Hello – this is my first time writing to you dear reader of words on the Internet in 2017, and what a year it’s been: Donald Trump is the President* (of the United States^)… really that’s all you need to know, the rest is an ever widening sea of trash reverberating from our nation’s capitol these days — but this isn’t that kind of blog.
2017 in Music got off to a slow start in January with regard to the big name artists I’m into. The xx released the very good I See You, but Ed Sheeran had the #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 for 12 of the first 16 weeks of the year — 11 straight from February to April, that is until Kendrick Lamar dropped “Humble”. As a result, lots of debut and sophomore projects got a lot of early shine, some of which we’ll talk about in depth, some of which I’ll just mention, all of which you should check out. Of course many established artists and personal favorites of mine have dropped albums too. Lucky for you, I keep a playlist of all the music I come across during my travels that you can (and should) follow on Spotify.
The beginning of February saw the release of two of the best albums of 2017 so far: The Internet lead singer Syd’s FIN and Sampha’s Process. I’d been anticipating Syd’s and Sampha’s albums since last year and that they each managed to overdeliver on my expectations with their debuts is no small feat. “All About Me” was the lead single from Fin, it’s perfectly emblematic of the ever blurring line between hip-hop and R&B and there’s no need to specify or specialize when your lyrical skill and ability to craft a mellow vibe go so hand in hand. “Over” featuring 6LACK is another standout with mass appeal; however, Syd is at her most effective on tracks like “Smile More” and is at the height of her seductive powers on “Drown in it”, which, though only clocking in at a minute and change, will make you want a cigarette afterward.
Sampha’s Process is 10 tracks that span 40 minutes, but you go places and it’s short and exciting enough to want to run it back a couple of times. Brief as it is and early as it was released, Process possesses the staying power to not only last the year, but endure as one of the defining albums of the ever evolving modern soul sub-genre. I first heard Sampha’s ghostly voice on Drake’s “Too Much” from his 2013 album Nothing Was The Same, wherein Drake sampled (or swagger jacked, depending on who you ask) Sampha’s track of the same name. One could argue that Sampha’s sound has been influencing R&B and soul ever since then having contributed in some form or fashion to tracks from Beyonce, FKA Twigs, Kanye West, Solange, and Drake again.
Sampha’s “Too Much” is much more heartfelt than Drake could ever hope to come across as on a track and it’s best that he doesn’t often try. “Happens” is another Sampha loosie from 2013 that’s so compelling with a piano that’s so vibrant it redeems its own sadness, all that high pitched emotion is somehow easily understandable. So when Sampha dropped “Timmy’s Prayer” in 2016 introducing deeper, cleaner electronics to carry the emotional weight, I was taken aback when the track escalated with frantic rhythm and finished with relative pace. Sampha followed the release of “Timmy’s Prayer” with “Blood On Me”, further expanding the possibilities of what he could deliver by way of a true uptempo dance track overflowing with soul.
Somehow Sampha manages to balance the up and down, the noisy electronics and the naked piano, tied together by a most distinctive voice that’s capable of delivering emotion over any notes or sounds or tones, his intent crystal clear no matter the pitch. On tracks like “Kora’s Song” and “Take Me Inside” Sampha manages to further experiment with build-up, pace, and pitch such that it becomes hard to guess whether you’re in for a slow jam or a full on cosmic journey. The best example of Sampha’s particular blend of sound operating on the highest level across genres is on “Reverse Faults”, which I can hardly begin to fully encapsulate, you’ll have to listen and decide on your own if you can pick up what he’s putting down. If not, “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano” and “What Shouldn’t I Be?” are more traditional and undeniably good.
In late February Future dropped FUTURE and HNDRXX in back to back weeks earning back to back No. 1 debuts on the Billboard 200 album charts, the first to ever do it. However, Thundercat’s Drunk is the album that sticks with me from that week. No other artist could bring together Kendrick, Wiz, Pharrell, and Michael McDonald & Kenny Loggins for the same funky ride, but Thundercat does.
Which brings us to March — which is spring in title only here in Texas — a month appropriately kicked off with the release of American Teen, the debut album from El Paso prodigy Khalid. If you’ve spent any time in a car or near a radio there’s a good chance you’ve heard Khalid’s “Location”. Or, even more likely, you’ve heard the “Location (Remix)” featuring Lil Wayne and Kehlani.
“Send me your location / let’s focus on communicating / ‘Cause I just need the time and place to come through” is the most millennial chorus of 2017 and it’s perfect, all about that action. From there “Location” rises and rises and the beat drop is so reassuringly smooth that if you weren’t on board after “American Teen”, which leads the album, and “Young Dumb & Broke”, the second most millennial chorus of 2017, you should hop on over to another blog.
But if you feel it, you can easily tell that Khalid can be a voice (just one of many) of a creative generation who know not of a time before the Internet, a generation continually bubbling to the top of America’s cultural consciousness, whether the rest of the country is ready or not. “Young Dumb & Broke” has a remix of its own released in early June featuring fellow millennial music sensations Rae Sremmurd and Lil Yachty, and if those gentlemen either won’t or can’t appeal to the mainstream Khalid will be there to blow by them in the years to come. Sterogum couldn’t find room for American Teen on its 50 best albums of 2017 so far, and they put Sampha’s Process at 28, but each are easily in my top 10 of the year so far and could very well still be there by year’s end.
Speaking of debut albums from the youths of America, St. Louis native Smino dropped the very good blkswn in mid-March, an album that’s ostensibly hip-hop but often dips into R&B moods. Also in mid-March, Rick Ross dropped his 9th studio album Rather You Than Me, but that was quickly eclipsed in the timelines by the release of Drake’s More Life: A Playlist By October Firm; which will from here on out be referred to as a project, Drake’s 7th since 2010’s Thank Me Later.
As Drake projects go, More Life is his best effort since the aforementioned Nothing Was The Same. 2016’s Views was dead on arrival — if he started with “9” and cut “Keep The Family Close” along with a few other tracks Views could’ve been salvaged — yet it still moved numbers as Drake is wont to do. What a Time To Be Alive and If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late were fine, and would have made one good album had Drake selected the best tracks and released them as one project, but there’s too much money to be made at his popularity level in giving the people more than they want, we can’t help but stream it anyway.
The lead track on More Life, “Free Smoke”, is the best distillate of what Drake tinkered with on his previous three projects. A soulful intonation care of Nai Palm of Hiatus Kaiyote; followed by a warning from the patois boy himself, “And more chune for your headtop / So watch how you speak on my name, you know?”; followed by a Boi-1da beat drop and just like that Drake’s erased everyone’s memory of Views declaring “Free shmoke, free shmoke, ayy!” x3.
He keeps the people going with even more help from his friends. UK grime mainstay Giggs guests on “No Long Talk” and “KMT” and Skepta features with his own “Skepta Interlude”, Sampha gets a track of his own as well on “4422”, Quavo and Travis Scott bring a flute and guest on “Portland”, 2 Chainz and Young Thug guest on the lowkey banger “Sacrifices”, Kanye West and PARTYNEXTDOOR make appearances toward the end of the project, Young Thug shows up again on “Ice Melts”, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the lovely Jorja Smith who brings a touch of the blues to the project — a little something for everyone over 22 tracks lasting an hour and twenty minutes.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s something to be said about Drake’s ability to pull in the best people to put together the best project like, say, Beyonce (that’s where their comparisons end, by the way), and a couple of the catchier songs from More Life, “Passionfruit” and “Gyalchester”, don’t feature anyone at all. Despite that, Drake seems to have realized he’s only going to continue to be more popular with lots of influence from his friends as opposed to being so staunchly insular as he was on Views.
March ended with new music from Chaz Bundick (Toro Y Moi) Meets The Mattson 2 on their collaborative jam session of an album Star Stuff, plus new music from Colombian/Canadian singer-songwriter/producer Tei Shi care of her wonderful Crawl Space. April started with a new album from Joey Bada$$, ALL-AMERIKKAN BADA$$, his best to date, and then Kendrick Lamar brought the industry to a standstill with the release of DAMN.
The Kendrick Lamar takeover in 2017 began on March 30th when he dropped the lead single “Humble” along with fresh visuals on YouTube. I’ve talked a bit about how Beyonce never drops music without visuals since 2013, and artists at (well, near) her level like Kendrick should really follow her blueprint. But until someone else has the gall to make compelling visuals to accompany every track on an album in secret and release it all at once, doing what Kendrick did in releasing a very provocative video to go with a very good song is enough to move the needle and gin up interest in a forthcoming album.
On April 18th Kendrick ran it back and dropped “DNA” with a music video featuring Don Cheadle. Both “Humble” and “DNA” have a way of hitting you square in the face as soon as you hit play on them, Kendrick raps hard bars over harder beats and in general people were very excited to hear music akin to what they heard on 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City as opposed to what they heard on 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly. I should mention that TPAB speaks to me. I’m well aware of its comparatively limited appeal, but even tepid listeners at the time couldn’t deny the creativity Kendrick flexed in applying rap to jazz fusion.
Upon its release, Damn debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and hasn’t yet dropped out of the top 3 over the 9 weeks since. Damn is much, much, much more straightforward than TPAB or even GKMC, and it’s safe to say the culture, even the masses, can’t get enough. It’s as if Kendrick decided to be wholly direct and impactful with his messages, his theories and suspicions, his memories and anxieties, even with the song titles themselves, than ever before and in doing so is able to give voice to the same anxieties and suspicions percolating among many black people — and lately people period. That’s a roundabout way of saying that despite the hard banging production and challenging themes, Damn is more approachable, more easily digestible than Kendrick Lamar’s recent releases, and it seems to be worming its way into ears across America and the world now that more can all of a sudden (kind of) relate to the black struggle in this most trash year of our Lord 2017 — just remember “what happens on Earth stays on Earth.”
All of the social and political commentary aside, Damn just has some damn good tracks. “Humble” is a banger that still goes when it comes on at the bar or in the club, but the 3rd single “Loyalty” featuring Rihanna is slower and a more typical kind of track. It’s sort of impossible to not have a hit on your hands when you give Rihanna a few bars in addition to her typical chorus duties. But thematically, as is true of each of the tracks on Damn, the lyrics really get you to thinking while the beat compels you to move your body. My favorite on Damn, “Love” featuring Zacari, is the most romantically emotional track. It’s a brief return to the sensuality of TPAB only this time supported by the more expected boom, boom, pap and snare.
“Damn. Love or Lust?” This is the central question of the album that’s asked over and over and in myriad ways. I still don’t know, maybe it’s both that keeps us going, pursuing people and things, connections and goals, thriving and/or merely surviving in America — “God bless ya if it’s good to ya.”
While Kendrick dominated the headlines for most of April, Mary J. Blige dropped Strength of a Woman, her 13th studio album. Mary J. is a legend who doesn’t get enough shine these days: 8 of her first 8 albums went Platinum, put some respect on her name and her songs in your playlists. Also in late April, Chance the Rapper’s right hand man Nico Segal (formerly known as Donnie Trumpet) followed up 2015’s Surf with another collaborative project titled Exchange. This 7 track jazz project featuring Nico on the trumpet with three other players only lasts a half hour but grabs your attention with minimal lyrics and is endlessly re-playable.
May was a bit slow, but I did discover Niia during that time, and her debut album I is exactly the kind of low and slow, horns and piano, heavy R&B vibe I’m into. Check out “Sideline” featuring Jazmine Sullivan. Also out of nowhere but in a completely different way: I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Slowdive, the self titled album from the English rock band Slowdive, their first in 12 years. Like The JuJu’s Exchange, Slowdive is excellent music to unwind to — you could listen to both in the time it would take you to listen to More Life, but, different strokes for different situations.
Before we get to June, I should probably say a few words about Frank Ocean. Though Frank has not released an album this year he’s managed to stay in the headlines and release new music via his Beats 1 Show blonded RADIO. Let’s re-wind back to early March when Frank ended Episode 2 of blonded RADIO with a new track, “Chanel”. He did it again in early April with “Biking” featuring Jay Z and Tyler the Creator. Then he did it again in late April with “Lens”, a solo version and a remix featuring Travis Scott. “Lens” is my favorite of the three for the way it builds and builds, but “Chanel” is still incredible and worth 1,000 words on its own, and “Biking” seems to be liked by all my friends who like to ride bikes.
It hasn’t been all good for Frank. He’s had to cancel a hand full of festival dates a considerable amount of time after he was announced and advertised on their lineups, which is the most un-cool thing an artist can do to their fans while giving an ambiguous excuse. But when Frank finally did make it to the stage as advertised at NorthSide Festival in Denmark it appeared, via various cell phone videos from the crowd, to have been worth the ticket and was enough to convince me to buy should he (plan to) make his way through Austin.
Which brings us to June. For the most part this month I’ve been listening to new music from new artists Dua Lipa and Brandon Marcel, new albums I’d been anticipating in Ti Amo from Phoenix and Ctrl from SZA, and new albums I’m pleasantly surprised by in Pretty Girls Like Trap Music from 2 Chainz and Melodrama from Lorde — “Liability” and “Liability (Reprise)” made their way onto my Modern Soul Food playlist almost immediately.
This past weekend’s rap releases are a tale of two approaches. Grateful from DJ Khaled and Big Fish Theory from Vince Staples could not be more different; in length, creativity, and ultimately quality. Unfortunately DJ Khaled wasn’t able to leverage his son to match the success of 2016’s Major Key because, as DJ Booth put it, too many cooks — so let’s focus for a minute on Vince.
In editing this post in occurred to me that Vince Staples is like the rap version of Sampha: an incredible artist using their lyrical gifts and all available electronic music making know how to make music that seamlessly, consistently blends two popular but disparate genres. However Vince has had more reps, done more to blur the edges and push the boundaries. He’s put out two albums to date: Summertime ’06 (a double album actually) in 2015 and now Big Fish Theory. Plus two EPs: Hell Can Wait in 2014 and last year’s Prima Donna, for which he made an accompanying short film that adds depth and context.
With each of his projects since Hell Can Wait, Vince Staples has shown time and time again that while the rest of the rap game continues to zigg, he’s going to zagg. Whereas Migos and Future and others sink deeper into trap music, Vince is wading deeper into electronic/house waters and rapping his ass off over those wonky, pulsating beats such that it doesn’t matter if you’re used to it, you can’t deny the execution and you get used to it. Artists like Vince Staples and Sampha have vision. They may not be the only two seeing a truly borderless musical future, but their comfort and ability to create earnest electronic music from within rap and soul respectively, not merely apply electronic rhythms and flourishes to those genres, is special. Of course “Yeah Right” featuring Kendrick Lamar is a jam (side note: “Lust” on Damn is a very Vince Staples vibe), but my favorite stretch of Big Fish Theory is that “Alyssa Interlude”, “Love Can Be…”, and “745” combo.
On June 30th, this Friday, Calvin Harris is set to drop Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 and officially take over the summer airwaves and playlists. Also, Jay Z is set to release his 5th solo studio album since he announced his retirement in 2003 with The Black Album. Unfortunately, Jay’s 4:44 will be a Tidal exclusive and I’m not going through that free trial rigamarole again. So, to wrap this thing up, here’s a list of my top 10 albums of 2017 so far and 5 more — until next time:
/// Top 10 Albums of 2017 (So Far) ///
1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN
2. Sampha – Process
3. Khalid – American Teen
4. Thundercat – Drunk
5. SZA – Ctrl
6. Drake – More Life
7. Syd – FIN
8. Tei Shi – Crawl Space
9. Phoenix – Ti Amo
10. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
* – For how long? We’ll see, but if he makes it all four years there’s a good chance I won’t.
^ – For how long? We’ll see, our country has never been more divided and at the same time ill equipped to respond to a major natural disaster or to withstand the continual erosion of the freedoms that make our democracy a democracy — but this isn’t that kind of blog.