Odd Future was the epitome of this new statelessness: They were neither engineered by a label nor hometown heroes, but something wildly different. Odd Future dominated many conversations about pop culture and the future of music by the end of They had released all of their early work — a barrage of clever mixtapes, striking artwork and bizarro music videos — for free on Tumblr and YouTube. Their sound was prodigious. And not only was their music different but they also looked different too, a bunch of black weirdos who skated in their free time and moshed onstage.
The frenzy surrounding Odd Future reached its peak in Cartoon Network gave the group their own television show; plans for an Odd Future retail shop were in the works. Labels were desperate to sign deals with the group, and Sony Music Entertainment succeeded. The crew had the upper hand and persuaded the label to give them their own imprint, and to award each member a cushy solo record deal. Bennett, the D. Music came naturally to Bennett. Though her parents are 9-to-5 people — Janel is a city clerk and her father, Howard, owns a manufacturing company based in China — her uncle, Mikey Bennett, is a producer in Jamaica.
When she was 16, her parents let her transform their guesthouse into a studio, where she worked on her own songs and recorded local musicians. In high school, she took music-technology classes and piano lessons; at night, she devoured beat-making tutorials and messed around with music software. Bennett gravitated toward artists who had pioneered brand-new sounds: The sonic spaciness of Missy Elliott, the stanky soul of Erykah Badu and the acid jazz of Jamiroquai. Pharrell Williams, the original black skater weirdo, is her patron saint.
And like most kids interested in music and living in Los Angeles in the mids, Bennett knew about a teenager named Tyler Okonma who called himself Tyler, the Creator. He had a sizable following on MySpace, where he released his music. She browsed through his page, listening to the songs he posted, too. She admired his ability to create deeply complex soundscapes, and she eventually messaged him, seeking advice on ways to advance her own style.
And when Okonma needed a place to record the early Odd Future mixtapes, Bennett offered up her home studio. In old footage of early Odd Future shows, Bennett plays songs from a laptop on a table at the back of the stage. Tomboyish, in a muscle tee and a short haircut, she crackles with the manic energy that Odd Future shows were famous for. She was generally indistinguishable from the boys in the group. From the beginning, Odd Future was meant to be a galaxy of loosely knit projects; the whole point was for the members to collaborate and spin off solo efforts.
After all, they liked the same sounds: So they began experimenting, and these experiments would eventually lead to the formation of the Internet. The band is artistically cocooned, trying to create, as she sees it, an entirely new style of R. Bennett thought this was a bit unfair given that, as the D. I looked up to him. He was a very artistic guy, and I saw past the few words that he chose to use, and I never really felt any kind of way about it.
She made tearful calls to her mother from the road, wondering aloud whether she should quit. Bennett also struggled with depression, worsened by the stress of touring and feeling disconnected from her family and her girlfriend at the time. She says that no one in the group — other than Martin — seemed to care. One morning while Odd Future was on tour, when the group was watching the sun crest over a beach in Australia, Bennett broke the news that she was leaving. She says it was not well received. It felt like a divorce, like a family — however dysfunctional — falling apart. She felt ostracized by the band for a while, but a few years after the fallout, any lingering resentment or hurt feelings appear to have faded.
Okonma compared the space Bennett occupies now to Lauryn Hill at her peak. Musicians like Wiz Khalifa and Jaden Smith have been photographed wearing skirts and dresses. But being openly gay can still feel especially difficult in the world of hip-hop and R. Lesbianism is often fetishized, made into a hypersexualized performance. While Young Thug can get away with wearing nail polish, female artists who give off an even slightly masculine air, like the rapper Dej Loaf, are hounded about their orientation. Minya Oh, the hip-hop journalist who goes by Miss Info, thinks Bennett has benefited from upheaval in the industry.
If anything, Bennett seems to have attracted an audience that appreciates the way her onstage presence transcends any particular gender. During the handful of times we met, I repeatedly tried to talk to Bennett about the importance of her visibility as a gay singer. And every time, she seemed uneasy with the idea that she was a symbol. The last time I saw her, we were having breakfast at the Hotel Hacienda Cocoyoc in Cocoyoc, Mexico, a few hours before the Internet was scheduled to play a local festival in a forest, and I picked at the topic again.
Did she see herself as symbolic of something larger than herself? You know? The cloud lifted. Now we saw each other clearly. The Internet — the network — has a way of normalizing fringe ideas, marginalized identities and emerging artists that old media tends to ignore. It has done such a good job, you could argue, that people like Bennett — black, queer and weird — can exist without the burden of having to represent something larger. Later that night, as thousands of Mexican teenagers rushed the stage, singing along in English and screaming her name, Bennett looked completely at home, and completely herself.
How does a song work? What does it actually do? In my favorite songs, this stance-causation is essentially moral-ethical — it makes me feel more able to go out and live. How does the song accomplish this? Was that the intention? This led me to assume the song had to be a result of weeks of arranging.
But reportedly the band recorded it in one take, learning it from the songwriter Jeff Tweedy as the tape rolled. The song starts with a catchy eight-note guitar riff, to which it keeps returning, like a well-intentioned guy steering back to his mantra. Via inventive instrumental fills and a false ending from which it rejuvenates with renewed purpose , it manages the strange task of seeming contemplative while escalating like crazy. What does the song mean? Well, a great song means beyond simple sense.
It means by how it sounds. The trip cost him something but was so deep that he has to share it. The song is, yes, O. The effect of all of this on the listener — this listener anyway — is transformative. I feel a positive alteration in my body and mind: At first, I thought my MP3 must have been corrupted. The effect is so jarring that it can easily be mistaken for an error, a glitch in the stream.
When I learned that this tear into white noise was intentional, I was shocked. This went beyond breaking the rules. What matters here is the rupture. Someone is controlling this switch. A young man has been unexpectedly silenced. Out of that hardship, Staples emerged as a streetwise Everyman whose lyrics and musical production are uniformly lean and unsentimental. His compressed rhymes sparkle with aphoristic detail. There are no radio-friendly singles here. The preternaturally gifted rapper dresses in unflashy T-shirts and jeans.
Over a lurching, industrial beat, Staples explains: And even when one can voice his or her mind freely, to be a successful black rapper is to perform your persona before a predominantly white audience, whose aggregate opinion determines your worth. Staples knows that possibilities for mainstream black visibility are few and fraught. Black entertainers in the celebrity spotlight mark one extreme, the grainy videoclips of African-Americans dying at the hands of the police, whose name-recognition is always posthumous, another. How to speak against that? You can only unplug. Their looking was the only thing to see.
White noise is a spray of pitches and volumes that contains all audible frequencies. It is constant and patternless. His signal fritzes into static with a snarl of hope: Noise and silence mark the edges of what can be considered music. To end an album like this points to a world beyond the song and to hands manipulating the transmission. The next night, at Union Pool in Williamsburg, audience members who looked to have come straight from their jobs at Vice Media or Kickstarter exchanged similar glances — Case closed, my bearded, craft-beer-drinking friend — when she began to sing.
The two deliveries of the line play up countervailing qualities of desperation and resolve in her voice. This instantly detectable tension in her voice causes listeners to become alert, even alarmed, the moment she starts singing. Then she broke it when she fell off a piece of playground equipment in elementary school, and again a few years ago when, in a moment of drunken hilarity at a backyard party in East Nashville, a good friend accidentally smashed her in the face with a massive belt buckle weighted with bullets.
Price endured a run of professional disappointment and personal sorrow after arriving in Nashville in With her husband, Jeremy Ivey, who plays bass in the Price Tags and writes songs with her, she tried her hand at rock and soul and made a brief, unhappy foray into writing commercial country music. Serially turned away, ripped off and let down by operators in the music industry, she grew used to selling her meager possessions to pick up and start over, waitressing, hoping for some luck.
Five years ago she gave birth to twin sons, one of whom died of a rare heart ailment two weeks later. Another name for that sound is Americana: Pointing in particular to the career of Stapleton — who went from writing pop-flavored radio fare for established stars to become a major-label juggernaut singing spare, bluesy songs in the outlaw country mold — Swank says: He directed her to the Into the Circle dressing room, reserved for performers making their Opry debuts.
Its walls are lined with quotes from country-music stars about how intimidated they were the first time they played the Valhalla of country music. Friends and family were temporarily shooed away as she put on something tight and fringed. Foot traffic milled in and out of other dressing rooms along the hall, and from one came a furious burst of picking as a bluegrass band warmed up. Good to have somebody come out here and sing country again. Carlo Rotella is the director of American studies at Boston College.
L ate last spring, the country-music star Keith Urban sent a text message to Matt Chamberlain, one of the busiest and most respected drummers in music. Would Chamberlain be willing to fly out from Los Angeles to Nashville to give it a shot? The two worked together several years before, and Chamberlain was good friends with Dann Huff, a producer on the project, so he packed up his sticks and a newly acquired Elektron drum machine and headed east.
Chamberlain, 48, is a session player paid by the project, a below-the-radar rock star who often shows up only in the liner notes.
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In a world of dwindling recording budgets and increased automation, he could well be the last one drumming before software takes over completely. Chamberlain assembled a drum loop — a small-scale mechanical repetition born more of hip-hop than country — and then played live drums over the loop, deepening the timbre and also providing accents and fills when the movement of the verses seemed to require it. Within a couple of hours, the drums-bass-and-voice opening and the entire vibe of the song were effectively complete.
Country Airplay chart. This is the work of the modern session drummer, and it is why, when a major-label project needs drums, Chamberlain is often the first person producers call. When we met in Los Angeles in February, he posed his value proposition as a question: And so he lives at an odd intersection, or perhaps a vanishing point; part virtuoso whose skills have never been more relevant, part John Henry figure, hammering away as music is increasingly composed and performed by machines.
In his younger days, with straggly hair down to his shoulders, Chamberlain very much looked the part of a touring musician with a soft spot for recreational drugs. Chamberlain in middle age still has a youthful bearing about him, like a lot of people who genuinely enjoy what they do, and he dresses low-key California: He rarely misses a chance to make a joke at his own expense, but there is a seriousness, an earnestness, that never quite disappears.
He drives a Volvo. He has a full recording studio set up: There are drums everywhere, more than anybody should rightly own, stacked on top of each other and hanging from racks: As he finished giving me a tour, he said: These are the physical versions of the samples. He cued up the track and then, without any practice, played along with it, sounding so much like the programming that it was almost hard to believe it could be a live performance. Within an hour or two, the track acquired shaker, tambourine and four flourish-filled runs on a full drum kit, just to give the production team some different options.
Chamberlain is an elegant player; no movement is wasted.
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He plays with a traditional underhand grip, which is more often associated with jazz than rock. Then he went home to make pasta with his wife. Chamberlain was 15 when he decided to learn how to play the drums. As a kid in Los Angeles, he had access to some real talent. He found David Garibaldi, the drummer for the soul band Tower of Power, and began taking lessons.
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Afterward, he would hang around at the Professional Drum Shop on Vine Street, to pick up drum books and listen to older local drummers talking shop at the counter. North Texas State now the University of North Texas accepted him into its music program on a scholarship, but he lasted less than a year. For a while he slept in his practice room with his head on the pillow in his kick drum. After he left school, Chamberlain moved to the Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas, about 40 miles away, where he played in several bands, often just for food or enough cash to put gas in his car.
The band, without Chamberlain, has since reunited. After a year, though, Chamberlain decided to move to Seattle. But demand for his services remains strong. In a poll to be published later this year, the readers of Modern Drummer have named him the best studio player in the business.
On another perfect California day, Chamberlain was back in his Sound City studio, laying down beats for a company called the Loop Loft. The job was notable largely because it involved no musical collaborators at all. The Loop Loft pays virtuosic drummers to create bulk rhythms that the company sells for a lump sum.
The software is designed for people who are making records in their garages and basements or for commercial producers scoring an advertisement or the end of a television program. For Hakim, Gruss had typed out descriptions of beats and suggested tempos to go along with them, but there was no such list for Chamberlain. As an engineer got the kit sounding right in the control room, Chamberlain roamed over the drums and settled into a rhythm that Gruss liked.
Over the next four hours, Chamberlain would roll through nine other grooves and five different setups, swapping out drums and cymbals in search of new sounds and textures. Sample song title: When the Loop Loft session was over, Chamberlain wandered in and out of the control room, packing up his gear for another recording stint with Keith Urban. This time the sessions would include the Welsh bassist Pino Palladino, one of the most respected players around.
Instead of adding drums to a previously recorded track, Chamberlain would be playing live with Palladino in the studio. Chamberlain loves playing live above all else, for those moments when the music takes an inexplicable turn but somehow everybody stays together. No machine could match it. Musical duets are usually ordered by heterosexual difference and its various dramas. As in: She gives, he takes.
He pleads, she refuses. They may reconcile, but the performers always observe the classic sex distinction — making the circumstances of the female vocalist a good barometer for the circumstances of female speech in general. The women put on their respective versions of a placid attitude — Rihanna sings with cheek, SZA cheerlessly. Each is calm but, you suspect, coursing toward some possible furor. The closeness approaches uncanny, suggests an erotics of the self.
The way Rihanna likens herself to our most uncivil cultural child, Peter Pan: Rihanna often returns to Barbados, the landmass that bore her. What kind of pedals? What amp? Actual bugs. It was cute. It has received around , views on YouTube. The more famous DeMarco gets, the more accessible he seems to become. This invitation, like much about DeMarco, might seem tongue-in-cheek but is in fact sincere.
The house he rents in Arverne, Queens, is an unprepossessing four-bedroom cottage in a lower-middle-class neighborhood, with cigarette butts peppering the lawn. When I rang his bell, he came to the door in boxers and a rumpled Hugo Boss T-shirt, greeted me with slightly bleary-eyed politeness, then led me past guitar cases and piles of laundry and a cluster of half-inflated party balloons to the kitchen, where Kiera McNally, his girlfriend of five years, was baking gluten-free banana bread.
Over a cup of diner-style coffee — from an industrial steady-drip machine that DeMarco pointed out to me with pride — I asked what the repercussions of inviting hundreds of thousands of fans to his house had been. It can get a bit weird. The music DeMarco makes has been enthusiastically received by critics, but reviews of his albums can be frustrating to read: King Sunny Ade came to mind as I listened, as did Jerry Garcia, an acknowledged influence, but I found it nearly impossible to pin down the music I was hearing, or even to date it.
There just happens to be this thing called the Internet around. The family has musicians on both sides: Agnes herself had a stint, as a teenager, singing at parties and weddings around Edmonton. At 16, Mac started recording songs in his room, by himself — the way he still records all his music — and playing in a band called Belgium with two friends from high school, Alec Meen and Peter Sagar.
I always hated the name Belgium.
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In Vancouver, where he lived for a time in the boiler room of a printmaking studio for Canadian dollars a month, DeMarco continued recording songs, posting them on Myspace under the name Makeout Videotape. They were all these great, noisy, lo-fi bands, and I halfway fit in, mainly because I had no idea how to record.
But I was trying to write Beatles songs the whole time. While performing at a music festival in Calgary, DeMarco reconnected with McNally, whom he knew in high school, and within the year they moved to Montreal together. But I found something in those songs that I could use. After a barely perceptible hesitation, he played the songs gently, sincerely and with a devotion and skill that were never entirely obscured by the grin on his face or the jokes he cracked.
I take a helicopter to work. I was reminded, watching them together, of something DeMarco told me on our drive. Not a thing. The platinum-selling doo-wop duet features the artist Meghan Trainor who, like Puth, has thus far used her considerable songwriting talent to create songs so depthless they feel like waxworks. Just like they say it in the song: In , Gaye recalled to his biographer, he was listening to one of his songs playing on the radio when it was interrupted by a news bulletin about the riots in Watts.
The main reason: For the first time, homeboy is furious, as if he has just realized that the only response to the stereotype of the angry black man is to get angrier. Black artists, as they conquered the mainstream, were getting even blacker. Black love, black empowerment, black history and black wisdom are explored so deeply and intelligently that you assume that conservative media fetish, black-on-black crime, will never show up. I was right there with him until that third verse.
The second verse widens the focus and ups the power. Part of the thrill as a listener is hearing him go there, go further than anybody else. The last couplet on the second verse echoes the first, with a crucial change: In the first instance, exploitation and indifference make him a killer. It was almost unbearable to anticipate what this prophet of rage was going to drop next. I could feel the verse pulling away from me as soon as he got halfway into it. It turned into call-and-response, me and this third verse, which went a little something like this:.
No, dude, those are two nations going to war. Xhosa get compared to gang warfare? Because it weakened them both in the face of the real enemy? Either all war is hell, or all war is thuggery. No, brother, no! Here was a black man invoking the detestable slogan of black-on-black crime to prevent himself from mourning the unjustifiable homicide of a black boy by a Neighborhood Watch vigilante. All I could think was: Where the hell was Kendrick going? Things can get messy when the black gaze turns inward, to this thing called personal accountability.
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Personal responsibility. Personal respectability. A woman has the right to wear what she wants, but. Black men can wear hoodies and let their pants sag, but. Rap has never been scared of being contrarian, and so here I thought that maybe he was deliberately playing with the idea, deliberately embodying the perspective to eventually show it up for what it was. Nas once wrote a song from the point of view of a gun. It starts from within.
Martin Luther King Jr. That kind of thinking almost suggests that racism makes sense. But racism makes no sense. And in scrambling for answers, you look everywhere, even within: Did I do something to bring this on? Was a part of this outcome in even the slightest way my fault? Fact is, black people have always believed in respectability politics. Our stories are everywhere: We achieved. Everybody knows how hard we Jamaicans work. Maybe you should stop whining about your troubles and own up to your laziness. Maybe if you do what I did, you would be manager of that Chase branch on the corner, just like me.
Bootstrappism is the chocolate echo of white racism. You can find it in black self-help and how-I-became-a-millionaire books. Nearly every time Steve Harvey addresses black people. It was Kendrick doing what he does better than anybody else: And this is what he was aiming for all along, questioning what even many black people would never dare question, arguing that yes, every argument, even this one, has two sides. More sides. And then I got to that song, No. Almost implosive. The smarter me looked in the mirror and asked: Who is the one expecting the black man to be Everyman, black man to reflect the universal good will, or at the very least a carefully curated black rage directed at a carefully identified target?
Hip-hop has always been about spinning clever fictions, doing what great narratives do: We do this over and over, judging artists of color based on a warped idea that legitimacy can come only from experience. You would think I would know better, given that as a novelist, I deal with the same assumption in nearly every interview.
Young men, murderers before 15, murdered before Nearly everybody assumed that I had experienced some of this. By what authority was I telling these stories? And here I was doing the same thing to Kendrick. How someone can feel rage at murder while being fine with suicide. He was exploring these themes as concepts — you know, that thing that artists do. He was posing tricky, difficult questions, for which there were no answers, getting into the middle of his song, feeling it, breathing it, but still inventing.
That it must be autobiography or documentary. Or thought Johnny Cash ever murdered anybody or knew anyone who did. Marlon James , a novelist, is the recipient of the Man Booker Prize. Free Max B!
A cultural ferment, frozen in amber. It was a muscular, thoughtful record. Her husband watches, arrested for possession of a small amount of weed: Run the Jewels, continue to push boundaries with their latest music video. Watch it in virtual reality. Listening makes the blood rush to your cheeks, your heartbeat pulse behind your eyes. The value of the album is held between those two songs: It captures the variegated sides of black life in America and its specific feeling, a dizzying mix of frustrated helplessness and joyous survival.
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