Chance premiered this song at his first ever performance on Saturday Night Live, which also just so happened to be the first performance by an independent artist in the show’s history. His independent status is significant, especially in light of the two artists who feature on this song. Jeremih and R. Kelly are both Chicago staples; Jeremih (whose new album Late Nights is really, really good, by the way) has four platinum singles, and R. Kelly is, well, R. Kelly. Chance, on the other hand, has never had a charting single, nor has he ever released an album with a label. All of his releases so far have been self-released mixtapes, and his one studio album (also self-released) was really a group effort by The Social Experiment. But Chance is arguably the biggest artist on this song by now, achieving a level of popularity made possible only by the magic of the Internet and by his own savvy, not to mention the quality of his music.
“Somewhere in Paradise” is a good intro to Chance’s music; he uses gospel-tinged production a lot, and this may be the best fit of that style with the lyrics, which are all about remaining humble in the face of all his success, understanding that it all comes from God. Chance’s songs still feel like revelatory gifts from heaven, unsullied as they are by the corporate red tape of labels. Get on board now while he’s still among the innocent.
Sara Groves has been releasing beautiful music for around twenty years now, and she’s received her fair share of critical acclaim. But because she exists in that uncanny valley between radio-friendly CCM and self-sufficient singer-songwriter, she’s still vastly underrated. Floodplain feels like the kind of record where, in a perfect world where Christian music received media attention, the tides would be rising in her favor. She hasn’t left behind her straightforward confessionals, but she takes some risks, including on “I Feel the Love Between Us”, an ode to the power of lifelong love. The song’s sound is unprecedentedly expansive, the songwriting remaining simple while the drums and electric guitar do things previously unheard in Groves’s music, carving their own paths to profundity. It’s a song with quiet confidence in its own musicality and in its estimation of love.
If I were a high-profile pop star with a long track record of negative publicity, my next move might be to make an album of contrition, à la My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I probably wouldn’t think that including a song that’s a not-so-subtly veiled “Eff You” to an ex-lover would be such a good look on my mea culpa album. And yet it’s just that kind of song on Bieber’s otherwise humble Purpose that turns out to be its best song. With an appealing acoustic feel and the personally direct lyrics that seem meant for someone specific, “Love Yourself” is an example of the kind of songwriting missing so far from Bieber’s oeuvre. It’s also an expert example of the kiss-off, which, when done right like this, is an extremely satisfying genre of pop.
R&B is useful for quite a few things. We generally associate it with communicating sexual passion, but it’s also good for kiss-offs or for heartbreak laments. Before this past year it was easy to forget the genre’s rich history of protest music. The most prominent example is Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On, which is a sumptuous, jazz-inflected record of anti-war, anti-gang violence, pro-environment beauty. “Sumptuous” and “jazz-inflected” also apply to “Sandra’s Smile”, the new song from Dev Hynes dedicated to the memory of Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old black woman found dead in a jail cell after being arrested for a traffic violation last summer, though the song sounds more like Prince than Gaye.
Hynes hasn’t been shy about the intention of this song; it’s not a call to arms but a forceful claim of the right to have an emotional response to tragedies like Bland’s. The grief that the black community has experienced again and again should not be rushed, and it’s not wrong to struggle to forgive. These tragedies have been nothing short of awful, but I’m thankful to God for the way many are responding in the creative community. With “Sandra’s Smile”, Dev Hynes allows himself to be a standard-bearer of the necessary response.
I’m not afraid to admit that I’m biased in Ben Rector’s favor: he’s from Oklahoma, was in my fraternity (though at Arkansas, not OU), performed at my fraternity’s Island Party a few years back, and I’ve seen him in concert at least three times now, not to mention the fact that I used one of his songs to propose to my wife.
So I like Ben Rector.
But I’m also not oblivious to aspects of his music that don’t appeal to me. Sometimes he overproduces his songs; instead of relying on his strong songwriting, he sometimes fills his songs with different bells and whistles that create a rift of sorts between the listener and the actual song. His best songs are simply produced, letting the spotlight shine on his earnest lyrics and brilliant melodies.
“Fear” is such a song. It captures moments when Rector has had doubts about his life as a touring musician. That kind of life may not seem relatable to many of us, but Rector’s chorus shrewdly deals with his fear in broad terms, giving details like the specific states where he was challenged, but then capping it off with resonant aphorisms like “Something in me would not turn around and run” and “I learned to dance with the fear that I’d been running from”. We’ve all been there, and it’s songs like this that provide a template for how to cope.
With “Hell You Talmbout”, Wondaland Records has stripped down protest music to its barest form, chanting names of black people killed by police (and some that were simply the victims of hate crimes dating all the way back to Emmett Till in 1955) over syncopated rhythms and imploring us to say their names, with interspersed choruses of “Hell you talmbout?” sung in the style of a wailing African spiritual. It doesn’t go anywhere. It’s repetitive. There’s no artistry to speak of, really, nothing especially creative to commend.
And yet the song is undeniably affecting. Repeating the names, names we’ve heard over and over, removes the numbness we’ve developed to them. I’m reminded of the Plastic Ono Band song, “Give Peace a Chance”. There’s very little to it besides the chorus of “All we are saying / Is give peace a chance!”. The very act of repetition has a way of getting into your heart.
The passion with which these artists beg us to say their names is contagious. The decision to include a variety of artists rather than just one (Monáe is the big name, but she’s only got one segment just like everyone else) reflects the necessity of community for protest. By the end, “Hell you talmbout?” becomes a rallying cry, a shared exasperation about those who pretend these things aren’t happening, and a call to speak up on behalf of those that no longer can.
I’m out of town, so I won’t be able to keep up with current music. I thought it’d be fun to do some old songs ahead of time.
Van Morrison is one of our strangest living legends. His greatest claim to fame is a whimsical pop song about a girl with brown eyes, and yet the vast majority of his art is mystical in nature, leaning heavily on Celtic music and surreal imagery. “Into the Mystic” might be the most Van Morrison song he ever made, evoking metaphors both spiritual and nautical to convey essential about the magnetism of desire. Morrison has a tendency to meander, even in some of his best music, but “Into the Mystic” is gloriously simple: there’s something magically unexplainable about love.