The afternoon didn’t bode well. I felt compelled, as a result of lobbed cocktail of Molotov Lite on the streets of a music forum I frequently walk, to listen again to a new record (Kasey Musgraves’ very-much-instantly-vauntedGolden Hour) that I was sure I didn’t like. But, dammit, because my philosophy of life is that it’s too short to do less than two things at once, I feared I hadn’t concentrated enough on the lass’ work. So I abjured my usual practice of consuming (in the open air) music and (at the very least light) literature simultaneously, and donned headphones for an ultra-close listen.
Turned out I was right to begin with: while emitting a quite pleasant glow, Golden Hour‘s songs are unremittingly sappy and cliched, which would be worse, I suppose, if Musgraves weren’t a borderline erotic singer–but she mostly strives to achieve that eros by intoning in too codeined a style for me to buy. There you have it.
At that point I should have gone about my business, with three excellent tomes going and some new releases calling. However, though the effort didn’t bring much return, I dug the dedicated listening experience enough to hold off on the page-turning, keep the earbuds in, and really concentrate. Good thing I did: all three of the records I sampled (I’m really starting to love Apple Music) were splendid to be alone in a room with.
This one’s in my Top 5 for 2018–no need to make sure I’m right–though I am going to be playing the heck out of it. Ms. Grae, one of my very favorite MCs, has been a bit lost in the wilderness over the last near-decade, exploring other mediums (web TV, for example) where she just hasn’t hit it. Her exploits, by my lights at least, have been honorable duds. Quelle Chris, on the other hand, has never quite held my attention at all. Together, however, they’ve created a concept album that can hang with Prince Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves; if their comments on the album’s Bandcamp site can be trusted, Paul was an influence on their work. To be honest, I might actually like Everything’s Fine better. As we know, everything ain’t fine, and one thing the album explores, through funky, burbling tracks, inventive rhyming and phrasing, and comic bits that work without distraction, how we tell ourselves daily that it is, that it’s gonna be. Clearly, the duo don’t think so, and the sustained balance between satirical humor and clearly articulated horror here make the album one of the best statements hip hop has made about Orange45World and our unfortunate commitment to racism. Aside from that, which is a lot, the best thing about Everything’s Fine is Grae’s return to form; among several great turns of phrase, my favorite is“Amarosa? Vámonos–goddam!”
Surfing the music sites, I’d just glanced at the cover of Chloe x Halle’s The Kids are Alright and it called to me. Thanks to the sage argumentation and advice of a few writers to whom I’m lucky to have regular access (Humanizing the Vacuum‘s and Spin‘s Alfred Soto I single out as particularly persuasive–you should read him, he’s got style), my taste for rhythm and blues has been awakened after lying fairly dormant since Womack and Womack’s 1983 Love Wars. I’m not sure what my problem has been…well, gloss, excessive use of melisma, lack of differentiation for a few decades, pop prejudice, but those are arguments I probably couldn’t back up well in a firefight. I’d kept an eye on Mary J., but that was it–until Mr. Soto enthused alluringly about King’s We Are King. As can happen when we’re made sheepish, I thought to myself, “I haven’t heard of that–it can’t be that good.” Almost on the sly from myself, and months and months after I’d read Alfred’s take, I listened to it myself, and it not only bewitched me (I have since played it regularly–it seriously casts a spell), but it thawed me out to the point that I suddenly couldn’t get enough of Rihanna’s Anti, Beyonce’s Lemonade, anything by D’Angelo, SZA’s CTRL–my portal seems permanently open. Clearly, this isn’t just a phase.
All this is to explain why my attraction to the mere album covers of The Kids are Alright, then, an hour later, Toni Braxton’s Sex & Cigarettes, required me to listen to the records: I didn’t want to wait for Mr. Soto or someone else to have to hip me. Chloe x Halle’s offering is, end to end, really, really good, but the main thing that knocked me out was the song “Grown,” which just tore me up. A better song for the moment I’ve yet to hear, and, as someone who’s taught across the last four decades, I instantly flashed back across the faces and voices of so many students who’ve come through my classroom:
As for Ms. Braxton, I’d never listened to more than a single song of hers at a sitting, and never, ever an album. Confession: I’d already noted Mr. Soto’s approval, but chose not to read his take in-depth so I could try it solely with my own mind and ears (I told you, he’s quite a writer). Plus, like I said, I liked the cover, and the title. Well, I may have to do some catching up with Toni’s oeuvre: Sex & Cigarettes is going into my Top–hmmmm–15 of 2018. The relatively spare settings, the wrapped wires of toughness and vulnerability that connect most of its songs, and Braxton’s unique deep and lightly husky delivery–signifying things very hard won–are a winning combination.
So, bomb-thrower: maybe you were right after all, just not about Golden Hour.
Another reason I was not on the r&b tip during the ’90s and ’00s: I was too focused on noise like this, which is both new and old, Japanese and American.