The landscape of popular music is an ever-changing and fascinating thing. We’re back, and committed to bringing you incisive coverage to help you navigate the unpredictable sea of trends and happenings in music and the surrounding culture. Given that we’ve been off the radar for a while, and so much has gone on during our absence, we figured the best way to kick things off would be of a list of ten tracks we’ve loved since we’ve been gone. This isn’t our choice of the best songs of the year so far, but rather an assortment of numbers, ones that we’d have loved to cover when they dropped, that have really shown us what’s been poppin’ in 2015.
– Zia Haffejee
10 | Rudeboyz Trip To UK (Trip To London)
The genre known as ‘Gqom’ has such specific origins that almost anyone approaching the music in the last few years from any perspective other than that of KwaZulu township party denizen must have felt like something of an outsider. Indeed, a number of different entities documenting and reporting on the rise of this group of producers has attempted to locate the proverbial Adam, the first one to do it, and there have been no shortage of candidates proffered. But with the quality that each of these artists and groups have been producing, such a quest seems entirely besides the point.
Rudeboyz have been one such group, interviewed and documented on Future Sounds of Mzansi and recently signed to London label Goon Club All Stars. Throughout this year, and for a few years preceding this, Rudeboyz have been putting out such a massive deluge of sinister, hard-hitting bangers that choosing one is probably impossible. Kasimp3 has been a veritable treasure trove for anyone with their ears stuck to the concrete below, and it remains so, even with many songs being taken down due to labels and contracts (something, in theory, to celebrate, as it hopefully means these artists will begin to profit for their work). The title of ‘Trip To U.K. (Trip To London)’ references the globe-trotting year the genre, and the artists themselves, have had. It isn’t quite as dark and end-of-the-night as their other tracks, but it feels appropriately celebratory.
– Andy Petersen
9 | Future I Serve The Base
The thumping 808 beat that takes centre stage on ‘I Serve The Base’ is so jarringly vivid that one can almost imagine Future in the process of scribbling his irreverent anti-anthem on an errant leaf of prescription pad. This is just part of the alluring image of hip-hop that Future has wrought for himself on his third full-length effort, Dirty Sprite 2. We had seen glimpses the Future that is so dominant here on albums Pluto and Honesty before it. But any hopes for a return to the genre-blurring, frustrated romantic with a penchant for big features are quickly dashed on ‘I Serve The Base’ near the outset of the record.
The song in its essence rails against the idea of the major-label pressures that looked to chew him up and spit him back out. Consequently, most of the track is growled out of a codeine-induced rictus of a man unyoked. The tension is ever-tightening with his gritty, auto-tuned monologue laid over a beat so agitated and blurred it’s as if someone tried to drag an eraser over it. For all its rawness, the track could’ve easily amounted to not much more than the product of a drug-hazed tirade and misplaced bitterness. But the emotion is real and its bare, and it seems it was the catharsis needed to assert authority over his domain. By the time the final muffled synth fades out, we’re left in little doubt that anyone needs to tell Future how to do Future.
– Natalie Minofu
8 | Young Thug Paradise
A Young Thug track had to make this list. His output this year has been some of the most interesting music made across any genre in 2015. And this is largely owed to his outlandish and thrilling person; from which his work is entirely inseparable. From the cryptic beef with his idol and former labelmate, Lil’ Wayne, to his much raved-about gender-bending dress-sense, Thug is an enigma. And on ‘Paradise’, a standalone single dropped on a whim, he presents all his idiosyncratic panache in a track that’s as odd as it is straight fire — a great display of what he’s about, lyrically and stylistically. The Alllen Ritter production shows flames, too; it’s the type of minimal yet deeply captivating beat that would subsume most flows. But Thugger lives up to his promise that he ‘ride[s] the beat’ and ‘never roll[s] it’. Doing more than staying afloat, his trademark slurred vocals surf the track’s waves flawlessly as he waxes on about decadent sexual acts and his ring being worth a solar system.It’s all topped off with a cheesy, 80s-style romance chorus — just the right amount of his trademark weirdness.
– Zia Haffejee
7 | Petite Noir Down
Yanick Ilunga’s Petite Noir project first arrived onto the Cape Town music scene as a slightly mysterious, hazy and sparse bedroom-recorded affair. With his lilting guitars and his deep rumbling voice, he found a unique space amongst the often derivative and staid local indie scene. The proverbial diamond in the Assembly floor rough.
Fast forward four years and Petite Noir is signed to indie behemoth Domino Records and plays for festivals throughout Europe and North America. This is because unlike many other young Cape Town upstarts, Ilunga was able to deliver on that early and fevered promise. On his debut album La Vie Est Belle / Life Is Beautiful Ilunga shows incredible depth, melody and creativity over the album’s length. But on the standout ‘Down’ the immediate marvel is how assured Ilunga now sounds. Over the interlocking and shuffling rhythm that underpins the song, and Ilunga’s voice which shifts from hearty baritone to aching falsetto, Ilunga echoes so much of his Congolese and Angolan background together with his sharp indie sensibilities. It would be an insult to describe it as fusion of styles, because Ilunga would probably just reply that he is just being himself.
– Kevin Minofu
6 | Justin Bieber Sorry
2015 was JB’s year of rehabilitation. And few artists needed it more than he did. Since his very first single, he’s occupied a very strange, very millennial position as simultaneously the most popular (and most famous) recording artist in the world, as well as the most reviled of low-hanging fruit, the punch line to almost any joke. The typical child-star-grown-up wobbly he had did little to aid his reputation. Despite the YouTube videos of him as a young kid slaying it on the drums and the general acknowledgment that here is a young man of rare talent, his image seemed beyond repair. And then ‘Where Are Ü Now?’ happened and that all started to change.
You’ve seen it on your timeline. The qualified admissions; the sheepish retraction of prior hate; the outright declarations of love. The sheer levels of cognitive dissonance on display as people realised that song on the radio or in the club that they loved is Justin Bieber has been almost as glorious as some of the music itself.
Purpose, which was released a few days ago, is by far and away the Biebs’ best album to date, and while that statement might not mean much to most people, there are just too many undeniable tracks on there to ignore. ‘Sorry’ was the third single from the album and came with a gloriously fun video carried entirely by a cast of young women who look like they’re having the collective time of their lives. Watch the video, listen to the song and just try to stop yourself from smiling.
– Andy Petersen
5 | Grimes REALiTi
It’s easy to forget that Grimes has only been away for a little over 3 years considering the chasmic gap she seemed to leave in the ever-churning pop narrative. So, merely the sight of a shimmying Grimes on the video accompanying ‘REALiTi’ – replete with a haircut odder and pinker than before – should’ve been enough for most followers of Claire Boucher’s pop-cum-anything-but music project. Yet the bonus that ‘REALiTi’, with its combustible synth blares that hit every few seconds like a live-wire, seemed ready-made for any crowded and indifferent dance floor was almost too good to be true.
Better still, there are two versions to enjoy: the original demo released earlier this year, and the version that appears on her latest album, Art Angels. The latter is a more rewarding and fully-fleshed out experience as we’re allowed to juxtapose the final product against an arrested stage of the metamorphosis that everything Boucher produces must undergo. Both, however, showcase a version of Grimes that has grown in her spell away and there’s an irascible authority in her waif-like voice when she trills that “every morning there are mountains to climb.” It’s hardly some creeping sense of ennui following tribulation, but rather the result of her decision not to be put off by it all.
– Natalie Minofu
4 | Vince Staples Lift Me Up
It’s no coincidence that the cover to Vince Staple’s brilliant Summertime ’06 album looks like a disarrayed Unknown Pleasures. In fact, Staples made the link explicit in a note on Instagram, by opening it with the lines ‘Love will tear us apart’. But while Ian Curtis blames the love that tore him up inside by preying on his demons, Staples’ blame is directed straight at the world that put the demons there in the first place.
In an interview with Complex, Staples called the poorer areas surrounding Los Angeles the areas “that Los Angeles likes to leave out”. And when you come from a place that’s ignored, that leaves no room for betterment, the personal desolation felt by someone like Curtis is mirrored by an environment. In that same Instagram note, he stated that “at the end of the day we’re all dead anyway. At least where I come from.” Where Curtis was trapped by his own mind, Staples looks at an entire neighbourhood that’s trapped by the system that surrounds it.
At the end of the song’s refrain, Staples begs for rescue, knowing that it’ll never come: “I just want to live it up, can a motherfucker breathe? Life ain’t always what it seems, so please just lift me up.” Growing up in the dark shadow of Hollywood, it’s fitting that his stories don’t come with happy endings.
– Simon Ruff
3 | Tame Impala Let It Happen
On Currents we find Kevin Parker unashamedly embracing the pop sensibilities that have typically coloured his psychedelic musings and allowing them to pervade the passionate output that is Tame Impala’s third full-length studio offering. ‘Let It Happen’ is the perfect synopsis of Parker’s catharsis; a tantalising, eight-minute behemoth that illustrates the artist’s dilemma: his vulnerability in departing from his audience’s expectations measured against his gut telling him to embrace what Currents eventually did become: an electronic, pop and R&B-inspired exploration that seeks to redefine the parameters of psychedelic music in 2015.
This triumphant voyage is one that shows the genre still has some serious fruit to bare that aren’t rooted squarely in the tradition of the 13th Floor Elevators — other than, of course, the common drive of fearless experimentalism. And whether or not you miss the at-first conspicuously absent guitars it’s damn-near impossible not to admire the Australian virtuoso and his fearless instincts. The song is a progressive masterclass that threatens to unspool on several occasions, but Parker’s discipline shines through. It’s a work that you think you’ve grasped after one or two listens but really can only truly be digested in segments, much like Currents itself.
– Zia Haffejee
2 | Rihanna Bitch Better Have My Money
Fewer songs in 2015 have elicited as much controversy as Rihanna’s certified banger ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’. The song, inspired by Rihanna’s anger towards a former accountant who misappropriated (read: stole) millions of dollars of her money, was written to show that she would get her money back from the thieving man (seemingly because when she turns up the whole club will be fucking wasted).
However the video turned up the ante and the stakes dramatically. There have been many great music videos from women – especially black women – depicting their retaliatory acts of violence towards philandering and sadistic men. Who can forget the Waiting To Exhale-inspired car burning scene in Blu Cantrell’s ‘Breathe’ or Missy Elliot’s posse of plus-sized women literally eating a man alive in the ‘Pass That Dutch’ video. Feminism in R’n’B and hip hop has often been about asserting women’s power by often violently rejecting the sexist notion of female vulnerability.
The ‘BBHMM’ video, however, directs its anger towards not only the white male antagonist but also towards his seemingly complicit white female partner, who is kidnapped, drugged and eventually stuffed into a suitcase that Rihanna puffs a cigar off of. The inevitable plaudits from critics who praised Rihanna’s overt attack on the exclusionary nature of white feminism; was then matched by the equally fierce response from people who thought that the video was a thinly veiled act of misogyny itself.
But despite all of that and the murk of identity politics the video navigates, BBHMM is one of 2015’s ubiquitous club bangers for a reason. In a world of introspective and pensive hip hop artists (i.e. Drake) and artists that always seem incredibly relevant in the way they seem to mould to what’s cool and what is not in an instant (i.e. also Drake), Rihanna manages to be cool and also fucking badass too. The trap beat rollicks over Rihanna’s half sung – half rapped vocals. And at its heart it is an honest pea to just not be fucked with. And if there’s anyone who channels that as well in pop music it is Rihanna. Because, she calls the shots. Like brrap, brrap. brrap.
– Kevin Minofu
1 | Kendrick Lamar Alright
It’s not immediately clear why ‘Alright’ became a song to front the Black Lives Matter movement in America. Going by the chorus, it’s not really obvious how it could be seen as a protest song at all. But when police officers in Cleveland attempted to arrest a 14-year old attending a BLM protest, they were blocked by a group of protesters as they chanted its refrain, and in doing so flipped its meaning from a longing for salvation into a stand of defiance.
The seeming ambiguity of its place as a protest song lies in its finding the answer to the violence it exposes in God. The song develops as a phantasmagoria of historical and systemic violence experienced by Black Americans: a violence so overwhelming that Kendrick’s response is that only God can heal it. And yet, the song is intended to remind more than to heal; when he linguistically turns white America into Lucy – the devil – the analogy becomes clear, you fight the devil through God, and you fight white America by standing strong against it
What Kendrick does with ‘Alright’ is form hope from the despair, both from the systemic despair that is imposed on Black Americans and his personal one that arises from it. . From all the evil, and against a system that responds to perceived (but more often imagined) defiance brutally and unrestrainedly, he manages to find a way forward. Whether God is the answer or not, you can’t fight the problems without a light at the end of the tunnel.
– Simon Ruff