The Music Club, 2018

Entry 7: Pop music is pivoting to earnestness.

Mitski. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images.

Howdy, Space Cowboys!

Reading your entries has reminded me of what a complicated year this has been. I keep thinking about this tweet pointing out that 2018 felt so long that many of us forgot there was an Olympics. True! Another one, a couple weeks later, declared this year the “longest decade ever.” Also true! Time stretched and contracted in ways that felt new and awful. I sense plenty of optimism in the club and wish I could find myself fully sharing in it. When I think about this year, I think I’ll remember the cynicism and dangerous rhetoric: the valorization of XXXTentacion and 6ix9ine, pretty much everything Kanye touched (case in point: he also led much of the aforementioned valorizing), the Spotify-charged dominance of muzak, and obsession with empty streaming records.

Yes, Drake broke the record for most streams on a Tuesday by an artist under 33 born in October whose first name starts with an A or whatever, but what does that actually mean? For what it’s worth, I actually think Scorpion was largely good and I’d love to talk about his songwriting and experimental ad-libbing as much as, maybe more than, what he did every day of 2018, you know? Beyond that, I’ve found myself queasy considering the ways in which bad-faith streaming practices have become normalized. The artists with the most cultural impact are rarely the ones who stream the biggest. This is no groundbreaking point, of course, but I’d like to think about how to more effectively challenge the streaming-platform narrative before the robots take over.

The year wasn’t all bad, though. Some trends could even be hinting at a better 2019 (for music, anyway)! Chief among them, perhaps the predictable result of this hellscape of a year, was a discernible pivot to earnestness, away from the reigning intangible detachment. You can see that in the work of artists such as Mitski (that meme going around is plain offensive, by the way!) and Kacey Musgraves and Snail Mail, who shined on plenty of end-of-year lists. When Kacey sang, “In Tennessee, the sun’s going down/ But in Beijing, they’re heading out to work/ You know the bar down the street don’t close for an hour/ We should take a walk and look at all the flowers” on “Slow Burn,” I felt that. Big shoutout to my sweet country-pop prince, Mason Ramsey, whose Walmart-to-Coachella trajectory felt pure, even though it probably wasn’t.

There was a similar rejection of artifice across the Atlantic, in the dynamic, compelling world of Afropop. It’s been thrilling to watch as some of the genre’s stars abandoned the shiny, transparent attempts at American crossover of recent years. Instead of paying top dollar to collaborate with household-name rappers or drenching strummed kora with arpeggiated 808s, many leaned into traditional Naija sounds and motifs. It’s not that they hadn’t found success beyond their borders—Wizkid’s “Soco” and pretty much any recent Davido single blared from cars outside my Brooklyn window all summer—but maybe simply that the efforts, largely unreciprocated by American artists, no longer served them. Burna Boy’s excellent Outside seems to have lasted, even though it was released way back in January. Elsewhere in the diaspora, dancehall-legend-in-the-making Spice sparked necessary discourse with her real talk about colorism on “Black Hypocrisy,” a feat of storytelling that far surpasses any of her storylines offered to her by Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta. And longtime fan favorite Popcaan delivered, with a tender, instantly replayable release. Meanwhile, on Gaika’s album Basic Volume, the south Londoner experimented with a probing, electronic take on the genre.

In fact, the U.K. was at the center of some of this year’s most compelling releases. Call it a Brexit-anxiety-induced renaissance? Tirzah’s Devotion, a rich, clever break-up–ish album produced in collaboration with Mica Levi, was almost certainly my most-played. And London’s jazz scene, mirroring New York’s and Los Angeles’ in its new-school cool, offered up plenty: Kamaal Williams’ The Return, Duval Timothy’s 2 Sim, Tenderlonious’ The Shakedown.  In a nearby postcode, J Hus, newly locked up for eight months on a knife charge, upgraded his inimitable style of witty Afro-swing with “Dark Vader,” which featured a horn arrangement. Later in the year, Dave’s “Funky Friday,” featuring Fredo, was a jaunty banger that debuted at No. 1 on the U.K. singles chart, a major feat there, where the charts haven’t quite caught up to hip-hop and grime’s influence. (The last rap release to top the British charts was a middling Tinie Tempah single in 2015.) And U.K. drill, the controversial subgenre whose early examples piggybacked on Chicago’s menacing, influential rap style of the same name, dominated headlines. Unknown T’s “Homerton B” (say that five times fast!) led the pack.

Elsewhere, in rap and pop, I think we’re seeing the seeds of a pushback against the cynicism of bloated streaming-bait and merch-bundle tactics that have become the major-label status quo. Lo-fi is on the rise, women showed the heck out, and plenty of independent releases were well-received. Hip-hop opened up slightly, allowing regional artists to take the lead once again. Thank God! BlocBoy JB stormed Q1, after months of wild success in his home state of Tennessee. The DMV notched up some wins, and the controversial, is-he-or-isn’t-he-offbeat viral phenom Blueface joins 03 Greedo and Drakeo the Ruler, both currently incarcerated, to do the same for L.A. (TDE and Odd Future affiliates notwithstanding.) Atlanta continued to churn out the usual, but it began to cede its stronghold on mainstream rap to other parts of the country. That’s a wonderful development, IMO!

As I’m writing, the social internet is mad with conversation about Cardi B and Offset and his baffling “public apology.” The chatter confirms to me that stories were more important than ever in defining the artists and releases of the year, almost more so than the music. We loved an underdog in 2018. Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next” topped our year-end tracks list at the Fader and I do believe, as Lindsay said, that it was an anthem for the year. But would it have resonated as strongly if she’d released it during another point in her career (and life)? I’m not confident. Human beings love stories, need stories, so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with valuing narratives. We just need to save room to complicate them.


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