music that got me through

This morning I woke up before the kids did, in the light of a Christmas tree, thinking of my ghosts.

I’ve also been thinking about the rebel Jesus…faith is a kind of ghost in my life too. I was raised with stories of a poor family of resilient miracle makers, and the birth of a freedom fighter who rolled with the same types of folks I roll with now, speaking of compassion, practice, sacrifice, forgiveness and love.

I’m not big on organized religion in this era of institutionalized greed, but I love these stories of justice, and I think in many settings, in my family, Jesus (radical, martyr, murdered, unarmed…and uplifted after death to create change in an unjust world) is another way to speak of black life, of dignity as a path out of oppression.

I’ve been thinking about how to live my values today and every day. Sade’s lyric ‘it’s only love that gets you through’ comes to mind over and over. I’ve been feeling ‘no justice, no Christmas’ these last few months, knowing that I wanted to reconcile magic and grief, resistance and abundance.

I’ve been exploring how ‘no’ is both necessary and not the shape of my daily life or work. Or perhaps more precisely, there are many ways to say no, and one is by turning up a righteous yes. So I thought, what do I want to say yes to, to grow, to multiply?

Love, yes. Creativity, yes. Black excellence and brilliance, yes! Authentic relationships and transformation? Yes.

To that end I gave gifts that reflect my values for creativity, spirit nourishing, genius. I gave and requested gifts that increased resources to black life. I gave to the families of as many of our black martyrs as I could.

Over and over I came back to music as the gift I wanted to give, and it made me realize what an incredible year this was in black music.

That sparked this post for today.

Here is the Spotify playlist to go with this post!

This year has had many many moments when music was the only thing that got me through. I want to thank the new and old artists who were medicine, soundtrack, and light at the end of converging tunnels.

I started the year in a Beyonce universe that kept providing joy and contemplation throughout the year, with 7/11 as a gratuitous cherry on top.

When my loved ones died this year, there were a few songs I needed to listen to, to move things through. Jimmy Cliff’s Many Rivers to Cross was the first and central song of my grief soundtrack. I’m also grateful for the familiar voices of Sade, Whitney Houston, Donny Hathaway, Johnny Cash and Sam Cooke.

In terms of new albums, there were a few that I want to lift up and shout out as healing either in content or just by exhibiting the beauty of fully realized creative output.

Obviously D’angelo has claimed the end of the year. Black Messiah is an instant classic, and a gift that is both on time and on purpose. All I want to feel in this moment is the easy good continuous blackness that he and Questlove deliver on this album. It works as a coherent whole, and as a loop with no beginning and no end. There is no moment, no note, no moan or snare, no rhythm and no lyric on this album that I don’t love. Black excellence.

Little Dragon released an incredible album – mature, daring, gorgeous music. I forgot this and had to come back and honor them because Nabuma Rubberband was excellent and feels classic as the year ends.

FKA Twigs, on EP1 and LP1, is the other artist who gave herself to us as a sensual whole this year. On the lyrical tip she is specific, naughty and evocative. Her voice sounds both heavenly and carnal, she arouses with an incredibly light touch. She’s theatrical in performance, she’s gorgeous and strange to look at, she feels both young and very comfortable in her grown-ass-woman-hood. I could listen to her curse all day.

(I want to note here that Lykke Li’s album No One Ever Loved is incredible. Heartbreaking direct feelings – and it almost gave me whiplash in terms of the growth from her previous work. It feels like an emotional bookend to FKA Twigs work.)

Azealia Banks is the truth. She’s better than all the other rappers and she feels her feelings, she is as emotive and intelligent as she is ruthless. Her album is not perfect, but it’s exciting, her flow is fantastic and as I decipher her lyrics I am impressed with her mind and her choices. She and Kendrick Lamar , whose performance on Colbert gave me life, look back at their field from a distance.

I really enjoyed Mary J Blige’s The London Sessions. It feels experimental, produced by all these dope British artists I like including Sam Smith and Emeli Sande. I liked Sam’s album ‘In the Lonely Hour‘ as a set of well done pop songs that reference black music in every vibration, but he didn’t have the depth to hold me for more than a week of focused listening. However, paired with the life force of Mary J, there’s some really beautiful pieces. ‘Doubt’, ‘When you’re gone’, and a set of house dance tracks move this through.

Tunde Olaniran’s Yung Archetype was the most stylish stuff I heard this year, the music I put on when I needed to stomp around the house feeling fly. He’s an amazing performer and a righteous organizer and it’s a necessary combination.

As the year comes to a close, I have Nicki Minaj, Coultrain, TV on the Radio and Jesse Boykins III in the queue. (Speaking of Jesses, Jessie Ware was also the truth this year, and Jesse Williams made me believe in celebrity radicalism again.)

But the thing I am most anticipating is Toshi Reagon’s production of The Parable of the Sower. She’s collaborated with her mother to translate Octavia Butler’s work into an opera, and while I will miss these physical shows, my Christmas wish is a live recording, to spend years with this new music.

What about you beloveds…what are you balancing? And what music gave you life through this impossible year?

pop vent: on ‘me, i am mariah…the elusive chanteuse’

I normally pop vent in private. You know – if you can’t think of something nice to say, just spill it over a nice bourbon to your best friend. But me and Mariah go back like pop infantilization, and I need to process aloud my intimate disappointment with her most recent work.

I was gonna leave it at a Facebook post until I heard R Kelly on this album. His voice is a desperate canary in any pop singer’s coal mine. I generally don’t comment on famous people’s scandals, because who can really know? Except, you know, journalism.

When I was the age at which he would have been interested in me, I was hiding under covers with a Mariah tape in my walkman singing Always Be My Baby. I’m disappointed to hear his voice here, especially in what sounds like another gross narrative of his innocence. I removed the song from my playlist, but I’m not sure I can shake his verse from my view of this work.

And it kind of clicked something together in my mind about why Mariah has been coming up short for me since Glitter. She’s desperately clinging to the past.

She was ahead of her years in both vocals and content on her first album. But this most recent album, besides it’s unfortunate title, continues the trend of implying that Mariah never got past that moment. In fact I am beginning to wonder if the lyrics and presentation and vocal choices could actually indicate that she is unavailable for any emotions that might age her.

She adapts, which I am generally fan of. But not necessarily the good stuff. Mariah keeps learning the language and vocal styling of the lowest common denominator pop of the incoming generation, and adjusting. Her voice, within that hit-oriented container, is contorted. In the effort to quickly top charts, she loses her capacity to awe.

In a vacuum this might work, but I’ve listened to Little Dragon, Meshell, & Lykke Li’s new albums this month, each one amongst their best work, Lykke Li’s work an emotional revelation. And Beyonce is still right there. All maturing before our ears. So I am getting spoiled, I expect my artists to develop, grow, age elegantly.

In terms of the music, it’s certainly not a vision of love. It sounds like it was a first production effort by her church choir director, or by her teenage heartthrob husband Nick, or maybe herself with garage band (I speak from experience as a mixed girl with garage band – that’s private MC!).

Song after song, album after album, she surrenders her once glorious upper register to an oft giggly childish nasal tone that makes me think we wouldn’t get along anymore – keep in mind she was once my range ambition at five octaves! Now her runs are overwrought in a way that implies she couldn’t hold these notes and let the emotions run.

I accepted these floral concoctions as a teen. But now we can make other choices.

She brings Nas, Fabolous and other rappers in the studio with her, and it makes me miss Ol Dirty…even Puffy. But that might be nostalgic bitterness on my part, because somewhere in her effort to be a perpetual hip-hop princess, she’s sacrificed the grand potential of her octaves. It isn’t just hitting the notes, it’s filling them out with life.

To veer close to petty – I’m not convinced she understands the word elusive. But regardless, I don’t want her to tell me how to think of her. I want her to embody herself fully. That is what makes an artist irresistible to me, that is how she first appeared on the scene. Now she deploys multisyllabic vocabulary in her familiar oddly paced way, as if she perhaps longs to be a rapper at some tectonic level.

And yet…isn’t this my Mariah of unicorns, butterflies and rainbows, earnest romance, random visits to black church, abundant runs that indicate she lives an unedited life?

Yes, she is Mariah.

There are catchy tunes on this album that I could give in to. I feel some goodness in here. ‘Make It Look Good’ is the best song I’m hearing so far. Her babies are sampled in cute ways on ‘Supernatural’. If I forget we are grown women, there are moments that shine, that earn my shimmy and my nostalgia.

But even with the cute bits and occasionally lovely and innovative runs, I can’t green light this. Her look, her words, her sound all evoke a teenaged love affair, a girl afraid to be a woman, Romeo and Juliet forever sacrificing wisdom for romance, forever sixteen. I want to see a line on her face, hear her throaty experience show up in her songs, see a grown up sexual diva emerge – isn’t the butterfly a creature of spread wings?

Clinging is not healthy, clinging to one’s youth truncates the miracles that come as the gift after suffering. Clinging leads to bad choices. Mariah wants to look and sound like a sixteen year old. And R Kelly? He is the step too far in her role play.