Tracking Our Favorite Songs of 2015 #5

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Welcome to the new installment of Tracking, where we discuss some of our recent favorite songs, oftentimes at length. *If you're looking for brevity, check out our Hot Takes.) This time around we have words on great tunes from Kendrick Lamar, Grimes, Sufjan Stevens and FKA twigs.

Kendrick Lamar

"King Kunta"

Kendrick Lamar’s voice (texture, cadence, volume, vocabulary, flow) is unusually distinctive and recognizable even within rap, a genre that at least theoretically privileges the voice of individual artists, and his breakout record good kid, M.A.A.D. city was the kind of autobiographical opus that sonically and thematically foregrounded his wonderfully fresh voice, in all its quirks, permutations, and possibilities. One of the many, many remarkable things about the To Pimp A Butterfly highlight “King Kunta” – which I’m going to just go ahead and call the early frontrunner for finest track of the year – is that, if you can get past the sheer pleasure of listening to it, the song places tremendous pressure on the idea of voice. The voice we know to be Lamar’s is the central one on “King Kunta,” but it’s more of a gravitational center, an organizing principle for the audible and implied cacophony. How much of Lamar’s narrative here – which modulates between frank autobiography and wonky witticisms, including an unbelievably crass MJ citation – is his own, and how much belongs to Kunta Kinte, the 18th-century Virginia slave whose masters cut off his foot after a botched escape attempt? How much of this story is mediated by the authorial voice of the writer Alex Haley, who novelized Kinte’s life? How much of its energy is drawn in from the highly publicized incidents of racial violence in America over the last year? Lamar earns the literary pedigree that’s made him a critical darling as well as a popular hero: “King Kunta” is a slice of berserk G-funk that’s so much fun I worry it’s going to ruin other music for me, but from the title on down, it’s also posing serious and fundamentally politicized questions about voices and stories, identity and authority.

What other voices can we detect in “King Kunta”? Well, there are digitally warped moans folded into the bassline throughout, and a deeper masculine voice than Lamar’s pops up periodically to ask things like, “Do you want the funk?” But the key to the overall effect of “King Kunta” is the backing vocal track, a peanut gallery which interacts conversationally with the rapper: when he announces, “I’m mad!,” these voices – pitched-up, accelerated, lightly fried – inform us, “He maaaad!” They are more than a means of emphasis: they pick up and cartoonishly magnify telegraphy affect, assuming a range of roles from sassy coconspirators to incredulous sycophants. In other words, they anticipate by split seconds the listener’s own reactions to Lamar’s rapid-fire flow. He says, “You got the yams,” and we want to know what the “yams” are, but the comical chorus is already hot on the case: “What’s the yaaaams?” “The Yams is the powers that be, you can smell it when I’m walking down the street,” comes the answer, and then the next response: “Oh yes we can, oh yes we caaaan!” – and, indeed, can’t we sense that power in Lamar even when he’s delivering a guest verse on a B-list track? When he mentions a two-man cell, we of course want to know more: “A two man celllll?!” Do we “want the funk?” Fuck yeah, “we want the funk!”

Is this (one of) our collective voice(s)? Kendrick Lamar is confident in much more than his own voice; he’s confident in ours, too. He seems practically psychic: “I was gonna kill a couple rappers but they did it to themselves, everybody suicidal, they didn’t even need my help” is an update on his now-legendary verse from Big Sean’s “Control (HOF),” but it’s also reiteration of the way “King Kunta” takes the words almost literally right out of its listener’s mouths. “Now I run the game, got the whole world talking” is the track’s main boast, but the possessive subtext of “got” isn’t far from the surface. Kendrick Lamar knows his audience (fans and haters alike) so well that he’s able to mockingly incorporate our own experience of “King Kunta” into “King Kunta” itself. Beyond the call-and-response structure, the lyrics feature a good deal of commands and statements that always come true. “By the time you hear the next pop, the funk shall be within you” – a gunshot later and, yep, there’s the funk, within me. “King Kunta” is, ultimately, a dazzling display of power, in which Lamar acts as puppet master, manipulating us into whatever subordinate position suits him, tricking us into wanting things (“the funk”) he’s already planning to purvey. “King Kunta” will make you feel utterly powerless: it gives us what we want, but emphasizes that it knows what we want, that we are known to it, that we are under Kendrick Lamar’s power. Right at the outset, when he kicks things off with, “I got a bone to pick,” we’re instantly captivated. Our resistance is futile, even as Lamar lectures us on the values and triumphs of resistance.

And what do we want? We want the funk. From the unassuming but subtly brilliant rhythm section (loping bassline courtesy of the ever-masterful Thundercat) to the spy-movie creep of piano, guitar, strings, and keys, “King Kunta” is a witty, entertaining, fascinating, unpredictable, and delirious dopamine blast that becomes addictive after a single listen. It’s a gathering of hip-hop elements from ‘90s West Coast hard gangsta rap to OutKast-level weirdness and exuberance to Erykah Badu’s blend of swampy funk and Afrocentric mysticism, so satisfying that its only flaw is Lamar’s inability to find a good place to stop. “King Kunta” doesn’t wind down, it just ends; if it didn’t appear on an album as front-to-back excellent as To Pimp A Butterfly, it’d be hard not to keep it on repeat for hours. — Samuel Tolzmann

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Welcome to the new installment of Tracking, where we discuss some of our recent favorite songs, oftentimes at length. *If you're looking for brevity, check out our Hot Takes.) This time around we have words on great tunes from Kendrick Lamar, Grimes, Sufjan Stevens and FKA twigs.

Kendrick Lamar

"Mortal Man"

“I remember you was conflicted/Misusing your influence.”

Beginning with its appearance at the end of “King Kunta”, Kendrick’s spoken word piece shows up six times on To Pimp a Butterfly. In each instance, he adds a few lines to the story until it comes to a head on the latter half of “Mortal Man”. After delivering the album’s thesis in full, Kendrick partakes in an imagined conversation with his West Coast hero, Tupac. They discuss Butterfly’s myriad themes in explicit terms, bringing To Pimp a Butterfly to an unequivocal conclusion.

But a conclusion is useless without context. Kendrick spends a good portion of Butterfly taking out various targets, including himself on “The Blacker the Berry”. On “Mortal Man”, however, he puts the guns away and delivers a track of remarkable starkness. The 12-minute leviathan shares several traits with its antecedent, good kid’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”, namely the meaning of legacy. “Can you be immortalized without your life being expired?” Kendrick asks. “Mortal Man” isn’t some reductive meditation. It’s a call to arms, a purging of the weak-kneed and mealy-mouthed, an edict to carry on fighting, a plea for reinforcements. Kendrick wants to be the catalyst and he has the words to do it.

All he needs is an army.  — Brendan Frank


Welcome to the new installment of Tracking, where we discuss some of our recent favorite songs, oftentimes at length. *If you're looking for brevity, check out our Hot Takes.) This time around we have words on great tunes from Kendrick Lamar, Grimes, Sufjan Stevens and FKA twigs.

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Grimes

"REALiTi"

When Grimes released her divisive “Go,” her first single shared after her not-actually-a-debut-but-kind-of-basically-a-debut Visions, I was at a bed and breakfast in Homer, Alaska, with my mom. I connected to the B&B wifi and listened to a few new songs I hadn’t had enough of a connection to hear for the past few days, but chiefly I remember two – “Go,” and Guerilla Toss’s “Cookie.” I looked out over the beautiful mountain vistas not really expecting Claire Boucher to go full EDM, but not really all that surprised when she actually did. After all, she was frank that she and her friend and frequent collaborator, the producer Blood Diamonds, had written the song for Rihanna. The beauty of Boucher’s Grimes project to me has always been that it’s purely and undisguisedly an outfit for her to do whatever the fuck she wants – a unique, charming Canadian weirdo feeling absolutely no qualms about expressing herself. Let’s not forget that her first release Geidi Primes was a concept LP about Dune. I continually remember her tweet stating intent to write a song about BBC’s Sherlock (still waiting for it, girl!). We need more performers, especially women performers, who have the confidence and courage to express themselves without holding back, without presenting facades. Boucher tweeted constantly about loving EDM tracks and Rihanna singles, then she made an EDM track for Rihanna and, when it was turned down, ended up just doing it herself, because why not? Who cares if you didn’t particularly like it? She did what she wanted to do.

After “Go” caused an online ruckus, Boucher relocated to LA from Vancouver and scrapped the Visions follow-up that she had been working on, because she felt it “sucked,” and started from scratch recording new material, reportedly with guitars. Then, last week, she shared a song from that scrapped LP out of nowhere – “REALiTi.” She also shared a video she had made for the track with her brother Mac, sharing video clips from a Southeast Asian tour and starring Boucher herself breaking out some interpretive, Kate Bush-ian dance moves, flipping around her multicolored hair. The song’s beautiful, stacking layers of Boucher’s now-iconic soprano vocals over trance-y rhythms and stuttering beats; it reminds us of all the good things we said about Visions’ stunning amalgamation of the personal, the quotidian, the everyday, with these massive, futuristic, sci-fi worlds Boucher somehow terraformed out of loops in Garageband and Ableton. In “REALiTi” she sings about lost love and about peeking into distant worlds, she sings, “welcome to reality,” and you think about waking up from your wild speculative dreaming into your own bedroom. Complete excruciating normalcy – which, in itself, has its own rhythm, its own trance-y pulse. Leave it to Boucher to make us nostalgic for the future, to make melancholy and trappedness sound like this, like attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. Leave it to Boucher to make what she wants, to scrap what she wants, to release what she wants, to take her time. Clearly she knows what the fuck she’s doing. — Genevieve Oliver


Welcome to the new installment of Tracking, where we discuss some of our recent favorite songs, oftentimes at length. *If you're looking for brevity, check out our Hot Takes.) This time around we have words on great tunes from Kendrick Lamar, Grimes, Sufjan Stevens and FKA twigs.

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Sufjan Stevens

“All of Me Wants All of You”

Childhood trips can carry all kinds of connotations, but there is no doubt they’re formative. Who you were with, where you went, what you did; those details stick with you. Many of them turn into some of your oldest memories. Expectations play a big part as well. For Sufjan Stevens, expectations were high, and the overall experience was one of disillusionment. Set in Oregon, where Stevens used to visit his mother, “All of Me Wants All of You” tells the story of a trip that should have been something much more than it ended up being. You will find many of the same plot threads on “Romulus” from Michigan (“I was ashamed of her”). But this time around, Sufjan is the visitor, eager to form a real bond with the woman he never really ended up knowing.

Carrie & Lowell is a gorgeous album made up of a number of gorgeous songs, but “All of Me” is not one of them. Instead, the lyrics ache with disdain. “I’m just a ghost you walk right through...Now all of me thinks less of you,” Stevens whispers. It’s situated between “Should Have Known Better” and “Drawn to the Blood”, two tracks on which Stevens chastises himself for remaining hopeful. “All of Me” is the immediate aftermath of that hope, where the bitterness and despondency ring so true it hurts.  — Brendan Frank


Welcome to the new installment of Tracking, where we discuss some of our recent favorite songs, oftentimes at length. *If you're looking for brevity, check out our Hot Takes.) This time around we have words on great tunes from Kendrick Lamar, Grimes, Sufjan Stevens and FKA twigs.

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Sufjan Stevens

“Fourth of July”

Throughout his career, Sufjan Stevens has examined the meaning of place through his lyrics. The 50 states project may have been a gimmick, but the idea’s essence remains entrenched in his music. Carrie & Lowell is about people, but it is also about the settings where its characters interact. On “Fourth of July”, Stevens takes us to the hospital in 2012, as he says a final goodbye to his firefly, dove, hawk, little Versailles, fading supply. He assumes the first stage of grieving, and his reactions are almost like that of a toddler who has yet to fully grasp the finality of death: "Such a funny thought/To wrap you up in cloth/Do you find it alright?"

As far as meditations on mortality go, “Fourth of July” is particularly heartbreaking. In addition to being the most explicit track on Carrie & Lowell, it is the album’s emotional and narrative anchor. The song is awash with gentle noise, a move that feels very necessary — the unvarnished product would likely be too intense to take. Lilting minor keys and a refrain that curls in on itself (“We’re all gonna die!”) teem with melancholy, but Sufjan sounds like he’s barely keeping it together on the verses. Drained by its end, he invests himself entirely on “Fourth of July”. So should you. — Brendan Frank


Welcome to the new installment of Tracking, where we discuss some of our recent favorite songs, oftentimes at length. *If you're looking for brevity, check out our Hot Takes.) This time around we have words on great tunes from Kendrick Lamar, Grimes, Sufjan Stevens and FKA twigs.

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FKA twigs

"Glass & Patron"

Amidst the many electric spasms that FKA twigs layers into her music, it’s easy to forget that Tahliah Barnett is above anything else a pop star. At the heart of nearly every song is a chord progression that we’ve all heard before and a melody that is meticulously constructed to be catchy. But twigs’ carnality and experimental production can throw us for a loop, blinding us from her own accessibility, and even make her fans feel cooler for liking more “avant-garde” songs. But “Glass and Patron,” or should I say “Dynamite” à la twigs, reminds us that a vapid anthem about raging on the weekend is never lame in and of itself.

Boots, who steps in as Arca 2.0 on this wild track, lays the “Patron” beats, as well as a few others on twigs’ upcoming EP3. Though the song proves eerie as ever, a few of Boots’ subtle elements make “Glass and Patron” FKA twigs’ most club-ready single yet. The up-tempo and repetition of her chorus (“Am I dancing sexy yet?” will stay with you), the chopped-and-screwed vocals, the discrete bass jabs, it’s all quite housey without touching EDM. Though Boots’ solo LP happened to be slightly underwhelming, his work in the studio remains as sharp here as on Beyoncé, since he continues to toy with the malleable boundaries of danceable music.

Lyrically, “Patron” is much less cryptic than usual. Snippets of club dialogue comprise most of the song: “Do you have a lighter?” “Everything I hold is wet,” “Am I dancing sexy yet?” “I’ve never tasted glass and patron.” In this sense, it remains somewhat a vivid portrait of youthful weekend. But in one hilarious moment, twigs gets a bit inspirational. “Know what you want, what you need,” she addresses her audience, labeling them a phoenix, fire, everything! Barnett is not only shouting TGIF, but reaffirming that you’re a firework, so come on, let your colors burst! The amount of smash hit elements that Boots and Barnett sneak into “Glass and Patron” is quite a funny feat, given how bizarre it sounds after a single listen.

During the prologue of her music video (soundtracked by an excerpt of an EP3 track “Mothercreep”), twigs gives birth to a radiant walk/dance-off in the middle of an empty forest. “Glass and Patron” doesn’t start until a minute in, so her child is as much the runway and its models as it is the song itself. Not to get too metaphorical, but perhaps “Glass and Patron” manifests an infantile era of new music that revels in its own disjointedness. It is a celebration of art-pop, queer culture, and letting go on a weekend from the mother/creep of dance music’s future. — Matthew Malone

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