Such a pleasure to be back with the club, and as always it’s a privilege to spin my wheels in your virtual presences for a bit. I gather I’m not alone in finding 2017 a rather bewildering year to try to take stock of, both musically and generally. For starters, it feels like we’re lacking the clear-cut cultural and critical blockbuster we’ve seen in the recent past: there’s no Lemonade, no To Pimp a Butterfly, and, maybe most conspicuously, no 1989, to draw from just the last three years. 2017 struck me as a year of acute star fatigue: Erstwhile Super Bowl headliners like U2 and Katy Perry dropped albums that landed with a thud, while one-time critical darlings Arcade Fire put out a record that everyone seemed to decide they hated before they’d even heard it. Eminem waited till mid-December to drop a much-anticipated blockbuster that was widely met with ridicule (including my own). Taylor Swift’s Reputation became the best-selling album of 2017 within days of its release, but the general cultural exhaustion around her has never seemed more acute, as evidenced by one of Twitter’s most gleeful dunk contests. Swift, whose social-media savvy and wily reflexiveness has long made her a savant of contemporary pop discourse, now increasingly seems a prisoner of that discourse, Taylor Swift indistinguishable from “Taylor Swift” indistinguishable from What We Talk About When We Talk About Taylor Swift.
And then there was Jay-Z’s 4:44, an exquisitely produced, lavishly praised album that mostly bored the daylights out of me. There’s a marketing term called “reinforcement advertising” that describes ads that aren’t aimed at making you buy a product, but rather to boost your confidence in what you’ve already purchased. No one actually buys a Lexus based on those dumb holiday commercials, the idea goes, but people who already own Lexuses get a jolt of satisfaction seeing themselves represented as paragons of luxury. 4:44 felt like the musical equivalent of this, for Tidal and Sprint subscribers and also for Jay-Z fans. I couldn’t imagine most of it appealing to anyone who wasn’t already invested in the rapper, whether that investment was in nostalgia for his past greatness, in awe at his various business interests, or in rubbernecking at his marriage and family life.
As Laura Snapes recently wrote in an incisive essay for the Outline, the modern pop-media complex relies on overexposure, and in 2017 it was hard not to wonder if the system was collapsing on itself. Some of this fatigue might be runoff from the present occupant of the White House, the most overexposed human being in history who’s spent his entire life as a fraudulent advertisement for himself. Some of it probably also comes from the ongoing moment of seeing famous men taken down for all manner of abuses, their disgraces sometimes met by misplaced dismay that many people who are good at art or at power are not in fact good in general. (It made me queasy that Harvey Weinstein’s “apology” went out of its way to name-check Jay-Z and 4:44, Weinstein’s repentance so hollow it could only be articulated by reference to another celebrity’s commoditized repentance.)
But while many of music’s biggest names stumbled it left a welcome opening for new faces, and for familiar ones in new places. The year’s breakout star, as Julianne noted, was Cardi B, a self-made megastar who moved from Instagram to reality television to the top of the charts with “Bodak Yellow,” an anthemic and monstrously catchy explosion of organic charisma. Migos and Kendrick Lamar also had their first No. 1 hits, with “Bad and Boujee” and “Humble,” respectively, and yet no one would accuse either of “crossing over” to pop—to borrow from De La Soul borrowing from The Five Heartbeats, pop crossed over to them.
It was also a banner year for the underground, in all its shapes and guises. One of my favorite albums of the year, Armand Hammer’s Rome, is a flamboyant cocktail of rhymes and intellect, with Billy Woods and Elucid’s twisting, paranoiac cadences hearkening back to 1990s indie stalwarts like Company Flow and Organized Konfusion. Another, veteran stalwart Roc Marciano’s Rosebudd’s Revenge, offered the year’s most powerful evidence that people born prior to the Reagan administration are in fact still capable of making great rap albums, on their own terms and without chasing trends. The great Oakland MC Kamaiyah returned with Before I Wake, a modernized stroll through the hallowed hallways of electro and G-funk, guided by the hybrid spirit of Missy Elliott and Too $hort. (If there’s any justice, once Kamaiyah’s long-delayed major label debut arrives, she will soon be squarely overground.)
2017 was also marked by the continued significance of what’s capaciously called SoundCloud rap, a world of bizarrely named and often freakishly young artists, some of whom might be the future of music, others of whom might be something else. The transgressive unruliness of this scene, so removed from the traditional spotlights of the “industry,” has dark sides that frequently bubbled to the surface in 2017. There was controversy and consternation over the success of artists like XXXtentacion (currently awaiting trial on horrific abuse charges), 6ix9ine (who’s pleaded guilty to charges of sexual misconduct with a minor), and Tay-K, a 17-year-old whose massive viral hit “The Race” was recorded while he was literally on the run from murder charges. Most tragic was the case of Lil Peep, the immensely talented emo-rap fusionist who died of an overdose in November, just two weeks after his 21st birthday. Peep’s music dealt extensively with his struggles with depression and substance abuse, and like many before him, he now leaves behind an audience forced to reckon with the ethics of consuming art about self-destruction made by self-destructive people.
At the risk of ending on such a downer, I’ll put in a plug for two of my favorite auditory experiences of the year, both of which are pretty different from each other but, in their ways, have everything to do with everything above. The first was Drake’s More Life, the album-like entity that I probably spent the most time listening to since it came out way back in March. In this year of star-exhaustion, one of music’s biggest delivered a sprawling, deliberately obfuscating work that wasn’t even technically credited to Drake (“A Playlist by October Firm”). It was also some of the very best music he’s ever made, dropped into the world almost offhandedly, and a nice reminder that sometimes the absurdly famous are absurdly famous for a reason. (Great title, too, from a guy with a knack for them.)
Finally, and on a newly-bittersweet note, during a long car trip over the summer I devoured the six-episode Gimlet Media podcast Mogul: The Life and Death of Chris Lighty. Hosted by the late great Reggie Ossé, aka Combat Jack, who died from cancer as I was finishing this post, it’s a tour through the life and times of one of hip-hop’s most consequential behind-the-scenes figures. Lighty, who founded Violator Management and repped artists ranging from a Tribe Called Quest to Warren G to 50 Cent, took his own life in 2012, and Ossé’s series is an unflinching investigation into a fascinating and immensely complicated human being. It’s a story about ambition, passion, fear, depression, and all the ways that success can become its own prison, one that’s just as effective at keeping other people out as it is at locking people in. It’s a must-listen for anyone who cares about hip-hop, a labor of love and real humanity in a year that needed all it could get of both, and a fitting tribute to its subject and its maker, both of whom left us far too soon.
Here are 15 of my favorite albums that came out this year, in alphabetical order:
21 Savage, Offset, and Metro Boomin, Without Warning
Armand Hammer, Rome
Drake, More Life
JLin, Black Origami
Kamaiyah, Before I Wake
Kendrick Lamar, Damn.
Roc Marciano, Rosebudd’s Revenge
Open Mike Eagle, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream
Mavis Staples, If All I Was Was Black
Vince Staples (no relation), Big Fish Theory
The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding
Waxahatchee, Out in the Storm