I’ll level with you: This year’s Music Issue is a rip-off of the New York Times’ feature “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going,” a very neat thing that paper has done over the past two years, offering up some great song recommendations and music writing along the way.
There is however, one major difference between the Times’ idea and CP’s rip-off—or OK, I prefer “riff on”—and it’s the reason why I’m comfortable stealing their idea at all: I’m not interested in where things are going. I’m interested in what the shit feels like right now. Predicting the future is unwise and uninteresting and it has become a thing to do as of late, especially because it’s a way to fuel listicles, proffer fake-ass insider knowledge, and feign authority (the 25 bands you have to know this summer to be cool, and so on and so on); and it can go very, very wrong, such as when everybody was like, “this election is a wash” and had Hillary Clinton crushing Donald Trump when, well, it was quite the opposite in some ways at least. Trump, of course, didn’t receive the popular vote, and maybe got a bit of a boost from Comey, and possibly also by Russian hackers, though it is important to also note that holy shit man, how Clinton lost to this orange fascist is mind-bending. This is what happens when someone thinks something is in the bag and/or operates in a political system where it seems as though it becomes certain people’s turns to lead and holy jeez, just burn it all down and start over maybe?
Which brings me to my next point: Right now is, well, a moment, a scary one and a supremely fucked-up one where seeing and hearing how other people are thinking and feeling has been helpful and, at times, vital for getting through the day or week. On Friday, when I wrote this, the officer who shot and killed Philando Castile was found not guilty and protests surrounding the Grenfell Tower fire in London rightfully surged and the trial of Bill Cosby, charged with sexual assault, ended with a hung jury. All of this on top of the ambient dread of the Trump regime. But music helps this a little bit and here we’ve got 25 different writers, including some City Paper staffers and contributors and friends and even some big-shot music critics from around the country, choosing two songs each, a Baltimore song and a non-Baltimore song that capture what it feels like to be alive right now in Amerikkka. (Brandon Soderberg)
“Freetown Sound,” the latest from English composer and dancer Dev Hynes aka Blood Orange, is rightfully recognized as a fruit of Black Lives Matter. But the record sprawls; Hynes eliminates the imaginary division we often put up between the political and the personal. And in ‘Best To You,’ Hynes hones in on internalized pain while doing one of the things he does best: shining a light on a female vocalist, in this case, Empress Of, aka Lorely Rodriguez.
The song opens with Rodriguez’ vocals pouring out over Hynes’ velvety synths and even quieter cello: “Call it all for nothing/ but I’d rather be nothing to you/ than be a part of something/ of something that I didn’t do.” (For some reason I always imagine June Carter Cash singing this part.) Hynes’ voice comes in as the whimper of anxiety, “Did he even notice?” Or perhaps a voice of reason, “Do you really want to?”
And then, the song breaks out in a sprint by way of rapidly plinking marimba. It’s this frantic running away from yourself, fleeing to someone else, a lover, all so that you can abandon the emotional responsibility to yourself and adopt another as the object of all your labor—until you just disappear, at last. It’s so much simpler to commit to someone else than to yourself, to be the best to someone, maybe anyone, other than you. And if you’re tossed out—“I can’t be the girl you want but I can be the thing you throw away”—well, at least now you’re used up, your well of emotional energy dry so there’s no way to face yourself.
Listening to the song, I think about how I’ve let myself fade like this, and watched others do the same (sometimes it’s not a person but work, or some struggle or hope for justice, only to find the world always pushing back; see above on taking down the distinction between the political and the personal). “Selflessness” at times comes not so much out of dedication or even love, but out of the desperation to escape yourself. And so, intimacy—or mere sincerity—can feel forced, fragile: “Part of me is faking/ faking it all just for fun/ Part of me is breaking/ breaking apart when you come.”
Last summer, Baltimore’s relatively new punk trio released their first EP “Raw Ass Cleaning Punk”—which, incredibly, has an even better cover than title: Rising from the waters of a bidet, a knife-wielding, manicured hand approached a hairy ass (complete with three tattoos—a “tribal” tramp stamp, a smiling banana, and the words “VAPE DADDY”), as pendulous balls graze the seat. It quickly becomes apparent that yes, Bidet is all about cleaning out the bullshit and fucking up assholes. The record kicks off with ‘Hatecrime,’ which could easily be read as a response to the Pulse shooting in Orlando that occurred a month before the EP’s release. Specifically, it’s an indictment of the right wing that allows these mass murders to continue in the name of upholding the Second Amendment—a rock flung at “a romanticized vision of the nature of a violent crime.”
Vocalist Lyla Shlon’s searing tirade against American unGreatness resounds through Merm’s crunchy bass and the vigorous battering of Ben Martin’s drums like the screech of some very gay, very punk falcon as she plummets through the sky and sinks her talons into the neck of a stars-and-bars-emblazoned bald eagle, ripping out his dumb throat. “Caught up in false piety/ you’ve left the innocent to be slain,” Shlon shrieks, “selfishly preserving your legacy/ AMERICA WAS NEVER GREAT.”
She goes on to condemn the right’s unconvincing “mourning” of the victims, whose own freedoms and traditions they’ve tried again and again to squash: “We are nothing in life/ but you’ll pray when we’re dead.” I remember those feigned prayers as the greatest insult in the wake of Pulse, and a year later, when fear is up and hate crimes seem more and not less likely to happen, it still feels fresh. Bidet doesn’t reopen or patch up those wounds—they hold them out to be seen.
Maura Callahan is a Baltimore-born writer and painter. She received her education at City Paper, where she is the performing arts editor.
Snail Mail, ‘Thinning’
Growing up is never easy. Just ask F. Scott Fitzgerald, who famously described youth as “a form of chemical madness” in his 1922 novella ‘The Diamond As Big As The Ritz.’ Decades after the Jazz Age, his characterization has yet to become obsolete—if anything, the fever has intensified, spurned by the existential crises inherent in post-war, post-industrial, post-internet life. Given the rise of social media and the steady destigmatization of mental illness, you’d think that today’s young people wouldn’t feel so alone, especially when they have online communities like Tumblr to act as both sounding board and safe space.
But ennui is timeless, as is its expression. Few portraits prove as crushing or catchy as ‘Thinning,’ the standout single from three-piece pop-rockers Snail Mail. Where most teens cling to their youth, 17-year-old frontwoman Lindsey Jordan—an Ellicott City native who had to get her high school principal’s permission before taking the band on tour earlier this year—just wants to pull a Rip Van Winkle. “I wanna spend the entire year/ Just face down and on my own time,” she admits. “I wanna waste mine/ And spend the rest of it asking myself ‘Is this who you are?’” Jordan won’t have any pity, either: As the band swells around her in a warm, heady haze, she states her mantra with a shrug and a smile: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong.” Uplifted by the knowledge that their discontent is but a passing storm, Snail Mail construct their own private shelter, a sunny hibernation spot from whence they’ll eventually emerge fully-formed, ready to face life’s struggles. At this moment in time, the kids aren’t all right—so they lay prone, patiently awaiting the moment when all of that changes. If ‘Thinning’ serves as any indication, it’s a winning strategy.
(Sandy) Alex G, ‘Proud’
Over the past seven years, Philadelphia-based multi-instrumentalist Alex Giannascoli—better known as (Sandy) Alex G—has gone from a humble bedroom-pop auteur, to a bonafide rock impresario and erstwhile Frank Ocean collaborator (his limber, white-hot guitar licks are showcased on “Blonde’s” ‘Self Control’ and ‘White Ferrari’). That 24-year-old Giannascoli began his artistic journey in his teens only makes his story all the more special, and his growth all the more impressive. At last, in May, (Sandy) Alex G achieved his apotheosis with “Rocket,” a wildly ambitious collage of wispy folk ballads, forlorn instrumentals, auto-tuned experiments, and post-hardcore tantrums. It’s one of the most spectacular albums of recent memory—and yet, standing atop the steps of the indie rock pantheon, draped in the critics’ laurels, Giannascoli feels naked as ever. Naturally, he sings about it.
A jangly country-rock jam à la Grateful Dead, ‘Proud’ strips away the ornate frameworks typical of Giannascoli’s work to reveal a skeleton riddled with doubt. Against this calming backdrop, he prays for strength, purpose, clarity, success, unconditional love—and then shudders at what’ll happen if he fails. “If I sink/ I don’t wanna be the one to leave my baby out without no bottle to drink,” he frets, his anxiety creeping into the vernal soundscape. Eventually, even the song itself buckles under pressure; Giannascoli ponders what’ll happen if he fucks up, only to slide into a series of tormented oohs, a self-fulfilling prophecy. As ‘Proud’ drifts slowly out to sea, uncertainty emerges victorious—or does it? Just like that, Giannascoli fires up the opening plodding chord progression and ropes the song back in for an satisfyingly upbeat conclusion. Who knew one man’s war with himself could end on such a sweet note?
Zoe Camp is a journalist born and raised in Baltimore and currently based in Brooklyn, New York. After earning her degree in English/Creative Writing from Barnard College of Columbia University, Zoe spent two years working as a staff writer for Pitchfork from 2014-2016. Her work has been featured in publications such as Pitchfork, SPIN, the Village Voice, Noisey, The Fader, Brooklyn Magazine, Consequence of Sound, and others.
Glassine, ‘Day 1’
The worst days of this interminable year are suffused with a bitterly amused helplessness—a growing sense that our destiny is not only collective but fractal, out of control, totally fucked on levels we can only begin to comprehend. Civil liberties are quietly dismantled; decorum erodes; hysteria gives way to fatigue; any notion of diversion is rendered null and void. Beating a psychic retreat isn’t feasible—but then, it never (ever really) was. The Women’s March on Washington occurred immediately after Donald Trump’s inauguration, drawing as many as half a million people to the nation’s capital in peaceful protest; if Trump’s election represented a virulent infection, the march was a flood of placard-hoisting antibodies.
Walking among them, recording device in hand, was Baltimore’s Danny Greenwald. As Glassine, on 2015’s “No Stairway,” he’d buffed and massaged incidental captured-at-Guitar Center samples into washed-out, ambient marvels, somehow sewing together the chillest of imperceptibly-billowing chillout tents. Gentler considering its more tumultuous, crowd-sourced material, ‘Day 1’ is centered around a sunset-gorgeous acoustic guitar loop that suggests renewal, perpetual motion. Those elements Greenwald introduces to disrupt his aqueous reverie—scraps of laughter or conversation, slogans chanted en masse, drumbeats that pop like machine-gun fire—are reminders that despite evidence to the contrary, political power rests in the hands of regular people who demand to have our voices heard. Silence and fear is death; ‘Day 1’ sounds, very refreshingly, like lived life, and the mellow opposite of helplessness. Bonus: All proceeds from the sale of this song will be donated to Planned Parenthood of Baltimore.
Exercise doesn’t help; neither does social media. Political tension tends to accumulate in the upper spine area, begging for some sort of release. While “GHOSTS”—the sophomore album from Cleveland foursome Hiram-Maxim—was recorded between 2014 and 2016 and released this past April, ‘DROWN’ is the bruising catharsis we all need right now. The band huffs and puffs in pigfuck-flamethrower style, circling the wagons, stoking the pit; Dave Taga’s guitar damns, John Panza’s drums slam, Lisa Miralia’s electronics shove the song into a hellacious realm. But it’s singer Fred Gunn who blows down the proverbial house of cards, who leads the charge, whose bile can double as the vicarious cure for all that ails us. Early on, when the song is little more than snare hits and blazed chords, he whispers and murmurs as if addressing the inside of his collar: “I said things I won’t admit/ I told lies I put in print.” As Gunn’s hackles rise in concert with the surrounding maelstrom, what began as an interior monologue becomes snarling and exterior: “Rise above!/ Free the foe!/ Raise the flag!/ Eyes in front,” he howls, punctuating pauses with sarcastic woooooos, like Ric Flair fronting the Jesus Lizard. Unspecified yet genuine, Hiram-Maxim’s seething certainly feels like the truth. Play at White House-quaking volumes; let it set you free and gird you for the days and months ahead.
Raymond Cummings resides in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. He is the author of books including “Assembling the Lord,” “Crucial Sprawl,” “Class Notes,” “Notes on Idol,” and “Vigilante Fluxus.” His writing has appeared in SPIN, Pitchfork, Deadspin, Splice Today, and the Baltimore City Paper. “Bricolage Bop,” his next collection of poetry, will be published independently in 2018.
JPEGMAFIA & Freaky, ‘I Might Vote 4 Donald Trump’
Through a militant style of hip-hop that JPEGMAFIA puckishly labels “right wing trap,” composes a uniquely bone-chilling, hair-raising soundtrack to this right wing nightmare that is the Trump Administration and makes it all even more horrifying. He raps almost exclusively politics in his lyrics, preferring pugnacity instead of timidity in the face of racism, police brutality, and authoritarianism in 2017. The horror of reality is frightening enough, but JPEG magnifies the distress with sonic textures like blown out bass, ominous whirring, and disorienting glitches to create a gloom and doom atmosphere.
JPEGMAFIA (J.M. Giordano/City Paper)
‘I Might Vote 4 Donald Trump’ begins with JPEG’s Llamadon crew cohort, Freaky, boasting, “I might vote for Donald Trump/ Just to say I did it/ I might blindly fall into a group of friends full of bigots.” Out of breath and voice cracking, JPEG continues later, “I don’t think y’all understand/ But I’m tryna bring back The South.” You might have acquaintances, coworkers, or even worse, family members, who say this kind of bullshit. Racist, homophobic, sexist people who really think they’re gonna Make America Great Again. JPEG amplifies the absurdity of this way of thinking with his politically charged lyrics and hostile beats. JPEG’s music saves us from losing our focus in the battle against the injustices of this administration.
Thundercat feat. Kendrick Lamar, ‘Walk On By’
Thundercat’s “Drunk” is one of the most stunning and complex productions so far this year. In signature Thundercat fashion, the visionary artist playfully re-imagines classic jazz, hip-hop, and pop music into his own compelling compositions. The third album from the Los Angeles-based bassist packs 23 songs into only 52 minutes—a sonic stream of consciousness that cohesively threads existential musings through modern day worries and juvenile jokes.
Thundercat has an endearing way of finding humor in terrible things, a skill worth its weight in gold in 2017. “If you’re talking about being black, it’s very difficult,” Thundercat admits in an interview with FACT Magazine earlier this year. “Being black has always been a job of having to prove your worth. Nobody will understand the feeling of that unless they are that, because the world has its way of dealing with things. There’s a joke I always have when stuff is getting weird: ‘It’s because I’m black, isn’t it?’ I do think you have to laugh to keep from crying as a black man.”
But ‘Walk On By,’ an unadorned soul track featuring frequent collaborator Kendrick Lamar, abandons lighthearted, playful antics for a more melancholy meditation on rejection, revenge, and being black in America. Thundercat’s heartbreaking falsetto hook (“At the end of it all/ No one wants to drink alone/ Baby that’s how it goes/ Don’t walk away from me”) evokes universal feelings of lost love and desperation, while Lamar raises the stakes, focusing on a dilemma that is unique to black youth in the U.S.: “Nine times out of ten/ Young niggas are nine or ten/ When the line becomes thin: Be a killer or a fireman.”
Lamar laments the perils of street life, where sometimes revenge gives way to regret—an emotional burden that is almost unbearable in the face of all this disenfranchisement and injustice.
Fueled by Red Bull and chicken nuggets, Casey Embert is a freelance journalist for the City Paper and Washington City Paper. She is a Baltimore club music historian, dance party devotee, and future beat fanatic.
Horse Lords, ‘Truthers’
‘Truthers’ is not a tune about your uncle who believes that jet aircrafts dispense airborne toxins, or that Barack Obama is a Muslim. The title, like that of so many musical compositions, appears to have been chosen at something close to random. (Inquiries to a bandmember about its provenance were met with disavowals of any intended significance.) But it does feel very much of this confounding moment, though, no?
The bright burble of four instruments sounding like eight or 10 in their tricky syncopation somehow brings to mind the oversaturated nature of smartphone-enabled omnidiscourse, the constant pelt of hot takes and Kickstarter links and photos of tacos and sputtering misspelled outrage. The floor of drone that their instrumental mass makes rings out like a week of dings, buzzes, knocks, and other alerts all compressed into a tidy five minutes or so. The circular nature of the interlocking and overlapping instrumental parts makes you feel a bit like you’re living in your own sequence from “Koyaanisqatsi,” rushing about in heedless lockstep haste toward whatever tedious goal seems very important to you right this minute.
But it’s a reassuring sound, in the end, don’t you think? If this new, complex lattice can rock a club, you can adapt to a new metabolism, a new form of living. If these bits of trance-y blues and Congolese rumba and Berklee-worthy time sigs and Evan Parker tootling can form this brilliant new thing, then perhaps human culture to this point hasn’t just amounted to heaps of colorful garbage rounding the last turn on the belt before it hits the incinerator. If this nerdy amalgam can be born, can be embraced, then perhaps there’s hope for the world. Or at least we’ll have something entrancing to listen to if there isn’t.
Nails, ‘You Will Never Be One of Us’
Metal = America. The former, too, holds certain truths to be self-evident: Cliff-era Metallica, Bathory patches, if you need to swirl the “circle pit” finger onstage you don’t deserve a circle pit, etc. It, too, contains multitudes within all those black tees and multi-band bills and online networks. And it, too, defines itself as much by opposition as by inclusion.
The polarized American politics of the past few years have an analog in the politics of metal. For every ‘head ready to embrace the Urban-Outfitters-ready metalgaze of Deafheaven there’s a tr00 kvlt diehard who’d rather, well, die. (See David Hall’s recent op-ed/screed, “Metal is the Fucking Worst.”) And just as 2016 began the countdown to a referendum on what kind of country America wanted to be, roaring SoCal hardcore band Nails released ‘You Will Never Be One of Us.’
The title says it all, but the wall of pummel that is a Nails song says it a lot harder. Blastbeats bowl you over before the band switchbacks to a churning “midtempo” faster than many bands’ top speed, while singer/guitarist Todd Jones spits the chorus: “No truth, no trust/ You will never be one of us/ Soaked in disgust/ You will never be one of us.” The song slams shut at just over 90 seconds.
Jones is on record saying that the song’s rage is aimed at what our forefathers used to call “posers”—“fuck your trends/ fuck your friends,” he projectile-gargles at one point. He even enlists several members of extreme-metal royalty, from Full of Hell’s Dylan Walker to Baroness’ John Baizley, to open the track by intoning the title phrase, cosigning the us-vs.-them. It’s a scene fight song in the form a smear of blood and sweat and spit spelling “KEEP OUT.”
And it feels like a contender for our new national anthem, here in what might be the most divisive year in this country since 1862. It feels good to feel like you’re on the right side of history, but the divisions that separate the camps seem ever more irreconcilable, and that’s as ominous as Jones’ intro guitar squeals. No truth, no trust. You will never be one of us.
Lee Gardner is a former editor of City Paper and has been writing about music for more than half his life now.
Lower Dens, ‘Real Thing’
Like their fellow retro-surrealists David Lynch and Lana Del Rey, Lower Dens know how to find resonance not at the heart of things, but on their surface. Their 2015 album “Escape From Evil” saw lead singer Jana Hunter posing behind different paper-thin masks as though they were Hunter’s own flesh and blood. Hunter continues that dark play-acting on 2016’s ‘Real Thing,’ where they slide into the skin of a woman leaving behind her one true love for the gloss of a night on the town. “I want to be young/ I want to dance with abandon/ And I don’t care about the real thing.”
Behind Hunter’s voice, tinny synthesizers and distended guitars stink up a sickly miasma. The effect is deeply, deliberately out of step with contemporary music production—Hunter even lets loose the spoken word line, “I love you but it’s not enough,” as though aiming it at a chiseled jawline from beneath a slinky chiffon veil. Lower Dens revels in that ‘80s prom shit, rolling around in it like taffy, like quicksand. They’re not the only band to smear vaseline over the lens of their camcorders, but they are among the best at tapping into the fear that the past is not at all how it’s been remembered. There are no demogorgons in their basements, but there is a hollow where their happy-ever-after should be. That terrific guy Hunter’s character is married to barely haunts the song after his first mention. Instead, he gets tossed aside in favor of a bright and shiny husk. We don’t remember days upon days of steady love. We remember nights whose empty images press into us like so much costume jewelry.
Jay Som, ‘1 Billion Dogs’
Melina Duterte’s second album as Jay Som, “Everybody Works,” doesn’t kick into high gear until ‘1 Billion Dogs’ hits you like a fist. All the breathy, moody textures that swirled around the album’s first three tracks curl up into a punch within the song’s first second. The way it comes crashing in sideways, it’s hard to tell where Duterte’s voice ends and her bristling guitars begin. That she’s able to pack such a cannonball without raising her voice much beyond a whisper is testament to her command over her craft. A shakier songwriter might break into a yell; Duterte lets her arrangements do the screaming.
It’s hard to land a guitar solo in 2017, but Duterte’s cross-channel freakout colors in the shapes left blank by her minimal lyrics. “My head is through the ceiling/ Going up, up, up, up, up, up, up,” she sings just before letting loose on the strings. The song’s instrumental coda unfurls like a crazed daddy longlegs teaching itself to walk. At first it’s chaotic, unhinged, snapping back and forth from the left channel to the right, barely meshing with the song’s key. Then it finds its feet, falls in line with the rhythm guitar, repeats Duterte’s melody from the “up, up, up” refrain. Few songs so accurately capture the kind of breakdown you’re really not supposed to have, the kind you keep under wraps while you go about your day. Even fewer do it with such precise tunefulness.
Sasha Geffen is a staff writer with MTV News whose work has also appeared in the Chicago Reader, Pitchfork, Real Life, and others.
Jacob Mayberry aka Black Chakra, ‘Battle Poet’
If you haven’t been following poetry recently well, you’re fuckin’ up plain and simple. From pop-up performances, places in concerts, Tender F.M., open mics, and Slammageddon, Baltimore breeds good poetry and is a place where poets can thrive if they try. If you have been following, you probably recognize Jacob Mayberry aka Black Chakra, part of 2016’s winning National Poetry Slam Team and 2017’s winning Southern Fried Poetry Slam team, and coach of Woodlawn High (the high school team that won Louder Than A Bomb this year). He’s a damn hard worker and this year he’s been putting up videos from his “Battle” poem series in collaboration with The Mighty Herd Studio. In ‘Battle Poet,’ Black Chakra creates entendre on top of entendre, metaphor on metaphor ending in the central thesis of the piece, “I’m a battle poet/ I battle for my life/ every time I write,” a line that perfectly encapsulates the Baltimore approach to writing. Every day we write poems, they’re as much to save ourselves as they are to saving each other, and there’s a reason why one the kindest, hardworking, and dedicated to his craft writers in Baltimore is being met with so much success, because he truly is battling every day to create meaningful work on and off the page.
Jamila Woods, ‘Holy’
Jamila Woods’ ‘Holy’ has got to be the self-love anthem of the year. In the chorus Woods reiterates “woke up this morning/ with my mind/ set on loving me,” a direct call to remember that despite the negativity of life, one thing we always have control over is the ability to love ourselves. This world is increasingly hard, there’s an immeasurable amount of reasons that it is easy to be down and depressed through that and in the way that locally our poets are battling when we write to keep ourselves afloat nationally writers and poets are keeping themselves afloat by saying “Yes. This world is fucking awful, but I am beautiful and I will not let it keep me down.” In the video for ‘Holy,’ we see excellent choreography encapsulating these feelings and they almost feel like it’s gotta be true, for the viewer too. “I’m not lonely/ I’m alone/ and I’m holy/ by my own.”
Alain Ginsberg (they/them) is a writer and performer. They have work published or forthcoming with Scum Magazine, Shabby Doll House, and elsewhere, as well as two small collections, Until The Cows Come Home (Elation Press, 2016) and Loathe/Love/Lathe (Nostrovia! Press, 2017). Alain is a Taurus and a barista.
score|swayze, ‘Cut Mane’
Some critics tend to identify the discomfiting pang of nostalgia in tracks meant to evoke the rueful passage of time, but I never feel so old as when I hear something that makes me feel young again, something that instantaneously transports me back to the comforts of youth. Before the drinking problem, the creaking bones, and the perpetual fear that I’ve forgotten something important. ‘Cut Mane,’ the lead single from score|swayze’s “LOVE: A Documentary!,” instantly reminded me of what it’s like to wake up and not wonder where you misplaced a whole goddamn decade.
The first time I heard this track, it wasn’t on Soundcloud or Bandcamp. I’d been listening to score for the last three or four years, since he was recording as Akmar Shabazz, so when he was putting “LOVE: A Documentary!” together, he hit my inbox with a pair of preview jams. Truth be told, I barely even remember the second one, because I spent the next 72 hours playing ‘Cut Mane’ on repeat. Produced by score himself, the track is an infectious little slice of cloud rap, driven by nebulous synths and tight drums. He shouts out Wiz Khalifa’s “Kush and OJ” collaborator Cardo on the purposefully overlong intro before dispensing with a smorgasbord of nerdy references to pro wrestling and Twitter culture, all laid out with a laidback swagger. It reminds me of being in my teens, reading Scratch magazine, trawling the Star Trak message boards, and convincing myself if I could just figure out FruityLoops, I too could wear ugly trucker hats and hang out with Snoop Dogg like Pharrell Williams before me.
Years removed from that pipe dream and surprisingly comfortable with deciding whether or not a movie is good or not on the internet, I come back to ‘Cut Mane’ the way a fiend returns to the rock. Some days more than others, I need a quick fix of that pure rush, back when potential was yet to be wasted, when I and everyone else my age were sure we’d conquer the whole fucking world. That world may be a mess right now, but it comforts me knowing score and the other young artists he works with, like Action Bastard, still might inherit it.
Lil Uzi Vert, ‘XO Tour Llif3’
If you peep the Apple Music streaming charts, the top two tracks of late have been Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Humble’ and that weird Daddy Yankee track where Bieberveli transmogrifies his exponentially skeevy Latina fetishization into the world’s most embarrassing Spanglish. But hovering beneath them is the year’s true radio gem, a certified banger that sounds just as good in the club as it does from a smartphone’s tinny, bottom-firing speaker, muffled under your pillow after an unscheduled depression nap. ‘XO Tour Llif3,’ the breakout hit from endearing mumble rap oddball Lil Uzi Vert, is the perfect song for the first half of 2017. It’s a jack of all trades kind of pop song.
For the recently uncoupled, Uzi exorcising some post-break up demons rings raw and true, but in his hypnotic depiction of self-destruction as anthemic battle cry makes Future’s molly lullabies sound like a bored quarterback spiking his own pro punch, faking sad for the aesthetic. Taken somewhat literally, the hook—“Push me to the edge/ All my friends are dead” —is about as accurate a eulogy rap radio possesses for the growing number of youths lost to mental illness, senseless violence, or death by cop, but its more accurate reading, where the dead friends in question are presidents, works just as well. A subwoofer rattler espousing the nihilistic futility of late capitalism is both 1) without a doubt the logical endpoint of hip-hop materialism, tracing a sullen, unsurprising line from the bling era to the current trap one and 2) timely AF. Really, it’s just great to have a song so undeniable as to work in all terrains. You can sing it in the shower while procrastinating getting ready for the day job you wish your passions precluded you from having to work or you can turn it up to drown out whatever the fuck Trump is talking about on TV.
Dominic Griffin is a pop culture polymath who lives on the internet. He writes about film, music, television, comics, and professional wrestling anywhere that will support his unhealthy obsessions with Drake, Michael Mann, and the X-Men.
Wet Brain, ‘Scum’
I can’t stand most rock. It’s a shame, because I used to love it, and used to believe in it like some people believe in gods or political systems. But for so long rock has plateaued while hip-hop and electronic music have continuously evolved. Rock feels like a parody of itself, which is sad, since it can transmit rage, isolation, and desire with a unique kind of immediacy and intensity that other kinds of music can’t touch. When rock is on, it’s really on, but when it’s off, it’s terrible.
Wet Brain, though, is really on. They play sludgy, stoned, surf punk with undertones of metal and riot grrrl, and they hit hard as hell. ‘Scum’ is a take down of a lying partner. Scummy is how the singer feels when she finds used condoms in the trash, evidence that she has been cheated on. But the title also recalls radical feminist Valerie Solanas’ “S.C.U.M. Manifesto” and listening to this song, you get why she dreamed of a Society for Cutting Up Men. It paints a bleak image of a man, confronted with his own lies, gaslighting his partner. “Did you think of me when you came?” screams Madi Shapiro, one of the band’s two singers. “Tell yourself that I’m to blame/ Justify your actions by calling me insane/ Try to make me feel ashamed.” Wet Brain’s album “Not Sorry” is full of songs like this: loud, heavy snapshots of young women living in Baltimore surrounded by fucked up men, working obnoxious jobs, contemplating bleak futures, popping antihistamines and morning after pills.
Wet Brain (Brendan Foster Fieldhouse/For City Paper)
Seeing Wet Brain open for The Coathangers at the Metro Gallery in April made me fall in love with rock again. Wet Brain, with those two heavy-as-bricks basses, surfer guitar riffs, hit-you-in-the-chest drumming, multidimensional vocals, and confrontational lyrics, reminds me why I loved rock to begin with, how far wrong it’s gone, and how divine it is when a band does it right.
Hurray for the Riff Raff, ‘Hungry Ghost’
Last December, a dance party fire in Oakland’s Ghost Ship killed 36 people. Days later, Baltimore City kicked the Bell Foundry’s residents out, citing fire safety issues, and displacing more artists of color in Station North’s march toward gentrification. The pain resonated in DIY arts and music scenes worldwide and especially in LGBTQ communities, who were still shaken from the Pulse massacre in Orlando and a spike in violence against trans people, especially Black trans women.
Hurray for the Riff Raff’s ‘Hungry Ghost’ video dropped like a soothing balm to ease some of that pain just six weeks after the Ghost Ship fire. “I’ve been a lonely girl,” Alynda Segarra sings into the camera, in a shirt repping her Puerto Rican roots and holding a rosary, “but I’m ready for the world.” The droning synth sweeps loudly across the mix, dreamy and defiant, while live drums run through filters that make them sound digital. Images of beautiful partygoers dancing in a warehouse are interspersed with Segarra at an altar covered with prayer candles and images of the dead. It’s a reminder of how the joy and resilience of queer communities are inseparable from mourning, isolation, and rage. ‘Hungry Ghost’ brilliantly weaves those emotions together into a song that you can dance and cry to.
While the poppiness of this song is a step away from the old timey folk blues that Hurray for the Riff Raff is known for, it’s consistent in one important way. Whether she’s singing about New Orleans shooting deaths in ‘St. Roch Blues’ or violence against women in ‘The Body Electric,’ Segarra has spent her career commenting on life or death issues in a way that is poetic and visceral but never polemic or preachy. It’s the best kind of protest music, powerfully addressing the wrongs of the day while sounding timeless, and ‘Hungry Ghost’ was the song many of us needed in that moment.
Mark Gunnery is a musician, journalist, writer, and producer for The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU.
Amirror, ‘Runnin Away’
I first heard Amirror perform this song at a Kahlon event during the now defunct First Fridays in Station North (RIP) last summer. I remember being so impressed by this woman and her giant purple afro, guitar, and two background singers. Her acoustic set bought tears to my eyes, I think because this was my first summer back in Baltimore after a life-changing year in Brazil. And I didn’t know it then, but I’d run away to Brazil again the following fall with this song playing in my headphones as the wheels of my airplane pulled up and I set out on part two of my nomadic adventures. A violin, horns, a kick drum, and repetitive chords give this song a New Orleans second line feel. But the lyrics make you want to physically put this song in your left breast pocket so that it’s close to your heart for those nights when you’re far from home and forgetting why you left in the first place. This song has been playing in the background as I’ve traveled through winding forests, coastal shores, and urban landscapes. It gives me that anxious energy one needs to make a big leap from one city to another. Running away is always messy and chaotic. Airlines keep making it harder to transport goods so you can never actually bring everything you think you’ll need. Waiting for the train to come. Going through TSA. Hoping you don’t get seated next to a loud couple who are eating Vienna Sausages throughout the ride. These are a few scenarios that ‘Runnin Away’ can give some respite to. Just put it on repeat, breathe deep, and before you know it, you’ll be in that magical place where all your problems have disappeared. You can also play this song six months later when all those same problems have reappeared and you find yourself wanting to run away, yet again.
NAO, ‘We Don’t Give A’
I’m conflicted by this song. It’s a stone cold jam in the vein of Janet Jackson during her “Control” era. There’s even a palpitating heartbeat rhythm that opens the song. But the lyrics fall short. Perhaps it’s the concept that seems dated and shallow at this time in the world. ‘We Don’t Give A’ is about interracial love, presumably the kind between a black and white person because she says, “We all got jungle fever”—and that’s the part where I’m just like “nah.” We all can’t actually have “jungle fever,” it’s literally a slur used when white people wanted to get it on with people from the darker continent. And given the way that interracial relationships can be troubled and traumatizing, it makes me wonder if NAO has ever seen “Get Out.” I’m also bored with the idea that interracial relationships are always about white people and non-whites. Like can we switch it up and get a song about Asian and black love or something? Plus, there’s this element of danger associated with it, as she says “I think we should tell them, we don’t give a—” as if she’s being forced by society to secretly date her white beau. Interracial romance has become trendy, part of “woke” becoming a brand basically, especially between white and black people, and the song feels ultimately safe. The more dangerous scenario would be a cis man dating a trans woman. Now that’s a musical scenario that deserves a song with a beat as funky as this one. I don’t know, maybe I’m a hater. But this song is just one of the many things I can only now halfway enjoy as my own obsession with race and gender relations destroy everything I once loved.
Nia Hampton is a traveling writer and filmmaker, but was also a child performer and that’s probably why she’s a bit off.
Eric Allen Hatch
Ami Dang, ‘Satgur Hoye Dayaal’
As Baltimore’s music scene continues to grow from one that could snugly fit in the space of a dank warehouse elevator to consistently one of the best and broadest in the country, perhaps its greatest pleasures are provided by artists who probe the points of intersection between disparate genres, finding new dimensions of sound as boundaries collapse and fade away. One of 2016’s best such records here, and therefore anywhere, was Ami Dang’s “Uni Sun.” Dang’s record draws at times from texts of 15th century Sikh hymns for raga- and psych-inflected electronic pop, and this duo of consecutive tracks epitomizes the record’s sublime ear-wormy addictiveness. ‘Satgur Hoye Dayaal’ begins minimally with a hypnotic drone and pulse, its mantra-like vocals slowly growing more insistent and sitar lines swelling as triumphant drumming provided by Celebration’s David Bergander builds in the mix, resulting in a kaleidoscopic swirl of psychedelic sound. The complex mood conjured by this track sets up the pure pop release of the Schwarz co-produced ‘Arrange It,’ a dancefloor-ready jam brimming with beautiful melodies and ethereal vocals. The record as a whole has an astonishing ability to strike notes both calming and transporting, in this exquisite duo of tunes locating its emotional and aesthetic centers. Both tracks are layered, unfurling with rich rewards upon repeat listens. No other tape (literally speaking; comes with a download card!) had me hitting rewind more often over the last year.
Danny Brown, ‘Ain’t It Funny’
By and large, “Atrocity Exhibition” offers Detroit rapper Danny Brown meeting his new label, UK-based and IDM-specializing Warp Records, at an aural midpoint with intriguing results. Its unrelenting standout track ‘Ain’t It Funny,’ however, occupies something less than an ocean away from early ‘90s Bomb Squad. Sirens blare and blips squeak and squeal as Brown feverishly stomps through the mental and behavioral consequences of cyclical self-medication, suggesting a ‘Welcome to the Terrordome’-derived, pill-popping manifesto. There’s dark humor in his tongue-twisting, manic litany of drug upon drug that only accelerate the anxiety and paranoia the last drug was supposed to abate—but there’s also something empowering, a hitherto unknown, highly specialized brand of anthemic self-destruction. ‘Ain’t It Funny’ nails the liberation that comes in articulating the specific way your mind-body dynamic has created an inescapable trap, not to mention the kinship that comes from acknowledging moments of overlapping self-defeatism. Sure, I’m burning out, Brown seems to say, and sure, I’m going down, but we’re all burning out and going down together. Brown makes great start-to-finish albums, and yet if you’re one of those who feel his deliriously unhinged delivery (which admittedly makes B-Real’s sound positively dulcet and mellifluous by comparison) goes down best in small doses, ‘Ain’t It Funny’ offers all the strengths of his vocals in capsule form, conveniently married to the record’s most attention-getting beat.
Eric Allen Hatch is the director of programming for MdFF, the organization behind the annual Maryland Film Festival and the year-round, three-screen Parkway Theatre. When not doing that he can be found photoshopping Paul Blart into transgressive art-house films on Twitter and IG at @ericallenhatch.
50 Foot Woman, ‘Came So Far for Beauty’
One small consolation of Leonard Cohen’s death on Nov. 7, 2016 is that he never had to see Nov. 8, 2016. Another is that it inspired the creation of “Last Year’s Man: A Baltimore Tribute to Leonard Cohen,” released in April on Bandcamp as a benefit for Planned Parenthood of Maryland. Among the album’s 21 local contributors are a few familiar names and many bedroom troubadours, too—proof that Cohen’s reputation as the consummate songwriter’s songwriter will always bring more than the usual suspects in front the mic.
I’m intrigued by the non-canonical song choices on tributes like “Last Year’s Man.” Sure, no one’s going to stop you from doing ‘Hallelujah,’ since you’re tall enough to ride the ride, and who am I to discourage wholesome experimentation on something from “Songs of Love and Hate,” but let me meet the persons who called dibs on a song as unexpected as ‘Came So Far For Beauty.’ They are 50 Foot Woman, it turns out, a project of local artists Rahne Alexander and Christina Reitemeyer. There are no liner notes to explain why ‘Came So Far For Beauty,’ but the deliberateness of the choice comes through in the recording more than any other quality.
Alexander and Reitemeyer take Cohen’s melody from the smoky piano bar of the original to a coffeehouse open mic, much as Jeff Buckley took ‘Hallelujah’ from the Greek Orthodox laser tag arena of its recording and left it in a thousand backyard weddings. It’s the lack of pretension and pretending that makes this version so compelling. While Cohen sings the song in that almost wry manner he used when musing over past exploits (the debauchery of ‘Chelsea Hotel No. 2’ is recalled in the phrase “I stormed the old casino/for the money and the flesh”), 50 Foot Woman planes off the veneer of those lyrics to reveal their grain. You can hear the distance travelled, however different the journeys may have been.
I’m grateful for what Leonard Cohen left us, for musicians in this town who put together “Last Year’s Man” for Planned Parenthood, and for 50 Foot Woman hear it the way it sounds to them. I’m ready for the passion. Aren’t you?
Sacred Paws, ‘Rest’
What I’m chasing is a song that’s not “sugary” or like “bubblegum,” necessarily, but something closer to a glass of R.W. Knudsen Just Cranberry juice, served neat, with its laboratory-grade tartness and “generous nourishment . . . running through my tubes,” as the Scottish poet Ivor Cutler said of Spam. Scotland’s been on my mind lately, too, which led me to Eilidh Rodgers and Rachel Aggs’ Glasgow band Sacred Paws. ‘Rest,’ from their debut album “Strike a Match,” couldn’t sound less tired for its title. It perfectly suits what I would call the “relaxed frenzy” that I aim to achieve most days of 2017, a state characterized by pleasing fits of mental and physical overactivity that cause me to feel like I’m making GREAT USE OF MY TIME before the whole shithouse goes up in flames.
“You might say/ I should slow down, take a break,” Aggs sings, “but I say/ only I know what this really takes.” It’s like a pump-up jam celebrating centeredness and knowledge of self, or at least it’s a great song to hear while running. Because of running, not because they sound alike, I can’t hear ‘Rest’ without thinking of another song by a Glasgow band I used listen to a lot when I hit the pavement as a young man in a hurry: Orange Juice’s ‘Flesh of My Flesh,’ with its horn bit that sound like you’ve reached the top of the steps at the Philadelphia Art Museum when in reality you’ve just softly crushed a briquette of horse manure along the road behind the Frederick Fairgrounds. (But that was then!)
The song’s outward, not inward, implications resonate with me this year, too. It reminds me how important it is not to stand in the way of people you care about when they’re trying to do something that they care about, because they probably know what they’re doing. Like Aggs says: only you know when you’ve done your best, right? Get someone else to rein you in this year. I’ll be out here drinking juice and hurrying.
Andrew Holter is a contributor to City Paper and a landscaper.
Abdu Ali, ‘I’m Alive’
There’s isn’t much I can honestly say about this song, which I produced, from Abdu Ali. It reminds me of some of the best times I’ve ever had in Baltimore. ‘I’m Alive’ was made in the basement of a house near The Paper Moon, during the creation of my album “BLACK BEN CARSON.” I was just creating constantly. Really pushing myself to do things that haven’t been thought of yet. I love the idea of merging the new with the old, so this song takes raw African drumming and beats it down with 808s and a Coltrane sample. That’s the future. That’s what the future is going to be. At least in my mind. In the ‘80s if u were to judge by movies and media in general I guess people thought that by the time 2017 rolled around we’d all be in flying cars and jet packs. Teleporting to work and eating full meals in a single capsule. But the reality is much different. The cars don’t fly but we have the web and smartphones social media etc. getting information across the world faster than ever. But life isn’t some futuristic wasteland. It’s a merger of old ideas with new. Same shit, diff presentation. I think that’s what this song represents. In 2050 when u go into the Crown u might hear nothing but songs that sound like this. It’s completely possible and I’m proud to say that Abdu and I made something people can enjoy in 2050 that still will sound fresh.
PARTYNEXTDOOR, ‘Kehlani’s Freestyle’
‘Kehlani’s Freestyle’ is the first song I really enjoyed after I moved to Baltimore in 2015. I had no friends when I got here and no enemies either so I was kind of just existing. This song kind of became a companion to me. Went with me on runs. Rode with me in the car. It’s a truly deceptive song. Because on the surface it seems like a regular run of the mill R&B track. But after repeated listens I discover something more sinister. The way the synths and melody bounce around and just kind of linger around while the drums swallow up the entire track and PARTY just groans about Kehlani. I never got into Kehlani—there’s nothing wrong with her but her, music just does nothing for me, so this song pulls me closer to her as an artist then she ever did. I don’t even think PARTY and Kehlani had broken up when he released this. He just dropped a song about the girl he was wit simply because—that’s incredible. Everything about this track is incredible: the cover art, the production, the lyrics about heartbreak and insecurity. It’s the most millennial song possibly ever. Even to people who don’t like R&B if u wrote the lyrics on a wall somewhere, there would be yuppies at Complex crying as they read them. It’s weird that a song like this was deemed a SoundCloud throwaway track by PARTY. Because it means everything to me. It hasn’t really influenced my music any and it didn’t do anything really new musically but sometimes that doesn’t need to happen. A song can simply just be damn good and nothing more. We don’t deserve PARTYNEXTDOOR or his durag.
My name is JPEGMAFIA I’ma homesick veteran rapper producer. I came to Baltimore three years ago and since then the city has adopted me as one of their own. My only goal in life is to be happy making music. We’ll see how it goes.
Sneaks, ‘Look Like That’
‘Look Like That’ is a song as deceptively specific as its title. It sounds familiar but feels alien. A lurching bassline that singes like a laser on Charlie Spacer’s mothership. The mechanized drums of a John Carpenter theme. The dispassionate delivery of an early Factory Records group. It wouldn’t sound out of place in the post-punk revival of the early aughts or the Italo-disco one a few years later. Yet the multi-talented Sneaks, aka vocalist, bassist, and drum-machine operator Eva Moolchan, sands those signifiers down to their subatomic level, expanding the space around them until the listener is swallowed by the void. The lyrics, too, pose a circular answer to what seems like a straightforward question.
“What do they look like?”
“They look like that.”
Moolchan both asks and responds to this question like she’s giving a deposition in the spirit of Lil Wayne firing back an “I don’t recall.” What “that” is never becomes clear, but the impending presence of whoever “they” are does. Starting with their “soles,” in what initially seems like a dance, and ending with their teeth, reanimating the body from the bottom up to a self-actualizing response, their increasing militance leaves the asker in peril. A division “in two” is broken with a “tango over to you” that sounds more like Marlene Dietrich crossing enemy lines in a spy film than an invitation to dance. When paired with the pared down, bare bones instrumentation, the result is simultaneously transparent and opaque. The gaze is not merely obstructed but infiltrated, what is seen is undone by what is only thought to be understood. What’s old is new in part because we might have taken it for granted.
Jlin, ‘Black Origami’
Footwork, like techno and other genres before it, launched from black communities against the powers that be, offers a grassroots reconfiguration of material conditions either neglected or directly sabotaged by our nation’s great history of systemic racism and class war. Its solutions, from the Underground Resistance to RP Boo, tend to look to the stars when options on earth have been exhausted. Footwork, in particular, with criss-crossing beats built like a labyrinth, puts forth a fortified front that thus far has proved much harder to colonize than its predecessors.
Jlin aka Jerrilyn Patton, a former steelworker from Gary, Indiana—a rust belt neighbor with footwork capital Chicago, home of mentor and friend RP Boo– offers a particularly transformative counterpoint to structural stagnation. ‘Black Origami,’ the title track of her new album, even reads like a manifesto for it. The narrative, generally, bridges her past banding steel in 12-16 hour shifts with the carefully woven industrial clatter of her music. Jlin, in an interview on Electronic Beats, countered that, saying she “doesn’t hear it” since her “music was an escape from that place.”
What speaks to that escape, in particular, is how globalized the clatter sounds. Look past the industrial signifiers and you’ll hear diplomatic overtures to anywhere from India to the Baltics. Indiana, the home state of Christian cyborg Mike Pence, is where Trump scammed the country with factory jobs “saved” from outsourcing before attacking the factory’s union boss for calling bullshit. Instead of globalization’s tendency to pit the poorest parts of the world against each other for the opportunity to be exploited, ‘Black Origami’ sounds like an anti-colonial rallying cry from a unified Global South.
Adam Katzman is a writer/grad student living in Brooklyn and is exactly how you’d imagine given that description, except even more Jewish.
Future Islands, ‘Through the Roses’
It’s possible that I heard this song for the first time at last summer’s Fields Festival, where a bunch of us from Baltimore and elsewhere camped out in Darlington, Maryland for a long weekend of art, music, film, confusion, nudity, and more. I can’t remember for sure, partially because Future Islands didn’t allow photography or video during their performance of new material. And my whole memory of the weekend (and Future Islands’ performance in particular) is blurry, laden with booze and weed, but exuberant: The sun is low but has yet to sink for the day as Samuel T. Herring crouches down on stage, as if to gesture, to visually mirror the way his gravelly voice at times scrapes away at some dark, deep basement floor.
In my daydreams about that weird weekend, I have this useless, amorphous guilt about it all—in retrospect that time feels to me like some naive escapism. Just a few weeks after Fields, my dad would die, unexpectedly. And then shortly after that Trump would be elected, proudly putting on display the ugliest ideologies that undergird America. This huge, combined rush of grief, plus some more humdrum heartbreaks that have happened since, are the things that reverberate to me when Herring sings, “It’s not easy/ just being human” on ‘Through the Roses,’ the middle song on Future Islands’ latest, “The Far Field.”
Future Islands (J.M. Giordano/City Paper)
The song feels like it’s almost at its wits’ end: The lyrics are dark and at times bleakly searching for a way out (“In the weak of my soul/ The temptation to look inside my wrist, it grows”), while Herring mentions weeping, the pressures of visibility, and a cyclical fear of letting the fear take over. If this pile-up of pain that Herring sings of—which here seems deeply personal and private—feels familiar to you, maybe you know how it can make you want to shut people out and turn all the way inward. But at the same time here, there’s a heavy humility (“I’m no better than you and I’m scared/ just searching for truth”), a tender acknowledgement of someone who, Herring sings, “[sees] me/ through the roses” and possibly helps to shoulder the hurt.
I keep picturing collective grief as this wavering structure, made up of little sticks that balance delicately on each other, creating a shape that changes as it needs to, as needs for support shift. In a similar fashion, here on this song, the guitars, drums, keys and synths pick up the pace a bit and push against some of the fear and weakness that Herring alludes to, lifting the whole thing up: Towards the end of ‘Through the Roses,’ a sparkly synth swells above a resolute beat as Herring repeats with a dire vulnerability, “We can pull through/ together.”
Priests, ‘Pink White House’
Let us rewind the perpetual bullshit nightmare that we have found ourselves in since late at night on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, in the United States of America. Let us go back to about a week prior to that date, when D.C. band Priests released the video for their single ‘Pink White House,’ from their album “Nothing Feels Natural,” which would come out a week after Trump was inaugurated. The song is a fast-paced but also winding four-minute-long trek through the tornado of American materialistic desire and politics and the maintenance of the status quo: “Anything you want, anyone you want, anywhere you want,” Katie Alice Greer sings at the beginning and end of the song.
Speaking of the status quo, at the time of this song’s release, most of us assumed Hillary Clinton would probably win the election—perhaps what Priests were alluding to with this song title: A woman in the White House is not automatically going to be better for our country nor, by extension, for the rest of the world. But a woman in the White House is an attempt to rebrand a power structure and assuage the masses (because Feminism™), even though the whole structure upon which the country is built is faulty and violent.
Presently, as proven once again by the last election, we’re stuck in “a puppet show in which you’re made to feel like you participate,” Greer sings, restrained by binaries and tempted by the trappings of the American Dream (palm trees, vacation, SUVs, nostalgia, “surface meaning,” and so on)—all individual concerns rather than desires for the greater good. On ‘Pink White House’ Priests diagnose the problem: These systems are untenable and destructive. Near the end of the song it almost sounds as if it’s all crashing down, underwater, GL Jaguar’s guitar and Taylor Mulitz’s bass careening and alarming and Daniele Daniele’s drums thrashing, Greer singing, “Reinforcing everything, killing all that bleed.” With neither a glimmer of hope nor a possible solution, presented with the problems, the listener should be able to find a next logical step or question to answer themselves: Are we going to keep moving down this same track we’ve always been on or, if not, how do we derail it?
Rebekah Kirkman came to Baltimore in 2010 for art school, then eventually became the visual arts editor at City Paper, where she is continuing to learn a great deal about how art and politics intersect. She also makes paintings and poems to process more personal grief and joy and the weird ways those things spill into each other, too.
Eva Rhymes, ‘Good Vibes’
“I’m just speaking my mind, I’m flawed,” Eva Rhymes raps at the end of a verse in ‘Good Vibes,’ before heading into a cheeky chorus where she shrugs “I’m only human, I’m sorry/ I’m being human forgive me.” Nearly every song on “The Life and Times of Eva Rhymes,” the Baltimore emcee’s solid new album, is a window into Rhymes’ refreshingly unapologetic psyche, as much a snapshot of what it’s like to be complicated, black, and female today as “The Miseducation Lauryn Hill” was in its day. And ‘Good Vibes’ is Rhymes’ upbeat ode to self-care and self-love, powered by a playfully jazzy beat that wouldn’t feel out of place on an early ’90s joint from a Natives Tongues group. And over this summer cookout vibe Rhymes rhymes about navigating a world that isn’t always hospitable to the square pegs who don’t fit into society’s prefab round holes. Rhymes’ response to such isn’t to middle finger anything and everything, it’s to work on understanding who she is and what she needs: “It ain’t corny to be positive,” she offers, and it takes a certain amount of chutzpah not only to turn to such a wellness cliché into a song lyric but to deliver it in an intimately carefree way that wins a smile and makes you, even if only for the moment in this most constantly anxious year, believe that’s even remotely possible.
Sleaford Mods, ‘Time Sands’
Don’t expect the Labour Party gains during the recent UK general election to curb Sleaford Mods vocalist Jason Williamson’s thorny dissatisfaction. The British duo’s political targets have never been drawn by partisan lines, as both the Tories and Labour since Tony Blair have had a hand in the austerity measures that decimated public spending. And in the postindustrial, quasi-skilled, non-unionized 21st-century workforce, the shat-upon classes aren’t only the miners and hourly wage earners; it includes the overeducated gig-economy hustlers, the adjunct employed, the cubicle drone, the renters—basically, any average citizen who will never own anything that appreciates in value. Nowhere is that solidarity of the equally fucked more prominent than in ‘Time Sands,’ a chilling evocation of life’s drudgery during peacetime economic stagnation, off the duo’s 2017 album “English Tapas.” Over Andrew Fearn’s soupy mash of slinking bass and Spartan beats, Williamson laments the dreary cycles of a meaningless work week, marked by commutes to and from an office measured in “cigarettes and trains and plastic and bad brains/ and heartbreak lays upon the self of this the new born hell.” It’s not a pretty picture and it isn’t meant to be, as it sketches in miniature how modern life feels: a rash of people hurrying up to wait to get to that unfulfilling job that enables them to pay somebody else for a place to live and buy food to eat, clothes to wear, and the substances that might numb the self into believing that this is living.
Nearly 20 years into a music writing quasi-career, Texican-American Bret McCabe remains a little embarrassed that in middle school he willingly saw Eddie Money open for Loverboy in the early 1980s.
Post Pink, ‘FHE’
“When you/ speak/ it’s always/ flowers to me,” Emily Ferrara, the vocalist of Baltimore’s Post Pink, admits on ‘FHE.’ The throaty bass crawling through the song soon tumbles into a melodic frenzy, as Ferrara watches “the petals fly” and Angela Swiecicki jumps in, triumphantly crying: “I work/ my fingers to/ the bone!” Then, just as it starts picking up, it’s over. It’s not entirely clear who the band is referencing in the song, but the fleeting nature of this relationship becomes achingly apparent either way. It also makes plain what we all know and don’t always admit: that while there are many ways to connect these days, none of them can seem to keep us together.
On their last release, 2016’s “I Believe You, OK” 7”, Post Pink—comprised of Ferrara, Swiecicki, drummer Sam Whitelaw, and David Van McAleer on guitar—served up breathless, nervy, songs (only two on the 7” go above the two-minute mark). “We make 21st century punk music for short attention spans,’” Ferrara has said in past interviews. The band, by their own admission, writes music with no clear intention in mind: Themes range from “socio-political commentaries, literary references and adaptations, past romances, to nonsense.”
It’s natural that the name “Post Pink” should conjure up thoughts of an akimbo take on post-punk, but it’s even more vital than that, especially in the world we currently live in: “Post Pink is not exactly a play on the term post punk, but partly works so well because it is close and reminiscent of the term,” Ferrara has said. “It does have some feminist undertones implying we desire a ‘post-pink’ state of mind. It represents a world where women no longer have to adhere to societally constructed, arbitrary ideas of femininity.”
Listening to Post Pink, especially ‘FHE,’ is an apt approximation, too, of what it feels to be alive right now: on edge, constantly stimulated, always learning, deconstructing, and, of course, resisting.
In her recent collection of essays, “Too Much and Not the Mood,” author Durga Chew-Bose writes of “the conartistry that first-generation kids learn young.” Specifically, how we learn “to adapt, yet remain amenable to your home. To identify how seamlessly the world expects you to adapt and, as a result, how early you practice pushback. You are born spinning. In dispute.” This paragraph sucker-punched my heart when I, a first-generation Colombian-American, first read it. I’ve forever been at odds with my culture, a tension amplified by the fact that while I grew up in the United States, there was a no-English rule in my house growing up. I’m still at odds with it.
As a child, I wrestled with speaking Spanish for reasons I felt inextricably, inexplicably pulled by. Now I understand this as the lure of assimilation. But later on, when I came to terms with my native tongue, I started to become fascinated by its contradictions, its swerves, its specificities. For instance, the verb “tirar” means both “to fuck” and “to fuck something up.” “Descarada,” literally translated, means “faceless;” its definition is actually closer to “shameless.” And then there’s “desafío,” which means “challenge” or “defiance.” Often the best words are the ones that refuse to conform, both in language and meaning.
Earlier this year, Alejandro Ghersi aka Arca, the producer and iconoclastic musician, released an album featuring a devastating pop banger named ‘Desafío.’ His self-titled album is the first to feature his voice, and his lyrics happen to be in Spanish. “It’s the language I witnessed family violence in,” Ghersi, who is first-generation Venezuelan-American, has said. “The ultimate theatre of emotion, when things fall apart, for me isn’t English.” On ‘Desafío’ in particular, it’s impossible to separate violence from both desire and defiance: To want comes with the cost of totality, and it’s all-consuming. Much like ‘Desafío,’ which I can’t unstick from my craw and I’m glad for it, especially because it’s a seismic reminder that the language of resistance is complex, structurally prone to injustice and, like anything in our world, merits constant examination.
Paula Mejia writes about arts and culture. Her work has appeared in NPR, The Paris Review, Rolling Stone, Vulture, and many other publications. She is the author of a 33 1/3 series book on The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Psychocandy.”
Lower Dens, ‘Real Thing’
I love this song because it is beautiful but it gets to me. I’m enamored by the slow build of synths, the haunting guitar line, and the dreamy vocal delivery that makes me empathize with someone who wants to fuck around instead of committing to a good thing, even though I love committing to good things.
When it came out, I found myself driving down 295 alone, playing it over and over, trying to nail the halting way Hunter draws out, “I don’t want to be possessed by a memory,” while I thought about an old crush. When I first heard that line, I thought that ‘Real Thing’ might be my new anthem while I tried to shake off the last of the feelings. When I realized that it was really about someone who wasn’t satisfied, I kept turning it over and over.
In the middle, the music quiets down while Hunter says, “I love you, but it’s not enough.” The deep-throated “Whyyyyyy?” response is one of my favorite parts of the song. I’d been that scratchy voice when someone tried to explain how being with me felt really great and they cared about me but they didn’t want to commit to anything.
‘Real Thing’ shows that conflicting dual nature of what people want sometimes, and you feel it from all sides. The care and desire to be loved can be just as honest is the urge to be free. You feel the hopeful desire to keep reaching for whatever might be out there and the hollow, repetitive echo of someone who would rather leave their options open than bet on a real thing.
Rihanna, ‘Needed Me’
I’m pretty consistent about staying up on new music. I’ve been keeping a weekly list of DIY shows in Baltimore for the past six years and I did a bi-weekly radio show for five years in D.C. I’ve spent so much time going down worm holes looking for music—geeking out over rare finds online, scouting new bands connected to stuff I like, digging for club remixes, or running down new releases to see if they’re any good.
So far in 2017, I’ve put together 72 playlists. That’s even less than last year, when I was still doing the radio show. But to be honest, I spent last spring listening to Rihanna and Weyes Blood on heavy repeat.
To mix it up, I started asking people for personal recs. The very best exchange that I have had has been with my friend Hermonie. I asked her for cold wave and dark synthy recs, and in exchange, she asked me for music videos, since I couldn’t stop talking about how obsessed I was with Rihanna’s creative genius.
I started off our thread with the ‘Needed Me’ video. It’s a perfect song, an amazing video collaboration with Harmony Korine, and an excellent example of how “Anti” redefined Rihanna’s career on her terms.
Jen Mizgata runs Showspace, a weekly listing of DIY shows in Baltimore.
Flock of Dimes, ‘Everything is Happening Today’
With the words “Everything that ever was/ is happening today” Flock of Dimes’ Jenn Wasner speaks obliquely of the four-hour news cycle, the cost of utilities in Baltimore City, your conservative uncle’s unblockable Facebook presence, and all the generalized dread of a late-era capitalist, socially mediated existence. A creeping, nagging dread that no matter how capable you are, no matter how hard you work to pay the bills, no matter who loves you, “everything [you’ve] ever done/ has happened in the wrong way.” Despite this, and perhaps because of this, ‘Everything is Happening Today,’ is a chipper and lilting anthem of self-care and self-reflection. Wasner’s outrageously limber range makes easy work of a gliding chorus, transforming anxiety, at least for the time being, into a manageable series of symbolic elements. We may not be able to escape time, winter, or politics, but if we can speak our fears, we can conquer them, or at least begin the hard work of managing them. This song is, as whole, an approximation of her worldview as I’ve ever heard in her oeuvre, and mythologizes the experience of moving from her life in Baltimore City to a spider-filled cottage in the woods of North Carolina.
Flock of Dimes (Courtesy/Flock of Dimes)
Full disclosure: Jenn and I are close pals, and we talk about close things. I know it broke her heart to leave friends, family, and a music scene unlike any other on Earth. I know she spent a lot of time vacuuming spiders and returning them to the woods. Uprooting is difficult. The removal of oneself from one’s environment, as part of the artistic process, is often viewed as a selfish act of indulgence and hubris. When she says “Pull the thread and draw the line/ to find time in a different place,” I think about the raw emotional tethers that connect us to the things we love, and the lengths that we go to in order to fulfill our needs and make work in a world that, especially lately, seeks to minimize our voices and crush our spirits.
In December 2016 I broke my ankle, and in February 2017 I met someone. The plan: I would come out to the west coast for as long as possible, and in April, after weeks and weeks of longing texts, copious selfies, and lengthy phone conversations, I split town on the kind of trip I warn other people against. “Oh, you spent two total nights together and now you can’t live without each other and the solution is go stay with this person for a whole month? Honey, we need to talk.” Nobody interventioned me so I packed my suitcase with four pairs of shoes and a pair of pants that I would not be able to fit into upon my return. We listened to Drake’s ‘Passionfruit’ almost every day. The suitcase and I flew back to Baltimore nearly a month later, and now, a month after that, me and that someone don’t write each other as much and we don’t send nearly the same amount of selfies as we did in February. We are no longer dying to get someplace. Once home I looked at the song’s lyrics and felt utterly read. Just because I can remember dating before cell phones doesn’t mean that waiting on a text is any less stressful, or that being far away from someone when things are unclear is any easier to navigate. Is it them? Is it me?
‘Passionfruit’ throbs with the arc of romance, its sudden starts, interminable pauses, strange pronouncements. Its all party at first, and we’re laughing and cheering, wobbling around dazed by love. When that bond becomes more elusive, we struggle to put words to what we are feeling. Drake swoops in quick and low like a falling star on the phrase “I can’t blame you, no,” the basso of admitting you’re partially at fault.
Lexie Mountain is an artist, writer, and comedian living in Baltimore City.
Creek Boyz, ‘With My Team’
In early May, my friend alerted me via text to some new Baltimore rap with a link to a Worldstar Hip-Hop video titled “So There’s A Trap Choir Buzzing In Baltimore: Creek Boyz- With My Team.” The track was immediately beautiful and melodic with layers and layers of voices, but also undeniably grimy and raw. The Worldstar description of a “trap choir” was apt. Creek Boyz consists of rappers Young Fedi Mula, Turk P. Diddy, J-Reezy, and ETS Breeze. They shout out being “ducked off” in “the county,” which aside from the relentless, sugary melody, really make this track differ from a lot of Baltimore street rap.
‘With My Team’ weaves its sweet repeating melody through its entire three minutes even when discussing the harsh realities and repercussions of street life. Even though the chorus states that in “Baltimore, too many n***** dying,” the optimistic post-chorus follows “It’s gon’ be fine, because everyday I’m with my team.” It’s a celebration of friendship and life in the face of adversity and death. It’s exactly the kind of hopeful anthem Baltimore needs, especially in the context of the extreme murder rates, and even more specifically the deaths of rappers Lor Scoota and G-Rock, who in an interview, the Creek Boyz say inspired the song.
The track also brings hope in its success. There have been few songs from Baltimore since the aforementioned Lor Scoota’s ‘Bird Flu’ and Tate Kobang’s ‘Bank Rolls’ that have had the reach of this track. There’s much discussion of who will be “up next” in the gap left by Scoota’s death. As of this writing, the track has over 750,000 plays on YouTube and over 150,000 on the Worldstar video. Perhaps the Creek Boyz could bring Baltimore, or uhh . . . Baltimore County to the world.
Cupcakke, ‘Reality Pt. 4’
Cupcakke is a super sexually explicit troll rapper from Chicago. She raps about sex in the kind of way that would make Trina or Uncle Luke blush, or at least raise an eyebrow. Her social media is filled with selfies that say things like “I love eatting my boogers instead of meatballs for my spaghetti” or “My breathe smell like horse shit.” She’s troll-y in a kind of extreme way where people may use it to discredit her lyrics and/or her value as an artist. This is the same kind of problem that plagues Lil B or other “out there” contemporary rappers: people don’t take them serious enough because they aren’t always serious. To this end, Cupcakke has included an a capella “lyrical track” on her past four mixtapes entitled “Reality,” “Reality Pt. 2,” etc. On this year’s release “Queen Elizabitch,” the rapper offers us ‘Reality Pt. 4’ as she reaches a new, wider audience as well as an expanding hardcore cult following who call themselves “slurpers” and refer to Cupcakke as their “queen.”
‘Reality Pt. 4’ has everything you would want from a serious rap track lyrically. The lyrics are emotional, personal, vivid, clever, political, religious, motivational, and grotesque. The first “Oh shit” moment for me comes just about a half a minute into the vocals-only track when she is describing her difficult childhood and says, “My father didn’t want me like we don’t want Donald Trump.” The line is so many things at once. It’s both explicitly political and extremely vulnerable in a rap landscape where either is pretty rare and daring. If one thing is certain, it’s that Cupcakke doesn’t really care what you think and she’s not afraid to say anything.
The track goes on to detail her upbringing in extreme poverty, and a relationship she had at 15 with a 35-year-old. It goes into more inspirational territory, celebrating the success of her rap career, and ends with, “People got some fucking nerve to be mad that they rent due/ When people out here on the curb with covers and ripped shoes/ The homeless be the ones with good hearts I feel bad, ‘cos they put everyone first by giving away they last/ Think about it.” Cupcakke certainly thinks about this often as she is becoming well-known for her generous acts of philanthropy like donating to GoFundMe pages of needy fans and ordering food for people on Twitter, and paying for homeless fans to stay in hotels. I feel like we could all be a bit more like Cupcakke: unafraid, introspective, and generous.
Adam Schwarz is a DJ/producer and songwriter formerly based in Baltimore and currently based in Los Angeles.
Future, ‘Mask Off’
I’m not old yet, but I read a statistic once about how once you reach a certain age—maybe sometime in your mid-20s or early 30s—you become less accepting of new music. You fold back into the stuff that is familiar to you, that holds history for you. I get that, but I also am always looking for music that is new, and different, that challenges my brain in different ways. One example of what many of my peers dismiss is mumble rap.
I discovered 21 Savage because my editor, Brandon Soderberg, was playing ‘No Heart’ when I walked in to ask him a question about work one day. I said, “This sounds like music to do yoga to.” I could imagine transitioning from one pose to another with it playing. Giving up stress as I stretched my hands up to the sky. Using the beat to count my breath as I hold a pose.
I have done yoga off and on for about 10 years. I never consistently had enough cash to go to a class regularly, but it was always a good place to stop whatever I was incessantly worrying about and focus on my physical body (something I neglect sometimes by not noticing the signs that it’s hungry, or tired, or in need of water). I always felt stretchy and good when I walked out. The first yoga class I attended, I could feel my shoulders unclench. I could feel everything unclench. I felt the freedom of thinking about myself, my physical body. I felt like I could leave whatever I was stressed about for a little bit and become only a physical form. I wanted to cry with relief.
There is also Future’s ‘Mask Off,’ which is also soothing and insistent enough to lose yourself in. The mumble is like a prayer that I don’t understand. The flutes and chants are alien and weird and almost seem like they shouldn’t work, but they do—it’s not unlike the proper “meditation” music I usually hear in class.
‘No Heart’ and ‘Mask Off,’ both Metro Boomin-produced beats, have another element too, which is pain. There is a lot to unpack about feeling floaty and ethereal about songs about selling drugs, numbing yourself with lean, and killing people. I use yoga to escape my own pain, these young men are making music to escape theirs. What about this life’s pain is normal? What amount of numbing is helpful? How do we manage it all?
Abdu Ali, ‘Did Dat’
Right after the election, I made it a priority to listen to music that made me feel strong and empowered before I left the house. That was important for me because I felt helpless in a way that I never had before—like I was outnumbered by racists. Like someone could yell something about Making America Great Again at me at any moment. I’d listen to a lot of Beyoncé and Rihanna. I played Solange’s “A Seat at the Table,” especially ‘F.U.B.U’ all the time. I also listened to ‘Did Dat’ by Abdu Ali. If there is a song that makes you feel both super feminine and super masculine—fierce, strong, graceful, beautiful —‘Did Dat’ is it. The beat makes me feel like I’m strutting down a runway and marching into battle at the same damn time.
Abdu Ali (Reginald Thomas II/For City Paper)
“That’s why I made it,” Ali told me when I interviewed him for a food interview published in City Paper back in March. “For self-empowerment. Because I was like, I want to make a track that when people listen to it they feel like that, they feel like ‘yes bitch I did that and I’m going to keep doing that you know as long as I’m on this earth.’ I’m glad people feeling that way about it. That’s people’s most favorite song.”
I recently got the chance to interview Big Freedia, and as we spoke, I found myself thinking of Ali. Both of them are creators, both of them rep their place of birth hard, both of them make music that is powerfully joyful, and both tour incessantly. As I write this, in fact, Ali is on tour overseas. Because of this, they both have something else in common. They both cultivate a private inner life that seems to make self-care a priority. Freedia told me that she has a cookbook coming out because she loves to cook and can make pretty much anything. Ali spent our interview gleefully telling me about all the different kinds of food he likes to eat, and the things he likes to serve when he entertains at home. It’s the balance of outer vs. inner self, I think, that makes these two people and the music they make, so very, very good.
Lisa Snowden-McCray is an associate editor and reporter at Baltimore City Paper. She wasn’t hired to write about music but it turns out that she has lots of feelings about it.
Liz Durette, ‘4’
There is a sound I’m always looking for—a collapsed one, a hazy one, a dejected one—that captures how I feel most of the time and how I feel about the country right now and Liz Durette’s ‘4’ has that sound (for what it’s worth, some other songs that have it include ‘Celestina’ by Tim Hecker, ‘Menard’s Duty’ by Fabio Frizzi, the instrumental to Wayne Wonder’s ‘No Letting Go,’ Gunplay’s ‘Bible On The Dash,’ and Kate Bush’s ‘Cloudbusting’).
One of the half-dozen song-moments on last year’s “Six Improvisations,” ‘4’ is a pleasant and playful four-minute saga derailed by screeches, scratches, rumbles, and lumps of feedback. The whole record is like this really, with Durette looking for the latent melodies in her mind, following them through to her fingers on a Rhodes electric piano in real time but like, ‘4’ is the one.
Write, walk, worry is all I do every damn day, with an emphasis of the write and worry part, at least until the evening when this workaholic who puts words in this paper to avoid the void takes his dog out for an extended stroll around Baltimore. My dog has trouble walking; he moves his fucked-up back legs like an AT-AT from “Empire Strikes Back,” but he’s got an almost human face (he looks like Councilman Jamm from “Parks and Recreation”) and I think he got all my best qualities, fortunately: patience, loyalty, and an aloof sweetness that doesn’t come out much but will if you work hard to get it out of him (whether you wanna put the emotional labor in to do that is entirely up to you and not expected).
I think about ‘4’ when I’m walking the dog and often listen to it while I’m walking because the dog walks and seemingly lives life like this song sounds: lumbering and uneasy but ever-forward and always curious, striving. And ‘4’ ends with a fade out—a gesture towards the haunting way that things decay: my dog’s legs, most relationships, and apparently, this fragile fucking democracy.
Ralo, ‘Calm Down Ralo’
During a guerrilla screening of “13th” projected on the side of Baltimore City Detention Center earlier this month, I got into a conversation with Mike, who happened to drive by and check it out. Mike loved that this was happening, but wasn’t with prison abolition and mentioned the violence happening in the city and in his neighborhood and the way in which “somebody’s mother,” for example, often gets caught up in the violence and there are loops of retaliation and that made him not exactly sure what to do about it all because the police don’t help too much either but people need to be punished or taken out of society sometimes, you feel me?
Mike went on. Lately he’s been learning on his own, correcting the shitty public school education he got. He’s been reading about Nikola Tesla and told me about a tower Tesla built, and then said something about Hurricane Katrina and Tesla and a glass dome around the earth and I had to tell Mike he was way more informed about such things than I am but I’d do some Googling and try and catch up. We shook hands and followed each other on Instagram.
Talking to Mike was a bit like listening to demon-haunted Atlanta rapper Ralo, probably my favorite person making music right now: Parts of it I can follow, other parts I can’t, though it is all wild and hilarious and real and honest and tilted towards just trying to get through it by any means. “Hello good morning America, I sold that dope in the area,” Ralo declares, finding that rap sweet spot between factuals and boasts. Over clipped blaxploitation horns, the grim one-liners keep coming: “Fuck how you feel, we ain’t feeling that”; “We come to the block and leave you on the curb”; and “You bought your jewelry on records and shows/ I bought my jewelry on robbing and dope.”
I like Ralo’s honesty. He’s political how he wants to be. He is maybe most famous for making it rain on the homeless, an outrageous gesture of giving that got him on Worldstar Hip-Hop. Throughout ‘Calm Down Ralo,’ the track gets sprayed with the sound of automatic weapon fire. It’s jarring, and poorly mixed so it slices through the song, and it’s hard to hear him for a hot second—as it should be.
Brandon Soderberg is the editor-in-chief of the Baltimore City Paper.
SZA feat. Travis Scott, ‘Love Galore’
When SZA debuted ‘Love Galore,’ I was mad at a dude who looked so much like Travis Scott that it made me angry that he was on the song. I didn’t even want to listen to the song at first, but I had been eagerly awaiting SZA’s new music, so I listened. When I heard her gorgeous, velvety voice sing “dust off these niggas” I knew that 2017 SZA was not the SZA I was used to. ‘Love Galore’ is more bass-heavy and R&B than her older music. It leans into her sexiness in a new and refreshing way. And in the ‘Love Galore’ video, she ties Travis Scott to the bed and slaps him across the face and a verse later, an elderly white woman murders him with an axe and blood splatters across the window. SZA made that for every quietly evil girl out there.
SZA is a fellow November Scorpio and only a November Scorpio (sorry, October Scorps; you’re not like us) could bring the mix of passion, power and rage that ‘Love Galore’ has while also having a sweet sexiness that leaves men wanting more. The song has a haunting chord running through it that makes it resonate deeper than most love songs. It’s a love song for women who don’t want to love men. The world gives us so many reasons not to love men. My favorite line of the song: “Personally I’m surprised you called me after the things I said,” which is exactly what I told my college boyfriend when he called to ask to hook up after I dumped him.
Dyyo Faccina, ‘Raspberry Gun’
The first time I saw Dyyo Faccina perform was at Kahlon: The Cut Up Series in November. He went by Neroscream then and I came into the middle of his set to hear something about sucking on a woman’s A cups, which felt very personal. He’s electric on stage. He’s not just a rapper, he’s a rock star. His command of the stage and the passion he puts behind his work is mesmerizing. I’ve seen him perform a few times and once it almost felt like I was invited to something that I wasn’t quite cool enough to witness. His new music and his choice to use Dyyo Faccina as his stage name has given him a more punk, meditative vibe.
‘Raspberry Gun,’ released in April, is hypnotic in a way that makes me want to rock back and forth with a drink in my head. Then getting into the lyrics, Faccina brings a level of bravado that feels earnest. “I’m a winner cause I’m chosen and you just an opponent” isn’t a lazy comparison to other rappers, but just a simple fact. His persona on ‘Raspberry Gun’ features Faccina’s low voice, as if he was whispering into your ear reminding you that he is really the greatest and no one can compete. The song ends with, “Please doubt everything you think ‘bout me,” which is just the truest mantra for the world we’re living in right now, right? Everything we’ve thought about our world and ourselves is up for debate. Ending the song like this feels less fearful and more defiant. Nothing that people think about the world is right so it’s even bigger and badder than we could even fathom. Dyyo isn’t saying it to hide behind those words, he’s saying it as a promise for more to come. I’m hopeful that my doubts will make way for hope maybe not tomorrow, but hopefully in the years to come.
Imani Spence is currently a producer for the Marc Steiner Show, where she tries to insert Beyoncé into any and every segment. In her free time she sparingly blogs and cries watching the sun set over her apartment building.
Katy Perry, ‘Chained to the Rhythm’
In the year of our Lord 2017, Katy Perry became woke. And she really wants everyone to know. In addition to campaigning heavily for Hillary Clinton a year prior, calling for LGBTQ equality at a Human Rights Campaign gala, wearing a pixie cut as a purpose statement, and live-streaming a full weekend that included conversations with RuPaul and Baltimore’s own DeRay Mckesson, as well as a therapy session for the world to see, the pop star released “Witness,” her fourth album, which is expressly a piece of art revealing her real, newly conscious side.
Lead single ‘Chained to the Rhythm’ is a wake-up call to pop listeners, who can too easily “put [their] rose-colored glasses on/ And party on.” And how might Katy Perry open their eyes? With a mid-tempo dance track that includes an anthemic chorus imploring to turn up the music for people on the floor who stumble “around like a wasted zombie.” That makes ‘Chained to the Rhythm’ either a really sneaky Trojan horse or a strong example of mixed messaging. Maybe it’s both.
While Perry does offer some lines questioning middle-class aspirations and the way people put themselves in a bubble of like-minded thinking, the biggest lyrical act of political defiance comes in a bridge by Skip Marley, grandson of Bob, in which he warns that “time is ticking for the empire” and promises a riotous uprising against greedy politicians.
This is met with a repeat of that really catchy chorus—a critique of putting blinders on that is itself a wonderful escapist earworm.
Putting all cynicism aside, it’s pretty significant for one of the world’s biggest pop stars to push political boundaries, even if it’s a bit muddled. Perry, a white woman, is publicly trying to be a better ally, and her vast influence could provide a platform for important issues. But like so many of us white people, she would benefit from thinking about it a little harder.
Abdu Ali & Dan Deacon, ‘Liberate Yaself’
With each passing news cycle, there’s a sense that we collectively are stuck in one of Dante’s circles of hell, and there’s no end in sight, none. The chaos and dread continue to mount, and the insanity of one event is somehow topped with something even crazier, over and over again. White liberals will no doubt gasp and shake their heads as they watch Rachel Maddow, but marginalized people, seeing emboldened vitriol and hate from the right, have expressed real fear about events that have already happened and where everything seems to be headed.
Here, two titans of Baltimore music team up to offer a zen-like mantra of raging toward revolution: “liberate yaself.” Though it’s not just raging in the traditional sense. This is how Ali explained it in an interview with Noisey: “As black and queer body living in this world, trying to cause an internal and external revolution would be hard to do it passively. Rage is also not always very vivid and aggressive, it can come out silently and swift depending on what you’re trying to do. Like just walking out flamboyantly being who you are as you are which is not the majority is raging, because it takes a lot courage to do so. So I think it’s more like you must rage in order to find liberation.”
Beyond the repeated mantras of the title and “I’mma rage” in the song’s lyrics, Ali offers a message that shouldn’t be necessary to state outright but is: “Humanity is mine/ gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme/ Humanity is yours/ get it, get it, get it, get it.”
Deacon’s beat, a mix of chattering drum machine beats and electronic bleats, matches Ali’s tone and emotion, spiraling into a haze giving way to luminous, twinkling keys as Ali delves into a poignant reflection on the black experience: “I’m following, following, following the voodoo inside/ black magic never lies/ I’mma get what’s mine/ We birthed this world, this world is ours/ So who are you to tell me who am I?”
I’ll once again kick over to Ali for a perfect summation, this one appended to ‘Liberate Yaself’s’ Soundcloud page: “[M]y people who feel like me, my cluster listening to this song as they are in their darkest moments, which are not rare, moments that happen casually everyday, all day, and with this song they conjure the strength to not only survive but to conquer and to shit on the daily shades of life that spits on our existence. I walk in the shadow in the valleys of death . . . yet I am still a boss bitch, the boss bitch at that.”
Anyone and everyone can and should embrace their inner boss bitch.
Brandon Weigel is the City Paper’s blogs editor. He started writing about local music for CP in 2011, and has also had bylines on local and national acts in the Washington Post, USA Today, the Sun, Washington City Paper, Urbanite, and others.
Zane Campbell, ‘A Way Around It’
I don’t generally go in for hope. At a recent panel on the next steps for political action, the best I could come up with is that now that we maybe know we are likely to die since Trump has his finger on the bomb, maybe we will figure out what is worth dying—and living—for. But when a little sliver of hope comes from a hard-worn motherfucker like Zane Campbell, well, I’ll take it.
This is a guy who, in a City Paper essay, could write: “The first time I ever got drunk, I had a collision with a police car in front of my house—my drinking went downhill after that.” And, to be fair, as he says it later, he was passing a joint to his friend when he hit the car.
Campbell comes from what is often described as Maryland country music royalty—his aunt is Ola Belle Reed. But I don’t really give a shit about that. I mean it’s cool and all, but on his new album “Ola Wave,” which was produced by City Paper contributor Travis Kitchens, I like the two Zane songs more than the rest of the songs, which were all written by Reed.
The one I’m thinking of now, the one that gives me my little bit of gallows humor hope is ‘A Way Around It.’ “You don’t like my country and I don’t like yours,” Campbell sings, starting in with a clear country articulation that progresses into a punk rock snarl by the end. Campbell, who also played in early punk bands in the Village, embodies both of these.
“We can find a way around it/ we could live together or we could go to war,” he sings, finishing the verse. That’s about the best we got, me and Zane. But it sure sounds like hope.
Patti Smith, ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’
When my wife’s nephew was 11, I gave him Patti Smith’s album “Horses.” She wasn’t my wife yet and I had just met him and he told me he liked Patti Smith. He meant Patti Smyth. Later, in front of the Catholic family, he asked me, “What did she mean when she said ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine?’”
The music showed him a whole different side of the world. He turned out super cool, not because of me or Patti Smith, but the moment he asked that question was somehow a perfectly Smithian moment because no one is as deeply committed to the transmission of the underground avant-garde tradition of the late 19th and 20th century than Patti Smith. Getting turned on to a new artist, a new sound, a new idea, for her is a moment of almost magical transformation.
My life was, perhaps, already cracked open last December, when I first saw Smith perform Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ at the Nobel Prize awards, to an audience of royals and dignitaries in Stockholm Sweden that he would not go before to collect his prize in literature.
It was shortly after Trump won the election and everything seemed suspended and uncertain in the interregnum as we waited for a new world and I watched the video on YouTube, usually drunk or high or both, every night. Watching the wizened elder sing and then pause and stop and start back and pause and stop again as all the rich people watched and she apologized “I’m just so nervous,” she said and they applauded and then started back, building into a fury.
As she sang, Smith embodied the American prophetic tradition, the heir of Dylan, who was the heir of Woody Guthrie, who was the heir of Leadbelly and Walt Whitman.
This prophetic tradition does not tell you the future—we all know that a hard rain will eventually fall—but it fills the present with the future and shows us how time works. Smith sings about the coming rain from after the flood. The grand drama of the ballroom (or whatever it is), the faces of the dignitaries, all seems like something you’d see on a documentary about some horrible thing that has already happened, filled with portent and doom. She sang a song from the past but by thrusting it into the future and reflecting it back, she created our now.
Baynard Woods is editor at large at the City Paper. He founded Democracy in Crisis, where he writes a column and hosts a podcast on national politics. He is the author of “Coffin Point: The Strange Cases of Ed McTeer, Witchdoctor Sheriff.”