Soundtrack to my year, v. 4

Every year, I like to reflect on the albums that got me through the year. In 2016, I spent more time trying to listen than talk, and I felt these albums offered the space for me to reflect and understand the nuances of the experience of others. Each title links to where you can purchase directly from the artist (in most cases), and a few of them are even free.

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Soundtrack to 2015

Music in 2015 was good to me. I like to reflect on the albums that impacted me over the course of a year to understand myself, and others, better. Continuing my yearly tradition, here are my top albums and what they meant to me.

Honorable Mentions:

Adele’s 25, Miguel’s Wildheart, Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment’s Surf, mewithoutYou’s Pale Horses, Mumford & Sons’ Wilder Mind, Joey Bada$$’s B4.DA.$$, Of Monster and Men’s Beneath the Skin, CHVRCHES’ Every Open Eye

  1. Depression Cherry—Beach HouseBeach_House_-_Depression_Cherry

I only bought this album recently, so admittedly it is a last minute addition, but I feel like it will easily climb this list as 2016 progresses. Beach House know how to create a feeling with their lush instrumentation and singer Victoria Legrand’s dreamy voice, and that all begins with the opener ‘Levitation,’ in which Legrand lamentingly accepts, “You grow up too quick/then get over it.” The album is full of these melancholic musings, and you can’t help but get lifted in the process.

  1. Coming Home—Leon Bridges

Coming_Home_Leon_BridgesMy Fort Worth bias may heavily come into play here, but Leon Bridges is undeniably talented and only starting to show what he is capable of with Coming Home. Throughout the short 10-track debut, Bridges shares his family history (‘Lisa Sawyer’ and ‘Twistin’ and Groovin’’), swoons over girls (‘Coming Home’ and ‘Better Man’) and preaches the gospel (‘Shine’ and the album’s highest moment ‘River’). All of these songs capture an old-fashioned sound (the Sam Cooke comparisons are so frequent they no longer need noting) that perfectly embody an age where vinyl and vintage are peaking, yet what will keep Bridges here for the long haul is not his nostalgic sound but the authenticity in his writing and voice.

  1. Seeds—TV on the Radio

WheTvotr_-_seedsn it comes to a breakup album, TV on the Radio don’t think sadness necessarily calls for heavy music. “Could you care for someone above your bright lights?” singer Tunde Adebimpe asks, over a boisterous horn section. Even when the album makes less noise, the feelings of a love lost are felt deeply (see ‘Trouble’). On the title track, Adebimpe details the initial feelings of a new love (“I told your sister that you’re all I ever dream of” is one of the most romantic lines ever written), and it is clear that this album will not let pain over heartbreak stop hope from coming (“rain comes down like it always does/this time I’ve got seeds on ground”).

  1. Strangers to Ourselves—Modest Mouse

Strangers_to_Ourselves_coverStrangers finds frontman Isaac Brock still angry about the world and its follies. Brock tackles everything from environmental destruction (“pack up again, head to the next place/where we’ll make the same mistakes”) to the Internet age (“the way we feel about what we do is by who has watched us”). But the album really shines when Brock gets quiet and vulnerable, like on ‘Ansel,’ a reflection about losing his brother in a mountain accident, and the regret that comes with things unstated before it’s too late. On the album opener he muses, “we’re lucky we’re so easy to forget.” It’s one of many contradictions expressed, as much of the album hones in on the irreparable damage we’ve done. And yet, Strangers to Ourselves understands the human condition is contradiction, a long history of unknowing, anger, fear, and regret, but still somehow trying to manage and move forward as best we know how.

  1. Kintsugi—Death Cab for Cutie

Death_Cab_For_Cutie_-_KintsugiDeath Cab returns with a refreshing take on romance in modern times. Beginning with ‘No Room in Frame,’ singer Ben Gibbard asks an ex-lover, “Was I in your way when the cameras turned to face you?” It is a question about celebrity romance, but one that could reach into every broken heart burdened by an age when selfies reign over settling down. Throughout the album, Gibbard explores long-distance romance, the ghosts that follow you throughout life, and the constant reaching and not finding that he has always been so good at exploring. The standout is ‘Binary Sea,’ the final song, which narrates the day Atlas realized the world got bigger while he got weaker. “You took photos capturing his defeat,” Gibbard describes, “and messaged them to all your friends/and we all laughed at his expense.” The subject matter of the Internet’s effect on our compassion and connections has not been explored enough in music, and certainly not this well yet.

  1. Carrie & Lowell—Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan_Stevens_-_Carrie_&_LowellAs far as reaching into the deepest emotional places goes, Sufjan Stevens made the best album this year. Exploring the grief he is dealing with in the loss of his mother, Sufjan takes a headfirst dive into their long-estranged relationship, the reunion near the end of her life, and finally, her departure. Sufjan leaves nothing out on this sparsely instrumented album, from his suicidal ideation on ‘The Only Thing’ (“do I care if I survive this?”) to his feelings of abandonment as a child (“I should have wrote a letter/and grieve what I happen to grieve”). But what makes this album beautiful is that, amidst his grief, there is still so much life to be found. “Search for things to extol,” he sings on ‘Blue Bucket of Gold,’ and Sufjan has created a wonderful album for which to do so.

  1. How Big How Blue How Beautiful—Florence & The Machine

Florence_and_the_Machine_-_How_Big_How_Blue_How_Beautiful_(Official_Album_Cover)How Big finds Florence maturing into her big sound in all the right ways. Opening the album with the line, “Don’t touch the sleeping pills/they mess with my head,” Florence lets you into the dark night of her soul within seconds of the first song. “Did I drink too much? Am I losing touch? Did I build a ship to wreck?” she asks. When describing an abusive relationship, Florence surrounds herself with a choir and pulsing rhythm section while asking, “What kind of man loves like this?” This album shines through Florence’s incredible range of emotions, as she express her deepest regrets, deepest hurts, and deepest gratitude for life itself through the darkness (see the title track). It is the fact that she has felt pain so deeply that makes the listener feel her victories even deeper near the end of the album, on ‘Third Eye’ (“you don’t have to be a ghost here amongst the living”) and standout track ‘Mother’ (“mother make me a big tall tree/so I can shed my leaves and let it blow through me”).

  1. Beauty Behind the Madness—The Weeknd

The_Weeknd_-_Beauty_Behind_the_MadnessOn Beauty, The Weeknd embraced pop without compromising his dark, dark, dark lyrics. It’s hard to quote almost anything he says about the nameless women that move in and out of his life, but what makes this album complex is that—amidst his oft-regretful trysts with these women (“in my dark times baby/this is all I could be”), the voice of Abel Tesfaye’s mother weighs heavy on his mind (“mama called me destructive/said it’d ruin me one day”). She appears throughout the album as the good angel on his devilish shoulder, and as he wrestles with whether the fast life is the good life, we find that the Ice King of Pop is not rotten to the core. Nowhere is this more evident than the end of the album, when—his mother’s voice absent—he hopes for something real in a relationship and concedes, “but if not, I hope you find somebody to love.” Feelings, engage.

—-Between_the_World_and_Me
I’m currently reading Between the World and Me, a letter by Ta-Nehisi Coates to his son on what it means to live free in a black body in America at this time. I am certainly no expert on the black experience in America, but these albums have done as much for me in seeking to understand it as my students’ personal reflections and my own independent reading have.

  1. Summertime ’06—Vince Staples

Summertime-06Vince Staples’ 20 song debut album describes the scene on Long Beach, California, where Staples implores if white people chanting his lyrics at shows are aware that he knows “they won’t go where we kick it at.” Whereas Kendrick’s brilliant To Pimp a Butterfly attempts to moralize many of the issues plaguing his mind, Staples strips the fight between good and bad from the conversation to offer striking insights like, “I never vote for presidents/the presidents that change the hood are dead and green.” The album challenges and engages as Staples does not attempt to be a model citizen for the youth, but rather describes what it is like to be a youth in the suburbs we are afraid to talk about, the ones we whisper about without thinking about the real children and parents and siblings there fighting to survive while we cast judgment and proclaim to know what they need. “My teacher told me we was slaves,” Staples sings, “my mama told me we was kings.” Caught in the middle of a world that is fighting over the value of a black body, Staples confesses, “I don’t know who to listen to/I guess we’re somewhere in between.”

  1. To Pimp a Butterfly—Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick_Lamar_-_To_Pimp_a_ButterflyMeanwhile, Kendrick Lamar, amidst massive stardom, promised to bring Compton to Hollywood and the White House and did just that. In many interviews he talked about a nation that wants to use him—an exception to the rule of how many kids succeed coming from a neighborhood like his—by selling his body and value for profit, aka pimping a butterfly. Rather than settling for the totally justifiable route of simmering criticisms of corporate America (“I can see the dollar in you,” Lamar states in the voice of Uncle Sam attempting to buy and sell him), Lamar explores every wall that contains him, including the mentality that tells him he doesn’t deserve to speak for the people. “As I lead this army make room for mistakes and depression,” he requests of the listener. Some articles said this is a specifically black album, and how are white people to take it? I find myself learning something new with each listen, not forming opinions based on empty politics, but from the perspective of a real human with real hurts rooted in real racism, as King Kunta takes me for a walk in his shoes while “everybody wanna cut the legs off him.”

  1. Rodeo—Travi$ Scott

RodeoalbumAlthough Vince and Kendrick offered up incredible takes on the black experience in America, there was something about Travi$ Scott’s debut Rodeo that really affected me. Forget that it features the best guest verses from the likes of The Weekend, Justin Bieber, and 2 Chainz. In an age where Drake’s overconfessional raps reign supreme, his antithesis is Travi$ Scott, a Houston emcee offering almost zero personal details about his life. “Give you some of me, you want all of me,” he groans on the first track, and it is this statement that defines the album’s themes. On the cover of Rodeo is an action figure version of Travi$, a man who himself almost never poses with his face fully visible to the camera (seriously, check out his Instagram). We live in a time where black culture is lauded while black lives are taken too soon, with no consequence to anyone but the families and communities that are left without them. So what does it mean when a rapper like Scott intentionally does not allow you into every corner of his life? It could be his means of hiding one’s self for survival, something Coates talks to his son about in Between the World and Me. It could be his way of not being pimped as corporate America’s butterfly. On a single song, Scott celebrates the fast life (“pray for my liver when I’m up in this club”), then later laments, “I’m tired of seeing black kids’ faces on Fox.” Some may scoff at a man who tries to be political while trying to party, but Rodeo, in its very name a form of entertainment to some that is life-or-death for the actual participants, is just the outline of a portrait of a black man who demands the right to a truly free life, as he wants it, on no one’s terms but his own. “I don’t want your apple pie, mama,” he boasts on the finale, “I need my own pepper, please/my own legacy/my own recipe.” We owe this freedom to choose our own paths to more people.

The Grammys, Kanye, Racism, and Us

On Sunday I gathered with a small number of friends to watch my second favorite awards show of the year (the Oscars take first prize). As one of said friends described, the Grammys are the equivalent—in fact, superior—to most national holidays for me.

Although ratings dropped significantly and a lot of viewers felt little more than boredom, I thought this year’s show was actually indicative of the state of more than music in America—an important step for a show that is typically just another way for celebrities to celebrate themselves.

Despite groaning that Pharrell was going to perform “Happy” two years too late, I was taken aback by his approach to the song. His dancers donned hoodies and—during a piano interlude in the middle of the song—raised their hands to indicate the now-iconic “hands up, don’t shoot” protest signal. Drawing to mind both Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, Pharrell used his platform to nod to the African-Americans that never get the chance to succeed like him.

President Barack Obama made a surprise video appearance to speak out against domestic violence, along with a spoken word performance from activist Brooke Axtell and Katy Perry’s moving rendition of “By the Grace of God”. In the week leading up to the film release of the disgusting glorification of domestic violence (otherwise known as Fifty Shades of Gray), the three messages were bold, timely, and necessary.

Throughout the three-hour show, social messages like these were more than sprinkled throughout the broadcast. Country artist Eric Church sang “Give Me Back My Hometown” with news footage ranging from #BlackLivesMatter protests to the Je Suis Charlie demonstrations. Beyoncé’s choir also made use of the “hands up, don’t shoot” signal, Prince made reference to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and John Legend and Common performed their beautiful Selma-inspired “Glory” to close out the show.

Art has always been meant for addressing societal ills in attempts to move people to action. In fact, part of Obama’s speech noted artists’ “unique power to change minds and attitudes and get us thinking and talking about what matters.”

This year’s Grammys seemed to center on that notion, as artists who were being recognized for their work were pointing to what really matters right now.

I couldn’t wait to discuss this with people the following day.

After logging onto Facebook, however, I found that the entire conversation around the Grammys had turned to Kanye’s speech about Beyoncé deserving the Album of the Year win over Beck. “Go away, Kanye. Just go away,” one post read. “Kanye proves to be an idiot again,” another said. Shirley Manson, lead singer of Garbage, wrote an open letter to Kanye, telling him to stop throwing his toys. These and other vulgar words and phrases were used to chastise the artist.

Let me begin by saying that Kanye’s comment about respecting “true artistry” was insulting—intentionally or not—to Beck. It was inexcusable to even accidentally imply that Beck is not a real artist (even though he later clarified that he loves Beck, the initial wording had already done its damage).

But why was that the story that media focused on the next day? You currently cannot Google the word “Grammys” by itself without Kanye’s speech popping up at the top of news stories. Is it that Kanye’s speech was the most “exciting” part of the Grammys—even if it came in the E! post-show? Is it that Kanye was dead wrong or right, depending on who you asked?

I think the real answer is that both media and now social media have trained us to care about the wrong things. In a year where we could have opened up some great and needed conversations about racial issues and domestic violence, media outlets have focused our attention to what is being described as another Kanye “rant,” “outburst,” or “tantrum.”

As I write this, I know some of you will read that last paragraph and think, “Way to go, Kanye. You ruined it.” But Kanye, though not totally innocent, was not the one who turned your focus to him. When you watched or read about the Grammys, you chose what to talk about. You chose what to digest. You chose what to post about.

What many of us do not understand about Kanye’s speech is that his opinion—though not totally clear in this speech—was rooted in very real and valid feelings about the troubling history of Grammy awards. “They need to stop playing with us” is another way of saying, “The Grammys need to stop pretending to honor black artists.” (Kanye has spoken about this before, in clearer terms.)

When LL Cool J introduced Kanye for his performance of “Only One,” he mentioned that Kanye has won 21 Grammys. What he didn’t mention was that Kanye has only won these awards in the Rap and R&B categories, which historically mostly feature only black artists. Though a relatively young genre, hip-hop albums by black artists have only been nominated for the coveted Album of the Year category eight times. Only Lauryn Hill and Outkast have gone on to win. Music legends Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., and Jay Z have never been nominated. Compare these numbers (or lack thereof) to Eminem’s four nominations, more than any other rap artist and a third of the total number.

It is easy to dismiss the Grammys as an irrelevant award show. But the reality is that, regardless of how much we vocally dismiss it, we pay attention to it. And when black artists are told they are honored by the show, but see that they are usually only honored when pitted against each other (and not when Eminem is nominated), this promise feels hollow. Yes, Pharrell and Beyoncé won against white artists for “Happy” and “Drunk In Love,” respectively. But the exceptions are never the rules.

A reality of white privilege is that we get to attribute Beck’s win over Beyoncé to musical ability and ignore any potential racial implications. People of color cannot help but be hyper-aware of racial implications, whether real or perceived. This is the reality that Kanye lives in daily, the one where he points out privilege that we are either afraid to admit or unable to even see.

I am speaking from a place of white privilege myself, but I have observed the way my students view different situations in their lives, constantly questioning whether a teacher’s reprimand or a waiter’s rudeness was racially-charged. Before teaching, I never considered that people might be treating me in a certain way based on my race. That is part of what privilege is: being able to exist without awareness of why people treat you in a certain way. The world that people of color exist in does not allow them such a carefree, inattentive attitude.

When my African-American students view the media, I want them to see a narrative that says they are valued, that the outcry of #BlackLivesMatter is not just a dream deferred, something paid homage to only by artists who already look like them. I want them to see African-American success stories without asterisks, without footnotes.

I want them to Google “Grammys” and see celebrations of Beyoncé rather than dismissive reductions of her life’s work. I want them to see people talking about Kanye’s moving tribute to his mother and daughter rather than calling him a baby for expressing real fears of prejudiced voting systems. I want them to see WHITE people fighting for African-Americans, rather than just African-Americans.

If you want to stop being part of the racist media, stop insulting Kanye on your newsfeed. Post something positive about him, or another African-American artist. Question the way media portrays him and other black artists. Start a conversation about whose voices are heard on the Grammys and whose are not. Support the #ItsOnUs campaign to help victims of domestic abuse, an issue affecting all races.

If you feel you cannot do any of these things—or don’t want to—don’t post another word about the Grammys. Don’t call Kanye a child for feeling something you have never had to feel yourself. Don’t reduce people for the sake of it, or at all. The media has already done enough damage without your cutting sword.

Let’s talk about what our world really needs right now. Because black lives really do matter. And domestic abuse is on all of us to stop. And social ills need more than artists paying tribute to them in order to be cured. You are more capable than you realize, and certainly more responsible.

Soundtrack to My Year

I wanted to take some time to talk about the greatest year of my life so far, but I couldn’t find a way to do it without being sappy. So, since I love music and since this year gave us some phenomenal music, why not write about my year through the soundtrack to it? After writing this out, it seems I said more about the music than myself; I think it’s fitting though, since this music says more about me than I ever could.

Here are my 14 favorite albums of 2013. Yes, it would make more sense to choose 13 albums for the year 2013; but I refuse to let you box me in like that, world!

Honorable Mentions: J. Cole’s Born Sinner, Atoms for Peace’s AMOK, A$AP Rocky’s Long.Live.A$AP., HAIM’s Days Are Gone, Tegan & Sara’s Heartthrob, The Great Gatsby Soundtrack.

14. Pedestrian Verse, Frightened Rabbitpedestrianverse

This was the first album of the year to catch my attention. The album starts out with “Acts of Man,” a sad song about how terrible humans are to one another when it comes to love: “Let’s promise every girl we marry we’ll always love them when we probably won’t.” It’s a sad sentiment, but by the end of the song he admits to his girl that he is just as bad as other men, “sorry, selfish, trying to improve.” It’s the beginning of an album full of blunt, honest confessions about what it means to be human. When the end of the album comes, you feel like being a little more honest with yourself and others too. “There’s still hope so I think we’ll be fine,” the singer offers, “in these disastrous times.” It was a great start to a year of self-improvement and honest admissions in difficult situations.

13. Love in the Future, John Legendloveinthefuture

This was not a year of romantic love for me, but that’s okay: I got to live vicariously through John Legend’s swooning love album. I never thought I would like one of his albums as much as I did 2004’s Get Lifted, but this one had me (and  my students) crooning along often. When the title was announced awhile back, I thought Legend might describe what love will like in future times; instead, he describes love the way it should look right now. “I wanna get caught up in your love tonight/you can help me just breathe.” It’s these simple ideas that make Legend’s album a hopeful look into true love.

12. Nothing Was the Same, Drakenothingwasthesame

I have always enjoyed Drake’s music, but everyone knows I have beef with him. I used to hate how he would brag about being the best rapper just before admitting how self-conscious he is. It made both ideas of Drake, the boastful and the heartbroken, ring hollow for me. But with Nothing Was the Same, I got over it. He’s doing exactly what I, and most of us, do; we all pretend to be more confident than we are to help us through times of extreme vulnerability.This album is a perfect example of how things change and people grow apart. On “Connect,” Drake makes this confession: “She used to say, ‘You can be whoever you want, even yourself’/I show up knowing exactly who I was and always leave as someone else.” In my first year of post-grad life, as I moved to Dallas, lost good friends, made new ones, and searched for myself, this was an album I needed along for the ride to figure just who exactly I am.

11. Let’s Be Still, The Head and the Heartletsbestill

Let’s Be Still is music for the soul. While it may not have the same amount of songs that burrow into your mind like their self-title debut, Let’s Be Still explores the changing of seasons in powerful ways. On the title track, the singers ask you how necessary it is to keep up with the modern world: “The world’s just spinning a little too fast/If we don’t slow down soon, we might not last/So just for a moment, let’s be still.” I’m in a time of my life where everything seems to be swirling around me and I’m just trying to catch my breath. When I put this album on, the band gives me no choice but to sit and listen for a spell. And I’m not going to argue.

10. Because the Internet, Childish Gambinobecausetheinternet

When Donald Glover said that people who loved Camp would hate his new album, I trusted the guy and stopped looking forward to Because the Internet. But now I’ll never believe the guy again. No one was better able to capture the feeling of being a young adult in 2013 than Gambino. “House full of homies/so why I feel so the opposite?” he asks. In the Internet Age, where we are all over-connected but feel more isolated than ever, Gambino brilliantly expresses these feelings lyrically and even musically.Much of the music seems disconnected from the moment, as some songs trudge along with computer-made beats filled with solitude while others find Childish seeming to change his mind about whether he wants to rap or sing midway through.He invites you to a party at one point, then realizes he didn’t invite all of these other people, and tells everyone to get out. Well, the album is no party, but you’re invited to the isolation afterward; on the last track when he says, “because the internet, mistakes are forever/but if we —- up on this journey, at least we’re together,”  it’s a party we’re all familiar with these days.

9. My Name is My Name, Pusha Tmynameismyname

I’ve been a fan of Pusha T since he proved himself to be the best guest on Kanye’s 2010 magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I followed what felt like hundreds of guest features where he constantly showed up the other emcees and I not-so-patiently waited for this album. Right before it dropped, I feared I had overhyped it with the three-year wait, but then my fears were put to rest. From the opener, “King Push,” where Push boasts that, “I made a lane ’cause they blocked ours,” to the absolute jam “Numbers on the Boards,” where he talks about his “36 years of doing dirt like it’s Earth Day,” this album just makes me feel cool by proxy. Pusha thinks highly of himself, and you can’t help but feel the same about yourself while rapping along at embarrassing volumes in the car. Of course, it’s the serious moments where MNIMN really shines. On “40 Acres,” after reflecting on his family and how his mother left his father after 35 years of marriage, Pusha comforts her with these words: “You should never question if you ever stood a chance with him/Only question is: did you enjoy the dance with him?”What’s cooler than telling your mother you love her after bragging about your drug-dealing days?

8. Beyoncé, Beyoncébeyonce

With the way I freaked out about this album, most people would think this would be my #1 of the year. Not quite, but that’s no insult to Beyonce; there was just a lot of good music this year. I have long been obsessed with the Queen Bey for the fact that she seems perfect in every way. Not only did she have the coolest way of dropping an album (and ruining every other pop star’s year), Beyonce made the defining album of her career. With blunt honesty about her, uh, intimate moments with Jay Z, and her shunning of radio-friendly tunes to adopt the guise of Yoncé, an even cooler persona than Sasha Fierce, the Queen Bey made an album that surprises in ways I only thought possible from Kanye. It’s not just a feminist album; it’s an album for all of humanity to feel good about yourself. I woke up like this!

7. Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekendmodernvampires

In a year of albums about what it means to be growing up right now in 2013, Vampire Weekend pretty much put it the best. “Age is an honor; it’s still not the truth/Wisdom’s a gift but you’d trade it for youth,” singer Ezra Koenig pontificates. The album is rife with thoughts like this, thinking about how we choose to grow up–if at all–and whether there is anyone out there who might save a little grace for us. At one point Koenig questions how God could choose to be so mysterious in his cheeky way (“through the fire and through the flame, you won’t even say your name/only ‘I am what I am’/but who could ever live that way?”)–almost as if to really ask the listener whether we ourselves could benefit from a little mystery in the age of the over-share.

6. Reflektor, Arcade Firereflektor

It’s been said a thousand times over, so I won’t harp on how joyous Arcade Fire’s new album sounds. What I loved about this album is the influence the hundred(ish)-piece band took from a Kierkegaard essay, “The Present Age,” which basically states that we live in a time where people would rather reflect on doing great things than actually doing them. Amidst all of this sitting around, Arcade Fire looks to music as our possible redemption (taking from another influence, that of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice) but the ultimate ending, though beautifully crafted, seems to find the two lovers separated by the inevitability of death.But this sad conclusion seemed the only possible way to go when Butler questions halfway through the first song: “We’re still connected/but are we even friends?” It’s yet another moral tale for our times about searching for something more in our isolated world. Amidst all that joyous noise is a lesson to be learned: Are we doing anything real or are we just reflektions?

5. Magna Carta Holy Grail, JAY Zmagnacarta

People didn’t seem to care for Magna Carta, but I think it was one of the best things Hov has ever done. If he had cut two or three songs, I feel like it would have received a much better rap. But who cares what you people think! The concept of the blackout art alone (Basquiat once said that he blacks words out not so that you’ll pay less attention but so you’ll pay even more attention; Jay Z said America is the same way, trying to black out the plight of African-Americans) makes the album worth a look and listen. Tracks like “Picasso Baby,” “Tom Ford,” and “****withmeyouknowigotit” are instant Jay classics, but it’s deep cuts like “Oceans” that made the album. On the Frank Ocean-assisted track, Jay and Ocean contemplate what it means to “make it” in America as a black man. “I hope my black skin don’t dirt this white tuxedo,” Ocean concedes. Elsewhere Jay Z talks about how his success gives many ignorant Americans the excuse to think that him “coming from under the thumb of this regime” is an “everyday thing” for African-Americans. At this time in my life, when I am learning about and trying to fight the social inequalities of our nation, Jay Z’s words cut deep and keep my eyes open to the injustices we have yet to overcome.

4. Pure Heroine, Lordepureheroine

This gal. If you had asked anyone which female artist would release the best pop album this year, Lorde would not have been anyone’s answer because we didn’t even know who she was. But now, the results are in. Though Beyonce came through and took over the end of the year, Lorde had our ears for most of it. This album dances the lines between pop, hip-hop, and indie. But the real greatness of this album comes from the 16-now-17 year old’s incredibly mature outlook on the world: “We live in cities you’ll never see on screen,” she recognizes. The “Royals” singer took no prisoners in dismissing the culture of materialism we have all become new slaves to (as Kanye put it in less radio-friendly terms). While she wrestles with the mainstream (my personal favorite is when she says, “I’m kind of over being told to throw my hands up in the air”) she also deals with growing up and growing old: “I know we’re not everlasting/we are train wrecks waiting to happen/one day the blood won’t flow so gladly/one day we’ll all get still.” It’s a deep thought for a girl who was only 16 when she wrote it, but it’s an honest look at mortality that most of our “we’re gonna live forever” youth culture never bothers to think about.

3. The 20/20 Experience: Part 1, Justin Timberlake2020experience

I have no shame in saying that this album was one of my most played of 2013. It was the feel-good album of the year. I disliked a lot of Part 2, but Part 1 had me doing my pseudo-Justin impersonation (both dancing and singing) all. year. long. There is not one song on this album that will make you feel bad. From the R&B-infused opener “Pusher Lover Girl” to the slow-burning closer of “Blue Ocean Floor,” I was all about this long-player. In a time where we want everything fast and hate when something demands our attention for longer than a few minutes, JT asked you to sit for longer than an hour to listen to radio jams that lasted almost 9 minutes. It was a bold comeback, and that confidence in the music as well as the confidence of the lyrics (“I heard you tell your girl friend you could do better/well, I’m the best ever”) made this album my pump-up soundtrack any time I needed confidence.

2. Trouble Will Find Me, The Nationaltroublewillfindme

The National’s new album got me in all my feels this year. I went through a lot of transitions and growing up this year, and The National was there for all of it. “If I stay here, trouble will find me,” Berninger acknowledges on the title track. I wasn’t in any particular trouble this year, but I knew there were things, people, or even just thoughts I needed to get away from. Trouble Will Find Me is an album about recognizing that where you are may not be destructive at the moment, but staying put might be your downfall. “I need somewhere to be,” Berninger notes, “but I can’t get around the river in front of me.” In the end, you get the feeling that to grow into the person you are supposed to become, it’s not going around the river that is going to help; it’s through. On the cusp of those defining moments, The National provides the perfect backdrop for feelings of fear and insecurity just before taking the next step.

1. Yeezus, Kanye West

yeezus

I hate to not surprise anyone, but Yeezy did it again. When this album came out, I did not expect it to be #1 on my list for most of the year. It’s abrasive, sometimes unpleasant to listen to, and in general not for mixed company. But over time, the ideas and the music got into my system and I could not get them out. At the height of his musical creativity and in a moment where America loves to hate him (like most moments), Kanye embraced the idea of himself as a villain (“the monster about to come alive again,” he warns on the opener) and made us all think about our place in this world and who’s on top of us. On “New Slaves,” he makes an uncomfortable sermon about how we are all enslaved to materialism, racism, corporations, and societal standards in general. We have come to accept too many things as okay in our culture, and while we reject Kanye as unacceptable, he asks us to consider what should really be unacceptable: a man who believes that he is made in God’s image despite the fact that he’s only “doing 1% of what God wants me to do right now” or a culture where people hate themselves so much that they cut musicians down who they have never even bothered to really listen to. When Kanye calls himself a god, or calls himself Yeezus, we call it blasphemy and write him off. Meanwhile he explains over and over again that he’s not saying he is the equivalent of Jesus, but spent too many years pretending he wasn’t made in the image of God, wasting time drowning in self-loathing and other people’s negative opinions of him. Instead of rejecting his sermon, perhaps it’s time we hear it for what it’s worth, take the good parts out, and leave the rest. Kanye made the album quickly, writing many of the lyrics in less than an hour, as a way of showing us that for all of its imperfections there is some truth to saying what’s on your mind and expressing your frustration with the world in both right and wrong ways. Yeezus is an album about the state of affairs in America in 2013. Its brilliance lies it in its imperfections; even if it’s not all right, at least Kanye is trying to tell the truth, or even just search for it. As I fail over and over again at being an adult and a teacher, Yeezus was a message I needed this year. I am mostly wrong about everything, definitely imperfect, but I am still made in God’s image. We all need to pay less attention to what other people think of us and more attention to how we can keep reaching up and beyond ourselves.

What albums are on your list? I’m looking forward to what 2014 has to offer, but I’m pretty sure this guy will have the best album: https://soundcloud.com/therealbenshady/stoplights.

Sleepy Heaven (Pt. 1)

The third song on Wake Up Sleepy Heaven, the new album from my rap duo Holy Smokes, is Sleepy Heaven (Pt. 1). The two parts of Sleepy Heaven are meant to act as interludes but still push the concept of Sleepy Heaven further.

Part 1 comes from the perspective of a disillusioned sinner. He is waging a war against his demons, but when he turns to the religious for guidance, they are busy hiding their sins and putting on a nice face for the public. The religious person is described with the characteristics of a politician, someone who “tries to build the public’s trust” but who, at the end of his life, “might tell you what he covered up.”

The sinner, upon seeing the way religious people hide their own sins, is left with even more questions than answers. He cannot help himself, fake Christians cannot help him, and he begins to question whether even God can help him.

I have seen this, and felt this, a lot in my life. So many of us Christians keep our sins to ourselves so that we can look like good people instead of real people, and we end up leaving more people lonely. We deny that we struggle time and again, causing a chain reaction of private suffering. We wear masks and forget that caring for people means sharing our trials with others so that we can share in our triumphs together. It’s hard to be found when we can’t admit that we’re lost.

Charles Bukowski once wrote in a poem, “the thing about church–you can’t change a mask.” Unfortunately, too often we think that the term ‘Christian’ is synonymous with saint rather than sinner. In part I blame this on the society we live in, where the American culture tells us not to wear our emotions too prominently for fear of looking vulnerable. At the end of the song, the narrator wonders when Christians started worshiping America over God. In a country that subscribes to survival of the fittest, there isn’t much room for admitting weakness. (The idea of America being a hindrance to true faith will come back throughout the album.)

At some point in our lives, we all experience hell on earth. Our stories are filled with suffering, and we all willingly accept that hell happens here. But how many of us acknowledge that heaven might be here too? As I said before, Jesus told the Pharisees that the kingdom of God wouldn’t come with our careful observation because the kingdom of God is inside us (Luke 17:20-21). What if we removed our masks and showed people our scars? Wouldn’t we be closer to heaven knowing that others are suffering too? You can’t make it through hell if you don’t admit that you’re in it. If we want to bring heaven to people, we need to let them know we have been through our own personal hells, and are still fighting our demons despite our beliefs. No one relates to the person without blemish. Waking up heaven inside of us and inside of others is going to require a lot more vulnerability and honesty than we’ve been willing to give.

Wake up sleepyhead, sleepyhead, sleepy heaven
I try to stay awake but my eyes are feeling heavy
and this life is unsteady
and my friends, they all forget me
My demons grip my neck
I’m just trying to get a grip on me
I feel your hand slip on me
I find my sin and its whole army
line up at attention
state your name
and state your business
Are you all here to kill me?
Is this the real me?
Can you feel me?
I was screaming at the sky to take me
but lately I’ve been thinking
if God makes us from up above
does he drop us just to shake us?
Or if we spend our days in search of love
do most of just find more lust?
We crave a touch
I’ve said too much
No good man ever states his sins
He keeps them in
he locks them up
he tries to build the public’s trust
and at the end
(after some good luck)
he might tell you what he covered up
while the rest of us are shamed to say
that our mistakes they smother us
I’m trying to say that I –ed up
I wonder if God still loves us
us stutterers and vagabonds
We wander through youth then wander on
with nothing new under the sun
We’d bow to the Son
but he’s better than us
In God We Trust
but Dear God,
we must insist that you trust us
with trust funds
and some hot blondes
and these big homes
just like pop songs
Will Pop and Mom be proud of me
if trials are of what I sing?
If they sing “My Country Tis of Thee”
and I sing, “that don’t mean much to me”?
Excuse me, please
Apologies
for cursing the land of too much blessing
too much dressing on Thanksgiving
thankful for our gluttony
thankful for the greed on Wall Street
thankful for the sluts on TV
thankful for this country:
red, white, and blue
but mostly green
Smoke clouds around
What could this mean?
We got trapped inside our screens
The earth fast asleep
falling deeper
don’t wake me
steeper into this stupor
Sleepy in, sleepy heaven
the worthless aren’t waiting
Sleep in, sleepy heaven
the worthless aren’t waiting

Celebrate

This past Saturday Parker played his last show with the Holy Smokes for some time, as he is taking off for Australia in a few weeks. We did it big for our last time together (for now), and 40 people showed up to party with us. There were lots of feelings being felt.

It is fitting, then, that the next song I explain is Celebrate. This is the second song on our new album, Wake Up Sleepy Heaven, which you can download for free here.

I met a lot of endings at the close of 2012. After three and a half years, Parker and I graduated from TCU in December. We started our time at school together, along with his girlfriend and our honorary third member Jade, and we ended the same way. It was super special.

Two days before graduation, I finished an internship at the nonprofit foundation Lena Pope Home, which provides counseling and education for children and families in Fort Worth. The good people there taught me a lot about helping others.

In between finishing my internship and graduating, I celebrated 22 years on Earth. Yet despite the feeling of accomplishment in all of these things, I was saying goodbye to a lot of people. I was experiencing a big life change, and though people were congratulating me and asking me how exciting it felt to finish school, it was hard to part with the people and places that had meant so much to me. I had not come out of these past few years unchanged, and the celebration was mixed with the funeral of leaving things behind.

The song Celebrate is about happy and sad and conflicted and resolved and so on and so forth happening all at once. In the moments where you are asked to put a smile on, you might be on the verge of crying. In the moments where you know you are losing someone very important, sometimes you can’t help but smile at the memories shared.

One of Wake Up Sleepy Heaven’s themes is that the world isn’t black and white; neither are emotions. No one can control how a moment unfolds for you; not even you. You can only control how you move on from an ending, not how it affects you in that moment of impact.

This is a song about letting go. Appreciating what has happened, and appreciating that they are over. Mourning the end of relationships and experiences, but holding your head up when it’s time to say goodbye. Thinking you had more chances, more time, but understanding that ends beget beginnings. You don’t always get to turn the page in a story; sometimes you have to start a new one. So celebrate and be sad.

Celebrate

I said goodbye so much this year
I hope hellos are almost here
Nearer to the end of most of what I started
With nowhere to go, do you feel brokenhearted?
Do you feel farther from the truth that you knew
when you said “I love you” and it sounded like a truce?
The people that you held became feelings that you knew
You outgrew the past and couldn’t retrace the roots/routes
So your truth became lies
Your proof, alibis
You say bye but feel like you never say hi
Goodnight, go home, turn the lights on, I’m gone
If I wanna know right, I’mma have to do wrong
Right?
I find myself more found when I’m lost
I find the benefits outweighing the costs
of how much it pays to make too many mistakes
Then make it out alive, that’s more cause to celebrate

Here’s to all the good times and here’s to the bad
For all the missed chances and all the times we had
I can’t help thinking there were more to have
But if we have to let go, let’s celebrate and be sad
Let’s celebrate and be sad

Celebrate and be sad, I’m so glad that it happened
and when it fell apart I couldn’t help but be saddened
Imagine if nothing you started had to end
Would you feel any better?
I guess it all depends
Sometimes you let go and the loss is a win
Sometimes you let go and the pain sets in
I let a girl go, too hard to hold her hand
but I let her know how I felt when I had the chance
I finished school to do my grownup dance
then found myself looking back for one more glance
I guess there’s some things we don’t get to understand
I guess there’s no sense in making concrete plans
There’s a reason hourglasses tell time with sand:
It slips through our hands, we lose everything
Find peace, please, we’re all bound to leave
In the meantime, we’re bound to each living thing
We’re bound like books with no cover sleeves
‘cause a life well-written has no summary
Summer, spring, we fall through the seasons
When winter gets cold, we remember the reasons
for warm welcomes when we come back home
We never expect to go through anything alone
but found ourselves facing trials on our own
and longed for the triumph of love still unknown

Here’s to all the good times and here’s to the bad
For all the missed chances and all the times we had
I can’t help thinking there were more to have
But if we have to let go, let’s celebrate and be sad
Let’s celebrate and be sad

We Aren’t the Kids

I am part of the most legendary rap duo since Outkast and Kanye West & Jay-Z, the Holy Smokes. We just released our third album, Wake Up Sleepy Heaven. I thought it would be fun to share the lyrics and meanings behind each of the songs for the five people who listen to us (my mom, dad, sister, and the two of us in the band).

The first song on the album is entitled We Aren’t the Kids. It was a blasty blast to make. Parker, the music-maker of our duo, made what he thought was our most fun song yet. I felt forced to live up to that, so I responded in kind.

The album is called Wake Up Sleepy Heaven for a number of reasons. One of those is that I believe we are living in a generation where we are starting to question the benefit of placing Heaven in the sky while people live in hell here on Earth. Jesus told the Pharisees that the kingdom of God wouldn’t come from us pointing and saying “here it is” or “there it is” because the kingdom of God is within us. I believe that Heaven is asleep inside a lot of us, and it’s time for us to wake it up.

This song is a call to arms for the kids who dream while they’re awake. For the kids who believe that Heaven is inside them and that they can impart a piece of it to this world despite what past generations have told them. They are the kids who see hell around them, and may have experienced it themselves, so they know that Heaven must be nearby too. They know that church is something that just happens on Sunday but every time that truth is being spoken or at least searched for in a world full of lies.

The kids are revolutionaries, dreamers, and rebels, the ones who shout what they aren’t so that they can figure out who they are. They certainly don’t have the answers (“we ask the questions and embrace them all”) but they have the sense of self-worth necessary to go looking. If this is you, even a small part of you, this is dedicated to you.

We aren’t the kids who sleep to dream
We aren’t the kids who sleep to dream
We aren’t the kids who sleep to dream
Don’t sleep to dream, don’t sleep to dream

We aren’t the kids who sleep through dreams
We aren’t the kids who sleep through dreams
We aren’t the kids who sleep through dreams
Don’t sleep through dreams, don’t sleep through dreams

This is for my family and not just kin
This is for my best friends
This is for my next friends
Not every friendship is meant to last
But not every person outlives the past
But this is for the present and this is to the future
This is for the go-getters, all the ones who choose to
do it on their own ’cause they got something to prove
While the world stands still, they still choose to move
They do it for their loved ones
They do it for themselves
’cause sometimes you don’t have nobody else
and you don’t have to die to go through hell
Where the hell is heaven and its angels to help?

We aren’t the kids who sleep to dream
We aren’t the kids who sleep to dream
We aren’t the kids who sleep to dream
Don’t sleep to dream, don’t sleep to dream

We aren’t the kids who sleep through dreams
We aren’t the kids who sleep through dreams
We aren’t the kids who sleep through dreams
Don’t sleep through dreams, don’t sleep through dreams

This is for the ones who went to church
but that good news wasn’t what you heard
They told you to be good and keep your nose clean
but this is for the ones who’d rather say what they mean
What’s a pew to streets where a homeless man preach?
What’s a class in an age where our iPods teach?
We aren’t the kids who bow at your feet
Only things we follow are the tweets on our feed
But those don’t feed us so we chow/ciao leaders
No president can save us so we occupy the streets
But me? I’d rather occupy these beats
I won’t protest the progress of liars and thieves
I’ll reflect on higher things like we stop buying things
If poverty bothers us, then how we spend our green?
Is it fine for us to scream at politicians in their greed?
Waste time counting on what we don’t believe in?

Count what we’ve received and subtract what we’re given
In the end we’re not better
but better still
If we got the urge then we’ll find the will
to die standing tall and nothing short of real
’cause we aren’t the kids who go by the book
We aren’t the kids who gives lies two looks
We don’t look up at skies for answers to fall
We ask the questions and embrace them all

And I don’t look at someone else to decide who to be
I look in the mirror and I’m proud to be me
and if you were really you, then you might see
what it’s really like to dream without falling asleep