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Many of us grow up feeling entitled to summer getaways. It’s part of the godforsaken, blood-soaked, teeth-grindingly unachievable myth of the American Dream: work hard, play hard, earn enough to purchase relief from working so hard. The fact that too many can’t afford to flee the quotidian, or keep the world’s foot off their necks long enough to think about getting the fuck out of town, literally and metaphorically, is the truth into which we grow as adults. Doreen St. Félix wrote resonantly last week about how there is a different summer for black Americans, where the heat is deadly, where being exposed in public or traveling from one place to another makes you especially vulnerable. While some romanticize wanderlusting journeys into the unknown, that is primarily a white reverie.
So when you leave behind the sand-castle fantasy of sunny feels, what’s left for a summer soundtrack? Inspired by the hideous state violence and militarized action against citizen marches, some have compiled protest song playlists (including the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, in collaboration with activist Bridget Todd;
" target="_blank">it’s on Spotify!). Those can be sustaining and compelling, of course. Then again, some people would rather escape the pain by collapsing with PartyNextDoor in a puddle of Jell-O shots. For my small part, I’ve been tense, fuming, punchy, brooding over love and hate and what you have to do to earn either. The following gathers up some recent and not-so-recent songs of 2016 addressing that mood. See ya round the quad, God willing — or inshallah (shout-out to the Istanbul fam).
Alicia Keys, "In Common (Black Coffee Remix)" (RCA)
Veteran South African DJ/producer/musician Black Coffee, whose 2015 album Pieces of Me was an underrated electronic-soul gem, got a Coachella slot this year, won a BET award, and ended up in the studio with Diddy. But his U.S. profile really sharpened with this boost of Ms. Keys’s eerie, angular, gospel-haunted R&B track. While the original, produced by The Weeknd/Drake bro Illangelo, bounced and swerved on dance-hall rhythms with Latin flickers, Coffee’s remix goes for a hollowed-out, tech-house ambiance and a surging Afrobeat stomp — with clipped mbaqanga-tinged kick drums — that give Keys’s voice an urgently bittersweet yearn. The push-pull of the lyrics becomes dizzying as the beats hurtle along, especially when Keys declaims, somewhat coyly, "If you could love somebody like me, you must be messed up too." A church organ gets sprayed with grit, in yet another nod to South Africa’s minimally fractious, township DIY dance music scene (see Gqom Oh! The Sound of Durban Vol. 1), but Coffee’s a big-hearted popularizer, so all this is delivered with sumptuous symmetry.
Riton feat. Kah-Lo, "Rinse & Repeat" (Riton Time)
The playful rumpus of "Rinse & Repeat" by British DJ/producer Riton (a.k.a. Henry Smithson, an Ed Banger alumnus via his 2010 single "Gare Du Nord" as one-half of Carte Blanche) rolls out an acid-house bass line that squiggles madly like a horny laser pointer. But the track’s hypnotic, off-kilter hook comes from youthful Nigerian vocalist Kah-Lo, who deadpans her existential rhymes: "If you leave with me / We'll be on till morn / Then we rinse and repeat / And it just goes on." She’s a seriously circumspect party hostess, not brashly claiming that she woke up like this, but admitting, "This is not how I woke up / But it's how I look now." All right, then, rinse on.
Tweet, "Won’t Hurt Me" (eOne Music)
Fourteen years after No. 1 single "Oops (Oh My)" and No. 3 album Southern Hummingbird, and 10 years after her failed follow-up, Charlene "Tweet" Keys returns a transformed woman, ditching an image that increasingly peddled sexed-up lip service against her wishes. Working again with Missy Elliott, her lusciously nuanced voice is candid and fearless. She’s dealt with drinking and smoking challenges, depression, and heartbreak, but there’s no hint of weakness or wear. "Won’t Hurt Me," which she co-wrote, is a spiritual reckoning and a blunt kiss-off. The cozy, rootsy soul groove — acoustic guitar, organ — is a velvet glove for her iron fist: "Tell me why you're sensing / I fancy you, really, I don't."
Lydia Loveless, "Longer" (Bloodshot)
With a Dee Dee Ramone–ish 1-2-3-4 bark, the tiny disgruntled singer-songwriter who takes no shit whatsoever goes in search of a clue about a love who's died (specifically, her friend Joey Blackheart, who suffered a drug overdose). When the chugging guitar drawl gives way to the gorgeous ahhhhs on the bridge, it’s as if you’re perched on a cloud beside her, bumming a smoke, and slowly exhaling the pain.
Lady Leshurr, "Where Are You Now?" feat. Wiley (Sony UK)
Thankfully, the fabulously piquant English grime MC’s solo major-label debut does nothing to soften her splashy, rough-elbow flow. She’s a verbal dervish, unleashing insults with disciplined rigor, pushing Wiley to accelerate his game to even keep up. Still, considering our season of fuckery, I keep going back to the fifth installment of her free "Queen’s Speech" series, which came out at the end of 2015, a furiously witty barrage that peaked with the taunt: "Your lips look like crispy bacon." I think of it sometimes when I hear or read a police apologist claiming that activists are responsible for cops shooting black people. "Sir, your lips look like crispy bacon."
Brandy Clark, "Love Can Go to Hell" (Warner Bros.)
Clark has made her name writing precisely observant story-songs about messy, messed-up people, but the most finely pointed song on her second album, Big Day in a Small Town, turns clichés into knives. Wistfully bobbing along while a guitar passes as a plucky banjo, she enumerates the places to which love can go, intensely (and positively), but then flips the chorus on us: "Love can go to hell / Like roses in a vase of whiskey / Dying for the way you used to kiss me." It features perhaps her strongest vocal yet, giving the song’s ambiguous sentiment an exacting emotional tone, unlike her first single, "Girl Next Door," which was some overheated, posturing Nashville boilerplate more suited to Carrie Underwood’s stilettos and spray tan. C’mon, Warner Bros., just because "Love" stiffed as a single for a lesser artist (Ashley Gearing) earlier this year, don’t punish Brandy. She deserves her shot.
Shirley Caesar feat. Anthony Hamilton, "It’s Alright, It’s OK" (eOne Music)
Despite the above song title, Shirley Caesar, the 11-time Grammy-winning Queen of Gospel and pastor of Mt. Calvary Word of Faith Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, is not all glowing angels and exultant embraces. She’s sung about drug addiction, AIDS, the homeless, and broken families; on this year’s album, Fill This House, she recorded a towering hymn, "Mother Emanuel," in tribute to the nine victims from last year’s mass shooting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by Dylann Roof, a 22-year-old white man. So when the tiny dynamo leans into "It’s Alright, It’s OK," alongside fellow Grammy-winning North Carolina native Anthony Hamilton, context is vital. This is not just a feel-good balm. The recorded version is rousing ham-hock soul, with sparkling accompaniment by Jonathan "The Prophesying Guitarist" Dubose Jr.; but in a live performance for BET’s Celebration of Gospel, Caesar and Hamilton hunker down with a raw call-and-response that has the Pastor growling like Tina Turner preaching hour two of a four-hour revival service.
Brandy, Roz Ryan, Jenifer Lewis, "In These Streets"
This impromptu Instagram throwdown, instigated by Brandy, was reviewed in our "Hits and Misses" column back in May, but given events since then, let’s rewind it back. Conspiring with Roz "Momma Morton" Ryan (Chicago) and Jenifer "Auntie Helen" Lewis (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), Brandy cooked up this hilarious howl of gospel defiance that could double as a last-call selfie at Frank’s Cocktail Lounge in Brooklyn. Lewis goes in hardest, looking brolic in a red velvet robe and nightcap, belting: "I don’t want nobody...fucking with meeeeee in these streets!" Then all three hit the phrase together, echoing it with "Ain’t nobody got time for that" again and again, as Lewis lurches forward, fists clenched. But she ain’t finished, spitting, "For what?" To which all three reply, cackling fiendishly, "That shit." This should be chanted at every #BlackLivesMatter-related action. Hallelujah, muthafuckas!