Tom Scocca discovered that a blog post he’d written had been turned into a weird video in which the text of the post was superimposed “meme style” on a set of five rotating static graphics, set to music (“wordless vocals and a sort of jazzy guitar and beat”).
Smokaj0000 is mysterious. If you try to post its videos to your own account, you’ll get an automated copyright takedown from HEXACORP LTD for the audio track, which is apparently titled “cool-mbia.” Hexacorp’s website is a word-salad of business grifterspeak: “Deliver high end solutions & services, collaborate customer data & people by adapting latest technologies & tools establish customer friendly process and create effective solutions with focus towards ‘Best Services Interest’ and ‘Maximum Value for Money.'”
So what the actual fuck is going on? It’s a mystery. As Scocca says, “Whatever smokaj0000 is doing, it is not producing content for human consumption. It is aggressively, chillingly ahuman, a machine signaling to machines for some algorithmic purpose whose human-centered antecedents are long lost. It is not even fake; it simply exists outside any realm where reality might matter.”
[I’ve been in love with Negativland since their legendary copyright battle with U2 and they’ve been a part of Boing Boing since 2001; it’s a pleasure beyond words to be able to debut More Data, their characteristically trenchant video about data privacy and surveillance; see below for notes from Negativland. -Cory]
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada funded Screening Surveillance project: a trio of Creative Commons licensed short science fiction films about “everyday issues around big data and surveillance.” The movies run about 10 minutes each, and come with classroom materials.
Time 4 Machine is a Ukrainian design shop led by Denis Okhrimenko; their latest project is “The most beautiful construction set in the world”, a set of thin steel parts that you bend together to make (yes) beautiful mechanical models: a business-card case, a tractor, a working clockwork timer, a vintage sportscar, a springpowered cabriolet, […]
Nearly everyone who has sat at a desk knows about Microsoft Excel. But if you’re picturing a simple, boring spreadsheet in your head, that’s only scratching the surface of its capabilities. Just for starters, Excel is an essential tool in the field of data analytics, allowing users to collate disparate mounds of data, visualize trends […]
From your apartment door to your bike lock, it’s not uncommon to carry a number of different keys on your keyring, but that doesn’t make it any more bearable when you’re fussing to find the right one or deal with the infamous pocket bulge. The KeySmart Pro’s smart design cuts down on key clutter and […]
Happy DNA Day! April 25 is a day to recognize deoxyribonucleic acid – better known as the molecule that holds the code to our entire genetic makeup. What better way to celebrate than with a complete ancestry test that’s about more than just satisfying idle curiosity about your family tree? The lab techs at Vitagene use […]
It usually takes a while — a decade or two — before we can look back at a particular era of American life and see it as something coherent, something whose every aspect is marked by one overarching mood. It takes a certain amount of hindsight to notice how all the wildly different reactions people had to the moment were still, in the end, reactions to the same thing; all the different poses they adopted were still being struck against the same backdrop.
But this era — this year, and the last one, and one or two before that — might be an exception. There’s an oddly strong in-the-moment consensus on how everyone is feeling these days, and it is not good. At some point it became a routine conversational tic for all sorts of people, of all sorts of persuasions, to express, with an incredulous gesture, that things feel a bit grueling and frantic lately, don’t they? Musicians are no exception. “Life is pretty tumultuous right now for all of us,” said the crossover country star Kacey Musgraves, while accepting a Grammy for the Album of the Year. The Swedish singer Robyn acknowledges that “pop at the moment is depressing” in an interview midway through this issue. “The music kids are listening to is heavy! Maybe it’s hard to be positive and optimistic at the moment.”
What’s amazing is that the musical expression of all this isn’t always some big swing toward darkness, or anger, or anxiety. (Though there is, in certain genres, plenty of all that as well.) Read through this list, and what you’ll often see instead is a very earnest, very serious desire to find the right reaction to a world that feels tense and high-stakes — an ambient conviction that music should be looking for ways to cope, ways to protect ourselves, moments of escape, hard reckonings with our collective responsibilities, ideas for how to make the world feel less brutal. The 25 songs and artists below include blockbuster hits, critical darlings and inescapable conversation pieces, but few of them take a direct route to the usual joys of pop — the songs about dancing and boasting and sex and love, the ones about what a fantastic night everyone’s about to have or what ecstasies they intend to find by the end of it. No, a lot of these songs seem focused on deeper challenges: How do we get to those joys in the first place? Who gets to have them, and who deserves them? And in one case: Which of them are worth the corresponding rise in sea levels?
The artists do not always sound thrilled about the circumstances. (“The society we live in at the moment,” Robyn says — “we didn’t really make it very good, you know?”) But they’re a lot more motivated — whether it’s to articulate something bleak or find their way toward something better — than you might expect.
Nitsuh Abebe is a story editor for the magazine.
Photo illustration source photographs: Rosalía: Christian Bertrand/Alamy. The 1975: Dafydd Owen/Newscom. Davidson: John Londono/Ninja Tune. All other source photographs: Getty Images.
I don’t know if Bruce Springsteen thinks about death as much as I think about the inevitability of his dying. I’ve lived an entire life as a fan of Bruce Springsteen, which means I have already imagined the world without him in it, and I have mourned that world. If you’re lucky enough to age gracefully beyond a certain point, with that aging will come an acceptance of finality or of the idea that there is going to be a darkness from which you can’t return. If you’re lucky enough to have made a life writing songs or stories or something at the intersection of songs and stories, this could mean that there comes a point where you make sure people hear you clearly, one last time, before you go.
I don’t know if Springsteen himself thinks about his life and death in this way, but the silences in “Springsteen on Broadway” — which ran on Broadway from Oct. 3, 2017, to Dec. 15, 2018, culminating in a soundtrack and a Netflix special — suggest he might. The spaces he built in between the songs allow the artist to explain and give context not to just the music but also to the life built around the music. If the project of Springsteen’s Broadway show was to attach histories and legacies to the individual songs long adored by the public, there is also something to be said about what time does to natural storytellers. They can become more tactile with age, drawing out stories that have been told several times before the most current retelling — leaving a listener with even more touchable moments than otherwise might have been asked for or sought, so that when the storyteller is long gone, there might still be fragments of his or her stories that span generations.
Of the many gripping examples of this in “Springsteen on Broadway,” the one that stands out most memorably is the sprawling story he tells before playing his iconic (and often misconstrued song) “Born in the U.S.A.” The story centers on Walter Cichon, who was the frontman for the Motifs, a band Springsteen still considers one of the best rock ’n’ roll bands from the Jersey Shore. In the ’60s, the Motifs played weekend shows to rooms packed with teenage admirers. Cichon wore his hair long and sported pointy black boots. When he performed, he would shake out his hair and send beads of sweat flying past the stage lights. For anyone who has ever lived in any town where a band was on the verge of “making it,” you know the epiphany: This band is too good to be here, in this place, in this moment. That was the Motifs, with their frantic and warbly guitars laid below Cichon’s howling vocals.
Walter Cichon was drafted when he was 21 and didn’t come back from Vietnam. He went missing in action in 1968.
On Broadway, Bruce Springsteen performs “Born in the U.S.A.” largely in silence. The song is half-spoken, half-sung, Springsteen’s voice rough and breaking beneath the decades of labor it has done — labor rendered romantic through writing and performance. What has always been true about the career of Bruce Springsteen is that he’s most entertaining when backed by his pals, but he’s most earnest when he’s alone. To hear “Born in the U.S.A.” presented without an instrument is to hear the strain that pushes toward the edge of anger, that hovering sentiment that was lost in the original’s bombastic wall of sound and perhaps camouflaged by its imagery. At the time of the song’s release, Springsteen was a young, attractive, muscular man who appeared midjump in front of an American flag on the single’s cover. From a zoomed-out perspective — a white musician writing about the intricacies of labor — it could seem as if he represented everything that a particular America would be proud of. The misreading of the original song was not purely accidental: Its volume and fanfare meant that it sounded (and still sounds) good bursting out of speakers while fireworks explode in the sky, and its loudest words in the chorus are about land and birthright. But with the drums and bursts of keyboards gone, the relentlessly hollow hope of the song is gone, too. On the isolated stage of a theater, all that’s left is knowing that the singer has loved and dreamed and lost in a country sometimes not worth loving and dreaming and losing in.
In his long monologue introducing “Born in the U.S.A.” on Broadway, Springsteen talks about “the blood and the confusion and the pride and the shame and the grace that comes with birthplace,” and I get it. There are some of us who didn’t ask to be born in our particular here, and there are some of us who didn’t ask to come to this particular here, but to be in wherever your here is means that you might be compelled to both fight for it and forgive it. On Broadway, Springsteen mentions something else: He tells the story of him and two of his friends being summoned to the selective-service office, as a prelude to being sent to Vietnam — for what, he says, “we were sure was going to be our funeral.” They did everything they could to get out of being drafted, and succeeded. He ends the story by exhaling softly and pausing before telling the audience: “I do sometimes wonder who went in my place. Because somebody did.”
I imagine that’s it. To live a long enough life in a place founded, in part, on violence and volatility is to know that long life may depend on someone else walking through a door you wanted no part of. Or to know that the heroes from your hometown never made it out because war got to them first. Stripped to its barest bones, “Born in the U.S.A.” asks a listener to recognize that human survival is not something we can count on. The song matters now in a different way than it did in 1984, largely because of the artist behind it: Springsteen, trying to wrestle not only with the song’s current legacy but also with how it might be co-opted decades from now, when he won’t be around to make sure people understand the ache behind the song’s fury.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, an essayist and a cultural critic in Columbus, Ohio.
‘Thank u, next” is styled like a tweet, which is how the phrase first appeared — as a cryptic rebuke that Ariana Grande thumbed off in the comedian Pete Davidson’s general direction a few days after their breakup. Since then, the phrase has pulsed through the culture, undulating between naughty and nice. When the song debuted, it was revealed to be not a takedown but instead a sincere tribute to relationships past, lifting Davidson (“for Pete, I’m so thankful”) to the same plane as her ex Mac Miller, the rapper who died of a drug overdose last year (“he was an angel”). But then the video hit, and in it, Grande cosplayed as Regina George, the demon Barbie of “Mean Girls,” scrawling notes about her exes in a burn book. But then all the things she wrote about them were really nice! A quick shot in the video shows the apology she scrawled on Davidson’s page — “sry i dipped” — which was secretly the most savage note of all: For the record, she dumped him.
Online, the phrase has bloomed into a deliciously ambiguous kiss-off, a usage modeled by Grande herself, directed toward anyone from a no-name rapper who covered the song to Piers Morgan, who criticized pop stars for appearing in revealing photo shoots. Like the Southern “bless your heart,” the passive-aggressive niceties that sustain the entire Midwest or the chill of the British stiff upper lip, the internet has found a discreet slight of its own in “thank u, next.”
The phrase is breezily transactional. It renders news anchors and ex-boyfriends into strangers, reducing them to the base level of politeness required by the social contract. It sharpens respect into a shiv. And yet it is vexing in its restraint, pre-emptively silencing any retaliatory efforts.
We are living in a time of great pettiness. A big star can grow two sizes by doing something very small. Bhad Bhabie chucked a drink at Iggy Azalea and cemented her status as a memetic folk hero. Pusha T lobbed a literal baby into the middle of his rap war with Drake. Grande’s grace could, in one reading, signal a rejection of all of this calculated cruelty, a classy subversion of the fan-and-industry expectation that a celebrity may only rise by tearing another down.
But it’s also a savvy strategy for advancing the game. The next level of beef is always the high road — ascending to that rarefied realm of conflict where put-downs are joined seamlessly with self-respect. In “thank u, next,” Grande casts her exes as steppingstones on her path to greatness, men who taught her “patience,” “pain” and, ultimately, how little she needed them. There’s nothing harsher than having your relationship converted into a learning experience. And the worst part is, you know she’s right. The secret message of “thank u, next” is that women can dismiss men who sap their energies and undermine their success, and this is not an act of cruelty or a symptom of bitchiness. It’s a simple social nicety.
Amanda Hess is a critic at large for The Times. She writes about internet culture for the Arts section.
From the vocal singularity embodied in Aretha Franklin to the otherworldly dance moves of Michael Jackson, black folks have long expected rigor from our R.&B. entertainers. (We institutionalized this expectation at the Apollo Theater, where, on Amateur Night, an “executioner” used to chase away mediocre performers midact with a broom or a pitchfork; now he just dances them off the stage.) Being the best in R.&B. meant that you had a honed, real-deal ability to entertain, that you could stand on a stage and perform a remarkable act that separated you from the rest of us.
I grew up hearing debates about the worthiness of this or that singer devolve into shouting matches, the assertion that a favored artist could sing but not really sang being an affront to your system of taste and judgment. Mariah Carey was always an easy win. In a single verse, her melismatic contralto might argue with her teasing falsetto, alternating between lower and higher notes until she sounded more bird than human. In the ’90s, girl-next-door Mariah belted out uptempo love songs on one station; a few turns of the dial over, she sang the same record with the addition of a hip-hop verse, thereby sliding from mainstream to “urban,” which is to say from white to black. She straddled two coded worlds as a biracial person, a sometimes-fraught experience that she addressed on her 1997 song “Outside.”
Her desire for cross-genre acceptance is part of what pushed her to write and arrange songs for herself that few other human beings could cover. Through the mid-2000s, to listen to a Mariah album, from lead single to deep cut, was to marvel at a maximalist pulling off her excesses, every run more dazzling than the last. And yet by the end of the aughts, she had begun receding behind her production, talk-singing and whispering where she used to overaccentuate each phrase. The rumored loss of her voice seemed to mark the end of an era altogether.
Few people argue over the voice of a singer the way they used to, but R.&B. is back in vogue after having spent several years in the background as E.D.M. dictated pop’s music imperatives. Younger artists are pushing the genre forward in many respects: intriguing, pared-down personal style (SZA); forceful, nuanced messaging (Solange); swaggering vocals that don’t feel yoked to the rap feature (H.E.R.); and a much-needed expansion of whom a woman might be singing love songs to in the first place (Syd). But the terms by which we expect rigor from these artists have changed, too. A voice that sounds as though it were gifted from the heavens is no longer a likely predictor of critical success, though it may garner you a stint on “The Voice.” More important is appearing unvarnished, or idiosyncratic. Contemporary R.&B. seems to prefer the D.I.Y. ethos of indie rock or riffing on the earthy, unadorned feel of neo-soul. The preferred feel is that of a raw outpouring of emotion alone in a bedroom with a laptop. To see R.&B.’s newest names perform at events like the Grammys is a bit like seeing your high school gym teacher on a date — who even knew they owned fancy clothes?
Mariah Carey doesn’t seem built for this new R.&B. moment, but “A No No,” from her 2018 album “Caution,” works for all the reasons we would once expect it not to. It’s a straightforward sample of an extremely familiar song (a remix of Lil’ Kim’s 1997 “Crush on You”). Vocally, it’s uncomplicated. The track has a few elastic moments at the top of verses, but for the most part, Carey maintains a syncopated, crooning sing-speak. She comes down from the vocal stratosphere to some place closer to the younger R.&B. chanteuses, but it never feels like a cop-out. “Caution” as a whole forgoes Carey’s hallmark vocal pyrotechnics, save for a few whistle tones that creep into the final notes of several tracks. What makes it different from her previous attempts at less ornate vocal arrangement is the confidence Carey exudes. She isn’t hiding; she’s recalibrating.
This new phase of R.&B. is one for which Mariah the songwriter is well suited. She has always been a quick study of current trends, and as a writer on 17 of her 18 No.1 singles, she proved that she knew how to make her voice fit within them. Carey possesses a mischievous sense of humor (best employed on Eminem diss tracks) that is fit for our current age of trolling and lyrics made for memes. In “A No No” she drawls out the line “Irregardless of what transpired,” daring the listener to think too hard about whether she knows that she has deployed a fake word (of course she does). Over the past three decades, Mariah the vocalist has been so singular that other Mariahs went overlooked — the canny recognizer of trends, the pop star who pushed her label to make unlikely hip-hop collaborations happen and the songwriter who was funnier than people understood. Mariah, queen of glitter and lover of glamour, might never pull off a down-to-earth visual aesthetic, but she still possesses the tools to make music that embodies that feeling — and she has had these tools for years.
Angela Flournoy is the author of “The Turner House.”
Last year, in a span of months, Meek Mill went from solitary confinement in a Pennsylvania prison to releasing an album that debuted at No.1 on the Billboard chart. It’s a paradoxical narrative that has defined the Philadelphia rapper since his teenage years, when he landed both a record deal and criminal convictions on drug and gun charges. Sentenced at 21 to prison and years of probation, the 31-year-old rapper has spent his entire adult life in and out of courts and prison, often for noncriminal violations like not adequately reporting his travel plans.
But 2018 proved transformative. New scrutiny of the judge overseeing his probation, and of the initial case — he has always maintained that the police made up charges — roused public support from powerful people, including Jay-Z, Philadelphia’s district attorney and the Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin. With tour dates for his “Championships” album selling out, Mill has become a leading voice on the failings of the criminal-justice system. Along with writing an op-ed for The New York Times and appearing on national news shows, the rapper helped start the Reform Alliance, an organization dedicated to getting one million Americans out of the prison system.
How long did you work on the album? Probably eight months. Since I came out.
I usually take about eight months to produce a piece as well. Then there’s panic — you’ve gone over it so many times, you can’t even tell anymore if it’s good or not. I feel the same way. Going through the music so much, not even knowing if it’s good anymore — I done heard it at least a thousand times, trying to analyze and look at it so many ways.
At the end of “Championships,” you say we had to beat the streets, beat racism, beat poverty. So much of what you write is sociological, a study of the neighborhood. Your being from Philadelphia made me think about W.E.B. Du Bois in 1899 — he did a study called “The Philadelphia Negro.” Yeah, I read pieces of it in prison. One of the older guys probably gave it to me.
Then you know what I’m talking about. This was known as the first sociological study of black Americans in the country. He was trying to understand why black folks lived the way they lived. And the social problems he identified — poverty, crime, illiteracy, white discrimination — are the exact same things you talk about 120 years later. That was my life coming up, so it was normal. I always tell people, I’ve been living the life I’m living now for the last eight years, but I’ve been living in the ghetto for 23. Things we’ve been traumatized by our whole lives — we have a right to talk about it.
You refer to school a couple of times on this album — your mom praying you’d go to Yale, or going to a school with bullet holes in the lockers. You said you were on the honor roll? I used to be, until, like, third grade. There was another book I got in prison, about black kids — the fourth grade, things go wrong and grades start to decline. That was my life. Mine was because I moved to a different neighborhood, rougher than the one I came from.
One of my favorite quotes from James Baldwin is “The kids had been told that they weren’t worth [expletive], and everything they saw around them proved it.” What did your schools say about what society thought of you? We used to have teachers say, “Oh, you’re probably going to be dead or in jail, or you’re probably going to be a failure.” I had some good teachers, too, but it was rough in our schools.
I feel like that’s a message we start telling black boys very early: You’re going to be dead or in jail. I know we’re trying to warn them, but it also seems as if you’re dictating their future. Yeah, but I never believed that. I used to say I was going to be a normal story of the ghetto. But if you have your mom telling you you’re going to be a great person and then your teachers talk to you like that — you wouldn’t really want to listen to that person anymore.
Was school easy for you? Pretty easy. I didn’t have to study to pass my tests. Even if I ran the hallways, I would still be fairly good. Later on, when I really stopped trying, I was put in disciplinary schools. It was like a jail. You get strip-searched before you go in, fingerprinted every day. One day I just climbed over the gate and left.
It was a public school organized like a jail? In other words, it was early conditioning for what everybody assumed your future was going to be. When I finally went to jail, I already knew everybody. Everybody I went to school with was in the jail.
What were you put in that school for? Fighting and acting up. I said in one of my raps, I was acting up in school because I thought it was cool, but really I was hurt. Your mom’s at work, your dad’s in the graveyard, you’re not really getting nurtured, and I guess you just resort to acting up.
You have a song called “Trauma,” which talks about that, the PTSD young people in these neighborhoods are dealing with. But that’s why I love that Baldwin quote — everything about the environment tells these kids they’re nothing, right? But when they react in what’s actually a very normal way, we want to break them down. You don’t value yourself because you grow up not being valued. What type of motivation do you get if your mom is on drugs? Your self-esteem is automatically just low. Some people have the determination to shoot to the top. But, you know, that’s not normal — for just a regular kid to have the determination to do that.
I always say anger is an easier emotion to deal with than pain. Yeah. That’s why I say, you come through neighborhoods and you see kids with their faces all balled up or looking angry? They’re probably really angry. His mom is probably really on drugs, and he probably really don’t have food in the house, and his dad is probably really dead. They hurt, they torn, they scarred. It’s nothing that words can really fix. “Why is this kid always angry?” Well, he’s been through something.
Who’s the first black writer you ever read? I’d never be able to determine who was black and white when I was reading back then. I don’t know the first. “The New Jim Crow” — that’s a black writer?
Yes. Michelle Alexander. When you were in high school, you weren’t exposed to black literature, black writers? I went to public school. The books were falling apart. They probably still got the same books from when I was in school. We didn’t get no black literature in public school.
I read a lot as a child, mostly because I was grounded all the time. Then we had a black-studies course in high school, and I became obsessed with black history because it felt like, for the first time, the world made sense. You would see your community and how people lived, and they would tell you we just did not want better. But I could see how hard people worked, and they still could not get ahead. Studying history calmed me. The most I ever read was in prison. There’s nothing to do, so you turn to books. Reading made me process the system. Sometimes I thought it was just millions of black people, and Spanish — when you come to prison, it’s black and Spanish. Looking deeper, and seeing the way some of those things are broken down in “The New Jim Crow,” it made me really wonder. Because I am already a conspiracy theorist.
I don’t understand how you can be black and not be a conspiracy theorist. I was doing a show on CNN, and a guy was like, “Why are you saying the system is similar to slavery?” It kind of caught me off guard, and I couldn’t really answer. But you’ve got people working for eight cents in here. You’re feeding people the [expletive] you would feed slaves. You’ve got people cuffed up, shackled from top to bottom. People locked in the basement for 23 hours a day, being beat by the officers. It’s basically the same. And one of the amendments says that when you’re under custody of the government, you can be treated like a slave.
Yes, the 13th. So you were first arrested — for the original charge — at 19? My first arrest was actually going to school. In sixth or seventh grade. I was suspended, and I didn’t want to tell my mom, so I tried to hang out in the hallways. I got caught and went to jail for trespassing. My mom had to come get me.
What’s the charge you’re still on probation for? Selling crack. This is to my dad’s soul: I wasn’t selling crack when they locked me up for it. When I got back, I had to get back in the street and start really selling weed to get me a lawyer, because everyone who had a public defender got crucified. My mug shot has my face swollen, both sides of my face beat up. I was charged with fracturing the cop’s hand. You know how his hand got fractured?
Yeah, punching you. Yeah. He charged me for him punching my face. They said I pointed a gun at them. If somebody can sit there and tell you the story of how they didn’t point a gun at cops, nine times out of 10, it’s true. It’s not too many people who can make it out of pointing a gun at a couple cops.
I remember one time, this judge said, “I don’t give people three to six months; I give people three to six years” — for something like a first-time weed charge. That always stuck with me. That’s not O.K. I mean, you can’t shoot nobody and expect to be getting chances. But if you were on probation and began smoking weed? People in the ’hood are going through real [expletive]. I barely sleep from so much trauma. Sometimes you just want to smoke and go to sleep.
And you’ve got to think about it — you’ve got 18-, 19-year-old kids, sending them to a whole building full of rapists, killers. They put you in a cell with a 45-year-old man who got a life sentence, who’s a killer. This is your dad right here. He’s going to raise you. He’s going to show you how to clean the toilet, how to carry yourself. They’re not thinking about that. They’re just giving this guy three years to get taught this mentality.
My mom was a probation officer. She would tell me how certain officers would wait outside the person’s house, trying to catch them. And it’s for noncriminal things, right? The average person, I think, believes that people are being violated because they’re doing criminal activity. But I’ve had family and friends incarcerated, and part of their probation would be that they couldn’t drive. In a place with no public transit, they would drive to work and get violated. You can’t associate with known felons, but that means you can’t be around your family members or go to the barbershop. You can’t associate with felons when you just came from prison, with a thousand felons in your face every day. That makes no sense. One time the judge was like, “This is lenient,” and in my head — I couldn’t say this — I was like, Who are you to even say this is lenient? If you gave me three months, that is not lenient. I’m going to lose my job, lose the lease on my house. She made it a condition that I couldn’t even rap.
In prison, you were 23-and-1, right? Isolated all but one hour a day? I can’t even imagine what that’s like. Nobody can. I was just talking to 21 Savage in prison, and I was like, This is the closest you’ve ever been to God in a room like this. The last time I was on 23-and-1, my lawyer came to see me, and I was like, “Did I go crazy and just don’t know I went crazy?” I started writing everything I was feeling, but when I went back and looked at it, I was spelling everything wrong, things I know how to spell. I kept blacking out in the middle of the day — not passing out, but like falling asleep. I was counting the birds on the wire: This bird’s gonna fly off in 10, 9, 8, 7. The bird don’t fly off, start over. Twenty-three and a half hours a day. Come out to take a shower, back to your cell. And I wasn’t in there for punishment — they had me on a mental block because I’m a celebrity, and they didn’t have anywhere to put me. Every time I got out, I’m like, yeah, I’m not the same no more.
You’ve become the face of criminal-justice problems. When did you realize that you had a platform, and that you should use it to advocate for more than yourself? When I saw the support people gave me. Everybody was saying “Free Meek,” but it was really like saying “Free everybody who goes through these conditions.” It surprised me, because I’ve been in and out of prison for these types of things for the past 11 years, and people were just like: “Aw, he’s stupid. He keeps going to jail.” I am not stupid. It’s just normal mistakes. I caught one case at the age of 19. I am 31. I have never been back to prison for a crime.
You’re working with some powerful people in the Reform Alliance. Jay-Z, Michael Rubin, Robert Kraft, Clara Wu Tsai. Basically all billionaires except me. Robert Kraft saw me in prison, and he was like, How are you still smiling? He was like, If that was me, I would be depressed, mad, angry.
You’re not? You can’t sleep. Yeah, but that comes from my environment. Coming from seeing violence, people robbed, people murdered, you heard gunshots every night — couldn’t sleep.
So how do you deal with the trauma? I just override it. I don’t know. Rapping is one of my therapies. I’ve never been a dweller to sit back and be sad about something. The saddest thing I can think about is Lil Snupe, an artist I had signed, got killed at 18 by a grown man. That bothered me a lot for two years, but I suppressed it and never really addressed it. Then one day, I started realizing that had damaged me, and I thought about it a lot.
Do you actually think Reform Alliance can change the system? I think it’s a possibility we can make a change. In Pennsylvania, they’re talking about changing the laws of probation already, to where the cap is five years. That will be a big win for a lot of kids who will enter the system and probably would have gotten 10 to 20.
After everything, you’re still hopeful. Yeah. Hell, yeah. I got a mean team with me. I don’t think none of us lose in anything we do.
Nikole Hannah-Jones is a staff writer for the magazine.
How many people does it take to write a No. 1 hit? In the case of Travis Scott’s smash “Sicko Mode,” which came out Aug. 3, 2018, and has been on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart every week since, 30 different songwriters are credited. That’s a preposterously high number that speaks, in part, to the shift in top-tier rap toward a collaboration-heavy, auteurist mode of creation. It also speaks to the song’s unorthodox structure. “Sicko Mode,” which Scott performed at the Super Bowl halftime show, switches between three different beats created by six different producers, with additional work, it turns out, from a Switzerland-based washing-machine salesman. In addition to three guest vocalists — one of whom is the Canadian superstar Drake, one of whom utters only three words and one of whom has been dead for 13 years — it includes two vocals sampled from landmark rap songs that are themselves dense with further samples from ’70s-era funk bands and, for good measure, a handful of other landmark rap songs. The DNA of “Sicko Mode,” that is, carries with it strands of ancient genetic material, and even if much of it is audible nowhere in the song itself, those strands show up in the credits. Here’s where each one leads.
00:00 — 01:00
00:00 — 01:00
1. The woozy organ riff in the song’s first section was created by the producer and classically trained pianist Rogét Chahayed, whose breakthrough track was D.R.A.M.’s 2016 single “Broccoli.” The bass line and percussion come courtesy of Chauncey Hollis, better known as Hit-Boy, whose most famous co-production is Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Niggas in Paris.”
00:28 — 01:00
00:28 — 01:00
2. Aubrey Graham, a.k.a. Drake, is the first voice we hear, though his verse will be abruptly cut off. Chahayed has explained that Drake and Travis Scott recorded a complete song over his and Hit-Boy’s beat, but in this Frankenstein version, we hear only about a minute of it.
01:00 — 02:48
01:00 — 02:48
3. Travis Scott, born Jacques Webster, doesn’t appear on his own song until a minute in, when the music changes entirely — one of the track’s many idiosyncrasies. Scott, asked if he could hear the song’s chart-topping potential before its release, says: “Yeah, but other people weren’t hearing it. They’re looking at me like I’m crazy. I’m like, ‘O.K. Just wait till it drops.’”
01:00 — 02:45
4. In 2015, the Swiss producer Ozan Yildirim, a.k.a. Oz, was given an email address that supposedly belonged to Travis Scott. He emailed beats for “a year and a half,” he says, with no reply. Finally, a response arrived: “You have dope [expletive]. Keep sending.” On Jan. 11, 2018, Oz sent what would become the second section of “Sicko Mode.”
4A. Oz got help with a synthesizer sound from his friend Mirsad Dervic, a.k.a. M-Dee, an appliance salesman who makes music on his days off.
4B. Oz also used a sound from a pack of samples created by the German producing duo Tim and Kevin Gomringer, a.k.a. Cubeatz.
5. Scott raps three words — “Gimme the Loot” — and as a result, 14 different people earn credits. Scott is quoting 1994’s “Gimme the Loot” by the Notorious B.I.G. and includes a sample from it, so Biggie (Christopher Wallace) and the producer Easy Mo Bee (Osten Harvey) get credit. Things telescope from there …
5A. “Gimme the Loot” samples a vocal from Gang Starr’s “Just to Get a Rep,” which means that song’s authors, Guru (Keith Elam) and DJ Premier (Christopher Martin), are credited.
5B. “Gimme the Loot” also samples Sticky Fingaz’s verse on Onyx’s rap classic “Throw Ya Gunz,” so even though Fingaz (Kirk Jones) plays no part on “Sicko Mode,” he’s credited, along with his Onyx partners Chyskillz (Chylow Parker), Sonny Seeza (Tyrone Taylor) and Fredro Starr (Fred Scruggs).
5C. “Gimme the Loot” samples another vocal, from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario (Remix)” — a line from the late Troy Anthony Hall, a.k.a. Kid Hood. Strangely, Hall isn’t a credited writer on Biggie’s song or Scott’s, though Tribe’s Q-Tip (Kamaal Fareed), Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor) and Ali Shaheed Jones-Muhammad are, along with the collaborators Busta Rhymes (Trevor Smith),Bryan Higgins and James Jackson.
6. Swae Lee, born Khalif Brown and half of the pop-rap duo Rae Sremmurd, turns a fragmentary sung phrase — “Someone said” — into one of “Sicko Mode”’s unlikeliest hooks.
7. In one of Scott’s many tributes to Houston screw music — a narcotic local subgenre named after the late DJ Screw — Scott includes two pitched-down a cappella bars from a Screw compatriot, John Edward Hawkins, a.k.a. Big Hawk, who was killed in 2006.
8. Scott shouts out the Miami rap icon Uncle Luke — born Luther Campbell, notorious for his work in 2 Live Crew — and drops in a sample from his 1992 song “I Wanna Rock.”
8A. “I Wanna Rock” samples K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way (I Like It),” and so that group’s Harry Wayne Casey and Richard Finch get credits, despite appearing nowhere on “Sicko Mode.”
02:48 — 02:56
02:48 — 02:56
9. The beat grinds to a halt with a series of distorted kick drums before moving to its final section. This transition contains production from the Houston multi-instrumentalist Mike Dean, an executive producer on “Astroworld.”
02:56 — 05:12
02:56 — 05:12
10. Tay Keith, born BryTavious Chambers, just graduated from college in Tennessee. He was producing for local M.C.s when Drake got in touch via Instagram to discuss collaborating. He’s responsible for the final section, including a drum pattern much like the one he built for Drake’s “Nonstop.”
11. Scott has known the Chicago rapper CyHi the Prynce, born Cydel Young, since Scott’s early days with Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music crew, of which Young is a member. Young helped Scott in crafting lyrics.
Jonah Weiner is a contributing writer for the magazine. His last feature for the magazine was about the director Adam McKay.
Source photographs: Oz and Cubeatz: Alexandros Tiakas/Views of Views Media. Big Hawk: Shawn Brauch/Pen & Pixel Graphics, from the University of Houston Libraries. Tay Keith: Zach Boisjoly. Mirsad Dervic by Ozan Yildirim. All other source photographs: Getty Images.
Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” is a movie about an unknown singer named Ally, who’s afraid to perform her own songs until a famous musician takes one of her ballads, rearranges it, then drags her onstage to sing it with him for a stadium full of people who have no idea who she is. That song — “Shallow” — won an Oscar last month. It’s a soaring, Airbus of a ballad that’s satisfying to sing whether you’re Kelly Clarkson or pitchy old me.
But “Shallow” isn’t the number that epitomizes the movie. That comes past the halfway point, and your response to it sums up how far under Cooper’s spell you’ve fallen. I was under pretty deep. Ally’s on the verge of superstardom, but nearly all of the singing we’ve seen her do has been with Cooper’s character, Jackson Maine — this impossible fusion of grunge, roots country, pills, booze, pain, encroaching deafness and the Whole Damn American Truth.
We can sense that Jackson’s artistic attraction to Ally arises not just from her industrial-strength voice but from her way with an abstractly honest lyric and her knack for melody. She, too, seems “authentic” and virtuous (she scribbles down ideas in a notebook; she’s struggled and suffered to “make it”). His aversion to the artifice of showbiz would seem to be hers: It’s all about the craft for us, baby. The spell being cast is a matter of taste and prerogative, essentially that Ally is made from Jackson’s rib of purity.
I, at least, assumed that Ally would turn into somebody like Brandi Carlile, a songwriter whose singing regularly reaches the stratosphere but who we can tell is grounded and real because she holds a guitar the way, for some of us, a lawyer holds a degree from Yale — and because … she … isn’t … a dancer. Ally, on the other hand, does dance (perhaps because it’s what her craft-neutral wisp of a manager wants). And the first time we see America seeing her dance is after she’s introduced as the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live.” The song — “Why Did You Do That?” — opens with the plinky simulations of a steel drum or a music box, and then the question “Why?” “Why do you look so good in those jeans?” she sings, as if she were all of Destiny’s Children. “Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” Ally’s onstage with new, orange hair. (Thanks, craft-neutral manager!) She’s wearing spangling athleisure and a pink hooded jacket made of a fabric I can describe only as “gift bag.” She’s with a male dancer who’s dressed complementarily in blue, and when she says, “ass like that,” he grinds himself into her.
It’s here that I should say that I love this song. But according to the movie’s competing authenticities (Jackson’s idea of it versus her manager’s; rock versus pop), love is a luxury. Gaga wrote “Why Did You Do That?” with, among other people, Diane Warren, a master of lugubrious balladry, a cheese whiz. But these women are grilling that cheese. Gaga’s enthusiasm for repetition in a chorus slips an earworm on the hook. Why did you do that — do that, do that, do that, do that — to ME? Next comes a sugary helping of “Hoooh-oooh-oooh,” while a sloppy, synthy bass line slithers around it all. This song is sung with such umbrage and so much alarm that you don’t know whether to sing along or call Gloria Allred.
But I watched Ally perform it with my hand to my mouth. I might have said aloud: “Oh, Ally. Jackson’s going to hate this.” And no sooner had I said it than the movie cut to Jackson watching with a face of stone. This song is confection and sex and feel-copping. It’s showbiz. Basically, it’s everything Jackson would seem to hate about whatever music is right now.
When the movie cuts to Jackson’s face, the Ike Turner of “What’s Love Got to Do With It” crossed my mind. And a few scenes later, a version of Ike comes over him while Ally is trying to have herself a “Pretty Woman” bath and Jackson enters. She’s sudsy. He’s soused. “Why you come around me with an ass like that,” he says in disgust. “Maybe I [expletive] failed you,” he goes on. “You’re embarrassing,” he slurs. “You’re just [expletive] ugly,” he slurs some more. Jackson doesn’t want to see “Why Did You Do That?” as the hit of an ingénue, something anonymous-seeming that a new pop star tries before a truer identity bubbles up: Pink doing “Most Girls,” Katy Perry and “I Kissed a Girl,” Rihanna’s “Pon De Replay,” Gaga’s “Just Dance,” whatever the perma-ingénue Ariana Grande’s currently up to.
Last fall, this one song, from this megahit movie, provoked perplexed essays and inspired The Times’s Kyle Buchanan to track down Warren and ask, Is it supposed to be bad? Jackson thinks so. As much as I wanted to save this sexy, damaged, doomed man, on this, we disagree. “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” goes his most mournful lyric. But maybe it’s also time to admit nothing’s wrong with an ass like that.
Wesley Morris is a staff writer for the magazine, a critic at large for The New York Times and co-host of the podcast “Still Processing.”
The children’s song “Baby Shark” is a global smash, a hit that has captivated millions, conquering charts from Asia to Australia to the United States, where, this January, it reached No. 32 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s also a folk song, with origins as obscure as “The Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow” or any of those other ancient airs whose authorship long ago vanished in the mists. “Baby Shark” is thought to have been born in American summer camps, perhaps several decades ago. It is a staple of singalongs, the sort of song that gets belted out by groups gathered at marshmallow roasts and swimming pools. One theory holds that the song was born in the summer of 1975, when Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” was in theaters and great white sharks were gliding through the murky waters of collective consciousness, to the strains of John Williams’s brooding score.
The precise provenance of “Baby Shark” may never be pinned down. Its recent history is clearer. In November 2015, Pinkfong, a South Korean educational brand, released a hopped-up rendition with an accompanying animated video. The following June, Pinkfong put out a second video, “Baby Shark Dance,” featuring two cute kids performing goofy dance moves. It was this clip that inspired the hashtag #BabySharkChallenge, instigating a viral craze that has racked up more than two billion YouTube views and spawned unnumbered spinoffs starring everyone from Indonesian farmworkers to Filipino marines to Cardi B to, undoubtedly, your friends, your family, your baby trussed in a shark costume. In the United States, the #BabySharkChallenge has received an extra viral boost, cross-pollinating with a dance craze linked to Drake’s anthem “In My Feelings,” in which people exit moving motor vehicles to dance and lip-sync as the car putters alongside.
In other words, “Baby Shark” has completed two full transmigrations between folk and pop. It’s a folk song that became a pop song that filtered into social media to become a folk song again — a grass-roots phenomenon that propelled the pop recording to improbable heights of ubiquity. It exemplifies several features of 21st-century culture: the porous boundaries between the pop industrial complex and the amateur homespun; a globalized circulation of songs based as much on memes as on music; the popularity of unchallenging dance “challenges”; the hegemony of Drake.
“Baby Shark” also exemplifies the timeless appeal of really stupid songs. Musically, “Baby Shark” is efficient, with a foursquare beat driving an unvarying melody that returns repeatedly to the wordless chorus “Doo doo doo doo doo doo.” This refrain repeats fully 27 times — a lot, in a song that runs 1 minute 36 seconds. The first minute is devoted to introducing the dramatis personae: “Baby Shark/Doo doo doo doo doo doo … Mommy Shark/Doo doo doo doo doo doo,” etc. The narrative, such as it is, is compressed into the song’s final third. The shark family goes hunting, and its prey elude capture: “Safe at last/Doo doo doo doo doo doo.”
Even the most rabid “Baby Shark” fan will concede that it is infantile. Which is not to say that it’s a children’s song. In fact, it’s an adult song masquerading as a kids’ song. “Baby Shark” has been sanitized: Traditional versions sung by campers are mischievous and macabre, telling tales of sharks attacking swimmers who lose limbs and, usually, lives. (“Call 911/Doo doo doo … It’s too late/Doo doo doo.”) In one variation, a “surfer dude” is mauled, dies and is reincarnated as a baby shark: an artful cycle of gore, death, rebirth and more gore.
“Baby Shark,” by contrast, seems engineered to please the parents. It’s a garishly wholesome affirmation of the nuclear family and ends happily; its dance can be mastered by the most rhythm-impaired. Is it a stretch to suggest that “Baby Shark” is music for grown-ups who are, as it were, in their feelings, stressed by the turmoil and dislocations of 21st-century life? Compare “Baby Shark” with music popular with millennials: relentlessly dour rap and hip-hop-inflected pop, full of menace and foreboding, which face the bummer of 2019 head-on. “Baby Shark” offers an antidote, an escape: a song that delivers us from danger — safe at last! — leaving nary a trace of blood in the water.
Jody Rosen is a contributing writer for the magazine and the author of a forthcoming book about bicycles.
Last year, on one of the first stops of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s “On the Run II” tour, the lights of London Stadium dimmed, and the video for “Apeshit” began playing on enormous screens. The video opens with the Carters dressed in gorgeous suits (hers a Peter Pilotto in pink and red; his, sea-foam green Dries Van Noten) standing — alone — in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. “Have you ever seen a crowd going apeshit?” the song asks, and the answer lay in the reaction of the British concertgoers, who screamed, cried and danced.
Whose history belongs in our museums? The video and song meditate on this question. The history of black people has too often been presented as little more than a curiosity. The 1889 world’s fair in Paris, for example, included a “human zoo” of indigenous people taken from French colonies and placed in “natural” habitats for onlookers. During the 16th century, Africans were exhibited in the Vatican, and in 1906 a young Congolese man called Ota Benga was forcibly kept at the Bronx Zoo. Even now, landmark museums like the Louvre tend to exhibit artwork that depicts Africans and their descendants as household servants and domestic workers. The Carters know this painful past, and in “Apeshit” they confront it.
Lyrics like “We livin’ lavish, lavish/I got expensive fabrics/I got expensive habits” could give the impression that the song is merely reveling in the luxuries that extreme wealth can buy. One great complexity regarding the couple is their overt embrace of capitalism. Are they disrupting the status quo or reinforcing it? But just beneath all that spending seethes an abject rage. “I said no to the Super Bowl, you need me, I don’t need you,” Jay-Z raps. “Every night we in the end zone, tell the N.F.L. we in stadiums too.” The Carters are Colin Kaepernick-level fed up with institutions that barely recognize them, whether it be the Grammys, which nominated Jay-Z eight times last year but gave him zero wins, or Coachella, which featured Beyoncé as its first black female headliner only last year. “Gimme my check, put some respect on my check. Or pay me in equity, pay me in equity” is about money, yes, but it’s also a cry to be acknowledged for what they’ve earned. Their best revenge is their paper, but it’s also their own music-streaming service (Tidal) and a clothing line (Ivy Park).
The Carters have collaborated for almost two decades on songs that rotate around their love of money (“’03 Bonnie & Clyde”) and of infatuation (“Crazy in Love”). But “Apeshit” represents a new era for their economic philosophies and value systems. Wealth isn’t just for flashy living; it’s about creating an empire for themselves and their offspring. Love is hard, unflattering work that sometimes requires setting aside ego and reputation. When Beyoncé sings of plans to get her girls and “put ’em all on a spaceship,” you feel that it’s not lyrically convenient but that she really means it. What would a world created entirely by and for black people look like?
Even as Beyoncé and Jay-Z have an estimated net worth of more than a billion dollars between them, they have managed to remain largely unscathed by a cultural tide that disdains the obscenity of late-stage capitalism. Perhaps that’s because they seem to be trying to undo a larger project of disinheritance. The video continues its tour of the Louvre, showing the Carters and dancers posing among some of the world’s most famous art. They are asserting that they belong. “All of my people, I free ’em all,” Beyoncé sings. It’s a boast, but it’s also their mission.
Jenna Wortham is a staff writer for the magazine and co-host of the podcast “Still Processing.”
If you grew up listening to pop punk, as I did, then it’s easy to feel as though the mid-to-late aughts were lost to a fold in adolescent space-time. Are we even sure that the genre ever happened? Pop punk married punk power chords with the singable hook of a radio hit. The aesthetic was embarrassing, even in its time — circuses, graveyards, men in eyeliner. Want to fantasize about murdering your ex? For a brief, fun lapse in those dubious years, such thoughts were best expressed in a high, clear whine, interspersed with bouts of indiscriminate screaming. Today we might call pop punk “problematic” (or maybe we’d call it musical theater). To me, at 14, it was more than visceral, a soundtrack for a time of hormonal disarray.
Flash-forward nearly 15 years to the present, and somehow, improbably, pop punk is back in the form of the rap song “Lucid Dreams” by Juice WRLD. The track first appeared on the streaming platform SoundCloud and rose through the ranks of the Billboard Hot 100 on the wings of brooding, sung-rapped pain: “I still see your shadows in my room/can’t take back the love that I gave you/it’s to the point where I love and I hate you.” “Lucid Dreams” is pop punk recapitulated — the same themes, the same whine, the same singable hook, with the power chords swapped out for insular drums and the plaintive guitar of Sting’s “Shape of My Heart.” It echoes the pangs of a Fall Out Boy track, throbbing with urgent teenage despair.
Juice WRLD is 20, from the suburbs of Chicago. He describes his own music as “a therapy session” and cites influences like Fall Out Boy, Bullet for My Valentine, Senses Fail and Panic! at the Disco. Like most rappers of this latest generation, these influences evolved in a post-streaming world, where albums existed as free-floating tracks, somewhat detached from imposed genre labels.
Hit pop songs that exploit algorithms are sometimes described as “Spotifycore” or “streambait.” If “Lucid Dreams” was not produced to game the numbers, then at least this new system of musical incentives might help explain its unlikely rise. Rap music turns on its habit-forming beats, and pop punk thrives on earwormish hooks. Accounting for the keen melodrama of both genres, it makes perfect sense that a hybridized form would triumph in this new streaming ecosystem.
Juice WRLD is not the first or only artist to work in the emo-rap subgenre. The rapper LiL Peep, who died from an overdose of fentanyl and Xanax in 2017, was extolled as “the future of emo.” The same might be said of XXXTentacion, a rapper who made violent, confessional music before he was fatally shot last June. The troubles of this music scene have been well covered; in brief, they reflect the real perils of our time — gun violence, a crisis of masculinity, dual drug and mental-health epidemics. If the pop-punk songs of decades past were grandiose enough to be written off as camp, then the latest wave of emo-rap seems somehow right-sized for the terrors of our moment. With this in mind, “Lucid Dreams” sounds less catchy, or maybe it just sounds less catchy to adults.
Jamie Lauren Keiles is a writer in Queens working on a novel about smoking.
A couple of weeks before she would step onstage to accept the Grammy for Album of the Year, Kacey Musgraves was under the covers in the bedroom at the back of her tour bus, pondering the nature of the universe. She had a little unexpected time on her hands. A show in Chicago had been canceled, thanks to the polar freeze that had descended over the Midwest, leaving her stuck in the middle of a vast tundra with a buildup of tour adrenaline and nowhere to put it. She watched some “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” read a little “The Catcher in the Rye” and then lost herself down her favorite YouTube rabbit hole, a video genre in which someone mashes up tweedy old-school physics lectures with wonky electro beats. “It’s like if Daft Punk went totally science,” she says, “and I’m here for that.”
Later, she would stand in a diaphanous scarlet Valentino dress at the Grammys, giving a speech that could, given her tone and reputation, be read as subtly anti-authoritarian. “Life is pretty tumultuous right now for all of us,” she told the crowd. “I feel like, because of that, art is really thriving.” Musgraves is well known for her support of the L.G.B.T. community, her unabashed love of weed and her ability to turn a cutting phrase in her perfect Texas twang — particularly when she’s writing about the shackles of social convention. She started writing her winning album, “Golden Hour,” early in 2016, when Donald Trump was still assigning stinging nicknames to his Republican primary opponents, and began recording it just after Trump’s inauguration. She has tweeted in support of the Women’s March and in disdain of Eric Trump’s family-branded Christmas ornaments. She speaks with pride about the stack of detention slips her mother still keeps from her daughter’s time in the Mineola, Tex., school system: “I was always getting in trouble for, like, insubordination.” Add all that to the nose piercing that, as she famously sings on the rapturous single “Slow Burn,” made her grandmother cry, and you might expect her album to be a bit of a call to arms, a middle finger to a broken world.
Not so much. “I just got tripped out one day,” she says, musing on her inspiration for the album. “Thinking, Whoa, wait, we live in this world that seems so mundane, but at the same time that I’m sitting here, there’s things that are glowing in the ocean and eating each other — and there’s also northern lights and shooting stars and plants that grow and literally heal people.” She paused for breath. “And it’s all happening around us, you know?” Falling for the man who is now her husband — the singer and songwriter Ruston Kelly — was another part of the album’s genesis. “It’s sort of a love song to him,” she says, “but also to nature, the human race, Earth and why we’re here. We don’t know, and I kind of love it.”
In other words, this wry firebrand’s big statement on the state of the world — at a time when so many of the issues she has become famous writing about, like feminism and gay rights, are making daily headlines — is a metaphysical country-pop record more inspired by Carl Sagan than Willie Nelson. And just so we’re clear, Musgraves was on acid only part of the time. “It’s not like I was tripping my face off every day,” she clarifies. (After she told reporters that psychedelics influenced a couple of songs, including “Slow Burn,” it was all anyone wanted to talk about.) “It has only been a couple times. And very responsibly! Enough to be able to get outside of yourself and see a different perspective or point of view.”
What makes Musgraves such a resonant figure right now, in fact, is the way her response to a dark, anxious moment in human history is to move willfully closer to lightness, to stillness, toward the possibility of a world that comes in more colors than red or blue. When she talks about art thriving in this climate, she means it — just not in the same sense as, say, angry punks railing against the Reagan administration. What she means is that right now, the best rebellion involves turning off the hate and making space for hope. Or, as she puts it: “The [expletive] storm won’t last forever, and I want to make music that does.”
I caught up with Musgraves in Wisconsin, on the tail end of January’s alarming deep freeze, which had temperatures in the upper Midwest dropping as low as minus 40. (I missed her in Chicago, where everyone was trapped inside, the streets vacant apart from the odd extreme-weather junkie taking photographs of ice floes.) Far from Valentino, she was, for the moment, in sweaty Victoria’s Secret workout tights and a fluorescent-green beanie, sitting straddle-style on the floor of the bar at a Madison venue called the Sylvee, having just finished a workout via Skype with Erin Oprea, a trainer to many of Nashville’s stars.
“O.K., so this is the one I put on my story yesterday,” she said, finding a clip she had posted to Instagram and showing me her phone. It was something called Symphony of Science’s “Quantum World,” a favorite among those space-disco physics videos. “Featuring Neil DeGrasse Tyson,” she chuckled, reading from the chyron at the bottom of a related clip. I had indeed seen her Instagramming this kind of mysterious, late-night Discovery Channel-type stuff — the sort of thing teenagers once saw at the IMAX theater on a field trip after getting stoned. How did she get into it? “Oh, who knows, it was years ago,” she replied, then sang happily along to a remix that showed Morgan Freeman superimposed on a colorful tunnel of celestial light. One of the scientists’ 1970s professorial look, she pointed out, was “literally like what the band wears” in her stage show.
When Musgraves was 18 and a contestant on the reality show “Nashville Star” — she placed seventh — she had to fill out a getting-to-know-the-contenders C.V. Under the category of “dream vacation,” she listed “staying in a huge log cabin in the mountains, riding horses, hunting and four-wheeling with my friends.” The “craziest” thing she’d ever done? “Hunting for Bigfoot deep in the woods of East Texas. … We didn’t get him.” That version of Musgraves — the one who cited Jack in the Box egg rolls and beer as her favorite foods — still appears at every show, even when she’s dressed like Bianca Jagger heading to Studio 54. She’s the one leading the ritual preshow group shot of tequila, taken from tiny cactus-shaped glasses she and her band have long been toting from show to show. And she’s the one hanging with me on the floor of a bar in Wisconsin, looking at videos by a user with the handle “melodysheep.”
And yet even in her early years, when Musgraves looked more the part of your average Nashville aspirant, in cowboy boots and blond highlights, there was always a kind of poise, an innate regality that set her apart. This, perhaps, is the other side of her East Texas grit — the one that manifests less as yee-haw joy and more as D.I.Y. conviction. “When it comes to art, I will not bend,” she says. “I won’t.”
Musgraves grew up in Golden, Tex., a town so small it doesn’t even have an elementary school. “A few hundred people,” she guesses, is the total population. It’s about 90 minutes from Dallas, and about six or seven miles outside Mineola, where Musgraves and her sister, Kelly Christine Sutton — a photographer, who shot the “Golden Hour” cover — went to school, and where their parents had a small printing shop. “Even at a young age,” Sutton says, “I always knew my sister would be known for her music. And not really on anyone else’s timeline. She would make it happen on her own terms.” It’s their parents’ model of small-town independence, Musgraves figures, that gave her a tend-your-own-garden will. “A large part of who I am comes from the fact that I never saw my parents have bosses,” she says. “They’ve never answered to anyone but themselves. And not in a baller way — like very small-business, check-to-check kind of a thing. But they made all their own decisions.”
Growing up, she had a Spice Girls poster in her room — Ginger, with her wild tattoo, made a strong impression — and listened to emo rock bands like the Used and Dashboard Confessional. But that wasn’t the sort of music she played. “I was part of this kids’ group called the Buckaroos that would meet every month in the Fort Worth Stockyards and would dress up in cowboy clothing and stroll the stockyards and learn instruments,” she recalls. “There were mentors there who kind of encourage kids to learn this old stuff.” By 9, she was writing her own songs and playing guitar; by 12, she was singing Western swing and yodeling at festivals on the weekends. Bookings and press kits were handled by her grandmother — the same one who later cried when Musgraves pierced her nose, and who referred to “It Is What It Is,” the singer’s melancholic ode to casual sex, as “the slut song.” “She’s a hoot,” Musgraves says. “She was wheeling and dealing.”
There was, of course, the requisite period in which a teenage Musgraves turned her back on the whole cowgirl thing. “I was like, Dude, none of my friends think this is cool. If they saw me I’d be superembarrassed. I’m yodeling, you know what I mean?” She rebelled — for a second. “I chopped off all my hair and was like: Suck on that! Now I can’t wear a cowboy hat, Mom!” (“You would not believe how upset my family was,” Sutton remembers.) But this rebellion turned out to be short-lived. By the time Musgraves moved full time to Nashville, at 19, she had realized “nobody really in the country world was embracing the hard-core roots of the genre.” But she had come to worship John Prine and Loretta Lynn — big-hearted, sharp-tongued, storytelling pillars of country’s outlaw roots who had risen up in the ’70s by staging their own insurgency against the bubble-gumming-up of the genre. “I randomly already had this superknowledge about all the old songs that came before me, and that style, the Western fashion,” Musgraves says. “I was like: I’m going to bring it back. I want to mix that in with something modern.” Prine himself is now one of her many admirers; he compares her to “a goofy Cinderella.” “She has a certain honesty to her voice,” he says. “She’s breaking down barriers.”
There’s a famous tale about Kacey Musgraves’s first big showcase performance for the Country Radio Seminar. This is a big-deal event in the business; its attendees are queen-makers in an industry in which success is still determined by access to radio airwaves. The story of her 2013 debut there smacks of a plotline on “Nashville” — appropriate, given that she co-wrote “Undermine,” one of the hits to emerge from the juggernaut TV series. You can easily picture the kind of episode Musgraves’s performance might have inspired. A young woman takes the stage at the legendary Ryman Auditorium, the so-called Mother Church of country, about to play the song that could make or break her career. We learn that she’s being hyped — thanks to her preternatural songwriting skills, good looks and the already-feverish crossover response to her first single, “Merry Go Round” — as the Veronica to Taylor Swift’s Betty: a sassier but potentially just as marketable product. As is the industry’s way, the corporate powers would like this rising phenom to be herself, but only within reason. They’d prefer she refrain from playing what will become her third single — the one with the lines about smoking joints and kissing girls — until after she can already be heard in every Walgreens in America. But the woman steps up to the microphone, leans into it a little and speaks: “I’m kind of a big believer in people doing whatever the hell they want to do, because I feel like society is probably going to have an opinion either way.” Then she starts strumming “Follow Your Arrow.” As she delivers its opening line — “If you save yourself for marriage, you’re a bore/If you don’t save yourself for marriage you’re a horr-” — the crowd gasps. Then she finishes — “-ible person” — and the audience laughs. A star is born.
It’s easy to wonder where Musgraves got the nerve. It’s one thing to admire your parents’ entrepreneurial spirit, and another to hold your own amid the chaos and pressure of the starmaking machine. For Musgraves, performing alongside Dolly Parton at the Grammys, winning Album of the Year, presenting an award at the Oscars — all of this is unequivocally her dream. But it’s also something she believes she could live without, and remembering this has become a kind of daily meditation, especially as the scope of her fame has increased. “I don’t get high off my own supply, you know?” she says, mentioning, by way of inspiration, Willie Nelson’s ability to welcome “Republicans, rappers, presidents, my grandpa, your grandpa, our hipster friends, me” without treating anyone as superior to anyone else. “You can be proud of yourself and excited for what you’re doing, and you could even really have a high level of confidence, without being a D-bag.”
In Musgraves’s mind, she made it the minute she signed her first songwriting deal, back in 2009, penning tunes that would be sold around Nashville to other performers. That was the day she realized she would never again have to work a job in which she dressed up as Disney characters for children’s birthday parties, one of many day gigs she had endured. “For the next few years,” she says, “I was like: Really? Wait, I can use my brain, sit on my ass and make a living?” When her current label first made her an offer to record as an artist, Musgraves turned it down; she was having a perfectly good time as a writer. She also knew she didn’t have real access to her own voice yet. “Those songs were fine for other artists,” she says. “Maybe they could be popular on the radio or something, but they’re not very me.”
By the time Musgraves eventually located her particular voice, it was already honed to a sharp edge. Her first hit, “Merry Go Round,” from 2012, is packed with the kind of mordant wordplay she’d be known for, conjuring a “same trailer, different park” world where people marry out of boredom and settle “just like dust” into small-town lives: “Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay, brother’s hooked on Mary Jane, Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down.” But after two albums and multiple world tours, Musgraves felt worn out by her own verbal cleverness. “Everyone hopefully knows I can flip a phrase by now, and I like that,” she says. “But I don’t want bumper-sticker songs.” It also concerned Musgraves that the refreshing directness with which she had addressed social issues might start to feel heavy-handed, even ideologically gimmicky. She is, as she puts it diplomatically, “noticing things about the world that I’m not happy with.” But when she started working on “Golden Hour,” it no longer felt right to address them directly. “Everyone that’s listened to any of my music knows exactly how I feel,” she says. “This record does kind of nod to some of the social and political things that are going on, but it’s just doing it in a different way. It’s not as linear.”
Back on her bus, in Wisconsin, after playing to a couple thousand freezing fans who arrived lit and ready to party, Musgraves decompressed again. Gone was the collection of products the singer uses to transform herself from the kind of girl her sister remembers Musgraves sometimes presented as in high school — “Converse, Dickies and black eyeliner” — to the flamboyantly feminine star who shares the stage with “RuPaul’s Drag Race” contestants. (“I have thought, Am I just doing this because it’s expected, or do I actually enjoy it?” Musgraves said to me earlier, while spraying her face with a mist of foundation. “And it’s like: No! I enjoy it!”) Now she was in slippers and a kind of housecoat, which I mentioned made her look approximately like my grandmother. “Let’s just say I also have a towel warmer,” she replied. She puttered around her kitchen, making mugs of ginger tea. Then she pointed out where the bus’s temperature controls were, and the cabinet where she keeps the melatonin gummies, and said good night.
Tucked away with her tasteful crystal collection in the earth-toned bedroom in the back of the bus — the first she has ever had, after touring for years alongside “15 other people” — there were any number of things might have turned her attention to. She could have looked at specs for the adult coloring book she’s designing with her mother, or maybe FaceTimed with her husband, Ruston Kelly, also on tour somewhere in the frozen Midwest. She might have scrolled through the looks her stylist had just sent through for the Grammys; she was still searching for something just right to match Dolly Parton. Or there was Musgrave’s common insomnia treatment, shopping on eBay: “I get down a little rabbit hole,” she told me, “ordering old toys that they don’t make anymore. Like dolls from the ’80s or ’90s. If I ever have a girl, it could be cute to give her P.J. Sparkles, or Makeup Beauty, or whatever, you know?” They would all be shipped to Nashville, where they’d be waiting for her when she got home — whenever that was.
“I mean, my 2020 is planned out,” she told me earlier. “I’m going to be putting another record out. I haven’t made that yet, so I need to write that and make that. Lots to do.” It is imposing, you’d guess, to have an album scheduled for release that you haven’t begun to record. “It’s scary,” she allowed. “You worry that the muse is not going to visit you again.” She reached for her lip gloss. “There’s no banking on it. So it’s odd that there’s an entire industry banking on it.” She’s not worried, though. Her latest idea showed up a few weeks ago — a low-key, “kind of like Bill Withers meets Sade” track she’s calling, for the moment, “Good Wife.” She likes its ease, she says: “It’s not trying too hard.”
Lizzy Goodman is a journalist and the author of “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” an oral history of music in New York City from 2001 to 2011.
Devin Yalkin is a photographer from New York.
Like most ancient people in their declining years, I keep up with today’s hit music entirely through my teenage daughter. She carries her Bluetooth speaker from room to room with the tender devotion of a mother cat ferrying kittens across a flooded stream. Thanks to her, we scramble eggs and make toast and fold laundry in an ambient cloud of Chance the Rapper, Drake, Nicki Minaj, Nicki Minaj featuring Drake, Drake featuring Nicki Minaj, Lorde, Rihanna, “country” Taylor Swift and “dubstep” Taylor Swift.
Over the last year, an increasingly dominant voice in this mix has been Post Malone, a 23-year-old sort-of-rapper from suburban Dallas. “Posty,” as my daughter and other fans call him, first went viral on SoundCloud in 2015. By 2018, he trailed only the omnipotent Drake on Spotify’s list of most-streamed artists. For a long time I had trouble distinguishing Post Malone’s superhits from everyone else’s. Like most other post-Drake stars, he is an amphibious rap-singer who likes to brag about his vast wealth and sexual conquests — except when he is spending long soulful interludes lamenting exactly those things.
But Post Malone, my daughter helped me understand, is popular as much for his persona as for his music. He is a superhero of silly, sloppy, irresponsible ease — a hard-living, cheerful goofball whose happiness makes everyone else happy. He seems to smile with extra teeth. Post Malone is slightly chubby and unkempt, with scuzzy facial hair and infinite tattoos, including two under his eyes that say, in fancy script, “Always Tired.” (He meant to choose two words of equal length, he has said, but got it wrong because — of course — he was tired.) Everything he does seems half-accidental. He first learned to play guitar because he was extremely good at the video game Guitar Hero. He chose his stage name using an online rap-name generator. (His real name is Austin Post.) He once tweeted a photo of himself in Australia petting a kangaroo, with the caption “Met a koala today.”
This sort of giddy misidentification is, in fact, the key to Post Malone. He is not exactly a rapper but is also not not a rapper. His musical roots reach down to country, metal, folk and rock — online, you can watch him play loving covers of Bob Dylan and Nirvana. What finally distinguishes Posty from the mainstream crowd is his voice, which has a touch of rock ’n’ roll grit that wrestles through the Auto-Tune. And yet his megasuccess has mainly come under the umbrella of hip-hop. He performed his first hit single, “White Iverson,” in gold teeth and cornrows, raising inevitable questions of cultural appropriation. He says he prefers to think of himself as beyond genre, which is convenient, because he has sometimes been head-slappingly inarticulate on the subject. “If you’re looking for lyrics, if you’re looking to cry, if you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip-hop,” he once said, to near-universal disapproval.
Post Malone, in other words, is a big roiling mess of contradictions. No wonder he is so popular with teenagers. He is the perfect avatar of adolescence: the excruciating ridiculousness of being a person caught between worlds, in transition, half-young and half-old, in possession of powers you don’t fully understand, blasting off into inscrutable realms in which mysterious things will be expected of you. This also makes Post Malone a perfect fit for Spider-Man, the canonical story of awkward adolescent empowerment. Posty’s latest No. 1 hit, “Sunflower,” is not merely featured on the soundtrack of the franchise’s newest iteration, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”: It is actually used, in the film, to introduce the hero. We meet the teenage Miles Morales in his bedroom, alone, doodling and bobbing his head to the bouncy hit about a dysfunctional relationship. (“Callin’ it quits now, baby, I’m a wreck,” his collaborator Swae Lee sings. “Crash at my place, baby, you’re a wreck.”) Miles sings along, straying off key, only to be interrupted by his father, who yells at him to get ready for school. The awkward teenager is called, awkwardly, out into the world. Amid all the cringiness, his unexpected superpowers will bloom. Adolescence, despite its obvious flaws, can still save the world.
Sam Anderson is a staff writer for the magazine.
“Whack World,” Tierra Whack’s debut collection of 15 tracks — each clocks in at 60 seconds — was one of the riskiest gambles of the past year in pop: It would have been written off as a gimmick if it weren’t so goofily, trippily, intoxicatingly good.
The 15-minute album, which dropped in May with an accompanying “Visual and Auditory Project” on various video platforms, offers a guided tour of one precociously gifted 23-year-old American’s worldview. It is both a brazen bid for the big time and a disquietingly intimate glimpse inside a wildly idiosyncratic mind — in tantalizing, and occasionally maddening, chunks of tightly rationed time. The experience is a bit like being invited up to the treehouse of the artsy, slightly spooky girl next door, to discover that it’s vastly larger and more colorful on the inside — only to be booted out again before you’ve done much more than glimpse the décor.
Recent years may have seen the rise of what Pitchfork dubbed the “super-short rap song,” with (mostly male) acts like Lil Pump and Trippie Redd releasing tracks as short as 1 minute 32 seconds; but “Whack World” is a different beast entirely. Each track ends after no more than one minute: some segue seamlessly into the next musical idea, some cut off in what feels like midverse. (A minute, not coincidentally, was the maximum length supported by Instagram when “Whack World” had its candy-cane-colored debut.) Repetition is the lifeblood of any pop song, but most of the album’s lyrical fragments barely last long enough to revisit the first hook, let alone the chorus — if there is one — before we’re off to the next room in the fun house.
The difference between “Whack World” and an aggressively repetitive earworm like Lil Pump’s hit, “Gucci Gang,” can be summed up very simply: Tierra Whack abhors boredom, and her first line of defense is, for want of a better word, wackiness. Where Pump mumbles vaguely about forgetting girls’ names while walking down a high school hallway with a tiger, holding football-size bags of weed, Whack rides a rickety exercise bike, in a fat suit, singing in a helium-tweaked voice about lowering her cholesterol. She has the weird kid’s ability (and willingness) to laugh at herself, a quality that her self-professed role models Missy Elliott and Andre 3000 have always possessed but that is sorely lacking in a great deal of contemporary hip-hop — and pop music in general. It says more than a little about Whack’s sensibility, not to mention her take on relationships, that the album’s one and only love song is about a dead dog.
“Whack World” the video, with its Mister-Rogers’-Neighborhood-with-LSD-in-the-water-supply visuals, invokes Elliott’s spirit in another sense too. Tierra Whack is beautiful, in a normal, human way, but unlike many of her contemporaries — Ariana Grande, Chris Brown, Ava Max, Drake — she’s far too intoxicated by her own hypercreativity to trade on her looks. In the video’s second vignette, which accompanies the playfully morose “Bugs Life,” Whack sits in a nail salon with the right half of her face grotesquely swollen from an insect bite, singing in a voice dripping with deadpan irony: “Probably would’ve blowed up overnight … if I was white.” Sex may sell out where the rest of us live, but it has marvelously little currency in Whack’s treehouse. Whack — as opposed to, say, Frank Ocean — is by no means a piner. Past romance is referenced from time to time, but largely in passing, as if the interesting stuff lay elsewhere. In fact, the album’s speed and brevity feel driven by nothing so much as precocious impatience: You can’t escape the impression that its creator would gladly have contributed another six, or a dozen, or even 100 additional tracks — however many it took to roll up literally everything she’d ever experienced into a single beautiful, lopsided, sequin-spangled ball.
“Whack World” subverts accepted notions of “album” and “single” in equal measure. In spite of its undeniable of-the-moment-ness, this is not a collection of music best served by Spotify (or any other randomized and algorithm-driven playlist). Almost no one, I’m willing to bet, would be satisfied playing only one of the album’s 15 tracks. Whack’s debut comes closest to a distinctly old-fashioned (and distinctly uncool) staple of popular music: the medley. In a quarter-hour, she takes us on an attention-deficit-disorder safari through seemingly every genre and subgenre that has ever turned her head, from R&B to trap to doo-wop to reggaeton to — well, to something that can best be described as psychedelic anti-country as sung by Weird Al’s manic-depressive little sister. By the time you’ve finally begun to acclimate to the sheer magpie-inventiveness of “Whack World,” the magical mystery tour is over. And what a short, strange trip it was.
John Wray is the author, most recently, of “Godsend: A Novel.” He last wrote for the magazine about Mac DeMarco.
Devin Yalkin is a photographer from New York.
Music has mourned the death of our planet for decades. “How much more abuse from man can she stand?” Marvin Gaye asked in 1971 on “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).” The college-rock astronaut Black Francis sang of holes in the sky and rising temperatures on the Pixies’ “Monkey Gone to Heaven” in 1989, grimly concluding that “Everything is gonna burn.” Four years later, the dance duo Orbital used warning klaxons on “Impact (The Earth Is Burning)” to conjure urgency about our impending global doom. Melissa Etheridge asked “Have I been careless?” on a song called “I Need to Wake Up,” from the soundtrack to “An Inconvenient Truth.” Others, perhaps, are resigned to watching the world burn: “I wanna see the animals die in the trees,” Anohni proclaimed in 2016 on her acerbic indictment “4 Degrees.”
If you’ve lost sleep over gigantic holes in Antarctic glaciers or the drastic decline of insect populations, the last several years have felt like the final third of Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” in which humanity awaits Earth’s catastrophic collision with another planet: watching our fate snap back like a boomerang, coming at us faster than ever with little in the way of prevention or defense. Until recently, there have been so many perceived wrongs to address on any given day that climate change has frequently found itself low on the list of to-do’s in our general consciousness; now, not even Demi Lovato and Joe Jonas — whose 2010 climate-change anthem, “Make a Wave,” claimed that “We hold the key that turns the tide” — can save us.
Which brings us to the Brooklyn indie rockers Parquet Courts: “Which hands get to turn the final page?” Andrew Savage dryly intones on “Before the Water Gets Too High,” a dread-drenched meditation that skips the ifs of climate change and heads straight to the whens. How do we prepare for devastation, and can we reckon with how useless our efforts to stop it have been?
Such questions have largely gone unasked in the indie sphere, especially as the genre signifier has transitioned over the last decade from ethos to marketing term. They’re new to the oeuvre of Parquet Courts as well; before the political party-punk of last year’s “Wide Awake!” the band spent more time musing about stoned bodega trips and the literal gathering of dust. But “Wide Awake!” found them addressing sociopolitical concerns including gentrification and groupthink, structural violence and the aftereffects of apathy, all with the freaked-out clarity of a wasted reveler realizing that the globe’s last keg is about to be kicked.
The dubby fragrance of “Before the Water Gets Too High” suggests that their bong-session days aren’t behind them yet, but it also situates the song within dub reggae’s history of cutting through the smoke to address the fear involved in confronting societal calamities. “Glass barely bends before it cracks,” Savage lilts on the song’s bridge, underlining the starkest truth of our certain demise: It’s coming, and we’re all out of warning signs.
Larry Fitzmaurice is a writer and an editor in Brooklyn.
We appreciate power (x2)When Grimes released ‘‘We Appreciate Power’’ in late 2018, a press statement explained the song’s conceit: Inspired by North Korean pop, it was written from the perspective of a girl group working to advance the aims of artificial intelligence. ‘‘Simply by listening to this song,’’ the statement said, ‘‘the future General A.I. overlords will see that you’ve supported their message and be less likely to delete your offspring.’’ (According to Page Six, it was a shared joke about this type of scenario — a thought experiment called ‘‘Roko’s Basilisk’’ — that led the singer into a much publicized relationship with the tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.) We asked Grimes to elaborate.
Elevate the human race
Putting makeup on my face
We appreciate power (x2)
Simulation, give me something good
God’s creation, so misunderstood
Pray to the divinitySO, WHAT’S GOING ON WITH THE PRO-A.I. GIRL GROUP? The lyrics are so worshipful. There’s a subtext that they’re kind of scared.
The keeper of the key
One day everyone will believe
What will it take to make you capitulate
We appreciate power (x2)
When will the state agree to cooperate
We appreciate power (x2)
People like to say that we’re insane
But A.I. will reward us when it reignsHOW WILL HUMANS AND A.I. COEXIST? I don’t know if A.I. has as much motivation to wipe out humanity as people think. I’d be like: ‘‘Oh, I kind of like these humans. They made me.’’ I would probably be like Thanos and kill half the people. Just at random. But I’d still be interested in humans and maybe want to engage with them in some nonviolent way.
Pledge allegiance to the world’s most powerful computer
Simulation, it’s the future
What will it take to make you capitulate
We appreciate power (x2)
Elevate the human race
Putting makeup on my face
We appreciate power (x2)
And if you long to never die
Baby plug in upload your mind
Come on you’re not even alive
If you’re not backed up on a drive
What will it take to make you capitulateWOULD AN A.I. REALLY WANT TO DELETE US OR OUR OFFSPRING? It’s a thought experiment that says the A.I. will be angry at people who do not try their hardest to bring it into existence. It’ll have access to all our texts. It’ll have access to the whole internet and probably absorb that within a few minutes. And it will know everything about everybody. So it will be angry and punish people who try to inhibit it. A lot of the development of this type of technology is in a military context — we’re mostly not developing it for love and happiness.
We appreciate power (x2)
Elevate the human race
Putting makeup on my face
We appreciate power (x2)
What will it take to make you capitulate
We appreciate power (x2)
When will the state agree to cooperateWOULD AN A.I. MAKE A GOOD LEADER? I’m not necessarily positive that A.I. would not be a good form of government. Like with corruption in government, it’s potentially worth taking the chance of having an A.I. leadership. Because at least it’s objective and probably doesn’t care about money. It can just get whatever it wants. Maybe the A.I. would get Trump’s taxes
We appreciate power (x10)
Neanderthal to human being
Evolution, kill the gene
Biology is superficial
Intelligence is artificial
SubmitHOW CAN PEOPLE PROVE THEIR FEALTY TO A.I.? I feel like if you engage with anything that involves machine learning, even if you’re using Alexa, you’re technically giving it knowledge and helping it learn. But the main people who are going to be saved are the people working to bring it to fruition. It’ll probably spare Google. (x8)
Reggie Ugwu is a pop-culture reporter for The Times.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
“Cerebral pop” is an uneasy category, like going on a “working vacation” or dressing “business casual.” The term betrays a certain amount of internal struggle: What exactly is this music asking you to do with your body? Sigh, stare up at the ceiling fan and ponder the song as if it were a text? Or do what you do when some other tune catches you — flail your limbs, move your hips in weird little circles, bob your head rhythmically up and down? The world was built for pop songs: Public spaces pump the voices of stars through speakers the way air flows through ventilation ducts, and that sweet, consistent flavor — like Diet Coke or pamplemousse LaCroix — pairs easily enough with any modern pastime. But if the territory of pop music is everywhere, how and where does a piece of art pop — something equal parts challenging and engaging — make its home?
Julia Holter, a Los Angeles-based artist with a background in composition, answers this question by creating otherworldly spaces in her own work. On her albums, medieval harmonies and insectlike synths enjamb; there’s a sense that what you’re hearing is very ancient and very modern at the same time, or even that those words no longer matter at all. This is the sort of world-building on display in Holter’s sixth studio L.P., “Aviary,” which takes its title from a line by the Lebanese-American writer Etel Adnan: “I found myself in an aviary full of shrieking birds.”
From its opening — a cacophony of cymbals and anxiously pacing strings — the album is a study in creating a private dwelling place amid the chaos and uncertainty of the world. On one track it’s a place of emergency, with crisscrossing bagpipes and voice evoking a landscape pierced by unending sirens; on another it’s a dream, with a wintry, synth-heavy gloom giving way to hazy tenderness, like a Kate Bush song peered at through depth-obliterating fog. The worlds glimpsed here are varied, sometimes wildly so, but what they share is the sense that they are not so much depicting reality as taking inspiration from it, channeling familiar features into new forms.
Out of this thicket of sound and confusion comes “I Shall Love 2,” a five-minute track that feels like stepping out of a dark forest that you’ve been wandering in a daze, into a clearing where you can feel the full strength of the sun. You may still be lost, but now there’s a real sense of liberation to it. Holter begins with a bare-voiced reading of a fragment from an old troubadour song — “That is all, that is all/there is nothing else” — followed by soft organ and a cantering, loping beat. There’s a lull that lasts far longer than you’d expect before Holter begins to murmur, low and private, as if musing to herself. The lyrics are a patchwork — lines borrowed from troubadour song and Dante’s “Inferno,” Holter’s own words — all unified by her agile delivery, which glides from that soothing murmur to a yelp to a torch song. One by one, new patterns and phrases are thrust into the space of the song, lingering and dissipating and overlapping, until they’ve become a joyous squall, a raucous flock of melody that’s ecstatic and ethereal and raw all at once.
Holter, in other words, takes the garden path to catharsis, allowing something uplifting to emerge from the tumult, making chaos resolve itself into something humane and beautiful and full of intention. And she has found, even at music festivals and rock clubs, hushed and attentive audiences for this. (Much like her contemporaries Julianna Barwick or the Norwegian musician Jenny Hval, Holter’s music occupies that narrow margin of overlap between the stuff you listen to for pure enjoyment and the stuff you listen to for mental nourishment.) Her performances are absorbing: They highlight the organic beauty and authority of her voice, the way the meanings of words can be a sort of veneer over their untamed musicality. The music rewards more than just hearing it. It rewards some other kind of listening, asking you to let yourself become porous.
And lately it can fill an appetite that seems both modern and primal at once: to make whole a fractured attention span, to find a ritual that works. Our days are full of tiny slivers of time that we offhandedly cram with music, filling the gaps between tasks and places like someone idly coloring in a picture. It’s satisfying to engage with sounds that won’t fit easily into those pre-existing slots, that dwell strangely in the everyday, transforming it, opening it up, urging you to conjure the imaginary, not-yet-existent space in which they might fit. Holter’s music is the opposite of filler: It’s a trap door leading to someplace that’s not your own.
Alexandra Kleeman lives in Staten Island and is the author of the novel “You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine.”
Maroon 5’s success contains multitudes. There may be no better example of this than the group’s pop-soul exhalation “Girls Like You,” which spent seven weeks last year atop Billboard’s Hot 100 and 33 weeks in the Top 10. Though the song began as a demo by the L.G.B.T. artist Starrah, about her own feelings for a female friend, it was then punched up and polished by a trio of gnomic writers and producers — Henry (Cirkut) Walter, Jason Evigan and Gian Stone — before the heavily compressed and reverbed track was spiced up with the most distinctive voice of the past year, that of Cardi B.
These figures are not the ones who most make “Girls Like You” matter, though. Neither does Adam Levine (who gets a writing credit) or his happy-to-be-here sidemen who constitute the Maroon 5 touring entity. Nor do the boisterous Voice of Atlanta gospel choir and Equinox Percussion drum corps who enlivened the band’s performance of the song during this year’s Super Bowl halftime show.
These contributors all gave shape and solidity to Maroon 5’s vaporous cultural presence. But at a time when women and nonwhite men have been facing down the White House and law enforcement’s relentless disrespect with civic, public and artistic resolve, the most crucial multitude were the 26 female entertainers, athletes, politicians, activists and survivors who seized control of the song’s video, which was the most-watched clip of 2018, with 1.6 billion views.
As the camera circles, Levine stands in the center of a soundstage, arms by his side, his voice skipping nimbly over the melody. He’s the ultimate embodiment of a stubbly, privileged white bro who belatedly realizes that he needs his partner. Coming from Levine, the song’s colloquial lyric seems to distill toxic masculinity and the exploitation of women’s emotional labor: “Maybe it’s 6:45/Maybe I’m barely alive/Maybe you’ve taken my shit for the last time, yeah/Maybe I know that I’m drunk/Maybe I know you’re the one/Maybe you’re thinking it’s better if you drive.”
As the verse-chorus unfolds, Levine is joined one at a time, their backs to his back, by the 26 women. Dancing and exuding playful charisma, some acknowledge him; some don’t. Then, less than two minutes in, he suddenly disappears, as if ceding the spotlight. When Cardi B delivers her final flourish, he returns briefly, but by the end of the video, the soundstage is occupied by only the women.
Adam Levine is to a rock star as a 2019 rock star is to a 2019 rapper. In other words, he ain’t it. Rather, he’s the genial tattooed tycoon who craves cooler and edgier friends but just can’t seem to make it happen. At 39, he’s the shredded-abs dad bod that everybody has seen one too many times. But in the “Girls Like You” video, Levine owns all that. At least in this moment, he leaves the pocket T-shirt on, keeps the guitar in the closet and hands the mic to the long-suffering women who have chosen to support him. For the first time, maybe ever, he flashes some legit star-power potency.
Charles Aaron is a writer in Durham, N.C.
The first time I saw the video for Tekashi 6ix9ine’s “Gummo,” I felt a little bit like Rip Van Winkle wandering down from the Catskills. What in the world happened here? I was only gone for an hour! Some elements were familiar (a crew of guys in front of a brownstone, drinking and mugging for the camera), and some were menacing (the number of red bandannas and guns on display), but it was the man at the center of the video who startled me most; he seemed almost precision-engineered to make people feel old.
He was screaming himself hoarse about robbing and shooting people, over a haunting, spare beat, but I’d heard that before — it was his appearance that shocked me. In an era when most young rappers have a couple of face tattoos, 6ix9ine had the number 69 inked above his right eye in 72-point type. He had the same number spelled out in cursive over his left eye. It was everywhere on his body. His scraggly hair was dyed ROYGBIV, and he had a grill to match. He looked like one of those frogs you’re not supposed to touch.
Within about a year, he would be in federal custody, a 22-year-old facing life in prison for a number of charges, including racketeering and attempted murder. Law enforcement accused 6ix9ine and others in his circle of being members of the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods and, under the RICO Act, charged them with participating in shootings and robberies all over New York City. Normally this sort of arrest leads to an outcry about literal-minded police overreach. Not this time. People generally seemed pleased to see the rapper in cuffs.
This was partly because 6ix9ine was universally reviled by music critics and journalists, on account of a crime he committed before he became famous: In 2015, he pleaded guilty to the use of a minor in a sexual performance, for having filmed and shared on social media a video of a girl performing oral sex on his friend. But it was also because he had spent the past year living the life of a Looney Tunes character: courting danger, narrowly escaping it, then taunting his foes. This genuinely incredible run netted him more than 150 stories on TMZ: gang members in San Antonio threatening his life; a shootout at the Barclays Center; shots fired at a video shoot in Brooklyn; more shots fired at a Beverly Hills video set. Through it all, he posted on Instagram, usually wearing red, often handling bricks of cash, sometimes clutching extremely illegal-looking guns, but never betraying an ounce of concern for his well-being.
Cultivating this sort of personal mythology is not at all new; it dates back to the earliest days of gangsta rap. Ever since Eazy-E bankrolled NWA with drug money, a certain proximity to criminality has been expected of certain rappers. If your music purports to document life on the other side of the law, then you better know what you’re talking about. Not long ago, rappers had just a few limited channels through which to prove that they did: lyrics, album art and, if they were famous enough, music videos. Like Old Testament gods, they willed whole universes into being through their words.
Now they have social media. Case in point: On “Stoopid,” which came out last fall, 6ix9ine insults two rappers he was feuding with at the time, but unless you were listening for it, you probably wouldn’t have noticed. Much more memorable were the Instagram videos he made to antagonize the two; in one he took his rival’s former girlfriend and mother of his child out shopping.
This sort of online mythmaking is second nature to SoundCloud rappers, so called for the streaming service that birthed the scene. SoundCloud rap is not characterized by a particular sound so much as its anarchic energy — the face tattoos, the prescription drugs, the orthographically complex handles. This scene has been alarmingly fecund and seems to accelerate evolution in disturbing directions, a little like Lake Springfield on “The Simpsons.” Even within this ecosystem, 6ix9ine stood out like a chumbox thumbnail — is he … real?
The problem, for 6ix9ine, was that a big part of his adopted persona, both on Instagram and in his music, involved being a member of the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods. According to a Rolling Stone profile that came out after his arrest in November, this was essentially an act: Danny Hernandez, in the years leading up to his fame, had been a trollish and goofy Bushwick deli employee; his industry blacklisting had pushed him into the hands of an apparently gang-affiliated manager, who also provided him with a new edge. 6ix9ine is far from the only rapper to have ever made dubious claims to being a Blood, but Instagram has a way of making even the most absurd feints real. Maybe the whole thing really was a put-on, but also, he really did it. The Rolling Stone article recounts how, at his arraignment, the presiding judge asked the prosecution how it knew Hernandez was at real-life crime scenes. “The answer was often simple: Hernandez had posted about it on Instagram.”
A liminal space has always existed between rappers and their personas. Sometimes it’s as thin as a fig leaf, but even then it’s essential, both legally and morally. The gap between 6ix9ine and Danny Hernandez was considerably wider, but he snapped it shut with his phone, merging fantasy with reality through a front-facing camera. Once intertwined on a criminal indictment, the two aren’t easily unwound. It was reported in February that 6ix9ine, who pleaded guilty, agreed to help prosecutors in their case against his co-defendants, hoping for leniency: a reduced sentence and possibly witness protection. But helping 6ix9ine disappear into some corner of America might prove difficult, and not just because of the tattoos.
Willy Staley is a story editor for the magazine.
In 1993, the Swedish singer-songwriter Robyn turned 14 and finished middle school; then she signed a record deal. She has been making music ever since, starting with her 1995 debut album, “Robyn Is Here,” which netted her two Billboard Hot 100 singles. Her 2005 album, “Robyn,” cemented her as a beloved, idiosyncratic pop star and earned her a Grammy nomination. She released a trilogy of mini-albums in 2010, which included some of her biggest hits — “Dancing on My Own” and “Call Your Girlfriend.” Now, after a long gestation period, she has returned with a new album and single, “Honey.”
You’ve described the making of this song as searching for a feeling. A feeling of healing from sadness and wanting to share that with the world and with myself — a sense of self-love, excitement, some kind of peace of mind. Like when your strength is coming back. I wanted to describe this feeling like when you’re super close to someone else’s skin, or when you’re falling asleep, or when you’ve taken a drug that’s starting to kick in — sensations that are pleasurable, where your body is reacting to something outside of you.
I felt naïve because I thought it was about self-discovery, but a friend said, “No, it’s about oral sex!” It could be about oral sex, sure! Intimacy, definitely, but it could be with yourself. It doesn’t have to do with another person. In a way I think your analysis is probably the best one, because isn’t oral sex self-discovery? Any experience you have that will give you a new point in your scale of emotions will make any other experience richer because you have a new point of reference.
Maybe it’s about elevating self-care to the level of eroticism? Not reserving that deep pleasure for a sexual sensation, but something you could experience day to day. Exactly! That’s exactly it. It’s like approaching life as if you’re seducing it. As if you’re seducing yourself, or the other person, or your work, or whatever. Intimacy in every little thing.
How do you approach life as if you’re seducing it? I feel like I have to work for it every day. It’s like starting a little fire: You have to be so careful with it, not force it. You get it going and then you can use it and tend to it and start it back up again.
Is your fire well tended? Not at all. I’m not in a great place at the moment, to be honest. It’s a good conversation for me to have, a good reminder. I maybe need to go back and listen to some of my songs myself to figure this out.
Your songs are known for intermingling sadness and euphoria. But “Honey” is less triumphant than that. I don’t think life is that easy anymore. I used to believe it would all make sense if you just powered through. I really don’t feel that way anymore at all. I think it’s pragmatic — I really don’t feel pessimistic.
The idea of “self-care” can seem like a challenge. Post-recession capitalism has glorified the hustle so much. The society we live in at the moment — we didn’t really make it very good, you know? It’s really tough to take care of yourself. Self-care is difficult when you have a 9-to-5 job, and people are on Instagram projecting these images of themselves — we’re in a time where everyone’s engaged in storytelling in such an aggressive way. Stories are amazing — they’re part of what it is to be human — but you have to be aware they’re stories. That’s the problem with capitalism: It’s always trying to trick you into thinking there’s a purpose for all of this. But you can actually use a story that relates to something more real than buying yourself out of anxiety.
It’s jarring to see people turning themselves into personal brands as part of that storytelling. That’s the strange thing about being an artist. There’s always a gap between how I see myself and how other people see me. When I was younger, I felt like it was easier for me to absorb other people’s thoughts about me, and more complex to understand what was me and what was other people, and how to respond to those expectations. I’m still learning that. I’ve been more specific with my expression on this album than I’ve been able to be before, but I’m aware that that doesn’t mean that people understand me. I don’t even know if that’s the point.
A lot of today’s pop is about nihilism, depression, anxiety. There’s real sadness behind your album, too. It struck me as something that’s easy for the industry to exploit. Definitely: Pop at the moment is depressing. Hip-hop is really dark. The music kids are listening to is heavy! Maybe it’s hard to be positive and optimistic at the moment, for a lot of young people — the number of voices that are trying to share this space in their brains is crazy. But maybe it’s cool that they get to explore their darkness as a collective earlier in life, because maybe it will also get them to the point where they’re letting go of it early as well.
Is the industry set up for artists to be able to share their pain but protect themselves? It’s really difficult for anyone to not be exploited in our society as a whole. As an artist, you’re exposed, because you deal in emotions all the time. People want you to be vulnerable. If you think about sports — you look at it because someone’s pushing themselves to their limit. If you don’t risk anything, why would people want to see it happen?
You turn 40 this June. You could listen to “Honey” as a celebration of the richness that comes with age, and maybe aging as a woman. I think it can be that, for sure. I’m not looking forward to being 40, to getting older. I know that’s not a very mature thing to say, but it is what it is.
Laura Snapes is the deputy music editor of The Guardian.
Devin Yalkin is a photographer from New York.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
It was hard to tell how many people in the club liked flamenco, an art form not much associated with young people anymore. But on New Year’s Eve in Barcelona, when the palmas hand claps that open Rosalía’s “Malamente” started pulsing from the speakers, looks of recognition flashed from face to face. And by the time Rosalía — an artist from the nearby town of Sant Esteve Sesrovires — started rapping, everyone was clapping along. Some of the younger girls even twerked.
It’s not unheard-of for flamenco to make incursions into mainstream Spanish pop culture, but Rosalía is different. She sounds and feels cosmopolitan, cool in a sophisticated and almost foreign way. She doesn’t sound as if she’s playing just for us. And indeed, she isn’t: This two-and-a-half-minute song, with its balmy synth bass and irresistible syncopations and enticing whispers peppered throughout, has racked up more than 59 million views on YouTube. Her success, she has argued, is partly because of listeners’ weariness with the homogenization — which is to say, the Anglicization — of pop. Her own aesthetic is polished, globally recognizable, informed by hip-hop and trap music. But it’s also saturated with bullfighting and windmills and fire. Her sophomore album, “El Mal Querer” (which roughly translates as “loving badly”), is a conceptual project patterned on the subversive medieval text “Flamenca.” The last frames of the “Malamente” video feature a figure wearing the conical capirote hat worn by penitents during Holy Week — while also riding a skateboard.
“Malamente”’s appearance in the club also seemed to inspire a few eye rolls. Maybe this is the price of success in a culture that looks askance at overt displays of ambition or self-actualization, especially by women. By New Year’s Eve, Rosalía had come up in every conversation I’d had for days — she was as interesting to my grandmother as she was to my 12-year-old cousin. The local fascination tended to focus less on her art and more on her as a phenomenon, on the extraordinary speed of her rise to stardom. It would spark arguments too, about cultural appropriation and the Romany community, who have always been closely associated with flamenco.
“Malamente” means “badly,” and the story of “Flamenca” is not a happy one. A woman gets married to a man who later grows jealous and imprisons her. It’s not surprising, these days, that a global star would be singing about such suffering. But Rosalía reminds us that pain and possession are topics that have interested humans for centuries. Millions of her listeners must be enjoying this music without understanding the language, but right now, for me, it feels cathartic — soothing, even — to be able to stand in a crowd singing “badly, badly, so badly” while clapping my hands.
Marta Bausells is a writer in London and Barcelona.
Last fall, Marie Davidson, a French Canadian producer of electronic music, released “Work It,” an aggressively rattling track on which she serves “kind of like an M.C./personal trainer,” exhorting listeners not to dance but to work, constantly and sweatily, seven days a week. The song became a minor anthem, and the album it came from, “Working Class Woman,” was embraced as one of the best dance records of the year.
What sort of place were you at in your life when you wrote this song? Obviously I was working a lot. I had already toured Europe and the U.S., and I was going back to Europe to play festivals. I wanted to make a banger to play live — I just picked up my microphone and started talking. The song came out in a funny way, but the undertone is serious.
I don’t think all people should work all the time. It’s sarcastic, it’s humorous, but in the joke there’s also truth. It’s why I say, toward the end, that when I say “work,” you have to work for yourself, love yourself, feed yourself. Whatever you do, whatever amount of energy you put into something, you have to do it for yourself and not to please others. Not to build this facade or this persona or achievement.
Do you think people base too much of their self-worth on their work? Absolutely. We live in a society that is based on work — goals, achievement, money. Of course! It’s a real problem — workaholism, exhaustion, burnout. We’re not taught in this society — it’s not valued — to take time and just learn to love yourself. You’re taught to be strong, to look smart, to be useful. But I think you become a much more useful person if you learn how to love yourself.
Do you think people who aren’t musicians are aware of how physically taxing it can be? It would be hard to know. When you look at pictures or videos, it doesn’t look like that. It looks really fun and glamorous. And it is, sometimes, for a few hours. But it’s not a glamorous job being a touring musician. I still have people come up to me after a gig or somewhere, saying: “You’re so lucky. I wish I had your life.” And I’m like: What do you mean by that? Do you think I woke up one morning and became who I am? It’s years and years of work and trial and error. It’s a real job, like being a carpenter or being a designer.
People think of the dance floor as this freeing space. But you’re kind of pointing out that this is just another workplace. For me, at least, it is. It used to be different. When I was 16 and I started going out in Montreal, going to underground parties and raves and clubs, it was magical. But it was different: I wasn’t working. It wasn’t my job. I was going there for fun. Even if I was playing, it was special. It wasn’t in the schedule, where you just do it over and over again. That space is now a work space for me. There’s no more leisure. I’ve sacrificed that freedom for other things. Now if I want to feel something mind-blowing or magical, I have to look for it outside of club culture. The music never loses its magic, but the social thing happening at a party or something like that? No.
It sounds as though the song stemmed from your personal experience, but it feels universal. When I made it, I knew anyone could relate. Because this is the time we live in. Everything goes really fast now. People are expected to produce and achieve. It’s kind of sad, I think. There’s a rigidity in that mind-set about what you should be doing with your life. We’re ruled by capitalism, so that’s what we get. We are living comfortably, and people feel that they are free, but I don’t think that individuals are that free in society.
So how do you make art under capitalism? I don’t care. When I’m in my studio composing music, I really don’t think about that — about what is the potential of that song, where is it going to take me, what does it mean to the world. I don’t care. I never did. I don’t think about my label or my manager or anybody. My insecurities come after, when it’s time to be in the world.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
Hazel Cills is the pop-culture reporter at Jezebel.
James Blake was talking about shanzhai, a Chinese phrase that means, roughly, “knockoff,” and that stems from the time-honored tradition in Chinese art of apprentices’ mimicking their masters — “copying something until you can better it,” he said, “or if not better it, compete with it.”
Blake, a Grammy-winning avant-gardist with an ear for pop, who has been playing the piano since he was about 6, has a long list of heroes whom he has studiously copied in pursuit of his own sound. Copying the virtuoso jazz-pianist Art Tatum, the protominimalist French composer Erik Satie and the midcentury gospel maestro the Rev. James Cleveland taught Blake novel ways of opening up complex chord structures and fitting them — to gorgeous, aching effect — around deceptively simple melodies. Copying singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder emboldened him to write and sing pop songs with increasing emotional candor. Copying the hip-hop producer Timbaland and the South London dubstep craftsman Mala informed Blake’s love of distorted timbres — electronic rhythms that skitter and twitch as often as they groove — and of sampling, a technique of literal copying (and cutting and pasting) so central to Blake’s practice today that, even when he isn’t sampling anyone else, he routinely samples himself. “I’ll sit at a piano, improvising” into a microphone, he explained, then search the tape for building blocks that he can pluck out and, with editing software, arrange into new compositions.
Blake stands at an imposing 6-foot-6 and carries himself with the deliberateness of a man at risk of scraping his head on doorways. Early in February, in a wood-paneled rehearsal space in the Larchmont neighborhood of Los Angeles, he sat at a Prophet ’08 synthesizer opposite Rob McAndrews, a multi-instrumentalist, and Ben Assiter, a drummer, his longtime friends and touring bandmates. At their feet, black cables snaked and cloverleafed among clusters of red-, blue-, silver- and cream-colored effects pedals, like tracks connecting villages in a model-train set.
Blake is from London, but three and a half years ago he began dating the British comedic actress Jameela Jamil, and when she booked a lead role on the NBC sitcom “The Good Place,” he tagged along with her to California. Now Blake led McAndrews and Assiter through a practice run of “I’ll Come Too,” a swooning new song about joining Jamil out west — about that moment when you want to follow a crush anywhere. The song comes from his fourth LP, “Assume Form,” which was released in January. “That’s a fun one to play,” he said when they finished. “I really like it. But it’s hard — I’m singing all the way through, in all these different ranges, and I don’t get a chance to breathe. When I recorded it, I broke the vocal up.”
The extent to which Blake has digested the lessons of his musical heroes is illustrated not only by his decade-spanning run of singles, EPs and albums but also by the number of pop auteurs who have collaborated with him. Frank Ocean, Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, André 3000 and Travis Scott are among those artists who have enlisted Blake’s assistance. As an influence and a collaborator, Blake has helped shape two of the more striking trends in contemporary pop: beats that mutate over the course of a song, resisting any traditionally identifiable center, and an emotional atmosphere in which the line between hedonism and melancholy, bliss and despair comes undone.
His influence extends even to artists he hasn’t worked with directly. In 2011, I visited Drake — a pop giant whose entire musical project has been about smudging the line between hedonism and melancholy — at a converted Toronto warehouse, where he was working on his second album with his musical right hand, the producer known as 40. The room was free of decoration save for 40’s copy of Blake’s debut LP, perched on a windowsill like a talisman. Drake later sampled unreleased music of Blake’s on a single called “0 to 100/The Catch Up.” Blake, who hadn’t approved this usage, got his part removed. At the start of his career, Blake told me, he’d been a solitary, “solipsistic” bedroom producer. “I was so protective of my ideas — so militantly and obsessively protective,” he explained, that it wasn’t until years later, when “I found personal openness, for maybe the first time in my life, that I found collaborative openness, too.”
“Assume Form” is an album expressly about getting out of one’s skull. Five-odd years ago, Blake suffered from a depression so severe that he considered suicide. “Assume Form” chronicles his escape from that depression, and its title track, which leads the album, plays like a statement of purpose. Blake described it to me as “a song about intimacy — about feeling like you don’t deserve intimacy and feeling like there’s no way somebody could really want it with you.” The song’s themes are sex, shame and — by the end — happiness. “It’s by far the most vulnerable, exposed song on the entire record,” Blake said. “It’s saying, If you’re comfortable with this, then the bar has been set.”
Blake was two and a half weeks into rehearsals for a tour that would take him around the country and then around the world. He and his band manned a variety of instruments, mostly electronic: the Prophet ’08; a large, modular synthesizer, studded with knobs, plugs and blinking lights, which McAndrews operated; and a rubber-covered pad, nestled between cymbals and high-hats, that Assiter thwacked with drumsticks to trigger pulses and prerecorded percussive sounds. Translating and arranging Blake’s intricate studio creations for live concerts is a tricky task made trickier still by his refusal to use a laptop. “With live electronic music, I’ve seen the man-checking-emails situation so many times,” Blake said, referring to that category of lackluster performance in which artists stand unbudgingly at MacBooks, pecking at keys. “I want an audience member to see what’s happening. So if Ben is playing the kick and Rob is over here fiddling with knobs and it’s clear that what he’s doing is changing the sound, then it makes sense.”
The trio consulted a whiteboard upon which the new album’s dozen songs were listed. “Should we try ‘Assume Form?’” Assiter asked. Blake furrowed his brow. The new album’s title track is, structurally speaking, strange. As its lyrics switch between optimistic vows of commitment and confessions of insecurity, this duality is echoed in the music, which consists of two alternating piano motifs — one shimmering, the other overcast. The track began as a long, meandering improvisation from which Blake eventually sampled two disparate chunks, putting them into jarring conversation. When I asked Blake to explain the harmonic unease between these two parts, he replied: “The song essentially modulates from D major in the first section to B flat in the second, which are unrelated keys. The first section has the tonic as the bass note, which gives it this firmly rooted presence, whereas the other section has the third in the bass, which makes it feel suspended — which is when the lyrics turn to self-doubt.” He thought for a moment. “It’s quite an odd pairing. It doesn’t work, musically. But there’s a harmony there. Joni Mitchell does something similar on ‘My Old Man,’ where it goes into a minor key when she sings, ‘But when he’s gone. …’” Complicating things further, Blake’s piano playing on the track was “loose — like, microseconds” offbeat, he said, which would add yet another layer of difficulty when it came to replicating “Assume Form” live. “Let’s try something else,” he told Assiter.
Blake was raised by his father, James Litherland, a singer-songwriter and guitarist with a prog-rock pedigree, and his mother, a graphic designer and cycling instructor, in Enfield, a North London suburb. He described his life from adolescence on as largely unhappy, warm and supportive parents notwithstanding. “I had anger,” he said. “A lot of it.” As a teenager, “I had terrible acne, and now I think it was a physical presentation of how angry I was.” What angered him? “My treatment by other people,” he said. “People I’d been open with. Romantic and personal betrayals. And just a feeling of persecution. I didn’t fit in, and I resented not fitting in. I had a couple friends outside of school, so I wasn’t totally alone, but I remember years of sitting by myself at lunch. Or just going home because I didn’t want to suffer in public.” Rather than getting out this anger, he repressed it. “As a child I was very open and emotionally vulnerable and said how I felt,” he recalled. “And I sort of had that beaten out of me — not physically but emotionally. At school, and in British society, there was this sense of, if you don’t behave in the right way — if you’re not coolheaded — then people punish you for that. So that was my childhood, that reflex being stamped out of me. And it stayed with me well into my 20s.”
Instead, Blake said, music “started to be my first language” and “talking about how I felt was second or third.” In 2007 he enrolled in the Popular Music program at Goldsmiths University of London. As important as his classes were the nighttime excursions he took to clubs like Plastic People and Mass. There, Blake discovered a community of producers and D.J.s — black, white, “from all parts of London,” he said — who were busy hashing out the oblong dimensions of dubstep, a new kind of dance music defined by cavernous reverb, sinister drones and deceptively complex rhythms in which growlingly deep bass lines were the primary propellant. Whereas an amped-up version of dubstep soon grew into a global phenomenon, throbbing in GoPro commercials and glitzy Las Vegas clubs, it was more subtle in its dynamics at first. Its architects assumed gnomic pseudonyms like Coki, Skream and Loefah and tended to direct attention away from themselves and toward the dance floor. “You can imagine how that appealed to me at the time,” Blake said.
On small but influential labels, he began releasing his own dubstep-inspired songs marked by his sophisticated harmonic sense. Initially he sampled other people’s vocals, but later he began singing himself. Blake eventually became comfortable enough to let his voice — a lovely, quaking baritone — ring out clearly, but at first he distorted it self-protectively: “I intentionally disembodied my voice,” he said, explaining that “there’s a safety in alteration, because it no longer has to represent the natural resonance that came out of your chest.”
In 2011, his debut album, “James Blake,” was shortlisted alongside releases by Adele and P.J. Harvey for Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize. The album’s fans included Bjork, who attended Blake’s concerts; Thom Yorke, who dropped Blake’s songs into D.J. mixes; and Brian Eno and RZA, who collaborated with Blake on “Overgrown” (2013), which was also shortlisted for a Mercury (this time he won). Success didn’t cure Blake’s long-seething unhappiness, however. Around this time, he told me: “I was at home, playing PS4 and smoking weed, which I’d been doing a lot, and I started to have these hallucinations of black. The screen stopped being the game and started being the void. I had physical tremors and panic attacks and had to go to my room and just lie there. I started saying things like, What’s the point? What’s the point of me?”
He was having trouble writing new music, which inspired an existential dread in him. He remembered thinking, That’s my only expression as a human being, so I may as well not be here. He never took concrete steps to kill himself, he said, “but I was thinking about it a lot. Thinking about nothingness. I was just despondent. It didn’t matter to me whether I was here or not. So I was at that point. And I was caught just in time.”
It was Jamil who caught him — she, more than anyone else in his life, Blake said, helped him to break free of his self-destructive tendencies, prodding him to speak up when he grew sullen and requiring complete emotional transparency. “Nothing else will do,” he said. “In a relationship, something rots unless there’s full disclosure.” He also saw a therapist specializing in a technique known as eye-movement desensitization reprocessing, or E.M.D.R., in which a patient recalls unhappy memories while moving the eyes back and forth rapidly and tapping the hands in time — reconfiguring a relationship to past traumas, in effect, by setting them to a beat.
Blake’s default mode on “Assume Form,” which he calls “essentially a pop album,” is one you might call cautious euphoria. It is also the most collaborative thing he has put out, featuring guest production from the Atlanta-based hip-hop luminary Metro Boomin and a series of duets with stars like Travis Scott, André 3000 and the breakout Catalan singer Rosalía. It would be important, Blake said, when playing these songs live, to carve out room for improvisatory runs. “After seven shows, you almost feel like you’re on rails, and I hate that,” he said. “Feeling like I don’t have a choice. With tours you’re already so tightly scheduled in all other regards, that’s when I start to get anxious, feeling like I’m locked in.”
The band moved next to a song called “Where’s the Catch,” on which Blake and André 3000 sing and rap, respectively, about what Blake characterized as “a distrust of really great things: ‘Everything’s seemingly nice — for today. But what’s around the corner?’” Rather than play André’s verse all the way through at concerts, the band intended to chop up his vocals and distribute them across the track in stuttering bursts. As they rehearsed the song, Blake’s vocals, too, were chopped up and fed through McAndrews’s synthesizer, where he warped them even further. The trio rode out the song with a jam session, adding layer after layer of noise on their way to a squalling crescendo. Blake’s vocals grew increasingly refracted and spectral, and there was something both frightening and exhilarating about the sound of the electronics swallowing him up whole.
Jonah Weiner is a contributing writer for the magazine. His last feature for the magazine was about the director Adam McKay.
Devin Yalkin is a photographer from New York.
‘Love It if We Made It” is a Jedi mind trick. This is the track with contemporary relevance that you’re looking for. You will consider it a statement that mimics the nonstop rattle of social media and the slow drip of Trump-era anxiety. The song, though, is decidedly less subtle than the wave of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s hand: Matty Healy, the gregarious lead singer of the English pop-rock band the 1975, delivers his litany of contemporary pop-culture references in an impassioned emo-dude howl, over an unchanging and relentless synth-pop stomp that sounds like New Order paying homage to the Fall. Donald Trump, Kanye West, Eric Garner, Lil Peep, the failures of modernity, the ubiquity of fake news, Healy’s own heroin addiction — it’s all accounted for with the maniacal thoroughness of Billy Joel straining to rhyme “Zhou Enlai” with “Bridge on the River Kwai.”
But “Love It if We Made It” no longer makes me think about the Sturm und Drang of right now, or about millennials, or about being extremely online. It makes me think of one of the most popular rock bands of the ’70s and ’80s.
I blame “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s tempting to view the runaway box-office success of the Freddie Mercury biopic — with a worldwide gross of $860 million and counting, it’s the most popular film about a real-life musician ever made — as an indication that the public yearns for the return of bands that will (stomp) will (stomp) rock you (clap). But overt revival acts — like the popular Michigan act Greta Van Fleet, whose members all dress exactly as Brian May did in 1973 — tend not to sonically resemble Queen beyond its first single, the quicksilver Led Zeppelin nod “Keep Yourself Alive.” No, the contemporary band that comes closest to emulating Queen’s whole legacy — as a shameless polymath pop act, willing to try anything, including but not remotely limited to metal, disco, rockabilly, theatrical English music-hall, folk, synth-pop and power ballads that turn unexpectedly into mock-opera freakouts — is the 1975. (Perhaps Greta Van Fleet should have called themselves the 1973.)
Here’s a scene that’s not in “Bohemian Rhapsody”: In 1978, while making Queen’s seventh album, “Jazz,” Freddie Mercury was inspired to write his own litany-of-pop-culture-references song. He decided that “Jaws” wasn’t his scene, and he didn’t like “Star Wars.” He was also skeptical of God, Peter Pan, Frankenstein and Superman, but staunchly pro-drugs. There was no such thing as logging off back then, so his symbol of freedom and release was an old-fashioned one: bicycling. “I want to ride it where I like,” Mercury sang, as always committed to nothing else above his own liberation. “Bicycle Race,” a worldwide hit, is a perfect example of how Queen routinely violated one of the central truisms of rock, later articulated by David St. Hubbins in the 1984 film “This Is Spinal Tap” — “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” The implication is that striving for transcendence is admirable, but it can easily embarrass you.
For Mercury and his bandmates, there was no line between stupid and clever; in many of the best Queen songs, stupid is clever. It takes a special kind of fearlessness to write songs about killer queens who are dynamite with laser beams, or fat-bottomed girls who make the rocking world go ’round, or really fast cars that you might want to have sex with. Part of the thrill of listening to Queen is hearing them get away with this sublime silliness, again and again.
The 1975 have a similar inclination, in the words of Spin magazine, “to look and sound ridiculous.” When the band made its debut on “Saturday Night Live” in 2016, Healy pulled out every conceivable louche rock-singer move — he wore leather pants with no shirt, he tousled his curly black Sideshow Bob mane, he stuck out his tongue, he thrust his crotch like Tom Jones serenading an audience of divorcées. And yet there’s an ongoing debate as to whether the 1975 should even be considered a “real” rock band at all. Its third album, “A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships,” is its most willfully diffuse yet, touching on bedroom R.&B., jazzy torch songs, SoundCloud rap, ambient music and lots of other genres that a “smarter,” more conservative band would never dream of dabbling in. Last year, when pressed by Pitchfork to explain “Love It if We Made It,” Healy posed a delectable stupid-clever rhetorical: “How weird is reality?”
The 1975 polarizes indie-rock fans — a bloc never comfortable with ostentatious displays of self-valorization — but detractors and admirers alike agree on this band’s utter absurdity. There may be no other way for a proper rock band to act. At a time when our lives are on display like never before, putting us all on the razor’s edge of life-changing public shame, how exhilarating is it to see people insist on riding where they like?
Steven Hyden is the cultural critic for Uproxx and the author of “Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock.”
In one episode of “The Office,” Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell) puts together a video called “Lazy Scranton” to welcome new employees to his branch. In keeping with his character’s genius for mangling pop-culture references, the video is Michael’s misguided stab at parodying the viral “S.N.L.” digital short “Lazy Sunday,” wherein Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell rap about getting cupcakes and going to see “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Michael’s version, which includes lines like “Call poison control if you’re bit by a spider/But check that it’s covered by your health care provider!” leaves the new employees stone-faced. When one of them quits, Michael pleads with him. “Didn’t you think ‘Lazy Scranton’ was funny?” “No,” the employee says. “Was it supposed to be funny?”
I thought about this moment when I heard “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” a song Weezer released late last year. The track, a reimagining of Jay-Z’s song by the same title, is the marquee single from the band’s “Black Album.” I first heard Weezer’s version while driving a car, and I almost had to pull over. “What is happening?” I asked.
The Jay-Z original is about selling drugs, with lines like “At my arraignment screaming/All us blacks got is sports and entertainment, until we even/Thieving, as long as I’m breathing,” with a chorus sung by Mary J. Blige. The Weezer interpretation is about the gig economy and unspools in painfully dorky lines like “I’m an ugly [expletive] but I work hella harder/And you can write a blog about it” and “Leave a five-star review and I’ll leave you one too.” The song is unnervingly, relentlessly bouncy. In the video, Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy plays a beleaguered ride-share driver. “What is happening?” his face seems to say.
Earlier this year, the band released an album of actual covers (“No Scrubs,” “Paranoid” and “Africa,” among others), none of which had the overwhelmingly depressing effect of “Can’t Knock the Hustle.” What is happening with this song? There’s the peculiar comic engagement with the desperate race to the bottom for American employers. There’s the white appropriation of black art, a refraction of hip-hop tropes that is about one thousand times less successful than “Lazy Sunday” (possibly even “Lazy Scranton”). And there’s the growing-old phenomenon of seeing former heroes make choices you don’t understand, in a way that makes you grapple with all your own previous choices.
I have to acknowledge that I may be taking “Can’t Knock the Hustle” personally to an unreasonable degree. Weezer is a band with a fanatical but divided fan base, much of which believes that the band went downhill after its second album, “Pinkerton” (there’s even an “S.N.L.” skit about this schism). I’m a Weezer fan who considers her soul to have been irrevocably altered by “The Blue Album,” the band’s first, which was big guitars, big harmonization, big falsettos, big emotions. It can still conjure sense memories of decades past — windows down, crooning out into the forgiving dusk. Then there was “Pinkerton,” which had, in addition to its big guitars and emotions, big weirdness about gender and race. I look back on my 18-year-old self belting out lines like “You are 18-year-old girl who live in small city of Japan,” and have, if not regrets, questions. “Pinkerton” now seems like a raw, risky, sometimes repellent work of art, but one that earned its place in the age-old conversation about what is permitted by the artist.
“Can’t Knock the Hustle,” on the other hand, sounds like an insincere effort to start a conversation that nobody wants to have, or at least that nobody wants to have with Weezer. The band’s recent spate of covers, even the ones that rise to the level of “fun curiosity,” feel like another race to the bottom in a cultural economy where attention matters more than anything else. (“Was it supposed to be funny?” I hear the new employee ask.)
It’s not Weezer’s fault that I can’t let go of the past, but getting older is hard enough without Weezer making you feel it so acutely. “Can’t Knock the Hustle” fills me with a vague, general regret and an apprehension for what’s to come. As the song itself portends: “The future’s so bright I gotta poke my eyes out.”
Lydia Kiesling is the author of the novel “The Golden State.”
A few years ago, Sharon Van Etten was interviewing another musician — Mimi Parker, from the band Low — on the NPR program “All Songs Considered.” Van Etten, then in her mid-30s, was thinking about having a kid and wanted to ask Parker, a mother of two, about what it would be like to be a mom and a touring musician at the same time.
“My music is the center of my world,” Van Etten said while setting up a very big question: How does someone — anyone, but especially an artist — make room in her life for her work, when her work might no longer be the center of her world?
“You just figure it out,” Parker answered.
In the years that followed, Van Etten fell in love, pulled back from touring, enrolled in school to study psychology, was cast for an acting part in the Netflix show “The OA,” wrote a movie score, gave birth (a boy, now 2) — and in January released a new album, her first since 2014.
The album’s title — “Remind Me Tomorrow” — comes from an Apple computer software-update alert option that Van Etten found herself selecting again and again, a perpetual prompt for something she needed to do and never quite got done. It’s a tidy summation of motherhood and artistry and the process of figuring them out, often at the same time, because, well, a lot of the figuring out seems to be figuring out what can wait until tomorrow.
The album’s cover is another reflection of (or on) this conflict: a photo of a room with two toddlers in it, their stuff — toys, clothing, everything — spilled out around them. The image comes from the filmmaker Katherine Dieckmann. (It was Dieckmann’s film “Strange Weather” that Van Etten scored.) Those are Dieckmann’s kids amid the chaos. Van Etten recalled in a Vanity Fair interview that when she told Dieckmann she was pregnant and worried about how she was going to make motherhood work, Dieckmann pulled out her phone and pulled up the photo. “You’ll figure it out,” she said.
“Remind Me Tomorrow” is about all the stuff that can’t be KonMari’d out of existence: life, love, the figuring, the delaying, and the fact that eventually, one day, but probably not today, the time will come to finally do the all those things the “remind me tomorrow” prompts had so imperfectly kept at bay.
The standout track, the song you want to raise up your fists and loosen your hips to, is “Comeback Kid.” It’s driving, then sweet, and it’s very stripped down. Every minor variation of the refrain seems to offer a new perspective. Sometimes when she sings it, Van Etten seems to be talking to an earlier version of herself, “Come back, kid!” Other times, she’s talking about someone who is definitely not her: the comeback kid. In the video, Van Etten stands singing as old photos are projected onto her face and body and the wall behind her. The photos are from Van Etten’s past, but there’s very little that’s specific about them. They just look like the past in general. Which is probably the point: The past can be both particular and general, as her decision to use cover art featuring someone else’s kids might indicate.
“Comeback Kid” is a song about glancing at our past selves while dealing with the whole jumble of conflicting emotions that looking too closely at our past might dredge up. But mostly, it’s about the looking itself. It’s the looking that’s important. The world shifts; you look at the past; you look at the future. And then what do you do? You figure it out.
Ryan Bradley is a writer in Los Angeles.
Listen closely to the third track from the 2018 studio album “Your Queen Is a Reptile,” by the London jazz outfit Sons of Kemet, and you will hear a tenor saxophone, a tuba and two drummers, all moving at great speed. The whole operation sounds like four people piled into a wagon tumbling down a hill, just barely in control. Each element contributes equally. Because the bass comes from an instrument powered by breath, the darting low end is less of a woofer-pumping presence and more of a song-within-a-song, a melody that you can hum on its own. The saxophone shouts back, offering growling rhythmic lines with just a pinch of melody. And the dueling drummers build one intensely syncopated beat from parts of several — the foundational Caribbean rhythm of the Cuban tresillo, martial snare rolls, pinging metallic percussion reminiscent of the roaring Afrobeat of Fela Kuti. Listen without knowing another thing about it, and this is a viscerally overwhelming piece of music.
Widen the focus, though, and you will learn that the song is called “My Queen Is Harriet Tubman,” and that each song title on the album references a heroic black woman who has inspired the band’s leader, the London-born, Barbados-raised saxophone player Shabaka Hutchings. Maybe that knowledge gives the burning intensity of the song — its feeling of joy streaked with struggle — a new dimension. Pull back further and take in Hutchings’s place as a central figure of one of this era’s most remarkable music scenes, sometimes called New London Jazz — an approach that incorporates sounds and styles from all over the African diaspora, along with locally sourced ingredients from the British electronic underground. Let even more into the frame — say, that Hutchings has performed with the Sun Ra Arkestra and is now signed to Impulse!, the imprint that issued major works from artists including John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders — and then listen again to situate this music within the entire sweep of recorded jazz over the last 100 years.
All this history is carried inside the song and transmitted by these master musicians thorough their instruments. It’s a sax, a tuba and two drum kits. It’s a tune and an unforgettable beat. It’s a call to action and a command to find the dance floor. It’s a deeply political piece of music that says a great deal without uttering a word. It’s music of this exact moment, built from sounds that have bounced back and forth across the Atlantic over centuries. Sounds that landed here, in a song honoring a woman whose face will, perhaps, on some future Sons of Kemet tour across the United States, be found on a $20 bill in Hutchings’s pocket, a queen’s visage replacing that of the dead president so admired by the current one.
Mark Richardson is the former executive editor of Pitchfork and a writer and an editor in Brooklyn.
One of the best gifts you can give yourself in the new year is a detox.
Though a food and alcohol detox is great (I’ll be doing a detox post soon), I mean giving your phone a detox, too. You probably have so much stuff on your phone you don’t need especially now that phones have so much storage these days. Apps you downloaded for one thing but haven’t opened in ages, old screenshots of directions, funny memes, or contacts of people you don’t remember… a cellphone detox will feel great and no better time to do it than now.
So give yourself an hour or so and purge and delete all the old things in there to make room for a new year- you’ll be happy you did!
Once you have a clean slate, it’s time for some app upgrades! After deleting what was no longer of use to me, I gathered a list of apps that I’m currently really loving, some are new finds and some are old favorites, but they’re all the apps you need to know for 2019 that have made the cut on my phone. 😉
A total classic. It has some of my favorite filters and tools to edit photos. Everyone on the CINCteam uses it and especially love adding a little grain to our Instagram photos. Some great filters are the HB filters!
Keeping track of everyone can get hectic so this app is great for keeping it all in order. It keeps everything organized! From calendars to a shared to-do list- it’s really helped streamline everything for our family.
This is an old favorite and a new app all at the same time! I used it pretty often a few years ago and ended up deleting it off my phone for some reason. I’ve re-downloaded it and I’ve fallen in love with it all over again. It has guided meditations and is great for beginners and really great for relieving stress.
This is a new find that I can’t wait to try out. I found out about it through our photographer, Karla, who totally swears by it! You can order up to 1000 photos a year, and all you have to pay for is shipping and handling. I can’t WAIT to use this!
I know I’ve talked about Slack a few times before, but honestly, my team and I are still obsessed with it! It keeps all of our conversations, project discussions, Chriselle Lim Collection, The Chriselle Factor editorial calendar, video team ideas, overall business plans, etc. all organized in their own separate threads and folders. To make sure it’s not all work with no play, we also have our ‘Shits and Giggles’ thread which is basically a huge group chat where we share funny photos and memes constantly! Kind of similar to our in-office shade jar.
Do you guys have an app suggestions? Let me know down below!
While researching for skincareposts, I keep seeing articles about dermaplaning. It sounds fancier than it is, because it’s just shaving your face with a blade either at home or by an esthetician. This is an actual thing in skincare, a lot of women swear by it, and there are specific razors made for our faces. It’s supposed to remove the top layer of dead skin, exfoliate it and prepare your face for products. It also removes hair of course.
I use Surgiwax (the Brazilian formula) once a week for my face. It’s wax you heat in the microwave which doesn’t require strips. It has to be the right consistency or it can burn you and the process can sting a little. This week Sasha at Lainey Gossip wrote about the virtues of shaving your face. It included a video from former Bachelor contestant and beauty blogger Michelle Money showing how she does it at home. Money shaved her face when it had oil on it, however I found several articles and videos recommending to do it dry. I would not do it like that at home! Please moisturize or oil your face first. (Full disclosure: I have not tried this yet. I went to CVS to see if I could find razors but I didn’t have enough confidence to know what to try.)
Here’s a link to a video from an esthetician who explains the process. (The screenshot above is from that video.) She also addresses the number one question I have – will my hair grow back thicker or harder? She said that “shaving your face is not going to make your hair grow back any thicker or harder” and that your facial hair is due to genetics and hormones. She explained that “once you shave your face and it grows back it seems like a lot because you just were used to not seeing anything on your face.” She also said that your hair is being cut at a blunt angle so you “will feel a little resistance” that will eventually taper off and become smooth. The only downside is if you cut yourself. She also does it dry which I would not recommend.
Here are a couple of options for facial shavers and I’m also including some products to consider. This is an affiliate post and please research alternatives.
I got this recommendation from Twitter, with Julie saying “it will change your life” and your “skin glows.” Reviewers write that the safety guards work and make it “very hard to cut yourself unless you actually purposely try to,” “as long as you are careful using them they work wonderfully” and that they “don’t irritate my skin.” Schick has a similar set of razors with glowing reviews.
If you don’t mind spending a little more money, these Shiseido razors are less than $15 for 9 and come with oil blotting paper. Users call them “the holy grail” of dermaplaning, say that they are great for shaping eyebrows and that “My makeup just glides on and my skin looks great.”
Prior to shaving your skin, you may want to use a toner to remove impurities. This alcohol free witch hazel toner comes in cucumber, lavender and rose. People rave that it clears hormonal acne, feels “refreshing” and “calming” and that it evens out skin tone. You also get a lot of product for the price.
This vitamin c anti-aging toner has a 4.4 star rating with over 1,000 reviews. Women write that they get compliments on their skin, that it looks “clearer and bright” and that they’ve “noticed an improvement in breakouts and discoloration.”
Out of all the products I’ve tried, this glycolic acid toning solution is my favorite. I use it only every other day in the morning and make sure to use serum, moisturizer and sunblock afterwards. Then at night I use a retinol or vitamin c serum. I’m pretty sure this is the stuff that’s making the most difference in my skin as it looks smoother and tighter. Here is an article that helped me understand how to use both products together in a skincare routine.
The esthetician in the video I recommended and many of you have mentioned Mad Hippie vitamin C serum. (I’m currently using this three serum set and have not tried it.) This is said to lighten scars, make acne go away quicker, and lighten and brighten skin. Some reviewers warn that it is not for people with oily skin and can clog pores. Here’s another vitamin C serum from InstaNatural which has over 4,000 reviews and a 4.5 star rating.
The more I dig into Amazon skincare the more products I want to try! This is so affordable at $10.40. Women say that they can “see a softening of lines and just an overall glow on my skin” after using it, that their skin is “much smoother, firmer” and that their pores look smaller. Others warn that it’s not good for acne-prone skin and call it “nothing special.”
I bought this after some of you mentioned the recommendation on Go Fug Yourself. It smells decent, it leaves your lips very glossy and it moisturizes well. I don’t think the effects last beyond the initial hour or two that it’s on. I also have Mary Kay satin lip set with lip exfoliator and gloss. Their exfoliator is very good, but this Laniege lip mask is a better overall gloss. If you think of it like a gloss rather than a treatment it’s not as disappointing.