This depressing year has felt longer than any other I’ve experienced, so it’s fitting that so much of 2016’s music sounded mournful—life in a Weeknd world, I guess—even if it purported not to be. That was embodied perfectly in one of the most important and culturally resonant chart-toppers of the year, Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles,” which expressed its fealty to balling out with something that sounded like resignation, a state of being driven by conscription more than desire. Of course, what’s flossier than being unjazzed by your own ability to floss (over an ’80s synth, even!), and for Rae Sremmurd it was a birthright—“me and Paul McCartney related,” mewled Slim Jxmmi, backed up with the evidence of Sir McCartney himself staying relevant, executing a waxen mannequin challenge to their viral and commercial smash.
“Black Beatles” also embodied much of what you summed up, Carl, about the way music spread this year—unconventional promotion, unorthodox popularity, irreplicable cultural impact—and how black teenagers creating funny freeze-frame videos propelled a weeded-out jingle up to the 2016 presidential campaign. Looking all the way back to October engenders a kind of nostalgia, as you point out, and it seems impossible and appropriate that this was the same year a group of friends sat in my living room to watch the HBO premiere of Lemonade, by turns breathless and screaming, in internet and literal parlance. Nostalgic-seeming, too, was the fact of a chosen family gathering around the television for a scheduled event, a new use for an outdated medium. But we’re in a multimedia world, and it seems strange to imagine one of the year’s most interesting albums without the visage of baseball-bat-wielding Beyoncé in a yellow dress, smashing a windshield to pieces. Stranger still that her “Formation” performance at the Super Bowl was this year, too, and the ensuing outrage about light Black Panther imagery that should have predicted the outrage at her CMAs performance, a black woman daring to perform an old-school–inspired country song in the presence of the old-school country canon (and also the excellent Maren Morris hitting every gospel note of “My Church”). It feels tempting to say we should have known how the election would turn out—but we really should have; the response to powerful black women in music from the shadiest corners of the internet was a microcosm of the ugliness brewing across the country.
And so it stands that this year belonged to black women in pop who dropped personal and/or creative exegeses in droves: Beyoncé, yes, but also her sister, Solange, whose meditation on black womanhood was so tenderly sanguine and generous it was spiritual. Rihanna asserted her own growth into adult womanhood by subverting every expectation for an album of easy hits, offering tracks so smoky and sensual they approached existential. Esperanza Spalding’s transformation into her own alter ego as an artistic approach felt symbolic, too, asserting her own freedom to be whomever her imagination conjured, as did the ever-innovative Dawn Richard, who sets her own bounds only to break them. In a year in which women, and black women in particular, see clearly what we’ve got to lose, it was indeed like a preparation—a getting-in-formation, if you’ll forgive the corniness of reiteration. And I suppose that comes down to the eons-old question, a rhetorical one, of whether music can save us.
Best songs of the year:
1a. Rihanna, “Sex With Me”
1b. Solo 45 featuring Fekky, Lethal Bizzle, Rou Reynolds, Stormzy, Tempa T & Wiley, “Feed Em to the Lions (Remix)”
2. Solange, “Cranes in the Sky”
3. Kari Faux, “Supplier”
4. J Hus, “Friendly”
5. Ariana Grande, “Into You”
6. Nadia Rose, “Skwod”
7. Maren Morris, “Rich”
8. Rihanna and Calvin “This Is What You Came For” [NO TAYLOR EDIT]
9. Desiigner, “Timmy Turner”
10. Ty Dolla $ign, “Zaddy”
11. Raye, “I, U, Us”
12. El Alfa, “Botando Chispa”
13. Batuk featuring Nandi Ndlovu, “Daniel”
14. Big Narstie, “The BDL Skank”
15. La Insuperable, “Que Me Den Banda”