Five years is an eternity in the life of a record.
Grimes (a.k.a. Claire Boucher) probably doesnât give a single fuck about how sheâs perceived. Sheâs 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 yearâmaybe 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 âVowels = Space and Time,â and itâs somehow not overkill. Thatâs her gift as a producer. Itâs a fun record, at least on the surface.
What sets Visions apart from being just a synth-pop album is Boucherâs 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 (âGo where you want to go/ When you get there, youâll be wishing you were by the phoneâ) or oneâs state of mind after a physical assault (ââCause someone could break your neck/ Coming up behind you/ Always coming and youâd never have a clue.â
You might be able to get away with calling Visions an IDM record, if only because thatâs true in a literal sense: this is dance music that is intelligent, yes. But itâs so goddamn much more than that. âBeing myself makes me feel like I canât touch the ground,â she sings. âHere on the Earth makes me feel like I canât get the sound.â Perhaps thatâs because her world isnât ours. â 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 Familyâs 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-Pâs 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 âBig Beast,â an intro that sounds like post-apocalyptic Run-DMC, to the clever crime fiction âJoJoâs Chillinâ on through to the pissed-off leftist anthem âReagan,â 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. â Dominic Griffin
It should come as no surprise that, after five years, we still donât have a follow-up to The Idler WheelâŠ; 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, itâs easy to wring it dry for wisdom, joy, sorrow and honesty.
âEvery single nightâs a fight with my brain,â Apple sings at the beginning of The Idler WheelâŠâs opener, âEvery Single Night.â From the get-go, itâs 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 PawnâŠ, itâs almost shocking to hear her with everything stripped awayâeach 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, sheâs got a psyche worth exploring.
While there isnât anything on The Idler WheelâŠ that Apple hadnât already done in the three albums preceding it, the albumâs 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 thereâs power in the vulnerability. Sheâs the focus of each song, and she never restrains herself, but for Appleâwhoâs every romantic folly is a seismic eventâeven that can be boiled down: âHow can I ask anyone to love me/ When all I do is beg to be left alone?â
Human history has reached a turbulent point in 2017, and with the doom and gloom prevalent in everyday life, itâs easy to want to harden oneself. The Idler WheelâŠ helps teach us that the righteous pathâthe one where itâs okay to feel hurt and scared and lostâis worth keeping to, and emotional honesty pays dividends. â 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 âevery song sounds like I saw the face of god.â 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 Oceanâs innate talent as the subject matter he tackles. Oceanâs central theme has always been nostalgia; the visitation of not just happy times, but all magnetic emotions. Itâs 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 Oceanâs admission of fear and confusion. He had âDragon Ball Zâ references slotted next to instances of mistaken paternity, making it all the more powerful when he went all-in for the emotional âumph.â The Elton John-biting âSuper Rich Kidsâ includes a suicide attempt nestled in those heavenly harmonies. And, of course, album centerpiece âPyramidsâ is a progressive-soul epic in the scope and sense of âVoodoo Chile.â Itâs the easy, and perhaps correct, answer to âwhatâs the greatest song of the 2010s?â
Thereâs very little that isnât Frank on this album. But the guests who do join bring their A game. Ocean broke AndrĂ© 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. â 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 âinstant classic.â âItâs classic worthy,â he said. âIt has to stand with the time and have the years behind.â Five years later, itâs safe to say that the album has attained âclassicâ status. Itâs an album that doesnât sacrifice Lamarâs catchy hooks (âBitch, Donât Kill My Vibeâ, virtuosic flows (âBackseat Freestyleâ), slick production (âm.A.A.d cityâ) or stellar wordplay (âSing About Meâ) 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-actsâthe lust-driven and drug-laced lifestyle of Lamarâs Compton âK.Dotâ persona, the realization of the dangers and violence of Compton, and the full transformation of K.Dot into Kendrickâbut Lamar complicates the storyâs 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 albumâs 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 albumâs sound. Itâs 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 Lamarâs 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. â Ethan King