Popular music, at its top-dollar best, is either music to drive to or music to grill to; at its bestest best, it’s both. By my reckoning, track by track, the Carters’ Everything Is Love record is for: grilling, driving, driving, grilling, driving, grilling, grilling, driving, grilling. “Music has my kids sound asleep” might not be a lyric that will appeal to many, but it did to me as the year hit its crescendo, the hills on fire on every corner of America’s 8 1/2 by 11, the sky turning peach. “Summer’s light like summer’s night/It’s like Christ’s masterpiece” indeed. — Daniel Brockman
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On Room 25, Noname delivered on a sophomore album with a lot more dizzying raps than her first. It’s almost like she heard the masses talkin’ shit about her skills and went wild on this record. Who else’s pussy is writing a thesis on colonialism?
— Tirhakah Love
Not enough can be said about the weight of this genre-welding meeting of titanic Texas forces: On “Gone Away,” Bun B writes what is, in all likelihood, his final letter to UGK bandmate Pimp C, but does it in a way that’s broad enough to be applied to any lost kin; Leon Bridges delivers a somber and vulnerable hook, and Gary Clark Jr. cleans up with a solo reminiscent of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Little Wing.” They’re truly the Texas triumvirate, and it’s a wonder we aren’t talking about the magnitude of this collaboration more as a culture. What’s better, it all takes place over a beat cooked up by Big K.R.I.T., whose beats have, in the wake of Pimp C’s death, given Bun’s delivery an unmatched comfort and ease. Put this one right up there with UGK’s own “One Day” in the canon of Southern rap eulogies. —Sama’an Ashrawi
Black Panther: The Album, Music From and Inspired By: No mere album can live up to the cultural impact of this extremely ambitious comic book movie, but it’s a great companion piece nonetheless.
— Carol Cooper
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A rundown of personal and social horrors that’s less frantic but also far less calculated than the 1975’s “Love It If We Made It,” Lil Peep’s Life Is Beautiful is far more devastating. “Tryin’ to keep your cool at your grandfather’s funeral/Finding out eventually the feeling wasn’t mutual/You were not invited ’cause you’re nothing like the usual” — damn, that’s bleak. And it cuts much harder than the “My girlfriend left me so I’m depressed and I’m gonna take lots of drugs to cope” lyrics Lil Peep specialized in, as sincere as they clearly were.
— Steve Erickson
Travis Scott’s world domination is more than just a crowning achievement for an artist who’s long been a critical darling, but it’s a clear statement that the South, and especially Houston, the nation’s most diverse city, has got something to say.
Drenched in Houston’s legend’s sweat, Astroworld is a referendum on hip-hop as a genre and an art form. The album is slowed down, tripped out, and bombastic, as Scott liberally references Houston’s past as a hip-hop hotbed while pushing it past its Screwston reputation. Astroworld feels both futuristic and classic at the same time, and that’s something only Kendrick Lamar has been able to accomplish in the last half-decade.
But there will be no Nobel Prize for Astroworld. No Taylor Swift collabs, no Marvel soundtracks. It’s all just too druggy. Too street. Too Southern. Too real.
And maybe that’s how it should be. But, one thing is for sure, Travis Scott’s moment is now, and he’s going to run with it straight to the Super Bowl halftime show, and he’s going to keep running with it till someone comes to take it from him.
— Jaime-Paul Falcon
By my count, Kids See Ghosts is the seventh time Kanye has made the best album of the year. But it’s no accident that this isn’t the 2018 record he put his name on, or that he needed a co-host to pull it off, or that it’s impossible to remember a single word he says throughout — which, thank God.
— Nick Farruggia
Drake, “In My Feelings”: Only in 2018 Atlanta could I drive crosstown from berating a Bush speechwriter in a Roman Catholic sanctuary to Aubrey & the Three Migos at State Farm Arena preaching a center-right message of Maya Angelou vibes featuring Future, Young Jeezy, and Trey Songz. Did it for the culture. But you can imagine compassionate conservative Michael Gerson kicking himself for not writing “I wanna thank God for working way harder than Satan.” Elevate.
The next morning I returned to work, where a sickle cell anemia patient almost hemolyzed to death. 2018!
— Maureen Miller
With Cardi B’s “Bickenhead,” nasty hos from across the globe finally get the anthem they so righteously deserve. — Jessica Hopper
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The day Pusha T’s “The Story of Adidon” dropped was unforgettable. I listened as it rolled out on Funk Flex (the first major terrestrial radio event in a while!), and he kept stopping at every new bar, overwhelmed, and then he would replay it from the beginning. I remember wanting him to get through the whole song, but this approach made sense — it’s a lot to take in. An unbelievable achievement in diss tracks, and Pusha’s best work this year. — Evan Minsker
Childish Gambino, “This Is America”: Donald Glover’s incantatory recitation would work without visuals, but Hiro Murai’s video represents America in 2018 as acutely as the newsreel footage in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. Utterly unnerving. — Kathy Fennessy
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I like Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” but Earl Sweatshirt’s “December 24” gets the Gil-Scott Heron “Winter in America” mood more right than anything else I came across this year. (Which, my annual disclaimer, amounts to 1 percent of 1 percent of whatever hip-hop was out there in 2018.) It must be my shortest number one ever at 1:46 — I wish it went on for another 7 or 8 minutes. At the risk of sounding white-guy stupid, where does the opening genuine-dialect quote come from? I’ve Googled it, looked up the album credits, nothing. The significance of December 24 escapes me, too, but it feels right: aspirations, a plan, something that came up just short. Quote I came across in a Goon Sax interview: “Sad music is made for a reason and maybe it’s to repurpose something you’ve gone through.” — Phil Dellio
The Carters, “Apeshit”: In perhaps pop culture’s Blackest year — Black Panther, Kendrick’s Pulitzer, and Beyoncé’s own history-making Coachella set, for starters — Black America’s reigning monarchs deliver a worthy soundtrack. — Trevor Anderson
It’s hard to hate on what the mainstreamiest skinfolk were diggin’ into in 2018. On its face, it seems they’ve been getting into each other. If scrolling through this year’s Pazz & Jop rankings tells us anything, it’s that the collapsing of technological, aesthetic, and networking barriers between the music industry and Hollywood resulted in a celebration of seamless branding. The Black Brunches at the tippy-top are paying off. In a time where conscious consumption and demands for Black entertainment hit threat-level orange, everybody Black seemed to be rooting for everybody Black. And for better or worse, it’s working. Donald Glover — whose virtuosity played transistor through which this year’s charged Black music (as Childish Gambino) and Black visuals (with Atlanta) often ionized — tops this year’s singles list off the strength of the interweaving gloss and shock on “This Is America.” Following recent big-screen appearances in Hidden Figures and Moonlight, Janelle Monáe coded Dirty Computer, effectively kicking through the ceiling and high-stepping up out the closet and clocking in with the number two album and number two single; Kendrick Lamar, meanwhile, didn’t even release a proper album this year (his last two both topped P&J) yet makes the singles list after banking off the Cali conneck with Ryan Coogler and helping soundtrack the year’s most spectacularized Black product, Black Panther.
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Each of these aforementioned artists has been labeled a Black Genius™ in one way or another. Glover as the “solitary male genius” in the mold of Kanye West, hailed for his mind and malleability. Monáe as the revved-up engine of Black femme grace and queer womanhood attempting to redefine what genius looks and sounds like. And Lamar as the Pulitzer Prize–winner, celebrated for his brilliant wordplay, multitudinous performance, and ferocious rhyme-scheming.Each has the ear and consideration of Black and white audiences alike, crafting a vision of Blackness and Black “transgression” that is legible and hugely profitable to a largely white industry. In today’s culture, as Long Beach rapper Vince Staples quips, “You ain’t crackin’ right now if you ain’t got no black something.” These days, the separation between the wheat and the chaff comes down to the genius label.
The 2010s have presented the transmissive and transgressive modes of Black musical genius on multiple points along a spectrum: in Lamar’s chaotic free-flow rap-witnessing and defiant live performances; in Beyoncé’s unabashed appeal to down-home Blackness and poignantly subversive feminism at this year’s Coachella; in Kanye West’s self-sustaining engine of aesthetic and musical output (through which he became this decade’s Black genius du jour); in Glover’s banally provocative “This Is America” and Monáe’s Afrofuturist posturing on Dirty Computer. If the multiplicity of approaches suggests a progression in accepting the various and overlapping realities of Black life, the critical response (read: who we as an audience deem “genius”) still represents a simplistic, gendered, and classed view of virtuosity and artistic autonomy. Who is considered a Black genius is wrapped within the presentation of Blackness as attractive, abrasive, “unapologetic,” or abject.
Genius, especially of the artistic flavor, infers both signifying and self-fashioning. Ingenuity implies innovation — a glimpse into the future of form using the materials available in the present. Before the Black voice was beloved, Louis Armstrong’s horn could at once skew soteriological and shambolic. Satchmo reimagined the standard, and set new ones for Duke Ellington and the rest of those heads at the Cotton Club. Miles Davis blew till he was blue in the face, and sinewed Black America to its mainland African cousins in what Amiri Baraka terms America’s musical “rhythm bed.” These cultural icons elicited huge praise from white jazz critics who, in the late Fifties, mirrored the ethos of New Criticism in literature. White audiences buzzed off those jazz cats, and as the form was subsumed, new Black faces covered in sheeny sweat took over: The Stevies, JBs, Princes, and MJs soundtracked the new virtuosity, which had to include the sweaty, somatic, hip- and head-rolling vibe of the time. Prince’s and Stevie’s multi-instrumentalist, know-it-all, do-it-all mode provided the frame that that middle-class, Midwest producer-kid Kanye West filled for the majority of his career.
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It’s no coincidence that every genius who sees glory in their own time is a straight man. Consider that the progenitor and generator of the rhythm and blues form, Big Mama Thornton, didn’t receive her flowers till she wasdecades under the grave. Aretha got her roses a generation too late, the genius of her voice and autodidactic instrumentalism only truly celebrated after she passed. Alice Coltrane, it can be argued, was the one pushing John to do all that weird shit that ended up becoming his most lasting contribution.
In 2018, the contours of major success were formed around presenting an understanding of the sonics and images that “start a conversation” without having to necessarily add anything new or refreshing to that conversation. The most blatant examples of this are two singles that dominated streaming services off the strength of punchy videos that spoke to a growing awareness of “feminist aesthetic” and self-involved philanthropy: Drake’s “Nice for What” and “God’s Plan,” the latter a looping mess of quick quippy rhymes, with a video that’s an easily read publicity stunt if watched more than once. But no one this year won off stunting quite like Donald Glover.
Glover’s upbringing in Stone Mountain, Georgia, subsequent matriculation to NYU, early white-’n’-nerdy humor and music shtick, as well as his role on NBC’s Community, situated him as a Black-whisperer amongst white friends. It wasn’t until 2016’s Parliament-inspired Awaken, My Love! and the “unapologetically Black” FX show Atlanta that Glover began to be viewed by Black audiences as someone potentially approaching the visionary stratosphere of Kendrick, Beyoncé, and Janelle. But unlike those artists, Glover-as-Gambino hadn’t made a concerted appeal to Black audiences specifically. His work seemed concerned with boosting his status as the multihyphenate artist-of-the-day. Glover, as Jordan Peele quipped to the New Yorker, is attempting to make “elevated Black shit,” though there is hardly anything innovative about “This Is America.” Craig Jenkins, writing for Vulture, opined that compared to Atlanta and Awaken, My Love!, “This Is America” is fascinating yet facile: “Glover is smarter than this. Atlanta is smarter than this. Most arch black art flourishing now under the ever-present white American gaze is more careful than this.”
The video’s overt symbolism has been the subject of a torrent of deep reads and “stories behind stories”speaking to the “necessity” of the work in today’s racial climate. For whom the video is necessary is subjective. The video’s most widely discussed images — Glover summoning a pistol to murder a hooded Black man and an assault rifle to mow down a Black church choir — is deemed genius by some and conveniently cynical by others.
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Because the song itself is a disarray of punchy lyrics and chaotic sound, it’s fair to ask how “This Is America” would fare if the video wasn’t so lustrously traumatic. Shot beautifully by Atlanta director Hiro Murai, the video captures the sweaty viscerality of “unapologetic” Blackness in Glover’s warping facial expressions and dance steps, as well as the sudden synchronicity of Black death. Glover’s playing of both sides is undermined, however, by a lack of consideration and mourning for those lost. Maybe that’s the point. But it’s worth asking whether that point was worth the psychic trauma. I talked to costume designer, stylist, and Columbia, South Carolina, native Clark DeBarry about the video — which she could only watch once because of its triggering nature — who said that she felt Glover didn’t really sit with the terror South Carolinians lived through after the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. “It didn’t feel like Black people were being put in the forefront to receive whatever message he was trying to put out,” said DeBarry. “The public was very quick to label it iconic.… I was very confused about him being labeled a genius.”
The video dips an entire leg into a kind of Black exploitation that profits from the “performative wokeness” that’s swallowed public discourse this year. Glover has been noticeably quiet about the discussions surrounding the video, electing to allow his audience to interpret it however they see fit. He’s fully in his right as an artist to do so, but as someone trying to show an investment in Black people’s experiences, killing a bunch of unnamed Blacks without warning and without mourning seems more hurtful than poignant.
The genius label suggests an interplay between artist, critic, and audience that Black artists navigate with various levels of consciousness. During her promo run ahead of Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe spoke about her sexual evolution — coming out as pansexual in a Rolling Stone cover story, no less. As such, Dirty Computer has been hailed as Monáe’s first true masterpiece. It’s a curious distinction, as her earlier work not only features the multilayered sonics and storytelling of previous “geniuses” but the ideological depth that should’ve catapulted her into the stratosphere. Maybe all she was waiting for was the blessing of the reigning Black genius. Before his death in 2016, Prince lent his guitar to Monáe’s “Make Me Feel,” tied for the number two single on P&J this year. Like Kendrick’s posthumous détente with Tupac on To Pimp a Butterfly, Monáe is speaking across time to other geniuses — namely Stevie Wonder on “Stevie’s Dream”— and placing herself along that continuum generally works to her benefit. She largely lets her work do the talking, but who she’s talking to matters just as much as the content itself.
Monáe revealing the mystery of her sexuality by publicly coming out is at once an act of self-fulfillment and clever marketing on her part. Following her roles on Moonlight and Hidden Figures, Monáe’s star has never shone brighter. Answering the questions regarding her queerness through Dirty Computer’s pre-release videos — and the companion sci-fi film of the same name — only generated more buzz among fans and newcomers alike. Still, trying to represent and celebrate the fullness of her identity is a political tightrope. The video for her breezy, gumdrop song “Pynk” came under scrutiny online for what seemed like a narrow construction of womanhood: Monáe and her backup dancers sporting what’s been facetiously termed “pussy pants” garnered a healthy backlash. After all, the critics carped, not all women have vaginas, or necessarily pink ones, at that. Reading a work solely for what it doesn’t do, who it doesn’t see, without contextualizing how it fits within a larger industry is a rather deficient way of critiquing art, however. “Pynk” is refreshing in an art scene full of men we consider geniuses who hardly ever celebrate women and the parts that make up women — physical, spiritual, or otherwise — in any meaningful way.
Glover’s and Monáe’s work — the particular criticisms that follow, and their respective responses — highlight how artistic demands dovetail with our feedback. Glover wants to be taken seriously, so he positions himself and his crew beyond reproach, beyond his audience’s touch. As such, the mystique and ethic he’s cultivated is praised and tabbed “genius.” Monáe tried that with her earlier work and failed to receive the same respect — the ArchAndroid suite still conjures emotional responses from her listeners; there is hardly any working artist who portrays falling in love in the midst of the apocalypse so remarkably. Of course, genius, mystique, and autonomy are warped by a patriarchal order that undervalues Black women, queer and non-binary folks, and poor people’s work at every turn. Monáe shows a propensity to listen to her audience. She repeatedly expressed concern with what her “early fans and very religious and very Southern family” would think about her sexuality during an interview with the New York Times’ Jenna Wortham last month. “Right now I’m escaping the gravity of the labels that people have tried to place on me that have stopped my evolution,” she said.
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But both the music industry and the social conditions surrounding it are changing, and that means we’re defining genius differently than we have in the past. Genius, even if it’s socially constructed, is a nonlinear evolution — Kanye West is a prime example of the progression and regression that can happen over time. It’s close, but the Louis Vuitton Don is perhaps the most successful artist in the history of Pazz & Jop. Much like that of Glover, Monáe, and Lamar, Kanye’s art was so obviously concerned with Blackness — one circumscribed by its male-dominated, middle-class demographic, but Blackness nonetheless. Some things haven’t changed since 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: Ye’s still a hardcore soul samplephile, albeit with a few postpunk interpolations tossed into the mix as well. But the furious circus surrounding his Trumpism and ahistorical imaginings of African oppression has turned everyone off. Whether it’s from the prescription drug dosage or the reality-TV teachings of his in-laws, West’s work is completely vapid these days: As loud as he is on Twitter and IRL, his incoherent music has remarkably little to say. And he isn’t alone. Drake’s Scorpion, which featured a couple of cute singles drowned out by a thick layer of throwaway tracks, came and went. And Kanye played roulette with the most prominent figures in the G.O.O.D. Music stable, electing to release weekly seven-song tapes in lieu of focusing on an album or a posse cut that could’ve showcased its members’ talents together more seamlessly. The two most influential male rappers of the decade seemed to finally overextend themselves. But this year, more promising names took the stage and exclaimed a self-assuredness that is part and parcel to ingenuity.
Artists like Tierra Whack, whose 29th-ranked, 15-minute Whack World adds another wrinkle to the “album” model. Most of her songs feature a one-minute running time, and were melded together for a long-form music video that introduced her as a wunderkind who’s not only securely in her bag, but also interested in the ethic of cohesion that “contemporary genius” implies. The singularity of her ideas and her self-created world portend a curious and promising future. Her sound is weird, full of guts and approachable, while her visuals — for which she has been nominated for a Grammy — suggest a mind that’s fun, frazzled, and colorful. It feels like Whack can sing or spit on anything from a trap beat to a meandering acoustic guitar with no trouble at all. And unlike previous virtuosic artists, Philly’s resident surrealist doesn’t lay the shit on thick. Where others opted for boasting singularity, Whack displayed a brilliance that is less a barrage than an unraveling tapestry that seems satisfied with just playing around in our heads for a little while.
Expanding the parameters of Black genius means emphasizing the contributions of artists leading long-lasting cultural shifts. That means, necessarily — sometimes retroactively — honoring the dual-headed dance-punk femmes Santigold and Kelis, who cracked the sonic door in Europe, allowing future artists like Azealia Banks and Monáe to walk on through. It requires that we parse out the classed notions of genius as well, highlighting artists like Chicago rapper Chief Keef, who laid the groundwork for drill’s mainstream upheaval; like Memphis, Tennessee’s 3 Six Mafia, who popularized the triplet rhyme scheme dominating radio play and streaming playlists today; or like Odd Future, a bunch of excitable kids who captured the pathos of drug-addled, disillusioned adolescence through shock music, and then followed it up a decade later with thoughtful renderings of queerness both in music and fashion. Like Noname, whose Room 25 compounds the strong cohesion she put on display on her previous work, 2016’s Telefone. In the past, understanding these artists through social contexts of “violent” or “nontraditional” upbringings worked against the communities that bred them. Their uniqueness proved harmful.
The jury is still out on whether unglossy ingenuity will elicit praise from this generation of listeners. History proves that any determination of Black genius requires an interrogation of its function — who the term celebrates and the protections it provides beloved but potentially harmful figures. Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement is helpful in this analysis. As are the volume of writers, critics, and thinkers who are problematizing celebrity culture, working to resist the dangerous ego-boosting, critical consensus that strengthens exceptionalism and reinforces existing inequalities within and without Black communities. So far, the “Black excellence” of the day is largely Middle Class Problems™, and while that speaks to a certain kind of progress, it also suggests a severing. Nowhere, not on OWN, not on BET, not on HBO, not on FX, not on the radio nor the playlist — nowhere are the stories of Black poor and working-class folks receiving glory. Works like Moonlight and DAMNare exceptions that prove the rule. And that is not simply a massive oversight but a detriment to those living those lives. Which is, actually, the majority of Black people.
Donald, Janelle, and Kendrick are informed by Black artistic communities of the past — the Nikki Giovannis, Maya Angelous, Amiri Barakas, James Baldwins, and W.E.B. Du Boises of the world — but, in their own ways and to their own degrees, they have partitioned themselves from the audiences those cultural giants aimed to encourage. Indeed, they’re winning. Our trust in their contemporary-funk voices has yet to really wane, and rightfully so. They haven’t swerved onto the Ye-route. They’ll be all over our television screens during this Sunday’s Grammy Awards; their nominations will be held as a sign of progress in the white mainstream, as such nominations have for the last fifty years. But in the past, following the commandments to secure thine bag has cut off the top performing artists from the people they are said to speak for. We felt that in droves in 2018. Now comes the reckoning.
America’s critical establishment has spoken, naming Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” the top single of the year. All told, this year’s Pazz & Jop Music Critics Poll featured nearly 400 voters and over 1,400 songs. Listen to the Top 50 Singles on Spotify, and check out the year’s top albums HERE.
I was born the summer Nixon resigned. I know this because in my family it was always spoken of as if the two events were somehow related. My ex-hippie mother used to say, “Thatbastard Nixon” (he was always Thatbastard in our house, never Richard)… “Thatbastard Nixon got what was coming to him. And we got you.”
I always took a kind of pride in this. Not so much because I thought he resigned because of me, but because we were both the results of one long, hot summer when everything changed.
For Nixon, the summer of 1974 was an ending. For me, a beginning.
It was a heady time for music, a summer when new genreswere just taking form and competing for national attention. In the cities, disco was rearing its head for the first time, at the same moment the Ramones were making their CBGB debut. Outside the cities, “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Annie’s Song” by John Denver dominated jukeboxes and car radios.
Classic rock, folk, disco, and punk were all facing endings and beginnings that summer.
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Ironically, the song that dominated the pop charts that year was the treacly Barbra Streisand ballad “The Way We Were.” No matter your opinions on Streisand, the song was huge and the movie of the same name — a love story about a Marxist Jew (Streisand) and her WASP-y writer boyfriend-then-husband (Robert Redford) attempting to find love in the face of idealism, betrayal, and McCarthyism — inspired one perfect line that applies as much to the summer of 2018 as to the summer of 1974, as we once again find ourselves caught in the brouhaha of presidential scandal:
Streisand: Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were old? We’d have survived all this. Everything would be easy and uncomplicated, the way it was when we were young.
Redford: Katie, it was never uncomplicated.
I like to imagine those words reverberating quietly behind the public longing for simpler times, an echo of past sins mocking the idea that a once-slave-owning country longs to be “Great Again.” It’s just the kind of willful ignorance at which America excels.
The song that was everywhere in the summer of 1989 had no such rheumy-eyed notions of the past. “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy was as angry, sweaty, and claustrophobic as the Spike Lee movie (Do the Right Thing) that made it famous.
I had just finished ninth grade at Westchester High School in Los Angeles, where I would hide out in my Morrissey T-shirts and twelve-hole Docs in hallways dominated by Bobby Brown (“My Prerogative”),De La Soul (“Me Myself and I”), and the few white kids belting out “Love Shack” by the B-52’s.
“Fight the Power” was a revelation, a glimpse into something forceful.With one righteously pissed-off line after another, the song inspired phrases that survive to this day in the modern lexicon of resistance. To wit: “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.”
The heroes in question — Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver — found themselves brought by the song into the American mainstream 25 years after their heyday. Tragically, that same summer, Huey Newton was gunned down in cold blood, a victim of a drug crime as much as the white racism he spent a lifetime fighting.
This was also the summer of the Bensonhurst riots in which Yusef Hawkins, a sixteen-year-old African-American boy was killed by a white mob because the mob (mistakenly) believed he was dating a local white girl. (The Public Enemy song “Welcome to the Terrordome” includes a dedication to Hawkins.) The race riot came just two months after the release of Do the Right Thing, which itself featured a race riot in Brooklyn in response to the killing of an innocent black man.
So here’s Chuck D and Flava Flav broadcast into the bedrooms of the American suburb (in a video directed by Spike Lee), angrily pointing out the history of “nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check,” as the white kids raised their skinny white fists, timidly placing a toe into the raging waters of American racial anger while quoting Spike Lee’s powerful lines: “Hey, Sal, how come you got no brothers up on the wall here?”
It was a long, hot summer when everything changed. It was never uncomplicated.
In fact, had social media existed in the summer of 1989, there no doubt would have been a series of righteous hashtags (#myheroesdontappearonnostamps) followed by an inevitable backlash (#Elviswasntracist) followed by the backlash to the backlash (#FuckJohnWayne), in which we would organize ourselves into the neat camps of allies and adversaries that are the trademark of modern political discourse.
When I posed this question to my Twitter feed, with just these ideas in mind: “What is the all-time best Song of the Summer?” I was surprised to find an inclination toward, well, sunnier songs.
OK Twitter, it's hot out. Let's settle this:
What is the all-time best Song of the Summer?
(That ONE SONG that's everywhere for a whole summer.)
I'm tempted to say Beach Boys or Prince, but for me it's:
People tended to view the question in one of three ways: Any song that has the word “summer” in the title; a song that dominated the charts and airplay for a summer; or a song that simply evokes the feeling of summer.
“Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince was the most popular answer, and it was probably because it checked all three boxes. As one commenter put it, the song puts the listener mentally and emotionally into “a perfect summer day.”
Other songs that fulfilled all three requirements: “Hot Fun in the Summertime” by Sly and the Family Stone and “Summer in the City” by the Lovin’ Spoonful. These songs share the idea of summertime as holiday — both literal and figurative — from the existential grind of the fall and winter.
“Cruel Summer,” the 1984 hitfrom the all-woman pop band Bananarama, was a popular choice, an angsty take on heartache amid the heat of summer. (For my money, the summer of 1984 belongs to “When Doves Cry” by Prince, when His Purpleness blessed us with the best bathtub vocal performance until “Stay” by Rihanna).
“Smooth” by Santana/Rob Thomas and “Summertime” by Janis Joplin seem to share a spiritual connection to “Fight the Power,” a kind of slinky, sweaty feeling about summer that eschews the explosiveness of explicit politics but embraces the anxiety of heat in close quarters.
It’s hard to talk about these songs outside the events, both personal and political, which surrounded them. There’s a necessary nostalgia to such things. Where were you when you first heard “Brown-Eyed Girl”? And who was the brown-eyed girl that loved you for loving it? Were you dancing at your cousin’s wedding to “Crazy in Love?” in the summer of 2003? Do you remember your date? The smell of the spilled champagne on your tux, the mud you noticed on the heel of your shoe from dancing in the grass because your brown-eyed girl was too shy to go to the dance floor?
Were you belting out “Free Fallin’” in the front seat of your best friend’s tattered old Plymouth as you made your way to another lazy summer day at the beach, the park, the river, the lake, the shore, the parking lot of the Dairy Queen one shoeless summer before Everything Changed?
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I like to think of the talk I would have with my past self if I could. I like to imagine just what I’d tell me about the future. “It’s totally different than you think it’s going to be. You turn out all right, man. But you don’t get jetpacks, and there are no flying cars.”
Instead we get this. We get social media and computer screens. We get a worldwide metaphor in which we pose these questions to each other, the ones we, as humans, really care about: Who am I and Who are you and What do I like and What do you like and Do you like me and Do I like you and Are we on the same team? Like the beak of a hummingbird, our adaptation to the world is this networked computer metaphor in which we’ve all agreed to participate, an extension of our freakish brains that we use to pose and solve the social questions we really care about.
So instead of flying cars, we got social media. Instead of jetpacks, streaming pornography. How disappointing.
But maybe there is hope in this because at least, perhaps finally, we see ourselves clearly for the cloying, needy, angry, imperfect things we are. Nixon resigned. He resigned because he broke the law and got caught and still people forgot, choosing instead to wrap themselves in American flags, to long for an American innocence that never existed. And despite the utter morass of immorality, the racist, thieving, lying shitshow that is the long, hot summer of 2018 — the disappointment with American promise, with American discourse, with American tribalism, with America — the effect of all this daily conflict is that we no longer have to carry the burden of a past innocence betrayed.
Perhaps this is why the song that best defines this particular fucked-up summer — the one we’ll remember forty years from now — is likely the viral phenomenon “This Is America” by Childish Gambino, which is as violent, tragic, contradictory, and angry as the country at which it takes aim.
Maybe it’s the summer we finally realize it was never uncomplicated. We were just young.
“Wide Awake” is a new column from Mikel Jollett, who you should be following on Twitter.
The premiere of the second season of Atlanta opens like a buddy comedy but quickly turns into a shoot-’em-up action sequence: Two friends playing video games decide on the fly to rob a fast-food restaurant. When they do, we see it all in tense slow motion, this small-scale heist invested with all the high-stakes drama of a battle scene in a war movie.
That kind of tonal shift happens a lot on this show, particularly its stellar second season — subtitled Robbin’ Season — which ends tonight. Atlanta creator Donald Glover explores a similarly abrupt turn from casual cheer to grim violence in the explosive music video for his new single, as rapper Childish Gambino, titled “This Is America.” In Robbin’ Season, these swerves into menace continue when rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) tries to pick up weed, only to have his longtime dealer and friend sheepishly pull a gun on him (“Ay, my fault”); or when three young fans encounter Al alone on the street and gush before attacking him and stealing his watch; or when a white man buying tickets at an upscale movie theater wordlessly pulls back his jacket to reveal a holstered gun on his hip, prompting Al’s cousin Earn (Glover) and the mother of Earn’s child, Van (Zazie Beetz), to book it. In the world of Atlanta, the threat of violence looms behind the veneer of every mundane interaction. As a white viewer (and a Canadian no less!), for me the show is a bracing reminder that the rhythms of everyday life are not the same for all of us.
Atlanta’s first season outlined Earn’s quest to make a buck managing his cousin’s nascent career. The second turns its focus more squarely on Alfred himself. Ambitious but ambivalent over his newfound fame, Alfred is caught between his community and the wider (and whiter) world of celebrity — a rapper who resists the imperative to posture although that seems to be all anyone wants from him.
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Alfred’s season-two arc is a cutting portrait of stardom in the social media age. Being a local celebrity only seems to put him in danger — of losing touch with himself, but also literal, physical danger; his fame is a target on his back. The clichéd trappings of a successful rap career don’t yield many pleasures for Al. Even the promise of pussy falters: When Earn arranges for Al to sleep at a fan’s apartment during a college performance, to save money, the girl turns out to be less alluring than strangely threatening. Lying on her bed in her pink-walled room, she tells Al about a sexy dream she had where they were exotic animals holding each other naked: “And then I ate you. And there was blood everywhere.”
These incidents speak to the hazards of fame, but also its illusory nature. In the world of celebrity, nothing is as it seems. Al’s spacy sidekick, Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), warns that anyone with a certain number of Instagram followers inevitably has an “unrealistic view” of life. In “Champagne Papi,” Van and her girls snag themselves invites to a party thrown by Drake; a friend of Van’s is stringing along the rapper’s tour barber, one of many satellites orbiting Drake’s star. But the party doesn’t quite resemble the one being documented all night on Instagram. The women have to wear hospital booties over their high heels to protect the mansion’s marble floors; a nice guy who offers to help Van charge her phone turns out to be a creep; and, finally, Van discovers that Drake’s not actually there, and that all those girls on Insta have been sharing photos of themselves standing beside a cardboard cutout — a fairly ingenious hustle run by two enterprising women charging partygoers twenty bucks a pop.
As the season progresses, Alfred learns that fame can be less liberating than oppressive. The higher he climbs, the more he realizes that his success depends on access to and the approval of white people. While fellow up-and-comer Clark County (RJ Walker) — whose white manager has already booked him a Yoo-hoo commercial — gamely snaps pics with the pale millennial running a hipster music streaming service called Fresh, Alfred takes one look at a twentysomething white kid eating a banana at his cubicle and wordlessly leaves the room, handing the kid his microphone on the way out.
As Atlanta Robbin’ Season was entering the home stretch, Kanye West started to tweet. He was a “free thinker,” he claimed, and he wouldn’t be shamed for supporting Donald Trump. “The mob can’t make me not love him,” he tweeted in late April, shortly before posting a picture of himself in a red MAGA hat. “We are both dragon energy. He is my brother.” Later, West visited the offices of TMZ and claimed that slavery was a “choice.”
On Monday, Ta-Nehisi Coates, of course, wrote the response I’d been waiting to read, about fame and how it fucks with people — especially black people, who carry the expectations of a community not just on their albums and movies and music videos and TV shows but on their own backs, too. Of his own brush with fame, after the publication of Between the World and Me in 2015, Coates writes, “I felt myself to be the same as I had always been, but everything around me was warping. My sense of myself as part of a community of black writers disintegrated before me.”
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The implication in all this — and what Atlanta so nimbly teases out — is that there’s something inextricably whitening about the pursuit of mainstream fame in America, no matter how absolutely central the contributions of African Americans have always been in shaping mainstream American culture. (The show’s tradition of stamping its opening credits onto everyday objects, half-hidden, speaks to the open secret of black cultural dominance: This season, “Atlanta” shows up stitched into a placemat on a coffee table, etched into the barrel of a gun, and, my personal favorite, printed on the side of a bus driving by in the background, out of focus and barely perceptible. Central, crucial, yet marginal.) Atlanta Robbin’ Season made this point explicit in its headline-grabbing sixth episode, “Teddy Perkins,” in which Glover plays the title character — a wealthy mansion-dweller in a silk robe whose face is a bizarre mask of whiteface, and who claims his brother is a famous black jazz pianist. Darius, who drives out to pick up a piano Teddy listed online, suspects the man is black but has bleached his skin to the point of grotesquerie. Like so many episodes of Atlanta, this veers into violence as Teddy, rifle in hand, cuffs Darius to a chair and threatens to “sacrifice” him. Darius escapes unharmed, but before he does he takes the time to demonstrate empathy for his captor. Darius tells Teddy that Teddy’s father should have apologized for his abusiveness, and that Teddy still deserves love.
The existence of Atlanta itself is a powerful rebuke to its own hard-headed cynicism. The creative freedom that FX has given Glover means the show doesn’t launder its blackness the way so many other series centered on black life do — most TV is made by committee, and that committee is usually predominantly white. The show boldly speaks to American culture’s impulse to extract all that is cool or profitable from blackness while discarding actual black people, a compulsion that Jordan Peele so brilliantly made literal in Get Out. Alfred understands this, so he resists being sucked into the maw of mainstream pop culture — he doesn’t want to play this game, finds no solace in the fact that corporate, white America will pay him to rap over ads for chocolate-flavored sugar water. The freedom he craves is the kind that leads him “back to Home,” as Coates puts it, rather than “the white freedom of Calabasas.”
Maybe such freedom is impossible for someone like Alfred. That’s the conclusion he seems to have come to when he toys with the idea of jettisoning his cousin, late in the season, and hiring a bearded white guy in his place. Alfred’s arc suggests the near impossibility of being famous and real at the same time, especially if you’re black. Maybe Glover’s own success shows that there is a path for a black artist in a white world. But in the world of Atlanta, the best you can hope for is to be famous for being perceived as real, because that’s all fame is — a trick of the mind, an optical illusion. A cardboard cutout Drake.
The season finale of Atlanta airs tonight at 10 p.m. on FX.
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With his NBC comedy Community on hiatus, Donald Glover is spending the summer tending to his alt-rap career as Childish Gambino: In recent weeks, he has played Coachella, Sasquatch!, and Bonnaroo, and tonight, he hits Prospect Park for the second of two outdoor concerts (the first is Monday night in Central Park) designed to benefit SummerStage and the Celebrate Brooklyn! festival. Glover also just released a new song, “Silk Pillow,” with a guest verse by Beck in long-lost “Loser” mode; it’s a big improvement over his debut album, last year’s often-whiny Camp. With Danny Brown and Schoolboy Q.
Everything’s coming up Donald. Community‘s hit its stride, his standup is legit, and now he’s touring as his musical alter ego. While Glover raps and sings well as Childish Gambino, the entire thing’s derived from the same sweet-hearted and cagey source as his concurrent career facets: in a world full of hashtags and haters, what does it mean to be real, funny, or hip-hop? And are all those the same? He’s too young for this shit.
Anyone who was lucky enough to catch their last Gotham show at Bowery Ballroom is probably still buzzing from what an event it was. This Brit neo-soul band did nothing less than blow the roof off, showing even more promise than their impressive early shows. Tonight, at an even bigger venue, they’ll have another chance to prove themselves, and don’t be surprised if they rise to the occasion again. With Mayer Hawthorne and the County and Childish Gambino.