Music

The Black Stars of 2016: From the Knowles Industrial Complex to the Hip-Hop Avengers

by

Hella Blackfolk loved David Bowie; David Bowie loved hella Blackfolk, and hella music by same. Bowie even outdid most of his pink-skinded compatriots — the Stones, Talking Heads, and Police excepted — adding two jawnts (“Fame” and “Let’s Dance”) to the permanent playlists of our most funk-centric DJs. That said, it seems fitting Bowie’s last hurrah atop the Pazz & Jop platform is one he shares with hella musical folk from our beloved community. And via a swan song where he finally declares for all the world to hear, “I’m a Blackstar, not a rock star.”

The Blackstar meme carries a lot of non-racial metaphoric weight on the album for sure, but all that jazz within — provided by saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s quartet — also links Blackstar with the realm of cosmic improv inhabited by Bowie beloveds like John and Alice Coltrane, stellar adepts who likewise made music about earthly transcendence seem as ineluctably a human concern as making babies (and making babymaking music). Few of us will be singing the theme music at our own wake or delivering the tightest eulogy imaginable about what we did with the Dash (what the preachers call the mark placed on tombstones between our birth dates and death dates). But Bowie turned his departure for the afterlife into a moment where he would once again, even with hella critical eulogy verbiage flying, have the last word on the bloody meaning of it all.

It’s easy enough to read his taking the number one spot above Queens Bey and Solange as more rock-crit nostalgia for dead white musos. But a year after Bowie took it to the next phase, Blackstar remains a hypnotic head rush of an afterlife-and-death-embracing suite. One chock-full of the song-and-studio craft, soulful yearning, pungent funk, and experimental daring that was DB’s career-long calling card.

And Bowie’s win is not just a matter of rock critics’ feeling a tad moist-eyed — give as much credit to the miserable rise of Mein Chumpf as to lifetime-achievement-award sentimentality. When the shite gets this dread on the American political front, muhfuhkuhs always turn to the music most capable of inhabiting the darkness within them with redemptive, angst-driven feeling. Hella folk, progressive rock scribes and non, are feeling like the Bowie of Blackstar‘s “‘Lazarus” right about now, running around “with scars nobody can see.” Ditto for the Bowie of “Girl Loves Me,” who demands to know “Where the fuck did Monday go?” After this election cycle’s stupor-Tuesday, what refrain could be more point blank in delivering the horror-vacui of 2016? Hugging up on the soaring lilt found on the album-length death march of this British rock star hardly seems overwrought — especially given he was the One who’d spent decades being defiantly, elegantly, heroically there for America’s Most Unwanted and the rest of the repressed world.

The fact that 2016 also took Prince — Bowie’s heir apparent in producing anthemic outsider panegyrics — should have alerted us early on that something abominably wicked this way comes. This paper’s own Nineties Black feminist star Lisa Jones Brown rang to query, “Greg, who’s going to stand up for Black people now that Prince is gone?” Prompting us to inquire in reply, “And even more to the point, who’s going to stand up for freaky Black people?” The final succumbing of Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White to a long-withering illness put too fine a point on it: Contemporary kulcha’s most #woke newjacks were being roughly passed the baton of serving their flocks with spectacular pop Revivalism, whether they were ready or not.

News of His Purple Majesty being brought down hit on a Thursday. Nobody we know had blinked twice enough to wipe the tears out their eyes when Lemonade was suddenly there on everybody’s cable box two days later, clamorously demanding attention be paid. And more than a few folk we know were mad as a mutha that Bey and HBO hadn’t rescheduled her opus’s debut in honor of this epoch’s Fallen Black Prince. But we watched, we got rocked, rolled, rhapsodized, wept in several places, and had to give Sista Beyoncé her propers as matriculated artist. Even hardcore sistas previously on record as anti-Beyhive STFU, begrudgingly bowing down in Lemonade‘s wake.

That Beyoncé straight-up owns the number two spot on this year’s Pazz & Jop isn’t just because the audio album alone is That Dope. It’s because the visual album came behind her and her Lady Panthers’ owning, blindsiding, and Black Lives Mattering & Shattering 2016’s Super Bowl out-the-frame so completely you’d be forgiven for forgetting it was ostensibly Coldplay’s gig, as well as the same game that served as Peyton Manning’s enfeebled last stand and Cam Newton’s fall to earth. Having already snatched Madonna’s Head Feminist in Charge crown, now Beyoncé was booting Public Enemy out of Huey’s wicker chair as the sonic face of Black pop militancy. And doing so right on the field of play, dead in AmeriKKKa’s pigskin-worshipping eye. Then three months later here she was again with Lemonade, proving undaunted in having to meet the Kendrick Lamar/Black Music Matters Challenge before a Black Rock/Hiphop Nation still in disbelief over Prince’s curtain call.

Back when some of our confederates were roiling in horror that rap and r&b were being appropriated, expropriated, and de-melaninated to goober dust by Iggy Azalea, Macklemore, and Robin Thicke — back when the Grammys looked destined to become the Other Country Music Awards — this reporter thought, “Well, this is where My People will either step up outrageously or sit down on the songwriting tip.” After the fiery urban rebellions in Ferguson and Baltimore, after the killing of Michael Brown by now-ex-cop Darren Wilson and the killing of Freddie Gray by the now-exonerated Baltimore police farce, the relevancy stakes rose considerably. Militancy and minstrelsy were both rebooting across the land. Merely making one’s game worthy of wizened NARAS voters’ attention wasn’t going to cut it.

In this context, Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (and his incendiary Grammy victory lap) set the bar for how much agitprop spectacle this generation’s most ambitious and conscientious Black superstars now had to surround their radical lyric content with. To Pimp a Butterfly ranks as the kind of overkill MJ intended and wrought with Thriller. What came with the high bar was a bandwidth thick enough to speak to the body politic on an existential meta plane — that mythogenic higher level where Black spiritualities, epistemologies, and cosmologies matter as much as funky beats. You could get swept up in the rapture of TPAB and Lemonade and not know where Robben Island is, or who Audre Lorde was, but no two pop albums in the past twenty years have made Black cultural literacy more of a prerequisite for a complex understanding of the contents within.

This is not to say the music of Lemonade is chopped liver. Even without the visual package’s Daughters of the Dust–haunted imaging (as well as the confessional, introspective human touch provided the magical lyricism of Somalian-born poet Warsan Shire), Lemonade is a big, bossy, brassy, totemic blueswoman’s album, full of spite, bite, and more hairpin stylistic left turns than we’ve heard on a mainstream r&b jawnt since Prince’s Parade. Re-fired from the speakers months after the hype of shady martial reveals have gone the way of all bossip, Lemonade sounds as smart, witchy, and whimsical a take on hurt women and cheating hearts as this era can throw up. The raunchy-as–Betty Davis grit and griminess of the Jack White collab “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is worthy of Death Grips. Matter of fact, the low-end dubplate-wise distortion heard on much of what follows tells you the Orphic depths of hell are Bey’s current idea of fun. Psycho-candied paeans to streetwalkers, second-line-inflected cowgirl odes to outlaw father figures, downer duets with James Blake that sound recorded in sunken cathedrals, funked-out spaghetti western scores for personal liberation marches — all this marks Lemonade as an album aflame with skin-shedding musical maneuvers by the self-care queen of modern pop. And the unabashed bratty big-willie braggadocio heard on “Formation” renders it the trapbeat record Muhammad Ali should have released at the height of his swagatudinal poetic prime.

That said, who knew the Knowles Industrial Complex was going to expand into a sister act? Or that Baby Sis was going to quietly release what’s become most millennial Blackfolks’ vote-by-daily-rotation album of the year: Solange’s A Seat at the Table.

Readily enchanted Pazz & Jop voters gave it the number five slot. Among hella non-critics, though, it was the second project in less than a year from the Knowles Industrial Complex to have folk from L.A. to Johannesburg routinely playing it all the way through twice in one sitting. Only this time the devotion was accomplished solely by a Knowles Complex Clanswoman’s sonic objet d’art. Everything Beyoncé beez and does — sound, color, movement, imaging, composing — is chain-linked together in the public imagination. Up until A Seat at the Table, Solange was more impressive for her use of negative space relative to Big Sis — for being the Un-Bey every which way to Sunday, remarkably undiminished by proximity to the throne, title, and tiara in manifold ways no Jackson but Janet ever achieved. To the extent the record had any pre-hype it was the infamous three-year-old elevator incident video — the one where Jay Z can be seen fending off a flurry of fisticuffs and kicks from a femme fatale who likely weighs 125 pounds soaking wet with a brick. But curiosity about how much heart you display in pummeling gangstas above your weight class won’t shoot your record up to number one on the charts. Not even in this socially mediated and medicated age of starfucking schadenfreude.

The plaintive and affecting grace of A Seat at the Table derives from it never sounding like it’s trying too hard — so one never feels like Solange is out here “Doing the Most,” as the kids say, to compete with anybody else on the pop du jour food chain. It’s a personalized response to the Ferguson/Baltimore/Kendrick/Lemonade challenge that finds Solange answering the call to re-polemicize r&b using what your grandmama would call her “inside voice,” à la Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly. Seventies soul lyric sopranos Syreeta Wright, Minnie Riperton, Deniece Williams, and the Pointer Sisters loom as musical godmothers — not to mention Aaliyah — while Solange’s deployment of pointed interludes from the Knowles sisters’ OG parental units and Master P brings gravitas and more overt rage. Those spoken-word choices prove as canny as her DJ-savvy picks in lush, translucent beats.

This year’s Call It a Comeback Award clearly goes to A Tribe Called Quest, holding down number three with We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, as death-shrouded and tearjerking a project as Bowie’s, given the transition of Phife Dawg from mortal to Native Tongue ancestor-spirit while the reconvened Tribe were mid-recording. The snarling ebullience of Phife’s verses on “We the People” refuses to allow the cemetery any kind of last word on him. But released three days after the election, We Got It From Here also functions as the hope, change, and radical headchange candidate of 2016 hiphop releases.

Tribe stealthily returned relevance to New York hiphop, not by way of a stated intention but by sounding as fresh now as they did on their debut of — yikes, was it really 27 years ago? — proving that good old uncrackable Blacknuss isn’t just skin deep but can spit its bunions off given enough political motivation and luminous beat construction. That said, it’s De La Soul’s Kickstarter-funded And the Anonymous Nobody, with its beyond eclectic supporting cast (David Byrne, Usher, Justin Hawkins, Snoop Dogg, Jill Scott, Estelle, Damon Albarn), that’s become our regular morning go-to for Nineties cool-rap-redux enchantment. Anonymous is by far a more casual, less career-mortality-reminding reboot than ATCQ’s, but to these ears more musically seductive and surprising — no matter if it couldn’t crack our estimable voters’ top 40. (Number cruncher alert: It lodged at number 58, tied with White Lung; the full results are at villagevoice.com/pazznjop.)

In some quarters Kanye West might as well be left for dead after daring to visit the non-resident elect in his pyrite towers alongside other opportunists. But there’s no denying he earned his number ten position on the album list and number two on singles the old-fashioned way. The Life of Pablo continues his long stretch of being the most hated man in modern pop who’s never phoned an album in — even when you think he’s given artistic integrity up for celebrity stunting. In addition to being Chance the Rapper’s most memorable track to date, “Ultralight Beam” was the propulsively poignant score to one of the most rapturously reviewed gallery works of the season: Arthur Jafa’s video Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death. The song and Jafa’s video-art piece are both vivid, phantasmal markers of how much state-sponsored violence was done to We the People during the Obama era. These are zeitgeist tone poems that anticipate our vulnerability and potential for radical elevation in the face of Mein Chumpf’s Mephistophelean promises to make demonic savagery an Oval Office priority.

Some scribes have predicted this terrorized moment of global right-wing white-supremacist-enabling ascension will incite a restoration of roots reggae, punk rock, and political rap to oppositional glory. But musical revolutions have a funny way of not exactly repeating themselves. What you hope for is a millennial music culture that synchronizes with the Progressive Now in ways we can’t even predict — one that possesses the consciousness-rearing shock-and-awe that the Clash and Public Enemy detonated in a previous generation’s heads but also understands that aggro agit-pop may not prove as spiritually or erotically energizing, or as necessary, to next-wave young radicals as the next-wave Al Green, Pretenders, Grace Jones, or Joy Division. The depth-perception listeners who latched on to Solange’s album, and the use of Shire’s writing on Lemonade, tell us that balladry that provides respite and shelter from the shitstorms ahead will be as welcome as, if not more so than, those that bring the noise and sturm und drang.

Which brings us to Rihanna’s Anti, an album-length flipping-off of runaway bedmates and a celebration of self-pleasuring and, we presume, mad weed smoking. Anti is almost as thoroughly listenable and sonically au courant as the work of the Knowles Industrial Complex, and there are a few non-Bey stans of our acquaintance who would see Anti trade places with the Queen’s Lemonade stand. If you prefer your hot-mama deities to bring switchblades and amoral anarchy to the party, Ri remains your 21st-century kind of irrepressible riot grrrl. But it also brings us to the mid-list stacking of Frank Ocean’s Blonde, Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, and fallen Romantic bellwether Leonard Cohen and the top 20 rankings of Nick Cave, Bon Iver, and Sturgill Simpson. All speak to the desire for renewal in dark, tuneful places, a monastic mode that will likely become commonplace of transmissions from our more etheric pop avatars in less than a post-inaugural New York minute.

We were therefore much encouraged to see Anderson .Paak’s sunny Malibu emerge as the eleventh pick among all the def-chasing-murder melancholia. Maurice White — like .Paak a drummer turned vocal popmeister — would surely approve of .Paak’s crafty, crooning veneration of tradition and eclecticism, just as Q and MJ would approve of his desire to render the dancefloor jazzy and seductively buoyant again.

Given this P&J’s diversity of chosen ones — an alchemical mixture of Amazonian fire starters, rogue gentlemen ancestors, infectious groove outliers, Big Apple hiphop avengers, navel-gazing dungeon-loving darkstars — we enter this next cycle of crisis in the democratic experiment with a certain optimism: a wildly giddy hope that our popular culture’s most undaunted will once again artfully and inspirationally respond to state-sponsored domestic terrorism, Draconian fuckery, and social-contract-decimation with rule-shattering reflection and regenerative ruckus-bringing rambunction.

Don’t miss the rest of the 2017 Pazz & Jop, Village Voice Music Critics Poll coverage:

The Complete Results

The Top Albums of 2016

The Top Singles of 2016

This Year’s Most Far-Out Ballot

This Year’s Tabulation Notes

In a World of ‘Lemonade,’ Misogyny Creeps Onto the Pop Charts

Chance the Rapper’s ‘Coloring Book’: Digital Music Victory or Corporate Land Grab?