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The Top Five Songs of 2017: Nikhil’s List

31 Dec

It’s been a good year for music and culling contenders for this list needed a fair bit of soul-searching. There were both big name releases and stunning debuts that, while fantastic, just could not find a place on this list. It took some tricky filtering, but these are our top five songs of 2017.

5. Chanel

I’m truly grateful for this new phase in Frank Ocean’s career. First of all, getting singles from him so soon after he released a pair of albums feels almost like excess after his long quiet period. Secondly, this more subdued sound works really well. He’s never been the most overstated of singers, but “Chanel” is stripped down like nothing before.

This focus pays off. It’s a very evocative song. It is both dense and wandering and so listening becomes an almost pointillist experience as you pick phrases and words from the stream. It is trademark Frank Ocean that it works so well. No one can make creating the future look as cool as he does.

4. Spice Girl

It wasn’t that long ago that you would need to go pretty far left-field to find someone like Aminé, and even further to find a song like “Spice Girl”. A love letter to the Spice Girls is just not what rappers were doing back then. Aminé actually not only got all five of the actual Spice Girls to sign off on this, but literally went to a Spice Girls show at age 5 and got a Sporty Spice Barbie right after.

The result of all of this dedication is an almost bubblegum pop-rap ode to his perfect girl. It’s just incredibly catchy. Interpolating the earworm of a hook from “Wannabe” to list out what he’s looking for is both clever and effective. Like its inspirations, this song is neither deep nor profound. It feels thrown together quickly, and justly so. However, it is also a lot of fun and something unique in a year which pushed all the boundaries of rap.

3. Mask Off

Rap has been the new rock for years, but this may have been the year where it begins to vie with pop for dominance. If so, “Mask Off” is one of the reasons for the shift. This is one of the defining sounds of 2017. Trap has come to stay.

That grimy, submerged beat is some of Metro Boomin’s best work. That flute lick is insistent and endlessly listenable. Future’s viscous flow is the star of the song though. That central boast of “Mask on / Fuck it mask off” could have very easily come off as empty, but Future keeps far too dark and heavy for that. This is the rare song that’s better without the Kendrick remix.

2. Rican Beach

Hurray For The Riff Raff’s album, The Navigator, is a lot of things at once. A folk-rock concept album is already out of place in 2017, but a Nuyorican one is unique anywhere. These layers and more come in to play in “Rican Beach”, which somehow keeps them all moving together at once. It benefits from a really strong folky spine and wraps it with idea after idea.

It’s a complex piece with huge swathes of fascinating sounds and human for all of that. It’s a singular achievement and a compelling statement. It’s quite easily one of the best songs of the year.

1. XO TOUR Llif3

I remember the first time that I heard this song. I was in a fairly crowded office and just trying to keep my head down and get some work done. I don’t think I actually did anything that day but listen to this song. I played it on repeat for the next couple of days. Just this song and nothing else. There was no question for me that this was going to be the song of the year.

This is the year of trap and that’s proved divisive. Mumble rap has been used as a pejorative more than a descriptor. In a way, this is understandable. Lyricism has long been a hallmark of rap and the seeming repudiation of that by some of the newer rappers was naturally going to meet a backlash. However, rap is more than lyricism and to judge a genre by a single lens can only ever be limiting. “XO TOUR Llif3” shows why.

Taking the hook of “Push me to the edge/All my friends are dead” and making an anthem of it just to slur it past comprehensibility is the cleverest thing that I have seen all year. The space this song has to be raw and emotional feels unprecedented in the genre and it fills it completely with Uzi’s story of his ex and substance abuse.

This is the song that I’m going to keep coming back to. There are a few songs that I return to over and over again, because while situations change, and while I change, these songs remain true. Coltrane, Kanye, Joy Division and now Uzi. These are the songs that make me.

@murthynikhil

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Lil Uzi Vert – Luv Is Rage 2

4 Nov

First of all, “XO TOUR Llif3” is one of the greatest songs that I have ever heard. It is a revelation in every sense and a song what I don’t know when I will ever stop listening to. You should listen to it right now.

That song is the reason that I’m reviewing this album, but there is the remainder to cover as well. Unfortunately, nothing else here matches the brilliance of the single. The album as a whole has other interesting points, but also holds a fair number of misfires and is too indulgent of some uninteresting ideas. For instance, “UnFazed” is too repetitive to take advantage of all that it has. The Weeknd sounds great in it but needs more space than he’s given. It is still a highlight of the album, but does not fulfill the promise it first seemed to hold. Songs like “Malfunction” and “How To Talk” just don’t do anything and while “X” has some fun points, it’s just not that interesting.

“XO TOUR Llif3” however is brilliant and thus complicated to take apart. This is the song that proved mumble rap to me. The new Atlanta rap scene has had a lot of great music come from it, as anyone who reads this blog can see, but this song pushes it beyond merely being promising, good new music. This is the song that actually cashes the checks.

When I first saw mumble rap, it seemed to be punk rock all over again. In the same way that punk rebelled against the crushing formalism of stadium rock and their 20 minute guitar solos, mumble rap seemed the Dionysian answer to the Apollonian values of lyricism and flow. Again, just like punk rock, it’s not that mumble rap lacks the ability, some of Thugger’s lines still make me laugh and I can’t see a single rapper with a questionable flow, it’s that the medium shouldn’t be defined by that. It’s unsatisfying to define this movement with nothing more than abjuration. Punk rock was much, much more than simple chords. Other songs have proven that you can make great music with mumble rap, it took “XO TOUR Llif3” to show why you should try.

The greatest thing that this song does is a moment in the middle. The couplet “Push me to the edge/All my friends are dead” is the spine of the song. It’s a wonderfully succinct and condensed piece of songwriting that is repeated over and over again to add weight. The first verse ends with the anguished plea “Xanny, help the pain, yeah/Please, Xanny, make it go away” before dropping into the chorus and that repeated couplet again. This time however, instead of actually saying the words, Lil Uzi’s voice slurs it to incomprehensibility so as to give it even more space for emotion.

That was my moment of clarity. That is what this music can do. You cannot communicate that feeling with traditional rap. I’ve never heard that feeling pushed so clearly. Even now, after hundreds and hundreds of listens, that moment astounds me.

In all of my time listening to music, I’ve only had my eyes opened like that once before. Quite a few years ago, I was trying out jazz to see if I would like it and while the first things that I heard were all excellent, I didn’t really get what it was about. Naturally, I started with the most famous albums and so I ended up picking up Coltrane’s My Favorite Things quickly enough. The title track is still my favorite individual piece of music. The first minute hews fairly close to the Rodgers and Hammerstein original, but then Coltrane’s solo goes to a place that I had never heard before. What makes this special though is how that diversion is fully informed by the original. He takes the ideas of the musical version and pushes them somewhere entirely unexpected and that surprise is what defines the feeling of listening to the music. Then, just when you have a feel for where he now is, the song seamlessly returns to the original tune and so once again catches you off-balance. That moment changed how I listened to jazz and for that matter, music as a whole. That taught me to participate, to try to see where the song is going so that you can be surprised when the musicians do something clever and end up somewhere else instead. It’s the pleasure of seeing familiar ideas put together in a way that’s completely novel. It’s like the best puzzle games. It’s also something that I would never have understood had it not been for this ‘Trane song.

Formalism and jazz comparisons are well and good, but they are not what makes a song great. “XO TOUR Llif3” is just visceral to hear. I feel like I should be too old for this to hit me as hard as it does, but his honesty takes his story of heartbreak and depression beyond mere teen drama. Besides, when he hits the bridge of “She say: “You’re the worst, you’re the worst.”/I cannot die because this my universe”, that’s too close to home to deny. It’s not like I’m that mature either.

It’s also just a great song. I still haven’t figured all of its pieces. That little pause at the end of “Shoulda saw the way she looked me in my eyes/She said: Baby, I am not afraid to die.” tripped me up dozens of times and so punctuates the verse perfectly. The production is unceasingly clever and contrasts with Uzi’s flow to add layer upon layer of meaning.

This song is now a part of me. You should give it a try.

@murthynikhil

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