As the year comes to a close, I can’t help but be completely in awe of all the music I’ve encountered, for reasons that are pretty obvious. In 2015, we witnessed a resurgence of music that was not only diverse in genre, but culturally and politically resonant. One of the biggest landmarks in music was in hip-hop, which became increasingly more self-aware. The genre reclaimed its conscious voice through Kendrick Lamar and Dr. Dre, but also sifted its way through more unlikely mediums like Vince Staples. Modern r&b, under the moniker of alt-r&b and nu-soul, continued to demonstrate incredible fluidity, with sounds ranging from the funk-inflected melodies of Hiatus Kayote, to the slinky bedroom reverb of The Internet. It also appeared that classics, like timeless jazz music, were not forgotten, but rather, re-layered and re-contextualized. This was most evident through artists like Thundercat, Badbadnotgood and Kamasi Washington.
But putting all of that aside, what truly had me in awe was the sheer volume of music I had on my plate. As Aziz Ansari puts it in his latest book, Modern Romance, “No matter how many options we have, the real challenge is figuring out how to evaluate them.” With the ample amount of solid releases I’ve heard this year, I’ve done my best to pare my list to ten. Here’s what I came up with:
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly
When good kid, M.A.A.D City came out, I once commented about how a once “stagnant” brand of conscious hip-hop had, once again, been propelled into the public eye. When reading reviews on that album, I would frequently see words like “relatable” and “accessible” to describe how people, including myself, received it. Then two years later, To Pimp A Butterfly was born. Much of that same accessibility that catapulted GKMC onto larger audiences has been lost, or rather…refurbished. Propped by a frenetic array of freestyle saxophone breaks and powerful spoken word asides, TPAB walked us through a social, emotional and spiritual crisis, experienced not only by the rapper, but by his audience, as a whole. However, apart from externalizing what used to be a very internal struggle, what’s most important about this record was the dialogue it created…and the dialogue that it continues to create. Loving it may have been complicated, but TPAB, through its earnest meditations on race, hypocrisy, isolation, and self-loathing are unequivocally important to a generation that needs to be reassured that, in fact, we gon’ be alright.
Standouts: “Complexion,” “These Walls”
Vince Staples, Summertime ’06
At face value, the Long Beach-born rapper’s title of Summertime ’06 may seem like a bit of a misnomer. Actually, it brought to mind a few things – mainly beaches, barbeque, G-funk, and sun-drenched seasonal flings. However, the message purveyed by Vince Staples in his first full-length double album couldn’t be any farther from that (minus, maybe, the seasonal flings). If the Joy Division-inspired cover didn’t cue you though, the reality of Summertime ’06 is one that’s actually kinda dark, and Staples goes to no length to sugarcoat this fact. In any case, his debut is one of the most cohesive rap albums recorded heard all year, accredited largely to the production chops of No I.D., DJ Dahi, and Clams Casino. Strategic cameos from alt r&b darlings, Jhene Aiko, Kilo Kish, and Daley also serve as an excellent prop to Staples’ candid street vignettes.
Standouts: “Lemme Know,” “Dopeman”
Thundercat, The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam
Bassist Stephen Bruner has made a name for himself working with an impressive roster of artists like Erykah Badu, Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus. But with three solid Brainfeeder releases now under his belt, Bruner, best known by his stage name, Thundercat, has demonstrated mastery of his own craft, channeling underlying themes of tragedy, adversity and loneliness through glistening cosmic bass lines. The album’s most haunting groove, “Them Changes” features a sullen, yet imaginative flip on The Isley Brothers classic, “Footsteps in the Dark.” My only complaint was the brevity of the album, being only six songs deep.
Standouts: “Them Changes,” “Lone Wolf and Cub”
Hiatus Kayote, Choose Your Weapon
Lumped under the overly broad category of “future soul” music, Australia’s Hiatus Kayote draws influence from just about everything, from jazz and funk, to hip-hop and soul, to high art and everything in between. Their second studio album is the ultimate exercise in freedom of artistic expression and requires close, repeated listens to fully appreciate the diversity they bring to the genre. As an added bonus, they put on a great live show.
Standouts: “Molasses,” “Borderline with My Atoms”
The Internet, Ego Death
If there’s anyone that screams modern romance, it’s Syd tha Kid, albeit, in the most mellow, unassuming tone one could imagine. Syd and The Internet’s third LP brings much of the same jazz-infused, soulful intimacy as 2013’s Feel Good, with the assist of revered collaborators like Janelle Monae and James Fauntleroy.
Standouts: “Girl,” “Under Control”
On track 7 of Wildheart, Miguel begs the question, “What’s Normal Anyways?” This statement isn’t unexpected, considering the fact that Miguel inadvertently pushes the boundaries of normalcy, not only in r&b, but in pop music, as a whole. The true answer to your question, Miguel, is simply put – we don’t care for normal. We’ll take your infectious, abstract, sexually candid, psychedelia-enriched approach to r&b over normal any day.
Standouts: “DEAL,” “Simple Things”
BadBadNotGood & Ghostface Killah, Sour Soul
Hip-hop backed by live instrumentation is no new concept, but the chemistry between the music of Toronto jazz outfit, Badbadnotgood and Ghostface Killah is unmatched. A follow-up to their 2014 LP, III, BBNG continues to craft near perfect gems of 70s-inspired jazz fusion. Their music tells a story of its own, and could very well stand alone as a strong instrumental album, without even being propped up by Ghostface’s trademark gritty flows.
Standouts: “Sour Soul,” “Stark’s Reality”
L’Orange and Jeremiah Jae, The Night Took Us in Like Family
There are many ways to approach storytelling in hip-hop. Some will give the story to you raw and unfiltered, focusing on lyricism and powerful imagery. Others will source different elements into a kind of mixed media audio hodgepodge in order to reinvent it. With their affinity for chopped up soul samples and movie snippets, it’s the latter kind of approach that L’Orange and Jeremiah Jae are so skilled at reproducing. They’re almost like a next generation Madlib and MF Doom in training. But while they’re not quite the illest villains, their latest effort is still well worth a listen.
Standouts: “Ice Obsidian,” “I Was Invisible Nothing”
Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, Surf
Jazz maintained a deep influence in many notable 2015 hip-hop releases, and it makes total sense, given its improvisational nature. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment feed off this notion. With its vibrant horns and collaborative choruses, this collection of musicians, producers, rappers and singers (which include Chicago’s Chance The Rapper), put out a record that’s instrumentally complex, while remaining lighthearted, inventive and incredibly energetic.
Standouts: “Remory,” “Something Came to Me”
Oddisee, The Good Fight
Perpetually creeping beneath the spotlight, D.C.’s Oddisee has a knack for producing no-frills golden era-inspired hip-hop. The main selling point here is the lush, carefully planned instrumentation, while Oddisee’s flow remains well-paced and witty, as it always has been. While there’s no reinvention of the wheel here, there is great hip-hop. Plain and simple.
Standouts: “That’s Love,” “What They’ll Say”