Thanks for letting me drop by, and thanks Jewly for that great entry. If no one minds, I’d like to briefly move us from the country to the city, to borrow a phrase from Elizabeth Bishop and Bubba Sparxxx. Despite my current (and very happy!) residence in a cozy Southern college town, I’m a city person by nature: I love cities’ energy, their character, all the uniqueness of their sights and tastes and sounds. I’m not from Chicago, nor have I ever lived there, but I spent some time there last month the weekend after the Cubs won the World Series (I arrived on Parade Day)—and a few days before a guy who frequently described the city as “worse than Afghanistan” got himself elected president.
Chicago is one of America’s greatest musical cities, a town that’s given us Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, Magic Sam, Minnie Riperton, Frankie Knuckles, Liz Phair, Wilco, and so very many others. In just the past few weeks, the Rolling Stones, a band who once named a song after the address of Chess Records, made their best album in 35 years out of a veritable love letter to Chicago’s blues tradition, and Windy City windbag Lupe Fiasco announced he’s quitting music after being criticized online for a lyric about “dirty Jewish execs.” (Sadly, he has since unretired.)
Chicago also produced what are two of my favorite albums of this year, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, with a third—Noname’s great mixtape Telefone—ranking up there as well. Pablo and Coloring Book gobbled up a disproportionate amount of my listening time and intellectual and spiritual energy this year. They are clear and deep companion pieces of a sort, explorations of God and humanity and sin and salvation, delivering fleshy and more metaphysical pleasures alike. (In fairness, both are probably more accurately characterized as “album-like entities,” but I’ve already gotten suitably pedantic on that subject.)
I have neither the professional qualifications nor the personal insight to comment upon Kanye West’s current state of mind and health other than to say that I want him to be well. The Life of Pablo is probably the most uneven album he’s ever released, but sometimes evenness is overrated, particularly if you’re reaching the heights Pablo often does. The retuned “Bam Bam” flip on “Famous;” the drop heard ’round the world on “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1;” the ragged paranoia of “Real Friends,” a song that in hindsight we probably should have taken both more seriously and more literally; every last second of “Ultralight Beam,” my favorite song of 2016 by several ultralight years. Pablo was a flummoxing and frustrating work but it was also risky and thrilling, its moments of rapture outweighing its sloggier spells and unfunny moments of calculated offense. And like everything else West has ever done, it felt new. Who is the last pop star to make art like Yeezus and Pablo after the age of 35? Nothing about this is normal. I know a lot of people hate Kanye West, which I understand, but I couldn’t even if I wanted to, not as an artist, not as a human person.
If Pablo and its maker are difficult to love, I found Chance’s Coloring Book impossible not to love—for starters, it might be the most openly and unabashedly joyful hip-hop album I’ve ever heard. Chance’s cutesy gee-whiz vibe may not have (yet) won over every last human on Earth, but man, has he ever won me—I’m even done complaining about all the Harry Potter and Lion King references (well, mostly done). Coloring Book rang out like a visionary work to me, a melding of gospel and hip-hop that felt positively heaven-sent. I’ve always been fascinated by art that shouldn’t work but does, which is the best way I know to describe Coloring Book. The ostentatious genre-straddling, the relentless enthusiasm and positivity, the expansive allusions to second-tier Spielberg flicks, the choirs and trumpets and string sections—in the hands of a lesser artist this would all be so insufferably middlebrow, but Chance isn’t a lesser artist.
It also had the second-best album cover of the year and the best album title, with its nod to Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book and also its implications of vibrancy, creativity, and endless possibility, that childlike desire to keep turning the page. But it’s also a masterpiece of shading: “Same Drugs” is a smarter and lovelier exploration of melancholia than anything on Views (or anything on 808s & Heartbreak, for that matter), and there’s a throb of seriousness and sadness that courses through Coloring Book even in its most ebullient moments. “Angels” features a moment when Chance’s voice soars and almost breaks on the line “it’s too many young angels on the South Side,” a nod to the city’s murder rate that hits me harder every time I hear it. It’s an overwhelmingly upbeat song, and that line contains a sort of quivering, ecstatic clarity that makes me think of the “cup of trembling” that ends James Baldwin’s great short story “Sonny’s Blues,” which is itself a biblical allusion. (Isaiah 51:22, Chance would probably have me specify.) Baldwin’s story is one of distance and loss and failed connections between human beings, but it’s also about the redemptive power of music, the part that comes closest to something like God. I need faith in that at the end of a year like this, and Coloring Book makes me a believer every time I slip into its pews.
Here are 10 of my favorite albums, in no particular order:
Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
Kanye West, The Life of Pablo
A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
YG, Still Brazy
Mitski, Puberty 2
KING, We Are KING
Danny Brown, Atrocity Exhibtion
Kamaiyah, A Good Night in the Ghetto
And 10 of my favorite songs
Rae Sremmurd, “Black Beatles”
Chance the Rapper ft. Francis and the Lights and Jeremih, “Summer Friends”
Kanye West ft. everyone, “Ultralight Beam”
Danny Brown ft. Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and Earl Sweatshirt, “Really Doe”
French Montana ft. Kodak Black, “Lockjaw”
Young Thug and Travis Scott ft. Quavo, “Pick Up the Phone”
Prince, “Train in Vain” (Fine, this acoustic bootleg is from 2014 but didn’t hit the internet until shortly after the Purple One’s death and I’m not ending this post on any note other than Prince.)