Hey what’s up hello,
Music Club! It is an honor and a pleasure to be back with you guys for another year—this squad is so imposing that I feel like I’m the Lena Dunham standing next to your Taylor Swifts and Gigi Hadids (intellectually speaking). I’m looking forward to another year of tying up loose ends, learning about some records I missed out on, and using this space as a dumping ground for all of the music-related puns that I decided at the last minute were too dumb to tweet.
And hey, Carl, you’re right—what a time … to be Adele! (That was one of them. Sorry.) I want to start with your idea that voice was a particularly fascinating element of pop music this year. You’re right that Adele’s megaplatinum 25 found her mostly rejecting more forward-thinking production in favor of minimalist, old-fashioned arrangements that showcase nothing so much as her dazzling pipes; that’s both the record’s appeal and its Achilles’ heel. But ultimately I think 25 gets away with it because her voice is so inarguably virtuosic, which makes her a nostalgic and even oddly subversive throwback in a cultural moment when musical virtuosity isn’t particularly … cool. Still, my favorite parts of 25 are the chips in the gel manicure, if you will—the human moments when we can hear her voice straining to its limits and even breaking a bit, like that lovely croak at the end of the Bette Midler–worthy “When We Were Young.” What I wouldn’t give for Adele to pull a Nora Jones and front a punk band in a semi-convincing disguise.
Until 25 came along, though, 2015’s greatest success story was Toronto’s very own Drake. Carl, it’s so interesting to me that you say you were finally able to connect with Drake this year because you think he became a more expressive vocalist; his evolution on that front has been really compelling to me, too. (Shoutout to Jia Tolentino’s wonderful interview with Drake’s vocal coach, the god Dionne Osborne.) Drake pretty much dominated the year without really trying—or, more accurately, with the expertly crafted illusion of not really trying. Everything the man touches right now turns to bling; his sparring partner Meek Mill never stood a chance. Drake’s tossed-off, surprise-released If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late became the year’s first platinum-seller, even if he acted like it was just a half-baked teaser for the still-forthcoming proper album Views From the 6. Then, “Hotline Bling,” initially a bonus track released to his Soundcloud page, gained unexpected viral momentum and became not just a Song of the Summer contender but the closest he’s had to a No. 1. As many have pointed out, Drake and Taylor Swift are kind of living parallel lives right now atop the pop world: Both are former (and proudly self-professed) underdogs who’ve now become top dogs, and—at their most annoying, I think—both seem reluctant to shed their identities as supposed “outsiders.” That was the great paradox of Drake in 2015: an artist successful enough to bring his own vocal coach on tour, trying to stay cool at a time when warbling, untrained voices are having a moment.
Enter Fetty Wap, the year’s most triumphant started-from-the-bottom story. The Patterson, New Jersey, native (who emerged this spring with the sleeper hit “Trap Queen”) is a solid rapper, but what sets him apart is his singing voice—a sugary, quavering yelp that sounds like Future would if he drank strawberry Nesquik instead of lean. Trap music’s tinny hi-hats and sputtering cadences have been bubbling up into mainstream pop for the past few years, mostly in awkwardly appropriated ways (see: Katy Perry and Juicy J’s “Dark Horse”), but Fetty Wap managed something much trickier, Trojan-horsing a street rap sensibility into unapologetically huge-chorused pop hits. I love what NPR’s Frannie Kelley wrote about Fetty’s self-titled album: “There’s something burnished and classy in his harmonies. The melodies aren’t fancy, but they sound like they’ve been here forever, like Jerome Kern, like high heels, like chrome.” If it’s not blasphemous to say this on Frank’s centennial, it feels fitting that Fetty Wap’s second big hit was called, of all things, “My Way.” This is what crooning sounded like in 2015, in our age of the viral superstar: big-hearted, not particularly flashy, and invitingly imperfect enough that you always felt compelled to warble along and add your voice to the chorus. Of course, this sometimes brings about unintended consequences. This is why we had to endure a 10-year-old white kid covering “Trap Queen,” ignorantly erasing the song’s street narrative because he (or perhaps his parents) were naïve enough to think the song was about making actual pies.
If anyone prepared us for the Year of Fetty Wap, it was Drake’s (former?) protégé ILoveMakonnen, who had a hit last year with his reedy-voiced “Tuesday.” Fetty’s also a descendent of Kanye West’s now-landmark 808s & Heartbreak (which Ye performed in full this year in Chicago and L.A.) and, I’d argue, the earnest anti-virtuosity of Lil B, the prolific rapper known to fans as The BasedGod. If you’re not familiar, #BASED is sort of a difficult concept to define, but I’d describe it as meaning “less than perfect, but pure of heart.” And in its own way, the radio sounded a little more #based than usual this year, as you could hear even some members of hip-hop’s inner circle striving for that type of unvarnished charm, whether on Drake’s gloriously gauche battle cry of “WITH MY WOES!” from his anthemic “Know Yourself,” or Kanye’s squeaky vocal on the twangy “FourFiveSeconds.”
Speaking of “FourFiveSeconds,” another star whose voice underwent a transformation this year was Rihanna. She stole the show at the Grammys back in February, singing the shit out of that Ye-and–Paul McCartney collaboration and showcasing a new depth and grit in her tone—she had definitely been working with a Dionne Osborne of her own. Remember how exciting that moment was? “Wow, it’s only February,” we all thought, “I cannot wait to hear the new Rihanna album that will surely be coming out in 2015!” Were we ever so young? Ten months later, Rihanna’s eighth album Anti remains one of the year’s great unfulfilled promises, along with Kanye’s endlessly delayed SWISH, Frank Ocean’s mythical Boys Don’t Cry, and, like, the Second Coming. Part of me wants to say that this was the year we finally saw a bit of pushback on the whole surprise album trend, when the most surprising thing an artist could do was to surprise-not-release an album on its rumored release date, as Rihanna did (or did not) on Nov. 27. Or was this just the year that the anti-publicity campaign became more prominent than the regular publicity campaign? Come to think of it, maybe, in music, this was the year of anti-everything. Fetty Wap’s anti-virtuosity, Drake’s anti-album and anti-singles dominating the albums and singles charts, and—something I hope someone wants to discuss in this next round—the anti-stardom of someone like Chance the Rapper, who seems to care so little about the fame game that he gave top billing of his great mixtape Surf to his trumpet player, Donnie Trumpet. Perhaps, by this measure, Rihanna’s Anti is actually the quintessential 2015 album, because it does not even exist.
With that, I’ll throw it to our intrepid #RihannaPlane survivor, Julianne. Any thoughts on the Queen of DGAF’s anti-year?
Woke up an optimist,
Top 10 Albums
1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
2. Jamie xx, In Colour
3. Jenny Hval, Apocalypse, girl
4. Tame Impala, Currents
5. Grimes, Art Angels
6. Carly Rae Jepsen, EMOTION
7. Jack Ü, Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Ü
8. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
9. Tenement, Predatory Headlights
10. Drake, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
Top 10 Songs
1. Jack Ü ft. Justin Bieber, “Where Are Ü Now”
2. Fetty Wap, “Trap Queen”
3. Jamie xx, “Gosh”
4. Drake, “Hotline Bling”
5. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Run Away With Me”
6. Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk”
7. Florence and the Machine, “What Kind of Man”
8. The Weeknd, “Can’t Feel My Face”
9. Adele, “When We Were Young”
10. Erykah Badu, “Cel U Lar Device”
See all of Slate’s best culture of 2015 coverage here.