Dear Music Club,
Welcome to Slate’s annual critical roundtable to discuss the year in popular and not-so-popular musics, with all their attendant glories, miseries, and mysteries. I’m so excited to have you here.
We’re trying something a little different this year: Rather than having a smaller core group go back and forth, we’re asking each guest critic to contribute one post apiece, with Slate’s music critic (that’s me) acting as emcee. This allows us to bring in a wider array of voices, and what an array it is: Ann Powers of NPR Music; Lindsay Zoladz of the Ringer; the poet and critic Hanif Abdurraqib, author of They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us and an upcoming book on A Tribe Called Quest; Slate’s own charts maven Chris Molanphy; Rawiya Kameir, recently of the Fader, among other publications; Maura Johnston, who covers music for the Boston Globe and Pitchfork, among others, and teaches at Boston College; Nashville-based writer Jewly Hight, also of NPR Music, Rolling Stone Country, and many other venues; writer-producer-DJ-professor Jason King; and Jack Hamilton of the University of Virginia, Slate’s pop-culture critic.
To start, I’ll refer you to my top-albums list previously published on Slate, then kick proceedings off with a sweeping claim: 2018 felt to me like the year everything had already changed. While the preceding stretch of time in pop definitely seemed transitional, this year the overall atmosphere and sensibility was suddenly fully distinct. It’s too simple to put this down to streaming or how complete hip-hop’s dominance has become, though those are factors. Rather, the identities of music-makers as well as their presumed audiences seemed differently constituted than a couple of years ago, as a matter of gestalt. The exception of course being Drake, who somehow has yet to fall off the top of the mountain, although there were certainly some tremors last spring thanks to Pusha T’s “The Story of Adidon.” (And wasn’t that a time? To quote Countess Rayanne Graff, “Everyone runnin’ around all upset, rumors flying—can’t you feel it in your fingers and in your toes? It’s like being alive!”) Instead of allegedly phoning with threats, Drake should have sent Kanye West a nice gift basket this season for having bumrushed that moment in his inimitable Kanye style, bumping Drake out of the hot seat just in time.
Speaking of Kanye, of course, it might partly be that 2018 was the year we had to stop plugging our ears and shaking our heads “no, no, no, no, no,” and understand that, for the foreseeable duration, we are stuck in the Trump era. A lot of this year’s music was aligned with a grudging acceptance that we live in the worst timeline. Hits had titles like “In My Feelings” and “I’m a Mess” and “No Tears Left to Cry” and “Sicko Mode” and “Sad!” That last was by the controversial XXXTentacion, who of course died this year, as did Avicii and Mac Miller, while the late Lil Peep’s ghost remained suspended in our sightlines with the release of the posthumous, and very good, Come Over When You’re Sober, Part 2. It’s jarring to begin not finding it jarring that such young stars are dying, to take it on as somehow inevitable.
Phases in musical styles are often accompanied by particular drugs, and right now, unfortunately, the intoxicants of choice are hazardous and grim ones, tranquilizers and opiates. (So much so that the internet dunked on Drake mercilessly for saying he was “out like a light” after only half a Xanax, in his guest verse on Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode.”)
I don’t think this prevailing mood is really caused by the political situation, just exacerbated by it. It’s more about an overall generational affect that I won’t presume to diagnose, except to say it makes me think about climate change and the combination of alarm, jadedness, and atomization that is the hallmark of social media. While the pop charts in 2018 were dominated by danceable depression—and what a fitting time for the queen of crying on the dance floor, Robyn, to release her first album in eight years—the songs weren’t just about despondency but also about the need for self-care and healing. That’s as true of Robyn’s Honey as it is of most of the 2018 output of Ariana Grande, who emerged as commercial pop diva of the year, and along with Camila Cabello one of very few thriving members of that once-dominant class (setting Beyoncé aside in a category of her own, which is now the only option). With “Thank U, Next,” in particular, Grande somehow managed to make a dis track that was also a self-empowerment anthem that was also a media coup that was also a gracious and generous philosophical reflection, putting her ex Pete Davidson on blast (in the very hour he was about to appear on live TV) then immediately letting him off the hook.
These issues of fairness, fragility, and mental health were also ubiquitous in nonpop, for instance in the songs of the trio of creators in spontaneous supergroup Boygenius (Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers, and Julien Baker), and many of the other women of their generation writing paradoxically outspoken songs of introspection, such as Mitski, Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, Swearin’, Adrianne Lenker, and more. Just as much as the dour rappers that started out based on SoundCloud, these restlessly self-possessed singers and guitar slingers now form an unmistakably interlinked phenomenon, though of course their particular talents and visions are individual and varied. The same goes for the wave of female rappers who are no longer waiting for anyone to grant them access to airwaves or vying for the single scepter of hip-hop’s queen (Cardi B’s definitely not done with it) but taking advantage of streaming and other platforms to build audiences and make their voices heard right now. Not to mention the many strands of Latino pop and hip-hop, no longer a rarity in the mainstream but finally a permanent fixture, at least as long as Bad Bunny can keep it hopping. (Er, sorry.) In 2016, would I have imagined I would witness my Canadian compadre Drake rapping in Spanish like it’s no big thing? Or for that matter that a trap-flamenco hybrid out of Catalonia would become a viral hit? No, but now Rosalía’s “Malamente” feels like a perfectly natural, and gorgeous, feature of the landscape.
Again, none of these phenomena really began this year. But in 2018 the pop planet suddenly belonged to them, and it became their air that we breathe, or perhaps vape. I find it bracing and refreshing, yet disorienting too—my own aesthetic receptors are still catching up, rebooting for the premature beginning of the 2020s, if that’s what this is. Or perhaps it’s a more ephemeral condition, while something less minor-key, more assertive, waits in the wings. (I did not mean that to be a thought about who the Democrats will run in the next election, but now it is.) Either way, while we look forward to that post–Post-Malone moment, why don’t you just meet me in the middle? … Oh, and country-pop crossover, that’s a subject we’ll have to cover, too.