidity, it’,s edgy, if not outright trendy. Musicians like Wiz Khalifa and Jaden Smith have been photographed wearing skirts and dresses. Angel Haze and Shamir have said they’,re genderqueer. But being openly gay can still feel especially difficult in the world of hip-hop and R.&,B., where artists who are suspected of being closeted can face harsher scrutiny. Lesbianism is often fetishized, made into a hypersexualized performance. While Young Thug can get away with wearing nail polish, female artists who give off an even slightly masculine air, like the rapper Dej Loaf, are hounded about their orientation.
Minya Oh, the hip-hop journalist who goes by Miss Info, thinks Bennett has benefited from upheaval in the industry. “,I’,m sure that on some level of the major-label and old-establishment industry, there are execs and agents who think homosexuality is a liability,”, she says. On the other hand, she adds, “,there are more and more handlers and mentors and facilitators who will see a new artist who is gay as either an opportunity to tap into a new market or, at worst, just a talking point.”, But even more important than all that, Oh says, is that artists like Bennett may not even have to pander to the mainstream anymore: “,As fragmented as music audiences are these days, it would be difficult to alienate fans who are already bunched into nomad tribes.”,
If anything, Bennett seems to have attracted an audience that appreciates the way her onstage presence transcends any particular gender. “,If you think I’,m a young boy singing these songs, dope,”, she says. “,Run with that.”, As Martin put it: “,I’,d rather try it and fail than have Syd singing about dudes or something.”, At that, Bennett giggled and sang out: “,Hell, no!”,
Left to right: Christopher A. Smith, the Internet’s drummer, Bennett, and Tyrone McKinley. Bennett’s house serves as a home base for the band and extended circle of friends. Graeme Mitchell for The New York Times
During the handful of times we met, I repeatedly tried to talk to Bennett about the importance of her visibility as a gay singer. And every time, she seemed uneasy with the idea that she was a symbol. But she can’,t avoid it —, there is virtually no one else like her in the public eye. The last time I saw her, we were having breakfast at the Hotel Hacienda Cocoyoc in Cocoyoc, Mexico, a few hours before the Internet was scheduled to play a local festival in a forest, and I picked at the topic again. Did she see herself as symbolic of something larger than herself?
Bennett’,s outward manner is so nonchalant and mellow it can start to seem like an affectation, but as soon as the words left my mouth, Bennett put down her forkful of pancake and slid me a sideways look, the kind you give someone when your patience is wearing thin but you still feel obligated to be polite.
“,Maybe I just look at things differently,”, she said to me, speaking slowly, as one might to a child who is having trouble absorbing a set of simple instructions. “,I never really thought it was a thing. You know? Like I didn’,t think it would be this big of a deal.”, I agreed that it wasn’,t and said I was simply in awe of how openly she lives her life at such a young age, when many women I know —, including me —, came to terms with their sexuality much later in life. The cloud lifted. Now we saw each other clearly.
The Internet —, the network —, has a way of normalizing fringe ideas, marginalized identities and emerging artists that old media tends to ignore. It has done such a good job, you could argue, that people like Bennett —, black, queer and weird —, can exist without the burden of having to represent something larger. Bennett will never be something she’,s not. She’,s not looking for validation from record labels, or even really from audiences. Later that night, as thousands of Mexican teenagers rushed the stage, singing along in English and screaming her name, Bennett looked completely at home, and completely herself. ♦,
Jenna Wortham is a staff writer for the magazine.
How does a song work? What does it actually do? It doesn’,t instruct, exactly, or teach, necessarily. A song, I’,d say, causes the listener to assume a certain stance. Through some intersection of melody/lyrics/arrangement, it causes a shadow-being within us to get a certain expression on its face and fall into a certain posture. (Argent’,s “,Hold Your Head Up,”, for example, would cause my 1970s teenage self to assume a, well, Thor-like posture: stoic, windswept, capable of enduring any hardship while, you know, holding my head up.)
In my favorite songs, this stance-causation is essentially moral-ethical —, it makes me feel more able to go out and live. In the current bombastic and frightening political moment, I find myself listening obsessively to Wilco’,s 12-minute opus, “,One Sunday Morning,”, which induces in me, reliably, a suite of feelings I might describe as patient quiet-mindedness + firm resolve to love better, and serves as an antidote to the harshness of the moment, a reminder that, with enough patience and fellow-feeling, things can sometimes prove workable between people, even if they disagree.
Jeff Tweedy (left) and members of Wilco in 2004. Michael Schmelling
How does the song accomplish this? Was that the intention? I’,m not sure. Like much of Wilco’,s work, it’,s fundamentally a damned good popular song (simple chords, compelling melody), rendered symphonic by a process by which the song, seemingly rebelling against its own simplicity, seems to be seeking higher levels of emotionality via sonic complexity. This led me to assume the song had to be a result of weeks of arranging. But reportedly the band recorded it in one take, learning it from the songwriter Jeff Tweedy as the tape rolled. The song starts with a catchy eight-note guitar riff, to which it keeps returning, like a well-intentioned guy steering back to his mantra. Via inventive instrumental fills and a false ending (from which it rejuvenates with renewed purpose), it manages the strange task of seeming contemplative while escalating like crazy. It puts me in mind of a group of lifelong pals on a front porch, trying to musically solve some existential problem they can’,t quite articulate.
What does the song mean? Well, a great song means beyond simple sense. It means by how it sounds. The lyrics, already beautiful —, Jeff Tweedy is one of the great conversational poets of our time —, are made additionally beautiful (are made “,song-beautiful”,) by the way Tweedy sings them. His voice is that of a good friend, singing the story of some strange trip from which he’,s just returned: self-effacing, dear —, a wry voice, rich with love for the world. The trip cost him something but was so deep that he has to share it. The song is, yes, O.K., “,about”, a father and a son, “,about”, religious belief —, but really, what it’,s “,about”, is the way it sounds, and the way it keeps joyfully overflowing the formal banks it keeps spontaneously making for itself.
The effect of all of this on the listener —, this listener anyway —, is transformative. Listening to “,One Sunday Morning”, (every time) fixes me —, like some sort of aural medicine. I feel a positive alteration in my body and mind: a renewed sense of humility at the sadness of the world, and a corresponding resolve to keep trying to be better, freshly reminded of the stakes of being alive, and of the fact that there are, at my disposal, more positive resources than I am currently employing. In this, “,One Sunday Morning”, serves, for me, as a reliable 12-minute prayer. ♦,
George Saunders is the author of the story collection “,Tenth of December.”,
At first, I thought my MP3 must have been corrupted. There’,s a springy, up-tempo beat that kicks off “,’,06,”, the last track on Vince Staples’,s 2015 debut double album, “,Summertime ’,06,”, whose 20 songs are stark portrayals of a childhood caught between gangs and the police in Southern California. A lengthy instrumental stretch in “,’,06”, gives the listener a break. When Staples appears with a fulsome “,Good mornin’,! Hope you had a good time last night”, and starts rapping, it’,s one of the most optimistic-sounding moments on the album. He’,s midway through the first verse (“,I’,m finna bring the gang in the buil—,”,) when the song cuts to a blast of loud static, followed by silence. The effect is so jarring that it can easily be mistaken for an error, a glitch in the stream.
When I learned that this tear into white noise was intentional, I was shocked. This went beyond breaking the rules. “,’,06”, plays an entirely different game than most music. Its words and sounds don’,t matter. What matters here is the rupture. The track uses white noise to depict a kind of death, yet it’,s also the sound of a channel being changed or a TV or radio shutting off: Someone is controlling this switch. A young man has been unexpectedly silenced. When it’,s over for him, it’,s over for the listener, too.
Over the last few years, Vince Staples, 22, who first gained notice via collaborations with Odd Future’,s Earl Sweatshirt, has established himself as a singular new voice in rap, one whose urgency matches his precision. “,’,06”, and “,Summertime ’,06”, refer to the season when Staples turned 13, in Long Beach, Calif. “,Youth was stolen from my city that summer and I’,m left alone to tell the story,”, he wrote in an Instagram post last June that presented the album’,s cover art and named friends lost to prison or the cemetery. Out of that hardship, Staples emerged as a streetwise Everyman whose lyrics and musical production are uniformly lean and unsentimental.
Rapper common beard styles
Illustration by Yoshi Sodeoka. Source photograph by Ollie Millington/Getty Images.
His compressed rhymes sparkle with aphoristic detail. The opening lines of “,Summertime ’,06”, are “,Hey, I’,m just a nigga until I fill my pockets/And then I’,m Mr. Nigga, they follow me while shoppin’,/I feel like Mick and Richards, they feel like Muddy Waters/So tell me what’,s the difference, so tell me what’,s the difference?/My momma was a Christian, Crip walkin’, on blue-waters.”, The references multiply into serious depth. Yet before we have time to consider the Rolling Stones’, relationship to the blues or how churches and gangs may offer similar types of belonging or anything else, Staples has raced ahead to end the verse with a punch: “,Uber driver in the cockpit look like Jeffrey Dahmer/But he lookin’, at me crazy when we pull up to the projects.”,
There are no radio-friendly singles here. Staples likes to call out things as they are, but he is not a stern moralist, if he were, he probably wouldn’,t have landed his gig as a brand ambassador for Sprite. (“,Different ’,cause I’,m just like you”, he says in a recent national TV ad for the soft drink.) The preternaturally gifted rapper dresses in unflashy T-shirts and jeans. He’,s straight edge (no alcohol or drugs), a shrewd experimentalist with a complex politics.
The song that precedes ”,’,06,”, “,Like It Is,”, clues us in to what the shocking signal crash might mean. Over a lurching, industrial beat, Staples explains: “,You looking at a person, telling them that they story don’,t matter really no better than me/walkin’, down the streets tryna shoot at somebody.”, To deny the validity of another person’,s story, he says, is to deny them life. And even when one can voice his or her mind freely, to be a successful black rapper is to perform your persona before a predominantly white audience, whose aggregate opinion determines your worth. This is a problem Staples continually addresses, whether discussing how one of his ambitions is to leave the rap game (and move on to more reliable ways of earning a living) during interviews, or in songs like “,Lift Me Up”,: “,All these white folks chanting when I asked ’,em ‘,Where my niggas at?’,/Goin’, crazy, got me goin’, crazy, I can’,t get with that.”, Rapping about it only aggravates the paradox, those lines have been among the most quoted in reviews of his album, used to praise his self-awareness.
Staples knows that possibilities for mainstream black visibility are few and fraught. Black entertainers in the celebrity spotlight mark one extreme, the grainy videoclips of African-Americans dying at the hands of the police, whose name-recognition is always posthumous, another. How to speak against that? You can’,t. You can only unplug.
“,’,06”, adds to a growing body of work by black artists who flirt with disappearance in order to trouble the idea of representation itself. In “,Concerto in Black and Blue,”, David Hammons’,s 2002 piece for a series of pitch-black rooms in a large SoHo gallery, visitors were invited to explore with tiny blue flashlights. Their looking was the only thing to see. When the dancer-choreographer Storyboard P performs for video, he exploits the camera’,s two-dimensional limitations to create on-screen moves that appear simultaneously awkward and impossibly fluid. He dances as if he doesn’,t want to be captured, in gravity-defying bends and evasions —, all escape, no center. The poet Claudia Rankine, in her 2004 book “,Don’,t Let Me Be Lonely,”, opens each section with an image of a TV showing static. “,The years went by and people only died on television,”, she writes. “,If they weren’,t Black, they were wearing black or were terminally ill.”,
The jagged conclusion of “,’,06”, asks what it might mean to turn away from self-representation in sound. White noise is a spray of pitches and volumes that contains all audible frequencies. It is constant and patternless. Quite literally, it’,s the sound of undifferentiated possibility. One can think of Staples’,s provocative noise as the opposite of a stereotype, or freedom in sonic form. His signal fritzes into static with a snarl of hope: Noise and silence mark the edges of what can be considered music. To end an album like this points to a world beyond the song and to hands manipulating the transmission. What can be said outside the culture’,s limiting expectations, and who might we become if we learn to listen to it? ♦,
Jace Clayton is an artist also known for his work as DJ /rupture.
O n a January afternoon, Margo Price was rehearsing “,Hurtin’, (On the Bottle)”, at the Ed Sullivan Theater in Times Square in preparation for an appearance on Stephen Colbert’,s “,Late Show.”, The song begins with its chorus: “,I put a hurtin’, on the bottle/Baby, now I’,m blind enough to see/Been drinking whiskey like it’,s water/But that don’,t touch the pain you put on me.”, As she got into it, the various technicians, publicists and idlers milling around the theater turned to one another with expressions that said, That’,s what I’,m talking about, as if they had just been hotly debating what a real country singer should sound like. The next night, at Union Pool in Williamsburg, audience members who looked to have come straight from their jobs at Vice Media or Kickstarter exchanged similar glances —, Case closed, my bearded, craft-beer-drinking friend —, when she began to sing.
Christaan Felber for The New York Times
Price usually drops down in pitch when she sings the second syllable of “,bottle,”, but sometimes she takes it up a bluesy interval instead, turning a honky-tonk lament into a call to arms. The two deliveries of the line play up countervailing qualities of desperation and resolve in her voice. Together they make it sound as if she’,s exerting considerable strength of character to keep despair and bad luck from carrying her song off the road and headlong into a telephone pole. This instantly detectable tension in her voice causes listeners to become alert, even alarmed, the moment she starts singing.
“,Hurtin’, “, is the first single from Price’,s album “,Midwest Farmer’,s Daughter,”, which will be released by Jack White’,s Third Man Records on March 25. She’,s being rolled out with the fanfare appropriate to the next big thing out of Nashville, as the appearance on Colbert suggests, but she’,s not on country’,s standard ingé,nue track. At 32, having weathered lean times and near misses, she’,s more of a hard-bitten classicist. Her album title evokes Loretta Lynn’,s “,Coal Miner’,s Daughter,”, and her diction, especially the way she chews on the word “,pain,”, raises echoes of Tammy Wynette, her mask of barroom bravado over tender vulnerability recalls Merle Haggard, and her band, the Price Tags, favors old-school arrangements, with Luke Schneider’,s pedal-steel guitar weaving prominently around her voice.
As attention has built around Price, she has sometimes found herself placed in a cohort with Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and other scruffy dissenters who have recently made inroads into the dominion of the bro acts currently ruling Nashville’,s major labels and country radio. As the underground rocker-turned-”,country/garage”, producer Jonathan Bright has suggested, if current Nashville stars like Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line are the equivalent of Mö,tley Crü,e and other such glam-pop acts who dominated rock in the late 1980s, Price and company could be part of country’,s long-awaited back-to-basics riposte. Roots-music boosters are always announcing that the inevitable cyclical swing back to hard-country twang has begun, but listening to Price —, or watching the growly, uncute Stapleton clean up at the Country Music Association Awards last November —, you can begin to believe that maybe it’,s really happening.
“,They want a woman to be a model, which I’,m not,”, Price says, dismissing conventional gender expectations in commercial country music. “,For one thing, there’,s my broken nose. It’,s been broken a lot. I’,ve actually thought about fixing it, but I was afraid it would mess up my voice.”, Injuring her nose was pretty much the first thing that ever happened to Price, who “,got stuck”, on her way into the world during a difficult 28-hour labor. Then she broke it when she fell off a piece of playground equipment in elementary school, and again a few years ago when, in a moment of drunken hilarity at a backyard party in East Nashville, a good friend accidentally smashed her in the face with a massive belt buckle weighted with bullets.
The songs on “,Midwest Farmer’,s Daughter”, mine the experience of further hard knocks. Her parents lost the family’,s corn-and-soybean farm in Buffalo Prairie, Ill., and her father went to work as a prison guard. Price endured a run of professional disappointment and personal sorrow after arriving in Nashville in 2003. With her husband, Jeremy Ivey, who plays bass in the Price Tags and writes songs with her, she tried her hand at rock and soul and made a brief, unhappy foray into writing commercial country music. Serially turned away, ripped off and let down by operators in the music industry, she grew used to selling her meager possessions to pick up and start over, waitressing, hoping for some luck. “,I can’,t count all the times I’,ve been had,”, she sings in “,This Town Gets Around,”, her ode to the lecherous manager, fraudulent publicist and other Music Row animals who preyed upon her.
Five years ago she gave birth to twin sons, one of whom died of a rare heart ailment two weeks later. She sank low after that and couldn’,t pull herself out of it. Drinking didn’,t help. “,It just snowballed,”, she says. “,I felt as if I was cursed, some kind of running cosmic joke.”, A long weekend in the Davidson County jail after a drunken-driving incident persuaded her to get help and break the downward momentum. “,Weekender,”, a jail song on the album, is a good girl’,s rueful acknowledgment that the women in lockup are tougher and less fortunate than she is. “,They were hard, and I was really scared,”, she says. “,They could tell by your shoes that you were just a weekender.”,
She and Ivey sold their car to finance the recording of “,Midwest Farmer’,s Daughter”, at Sun Studio in Memphis. The album was rejected all over Nashville and eventually picked up by a label they didn’,t even consider approaching. Despite having a Nashville office, Third Man Records isn’,t widely known for producing country music (though Jack White produced a comeback album for Loretta Lynn in 2004). But Price’,s habit of putting vocal soul shadings into even the most straight-ahead country songs makes her an impure traditionalist, and therefore a surprisingly good fit for Third Man. Ben Swank, who runs the company with White and Ben Blackwell, says, “,We’,re coming from a punk-rock, indie-rock background that discovered blues and American music in reverse,”, an aesthetic that tends to value emotional power over stylistic orthodoxy.
Swank believes that Price’,s career travails might have fortuitously delayed her album just long enough to allow Third Man to take advantage of a new openness to “,a classical sound”, in country music. Another name for that sound is Americana: high-gloss corporate country’,s earthier foil and partner, which embraces not only folk traditions but also vintage commercial styles drawn magpie-fashion from bygone eras. Pointing in particular to the career of Stapleton —, who went from writing pop-flavored radio fare for established stars to become a major-label juggernaut singing spare, bluesy songs in the outlaw country mold —, Swank says: “,Now there are others who have knocked on the door. If she had come along two years earlier, maybe it”, —, the next-big-thing buzz —, “,wouldn’,t have happened.”,
Price performing at Union Pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in January. Christaan Felber for The New York Times
Feb. 5 was the first day on the job for the security guard minding the Grand Ole Opry’,s backstage entrance. “,Mine, too!”, Price said. He directed her to the Into the Circle dressing room, reserved for performers making their Opry debuts. Its walls are lined with quotes from country-music stars about how intimidated they were the first time they played the Valhalla of country music.
Price’,s son, Judah, climbed on and off her lap as a stylist enlarged her blond hair. Friends and family were temporarily shooed away as she put on something tight and fringed. Foot traffic milled in and out of other dressing rooms along the hall, and from one came a furious burst of picking as a bluegrass band warmed up.
Price crowded into a rehearsal room with the Opry’,s house band to run through “,Hurtin’, “, and “,Tennessee Song.”, When she started to sing, the veteran musicians, who unlike the employees of “,The Late Show”, or the information-economy workers of Brooklyn have heard everything and played with everyone and know much of what there is to know about country music, exchanged looks and smiles over their instruments, as if to say, Well, now —, the real thing.
Out on the main stage, Price sang her allotted two songs, ending with “,Hurtin.’, “, The band came to a full stop for her honky-tonk cadenza: “,That don’,t touch... the paiiiinnnnn... you put... on... meeeeee,”, with a slow-rising two-note flourish on the final word. Robust applause followed, and then Mike Snider, the banjo player who serves as one of the Opry’,s chief traditionalist voices, said: “,Good job, Margo, you sweet little old thing. Good to have somebody come out here and sing country again.”, There was laughter, some knowing and some a little too hearty, in the crowd and among the house musicians onstage and the insiders thronging the wings. “,By golly,”, Snider said, “,that was stronger than new rope.”, ♦,
Carlo Rotella is the director of American studies at Boston College.
L ate last spring, the country-music star Keith Urban sent a text message to Matt Chamberlain, one of the busiest and most respected drummers in music. Urban was working on a song that, after its release in June, would become his hit single “,John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.”, He was looking for a particular hybrid of electronic and acoustic drum sounds to make the song stand out. Would Chamberlain be willing to fly out from Los Angeles to Nashville to give it a shot? The two worked together several years before, and Chamberlain was good friends with Dann Huff, a producer on the project, so he packed up his sticks and a newly acquired Elektron drum machine and headed east.
Chamberlain, 48, is a session player paid by the project, a below-the-radar rock star who often shows up only in the liner notes. If you watched MTV in the ’,90s, you heard him drumming with Pearl Jam in their “,Alive”, video or with Fiona Apple or Tori Amos or the Wallflowers. He has appeared on records by everyone from Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie to Frank Ocean and Kanye West, toured with the Indigo Girls and Soundgarden, spent a season as the drummer for the “,Saturday Night Live”, band. He played drums on the “,Frozen”, soundtrack for Disney. In a world of dwindling recording budgets and increased automation, he could well be the last one drumming before software takes over completely.
At Blackbird Studio in Nashville, Urban told Chamberlain that he had “,John Cougar”, down on his acoustic guitar, but it felt too formulaic. He’,d been listening to the rapper Kendrick Lamar and wanted a groove that could not only propel the song but inspire an altogether new sound for it. Chamberlain assembled a drum loop —, a small-scale mechanical repetition born more of hip-hop than country —, and then played live drums over the loop, deepening the timbre and also providing accents and fills when the movement of the verses seemed to require it. Urban pronounced the whole package “,sexy”,, in the sought-for moment of inspiration, he would put down his acoustic guitar in favor of an electric bass. Within a couple of hours, the drums-bass-and-voice opening and the entire vibe of the song were effectively complete. The catchy arrangement and on-the-nose country twang of the title and chorus eventually sent “,John Cougar”, to the second spot on Billboard’,s U.S. Country Airplay chart.
This is the work of the modern session drummer, and it is why, when a major-label project needs drums, Chamberlain is often the first person producers call. When we met in Los Angeles in February, he posed his value proposition as a question: “,What can you add to a situation that’,s totally out of context but works?”, Chamberlain is good enough at playing his instruments —, and at reading what producers and artists want —, that they’,re willing to pay him well to make that kind of determination for them. And so he lives at an odd intersection, or perhaps a vanishing point, part virtuoso whose skills have never been more relevant, part John Henry figure, hammering away as music is increasingly composed and performed by machines.
Michael Tighe for The New York Times
In his younger days, with straggly hair down to his shoulders, Chamberlain very much looked the part of a touring musician with a soft spot for recreational drugs. But recently he’,s kept his hair a bit shorter. When he walked out of the studio he rents in the Sound City complex in Van Nuys, Calif., to take a break during a recent recording session, his landlady shouted, “,Nice haircut!”, at him from across the parking lot. Chamberlain in middle age still has a youthful bearing about him, like a lot of people who genuinely enjoy what they do, and he dresses low-key California: black Vans, dark jeans, beat-up button-down shirts. He rarely misses a chance to make a joke at his own expense, but there is a seriousness, an earnestness, that never quite disappears. He drives a Volvo.
“,I do more and more work out of my studio because nobody has a budget anymore,”, he told me. “,The Keith Urbans of the world can fly me to the studio because people still go to Walmart and buy country records.”, For the people who can’,t afford to fly him out, Chamberlain offers his services remotely from Van Nuys. He has a full recording studio set up: a control room stocked with vintage gear and a large soundproof tracking room where two drum kits sit miked and ready to go. There are drums everywhere, more than anybody should rightly own, stacked on top of each other and hanging from racks: multiple rock kits, a Brazilian pandeiro, Tibetan bells, a 40-gallon oil can rigged with a spring that Chamberlain pounded with evident joy and a built-in cupboard with 20 slots for different snares, each of which is filled. He has a vintage Ludwig Supraphonic (“,What John Bonham would have played”,), a 1930s Slingerland Radio King (“,Fat and dead”,), a 1900s snare with a calfskin head. As he finished giving me a tour, he said: “,You know sample libraries? These are the physical versions of the samples.”,
When I stopped by, Chamberlain was tracking drums for a British singer named Hattie Webb. The first track had some programmed electronic drums already attached as a guide, Webb’,s producer had asked Chamberlain, via email, to “,build it, make it electronic-y with some acoustic elements.”, Chamberlain listened to the song twice, charting out its structure on a legal pad, and then he went into the tracking room, where he had a little setup that he called his “,electronic/analog kit”, —, a small kick drum, a tiny snare that he had purpose-made for work like this and a cymbal with holes in it to sharpen the sound.
He cued up the track and then, without any practice, played along with it, sounding so much like the programming that it was almost hard to believe it could be a live performance. And yet his playing also ebbed and flowed in ways that the programmed drums didn’,t, or couldn’,t. After that single immaculate take, Chamberlain returned to the control room, listened for about 30 seconds and said, “,That sounds cool.”, He then set about making a drum loop to go along with the part he had just played. Within an hour or two, the track acquired shaker, tambourine and four flourish-filled runs on a full drum kit, just to give the production team some different options.
Chamberlain is an elegant player, no movement is wasted. He plays with a traditional underhand grip, which is more often associated with jazz than rock. Sometimes, looking at him, you can’,t believe the range and sheer volume of sound he’,s producing. By 6:30 p.m., Chamberlain finished the second of the tracks Webb had sent to him and uploaded both to his Dropbox account to be accessed by the producers in England. Then he went home to make pasta with his wife.
Chamberlain was 15 when he decided to learn how to play the drums. As a kid in Los Angeles, he had access to some real talent. He found David Garibaldi, the drummer for the soul band Tower of Power, and began taking lessons. Afterward, he would hang around at the Professional Drum Shop on Vine Street, to pick up drum books and listen to older local drummers talking shop at the counter. “,I was so obsessed with being a drummer,”, he says, “,that I never really thought about whether I was good or not.”,
North Texas State (now the University of North Texas) accepted him into its music program on a scholarship, but he lasted less than a year. One of the percussion teachers threw a plastic piece of excrement at him while he was performing, another banged a gong in the middle of a piece and yelled, “,Go practice!”, It wasn’,t exactly the atmosphere he had imagined. “,I just wanted to play drums,”, he says. He didn’,t help matters by getting himself thrown out of his dorm for smoking pot. For a while he slept in his practice room with his head on the pillow in his kick drum.
After he left school, Chamberlain moved to the Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas, about 40 miles away, where he played in several bands, often just for food or enough cash to put gas in his car. He eventually found himself living next door to Brad Houser, the bass player for Edie Brickell &, New Bohemians, and after some problems with their original drummer during the recording of their first album, the band hired Chamberlain to tour with them. “,What I Am,”, the first single off “,Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars,”, blew up so fast that his first major gig with the band outside Dallas was on “,Saturday Night Live.”, Chamberlain had just turned 21. He toured with Brickell for a couple of years and recorded a second record, “,Ghost of a Dog,”, with the band, which broke up around the time Brickell married Paul Simon. (The band, without Chamberlain, has since reunited.)
Chamberlain spent a summer touring with Pearl Jam, then returned to “,Saturday Night Live”, as drummer for the house band —, a job that for many musicians would be a career capper. TV gigs in general, and the “,S.N.L.”, gig in particular, offer the kind of steady, high-paying work that is pretty much impossible for musicians to find anywhere else. After a year, though, Chamberlain decided to move to Seattle. “,I had a whole house with a buddy of mine in a decent part of town, we could play music in it all day long and we each paid $250 rent,”, he told me, laughing. “,How do you beat that?”,
In 1994, Chamberlain got a call from a little-known band called the Wallflowers, fronted by Bob Dylan’,s son Jakob. The band liked Chamberlain’,s drumming on “,Ghost of a Dog”, and wondered if he’,d help them out in the studio. That work resulted in a single called “,One Headlight”, that helped the band sell several million records. The Wallflowers’, manager also represented a new and promising artist named Fiona Apple, and he asked if Chamberlain would play the drums for her too. Both albums “,did really well,”, he told me, in characteristically understated fashion. “,So that’,s kind of how you end up being a session musician. If you’,re not in a band, you’,re the guy who played on those records.”,
Chamberlain’,s network of producers and friends has continued to expand, and that’,s mostly how he gets his work. Over the last 15 years, he has played hundreds of sessions with some of music’,s biggest names, put out several side-project records and toured with Tori Amos and others whenever he could. A high-level studio musician in Los Angeles like Chamberlain can pull in as much as $2,000 for a day of work, though Chamberlain’,s rates fluctuate widely, depending on whom he’,s working with. He acknowledged that, with changes in the music business brought on by streaming and other technological innovations, “,the herd is getting thinned”, in terms of the number of artists with sizable recording budgets. But demand for his services remains strong. In a poll to be published later this year, the readers of Modern Drummer have named him the best studio player in the business.
On another perfect California day, Chamberlain was back in his Sound City studio, laying down beats for a company called the Loop Loft. The job was notable largely because it involved no musical collaborators at all. The Loop Loft pays virtuosic drummers to create bulk rhythms that the company sells for a lump sum. Each of Chamberlain’,s grooves would get cut up into 30 or 40 loops, which purchasers are then free to use in any way they want with no royalty or credit obligation. The software is designed for people who are making records in their garages and basements or for commercial producers scoring an advertisement or the end of a television program.
Ryan Gruss, the Loop Loft’,s chief executive, showed me the sheet he had prepared for a previous session with the legendary drummer Omar Hakim, who has played for the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna and Miles Davis. For Hakim, Gruss had typed out descriptions of beats and suggested tempos to go along with them, but there was no such list for Chamberlain. As an engineer got the kit sounding right in the control room, Chamberlain roamed over the drums and settled into a rhythm that Gruss liked. They set up a click track —, a metronome that plays in Chamberlain’,s headphones —, at the same tempo, then Chamberlain let loose for about five minutes, cycling through grooves, chorus feels, different patterns of the same basic beat.
Over the next four hours, Chamberlain would roll through nine other grooves and five different setups, swapping out drums and cymbals in search of new sounds and textures. For one set of beats, he moved to the small “,electronic/analog kit”, and played it with Brazilian shakers instead of sticks. The 1900s snare with the calfskin head made an appearance and, somehow, sounded almost entirely synthetic and computerized, which Chamberlain hadn’,t anticipated. The Loop Loft team was happy just to sit back and watch, one of them muttering “,Jesus”, under his breath whenever Chamberlain really let fly.
“,I’,m a working musician,”, Chamberlain said to me at one point, with an emphasis on “,working.”, Because he’,s not a songwriter or a member of a band, he doesn’,t get many residual checks or royalty payments —, what musicians refer to as “,mailbox money.”, Even when times are good, he has to hustle. Sometimes he’,s in the studio with the Loop Loft, sometimes he’,s the guy Adele’,s producers call when she’,s writing in Los Angeles (for a track that didn’,t make her latest record), sometimes he’,s the guy the billionaire Paul Allen hires for a vanity rock project featuring, among other top-tier musicians, the Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh. (Sample song title: “,Six Strings From Hell.”,) Even on days off, Chamberlain goes into his studio and practices for a couple of hours.
When the Loop Loft session was over, Chamberlain wandered in and out of the control room, packing up his gear for another recording stint with Keith Urban. This time the sessions would include the Welsh bassist Pino Palladino, one of the most respected players around. Instead of adding drums to a previously recorded track, Chamberlain would be playing live with Palladino in the studio. Chamberlain loves playing live above all else, for those moments when the music takes an inexplicable turn but somehow everybody stays together. No machine could match it. “,With great musicians,”, he said, “,you feel like you can’,t do anything wrong.”, ♦,
Jeff Himmelman is a contributing writer for the magazine.
Musical duets are usually ordered by heterosexual difference and its various dramas. As in: She gives, he takes. He pleads, she refuses. They may reconcile, but the performers always observe the classic sex distinction —, making the circumstances of the female vocalist a good barometer for the circumstances of female speech in general.
But Rihanna, pop’,s great maven of self-gratification, is a known loner, and she flouts that kind of reciprocal identity all the time. So it follows that even on her latest album’,s true duet, she would choose a vocal mirror, not a vocal foil. On “,Consideration,”, the first track on “,Anti,”, Rihanna and the genre-fluid singer SZA are two branches of the same river, braiding in and out. The women put on their respective versions of a placid attitude —, Rihanna sings with cheek, SZA cheerlessly. Each is calm but, you suspect, coursing toward some possible furor. They sing into each other, their vocal registers match so closely that on first listen, you might even miss that Rihanna isn’,t singing by herself. The closeness approaches uncanny, suggests an erotics of the self. Rihanna’,s voice sinks into SZA’,s, which rises back into Rihanna’,s, the voices first crossing on these: “,Why you ain’,t ever let me grow?/When I look outside my window/I can’,t get no peace of mind.”, If ”,Anti”, has a thesis, it’,s this declaration of insolence.
I almost used the usual expression —, a “,declaration of independence.”, Then I remembered how secretive the two women sound, the complete disinterest the lyrics communicate. The way Rihanna likens herself to our most uncivil cultural child, Peter Pan: “,I came fluttering in from Neverland/Time can never stop me.”, I hear her indignation, I hear a clear defection from the typical girl-power conceit. “,Consideration”, could not care less about sounding like a feminist anthem in the proper way, one that telegraphs passive misandry in the service of forcing female communion. It’,s an anti-anthem, a song for the individual in a world full of cheap calls to solidarity —, a misanthrope’,s chorus, built for people who would rather be alone, unseen and isolated from the work of being a girl. (“,Would you mind giving my reflection a break/from the pain it’,s feeling now?”,) Michael Jackson, long reviled for his identification with the boy Peter Pan, might have originated this kind of audacity, refusing to relate to society as much as society wanted to relate to him.
Rihanna often returns to Barbados, the landmass that bore her. Like that island country, “,Consideration”, connects to nothing outside itself, it’,s a salve for those of us seeking mental and political quiet, an adult lullaby castigating the spectacle of public life. The song is haughtily against the “,outside”,, it invokes the private air of an enclosed room. I’,d like to stay inside, too, looking out the window, listening to the echo of my own voice. ♦,
“,I’,ll see discussions sometimes, on message boards online, about the sound I get from my guitar,”, Mac DeMarco said one overcast February afternoon as we drove around Far Rockaway, Queens. “,It’,s kids, mostly, trying to figure it out: ‘,How does he get that freaky tone? What kind of pedals? What amp?’,”, He turned to me and grinned, showing the gap between his teeth. “,What they don’,t realize is that the guitar I’,ve played since I was 16 is a no-name piece of garbage that I bought at a pawnshop for about 30 bucks. It’,s got a loose neck, its pickup magnet is broken into tiny pieces and the pick guard is a piece of siding that I got from my Hasidic neighbor’,s house in Montreal.”, He laughed. “,For a while there were bugs living in it. Actual bugs. It was cute.”,
We were driving along Rockaway Beach Boulevard in a borrowed car, because DeMarco’,s station wagon wouldn’,t start. At the owner’,s request, DeMarco was grading the CDs in the glove compartment with a pen: B+ for Morrissey, C- for Belle and Sebastian, an enthusiastic A+ for the Grateful Dead. “,My life is stupid right now,”, he told me. “,I put a pair of my sneakers on eBay a while ago —, partly to raise money for this girls’, rock camp in Brooklyn, but mostly just as a joke —, and some dude pushed the bidding up to 21 grand.”, He grinned again. “,It turned out he didn’,t have the money, because he was, like, 13 years old. But that’,s still pretty sick.”,
Given the turn DeMarco’,s career has taken, his attitude of giddy disbelief makes perfect sense. In the course of four albums in as many years —, “,Rock and Roll Night Club,”, “,2,”, “,Salad Days”, and “,Another One,”, all released by the pint-size Brooklyn label Captured Tracks —, DeMarco has progressed from quasi squatter to bona fide indie-rock star, playing sold-out shows from New York to Los Angeles and basking in a degree of Internet fame that he finds hard to comprehend. In “,Backer,”, a bleakly hilarious clip, featuring none of his music whatsoever, DeMarco impersonates a depressed loser from Edmonton who guides cars into parking spots for a living. It has received around 400,000 views on YouTube. “,Salad Days,”, his 2014 breakout album, has been played more than five million times on YouTube, more than the Wu-Tang Clan album “,A Better Tomorrow,”, released the same year. DeMarco’,s brand of fame, however, is far from the rarefied, untouchable variety that stars like the RZA or Jack White enjoy: The more famous DeMarco gets, the more accessible he seems to become. “,Kids think of me as a guy who’,d hang out with them and actually enjoy myself,”, he told me. “,And they’,re basically right.”,
Mac DeMarco at home. Landon Nordeman for The New York Times
At the close of “,Another One,”, DeMarco’,s recent EP, he gives out his complete address, house number and all, with an invitation to drop by for a cup of coffee. This invitation, like much about DeMarco, might seem tongue-in-cheek but is in fact sincere.
The house he rents in Arverne, Queens, is an unprepossessing four-bedroom cottage in a lower-middle-class neighborhood, with cigarette butts peppering the lawn. When I rang his bell, he came to the door in boxers and a rumpled Hugo Boss T-shirt, greeted me with slightly bleary-eyed politeness, then led me past guitar cases and piles of laundry and a cluster of half-inflated party balloons to the kitchen, where Kiera McNally, his girlfriend of five years, was baking gluten-free banana bread. Over a cup of diner-style coffee —, from an industrial steady-drip machine that DeMarco pointed out to me with pride —, I asked what the repercussions of inviting hundreds of thousands of fans to his house had been.
“,It’,s cold outside now, so it isn’,t too bad,”, DeMarco said. “,Right after the EP came out, in August, we were averaging maybe 50 kids a day.”, He glanced toward McNally, who was diplomatically focusing on the banana bread. “,The only thing that bugged me about it, personally, was the feeling I got that some of them hadn’,t even heard my music. I’,m basically a meme to a lot of these kids. It can get a bit weird.”,
The music DeMarco makes has been enthusiastically received by critics, but reviews of his albums can be frustrating to read: They tend to lean heavily on labels like “,slacker rock,”, “,chill wave”, and “,blue wave,”, to name only a few. “,What the hell does ‘,blue wave’, even mean?”, DeMarco said. “,I have no idea.”,
The first song of his that I heard, “,Blue Boy,”, from “,Salad Days,”, is a bright, airy trifle, almost a lullaby, in which heartfelt advice to an insecure friend —, “,No use acting so tough/come down, sweetheart, and grow up”, —, is subtly undercut by the ever-so-slightly camp vocals and even more so by the lead guitar, which seems to drift woozily in and out of tune. King Sunny Ade came to mind as I listened, as did Jerry Garcia, an acknowledged influence, but I found it nearly impossible to pin down the music I was hearing, or even to date it. Like many of DeMarco’,s best songs, “,Blue Boy”, sounds like the work of someone who spent his formative years combing through record-store bargain bins, carefully discarding anything that might conceivably be characterized as tasteful. It’,s an approach that has yielded dividends for musicians in the Internet age before —, Washed Out comes to mind, as does Ariel Pink —, but none of those artists’, albums can claim five million YouTube plays.
Part of the explanation for DeMarco’,s outsize success may lie in his considerable gifts as a comedian, his comfort on-camera and his almost supernatural lack of social boundaries: a tasty combination in the age of Instagram. In one memorable scene from “, Pepperoni Playboy,”, a Pitchfork-produced documentary about his band’,s 2013-14 tour, the door of a hotel bathroom is slowly nudged open to reveal DeMarco completely naked, to all appearances unfazed by the intrusion, using a hand-held shower head to wash his hair while sitting on the toilet. The tone of the scene is vintage DeMarco, less John Lennon than John Belushi. “,I’,ve always been a jackass,”, he told me during our drive. “,My friends and I would be making weird movies whether anyone’,s watching or not. There just happens to be this thing called the Internet around. Why shouldn’,t we do what we want with it?”,
MacBriare Samuel Lanyon DeMarco was born Vernor Winfield MacBriare Smith IV in a small town in British Columbia called Duncan and raised in Edmonton, Alberta. His great-grandfather served as the province’,s minister of railways and telephones, but DeMarco grew up in considerably more modest circumstances: the eldest of two sons of a single mother, Agnes DeMarco, who now (figuratively and literally) runs the Mac DeMarco fan club.
The family has musicians on both sides: a lyric soprano, a jazz saxophonist, an uncle who lives in London and sings standards. Agnes herself had a stint, as a teenager, singing at parties and weddings around Edmonton.
At 16, Mac started recording songs in his room, by himself —, the way he still records all his music —, and playing in a band called Belgium with two friends from high school, Alec Meen and Peter Sagar. “,We were trying to sound melodic and indie, like Pavement or Dinosaur Jr., even though all I knew how to play were Jeff Beck-style blues riffs,”, he told me. “,They kept the band going after I moved to Vancouver, which was fine with me, it was pretty much their thing, anyway. I always hated the name Belgium.”,
In Vancouver, where he lived for a time in the boiler room of a printmaking studio for 200 Canadian dollars a month, DeMarco continued recording songs, posting them on Myspace under the name Makeout Videotape. “,The first time you’,re out somewhere and some guy comes up to you and says: ‘,I heard that song you put up online. Pretty cool,’, it’,s the weirdest thing,”, he told me, shaking his head. “,I got to be part of a scene that had started around this club called the Emergency Room, with bands who were already touring in the U.S. They were all these great, noisy, lo-fi bands, and I halfway fit in, mainly because I had no idea how to record. But I was trying to write Beatles songs the whole time.”,
While performing at a music festival in Calgary, DeMarco reconnected with McNally, whom he knew in high school, and within the year they moved to Montreal together. “,We had a hard time in Montreal,”, he told me. “,I worked the night shift at this cheap grocery store called Segal’,s, a 50-cents-for-a-wheel-of-brie kind of place.”, The job at Segal’,s, joyless though it was, provided a pivotal ingredient in his evolving aesthetic: a daily dose of schmaltzy classic rock. “,Hearing that kind of music all the time —, Dire Straits, Toto, Van Halen —, it affected me,”, he said. “,You can either embrace that stuff or let it drive you insane.”, He paused for a moment. “,To tell you the truth, I’,m not a big Dire Straits fan, even now. But I found something in those songs that I could use.”,
At a Valentine’,s Day benefit for Planned Parenthood, DeMarco took the stage of the Music Hall of Williamsburg to raucous applause. He was dressed in what I overheard someone describe as “,Mac standard issue”,: a floppy Carhartt fisherman’,s cap and an oversize T-shirt, tucked into his jeans, that read “,D.A.R.E. to keep kids off drugs.”, He was the last performer on the bill, which had the loose theme of cover songs, it had been a long night, and the audience was visibly restless. This posed a problem, because the two songs DeMarco had chosen to cover —, “,December 1963 (Oh, What a Night),”, by the Four Seasons, and “,Just the Way You Are,”, by Billy Joel —, called for more quiet than the crowd was inclined to supply. “,You’,re white!”, a woman shouted, drunkenly, from the center of the crowd, which was an odd thing to shout, because nearly everyone in the venue qualified.
After a barely perceptible hesitation, he played the songs gently, sincerely and with a devotion and skill that were never entirely obscured by the grin on his face or the jokes he cracked. (“,A D.U.I.? I don’,t think so. I take a helicopter to work. I’,m Billy Joel!”,) Before his third and final song —, “,Still Together,”, the closing track on “,2”, —, he brought McNally out onstage to join him, beaming like a schoolboy, and kissed her lovingly but chastely on the cheek. I was reminded, watching them together, of something DeMarco told me on our drive. “,Growing up in Edmonton, the horizon is so far away, you don’,t even realize it’,s there,”, he said. “,This might all be over in six months, but there’,s nothing wrong with my life now. Not a thing.”, He nodded to himself for a moment. “,The only thing I’,ve got to do is fix my car.”, ♦,
Charlie Puth’,s brand is blandness: he’,s a pop star for the age of sponsored content. A fresh-faced, vanilla-flavored, Berklee-trained 24-year-old, Puth landed three singles on Top 40 radio in the year before he released his 2016 debut album, “,Nine Track Mind.”, His style is marked by retro aesthetics and an almost haunting level of glibness, as encapsulated by his first single, the recent radio smash “,Marvin Gaye.”,
You may think you’,ve never heard “,Marvin Gaye,”, but it’,s possible you just haven’,t listened to it. It’,s a song that tends to register via alternate senses, a clamminess on the nape of your neck or a cloying taste, like children’,s cough syrup, in the back of your mouth. The platinum-selling doo-wop duet features the artist Meghan Trainor (who, like Puth, has thus far used her considerable songwriting talent to create songs so depthless they feel like waxworks).
It’,s a song about sex that induces not lust but a feeling of desolation. “,Let’,s Marvin Gaye and get it on,”, sing Puth and Trainor brightly. “,You got that healing that I want. Just like they say it in the song: until the dawn, let’,s Marvin Gaye and get it on.”,
The chorus feels like a bouncy castle inflated with hot air and ghosts, but in a technical sense, it’,s perfect. Its phrasing follows the classic AABA doo-wop format, and its four-chord progression (I, vi, IV, V) is emblematic of the genre: These are the ice-cream chords of “,Heart and Soul,”, “,Blue Moon”, and “,Please Mr. Postman.”, Tweaked, the same progression can take on depth and winsomeness —, with a 7th thrown in, you get “,Unchained Melody”, and with a 9th, “,Every Breath You Take.”, But with the exception of a verse that has Trainor singing over a beat Puth describes (inaccurately) as a “,hard-ass distorted 808”, drum machine, the track replicates the late ’,50s with unimaginative servility. Sonically, it lives a decade and a half before the song it’,s referencing, Marvin Gaye released “,Let’,s Get It On”, in 1973.
Gaye’,s historic single contains a lifetime’,s worth of seduction in its first two measures, it’,s a last call, a first promise, sweat beading on the walls in the basement, a monument to blackness, warm and ragged, explosive with love. “,Marvin Gaye”, erases Marvin Gaye symbolically (“,just like they say it in the song,”, the chorus insists, blithely) as well as in practice, occupying the space where a new generation of listeners might find him. If you type “,Marvin Gaye Let’,s Get It On”, into a search field, you’,ll most likely first find Trainor and Puth, who insisted on the comparison and will now suffer by it. “,Marvin Gaye”, feels like the jukebox at a segregated luncheonette, it is sex performed at someone, and with your clothes on.
In 1965, Gaye recalled to his biographer, he was listening to one of his songs playing on the radio when it was interrupted by a news bulletin about the riots in Watts. “,With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?”, No such scruples trouble Puth, who wrote his track as a “,musical icebreaker,”, he told Billboard. “,If you hear it on the radio or at a bar, it’,s a way to say: ‘,Hey! Let’,s Marvin Gaye and get it on.’,”, And so “,Marvin Gaye”, got its new use and meaning as a pickup line, dreamed up by an artist whose means is glibness and end is comfort, who can’,t imagine the fight that Gaye’,s love was built on, who sings about sex as if it’,s his due rather than a port of call in a storm. ♦,
Jia Tolentino is the deputy editor at Jezebel.
N early every rap album has that one moment you can’,t get with. If you’,re a woman, there are at least five. It’,s been almost a year since I first heard Kendrick Lamar’,s “,To Pimp a Butterfly,”, an ambitious, spellbinding, masterpiece of a rap album, and it took me nearly a year to like it. The main reason: the 13th song, “,The Blacker the Berry.”, Up to that moment, musically if not lyrically, “,Butterfly”, is almost a quiet storm of an album, a record that gazes more inward than out, even as it tackles institutional racism and hood politics. Then comes “,The Blacker the Berry,”, all booming drums and NWA-style rage. For the first time, homeboy is furious, as if he has just realized that the only response to the stereotype of the angry black man is to get angrier. It’,s the part where I thought I would be most engaged, but it turned into the part that locked me out.
Ilustration by Jesse Draxler. Source photograph by Gomillion and Leupold/Getty Images.
“,Butterfly”, arrived at an unprecedented moment in pop. Black artists, as they conquered the mainstream, were getting even blacker. Kanye might have gotten there first (at least he probably thinks so) with “,New Slaves”, and “,Black Skinhead,”, and now even Beyoncé, is place-checking New Orleans and image-checking the Black Panthers. But Kanye was still speaking to the white gaze, the hatred and desire in it, and taking revenge by getting all black-sex-machine on somebody’,s white wife. “,Butterfly”, is instead Toni Morrison circa “,Sula”,: not looking outside for either validation or opposition. Black love, black empowerment, black history and black wisdom are explored so deeply and intelligently that you assume that conservative media fetish, black-on-black crime, will never show up. But then, in the third verse of “,The Blacker the Berry,”, when Kendrick is waxing lyrical on Trayvon Martin’,s death, it does. All of a sudden “,Blacker”, becomes a song about black accountability while black men are being murdered and the implausible logic of slamming two ideas into the same thought. I was right there with him until that third verse.
You can’,t be a hip-hop head and not be hit by “,The Blacker the Berry.”, It brings the boom-bap from the get-go, dropping funk on the one, like an update of the drum break that opens NWA’,s album “,Straight Outta Compton.”, And even though I was tired of people’,s mapping anger onto blackness, Lamar’,s detonation of rage and wit was (and is) unmatched in hip-hop. He grabs at stereotypes as if they’,re slipping out of his fingers (“,My hair is nappy,”, he says. “,My nose is round and wide”,) and throws them right back at whoever would deploy them. He’,s not even rapping so much as spitting fire, jumping on a line, retracing it, firing it back at you, like the boxer Jack Johnson when he said: “,I’,m black, they never let me forget it. I’,m black, all right, I’,ll never let them forget it.”, Kendrick fuels his “,I’,m black”, with the knowledge that ain’,t a damn thing changed. He leaves it to the Jamaican DJ Assassin to bring backup in the chorus, drawing the line from plantation to street corner and the switch in who controls black self-determination, from the “,whips left scars ’,pon me back”, to the “,the big whip parked ’,pon the block.”,
The second verse widens the focus and ups the power. Part of the thrill as a listener is hearing him go there, go further than anybody else. (“,Church me with your fake prophesizing/that I’,mma be just another slave in my head/Institutionalized manipulation and lies.”,) He takes church, the black community’,s own sacred cow, and minces it, turning the noun into a verb that means “,to spread deceit.”, This is primo Kendrick, outside and inside at once, global and street, sometimes in the same line.
The last couplet on the second verse echoes the first, with a crucial change: “,You sabotage my community, makin’, a killin’,/you made me a killer,”, turns into, “,How can I tell you I’,m making a killin’,?/You made me a killer”, —, and the different spin on “,killing”, weighs a ton. In the first instance, exploitation and indifference make him a killer. In the second, his success comes from America’,s obsession with his assuming he looks like one. It was almost unbearable to anticipate what this prophet of rage was going to drop next.
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
I could feel the verse pulling away from me as soon as he got halfway into it. It turned into call-and-response, me and this third verse, which went a little something like this:
Remind me of these Compton Crip gangs that live next door.”,
Me: Hold up, K-dot, what is this you’,re dropping? No, dude, those are two nations going to war. And fine, war is hell, but if Britain and France aren’,t called thugs for Waterloo, if Lancaster and York aren’,t called bangers despite literally being family killing family, then why do Zulu vs. Xhosa get compared to gang warfare? Because it weakened them both in the face of the real enemy? Either all war is hell, or all war is thuggery. I’,m fine with either, but not with a special distinction when Africans do it.
“,So don’,t matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers
Or tell Georgia State ‘,Marcus Garvey got all the answers’,
Or try to celebrate February like it’,s my B-Day
Or eat watermelon, chicken and Kool-Aid on weekdays
Or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan endorsements
Or watch BET cause urban support is important
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street
When gangbanging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?
Me: No, brother, no! Here was a black man invoking the detestable slogan of black-on-black crime to prevent himself from mourning the unjustifiable homicide of a black boy by a Neighborhood Watch vigilante. All I could think was: Where the hell was Kendrick going?
Things can get messy when the black gaze turns inward, to this thing called personal accountability. Personal responsibility. Personal respectability. Bootstrappism. The black man employing the despicable liberal “,but,”, heralding a switch to victim-shaming. A woman has the right to wear what she wants, but. Black men can wear hoodies and let their pants sag, but. Rap has never been scared of being contrarian, and so here I thought that maybe he was deliberately playing with the idea, deliberately embodying the perspective to eventually show it up for what it was. Nas once wrote a song from the point of view of a gun. But then Kendrick of all people dropped a “,but”, himself, in a conversation with Billboard magazine right before the album’,s release.
“,What happened to [Michael Brown] should’,ve never happened,”, he said. “,Never. But when we don’,t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don’,t start with just a rally, don’,t start from looting. It starts from within.”,
Kendrick wasn’,t the first, and he won’,t be the last, to make the statement that black deaths are in some way blacks’, fault and that black lives might be a matter of personal responsibility, right down to clothing choice. The idea that a sudden dose of self-respect is part of what is needed to stop the police from killing us is not only ludicrous —, Amadou Diallo wasn’,t a gangbanger, but he was shot at 41 times anyway, I think we can assume that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had it all right within, but that didn’,t protect him from being brutalized by all sorts of authority, nor did his dressing impeccably prevent him from arrest —, it is also old. It’,s a belief that the black person has a role to play in the erasure of hate toward herself. That kind of thinking almost suggests that racism makes sense.
But racism makes no sense. It is perverse and aberrant yet such a constituent part of the American make up, so normalized in all its forms, that it’,s no surprise that the black person would scramble for answers as to why it exists. And in scrambling for answers, you look everywhere, even within: Did I do something to bring this on? Was a part of this outcome in even the slightest way my fault?
Fact is, black people have always believed in respectability politics. It’,s also at the core of the non-American black’,s perspective on race, and I should know, because as a non-American black, I’,ve traded in that belief for years. It’,s particularly acute with us Jamaicans. Our stories are everywhere: How despite racism, or rather the black American’,s self-destructive perception of it, we worked hard to excel and gain respect. We achieved. Everybody knows how hard we Jamaicans work. That’,s why I have that job and you, black American, do not. Maybe you should stop whining about your troubles and own up to your laziness. Maybe if you do what I did, you would be manager of that Chase branch on the corner, just like me.
Bootstrappism is the chocolate echo of white racism. You can find it in black self-help and how-I-became-a-millionaire books. Prince with “,America,”, Ice Cube with “,Look Who’,s Burning.”, Lauryn Hill berating black girls who get hair weaves to look like Europeans. Nearly every time Steve Harvey addresses black people. President Barack Obama telling Morehouse College students at their 2013 commencement that there’,s “,no time for excuses,”, a lesson that the fact of their existence proved they didn’,t need. It’,s a road that leads to the granddaddy of the bootstrap, Bill Cosby, who declared in a 2004 speech that black kids were being shot because they were going around stealing Coca-Cola and poundcake.
But Kendrick’,s conclusion is far more sophisticated than anything Cosby has ever said. In fact, it’,s not a conclusion at all. It was Kendrick doing what he does better than anybody else: complicating a discussion at exactly the point where everybody, including me, tries to simplify it. And this is what he was aiming for all along, questioning what even many black people would never dare question, arguing that yes, every argument, even this one, has two sides. More sides. Adding layers we might need but don’,t want. And that’,s what he did next, not on wax, but on MTV.
“,Know who I am first,”, he said. And then he said more than that:
“,When I say, ‘,Gangbanging made me kill a nigga blacker than me,’, this is my life that I’,m talking about. I’,m not saying you, you might not even be from the streets. I’,m not speaking to the community, I’,m not speaking of the community,”, he continued. “,I am the community.”,
Fast-forward to near the end of 2015, and I’,m on a flight to New York. Thirty thousand feet above everything, I put on “,Butterfly,”, and something that never happened before happens. This incredible clarity, as if I’,d been listening to the soul brother all year but only now was finally hearing him. And then I got to that song, No. 13, the sticking point, the one reason I hadn’,t been able to join the best-of-the-year showering of praise, and I realized something that felt sudden yet inevitable. That this song, with its booming beat, the loudest on the record, that seemed to herald it as some global political statement, was in fact Kendrick’,s most deeply personal. Almost implosive. That the moment wasn’,t about we at all, it just sounded that way. It’,s his most “,I”, moment, reflecting a reality that I couldn’,t possibly connect to, only witness and try to understand. It’,s as personal as Ice Cube’,s “,Dead Homiez.”, He’,s not speaking to the community or for the community. He’,s speaking for himself or, rather, a version of himself. The smarter me looked in the mirror and asked: “,Well, who’,s the one playing representational politics here? Who is the one expecting the black man to be Everyman, black man to reflect the universal good will, or at the very least a carefully curated black rage directed at a carefully identified target?”,
Hip-hop has always been about spinning clever fictions, doing what great narratives do: inventing stories that tell the real truth. But post-Biggie and Tupac, it’,s so easy to fall hard for hip-hop’,s insistence on keeping it real that I’,m surprised how easily I still fall for it, thinking that “,Butterfly”, is either confessional or reportage, when it’,s neither. We do this over and over, judging artists of color based on a warped idea that legitimacy can come only from experience. You would think I would know better, given that as a novelist, I deal with the same assumption in nearly every interview. One journalist even congratulated me for escaping the ghetto through “,the power of the pen and not the gun.”,
My last novel was about Jamaican gang members manipulated by politicians into an attempt on Bob Marley’,s life. Young men, murderers before 15, murdered before 18. Nearly everybody assumed that I had experienced some of this. In fact, the first time I heard a live gunshot was watching Martin McDonagh’,s play “,A Behanding in Spokane.”, And once each interviewer was convinced that there was no blood on my hands, then came the skepticism, the disbelief, the doubting: By what authority was I telling these stories? As if knowledge, talent and imagination weren’,t enough for a writer of color to make art, as if a work of art can’,t be personal and fictitious at the same time, invented and meaningful.
And here I was doing the same thing to Kendrick. He was just a man wondering how someone gets to be part of the Black Lives Matter conversation when black lives don’,t matter to him. How someone can feel rage at murder while being fine with suicide. He was exploring these themes as concepts —, you know, that thing that artists do. He was posing tricky, difficult questions, for which there were no answers, getting into the middle of his song, feeling it, breathing it, but still inventing. I wonder how much of what I thought my problem was with “,The Blacker the Berry”, stemmed from me doing what is still being done to me: Questioning the black gaze, assuming that it must have sprung from something other than the storyteller’,s gift. That it must be autobiography or documentary. I’,ve never listened to Radiohead’,s “,A Wolf at the Door”, and wondered if Thom Yorke ever paid ransom money for his kidnapped children. Or thought Johnny Cash ever murdered anybody or knew anyone who did. Just like those songs, “,The Blacker the Berry”, is several things at once, but mostly, at its essence, it’,s just that thing we call art. ♦,
Marlon James, a novelist, is the 2015 recipient of the Man Booker Prize.
Rap is rooted as much in place and time as it is in rhythm and bass, it’,s hyperlocal and organic, if not always cage-free. (Free Max B!) You can tell a song’,s provenance from its sound, you can hear what was happening when the record was pressed. A cultural ferment, frozen in amber.
Killer Mike and El-P, the rappers who record as Run the Jewels, leaked their second album, “,Run the Jewels 2,”, on Oct. 24, 2014, to joyful reactions: It was a muscular, thoughtful record. What has taken longer to appreciate are the songs’, political leanings. Since the album arrived, Killer Mike has become a prominent political speaker —, appearing at last year’,s White House Correspondents’, Dinner, writing op-eds about police brutality and stumping aggressively for Bernie Sanders. El-P has been less public with his views, but I can’,t imagine he could help create music like this without harboring similar politics. It would be tough to write a song like “,Early,”, which paints an indelible portrait of the police shooting an unarmed black woman, without considering the forces that put her there. Her husband watches, arrested for possession of a small amount of weed: “,I could see my other kinfolk/And hear my little boy as he screamed/As he ran toward the copper, begged him not to hurt his momma.”,
Earlier on the album, on “,Close Your Eyes,”, Killer Mike, El-P and Zack de la Rocha —, former frontman of Rage Against the Machine —, rap about a prison riot. Listening makes the blood rush to your cheeks, your heartbeat pulse behind your eyes. The value of the album is held between those two songs: It captures the variegated sides of black life in America and its specific feeling, a dizzying mix of frustrated helplessness and joyous survival.
Perhaps it’,s not surprising that the group’,s aesthetic choices are very Public Enemy, which is to say, pretty “,retro.”, Public Enemy was among the first acts to grasp that for all its durability as an art form, rap is inescapably tied to the black experience. It’,s always political, because to live as a black person in America is to be politicized. Run the Jewels gets this. If you listen closely, through their artful grandstanding, you can hear a radical politics. Which is another way of saying the truth, listen, and hear the world change. ♦,
Bijan Stephen is an associate editor at the New Republic.
It used to be, if you wanted to vibrate at the same frequency as the Mayan spacemen, you needed to move to a Southwestern city that specialized in horse art. It used to be, if you wanted your aura photographed, you had to go to a cramped Chinatown crystal shop. These days, there’,s a boutique around the corner from my apartment in Brooklyn with a pop-up aura-photography tepee. On a whim, I went to have my aura’,s picture taken, only to learn the photographer was fully booked days in advance. New Age is back, and turning up where you wouldn’,t have expected it a few years ago —, in places where the young and culturally sophisticated congregate. Places that are, for lack of a better word, hip.
It used to be, if you bought an album from a small Vancouver electronic-music label, you could expect some kind of weird minimal techno. These days? You get CFCF’,s “,The Colours of Life,”, a 40-minute instrumental suite that layers airy synths, noodling guitars, marimbas and, God help us, panpipes over simple, propulsive rhythms. You could talk about it in terms of record-nerd touchstones —, “,The Colours of Life”, sounds a bit like the minimalist composer Steve Reich in places, or the Krautrock god Manuel Gö,ttsching in others —, but really, it sounds as if it should be advertised on basic cable with stock footage of candles. Or like a cassette tape you would buy from a bookstore with an entire section devoted to “,Angels.”, Or like seduction music played by a barefoot European man with a soul patch. Do you catch my drift? It’,s cool, but it sounds as if it were recorded using a dreamcatcher as a pop filter. It sounds like the music for a 40-minute director’,s cut of an airline commercial. It sounds like a poster of a wolf. It sounds like a hologram sticker of a dolphin. It sounds like a tattoo of an open eye. It sounds like the font Papyrus. It’,s also really, really good.
The assumption always seems to be that the New Age revival is weird, if not insincere in some unspecified, “,ironic”, way. Why would urban-dwelling gentrified-Brooklyn types embrace the atavistic philosophies of conspiracy theorists and mononymous zither players? One answer is that this is how cool works: Things that used to be uncool become cool, and vice versa.
But I think maybe it’,s the wrong question in the first place. We live in an age of aggressive positivism, a world overtaken by metrics and markets. To accuse New Age revivalism of insincerity —, reducing the possibilities of belief to a binary —, is to miss the point. The gentle woo-woo spirituality of New Age is attractive because it refuses the grinding realities of life spent in the shadow of Wall Street and Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Why wouldn’,t people overwhelmed by a slick and well-capitalized culture machine seek their pleasure in something defiantly corny? You can lie, and you can cook the books, but you can’,t fake a vibe. If a 40-minute New Age symphony can make you feel good —, instead of harried or judged or pandered to —, why should you care that it sounds like the soundtrack to a 1980s nature documentary? ♦,
Max Read is a senior editor at New York magazine and a co-founder of IRL Club.
A band that signs up to play the Super Bowl halftime show is making a declaration of immense confidence in its ability to hold a spotlight. It would seem contradictory for that band to then immediately cede that spotlight, but that’,s just what Coldplay did. They were contracted as the headliners at this year’,s game, but they wisely let Beyoncé, and Bruno Mars —, both infinitely more charismatic —, take control. As those two stars hit the stage, ready to trade hits and dance moves, the band’,s singer, Chris Martin, clung to the background, as if worried he might burst into flames if everyone appeared in the same frame.
Coldplay’,s deference masks a steady success: For nearly two decades, they’,ve written a great many memorable songs, combining earnest Hallmark sentiments with anthemic melodies, worming their way into impressionable hearts and onto the charts. They’,re successors to U2, another band that crystallized the ineffable grandeur of the human experience into countless four-minute, radio-ready rock songs. Millions of Super Bowl viewers knew what it meant when Martin sat down at his piano, preparing to bang out the opening chords to “,Clocks.”, As the rapper Future put it in a widely circulated tweet: “,#Coldplay legendary forever.”,
Illustration by Erik Carter
This brand of wide-screen pop attracts easy put-downs: edgeless, corny, white. But music has never lacked anodyne cornballs who didn’,t get their props until years later. Phil Collins used to symbolize the worst of slick ’,80s excess, but over time he has been recognized for his pop craftsmanship and technical innovations (especially the big drum sounds —, you know, that fill in the middle of “,In the Air Tonight”, —, that blew a million rappers’, minds). Jokes about how mawkish he seemed in the ’,80s are increasingly irrelevant to young people, who can care only so much about what anything seemed like before they were born.
This is likely to be Coldplay’,s trajectory, too. Like Phil Collins, Michael McDonald, Abba or any number of desperately unhip artists, their “,image”, will evaporate, while their songs will weather the years. In 2009, the Brooklyn band Grizzly Bear conscripted McDonald to sing a version of one of their singles, “,While You Wait for the Others,”, at the peak of their own rarified cool. Chris Martin might be asked to fill a similar role for tomorrow’,s Grizzly Bear. Imagine it: Sincerity will once again be on its way out of music, only for a familiar and tender voice to ring throughout the future blogosphere. Because when it’,s no longer certain what’,s cool, what will be more comforting than an elder statesman who never worried about it to begin with?
A few weeks before the Super Bowl, Coldplay and Beyoncé, released a music video for “,Hymn for the Weekend,”, a collaboration from the band’,s most recent and potentially final album. High-profile pop songs like this are conceived as nothing less than events, ready to be performed at mega-happenings like the Super Bowl halftime show. The actual Super Bowl halftime show featured both Coldplay and Beyoncé, but not the song. Martin said “,Hymn”, was too new and wouldn’,t have been “,quite right.”,
What his audience wanted was the warmth of familiarity. They wanted “,Clocks.”, The live performance would have been an event, but Martin knows there will be plenty of opportunities in the future. The band is built to endure. ♦,
Jeremy Gordon is deputy news editor for Pitchfork.
As good-and-evil Christian morality falls out of fashion among the women in my social universe, a new binary has arisen to organize our outlook. In the heavens, there is all that is feminist: Beyoncé, singles, the selfie, menstruation ads on the subway and the dream of a woman in the White House. In hell, there is everything else. There are no nonbelievers, and there is no limbo. As new things come into being, we sort them accordingly by asking ourselves, “,Is this feminist?”,
By June 2015, Fetty Wap’,s “,Trap Queen”, had already claimed its place as the hot song of the summer. Beyond just the pleasures of a classic party anthem —, an infectious hook, synth chords to ramp up your heart rate —, the song offers an American love story for the ages. Fetty is a drug dealer weak-kneed for the girl who can match his hustle. When he cooks crack, she cooks crack with him. When he dreams of Lamborghinis, he dreams in matching pairs. Fetty’,s queen doesn’,t ride in the passenger seat. The couple make money together, and they spend it together too —, at strip clubs, on weed, on gifts for each other. It’,s a vision of a love we can believe in, even outside the dreamland bubble of a rom-com plot. What could be more romantic than two equals teaming up to build their fantasy in a difficult and unjust world?
For a summer, “,Trap Queen”, was everywhere. It would ultimately spend 25 weeks in Billboard’,s Top 3. We sang about cooking crack with our babies in the aisles of Duane Reade and on the dance floors of bat mitzvahs. Like Fetty himself, we landed seasonal crushes with “,Hey, what’,s up? Hello!”, as our deceptively simple opening line. Rattling trap snares drowned out the sound of ice-cream-truck jingles, and summertime was better for it. But eventually it came time to ask the inevitable: Is “,Trap Queen”, feminist?
The requisite councils convened to assess. Blogs weighed the evidence. On one hand, the song was an ode to the working woman by a man secure enough to love her. On the other hand, a pop-rap song about selling drugs —, written and performed by a man —, seemed an unlikely entry into the feminist canon. In The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sofiya Ballin parsed the evidence reasonably: “,Fetty Wap is not a feminist, and ‘,Trap Queen’, is definitely not a feminist anthem, but that hasn’,t prevented women from relating to its core message.”, Elite Daily, the self-proclaimed voice of Generation Y, disagreed in a post titled “, 10 Times Fetty Wap’,s Lyrics Were Actually Secret Feminist Rants.”, Much like the song itself, the question of its feminism seeped throughout the culture, reaching its peak at a White House Council on Women and Girls summit in November, where the rapper MC Lyte declared that, a few caveats aside, Fetty Wap was the most feminist man in hip-hop.
The women in my social circle, most of whom had never sold or even seen crack, breathed a collective sigh of relief. We had received the necessary clearance to enjoy. “,Trap Queen”, was good not only as an earworm but also in terms of our feminist morality. MC Lyte’,s assertion of the song’,s feminism grew from a conversation about women in hip-hop and the nature of black love, but we could repurpose it as a one-size-fits-all affirmation. An explainer industry cropped up to serve those of us in need of assistance to relate to the song’,s lyrics to ourselves. The women’,s-interest blog Bustle ran a post called “,What Does ‘,Trap Queen’, Mean? All Your Questions About the Slang Term Answered, Including How to Know if You Are One.”, Across my social-media feeds, newly crowned trap queens proliferated, announcing their coronations with Instagram captions and new Twitter display names. Apparently, anyone could be one.
I wonder about the purpose of this exercise. Why, in order for “,Trap Queen”, to be good, must we find a way to wedge it inside the narrow boundaries of white women’,s feminism? Is it not good enough on its own? Feminism and “,Trap Queen”, both spent the last year exploding ever further into the mainstream, and in both cases, we’,re still struggling to nail down exactly what they mean. Is the gutted, feel-good pop feminism of that Bustle post the same one that moves a panel of black women to declare Fetty Wap a feminist? Or perhaps the more important question is this: If “,Trap Queen”, is declared feminist in one system, does it suddenly belong to all feminists, regardless of race, of class or of circumstance?
In the year that conversations about identity finally entered the small-talk realm of white folks, we seem to have lost sight of the fact that not everything is created for us —, not even all feminist things. Identity politics is not always about identifying. “,Trap Queen”, is an immaculate song —, a compelling love story and a true club banger. Perhaps, in the future, we can find a way to say so without needing to claim it for ourselves. ♦,
Lionel Richie’,s “,Hello”, begins discreetly, almost sneakily, floating a sour little synthesizer melody over tiptoeing piano chords. The song crept into the collective consciousness in similarly stealthy fashion. It arrived in late 1983, buried on Richie’,s “,Can’,t Slow Down,”, the second solo album by the former Commodores singer. Reviewers took little notice of ”,Hello”,, Richie was ambivalent, cutting the song from “,Can’,t Slow Down”, at one point during the recording sessions before reinstating it. But when “,Hello”, was released as a single in February 1984, it shot to No.1 on Billboard’,s Hot 100 and topped charts across the globe.
In the decades since, “,Hello”, has never said goodbye. It’,s one of those adult-contemporary ballads that has taken up residency in the ether, seeping from the walls of dentists’, offices and tinkling on the phone line while you await a customer-service representative. It’,s a song, in other words, that has been judged soothing and innocuous enough to serve as Muzak —, not necessarily an insult, but definitely a misapprehension of the fearsome beast that “,Hello”, is. The song’,s narrator is a lovelorn weirdo who is both hapless —, “,Tell me how to win your heart/For I haven’,t got a clue/But let me start by saying/‘,I love you’,”, —, and vaguely sinister. The refrain, “,Hello? Is it me you’,re looking for?”, sounds benign, but in the video, a dazed-looking Richie stalks the halls of an art school, mooning over a blind sculptor at least 15 years his junior.
Recently, “,Hello”, has seduced a new generation that discovered the vintage video on YouTube. The highlight comes in its final scene, when the sculptor-heroine unveils a hideous terra-cotta bust of Richie. (When Richie complained that the bust didn’,t look like him, the clip’,s director, Bob Giraldi, replied, “,Lionel, she’,s blind.”,)
Today on Facebook, you’,ll find a “,Public Figure”, page devoted to “, The Clay Head From the Lionel Richie ‘,Hello’, Video.”, There was a viral Craigslist post titled “, Ceramic bald Lionel Richie bust wanted, ”, soliciting an artist’,s replica of the sculpture, with a twist: “,I’,d like it to be bald, as I intend to recreate [Richie’,s] lovable afromullet with some sort of cream-cheese dip at parties.”, A Google search yields hundreds of ”,Hello”,-themed tchotchkes: throw pillows, teapots, cutting boards (“,Hello, is it me you’,re cooking for?”,). The arrival, in October, of Adele’,s blockbuster “,Hello”, —, same title, different song —, jolted the online world again, prompting dozens of Richie-Adele mash-ups.
Stephanie Gonot for The New York Times
The revival of ”,Hello”, is a curiosity —, a piece of pop flotsam borne back into the mainstream by the Internet’,s swirling surf. But it’,s also a testament to the magnetism of Lionel Richie, 66, a more durable presence, and a finer musician, than many have cared to admit. The meme-ing of ”,Hello”, has coincided with a wider Richie resurgence. “,Tuskegee”, (2012), Richie’,s 10th studio album, was a surprise hit that paired the singer with country stars in new renditions of ”,Easy,”, “,Say You, Say Me”, and other chestnuts. Richie has spent several years barnstorming arenas, quietly re-emerging as a top-grossing touring act. Last June, he played the Glastonbury music festival in England, drawing raves and a crowd of nearly 200,000, the festival’,s largest.
Back in the ’,80s, I had mixed feelings about Richie: affection for his inescapable hits and regard for his craftsmanship, tinged with disdain I had absorbed from rock critics. He had been the Commodores’, resident softy, the maudlin voice of “,Three Times a Lady,”, almost too genteel for the band’,s tame brand of funk-soul. Critics offered respect, but scorn leaked through: “,unctuous,”, “,milquetoast,”, “,white-bread.”, The bottom line: Richie was talented, but too slight and sappy to be taken seriously.
Today he stands as the biggest ’,80s pop star who is not quite canonized. He has sold tens of millions of records worldwide, most of them in the ’,80s, when he strode lofty heights alongside Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince. But Richie couldn’,t match the charisma of those dynamos, and unlike all of them, he has gotten nowhere near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The industry celebrates his hit-making: There was an all-star Richie tribute at last month’,s Grammys. Still, the highest sort of esteem is denied him.
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A reappraisal may be in order. What hits me hardest is the robust beauty of Richie’,s voice —, a smooth baritone roughened by hints of grit —, and the casual virtuosity with which he puts it to use. Listen to the 1981 Diana Ross duet “,Endless Love,”, in which Richie enfolds his partner’,s rather colorless singing in plush, precise harmony vocals, airlifting the song to its rightful place: the honeymoon suite of a very posh hotel. That mix of understated and overwrought is pure Richie. He deploys one of pop’,s subtlest skill sets in the service of ferociously corny songs.
The schmaltz gushes through Richie’,s lyrics —, the most ardent pledges of devotion this side of Chré,tien de Troyes. “,Lady, I’,m your knight in shining armor, and I love you,”, goes the opening line of ”,Lady”, (1980), the smash that Richie wrote for Kenny Rogers. Lest the message be unclear, Richie presses the point: “,My love, my love, there’,s somethin’, I want you to know/You’,re the love of my life.”, Richie’,s eternal theme is amour fou, his poetic mode is: Pour it on. To Richie, you’,re not just a lady. You’,re once, twice, three times a lady. Richie loves love, but more than that, he loves saying “,I love you”, —, and he loves saying how much he loves saying “,I love you.”, Consider a couplet from “,Hello”,: “,I long to see the sunlight in your hair/And tell you time and time again how much I care.”, This is Richie’,s way: Start by saying “,I love you”, and, when in doubt, say it again. Say it for always —, naturally.
The miracle is that Richie makes such sentiments stick. Credit his melodic gift and his knack for arrangements that wash over listeners in cresting, tumbling waves. “,Hello”, is typical, with stately verses that open into a wind-whipped chorus. When the song rears up into its final refrain (“,’,Cause I wonder where you are... “,), the effect is that of a unicorn rising on its hind legs, mane flashing, to meet the purple dawn.
In short, Richie is a great singer-songwriter and a world-historical cheeseball. A century-plus of pop history has not erased the squeamishness we feel when faced with ballads like Richie’,s. Today’,s music critics have largely abandoned old snobberies, embracing commercial pop in all its gaudy splendor. Yet songs like “,Hello”, remain for many a bridge too far, a musical pleasure we still take with a side helping of guilt.
But pop culture has evolved a nifty system, allowing us to luxuriate in music we pretend to hold at arm’,s length. The campy karaoke performance, the TV comedy sketch, the “,Rickroll”, —, these bring songs back to us under the cover of irony. It’,s canon-making, 2016 style: We mock-venerate old records as kitsch and, lo and behold, they get inscribed in the Celestial Songbook.
Richie knows how this game is played —, how to laugh at himself, politely, and all the way to the bank. Last fall, he appeared on “,The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,”, or rather, his disembodied head did: Richie played the role of the Lionel Richie bust, duetting with Fallon in a “,Hello”, spoof. When Richie performs, though, the irony melts away.
That’,s what happened at Glastonbury, where a crowd of mostly white rock fans greeted Richie in high tongue-in-cheek mode, waving banners with slogans lifted from memes. But when the opening strains of ”,Hello”, sounded, the throng erupted, joining Richie in a singalong as joyously cathartic as any you will hear. Suddenly, “,Hello”, wasn’,t a tacky ’,80s artifact —, the song was a communal hearth fire, casting a rosy glow over 200,000 souls. It was an example of pop’,s mysterious sorcery, the way that certain alchemical blends of music and words strike us right in the gut, circumnavigating our high-minded aesthetic ideals and studied postures. It was a reminder that some of the most powerful songs are the most gauche, scrambling together beauty and vulgarity, exquisite craftsmanship and appalling taste, exalted chivalric love-oaths and the queasy come-ons of a dork with a mullet. As for that Clay Head From the Lionel Richie “,Hello”, Video: It works equally well as a platter for your cream-cheese dip and a bust on pop’,s Mount Rushmore. ♦,
Jody Rosen is a critic at large for T: The New York Times Style Magazine.
A few months ago, in Iowa City, I attended a recital by the avant-garde string quartet JACK. It took place at the same time as the Big Ten championship football game, which featured the undefeated University of Iowa Hawkeyes, and on my way there the town seemed to be enveloped in a ghostly hush. Still, the recital hall was crowded, with a sizable contingent of skinny-jean-clad locals. This incursion of youth into the securely aged domain of the classical-music audience was owed, it seemed, to the promised appearance of a guest performer, Caroline Shaw.
Richard Burbridge for The New York Times
A few years ago, Shaw, then 30, shocked the classical-music world by becoming the youngest-ever winner of a Pulitzer Prize in music. Shaw won for a piece she wrote for the cultish vocal group Roomful of Teeth, which specializes in otherworldly sounds that hardly suggest the word “,classical,”, and which she is a member of. In swift fashion, Shaw emerged as the face of a flourishing scene of young composers —, people like Nico Muhly, Gabriel Kahane and Missy Mazzoli —, who were blurring the lines between classical and indie music. For the previous month or two, raw video footage from a fund-raiser held by the Democratic National Committee in San Francisco, and attended by President Obama, had been circulating online, showing Shaw singing a long, hypnotic, wordless introduction to Kanye West’,s performance of his song “,Power.”,
In Iowa, Shaw came onstage and sat cross-legged on her chair among the string players. Small and pixieish, she could easily have passed for a college student. She prefaced her work “,By &, By,”, a setting of three gospel songs, by saying that she was hoping to restore some authenticity to commercialized old-time music, and then began singing in an unadorned, incantatory alto shaded with both sorrow and fervor. Her slow, ribbonlike phrases, hovering just this side of harmonic resolution, might have risen from the Middle Ages as much as from the middle of Appalachia. The players plucked their instruments with picks, banjo-style, and occasionally broke into odd, agitated strumming or sawed away at their strings with the wooden part of the bow. Shaw and JACK could seem to be drifting into different songs, Shaw’,s vocals lost in plaintiveness while the quartet fought through bouts of improvisatory chaos. But the strewn-out pieces of sound kept finding their way back to one another. For all the hints of disruptiveness in the music, this was crowd-pleasing stuff, and the young members of the audience responded with shouts.
Not long after the concert, Shaw and I struck up a phone and email correspondence. She grew up in Greenville, N.C., where her mother, a violin teacher, started her on the instrument at 2. “,I was a straight-up suburban Suzuki kid,”, she told me, reared on a strict diet of classical music. “,I lived under a rock for many years.”, She went to Rice University to study violin, then moved on to Yale for a master’,s in performance. While there, she sang in church choirs for $15 an hour to help pay the bills and got a job as an accompanist for dance classes, work that required her to improvise music on demand for a variety of rhythms, tempos and styles of movement. “,If you’,re a good accompanist,”, she says, “,no one notices you. It’,s a way of making music to serve something that’,s larger than you, but something that’,s very human and simple, which is dance.”,
After Yale, she moved to New York and gravitated toward the edges of the classical-music scene. She played a lot of thorny contemporary music, which often left her yearning for the full-bodied pleasures of traditional harmony, and which set her to wondering what she might have done differently had she written the score herself. She had also developed into a specialist in Baroque violin and sang early music in the choir of Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan. In 2009, she heard about an a cappella group that was being put together to explore vocal practices rarely found in standard classical music. “,It was a gig, yes, but what a crazy adventure to learn things like throat singing and yodeling,”, she says.
That summer, the group, Roomful of Teeth, met for the first time in a three-week residency at Mass MoCA, the contemporary art museum in North Adams, Mass. The eight young members settled in to study with a master throat singer from Tuva, a region of southern Siberia. The group’,s director, Brad Wells, invited them to write music for their first performance. Shaw worked late into the night after each day’,s rehearsal, “,trying out these chords,”, as she puts it, “,and moving things around. I had it in my mind that I wanted to hear a mass of people talking, saying things that didn’,t have any particular content. Then I wanted to hear the talk break down into a guttural sound, ‘,vocal fry,’, with no words, just vowels —, the kind of thing kids do, just play with sound. And then I wanted to hear that strange sound turn into a big, beautiful chord, sung by all eight of us, a split second later.”,
After 10 days, Shaw had a draft of a piece, “,Passacaglia,”, to take to rehearsal. It gave the group a chance to practice some of the effects they had been working on, like the lawnmowerish textures of throat singing and the sudden transition between head and chest voice that characterizes yodeling. There was a spoken text —, from “,Wall Drawing 305,”, by Sol LeWitt, on display at Mass MoCA —, which, torn from context, came across as surreal and vaguely menacing. The work’,s opening harmonies, though, were straight from classical tradition. The audience at the first concert cheered and applauded when the swarming, crackling sounds of the vocal meltdown in “,Passacaglia”, resolved, suddenly and triumphantly, by returning to the piece’,s opening D-major chord.
The following two summers, Roomful of Teeth returned to Mass MoCA, and Shaw wrote three more pieces, which she put together as a four-movement work called “,Partita for Eight Voices.”, The range of vocalizations expanded to include whispers, sighs, grunts, gasps, murmurs, whoops, heavy breathing. For a work written by a relative novice, “,Partita”, bristled with assurance. On a lark, Shaw wrote a check for $50 and submitted “,Partita”, to the Pulitzer committee, thinking it a useful way to get the high-profile judges to listen to Roomful of Teeth. She was walking along the Hudson on a spring afternoon when a friend called to tell her she had won the prize. Nine months later, Roomful of Teeth, which had mounted a Kickstarter campaign to help finance its first recording, which included “,Partita,”, won a Grammy. The group now has bookings for close to 75 performances this year.
Last May, Kanye West heard Roomful of Teeth perform “,Partita for Eight Voices”, at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and came backstage afterward to meet the group. “,He just seemed like someone who is honestly curious and interested in finding something new,”, Shaw recalls. “,We exchanged phone numbers and started talking.”, West asked Shaw to produce a new version of his song “,Say You Will,”, a track from his 2008 album “,808s &, Heartbreak.”, “,There was no assignment given,”, Shaw says. “,I just did what I wanted to, and he really liked it.”, West released the remix on SoundCloud and added Shaw to the legion of collaborators on his new project, “,The Life of Pablo,”, bringing her to Los Angeles for three weeks of studio work. She ended up co-writing, co-producing or contributing vocals to several songs.
“,I’,m not really allowed to talk about it,”, Shaw told me. But she went on: “,The work was really fun. It was like being given an amazing coloring book and being told to use all your crayons, use your paint and scissors, anything at all.”, At first, Shaw had little familiarity with West’,s music. She recognized an affinity, though. “,Everything is tightly, tightly controlled, held back, held onto. And then the moment comes and it just breaks out, everything explodes.”, Shaw paused seriously for a moment, then laughed. “,I kinda love that.”, ♦,
Mark Levine is a professor at the Iowa Writers’, Workshop.
There’,s a reason Pitbull christened himself “,Mr. Worldwide”,: The bombastic party rapper is a global phenomenon. He also tends to be served a global helping of ire. In February, he closed out the Grammy Awards with his reggaeton single “,El Taxi,”, in a slot normally reserved for rock music (and, occasionally, rock-rap hybrids), by the song’,s end, several Twitter users, including the “,Broad City”, comedy writer Chris Kelly, had likened the performance to the Zika virus.
This isn’,t the most enlightened slur to lob at a Latino artist. But it’,s exactly that kind of dismissal —, the fear of Latin music as a fiercely catchy menace —, that, paradoxically, helps the music cross so many borders. Pitbull, born Armando Christian Pé,rez in Miami to Cuban immigrants, made himself Mr. Worldwide by understanding precisely how virality works, and “,El Taxi”, is a fantastic example: He released the song in July 2014, but only this year —, 400 million YouTube views later —, did it reach the top spot on Billboard’,s Latin digital charts. Like most of the artist’,s biggest successes, it takes an older, already-beloved song and then samples, bedazzles and interpolates it into a conversation among multiple languages, nationalities and cultures. In this case, the starting point is the 1993 smash “,Murder She Wrote,”, by Chaka Demus and Pliers —, a classic Jamaican dancehall riddim that meets the performers Pitbull (Cuban-American megastar), Sensato (Dominican-American rapper) and Osmani Garcí,a (Cuban reggaetonero) in a kind of pan-Caribbean dialogue.
Jamaica and Cuba have enjoyed a friendly relationship since the early 1970s, when the former lobbied the Organization of American States in support of the latter. More important, though, there’,s Miami, the spiritual home of the “,El Taxi”, sensibilities —, where Caribbean immigrants have for decades melded and commingled culture and influence, with itinerant communities cross-pollinating and building off one another. Chaka Demus certainly approved of “,El Taxi”, building on his original, “,the biggest dancehall song of all time,”, as he told The Jamaica Star. (Besides, he said, “,I have lost track of the amount of persons who have copied the song already.”,)
Diasporas live and thrive in these sonic interchanges, which work almost like a code among the communities that create them —, a point of conversation among very different peoples whom the mainstream holds equally at arm’,s length. Pitbull described himself, in a 2015 Billboard interview, as “,the epitome of the American dream, the underdog, the fighter, the forever hungry, forever appreciative.”, Some may be reasonably allergic to the strobe-light pulse of his Miami party zone. But every beat clearly illustrates the way immigrants have learned to flip that disdain to their advantage. ♦,
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is the culture editor at Jezebel.
The R.&,B. singer D’,Angelo once took a 14-year retreat from his public. After a tour for the 2000 platinum-selling “,Voodoo”, —, during which grown women were reportedly shrieking, nightly, for D’,Angelo to reveal his carved abdomen, then so acutely defined that it seemed unreal, phantasmagoric —, he split, using booze, drugs and solitude to numb his disappointment with a business that seemed to have everything backward. “,I’,m going to go in the woods, drink some hooch, grow a beard and get fat,”, is how he put it to his friend and collaborator Questlove.
The decade-plus of pop music that D’,Angelo sat out was driven, in large part, by neurotic precision. Some of this is surely attributable to the Swedish superproducer Max Martin, who favors a punchy, airless, symmetrical approach to rhythm. You hit the beat and hit it squarely. Martin’,s aesthetic is ubiquitous —, he has worked with Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Adele, Maroon 5 and dozens of others —, and doesn’,t allow for much creative meandering. In the Martin era, so much pop music has been violent in its fastidiousness: no stumbling, no retreat, no lackadaisical exhalations.
But “,Really Love,”, the first single from D’,Angelo’,s late-2014 comeback record, “,Black Messiah,”, seems, at times, like only exhalations: “,Girl, you’,re patient with me,”, D’,Angelo quietly acknowledges in a later verse. His falsetto is all crags and sweetness. The song drifts downstream, with no discernible itinerary. When that little vocal jump in the chorus comes —, “,Doo doo wah”, —, it feels like a pure signal.
It’,s not that “,Really Love”, is muddy or inexact —, although by Martin’,s yardstick, it probably is —, but that it’,s gentle, unstressed, forgiving of itself. This is not so unusual in R.&,B. and soul, formative genres for D’,Angelo, but it has become anomalous within pop. While a listener might find it easier, at first, to holler along with a more fastidious singer like Taylor Swift (It is extraordinarily satisfying! Shouting each fixed syllable! Participating in the one! And only! Way! The song! Allows for!), D’,Angelo’,s vocal performance encourages something softer and less preordained. Even the few seconds of gritty crackle included at the end —, a turntable’,s needle jerking into a run-out groove —, suggest a way to quiet the mind, let the edges blur a little, like when you accidentally fall asleep in a poolside chaise, drink still in hand. It is hard, now, not to read D’,Angelo’,s departure as a reiteration of a creative ethos, writ larger, slowness, here, is not ignoble or archaic. It feels, instead, like a subversive act: a revolution of patience. ♦,
Amanda Petrusich is a music critic. She teaches writing at New York University.
In December, Dwayne Vaz, a freshman representative for the People’,s National Party in Jamaica, made a gross miscalculation. At a rally after a party office was destroyed in a suspected arson, Vaz speculated on whether the crime had been politically motivated. “,A dem dweet?”, Vaz asked the crowd —, “,Did they do it?”, —, before answering his own question with the opening taunt of ”,Weh Dem Feel Like,”, a song by the incarcerated dancehall star Vybz Kartel. “,A baby strength them have,”, Vaz said. “,Gyal [i.e., “,girl”,] strength alone them have.”,
That is, the party’,s political opposition, the Jamaica Labour Party, was too weak to have committed the crime. Riffing on another line from “,Weh Dem Feel Like,”, Vaz exhorted his listeners to “,load up the guns,”, before a D.J. played a few bars of the song. In newspapers for days afterward, politicians and private citizens denounced Vaz for his carelessness: On the eve of an election, a time when Jamaica’,s fragile political peace has historically been rived by violence, Vaz had channeled the menace of Vybz Kartel.
Jailed on suspicion of murder in 2011 and convicted in 2014, Kartel is Jamaica’,s pre-eminent entertainer and a quandary for the political class, which has long defined itself in opposition to the nation’,s popular music —, first reggae and now dancehall, its rude, raucous up-tempo successor. Jamaican artists like Buju Banton, Bounty Killer and Beenie Man popularized dancehall abroad in the ’,90s, and later crossover stars like Sean Paul and Shaggy scored stateside hits with “,Gimme the Light”, and “,Boombastic.”, But dancehall’,s influence is even more profound, having grown from an indigenous genre into the ghost in the pop-music machine. It seeded the evolution of rap, drum and bass and electronic dance music, and has infiltrated American pop from Justin Bieber to Beyoncé,. “,Work,”, the newest single from the Barbadian superstar Rihanna, is effectively dancehall, as was her first hit, “,Pon de Replay”, in 2005.
Vybz Kartel in 2011. Ports Bishop
Here in Jamaica —, where dancehall is the soundtrack to life, blasting every day and late into the night from car stereos and jury-rigged home speakers, in rum bars and barbershops —, Kartel remains the genre’,s reigning monarch, despite having spent the last five years in prison. Born Adidja Palmer, Kartel built his reputation with graphic songs about guns, sex and unapologetic social transgressions, like bleaching his skin. His empire has extended beyond music to products, including a line of cake soap and “,daggering”, condoms, named after a dance move in which a couple simulates rough sex on the dance floor. In 2014, he was convicted of murdering an associate, Clyde (Lizard) Williams, who disappeared in 2011 and whose body was never recovered. Kartel, who maintains his innocence, has continued to dominate the airwaves and awards circuit and somehow seems to be recording music in prison, a new album, “,Viking (Vybz Is King),”, appeared last year.
First released in 2007, “,Weh Dem Feel Like”, is among Kartel’,s enduring hits —, seemingly every man, woman and child in Jamaica can recite its lyrics by heart, even if they disapprove of its message. Each note is its own spore, like dancehall itself, which in the words of Kartel “,cyaa stall”, —, “,can’,t stop”, —, “,forever and ever.”, Dancehall can’,t stop, and neither can “,Weh Dem Feel Like”,, it is a martial force stomping its way to battle, with Kartel as commander in chief. “,We step like a centipede,”, Kartel chants, “,and tek the lead inna war.”,
As the two political parties fought to form the next government, Vaz was not the only politician to take his cues from Kartel and dancehall. In November, Andrew Holness, the Jamaica Labour Party leader, toured Montego Bay wearing Clarks, Jamaica’,s most fashionable footwear, whose prices doubled on the island in 2010 after Kartel penned an ode to the British brand. Holness tweeted a picture of himself dusting off a brown shoe in Kartel’,s preferred style, the “,desert boot,”, and Twitter went wild. “,A weh yuh get dah new Clarks deh daadi?”, Holness wrote, echoing the question posed to Kartel by Popcaan, another dancehall superstar and Kartel’,s now-estranged proté,gé,.
The People’,s National Party, meanwhile, has its own house D.J., Foota Hype. In January, Lisa Hanna, the party’,s minister for youth and culture and a former Miss Jamaica, posted lyrics on Instagram from “,School,”, one of Kartel’,s newer songs, in which he implores students to study hard and to refrain from bleaching their skin. Hanna might have been returning a compliment paid to her by Kartel, who late last year released a song, “,Boss Lady,”, that praised Hanna and also Portia Simpson Miller, then the prime minister.
In their appeals to dancehall fandom, these politicians hoped to inspire an electorate exhausted by empty promises. Since 1989, when the previously socialist-leaning People’,s National Party embraced economic neoliberalism, the ideological gap between the two parties has collapsed. Jamaica’,s debt-to-G.D.P. ratio has reached 125 percent, making it one of the world’,s premier debtor states, I.M.F.-imposed austerity measures have yielded high unemployment rates and a declining standard of living. For young people —, almost half of whom would, according to a recent poll, relinquish their Jamaican citizenship to live abroad —, party politics is increasingly dispiriting. Dancehall is the perfect accompaniment to their mood: a jaded and bacchanalian lament for the Jamaican future as envisioned by its young.
In “,Weh Dem Feel Like,”, Kartel asks about his enemies, “,Dem skin too tough fi bleed?”, —, a fitting question, too, regarding Jamaica’,s frequently violent politics. All told, before the voting, at least four people were shot to death at campaign events, and dozens more were injured in a stampede. When the votes were tallied last month, the nation got what it expected: a virtual tie between two nearly identical parties, with the Jamaica Labour Party eking out a slim majority. Vaz, Holness and Hanna won their seats handily. It was considered, by Jamaican standards, a peaceful election. ♦,
Miriam Markowitz is a writer based in Jamaica and Brooklyn.
Where on earth is the monoculture in 2016? It’,s clearly not dead. There is a song out right now: It’,s called “,Stressed Out,”, and it is by a group called Twenty One Pilots. I discovered it recently, while poking around online during an office lunch break. As I watched the video play in its tiny YouTube window, I was dismayed to discover something. This song, by this group, of whose existence I had not been even dimly aware, had been viewed 110 million times.
Bowled over, I consulted the Billboard charts and saw that “,Stressed Out”, by Twenty One Pilots was the No. 3 song in the nation. (And seriously: Twenty One Pilots? Was this name invented by a spambot? Was their Twitter icon an egg?) A sense of the uncanny crept in: What else didn’,t I know about? Where was I, in relation to everyone else? Digging around more, I learned that the duo used to loiter outside a Chick-fil-A in their hometown, Columbus, Ohio, hawking tickets to their shows. Now, just a few years later, they’,re scheduled to play 75 arenas and counting in 2016. Their success has a certain “,Alex from Target”, feel to it, in which incomprehensible unseen forces conspire to lift an arbitrary phenomenon up into the national spotlight.
In pop culture, “,incomprehensible unseen forces”, can reliably be shortened to just “,teenagers.”, And sure enough, dipping into Tumblr and Vine and Twitter —, alone, again, on my office lunch break —, reveals the band has a deep and devoted learner’,s-permit fan base. The appeal of “,Stressed Out”, for teenagers is easy enough to grasp: It sounds like a cheery telegram from turn-of-the-century MTV —, a kind of singsong rap that transforms, in the chorus, into emo pop. The backbeat instantly recalls Eminem’,s “,My Name Is,”, and the verses take you back to Crazy Town’,s “,Butterfly.”, Sometimes Tyler Joseph, their singer, picks up a ukulele, in the manner of so many YouTube stars. The whole thing is like a microhistory of the last 20 years of suburban white people.
The real mystery is, increasingly, my own vantage point. Those 110 million browsers that have called up this little YouTube window playing “, Stressed Out ”, are a not-insignificant slice of humanity. Now I find myself joining their ranks. Maybe the monoculture continues on, unabated, outside us, while we peek at it through tiny holes in our self-built huts. The only evidence we catch of one another’,s existence is a lonely counter going up, one view at a time. ♦,
Jayson Greene is a senior editor for Pitchfork.
The day after Michael Jackson’,s death in 2009, Helen Brown wrote an elegy for The Telegraph about his life and legacy, which I return to any time someone asserts that Bruno Mars might be the new King of Pop. Brown is rightfully effusive throughout, but one line still hasn’,t left me: “,The first single he released with the Jackson Five, 1969’,s ‘,I Want You Back,’, is arguably the greatest pop record of all time and certainly the fastest man-made route to pure joy.”,
I’,ve held onto that idea —, a song as a route —, ever since. The trick to music, though, is that it doesn’,t really take you anywhere, you take yourself. The song is just the ticket, the map, the conduit. You arrive at the destination entirely on your own.
The first time I heard “,Sunday Candy,”, I couldn’,t quite tell what it was about. Is this a love song? It certainly sounded like it —, the blue-skies-and-sunshine piano melody, the sweet and careful way Chance the Rapper intoned words of affection. (The song is technically by Donnie Trumpet &, the Social Experiment, a Chicago-based collective headed by the trumpeter Nico Segal, but Chance is the project’,s driving force.) The opening capers along, propelled by full-hearted optimism, followed by bumping horns, rhythmic claps, silvery voices, and then: My heart snagged on the churchy organ, such a rarity in a contemporary song that I might even have looked around to see where the sound was coming from.
That sound brings me directly to my grandmother’,s church in Roanoke, Va., where I received my first blessing as a human baby (I don’,t remember), learned my first proper hymn (I don’,t remember) and, as a toddler, stood up on the pew and interrupted the service in which my Mema received special accolades from the pastor (I don’,t remember, but I wish I did). Hearing an organ is my own vibrant Sunday morning: slicing the thick air with a paper fan, tightening my stomach muscles to quiet any rumbling until lunch, trying not to sweat out my freshly pressed hair, searching for a lesson within the sermon that I could believe in. The song made me 2 again, then 5, then 12 and then (and now) 24, in the room but ever-so-slightly out of place, seeing love and trying to feel it. “,Sunday Candy”, took me down South, took me back, put me back into my grandmother’,s lap for four generous, holy minutes. Church, still, is a strange sort of refuge: I never want to go, but I’,m always glad I went. I really go only whenever I visit my grandma.
“,Sunday Candy”, ends the way my grandma’,s church service always began: with the choir. The superb, slowed-down version Chance performed on “,Saturday Night Live”, in late 2015 is as close to a hip-hop gospel song as I’,ve ever heard, due mostly to the outsize presence of that choir with its call-and-response approach to repetition. Chance ends the performance with a breathless, ecclesiastical freestyle not unlike the climax of a sermon, marrying the spiritual transcendence of a Sunday service with his artistic one.
The next time I heard “,Sunday Candy,”, I actually listened to it —, “,I got a future so I’,m singin’, for my grandma”, —, and realized: Oh, it’,s a song about his grandmother. (Chance recently posted on Instagram that his grandma, Mama Charlie, died. Condolences, Chance.) An all-purpose love song: anchored in familial love, laden with devotion and gratitude and a pinch of guilt, sprinkled with romanticism. It’,s subtly selfish and proud (“,You singin’,, too / But your grandma ain’,t my grandma”,), wholehearted in its intent. Right. I sort of wondered what Mema would think of it. Maybe I’,ll call her when she’,s home from church. ♦,
Jazmine Hughes is an associate editor for the magazine.
The Arabic guitar scales and soulful warbling that open “,Habibi”, are the types of sounds you might associate with Turkish markets —, or Gypsy caravans. But they are, in fact, Bulgarian chalga, a pop-folk genre popularized and perhaps best exemplified by its singer, Azis, whose video for “,Habibi”, surpassed 20 million views on YouTube within four months of its November 2015 release. It’,s hard to say whether this is the biggest hit yet for the so-called King of Chalga, but the outfit he dons is definitely his butchest. Azis is dressed like a “,Faith”,-era George Michael instead of in his signature style: sexpot drag.
“,My initial intent was to show Bulgarians that people are different and to help them accept those who are different,”, the singer explained recently, as he reclined on a pile of pillows for a video Skype interview. He wore a tight black T-shirt with a deep scoop, his brows perfectly manicured. “,My idea was for them to accept us, to love us the way we are.”, There were less profound reasons too: “,In 2012, I’,d lost weight, so I wanted to show off my new body and make sure everybody saw my legs.”,
Born in Bulgaria’,s only women’,s prison (his mother was arrested for selling imported clothes before the fall of Communism), Azis was, he says, marked since birth “,to be different.”, He was gay in a culture that rejects homosexuality and Roma in a country —, one of several —, that continues to persecute the group. “,Being gay and being Roma are highly discriminated against in Bulgaria,”, Azis continued. “,They’,re both words that people here hate. For me, I’,m carrying the burden of the two.”,
Nonetheless, Azis’,s mother was determined to make her son a star, and after she got out of prison, she dragged him to endless auditions. But “,nobody wanted a Gypsy kid,”, Azis went on. “,They just didn’,t want a Gypsy in their choir, a Gypsy standing in front, on TV, anywhere, it was beyond imagination to have somebody like me there.”, Eventually, this string of humiliations “,crushed”, his mother. They moved to West Germany when Azis was 8. He returned to Bulgaria a few years later, after the wall came down, his mother’,s dream became his own the night he sang in a restaurant with live accompaniment. “,I felt really intoxicated by performing,”, he recalled. In his early 20s, he signed with a music agency in Sofia and a year later won best artist at a Bulgarian music festival. Within two years, he sold out the country’,s biggest stadium, where, with Communism more than a decade gone, he took the stage wearing high-heeled red leather boots that went up to his crotch.
Now 38, Azis has dropped what he calls his “,diva”, look. This is partly because he’,s “,tired and too old for everything”, —, it takes him three hours to get into drag —, but also because he no longer feels the need to make statements. “,Nowadays, you can see boys in tight jeans holding hands on the street. And there is a street in Sofia where you can have sex with a transsexual.”, He laughed, a full throaty chuckle like a glamorous Disney villain. “,I’,ve done what I could to change people’,s perceptions,”, he later added. “,I showed that you can be Gypsy and you can be intelligent, you could be gay and you can be cool. That’,s it. I cannot do the very same thing for 20 years.”,
In 2015, Azis was the most Googled person in his home country, but this was barely covered in the Bulgarian press. “,They are ready to embrace foreign gay artists rather than admit they have their own gay celebrity,”, he says. And yet he remains philosophical. “,I have people stop me on the street and say: ‘,I cannot stand you. I just cannot look at you, but I just shut my eyes and I listen to your singing.’, So even if people hate gays and Roma, they still can appreciate my singing.”,
“,Habibi”, may take its name from an Arabic endearment, but he insists he’,s not trying to imply that, in Bulgaria, Arabs may suffer a fate similar to the Roma. (A recent Amnesty International report noted that migrants live in terror of “,xenophobic hate crimes”, and admonished Bulgaria to address this climate of fear.) Rather, he explains, it’,s that Arab barbershops are trendy in Bulgaria. He has seen young people talking about them on Facebook.
One day, the diva look will be back, he promises. In the meantime, he’,s considering recording a song entirely in English for American audiences, for whom he does have a message, however apolitical. “,I want them to know about Bulgaria,”, he said. “,I want to tell them that it’,s a small but very beautiful country, the nature here is amazing, the people are very friendly, especially in the countryside, and we have the most delicious feta cheese.”, ♦,
Mac McClelland is the author of the memoir “,Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story.”,
When David Bowie died in January, just two days after releasing his album “,Blackstar”, —, the title was, in fact, just a sepulchral black-star icon —, fans began parsing the songs for coded messages. Some noted that a “,black star”, can refer to a type of lesion. Others pointed to a mortality-haunted deep cut by one of Bowie’,s idols, Elvis Presley, also titled “,Black Star.”, And when news of Bowie’,s protracted health struggle surfaced, his latter-day creative burst suggested a brilliantly choreographed sort of ars moriendi, an art of dying. On “,Lazarus,”, which doubled as the title song of a career-spanning musical he completed just before his death, Bowie sings, “,Look up here, I’,m in heaven”, —, adding, with a cosmically avuncular wink, “,dropped my cellphone down below.”,
There’,s a tradition of “,death poems”, in some Asian countries, and as a generation of outspoken musicians shuffles off our coil, the farewell album has become a Western equivalent. John Coltrane’,s “,Expression”, might be considered a forerunner. Warren Zevon made “,The Wind”, after a diagnosis of inoperable cancer. On the last of Johnny Cash’,s “,American Recordings”, series released during his lifetime, he performed Trent Reznor’,s “,Hurt”, as a sort of deathbed confessional, then closed with “,We’,ll Meet Again,”, a World War II-era send-off that was the smirking existential finale of “,Dr. Strangelove.”,
Illustration by Jules Julien
Other late works tilt toward consecrating summary, like Bach’,s “,Mass in B Minor”, —, or the new album by Loretta Lynn, still hale at 83, which reprises pointed favorites like “,Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven”, (“,but nobody wants to die”,). Lou Reed’,s parting shot was extreme, even for him: a harsh art-metal collaboration with Metallica that reimagines Frank Wedekind’,s violently sexual “,Lulu”, plays. But Reed was always a button-pusher. “,The greatest disappointment/Age withered him and changed him,”, he snarled on “,Junior Dad,”, a song as mercilessly cleareyed as Reed’,s signature “,Heroin.”, Bowie is said to have called “,Lulu”, his friend’,s “,greatest work,”, a judgment colored, perhaps, by his own exit-music plans.
In an era when our deaths are generally scripted by a profit-driven medical establishment, these conscious farewells are inspiring. Death is one of life’,s main events: Shouldn’,t it be our own composition? Reed died at home, surrounded by friends and family, with a posthumous, invite-only tribute at the Apollo Theater. There was no public funeral service for Bowie, only a final photo left on Instagram taken shortly before he died —, the former and eternal Ziggy Stardust looking dapper in a designer suit, rakish hat and no socks, grinning widely, ready for his next act. ♦,
Will Hermes is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone.