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2016: The Year in Sonic Blackness

Edited by @Law_Ware |with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Sunday, January 1, 2017.

2016 was a challenging year. It may be remembered as the year that Trump was elected, but it was also a year full of Black brilliance. From Blond and We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service to Seat At The Table and Lemonade, 2016 perhaps should be remembered as a year full of inspiring and challenging Black music..

In that vein, NewBlackMan (in Exile) contributing editor Law Ware asked dear friends and colleagues make the case for which Black album they believe towers above the rest. Their selections were at once insightful and surprising--covering the breadth, complexity, and beauty of Black Sound in 2016.


Rihanna’s ANTI: Doing Everything

by Emily J. Lordi

Rihanna’s eighth album ANTI does “the most.” Intimacy and isolation, submission and domination, energy and ennui. Self-righteous dub (“Consideration”), limber dancehall (“Work”), ominous rock (“Desperado”). Emotionally and generically, it is clearly anti-category. But that is not what distinguishes it. At a moment when pop stars are expected to defy labels, what is unusual about Rihanna is her lack of bombast about doing everything. Unlike other eclectic albums released by black women singers in recent years—Janelle Monae’s protean Electric Lady, Jazmine Sullivan’s textured Reality Show, Beyonce’s epic Lemonade, Fantasia’s literally definition-defying The Definition of…—ANTI de-romanticizes the process of doing it all and shows that it is, well, “work.”

We hear this in “Love On the Brain,” a song whose miscellaneous metaphors depict love as an abusive force that nonetheless “fucks me so good” that Rihanna will “run for miles” “just to get a taste” of the lover who is playing her “like a violin.” It’s a soul waltz in which Amy Winehouse’s retro doo-wop joins Al Green’s late-night confessional to preface a chorus that is part-R&B organ anthem and part-Aerosmith power ballad. It shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s beautiful.

The track opens with the lacy rasp of a singer who must be Lianne La Havas, who then yields to Andra Day. That’s what you think until you realize Rihanna is singing all the parts herself. Her chameleonic vocals, like the jumbled lyrics, reflect the conflict of loving someone who loves when you “fall apart.” But Rihanna’s virtuosic mimicry also registers the labor conditions of black women singers in the single-download era, who must distribute their energy and vision amid multiple markets. This is not the restless range of the idealized artist but the compulsory versatility of an American Idol contestant: “What do I gotta do to get in your motherfuckin’ heart?” She can “do” everything, be everyone, and still not be enough.

Resistant without being defiant, ANTI refuses RiRi’s image as the world’s most fly anti-heroine. This is not only because she sings about being rejected and sad but because she sonically hints at her deference to an industry that she—like countless others—might critique but can’t transcend.


Childish Gambino’s Awaken, my Love!

by Law Ware

Childish Gambino, the Renaissance actor/ writer/rapper/ singer born Donald Glover, released a funk album in 2016—and it’s good. Very good.

Instead of merely doing covers of iconic songs from the height of the funk era, Glover draws inspiration from the primary material and melds it with a contemporary hip-hop sound. Notice the auto-tune that does not draw attention to itself on the songs “California” and “Stand Tall” or the trap beat he slides into the percussion track as the gospel influenced intro to “Me and Your Mama” transitions into a frenzied prog-rock bridge. He doesn’t just put a new, flashy coat of paint on a 1970s classic, he redesigns it all from the ground up.

The original greats of psychedelic rock and p-funk were a clear inspiration on Awaken, my Love!—and that’s unsurprising. Funkadelic is arguably (it’s not really arguable—I’m just saying this to keep white folks from sending me death threats) the greatest American rock band of all time. One need only listen to the political resonance of the lyrics, the virtuosic musicianship and the sonic experimentation of albums like Maggot Brain and One Nation Under A Groove to understand why Glover might listen to these masterworks and feel inspired.

My only criticism of the album lies in Glover’s inability to perform the vocal gymnastics many of the songs on the album demand—but that is a small nit to pick with an otherwise ambitious and forward thinking throwback to an underappreciated era of black music.


Isaiah Rashad’s The Sun’s Tirade

by Dr. Ricco Wright of The Royal Mien Collective

After the success of his debut EP Cilvia Demo, Isaiah Rashad, a millennial born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, discovered that the influence of artists by the likes of 2Pac, OutKast, Silkk Da Shocker, Jay-Z and Kanye West could result in a unique albeit unorthodox type of artist in hip-hop. All it required was a fusion of such influences coupled with mastery of the foundations that made each of them great in themselves.

With his debut LP The Sun’s Tirade, Rashad created a musical landscape that not only traversed the entire hip-hop world but also catapulted him to the upper echelon of hip-hop given his philosophic mind. Here, he showcased his own lyrical prowess and set himself apart from his contemporaries by speaking candidly about his reliance on drugs and alcohol to cope with the sufferings of existential angst, isolation, and depression. He even paid homage to his grandmother, a rarity in hip-hop, with a jazz-influenced track (“Brenda”) reminiscent of A Tribe Called Quest.

And throughout he reminded listeners that this project almost didn’t happen while testifying to the problems 20-somethings face. The Sun’s Tirade is a brilliant long rant about topics so taboo that they’re seldom put on wax.


Kindred the Family Soul – Legacy of Love

by Charles L. Hughes

“Love is radical, a triumph over the unimaginable.” The opening words of Legacy of Love announce the album as another chapter in a fifteen-year career of vibrant, gospel-influenced R&B. Vocalists Fatin Dantzler and Aja Graydon weave a call-and-response conversation – sometimes echoing or finishing each other’s thoughts, sometimes offering questions or rejoinders – that sounds a musical version of the Civil Rights Movement’s “beloved community.” This is clearest in explicitly political songs like the call for economic justice in “All My People” or the brooding “Where Do We Go,” which relates a cycle of violence that begins with a recently-fired worker and extends into the halls of police custody.

But the real-life spouses extend this theme in songs like “Get There” and “Moving On” that present their marriage as a demonstration of perseverance and pleasure. “More bills than money to pay,” Dantzler sings at one point, “but still we don’t lose the joy.” Thankfully, the group never falls into self-help cliches or (even worse) self-righteous shaming. Instead, the radical love that Kindred the Family Soul prescribe is rooted in a recognition of shared burden and destiny. As they put it on “Never Know,” they insist that “the struggle ain’t nothing new…Don’t be scared.” Love is radical.


H.E.R.’s H.E.R. V. 1

by I. Augustus Durham

Part of me thinks the “Best of 2016” is the EP—great ones include Noname, Adam Ness, PJ Morton, and Rapsody, among others. But in a year chockablock with Black music for every kind of body, H.E.R.’s H.E.R. Volume 1 is everything.

My relationship with H.E.R. began in an old school manner: I shared H.E.R. with someone, no different than making a mixtape for the person who checked “Maybe” on the paper with a perforated edge torn from your Science notebook. All that to say, I like H.E.R. because she first liked me, hence my digital parcel, even if the addressee of that package marked FRAGILE has yet to acknowledge its receipt.

In 22 minutes, H.E.R. forwards a genre that will influence 2017: TRAPnB. A calculated mix of balladry and beats, this emergent Black music is overshadowed only by the mystery of who H.E.R. is. While listening to a recent interview where she maintains her anonymity, one learns that the acronym means having everything revealed. This signifies that in an age, à la Farah Jasmine Griffin, where many cannot be free, the mystery of H.E.R. is the most liberating act of being she performs. Moreover, when first hearing the EP, the androgyny of the voice suggests that H.E.R. could be anybody. Thus, in a register like Ralph Ellison’s invisible man and the EP cover, the response to “what did I do to be so black and blue?” is simple:

You were H.E.R.

2016: The Year in Sonic Blackness

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