Music is insistent on the collective. The best music is built on community, and what truly gives any particular song staying power is how it’s regarded among the masses. Sure, we carry songs with us as we go about our day, shuffling through them on Spotify or assembling playlists on Soundcloud for personal pleasure. We like to tell ourselves that they exist in a vacuum, that sometimes these aural trinkets are just for us. Intimacy certainly affords your favorite songs a particular fire, but, ultimately, it is the spirit of collaboration—be it in creation (artist, producer, engineer) or in conversation (friends arguing over a song’s “classic” status)—that reminds us why we listen.
That can be hard to keep in mind at a time like this. The world is in a nasty flux. Borders have closed. Curfews and quarantines have been implemented. Governments are telling citizens to practice social distancing and only leave the house for essentials. Communities are being forced into isolation. It’s not easy. As people are being pressured to detach from daily interaction, to wall off from those around us, it’s hard to remember we’re not alone, even as those feelings stubbornly creep in.
That was the inspiration behind this season’s list. I was especially keen on finding songs with cross-border appeal: in Lisbon, in Montreal, in Tehran, and out in Oakland. These seven tracks feed off that sort of cultural pollination. They borrow from disparate regions; they define new modes of being. Best of all, they remind us that we’re in this together. Happy listening!
“Waking Up Down” is a blizzard of icy 808 kicks, an elemental blend that could only be born of Korean-American multihyphenate Kathy “Yaeji” Lee. The song is the lead single from her upcoming mixtape, What We Drew 우리가 그려왔던, and contains some familiar tentpoles: breathy synths, a punchy dancefloor soundbed, a heavy influence of jungle/drum-n-bass music, and all of it ornamented with Yaeji’s blissful whisper-sing. The mixtape, she said, is “about the simple parts of self-actualization and growing up and community.” On the single, Yaeji cracks that search wide open, laying it plain in a song about anxiety and adulthood. The hook becomes a check-list of sorts: “I got waking up down/ I got cooking down/ I got making a list and checking down/ I got hydrating down/ I got listening down/ I got you and me and we’re also down.” The song is about the small victories in life, and all the more powerful because of it.
Nathan Jenkins is a Lisbon-based producer who creates under the name Bullion. He released a transportive, five-song EP at the end of February that tests emotional range: There’s a startling lightheartedness and an even more startling depth to it. Overall, its relaxed direction gives it a full-body feel. The songs have a familiar fragrance; these are atmospheres you know. It’s paradisiacal, reflective pop meant for easy living. It’s downtempo and periodically melancholy but not overly sorrowful. The title track, co-written by Suzanne Kraft, is its most majestic offering.
“Everybody get everything from each other,” Lil Uzi Vert told me four years ago. “Nobody really makes up nothing. You just see it, you like it, and you do it. And if you do it the best, that’s all that matters.” That was long before he’d become the vessel of a generation preoccupied with oversharing and genre fusion, but the statement holds. Case in point: “Prices” from Uzi’s sophomore studio album Eternal Atake (it debuted at No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100). Thematically, it finds the Philadelphia rager in atypically high spirits, swaggering across the track, which shares DNA with Travis Scott’s monster hit “Way Back” (a song that borrowed from Kanye West’s mega-smash “Power”). “I just went up in my price,” he repeats on the hook. Uzi is once again able to make the mutation entirely his own, proving himself the craftiest of millennial tastemakers.
Montreal hybrid Chiiild are a bit of everything: soul, psychedelic pop, folk, traditional R&B. The band resists one-dimensional storytelling; they’re moody and mysterious. “Pirouette” doesn’t so much as reinvent the love ballad as it colors outside the lines. It’s about love that makes you woozy in the best way; about love that, in the moment, feels endless. The effect is a real accounting of a young relationship: a seesaw of sentiment and the joy-dread from the roller coaster experience.
Family is central to how Iranian-American producer Nick AM creates music. “Take It Back,” featured on his four-song EP, effortlessly blends the magnetism of New York’s house scene with the sleek currents and sounds of Persian influence. Through music, Nick AM said, he wants to “flip the lens” of how his home country is perceived. “I wrote this single for my ppl,” he tweeted not long ago, “anyone experiencing oppression. Don’t give up.” Consider it equal parts calling card and dance floor anthem.
Kamaiyah makes music you cruise to. That’s been her creative MO since her head-turning debut, 2016’s A Good Night in the Ghetto, which featured the boastful, bass-thick “How Does It Feel” (one of the best songs of the 2010s). She’d later team up with YG and Drake on “Why You Always Hatin?,” proving that she could hang with two of the decade’s most formidable talents. On “Mood Swings,” a g-funk cut from her February album, I Got It Made, the Oakland rapper reasserts her dominance, serving up a plate of Bay Area realism. The final 50-second sweep is its most savory: a radiant rainshower of synths and electric keys.
On the elegiac, low-spirited “Fair Chance,” bassist Thundercat pays tribute to his friend and frequent collaborator, Mac Miller, the rapper who died in 2018 from an overdose. It’s a vulnerable piece of work—withdrawn but immodestly sweet and rich in feeling. “You’re not around/So hard to get over it/Tried to get under it/Stuck in between,” Thundercat sings in an echoing falsetto. The song, produced by TDE’s Sounwave, has a haunting symmetry to it: What you hear is also what you see. The soft plinking keys. The dreamlike bass. The slow-building melody. Together they create a picture of being submerged underwater; that’s the image I kept returning to at least. I can’t help but think how that might be the most accurate representation of death, and what it means to lose someone close: to experience loss is a lot like being suffocated.
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