Turning to the “familiar under duress,” Carl, sounds right. For me, that was embodied in the way I warmed up to Kehlani’s SweetSexySavage, an album I initially disliked for what I perceived as thinness. By the end of the year, it was one of my favorites for the way it brought me back to simplicity, a 2017 interpretation of the melodic, scorned-woman-finding-herself R&B I came up on from artists such as Monica, Brandy, and Lil Mo. Concurrently, the most emotionally moving live experience I had this year was finally seeing Janet Jackson, my favorite pop star since the age of eight, during her State of the World tour. She had postponed the New York–New Jersey leg in 2015 so she could have her first child at 50, an admirable feat in itself. In the two years since, the tour’s ever-relevant, socially conscious concept strengthened, beginning with a gimlet focus on police brutality in the era of Black Lives Matter and moving to our descent into Trumpism—with many hits from 1989’s Rhythm Nation still sadly relevant today.
Janet put on a classic, somewhat old-school interpretation of a pop concert, barebones and reliant on the strength of her hits and choreography. She is confident that her ferocity is enough—she needs no bells and whistles—and her casting reflected her ever-evolving progressivism, a diverse set of backup stars that includes two preternaturally talented teen girls and a dynamic, crowd-fave, plus-size dancer by the name of Allison Claire. I bawled the whole way through at a childhood dream coming true but also with relief and gratefulness that someone’s artistry could be so mesmerizing that, for the first time since the election, I felt happy to my bones. The great pop stars don’t have to be the best singers or come with the biggest pyro; they just need to be so generous you can feel it.
There’s a prevailing, somewhat reductive conventional wisdom that in eras when conservatives (or in our case, autocratic white supremacists) take power, art will by necessity become more political. But as I noted before, some of the most political music was quieter and more centered on the self, as with Kendrick Lamar’s diagnostic, diaristic, and entirely triumphant Damn, a slightly less overt follow-up to To Pimp a Butterfly, but no less urgent or reflective of the way this country marginalizes its most vulnerable populations. Jack, you noted the importance of Damn and Kendrick as an American treasure, so I want to just make a quick link between his West Coast, G-funk observations and that of a Queensbridge forefather with a similar kind of poetic reportage: Mobb Deep’s Prodigy, who died in June from complications related to sickle-cell anemia far too soon at the age of 42. P, as his fans lovingly called him, was another era’s kind of Kendrick, a complicated young New Yorker who by 19 was spitting impossibly evocative snapshots of street life. He influenced multiple generations of rappers, and Lamar himself gave Prodigy credit for inspiration many times this year after his death. At the BET Awards in June, days after Prodigy’s death, he said Prodigy was an inspiration for his first mixtape at the age of 16. Because of Prodigy, he said, “I was inspired to study my skills and work on my connection with my neighborhood and how I can inspire them the same way he inspired the streets.” With the expectation that in the coming years we’ll need to depend even more on each other and our communities, thanks to the unceremonious gutting of social programs, these are examples to live by.
One of the year’s most fascinating developments on the politics-and-music front, though, was the exciting emergence of Grime 4 Corbyn—a post-Brexit movement, led by grime stars including Stormzy and veteran Boy Better Know MC Jme, to get youth voting and on board with Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn in an effort to oust conservative claptrap queen Theresa May. It occurred the same year that grime came to capture a global audience this prominently for the first time since Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 debut, and it was primarily due to the charismatic presence of Stormzy, whose phenomenal Gang Signs & Prayer brought grime into the genre-mixing age for a mainstream audience. (Drake would obviously love some credit for giving grime a helping hand—More Life brought on Skepta and Giggs—and so I will give it to his thirsty ass, with the BBK tattoo.) Gang Signs & Prayer signified the way grime’s tentacles are stretching out. Breakout artists like J Hus and Stefflon Don focused on dancehall and Afrobeat. The phenomenal underground duo Splurgeboys wove grime into a Lewisham take on trap. Giggs, with his minimalist mortician’s flow, collaborated with artists as varied as Young Thug, U.K. funky don Donae’o, and dancehall star Popcaan for a mixtape that exemplified how secular everyone’s getting about genre, as surely as they collaborate cross-generationally.
I think where I get Catholic, though, is when it comes to that Lin-Manuel Miranda joint—I loved the show of unity and even more how much he (and his father, the ever-present cool-dad Luis A. Miranda Jr.) raised for Puerto Rico. But for me sonically, the song could have stayed in its rightful home, the Richard Rodgers Theater. That said, it brings up another 2017 story I could never have predicted: the runaway success of collaborator Camila Cabello, freed from the girl-group construct and releasing a Billboard Top 10 bilingual banger with (again) Young Thug, the unpinnable, pre-eminently likable weirdo. “Havana” was an homage to her Cuban heritage, its tempo of a pace with slow-burners like “Mi Gente,” but of a steamy rumba lineage, situating the complexities of Florida—Miami, God love you—the center of the universe. I can’t wait for her album. Who knows? She might be the Beyoncé of Fifth Harmony.
Ann, who were your surprise success stories this year? Did anyone break out whose music shocked you?