This time on Tracking we discuss our favorite new songs from Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, Perfume Genius, Aphex Twin, Iceage & Robyn.
Kendrick Lamar, "i"
Kendrick Lamar's "i" doesn't sound like a bad song. In fact, it sounds like a pretty indisputably great song. It samples an upbeat, groovy Isley Brothers riff, features Lamar's trademark warp-speed flow and surprising vocal shifts, and carries an affirming, valuable message about staying positive and true to yourself in times of uncertainty. In short: Great return from Kendrick, pumped for the next album. Right?
Apparently not. Lamar's single prompted a strong, divisive reaction from fans and music critics alike, awakening one classic debate - what it means to "sell out" and go "mainstream" - and one more distinctly modern debate - what it means to be "soft" in hip-hop.
"...'i' depresses me," wrote esteemed rap critic Jeff Weiss. "It’s genetically modified for the basics starting their Pandora station with 'Robin Thicke.' The last song they Shazamed was 'Rude.'" Grantland's staff roundup featured a similar sentiment: "First singles off overly anticipated sophomore albums are usually pretty pop, just usually not in this way. I could see him doing this on The Voice, and I could see Blake Shelton liking it." (Ed. note: Oh, burn! Shelton would like it!)
As usual, this all comes back to Kanye West. Well, not really, but indulge me here. In 2005, Yeezy released Late Registration, one of his many masterpieces - absolutely loaded with uplifting radio hits. "Hey Mama," "Touch The Sky," and "Heard 'Em Say" are all on there, songs about family, self-confidence, and hope for the future. Songs with sing-alongs, soul samples, and Adam Levine hooks. "Soft" music. But back then, it was beloved.
Today, Kanye's music is decidedly the opposite of soft. With Watch The Throne, "Mercy" and Yeezus, he's shifted the direction of rap once more, inspiring up-and-comers to focus on "hard" beats and in some cases, lose the chorus altogether. Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City came before Yeezus, but it followed the path of gritty rap with heavy beats and intense lyrics, and a new king was crowned.
So 2014 comes around, Kendrick drops a song that wouldn't sound out of place on Late Registration (or any Roots album, or Outkast album, for that matter), and it's criticized as soft. Mainstream. Generic pop music. In the era of Good Kid and Yeezus, inspirational catchy rap just doesn't fly anymore.
This criticism might have some merit - "i" is more radio-friendly than anything Lamar's ever done, and way more uplifting. It's also catchy, clever, and fun to listen to. When placed in the context of Kendrick's other music, "i" might be disappointing. Just taken as a song, however, it's pretty tough to dislike.
So sure, "i" is soft. But it's also really, really good. Those two shouldn't be mutually exclusive. You're allowed to bump rap and smile, too. [Adam Offitzer]
Perfume Genius, "Grid"
Accompanied by titles like "I'm A Mother", "Queen" and "My Body", "Grid" might be the most innocuously titled track on Too Bright, the third album from Mike Hadreas under the moniker Perfume Genius. It is also the most striking. Like much of Hadreas’ work, breaking down “Grid” into its constituent parts is a quick process. The real thrill lies in the level of control exerted over them. Hadreas meticulously lets the track trickle in piece by piece over its brief runtime, while showing off his blossoming technical prowess through increase use of electronic sounds.
The arrangement is spartan, and things accelerate unpredictably, like an engine with a rusting crankshaft. The impetus is the vulcanized two-note synthline, which doesn’t relent for the duration. It’s joined by itchy percussion halfway through, which Hadreas makes a point of not scratching. Then the release comes in the form of the garbled response to the call: “At least we know where it’s been”. True to its name, “Grid” is rigid when viewed up close, but zoom out and there is a pleasing order to it. [Brendan Frank]
Flying Lotus, "Never Catch Me" (featuring Kendrick Lamar)
I know we’re all on pins and needles over this new Flying Lotus full-length and everything, but if he decided to devote 100% of his time to producing Kendrick Lamar tracks exclusively, I probably wouldn’t be very upset.
Admittedly, it’s nearly impossible to conceive “Never Catch Me,” as anything other than wholly divisive and mildly erratic at face value. From practically the first second, Steven Ellison seems to be fucking with the fader for the sake of his own entertainment, interrupting one track to jump to the other like a sadistic electrician. But then he drops one of the funkiest, most cohesive backbeats on the planet. And then Kendrick Lamar goes all rabid-dog-that-just-tore-through-your-backpack. And then smooth jazz is involved. And all of a sudden, you look around and realize you’re inside the mind of Flying Lotus, a world where expectations, conservative bets and backpacks of all kinds go to die.
FlyLo is flexing some serious muscle, here. At its heart, “Never Catch me,” pits a lighthearted piano melody against a stuttering-yet-fluid bass thrust that at times appears to register somewhere around 4,000 BPM. Imagine “Clair De Lune,” if Claude Debussy had been really into whippets. Collectively, it’s errant and aggressive with traces of Nujabes and Dilla injected throughout—a perfectly sensible product, considering Ellison’s recent collaborative effort with Herbie Hancock.
But perhaps the most noteworthy element of “Never Catch Me,” is in Ellison’s capacity to showcase Kendrick Lamar without accidentally removing himself from the equation. Lamar is the best rap lyricist in music today, and if you don’t think there’s a precedent for the inevitable danger attached to unleashing him on a track that isn’t exclusively his, ask Big Sean how “Control,” panned out.
On “Never Catch Me,” however, FlyLo constructs an environment that Lamar can augment without completely lacerating it. “I can see the darkness in me, and it’s quite amazing,” Lamar confesses in his signature-elevated timbre, effortlessly conveying all the grit and emotion of the truly emotionally afflicted.
All things considered, “Never Catch Me,” excels as one of three preliminary drops in anticipation of Ellison’s new LP You’re Dead!, due out October 7. It’s a Flying Lotus track, which means it’s almost involuntarily going to be all over the place, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most muscular offerings Ellison has ever delivered. [Austin Reed]
Aphex Twin, "minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix]"
Syro’shyperactive and mercurial opener “minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix],” a song elegantly titled for a robot to pronounce, is Aphex Twin’s first official single since “Windowlicker.” Take a moment to let this fact sink in. Sure, it’s a technicality. None of Drukqs’ divisive compositions were released as standalone releases. But there’s a sonic continuity, a twisted-and-dotted line, which unites Richard D. James’ glory days to his soaring return.
The fifteen years that separates both singles seems less like a yawning chasm once “minipops 67” hits its zigzagging stride, which is to say, within seconds. A vortex of digital and analog sounds – reverberating synth arpeggios, hiccupping beats, gurgling machine-work, and heavenly vocal flourishes – cedes to the song’s lone hook. James’ own voice, singing a melody that at first is utterly incomprehensible, sharpens into an approximation of an earworm. Just as balled-up sheet of paper retains its creases when flattened by hand, “minipops 67” eventually approaches the vaguest notion of pop. It’s is a clarion call warped by intergalactic noise, a manifesto written in burping ones and zeroes, a disco banger for insectoids. The artists at the forefront of EDM should be proud to bathe in Aphex Twin’s wake. [Peter Tabakis]
This summer I was at a party and a guy asked me what kind of music I liked. I have become accustomed to answering this question with “uh, like, punk and psych” (the real answer is “desert punk” or “noise punk” or “that D. Vassalotti song ‘That Misery of Yours.’”) For some absurd reason this dude then decided to follow up that question by asking me if I thought punk was dead because, in his perception of the universe, punks had nothing left to be angry about. I didn’t know what to say because this question seemed so unbelievably stupid. As a woman and a feminist I’m angry constantly so in my view punks, especially feminist punks, have plenty about which to be aggressive. “I don’t like to feel assaulted by music,” this dude said, which seemed ridiculous to me, because what’s the point of art if you don’t feel confronted? I thought about this conversation a lot that weekend and I still think about it. Part of me recognizes that my very esoteric taste in music definitely does not reflect what most people enjoy listening to, which is okay. We’re all allowed to be about our shit. I’m learning all the time to try and give everything an unbiased ear. Another part of me thinks about feelings all the time, because I could also answer the question “what kind of music do you like?” with “punk with feelings.” My favorite band is Naomi Punk from Olympia, WA, whose second record is literally called The Feeling and whose third LP Television Man includes a song called “Whirlpool of Anguish.” A thing you will realize over time if you are a living, breathing person is that it is difficult to both have and express feelings. Sometimes you have to make art about it, and here’s where the going gets tough. If you’re honest when you make art about your feelings, your art ends up reflecting your feelings, and if there is one thing feelings are – if there is one thing honesty is – it’s confrontational. Most people feel confronted by other people’s feelings. Sometimes it makes you want to back away with your hands up. Listening to a band like Naomi Punk or Perfect Pussy feels like reading someone’s diary. I cried the first time I read Meredith Graves’ lyrics for Perfect Pussy’s debut EP, i have lost all desire for feeling, a title which in itself sums up a sensation you’ve probably had.
Listening to Iceage feels like reading someone’s diary too. The Danish band’s third record Plowing Into the Field of Love is out soon and is likely to be discussed a lot on account of the fact that it sounds upon initial listen fairly different from their previous two records, New Brigade and You’re Nothing, which both clock in at under thirty minutes and are like manic bursts of riled-up, pissed-off teenage punk energy (they were indeed all teenagers when New Brigade came out). The fact is that Plowing Into the Field of Love is really not all that different from Iceage’s older material – it’s a logical progression that you can trace back to moody, ballad-y You’re Nothing tracks like “Morals” and “Burning Hand,” and back from there to darker, slower New Brigade songs like “Never Return” and “White Rune.” Frontman Elias Ronnenfelt is always going to sing about his feelings, incorporating impressive SAT words, because he’s an honest guy, it’s what he does. If he does it with Mariachi horns, whatever. With strings, with piano, whatever. In under ninety seconds with this rambunctious punk squall, whatever. Shut up and let him do his thing.
I’m saying all this so that I can talk about a song on Plowing Into the Field of Love called “Simony,” which is maybe the best song Iceage have made to date. It almost feels like the song they’ve been trying to make since earlier soaring, searing post-punk tracks, like “Remember.” The opening guitar line is possibly the chord progression of my dreams – a scorched earth at sunrise, this sense of end and beginning, gorgeous bleakness, supplemented by a rumble of drums, and Ronnenfelt, master of that one-word shout-along chorus for you to scream in the pit, singing in his singular breathy baritone about sacrifice and redemption, about selling his soul – about simony, a word you probably haven’t heard since AP European History, the buying and selling of spiritual privileges. He’s more devastated than angry, kind of wistful and nostalgic and right in your face about it, like he’s retelling the story of how it happened years ago. But you would be nervous to have him tell it to you, to your face, because it feels like finding old letters under the floorboards, like something you shouldn’t read but you do anyway – because feelings are confrontational, so the music has to be too, loud and driving and layered, ringing in your ears like silence in a desert. “Simony” is so beautiful because it is intense, it is aggressive; it’s beautiful because it’s real. Abrasive music feels good because the act of enjoying it is the act of looking at something that it scares you to see, the act of accepting what’s real, accepting anger, accepting darkness, understanding your privilege, understanding your feelings. Iceage have mastered this; it’s what makes Plowing Into the Field of Love so good, it’s what will make it kind of controversial. But, I mean, whatever, put it on, shut up, stop thinking so much, feel. [Genevieve Oliver]
Robyn, "Tell You (Today)"
Any new material from Robyn is always a cause for celebration, and her latest effort, a contribution to the upcoming Arthur Russell tribute compilation, is no exception. This time around, the Swedish songbird hops on to the track “Tell You (Today),” a jolly number with an upbeat stride and carefree vibe originally performed by Russell’s disco outfit, Loose Joints. The best part about the entire affair though, is that the new rendition sticks remarkably close to Russell’s original version. Sure, the contemporary release has been tightened up and truncated, essentially streamlining it to fit in more closely with the expectations that people have for dance music today, but the backbone of the song remains intact. That irrepressible horn section? Check. The lighthearted series of whistles? Double check. Even the timing of the original is preserved, with Robyn waiting until after the halfway point to deliver the bulk of her vocal contribution. If you can ignore the fact that the new track chops the original in half in terms of total running time, the 2014 and 1983 versions of “Tell You (Today)” are remarkably similar.
Of course, whenever Robyn touches something, aside from turning it to gold almost instantaneously, she makes it hers. The original vocals by Joyce Bowden, somewhat hushed if evaluated by today’s standards, are raised to a modern volume by the “Call Your Girlfriend” singer. However, Robyn does her due diligence to improve, not expunge, the little flourishes of the original, retaining the endearingly off-kilter vocal delivery while injecting it with her unmistakable charisma. Her performance boils down to a faithful effort to modernize the original, bringing a startlingly precocious track into the twenty-first century. The end product is something so lithe and happy-go-lucky, that it becomes difficult not to get swept up the rhythm and whisked away to the dance floor. Moreover, as part of Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell, a compilation aiming to raise awareness of AIDS via the power of pop, the reason to boogie has never been better. [Jean-Luc Marsh]