Five years is an eternity in the life of a record.
Grimes (a.k.a. Claire Boucher) probably doesn‚Äôt give a single fuck about how she‚Äôs perceived. She‚Äôs in her own little world, and once in a while she lets the rest of us in. In 2012, she called this fever-dream world Visions, the most appropriately titled record of that year‚ÄĒmaybe even the decade.
In the simplest (read: reductive) of terms, Visions is a delightful synth-pop record. It pulses and throbs and twinkles and ripples and dances around uncomplicated beats. Sometimes it all happens on the same song, as on ‚ÄúVowels = Space and Time,‚ÄĚ and it‚Äôs somehow not overkill. That‚Äôs her gift as a producer. It‚Äôs a fun record, at least on the surface.
What sets Visions apart from being just a synth-pop album is Boucher‚Äôs willingness to incorporate subversive elements below the top layer. She uses her mousey wisp of a voice to propel playful melodies forward while hiding the dark undertones of her lyrics, like bitter dismissiveness towards an ex (‚ÄúGo where you want to go/ When you get there, you‚Äôll be wishing you were by the phone‚ÄĚ) or one‚Äôs state of mind after a physical assault (‚Äú‚ÄėCause someone could break your neck/ Coming up behind you/ Always coming and you‚Äôd never have a clue.‚ÄĚ
You might be able to get away with calling Visions an IDM record, if only because that‚Äôs true in a literal sense: this is dance music that is intelligent, yes. But it‚Äôs so goddamn much more than that. ‚ÄúBeing myself makes me feel like I can‚Äôt touch the ground,‚ÄĚ she sings. ‚ÄúHere on the Earth makes me feel like I can‚Äôt get the sound.‚ÄĚ Perhaps that‚Äôs because her world isn‚Äôt ours. ‚Äď Steve Lampiris
Over the last five years, Run the Jewels has dropped three commercially and critically successful projects, but the genesis of that union begins here. Up until this album, Killer Mike was an underrated MC putting out unsung material on the outer edges of the Dungeon Family‚Äôs orbit, largely operating in a distinctly Southern wheelhouse. R.A.P. Music wasn’t as impressive as the 2011 release PL3DGE, arguably his strongest album to date, but what it lacked in overall quality and inventiveness it more than made up for in zeitgeist-creating potency. Whether or not the Killer Mike who emerged from these 12 tracks was more skilled on the mic or better overall is irrelevant, but his tag-team run with El-P is what made him a household name.
It’s that shared chemistry that propelled R.A.P. Music onto so many best-album lists in 2012 and why it’s endured since. Entering his boisterous polemic phase, El-P‚Äôs pugilistic production, all sci-fi synths, heavyweight samples and serrated record scratches, made the perfect backing track for the Killer Mike who would go on to be Bernie’s bro and a regular talking head on the news. From the opening of ‚ÄúBig Beast,‚ÄĚ an intro that sounds like post-apocalyptic Run-DMC, to the clever crime fiction ‚ÄúJoJo‚Äôs Chillin‚ÄĚ on through to the pissed-off leftist anthem ‚ÄúReagan,‚ÄĚ Mike and his co-conspirator travel back to the hip hop of their youth and breathe new life into their influences with the bellyfire of the present. It sparked a partnership that shows no signs of slowing down soon and still holds up over their future collaborations for sheer brashness. ‚Äď Dominic Griffin
It should come as no surprise that, after five years, we still don‚Äôt have a follow-up to The Idler Wheel‚Ä¶; Fiona Apple in 2017 is still an easily-spooked creature that moves at a glacial pace creatively. Whenever we get lucky enough to hear a new album from her, it‚Äôs easy to wring it dry for wisdom, joy, sorrow and honesty.
‚ÄúEvery single night‚Äôs a fight with my brain,‚ÄĚ Apple sings at the beginning of The Idler Wheel‚Ä¶‚Äôs opener, ‚ÄúEvery Single Night.‚ÄĚ From the get-go, it‚Äôs obvious that something is different about how Apple has chosen to make her record. After the lush, densely-packed sonic territories of Extraordinary Machine and When the Pawn‚Ä¶, it‚Äôs almost shocking to hear her with everything stripped away‚ÄĒeach song features little more than just Apple and her piano. It forces us to confront her humanity without the ability to hide behind anything. Lucky for her, she‚Äôs got a psyche worth exploring.
While there isn‚Äôt anything on The Idler Wheel‚Ä¶ that Apple hadn‚Äôt already done in the three albums preceding it, the album‚Äôs power lies in the fact that she was able to deftly boil down everything great about her music into one uncomplicated package. Her voice is strained, but there‚Äôs power in the vulnerability. She‚Äôs the focus of each song, and she never restrains herself, but for Apple‚ÄĒwho‚Äôs every romantic folly is a seismic event‚ÄĒeven that can be boiled down: ‚ÄúHow can I ask anyone to love me/ When all I do is beg to be left alone?‚ÄĚ
Human history has reached a turbulent point in 2017, and with the doom and gloom prevalent in everyday life, it‚Äôs easy to want to harden oneself. The Idler Wheel‚Ä¶ helps teach us that the righteous path‚ÄĒthe one where it‚Äôs okay to feel hurt and scared and lost‚ÄĒis worth keeping to, and emotional honesty pays dividends. ‚Äď Hollister Dixon
Just listening to it is hedonistic. Channel Orange is sheer sensory euphoria, on par with the Stevie Wonder/Prince/Marvin Gaye pantheon of ‚Äúevery song sounds like I saw the face of god.‚ÄĚ But just as impressive was how the comedown from this opulence was cocooned between perfect synths. Frank Ocean channels Freddie Mercury, both of them artists who searched for someone to love in the midst of debaucherous, gorgeous excess.
That has as much to do with Ocean‚Äôs innate talent as the subject matter he tackles. Ocean‚Äôs central theme has always been nostalgia; the visitation of not just happy times, but all magnetic emotions. It‚Äôs late-night music, from fever-dream visions, lovemaking and drunken anxieties that sink in as the hangover takes hold. Wonderfully illicit and wonderfully painful.
And just as important was Ocean‚Äôs admission of fear and confusion. He had ‚ÄúDragon Ball Z‚ÄĚ references slotted next to instances of mistaken paternity, making it all the more powerful when he went all-in for the emotional ‚Äúumph.‚ÄĚ The Elton John-biting ‚ÄúSuper Rich Kids‚ÄĚ includes a suicide attempt nestled in those heavenly harmonies. And, of course, album centerpiece ‚ÄúPyramids‚ÄĚ is a progressive-soul epic in the scope and sense of ‚ÄúVoodoo Chile.‚ÄĚ It‚Äôs the easy, and perhaps correct, answer to ‚Äúwhat‚Äôs the greatest song of the 2010s?‚ÄĚ
There‚Äôs very little that isn‚Äôt Frank on this album. But the guests who do join bring their A game. Ocean broke Andr√© 3000 out of his Fortress of Solitude, turned John Mayer into a guitar shaman and freed Earl Sweatshirt from his Samoan prison. They had to come correct. After all, they were in a pleasure palace, a sensory overload and something so far unmatched, except from Ocean himself. ‚Äď Nathan Stevens
When good kid, m.A.A.d city was first released to effusive critical praise, Kendrick Lamar added a careful caveat to those who referred to his major-label debut as an ‚Äúinstant classic.‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs classic worthy,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúIt has to stand with the time and have the years behind.‚ÄĚ Five years later, it‚Äôs safe to say that the album has attained ‚Äúclassic‚ÄĚ status. It‚Äôs an album that doesn‚Äôt sacrifice Lamar‚Äôs catchy hooks (‚ÄúBitch, Don‚Äôt Kill My Vibe‚ÄĚ, virtuosic flows (‚ÄúBackseat Freestyle‚ÄĚ), slick production (‚Äúm.A.A.d city‚ÄĚ) or stellar wordplay (‚ÄúSing About Me‚ÄĚ) in the process of crafting a complex and socially-conscious bildungsroman about growing up in Compton.
Lamar subtitled the album A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar, and such a comparison to cinema feels apt. The narrative outline of the album could be broken down into three-acts‚ÄĒthe lust-driven and drug-laced lifestyle of Lamar‚Äôs Compton ‚ÄúK.Dot‚ÄĚ persona, the realization of the dangers and violence of Compton, and the full transformation of K.Dot into Kendrick‚ÄĒbut Lamar complicates the story‚Äôs chronology by making it nonlinear and circular, almost like a modernist novel. In fact, the album has been taught in college classrooms alongside novels by renowned modernists such as James Joyce and James Baldwin.
The album‚Äôs themes of lust, gang violence, poverty and faith haunt each track, just as the ghosts of West Coast gangsta-rap possess the grimmer edges of the album‚Äôs sound. It‚Äôs a sonic and lyrical film about the struggles of place and identity, loaded with characters and cut scenes equally as memorable as its hooks. Recent national conversations about race, poverty and violence can be routed through the grim realities of Lamar‚Äôs narrative, a point made all the more clearly by his politically charged VMA performances.
With good kid, m.A.A.d city, Lamar ascended to the highest rungs of the hip-hop pantheon, a position only made firmer with his subsequent releases. Lamar may very well be the hottest hip-hop artist out there today, but his rap genius was first revealed in spades on good kid, m.A.A.d city. ‚Äď Ethan King