2017 SOTY Write-Up: Truth – Kamasi Washington

Listen: YouTube (Official Video)

Kamasi Washington is in the business of creating life. He first hinted at this with his debut album, The Epic (2015), whose title harkens back to millennia old stories that dealt with answering the question of creation. On “Truth,” Kamasi becomes the creator. The opening piano chords bring to mind a formless void being filled with rushing water. To fill out the lower end the bass follows closely to the keys’ rhythm; you can imagine landscapes pushing their way out of the oceans. The song quickly adds a reserved guitar part and dynamic yet yielded drumming as greenery and small creatures begin to inhabit the landscape with vibraphones ringing out discreetly in the back of the mix. And though all this life has been set up, it goes truly unseen until Kamasi’s saxophone introduces the light. His mesmerizing melody, which becomes the song’s motif, accents the music below it with grace and refinement. This beautiful composition continues for some minutes in crescendo until coming to a break in the song. The tempo increases and the mix is reduced to a quieter but livelier rendition of the song’s opening moments. The capricious shift is reminiscent of a Lucifer-type character interrupting the process of creation, but Kamasi refuses to not allow there be beauty in that. For the first minute after this break, Washington’s saxophone timidly solos over the few remaining instruments, but it isn’t long until it takes lead and guides the instrumentation elegantly to bear undeniably gorgeous performances. The combined efforts of “Truth’s” various sections develop into an almost ancient and absolutely grandiose arrangement – a creation song.

2017 SOTY Write-Up: Family Feud ft. Beyoncé – JAY Z

Listen: YouTube (Live Version)

Question JAY Z’s status as a rap god and you’re crazy. Question his ear for beat selection and you’re brainless. On 4:44 (2017) JAY Z enlists legend No I.D. as the album’s sole producer and the result is a flawless tape of beautiful beats – the brightest amongst them being “Family Feud.” The foundation of the beat is built off an absolute gem of a gospel sample in The Clark Sister’s, “Ha Ya.” Their strong, chorus vocals set against No’s modern, rolling drums produce a swagger fit only for JAY’s confident and luxurious flows. No I.D. instills the beat with a sense of the old school via traditional sampling but at once the beat feels completely modern. JAY certainly picked up on this feeling when he penned the song’s theme. The ‘family’ alluded to in the track’s title is the entirety of hip-hop, and moreover black culture – the ‘feud’ is the old school vs. new school infighting. Jigga acts as a mediator advising both sides that the petty differences they argue over are detrimental to the family’s success, specifically their financial success. The intriguing aspect of JAY’s role in this discord is that it is both distant and intimate. In one breath he realizes it’s not his place to lead the culture anymore. “New n*ggas is the reason I stopped drinkin’ Dos Equis,” he raps as a way of accepting he is no longer ‘the most interesting man in the world.’ In the other breath, JAY knows that his success can be a template for those on the way up to earn their stripes, but even more he feels he has to keep pushing further as well with the three comma club just on his horizon. And in that context he asks, “what’s better than one billionaire?” – the obvious answer being multiple. Over a beat that intertwines both the old and new for a stunning result, JAY argues that doing that for the culture will yield parallel outcomes.

2017 SOTY Write-Up: Thursday in the Danger Room ft. Kamasi Washington – Run the Jewels

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Run the Jewels delivers the most emotive and empathetic song in their three-album discography over some of El-P’s grittiest and most focused production. Gurgling synths over jangling tambourines, a heavy snare, and soft kicks produce an eerie and almost ghostly atmosphere. It brings to mind a dark and rainy evening in a misty cemetery, but not out of horror and more out of somber commemoration. However, the beauty of this song goes beyond its spectacular beat. El-P and Killer Mike both bring poignant verses concerning untimely death and its effect on their persons; while El-P’s maintains a consistent 2nd person POV and appeals to debatably universal truths, truths he learned through his experience with his dying friend, Killer Mike reveals incredibly dense personal experiences. Both verses are gold and standouts on RTJ3 (2017), but Mike’s is stunningly cathartic as he offers hope to the individual who murdered his close friend that he “righted [his] wrongs,” and prays that he made it out of the jungle that is the streets. To bridge the rappers’s introspective verses, the two speak directly to their deceased subjects on a saxophone-laced hook letting them know they’ll never forget. While neither MC is unknown to stirring raps, “Thursday in the Danger Room,” is simply tear jerking.

2017 SOTY Write-Up: White Gum – Iglooghost

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Iglooghost creates adventurous, detailed and absurd electronic music. It truly is like nothing else being produced today. “White Gum” takes the masterful idiosyncrasies of an Iglooghost track and filters them through a fine layer of pop appeal. The track opens with an anxious and unfamiliar essence that brings the listener into his paranormal world of floating eyeballs, witches, and gelatinous worms; just peruse the album cover art. Halfway into the intro a monstrous and intense 808 bass bursts into the mix demanding attention if you haven’t already tuned in. The track really begins to take form as an aggressive, non-lyrical voice fades in and serves as a sort of narrator for the coming compounding and complex twists and turns that the track never seems to run out of. The addition of this voice, a sampled grime vocal, is such a creative and unique approach to the instrumentation. Even though it is clearly of human origin, the sample acts as a perfectly befitting instrument in this wholly electronic composition. The greatest feat of “White Gum”, however, lies in its ability to constantly shift from idea to idea without feeling overwhelming and instead become a memorable and catchy tune. While the track truly feels alien, Iglooghost still plays to minute, simple melodies and hard-hitting drumming seen in most contemporary music. Its components are merely tried and true electronic music precedents that when compiled by Iglooghost operate to tell the story of “a giant calamity involving two huge eyeballs falling from the sky.” The track’s creator is not some foreign entity with access to a library of new, unearthly sounds, and that is what makes the creation of “White Gum” such an astonishing achievement.

2017 SOTY Write-Up: Bergen to Trondheim – Sun Kil Moon

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Mark Kozelek, Sun Kil Moon’s founder and lead, is an opinionated and impassioned singer and songwriter. His greatest talent is translating his numerous thoughts, and they are numerous, on nearly any and every subject into lengthy and entertaining pieces of music. “Bergen to Trondheim” is an 8-minute discourse focusing on Kozelek’s reactions to the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016. The shooting, an obviously horrific act, finds Mark ripping apart its perpetrator with absolute disregard for his humanity calling him, “that fuck who killed 50 people in Orlando.” The bluntness of Mark’s retorts match perfectly with the dread in his scruffy and experienced voice. Even more fitting is the grim bass line played over dusty and dirty drums that together create a groggy, and almost miserable tone. This dark sentiment alone would be impressive but Mark instead imbues the song with an interesting dichotomy. Over the same filthy drums, save for the addition of tasteful crash cymbals, Mark switches the bass line to a joyful and lighthearted descending pattern with quiet and jovial electric piano keys gliding just above it. His voice becomes infused with hope as he sings of sending love to the Orlando victim’s families, as well as when he sings the track’s refrain, “Me we.” This phrase, a short poem penned by Muhammad Ali, serves not so much as a solution to the world’s darkness but as a reminder from Mark that unity and concern for others is certainly a step towards the answer, or at least a way to deal. This contrast between these two attitudes, the dark and the light, seems to be a necessary understanding for Mark in his attempt to reconcile the disgusting acts that human beings can commit. Common as Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood (2017) is Mark’s struggle to fathom how this world can be, “simultaneously so beautiful and a pile of shit,” and “Bergen to Trondheim” serves as the album’s flagship song.

2017 SOTY Write-Up: call the police – LCD Soundsystem

Listen: YouTube

Electronic drum clicks signal the return of James Murphy and company after 7 years of studio album silence. Moments later the heart of the track enters the mix via delicately plucked and unchanging, steady bass notes. The groove is not wholly familiar to LCD Soundsystem’s historically electronic feel – the bass line is noticeably human as it wavers slightly out of time and back in, but the unforgettable rasp in Murphy’s minimal singing reminds that this is indeed the Sound of Silver (2007). Accompanied by all-pervading electric guitars, Murphy croons, “We all, we all, we all, we all know this is nothing.” This setup, beside lively tom-driven drums, remains, but there is a sense that a peak the instrumentation is moving toward is just ahead. At the 1:30 mark a calming, smooth guitar is introduced and the song takes in new breath. Murphy allows the strings to ring out independent of his voice, which serves exclusively to bookend these guitar sections. The track becomes an undeniably inspiring one. In that light, James belts out “you’re waking a monster,” to describe younger generations being directed to action by injustices of old. This sentiment becomes certain when with the strike of a new chord the song is lead to layered vocals reminiscent of a small choir. The refrain’s “ah’s” are unanimous and spry. “Call the Police” is a youthful track in feel and theme. The unassuming, clean guitar licks throughout could soundtrack a late-night joyride in the city. Murphy’s witticisms develop to a timely and youthful anthem in protest of tradition. The sound LCD Soundsystem built upon through the 2000’s is still present, but this track revitalizes it with a more raw energy resulting in some of the year’s freshest and most human music.

2017 Song of the Year Write-Up: Biking ft. JAY Z & Tyler, the Creator – Frank Ocean

Listen: YouTube

“Biking” is a minimal exhibition of Frank’s mastery of creating a vibe. JAY opens the track with a staccato flow and spaced-out adlibs over airy, moody production. In the back of the mix Frank’s filtered voice acts as a spacey instrument that adds an enigmatic quality; imagine an early morning, stepping outside your front door with the sun not quite out but traces of it can be seen on the horizon. The intro cuts to atmospheric and brisk guitar-led instrumentation that accompany Frank’s relaxed voice, which spreads over the beat like a mist. This section is the defining feature of the song: carefree, confident, and emotive; you can feel the breeze in your face as if you were actually biking. Tyler’s contribution features a sharp and dynamic rap verse with standout lines like, “Alcoholic, way I handle the bars,” adding a youthful spirit to the track. During his verse the instrumental replaces Frank’s voluminous guitars with a classic videogame-like synth that allows Tyler’s flow to cut in and out with flawless execution. All of the song’s components and performances lead up to Frank’s cathartic outro where he suddenly begins screaming his lines and although there is a beauty in it Frank is certainly uneasy. Perhaps biking is only a form of escapism for Frank, and “Biking” is that for the listener.