The Music Club

Why are so many of 2015’s biggest hits so sad?

Entry 8: The squads are all breaking up, and the hits are all sad.

Charlie Puth
Charlie Puth kept us sobbing through the spring with “See You Again.” Above, Puth on Dec. 18, 2015 in Miami.

Photo by Aaron Davidson/WireImage

Greetings, Chris, Julianne, friends, Romans, #squad,

Julianne was right: I have a thousand thoughts about Drake, chiefly because Drake has arrived at a singular variety of media ubiquity where he’s never more than days removed from the conversation about hip-hop. In eras past you became the beating heart of the scene by force of personality—drop the needle on any given minute of Tupac interview footage or plop a microphone in front of DMX, to this day—but Drake, not to take anything away from his rapping and singing talents, has become critical to the dialogue about 2010s rap in part because of constant, deliberate posturing. He pops up at all the big sporting events, and his bimonthly Beats 1 OVO Sound radio show has crop-dusted fans with new material since summer. Drake’s preternaturally in tune with regional hits and trends: His almost-No. 1 “Hotline Bling” drew blood from Virginia rapper/singer D.R.A.M.’s “Cha Cha,” and he added a verse to the emerging Fetty Wap hit “My Way” that the New Jersey crooner hilariously left off the album.

Drake’s persistent acquisition of collaborators is a rap game analog to Taylor’s meticulous squad building, but thanks to hip-hop’s penchant for mercurial egos, the veneer cracked. D.R.A.M. doesn’t seem amused by “Hotline,” ILoveMakonnen seems to be OVO in name only post-“Tuesday” remix, and Meek—let’s talk about Meek! In the era of the six-man DJ Khaled posse cut, rappers have banded together like Super Friends to help nudge each other’s projects to the charts, but Meek Mill’s poorly planned (but fact-based) attack on Drake and the rain of strife that followed were proof that mugging in videos doesn’t make you friends. What’s more, the drift in and around the Young Money and Maybach Music Group camps spells doom for feigned rap unity as we know it. (Julianne, I like “Charged Up” almost wholly for the smarmy “Come live all your dreams out at OVO” line, which is perfectly rude and so perfectly Drake.) I won’t miss it; the only thing creepier than people with a lot of enemies is people who maintain the appearance of liking them.

For similar reasons, the Taylor Swift–Nicki Minaj–Miley Cyrus VMAs kerfuffle was fascinating to me beyond the important body and race issues on the surface. It was a shock how curtly Taylor responded to what she saw to be a subtweet from Nicki. (Stars, they’re just like us!) If you set the quick, public jabs Taylor sent Nicki’s way beside the parade of special guests on her 1989 tour and the smiling displays of friendship, and the concept of #squad loses its luster. Add simmering beef between Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Rick Ross, Meek Mill, Wale, Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan, Lil Wayne, and Birdman (all friends and acquaintances in most cases at this time last year), and, as Lindsay began to suggest, 2015 looks less like the Year of #Squad and more like the Year #Squad Broke. Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale divorced. Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton split. Then Blake and Gwen started dating? Is love even real anymore?

In a year where it felt like everyone was breaking up, threads of loss and regret ran through the biggest songs, too. Puther Vandross kept us sobbing through the spring with “See You Again,” “Hotline Bling” soundtracked its fair share of summertime sadness, and Adele will carry us well into next year with the tearjerkers of 25. Justin Bieber fashioned his whole comeback as a bad boyfriend’s promise to do better, with brooding, contemplative songs like “Sorry” and “I’ll Show You” taking on a delicious double meaning when you consider the fact that they’re as much about trying not to lose a specific girl as reconnecting with the core fans he lost while sowing his wild oats. It might’ve been the comeback of the year had Adele not come blowing back into town to sell 5 million records in a month. So it goes.

Like our reigning British pop overlord, country loves a good weeper, and two of the year’s biggest sad songs typified a country establishment in flux. “Girl Crush” wasn’t my favorite cut on last year’s excellent Little Big Town album Pain Killer (this one holds the honor), but the single’s death grip on the country charts suggested an establishment doing some soul searching, even if what that looked like all year is conservative handwringing over latent Sapphic airs in a song about fighting for the love of a man. Country Jesus Chris Stapleton’s George Jones cover “Tennessee Whiskey” isn’t sad in content, but that’s direction the honey-voiced singer and his band took it in. Stapleton swept the CMAs (and more recently, the charts) with bearded outlaw swagger, but he also pitched the ebullient R&B/pop nugget “Crash and Burn” to Thomas Rhett. If ’70s country truthers sell him as someone who’s not like what’s on the radio, you can show ’em the Luke Bryan song he wrote.

Another great underrated songwriter this year was Ty Dolla Sign. Ty has had a quiet hand in a number of significant R&B hits—“Loyal,” “Post to Be”—but his debut solo album Free TC ran deep and long, whip-smart, cunningly filthy, but still reverent to the history of the art form. It should’ve sold a mint, but it strained to find an audience. That happened to a lot of great R&B this year. Shouts out to the Internet’s Ego Death, Jodeci’s The Past, the Present, The Future, Miguel’s Wildheart, Jeremih’s Late Nights, and others. There’s a strong black presence on the charts this year for sure, but great art still struggles, even at legacy major labels whose business it is to strategize the marketing of this stuff. As per usual, though …

We gon’ be alright.


Top 30 Albums

  1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
  2. Chris Stapleton, Traveller
  3. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
  4. Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color
  5. Dr. Dre, Compton
  6. Eric Church, Mr. Misunderstood
  7. Vince Staples, Summertime ‘06
  8. The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, Harmlessness
  9. Future, DS2
  10. Oneohtrix Point Never, Garden of Delete
  11. Titus Andronicus, The Most Lamentable Tragedy
  12. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, Surf
  13. Jim O’Rourke, Simple Songs
  14. Janet Jackson, Unbreakable
  15. Majical Cloudz, Are You Alone?
  16. Sporting Life, 55 5’s
  17. Title Fight, Hyperview
  18. Kamasi Washington, The Epic
  19. Earl Sweatshirt, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
  20. Justin Bieber, Purpose
  21. Oddisee, The Good Fight
  22. Mac Miller, GO:OD AM
  23. Carrie Underwood, Storyteller
  24. Miguel, Wildheart
  25. Jay Rock, 90059
  26. Punch Brothers, The Phosphorescent Blues
  27. Jamie xx, In Colour
  28. Ty Dolla Sign, Free TC
  29. The Internet, Ego Death
  30. Leon Bridges, Coming Home

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