- Solange – Cranes in the Sky
While sadness has no quick-fix, “Cranes in the Sky” prescribes distractions aplenty. Some are vague (“I tried to run it away”), others draw on Solange’s experiences as a black woman in America (“I tried to fix it with my hair”). Both waste time evading a root cause, but a stark backdrop of wooden drums, strings and bass encourages self-reflection.
- A Tribe Called Quest – We The People….
Just like Trump’s “deplorables” and Clinton’s “Nasty Women” embraced disparaging monikers, “We The People….” parodies enemies of the far-right. Sirens rage and industrial beats grind as Q-Tip and the late Phife seek to galvanise blacks, Mexicans, the poor, muslims, and gays – who together form the unwelcome “bad folks”.
- All Saints – One Strike
Inspired by a phone call between Shaznay Lewis and Nicole Appleton as the latter’s began marriage to crumble, “One Strike” celebrates rational thinking in a spiralling situation. Buzzy synths recall All Saints’ ebullient classic “Pure Shores”, but Lewis’ songwriting occasionally smarts in its depiction of a relationship blanched by deceit.
- Mykki Blanco – Loner (feat. Jean Deaux)
Performance artist-turned-alt-hip-hop darling Mykki Blanco packs copious gender speech tropes into any given song. As “Loner” demonstrates over cold aqueous synths, this isn’t a mere male-female dichotomy – it’s a constellation of personalities attempting to reckon with love, and loneliness is an all-too common thread.
- Radiohead – Burn the Witch
For their first lead single in five years, Radiohead mischievously keep up the suspense. On “Burn the Witch”, Thom Yorke’s head voice wafts unintelligibly across percussive strings and a groaning synth. The climatic shock never comes, but nods to Britain’s unravelling foreign relations (“Loose talk around tables / abandon all reason”) evoke an insidious danger.
- Childish Gambino – Redbone
Set in a world of velvety funk riddled with boogiemen, zombies and other inhuman threats, Childish Gambino’s latest LP has a lot to say about self-preservation. Dwell on the Prince-pilfering textures and you miss the bigger picture – “Redbone” is a distinctly millennial rallying cry. Basing his chorus around a zeitgeist-ish bid to “stay woke”, Glover taps into the unease felt by any young liberal witnessing a very real world in turmoil.
- Rihanna – Love on the Brain
There’s a fine line between escapism and cynicism. Musically, “Love on the Brain” is more surreal than soulful – a wounded 60s prom ballad bleeding Twin Peaks-esque Americana. Occasional anachronisms (“It beats me black and blue, but it fucks me so good”) should theoretically anchor the fantasy, but Rihanna’s career-best vocals are equally disorientating. Careening from an uncharacteristically strong soprano to expressive, raspy bleats, this is a song the ever-improving singer has been waiting 11 years to record: the kind of hit anyone and everyone can get lost in.
- Katy B x Chris Lorenzo – I Wanna Be
Honey, Katy B’s mixtape-cum-third LP, was an unambitious project, and this future dance classic deserved more. Chris Lorenzo’s steely and expensive trance beats render “I Wanna Be” as sensual and bracing as an MDMA peak, while lyrics like “I wanna tell you but anxiety’s a bitch, babe” see Katy continue to give pop a welcome human touch.
- Skepta – Man
During this year’s Mercury Music Prize ceremony, Jarvis Cocker teased that the battle had come down to “two black stars” – referring, of course, to the late David Bowie and Tottenham-born grime MC Skepta. Ultimately swallowed up by Skepta’s win, this reductive pun sits awkwardly alongside “Man”, a timely exploration of racial relations.
Horror-movie guitar jerks and slugging rhymes imply an anger towards entitled middle-class hangers-on, but it’s closer to frustration. Why else is an ersatz fan asking “Can I get a pic for the ‘gram?” lambasted in the topline? The request captures a presumed familiarity bordering on festishisation, and in response, their idol retreats to what feels genuine: “I only socialise with the crew and the gang.”
- Beyoncé – Formation
Forget the video, the Super Bowl performance, and the “Anti-police” clusterfuck that followed: as a song, “Formation” is among Beyoncé’s very best. Those cartoonish banjo plucks are the sound of change boinging through the air, not just in the singer’s approach to her art, but for the world at large.
There is no proto-“Formation” in Beyoncé’s canon. Mike Will Made It tames the noisy trap of “7/11” into something more tactile, but there’s a lot to get hold of. Synths twinkle menacingly and what sounds like a deflating bagpipe is looped ad nauseum, acting as burly backup to Beyoncé’s constant iterations of pride (“I slay, I slay, all day”).
The pro-black theme marks a bold advancement of Beyoncé’s influence, and politics can’t help but permeate the meme-chasing hooks. Every time a listener passively mouths “I got hot sauce in my bag” – the hot sauce in question being a baseball bat Beyoncé later wields in the “Hold Up” clip – it’s an often subconscious showing of solidarity for a black woman’s right and ability to carry power.
‘Empowering’ is too played-out a word to describe “Formation”. This isn’t a song about how you good look without makeup, or how you shouldn’t hate your curvy figure, because some men might dig it. Beyoncé is now above such banal commonalities. When she yells “Show me you have some co-ordination!” at the track’s end, she practically acknowledges her godlike status, begging to the women of the world to match her ambition and most importantly, stand up for one another.
You only have to look at her country’s president-elect to see how much work we all – including our superstar allies – have left to do, but “Formation” will continue to be a touchstone for those attempting to pick up the pieces and move on from 2016. RG