This week on Tracking – a regular series in which we discuss our current favorite songs – you can listen to additions from Kanye West, Lorde, Janelle Monáe, Ellery James Roberts, Beck, Mikky Ekko and Sampha.
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Kanye West - "Black Skinhead"
On this season’s finale of Saturday Night Live, Ben Affleck – the Toast of Hollywood and holder of a freshly minted Best Picture Oscar statuette – introduced Kanye West as “the man you came to see.” Affleck’s words were neither humble nor exaggerated. This was our first encounter with Yeezus, an album that had been teased for months but hadn’t even been completed at that point. No shit he was why we were tuning in, Ben.
The performance was revelatory. West’s ferocious, rock star delivery of “Black Skinhead” unsubtly suggested what we now know to be true – the new album would snarl and froth as aggressively as those wolves projected behind him on the Studio 8H stage.
Of the ten songs on Yeezus, “Black Skinhead” exemplifies the album’s dark turn. There’s no respite from the song’s wrath. It offers no pleasing soul sample. Its lyrics relentlessly project spite at no clear target. Its chorus is merely a seething pause in the onward-bound barrage of its rage.
Though “Black Skinhead” doesn’t contain a single guitar note, it marks a turning point in the ongoing flirtation between rap and rock. Where earlier attempts at joining the two genres mostly resulted in the ugly kluges of late-90s rock radio, West instead channels the notion of rock while he just gets his scream on. Those who mistakenly thought he was sampling Marilyn Manson were on the right track. He may not have lifted explicitly from “The Beautiful People,” but Yeezus and Antichrist Superstar are connected by more than the biblical inversion of their titles.
Daft Punk contribute robotic vocal punctuations on “Black Skinhead,” really the only proof they collaborated with West on the song. After all, Yeezus is the antithesis to their breezy Random Access Memories. Daft Punk's mechanized blurts provide giddy thrills nonetheless, as does “Black Skinhead” throughout every second of its brisk three minutes.
West insists he’s an outsider, a King Kong on the Empire State Building, encircled by cruel biplanes. He’s being provocative, for sure. In a sense, he’s right though. Too much of his personal life eclipses his artistry. And so West’s detractors remain in the shadow of the skyscraper on which he straddles, high atop the world. – Peter Tabakis
LORDE - "Tennis Court"
Lorde may only have six original songs released so far, but she already has a singular style. On each track of her debut EP, The Love Club, she lets her smooth, bubbly voice do the heavy weightlifting over hip-hop drum beats and booming synth lines, rising above the spare music with the charm and wit of a young Regina Spektor. It’s pop music, with the flow, rhythm, and swagger of rap. It’s a spiritual companion to the surge of recent albums (Modern Vampires of the City, Yeezus, Grimes’ Visions) that sound like the future of music – maximalist and minimalist all at once, overwhelmingly layered with sounds but also free-flowing in empty, open spaces.
On “Tennis Court,” her latest single, Lorde tells us what we already know – she’s “killin’ it.” The song is brimming with cool confidence, with pulsating synthesizers that wouldn’t sound out of place on the Drive soundtrack and lyrics that epitomize the triumphs and tribulations of youth. “We’re so happy,” she sings, “even when we’re smiling out of fear. Let’s go down to the tennis court, and talk it up, like, yeah."
Because really, what’s better for a 16-year-old than to go down to the tennis court and talk it up with her friends? Oh right, I almost forgot – Lorde's still 16 years old, in high school in New Zealand. Her lyrics consistently place her youth front and center, with doubt and vulnerability underscoring her self-assurance. “Pretty soon I’ll be getting on my first plane,” she tells us. “I’ll see the veins of my city like they do in space.”
Lorde will certainly see more city lights in the future. “Tennis Court” will be blasted from cars all over the country this summer on late nights, with the windows rolled down. This insanely talented 16-year-old should enjoy tennis courts while she can – she’ll be frequenting arenas soon enough. — Adam Offitzer
Janelle Monáe – "Q.U.E.E.N." (feat. Erykah Badu)
Janelle Monáe first appeared on many people's radars rather suddenly back in 2010 with her funky, ambitious, and multifarious concept album, The ArchAndroid. Out of nowhere, a young chanteuse hailing from Kansas City was taking the critics by storm, accruing rave reviews, and gaining recognition through singles such as “Tightrope” and “Cold War” that were thematically rich and loaded with an addictive and inimitable Afrofuturistic sound.
Three years later, the majority spent removed from the limelight, Monáe returned with “Q.U.E.E.N.” Heavy on the people-pleasing funk rhythm, yet still possessing hints of the space-age eccentricity that made her so alluring in the first place, Monáe has crafted an ebullient soul jam that continues her tradition of creating innovative music with personality. With the help of co-conspirator, Erykah Badu, she leads an extravagant sonic parade of growling guitars, buzzing synthesizers, tambourines, brass, and sassy background vocals.
However, the true payoff of “Q.U.E.E.N.” comes in the form of the final minute. Monáe embraces her position as the queen android, and raps with conviction over a relatively stripped rhythm (read: violins, nimble percussion, and occasional piano). It is a monologue filled with memorable moments and witticisms, of which the last few lines stand out. Monáe challenges her listeners with a final refrain “Will you be electric sheep? / Electric ladies where you sleep? / Or where you preach?” proving that she has indeed returned, evangelizing her quirky brand of individuality, and making the world a more colorful place as a result.
Janelle Monáe – "Dance Apocalyptic"
One of the factors that allowed The ArchAndroid to enjoy a high degree of critical success was Janelle Monáe’s penchant for mixing it up. Behind the classy uniformity of her tuxedo wardrobe and the coiffed perfection of her pompadours, resides an artist unafraid of experimentation. The result back then, was a debut album that gracefully skipped between genres with distinct songs woven together by the underlying thematic thread of futuristic fantasy.
It should come as no surprise then, that “Dance Apocalyptic,” Monáe’s second single off her highly anticipated sophomore effort, The Electric Lady, takes a very different direction from the old-school-soul meets new-wave-ideas style of “Q.U.E.E.N.”
Monáe ditches funk in favor a hybrid between rock and doo-wop driven by ukulele, drums, and infectious refrains that encourage rowdy behavior behind sugary façades. This is Monáe in her rarest form. It is a musical frame of mind most closely matched on her garage rock-inflected “Come Alive (War of the Roses)” from The ArchAndroid. In both, she spins out of control, but the difference is that in the case of “Dance Apocalyptic,” she channels her unbridled energy and reckless abandon into an optimistic ditty about “dancing to the end.” In a way, the track is Monáe letting her hair down (which she does in the adorably transfixing music video), throwing a bone to all of the fans who have ever wondered, “What does Janelle do when she gets crazy?” The answer lies in the cheerful verve of “Dance Apocalyptic.”
Ellery James Roberts - "Kerou's Lament"
“Kerou’s Lament” is nothing if not grand. With a twinkling keyboard riff and a surge of melancholy strings, you might expect Brandon Flowers to jump in with his best Springsteen imitation, wailing about “broken dreams” and determining whether we are “human” or “dancer."
Instead, we get the scratchy throat, passionate hollering, and overwhelming emotion of Ellery James Roberts, the man behind the “heavy pop” anthems of WU LYF, which disbanded at the end of 2012. Roberts is commanding and relentlessly passionate, dropping f-bombs with a breathless intensity: “To the powers of old, to the powers that be,” he sings at the song’s breathtaking climax, “you fucked up this world but you won’t fuck with me!” This rebellious, sing-along chant is repeated eight times, and each one is earned – the moment comes after 3 minutes and 40 seconds of steady, heart-pounding build-up.
If “Kerou’s Lament” is any indication, we shouldn’t lament the death of WU LYF. Roberts makes it clear that he’s perfectly capable of cranking out huge, mind-blowing anthems on his own. – Adam Offtizer
Beck - "I Won't Be Long"
Beck’s “I Won’t Be Long” is one of those songs that feels like it must have existed somewhere for a long time, well-hidden, just waiting. After all, how is it possible that no one’s tapped into that wandering, slow-burning bassline before? And are we totally sure that that latter half, when the shimmery guitars kick in, isn’t a lost demo from Deerhunter’s Weird Era Cont.? We can’t be entirely sure “I Won’t Be Long” wasn’t artificially created in a lab, part clone and part android conglomerated of its myriad scattered parts, thanks especially to those occasional electronic elements and edits that feel like very purposeful software glitches. So here we are administering our own personal Voight-Kampff test, which so far just consists of listening to it on repeat for hours. – Genevieve Oliver
Mikky Ekko - "Kids"
If Rihanna purloined the Mikky Ekko-penned ‘STAY’ for her own fans to roar back at her across international stadiums, then it’s only right that Ekko has a second shot at owning his own catchy motif.
Lucky, then, that "Kids" is the bearer of the catchiest soft pop/rock chorus since One Republic huffed their way through "Apologize." You’ll be muttering "Kids! Kids are gonna do what they want" as soon as the track slides to a halt, or waking up in the middle of the night as those drums march their way through your subconscious or ekko within your brain (I’m sorry).
Imagine that oh-so urgent chorus being bellowed at a pitch black sky at some desert festival (or more likely, soundtracking something fluffy starring Emma Watson). Jazzy synths tearing through the song are like M83-lite, whilst Ekko’s sweet voice ebbs and flows. It’s clean pop fun that the kids are gonna love. And it’s for sure that your first listen won’t be your last. – Miranda Thompson
Sampha - "Without
I went on a Sampha binge recently; sampled everything the internet had to offer of his delicacies. I soaked up that gentle yowl that duets with Jessie Ware, and emerges between the beats of SBTRKT, and appears on his remixes of The xx. The more you listen, the more it seems that Sampha’s genius seems to be slowly eked out with each soundcloud and demo, and yet again on this EP preview track. Even the anticipation to his new music is as good as actually listening to it.
He doesn’t disappoint. "Without" is a pocket rocket download. An instant mood-changer. Both simultaneously satisfying and a chaser of what’s to come. Drums dance over abstract synths like softly pummeling massage strokes on a morning where the sun fights through the curtains. It’s quietly very good - a throwback to sounds that didn’t have to twerk in your face to grab your attention.
You’ve got a treat in store. Dropping the 29th of July, find five brand new songs on his forthcoming Young Turks EP Dual for your delectation. Long may this addiction reign. – Miranda Thompson