Ann, Carl, ladies, gents,
Many thanks for giving a loudmouth Harlem kid the floor for a few. Ann, I share your excitement in seeing more women’s voices infiltrating the coverage of popular music. It’s been a boys club for too long, and if I’m able to feel the latent longing of the male gaze in a lot of the present writing about women in music, I can’t imagine what it must feel like on the other side of the fence. I want to advance the sentiment and put out a call for more minority voices in the field. I can’t express the quiet awkwardness aroused when I scan a room full of music cognoscenti to find I’m the token black guy or the subtle effect the critical axis’ incontrovertible whiteness and maleness have on the dialogue year in, year out. (Carl, I love Run the Jewels like a fanatic, but I think you’re correct in your assessment of it as this year’s hip-hop record non-rap critics felt most comfortable listing. There’s always one.) I’m excited to see David Turner at Pitchfork, Justin Charity at Complex, and Rembert Browne at Grantland—not to mention Jason King in this very Music Club—all exploring the intersection of blackness and popular music. I’m cynical about the state and makeup of hip-hop criticism to a fault, but I sense it’s on the mend this year.
I want to talk about the elephant in the room for a bit. I want to talk about Iggy Azalea and what her pop stardom says about us this year. Much copy has been filed and many hands wrung about Iggy and Macklemore and the white rapper’s fast track to stardom, and I’m not interested in adding to the dog pile today. As much as I’ve been critical of Azalea for the meteoric rise she didn’t seem to earn, for the impersonal bent in her songwriting, and for the frustratingly prefab vibe her entire persona gives me, I also see a quiet modernity in the character. We may know nothing about Amethyst Kelly the person (way better rap name, no?) but Iggy Azalea the pop star and motivational speaker is a triumph of self-revision. In an age where people taking liberties with identity have made for wild social media discourse and even wilder television, Iggy Azalea’s successful transformation into her own avatar is, if we’re being honest, oddly commendable. I may not care for the music. (Or its assistance in making the no-frills Rita Ora a thing stateside. Penance paid for helping make Charli XCX a thing as well, though.) But who can hate a self-starter?
Iggy Azalea’s breakout year also represented the first time in ages that hip-hop could boast more than one marquee female talent. Iggy and Nicki Minaj’s cat-and-mouse subliminal war (if it’s even really happening) was disconcerting in a year when the women of pop (as you pointed out, Lindsay) and the men of hip-hop achieved big successes by banding together, and it speaks to a history of mainstream rap pitting women against each other rather than urging them to collaborate. But not since the eras of Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown, of Missy Elliott and Eve, have the rap charts had room for two women at the same time. Add Azealia Banks’ off-the-cuff Broke with Expensive Taste album drop and the seemingly imminent rise of Timbaland protégé Tink and you get what looks like a break from a five-year sausage party at the top of the rap game. Long time coming.
2014 wasn’t just a return for women in rap, it saw a run on the higher rungs of the Hot 100 by black artists of every stripe. Pharrell dominated with the bottomless cheer of the Oscar-nominated “Happy.” John Legend scored the biggest ballad of the year (and his career) with the warm, devotional “All of Me.” Katy Perry’s “EDM goth” party brought Juicy J his first No. 1, and Eminem’s “The Monster” brought a vacationing Rihanna her 13th. (All this after, last year, not a single black lead artist topped the Hot 100.) Brooklyn brawler Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga” was a rare top 10 hit without a chorus, and North Carolina thinker J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive scored the fourth-largest album debut this year without a lead single. Beyoncé lurched back into the top 20 with “7/11,” a trap-infused twerk instructional off the back end of her year-old self-titled album’s deluxe edition. D’Angelo replicated Queen Bey’s December surprise this week with Black Messiah, his first album in 14 years, and it’s currently on track to sell 100,000 copies.
Black Messiah is all I can talk about this week, and I’d be lax if I didn’t gush a bit about a record that’s taken my favorite albums list by siege. It’s every bit the gear-shifting organic renaissance the Daft Punk album was last year, only without any of the sermonizing about bringing music back to human hands. I worry about critics throwing modern hip-hop and R&B under the bus in praise of D; I’m hearing whispers of encouragement about Black Messiah rescuing R&B from cold electronics and hip-hop from a deafening silence on Ferguson, but neither claim feels right to me. I was irked enough by complaints of rappers’ absence from the Ferguson dialogue to offer an entire playlist as a rejoinder, and that’s before J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar went on television with their scabrous examinations of the state of black America. Modern black music has been at war with itself for years over content and authenticity, but golden era nostalgists prophesying doom on the scene would do better to acknowledge the brave souls speaking out than roundly castigating all the ones who don’t.
Country music spent 2014 in a civil war as well, with “bro crap,” as Ann put it, tightening its stranglehold on the charts. I can’t even pretend to hate the stuff, though; two of my favorite songs this year were Brantley Gilbert’s “Bottoms Up” and Florida Georgia Line’s “This Is How We Roll” remix. It’s fine to pine for more diversity in the songwriting, but a few of the common country criticisms about pickup trucks and sun dresses remind me of complaints levied against rappers fixated on the club. Young people are going to go out and get fucked up listening to songs about going out and getting fucked up. Most of us owe our very lives to the phenomenon. That’s not to say the culture’s not in need of change. It was sad to see ABC’s Nashville present a more unified vision of the country power structure in imaginary legacy star Rayna James’ rogue all-girl indie label Highway 65 than the real world informing the show, but Miranda Lambert’s big year and excellent albums by Lee Ann Womack, Angaleena Presley, Little Big Town, and Nikki Lane give me hope for the future.
I’m most intrigued by country’s continued dalliance with outside genres. The year produced cleaner, weirder hybrids than those before it. Unheralded country rap pioneer Bubba Sparxxx continued to advance his comeback with Made on McCosh Mill Road, the respectable follow-up to last year’s inspired Pain Management. Florida Georgia Line scratched at the boundaries of country music from inside on Anything Goes. Newcomer Sam Hunt’s Montevallo gave country conservatives a conniption with its smooth injection of R&B vocals and production values, but, like you, Ann, I think that on the sly it was one of the year’s best albums in any genre. Eric Church’s The Outsiders bounced from metal to prog and Southern rock on its title track alone and walked those dark shades straight to the bank after over 750,000 units sold—the year’s biggest sales turnout until Taylor Swift snatched the title back with 1989’s Nashville-to-New-York conversion.
To add to Carl’s word about the unique perspectives of music’s elder statesmen, I want to bring up Stevie Nicks, who thumbed through her back pages on 24 Karat Gold: Songs From the Vault and came away with one of the year’s most formidable roots rock records. There was something different in the performance of these songs than what we’ve heard in the demos that have lingered all these years, though. The wry reminiscence of Tusk outtake “The Dealer” (“I was the mistress of my fate, I gave it all out/ If I’d really known you then you’d’ve had to watch out”) has aged like a good Scotch whisky. Nicks’ voice, once preternaturally thick and weary, now carries a note of motherly warmth. D’Angelo’s Black Messiah didn’t cook for half as long, but it is no less relevant today for marinating since 2002, and the reception of it alongside the appreciation for hip-hop veterans like Mary J. Blige and Run the Jewels presents a passage into the kind of veneration that country and rock legends have long enjoyed but rap and R&B ones have often been denied.
My Top 20 Songs of 2014
1. Flying Lotus feat. Kendrick Lamar, “Never Catch Me”
2. D’Angelo, “Prayer”
3. Willie Nelson, “The Wall”
4. Stevie Nicks, “The Dealer”
5. Vince Staples, “Blue Suede”
6. Perfume Genius, “Queen”
7. Hamilton Leithauser, “Alexandra”
8. Kevin Drew, “Bullshit Ballad”
9. The War on Drugs, “Suffering”
10. Sun Kil Moon, “Carissa”
11. Chance the Rapper, “Wonderful Everyday: Arthur”
12. Eric Church, “The Outsiders”
13. Beyoncé, “XO”
14. Kevin Abstract, “Hell/Heroina”
15. Rich Gang, “Lifestyle”
16. Mary J. Blige, “Doubt”
17. Charli XCX, “Boom Clap”
18. Michael Jackson, “Love Never Felt So Good”
19. Azealia Banks, “Chasing Time”
20. Against Me, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”
My Top 20 Albums of 2014
1. D’Angelo and the Vanguard, Black Messiah
2. Flying Lotus, You’re Dead!
3. Eric Church, The Outsiders
4. Sun Kil Moon, Benji
5. Against Me, Transgender Dysmoprhia Blues
6. The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
7. Perfume Genius, Too Bright
8. Vince Staples, Hell Can Wait
9. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, Piñata
10. Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
11. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2
12. Ryan Adams, 1984
13. Mick Jenkins, The Water[s]
14. Real Estate, Atlas
15. Sam Hunt, Montevallo
16. Shabazz Palaces, Lese Majesty
17. Miranda Lambert, Platinum
18. Hurray for the Riff Raff, Small Town Heroes
19. Godflesh, A World Lit Only By Fire
20. YG, My Krazy Life