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Geeked Up: Music Is The Healer

Luminous disco, ladies wrecking the mic, and anthems of a reflective street lifer

No overarching theme this week – just songs, videos, and albums that dragged me out of a nagging, exhausting, no-good-reason depression and landed me (hopefully) in a better place, which is usually what music does for me and what this column hopefully stands for. God bless artistic antidepressants in whatever form you are able to obtain them.

Boosie Badazz, “Cancer” and “Wanna B Heard”

You should listen to all three mixtapes that Louisiana rap icon Boosie Badazz, a.k.a. Lil Boosie, has released this year, but if you combined the best of the first two – In My Feelings (Goin’ Thru It) and Out My Feelings (In My Past) – the result might be the most achingly powerful hip-hop record of the 2000s. After spending 2009 to 2014 either locked up or under house arrest, Boosie emerged with a ferocious drive and a voice that had a deeper, bluesier grain (compared to his trademark squeaky sneer). He also had a lotta shit to say, which was only multiplied when he found out last year that he’d contracted kidney cancer. Now, post-surgery, contemplating his brush with death, Boosie sounds desperately urgent, but also circumspect. These are not the easiest records to approach – there are few diversions, just hot, stanky breath down your neck. On the first album’s “Cancer,” he barks, “Father God, I need answers,” crying in the shower “to my mama and my nana.” But the way Boosie artfully presses into his drawl subtly tempers the music’s dirgelike lope, pulling you closer to the street tough lying in his hospital bed, enormous Jesus-piece necklace resting on his diminished body, almost shouting, “I need prayer, fuck respect.” The second album’s “Wanna B Heard” puts him back on the block, and he spits that he’ll drop a body if necessary; but before his initial verse ends, he’s questioning the violent cycle, empathizing with street lifers, saying, “God forgive ’em / They just wanna be heard.” Rugged empathy is nothing new for Boosie, but here he explores it further, pointing out how voiceless kids are given little hope or resources, grim job prospects, and no sense of their history. They become emotionally walled-off or get victimized as soft. It all culminates when Boosie calls himself out for abandoning people who needed him badly. He’s no saint or martyr, just a survivor making amends with the mirror.

Pet Shop Boys “The Pop Kids”

Dance-pop’s wistful librettist Neil Tennant is now in his sixties, but his generosity of spirit and anthropologist’s gift for observation are undimmed. “We were young, but imagined we were so sophisticated / Telling everyone we knew that rock was overrated,” he sings, channeling a younger friend’s 1990s university years as a clubbing devotee in London, and it feels like you’re actually pregaming at your flat or nervously queuing up. There’s more vicarious thrill and bemusement than poignance in Tennant’s reading of the lyrics, and Chris Lowe’s track has a grandly accessible thunk and swoon (which some have compared to Bizarre Inc.’s “Playing With Knives”). The spoken-word breakdown has the kids actually bypassing a long line and sweeping right into the club, as Tennant announces, in blissful sotto voce, “Oh, I like it here / Oh, I love it.” It’s as if every time he exhales - “Ohhh” - he loses his innocence all over again.

Azealia Banks, “Skylar Diggins”

When encountering Banks’s social-media Jabberwocky, I’m left wondering like Alice: "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don't exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: That's clear, at any rate.” What Banks kills here is a DEFCON Dead Mow Five EDMissile designed to obliterate thousands of developing brains. She’s especially terse and precise, pushing wigs to the wall: “If you ain’t with this shit, bitch, get up off the toilet.” The WNBA is in the building!

Little Scream, “Love as a Weapon”

When that little funk guitar riff locks in with the drums and Laurel Sprengelmeyer, a.k.a. Little Scream, starts laying out her nasty love business in a coolly confident falsetto croon, “Love as a Weapon” crooks a finger and beckons you forward – this is gonna be juicy! Shimmying somewhere between Prince’s “Alphabet St.” and Spoon’s “I Turn My Camera On,” she adds a Moog bass blurt and nifty synth frills, then breaks it down with a “Stop, here we go,” spoken-word to the wise: “When you’re all worked up / And you got no one to blame / When you’re all alone / And crying in the rain / Just remember the greatest gift is to dance.” The video has voguers, sign language, and Toni Basil-worthy choreography. She wins.

Kamaiyah, A Good Night in the Ghetto

You’d have to be a vengeful supervillain to resist the synth-bubbly summer striver’s anthem “How Does It Feel,” but what’s impressive and almost startling about Kamaiyah’s first full-length is her fully formed musical identity. The Oakland rapper gets at you from all angles on A Good Night in the Ghetto. She’s proudly fucked-up and freaky, a cool customer and a blazing hot mess. “Don't need no introduction, I’m a fool,” she admits, having ignored her mom’s advice to stay in school, but still convinced she’s gonna make her way. YG stops by with some live-wire bullshit. She shouts out her crew and nods to hyphy; attempts a slow jam; wags her finger at an ex on the glorious, straight-talk ’80s funk stroll “Come Back.” And don't even think of whispering that she’s a one-hit wonder. Believe her when she says, “Young queen / Do my thing / Gotta do my thing / Do my thing.”

Danny Brown x Skywlkr, “RIP VIP (Kush Coma Remix)”

This is kind of a cheat since it’s a minute-long bootleg mash-up, but I’ve played it dozens of times and am still processing. Producer Skywlkr pitches up the anxiously meditative title track of techno aesthete Actress’s album R.I.P., which loops glassy, pump-organ-like tones in and out of crackly static; then he underpins it with a trashy 808 rattle and unlooses Danny Brown’s endorphin-mush speed-rap from the A$AP Rocky collabo “Kush Coma.” Words blurt outta Brown’s mouth in such a rhythmic flurry that it’s as if we’re watching a one-man, after-hours jazz cutting contest consisting entirely of blunt-and-pill-fueled rants about hellfire and angel wings and science and going “numb like a mortician.” Total delirium.

Fat Joe and Remy Ma feat. French Montana, “All the Way Up”

As far as I’m concerned, once they’d established the club-caving, pulse-quickening hook, Joe and French could’ve exited through the kitchen and left the rest to producer Edsclusive and Remy Ma. The beat’s staccato up-up-up rhythm swings on an almost mournful horn riff that grounds the party in the reality that Remy lost six years to a prison bid that ended in 2014. But when she grabs the mic, her voice suspends time: “P.O. say I can’t get high / Hop in the helicopter.” Ka-ching ka-pow! Too bad about the geisha girl garbage in the video, but the DJ Khaled cameo is a fun touch.

Lindstrøm, “Closing Shot”

In order to feel energized and clearheaded, and to eliminate deadly belly fat, dietary-supplement criminals suggest that you need 20-40 minutes of meditation per day (which is impossible if you work for a living, hence the supplements). Or you could just listen to Hans-Peter Lindstrøm’s latest gossamer “space disco” anthem as it unfolds luminous synthesizer chords, handclaps, filtered teases, gentle drum pads, organically grown bass, and sparkle-motion arpeggios. All of it gracefully builds a lattice to the heavens as you fantasize about being that teenager drifting under the Bridge of Sighs in a gondola kissing Diane Lane in A Little Romance.

Laura Gibson, “Empire Builder”

Riding on a train across undeveloped America in 2016 is an inherently nostalgic act, nudging you toward reflection and loss; if you’re a musician, there’s also a whole world of solitary songwriting from a pre–air travel time that shadows you. When Laura Gibson took the Amtrak line away from her loved ones in Oregon to an unknown artistic career path in New York, she shot footage of the passing landscape. Images and emotions and phrases crowded her thoughts, eventually becoming this haunting acoustic rumination on the dark depths of a relationship between an artist and her intimates. Gibson’s voice has a delicate creakiness that’s stronger than you initially think, and she never flinches in parsing how everything is always one way, until it’s another. When she sings, “Hurry up and lose me / Hurry up and find me again,” there’s no contradiction, just life.