By Maggie McPhee
Torrential albums like Solange’s A Seat at the Table, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, and Frank Ocean’s Blonde, took the world by storm. The year introduced what I have lazily termed the “Double Release” (i.e. Frank’s Endless and Blonde), and popularized the Visual Album (thanks to Lemonade). Popular music took the concept album back under its wing and, by the looks of things, intends to nurture it back to health as the predominant form.
Most importantly, musicians politicized their voice to shield against oppression and embrace the marginalized as a blazing reminder that hate will not win. All these reasons led to the uniform approval of music in 2016. We’re only 3 months into the new year, and there is already an arsenal of talented rookies breaking into the game, alongside new releases from rap giants Future, Drake, and Kendrick. It’s clear that 2017 also wants to play – but can it beat 2016?
February handed us two debut releases from Los Angeles darlings Hand Habits and Molly Burch. Meg Duffy, of The Kevin Morby Band, released her first album under her solo moniker, Hand Habits. In Wildy Idle, Duffy’s high and soft voice evokes a lullaby and her lapping guitar chords and rhythmic shaker tempts one into dreamland. When she sings “It’s better to believe in something bigger than ourselves” in “Flower Glass”, we are half asleep, wrapped in her silken words.
On the contrary, Molly Burch wakes us up. With full-throated choruses and culminating bass guitar, drums, and electric guitar, her album Please Be Mine hits hard. She welcomes us into the 60’s power ballad era, reviving the raw, swaying energy of those years. Both Duffy and Burch’s works tread vulnerably through a path of personal pain and constant learning. Taking the baton from Angel Olsen’s My Woman, they continue to show how a woman can be quirky, soft, and fervent all at once.
On the same day Please Be Mine fell from the sky, Future released his first of two record-breaking albums. The production’s perfection of rolling high hats and booming 808s, as well as Future’s faithful-yet-nuanced representation of Trap themes (“percocets/molly, percocets/percocets/molly, percocets”) demonstrates the genre’s continuing growth. Future stepped out of his cash-mound, codeine comfort zone with the second album, HNDRXX, released just seven days later. With more accessible melodies and messages, HNDRXX ventures into smooth RnB and pop to transcend last year’s Trap Kingdom. His “Double Release” made him the first solo artist ever, and first artist in over 60 years, to occupy no. 1 and 2 on the Billboard 100s. If Future’s achievements aren’t a testimony to his skill, they are to Trap music’s stronghold on popular culture. Future brings the muscles to 2017’s roster.
Then there’s Drake. At the end of March, Drake dropped his “Playlist” More Life (it’s still an album, with an emphasis on showcasing other artists). On it, Drake once again proves his linguistic wit – “I play my part too, like a sequel”– and once again weaves his strife as an A-List celebrity into dance hits –“I cannot tell who is my friend/I need distance between me and them”. Unfortunately, Drake once again fails to speak to world affairs in the same way many of his contemporaries do. Drake’s decidedly apolitical subject matter speaks to a larger issue with 2017’s musical output thus far. Whereas in 2016 major artists addressed issues of gender, race, LGBTQ rights, and politics, 2017 has yet to do the same.
Interestingly, Trump’s inauguration also marks the division between political and apolitical music. Despite 2017’s lack of political art, members of America’s artistic communities are vocalizing their opposition (as seen from Meryl Streep at the Oscars, the cast of Stranger Things at the SAG awards, and Busta Rhymes at the Grammys). A project called “Our First 100 Days” began after the inauguration: a group of 100 artists, including Angel Olsen and PWR BTTM, each agreed to write a political song and release a different one on Bandcamp every day. Hopefully their next actions will speak as loud as their words, and forthcoming new albums will also fight the good fight. Kendrick Lamar just released his new album, DAMN., on Good Friday. On it, he tackles issues of police brutality, racism, and America’s divisive politics. I hope Kendrick’s efforts mark a turning point in 2017 towards politicized popular music. Now that hate has a seat at the White House, we need music more than ever to remind us that it cannot win.