Critics Poll XXVI — My Ballot

I don't want you to be me. You should just be you.
I don’t want you to be me. You should just be you.

KRS-ONE once said that he didn’t understand how a person who didn’t know hip-hop could call himself an American. This is the sort of inflammatory (not to mention self-serving) rhetoric we all expect from the Teacher, but I expect you know what he means, and you might even agree. Hip-hop is American culture. If we didn’t have hip-hop, what the hell would we have?; X-Man movies? Buffy the Vampire Slayer slash fiction? Company softball? If you believe that capitalism had deleterious influence on culture — that our mode of productions has, as a collateral effect, a tendency to reduce all social and artistic movements to mass-market commodities — you have to admire how hip-hop, alone among modern forms of art, has risen to its challenge. Hip-hop simultaneously reflects American capitalism and turns it inside out. It’s why we can have Kendrick Lamar, revolutionary and shoe salesman, Terrence “Pusha T” Thornton, coke dealer and philosopher, Janelle Monae, free spirit and cosmetics pitchwoman, and Beyonce Knowles, part-time feminist and Black Panther admirer and full-time possessor of a highly salable derriere. Hip-hop is the only force with enough muscle to wrestle with American life as it is lived by most citizens, and it has the right and authority to do so because it speaks the symbolic language of the American dream. (This is also why it doesn’t export very well, and why rap music made in other countries, no matter the skills of the emcees, always feels kinda counterfeit.)

Thus it doesn’t make all that much sense to call 2015 a hip-hop year. In America, all years are hip-hop years. Current events just made the intersection between rap music and our national obsessions and conundrums impossible to miss. Much has been written about the appropriateness of To Pimp A Butterfly to the year of Freddie Gray, the Black Lives Matter movement and the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment (not to mention Hamilton), and he deserves credit for forcing statements as polemical as “The Blacker The Berry” and “King Kunta” into the mainstream conversation. But his was hardly the only rapping State of the Nation address. Some were overt, like Lupe Fiasco’s demanding Tetsuo & Youth, CyHi’s second installment of his Black Hystori Project, and Fashawn’s high-minded Ecology. Others took some decoding. Drake is the farthest thing from a perfect political rapper (like everyone he knows), but nobody has ever nailed the pathos and paranoia of the wealthy man any firmer than he has. With America adrift in an impoverished and irritable world, its people rich, besotted, and contemplating the efficiency of border walls, this crooning Canadian might have caught the alienated national mood even better than Kendrick did. Vince Staples’s grim g-rap confronts poverty porn and the exploitation of urban conflict by the news media and entertainment industry, and we certainly didn’t see any of that in 2015. The wisest head of all belonged to Erykah Badu, whose sly, sharp, and painfully sad interpretations of pop songs played as a corrective to the many, many recent albums decrying technodystopia. The fault, Badu implies, is not in our phones but in ourselves.

The very best album, though, felt less like a polemic than it did a parliament. The Social Experiment brought in a quorum: local Chicago roughnecks (King Louie, Joey Purp), nerds (Saba, KYLE), pop-rappers (B.o.B., and, delivering the best verse of his life, Big Sean), spoken-word types (Noname Gypsy, J. Cole in his introspective mode), legends (Busta, Badu, who shows up here, too), giddy avant-soul singers (Jesse Boykins, Monae, their neighbor Jamila Woods) and a bit of A-town stunting by Quavo of Migos. The moderator here is Chance The Rapper, and he keeps the discussion running smoothly, which, given the varied styles and microphone approaches of the guests, feels like something of a miracle; and in fact there is a song here called “Miracle,” which is less a statement of intent than a prayer. Chance is a funny guy, but directs conversational traffic toward serious topics that aren’t usually covered with this degree of emotional specificity and richness: first heartbreak, divorce, the death of a family member, the threat of incarceration, the responsibility a boy has to an ex-girl after the failure of a relationship. When Chance raps that his grandmother smells like “light, gas, water, electricity, rent,” your neighborhood nihilist might call it corny. But in hip-hop tradition, he’s getting at a much deeper reality — in this case, a child’s tentative but deeply-felt understanding of the foundations of his world — than popular music is generally willing to confront.

The whole thing is suffused with the guarded optimism Chance is rightly becoming famous for, and his presence was probably the flypaper that caught so many big names; he’s the ringleader, and everybody else is 100% down with the program, which, given the egos involved, is a testament to the centrifugal force of his vision. But this isn’t a Chance the Rapper album, and his rhymes, magnetic as they are, aren’t even the best thing about it. The Social Experiment, as Chance takes pains to point out in interviews, is a band in the old-fashioned sense — five guys who have joined their talents together and who are pushing toward a collective musical vision informed by everything they’ve heard and loved. Which in this case means high school band jazz, the Soulquarians, Chicago drill and g-rap, MJ, lots and lots of church music, Native Tongues albums, Kanye and Drake but especially Kanye, the part of the new wave that Prince was directly responsible for, cheesy love ballads of the ’70s, cheesy love ballads of the brief but wonderful period on the cusp between the ’80s and ’90s, and whatever hissing cassettes their grandmothers were playing during their formative moments.

Hip-hop is often considered brash and shoutable, even by its biggest fans and most ardent practitioners, and very often it has had to be just to be heard above our national clamor. You know how it is out there; to be an American is to be bombarded with everything. But the most beautiful music I’ve heard in my life has been hip-hop. That includes “They Reminisce Over You” and “I Am I Be” and DJ Premiere’s work with Gangstarr, J Dilla and Lauren Hill and everything PM Dawn ever did, “Umi Says” and “Kick Push,” “Lil Ghetto Boy,” Traxamillion’s glittering hyphy productions and Swishahouse’s slowed-down deliciousness, Take Care and Graduation, Aquemini and the Roots’ undun. Think of the crunkest, most spastic, most assaultive hip-hop album you can, and I guarantee that there’ll be moments of jaw-dropping beauty on it: this year, some of the prettiest music I heard was buried on Future and Young Thug mixtapes. The sign by which you know a inessential hip-hop act is not by its corniness — because all of the big boys and girls are corny from time to time — but by its inability to generate the effortless beauty that has always been a secret cornerstone of the form. Surf starts out winsome, ends winsome, and in between, reaches peaks of musical gorgeousness (especially “Windows” and its heart-stopping backing vocals) that match those of any of the records I mentioned above. At first, Donnie Trumpet’s effect-drenched brass instrumentals felt like artifacts from a Spike Lee soundtrack in search of a movie, but by my third time through, they seemed as essential to the experience of the album as Nick Drake’s orchestral tracks on Bryter Layter, or the outro of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” to Wish You Were Here.  For an old aesthete like me, there can be no other judgment besides:

Album of the Year

  • 1. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment — Surf
  • 2. Drake — If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
  • 3. Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp A Butterfly
  • 4. Steven Wilson — Hand. Cannot. Erase.
  • 5. Tame Impala — Currents
  • 6. Vince Staples — Summertime ’06
  • 7. Joanna Newsom — Divers
  • 8. Erykah Badu — But You Cain’t Use My Phone
  • 9. Laura Marling — Short Movie
  • 10. Of Montreal — Aureate Gloom
  • 11. Natalia Lafourcade — Hasta La Raiz
  • 12. Lana Del Rey — Honeymoon
  • 13. Ezra Furman — Perpetual Motion People
  • 14. Belle & Sebastian — Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance
  • 15. Hop Along — Painted Shut
  • 16. Laura Stevenson — Cocksure
  • 17. Young Thug — Barter 6
  • 18. Home Blitz — Foremost & Fair
  • 19. Pusha T — King Push — Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude
  • 20. New Order — Music Complete

Best Album Title

The Night Took Us In Like Family by Jeremiah Jae and L’Orange. When I go out, I always hope that’ll happen to me.

Best Album Cover

Metric’s boarded-up facade and seedy-looking marquee on the cover of Pagans In Vegas. This is how Emily Haines has come to see showbiz: a hollowed-out industrial dead end in a part of town nobody would ever want to visit, even for voyeuristic purposes. A lot of Metric fans didn’t like Pagans, and I think I understand why — of all the synthpop crossover albums released in the wake of Heartthrob, this one is, by far, the grimmest and most disenchanted. It’s strange that they’re still making arena-pop even as they’ve given up on reaching an arena-pop audience, but they’re ironists at heart, so Emily Haines is probably never going to stop lashing out at capitalism from the belly of the beast. It’s part of the art, as I understand it.

Best Liner Notes And Packaging

Ezra Furman’s Perpetual Motion People. In his frank liner notes essay, he explains that he often feels feminine and will dress and act accordingly. I can dig it. He has some funny things to say about his bandmates, too. But what I really like about the packaging is the little map of Chicago on which he’s plotted each of the songs. I’ve been a sucker for that since Sammy’s Tales Of Great Neck Glory. Big plus: it’s hand-drawn.

Most Welcome Surprise

Lil B and Chance The Rapper — Free (Based Freestyles). Straight from the Should Not Work But Somehow Does Department, this is Chance and Lil B freestyling over six very long tracks. Before you conspiracy theorists say that it was probably written out, or at least planned out, rest assured that it really does sound like they’re winging it. By definition this cannot be authenticated by Lil B, who, in his relaxed style, has always sounded like he’s making it up as he’s going along. Chance is a different story, though. When he grasps for words or pauses a millisecond before the beat, he gives the impression of a slightly intoxicated line-walker at a DUI check. And if you like him — and of course you do — you never want to see his ass in the squad car. This becomes part of the fun. All that said, these nice-guy rappers really didn’t need to drag Noname Gypsy into the experiment as a foil for their ingenuity. (She’s a girl, so according to hip-hop typology, she doesn’t know how to extemporize — instead, she just dissolves into giggles.) The production is tight, as it has to be. Also, while we’re still in this category, I was pleasantly surprised by how decent Peter Hook’s replacement sounded, and how consequential Gillian Gilbert’s return to the fold turned out to be. Usually when bands hit that inevitable stage in litigation with former members, the music they put out turns out terrible, out of guilt as much as anything else. Not only is Music Complete a much better record than Momentary Lapse Of Reason, it’s become one of my favorite New Order albums.

Biggest Disappointment

Kacey Musgraves is a born panderer. This you can tell from all the songs she writes about how one ought not to care about what the neighbors think. In her timid C&W voice, she makes it clear that she does care, very much, and these little pep talks she gives herself aren’t exactly sticking. Right now, the principal target of her pandering is me, and you, and everybody else who lives in the blue states and who’d really rather not hear another country song about a truck, or a gun, or brewskis with the bros. It’s working: as we entered the Trump Era, Northern critics fell over themselves to thank Musgraves for the small favor. Pitchfork, which never reviews Nashville-machine records (and that’s what Pageant Material is — check the credits), called Musgraves the Kendrick Lamar of country, which was the stupidest thing printed on the site all year, even stupider than the piece that called Stuart Murdoch an accidental racist because he didn’t stick any brothers in his goofy movie. If you can get past all of that — and on many days I can’t — you will notice that the writing has improved, as has the production, as has the singing. Hey, nobody said she wasn’t a talent. But her reliance on cliche, her familiarity with the machinery of emotional manipulation, and, above all, the listlessness of her performances do not augur well. I forecast a lucrative future as a Tennessee hack.

Nicest Try

It’s the rare artist who’d chase Englebert Humperdinck schmaltz in 2015, but Nate Ruess and his talented producers did so, and by God, they attained it. About two-thirds of Grand Romantic is treacle so thick it could melt your molars into calcium carbonate slush; the other third is a bizarre, assaultive Off-Broadway greasepaint screech. I believe every bit of it plays exactly as it was intended. God bless them.

Album That Opens The Strongest

Perpetual Motion People

Album That Closes The Strongest (and culminates in Song Of The Year)

To Pimp A Butterfly. The Tupac “interview” sounds like a bad idea on paper, but in the context of the two poems that frame it, it does feel like an expression of a rapper searching for in his place in history. And when he mentions Nat Turner, I admit a shiver of anticipatory horror. As for “Mortal Man” itself, I take the challenge seriously. I searched my conscience, and I can say with confidence that I’m still a fan, and I will be, no matter what defecatory material hits the oscillating cooling device. Hope you can say the same, fellow rider.


Okay, that’s the albums. We’ll get to the singles and the individual categories tomorrow, I promise!  Thanks for hanging with me for the past few days — I was cooking up something I believe you’re going to like, and which won’t be top secret for long.