Seven decades. Seven songs.
I snuck Billie Holiday, Sade, Minnie Riperton, and M.I.A. into the same playlist because variety is important.
1920’s-50’s: “Solitude” by Billie Holiday (1941)
"Solitude" is a solemn confession, tears simmering while the last of the midnight oil is burning away. The horns play soft and smooth, letting the piano interject with quick runs that accent Holiday's vocal part. As always, her delivery is precise, fully in despair and in control of the track. This isn't one of those tunes stuck in a daydream, Holiday is fully aware of her condition. She succinctly lists each symptom of her broken heart, not balking at the gravity of her words (i.e. "I know that I'll soon go mad").
The instrumental break gives the pianist some time to spread out and play a little bit, but we're quickly reintroduced to Holiday, who is no more hopeful than we just heard her. She ends the song with a request to the heavens for her beloved, a literal Hail Mary before the clock expires, so the situation seems just as bleak as when we started.
Just as a reminder, missing a significant other in 1941 is WAY different than missing them in 2018. Nowadays we miss someone just because we haven't hung out with them in person in a while, even if we text them every day. Back then you literally wouldn't see or hear from someone for months at a time. Had to write letters and shit, smh.
1960’s: “Track C – Group Dancers” by Charles Mingus (1963)
Mingus' compositions still do some things that still make me wonder, "how?". Like...he sat down and composed this.
From the piano grabbing hold of the narrative of the song to the guitar so quickly snatching it away, the song works in a stream of consciousness-type manner. Layer on the wild saxophone and flute solos panned hard right and left respectively. Then, the propulsively brooding march that takes place right afterward that builds into a double-time race to the finish that culminates in the saxophone tying the knot, ending the song on a run that remains unresolved. For all of that to come out of a composers pen? It's remarkable.
Mingus was an iconoclast, attacking the ideas of what jazz could be. "Fables of Faubus", a track from his 1959 classic Mingus Ah Um, was essentially a diss track to a racist politician. This song was written as a ballet, and subtitled "(Soul Fusion) Freewoman and Oh, This Freedom's Slave Cries". He would also go on help create Third Stream, considered the halfway point between jazz and classical music. Mingus was a man of his own convictions with the astute eye to see his vision come to fruition, a gift given to all of the greatest artists.
1970’s: “Love Is” by Rotary Connection (1971)
"Love Is" starts as a declaration, with horn stabs and fervent voices cascading down. The abrupt opening works well here, especially due to the fluidity of the transition, which is aided by Minnie Riperton's soaring vocals. After settling into a sauntering yet neatly arranged groove, crisp vocals harmonies construct as it ought to be, uninhibited love.
My favorite part of the song, hands down, is the pre-chorus. There's something about the way the group sings "let the burning inside make your heart ring, don't wait, hesitate" that just encapsulates the feeling of loving without abandon. It's impossibly optimistic, so sure of the fact that a little love can cure any ailment. It's the type of passion that's enough to get by on. Maybe I'm just struck by the earnest nature of the words, but that's just the type of stuff my sappy ass eats up.
The ever-underrated Charles Stepney produced this song, and to this day I don't think his contributions to music has been fully appreciated. He worked with Minnie Riperton in her solo years along with acts like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Terry Cailler, and many more. His most celebrated contributions were writing and production credits on some of Earth, Wind, and Fire's best songs, "That's The Way Of The World" and "Reasons". If you're into psychedelic soul and beautiful arrangements, Charles Stepney is a name you should know.
1980’s: “Make Me A Believer” by Luther Vandross (1983)
Vandross is remembered as an all-time great for his expressive pen and his breathtaking voice, which are both are on display in full force on "Make Me a Believer".
The song's nigh on seamless, with verses not hemmed in too tightly and sung in a free-flowing, spaced out cadence. Backing vocals are placed perfectly, occasionally accentuating the end of some phrases, with some intense drama. The synth that glides up and down throughout the song keeps you under the spell of a groove that's very subdued at times. The strings in this song blow my mind. Even though they play a supplementary role, if you choose to pay attention to them the subtle trills and crescendos start to steal the show.
This is one of those songs that I wish I could've watched be made in the studio. It just seems too good to be true, like the R&B gods sent this down like manna from on high.
1990’s: “Pearls” by Sade (1992)
I knew about Sade far before I actually listened to her. I'd been hearing her name being dropped throughout enough rap songs to figure out she was someone important. For some reason, that didn't clue me into the fact that she was a master at her craft. Eventually I listened to her music, turning on "Like a Tattoo" one day.
To be honest, I was shocked. The lyrics were so careful in their description, brief but containing such depth. I thought that it sounded like the work of a renowned poet, this being before I realized that there was no difference between a renowned poet and a songwriting maven. Sade had an instantaneous effect on me.
"Pearls" was the second Sade song I ever listened to, and the one that had me completely sold on her. Heart-wrenching is an understatement as Sade sings of an impoverished woman, despondent that she cannot help her through the endless toil that life can be for the less fortunate. This song always puts my problems in perspective since they're all truly first-world issues, a quality that I've come to appreciate. The ability to communicate such an empathetic point of view in laymen's terms will always be my favorite aspect of Sade's art.
2000’s: “Sunshowers” by M.I.A. (2005)
I wasn't really aware of pop music in 2005, still being steadily fed a stream of Gospel music (and ONLY Gospel music). But looking back at the mid-aughts, I've always wondered how M.I.A. "happened". Compared to other music from the era she just seems so out of left field. Her emergence as a voice for large swathes of people who've never had a strong foothold in the minds of pop fans worldwide was fascinating, and her songs have aged like wine.
"Sunshowers" still sounds fresh, even though it's 13 years old. From the flow to the Pro-Palestine lyrics, and the electronic jumble of heavy Eastern-influenced pop, it just seemed so opposed to everything that was blowing up the charts at the time. One of the production quirks that caught my ear was the digitally reproduced raspy vocal part is mixed perfectly under the lead vocal, creating a slight scratching feel during the chorus that burrows into your ears. Nobody was less scared of controversy than M.I.A., and the intense focus she had on terrorism and Islamophobia was truly against the flow of mainstream American thinking at the time.
M.I.A's music truly challenged the pop machine, staking her place as an artist intent on commenting on the world around her. All these years later, I still think it's a miracle it even happened.
2010’s: “Hindsight” by Medslaus (2017)
Rapper Medhane and producer slauson malone have formed one of the best artistic duos in recent years. The two made Greys In Yellow, a superb project from 2015 that more people should know about. Then they followed up with Poorboy, which is as full of fresh ideas as any album released in 2017.
"Hindsight" is the album's penultimate track, neatly summing up the mood of the album. Glaringly honest and frustrated, Medhane sounds like he's angrily clawing away, trying to reach his potential as an artist even through the struggles of everyday life. The production seems to constantly be thrown in and out of balance, with samples stuttering and abruptly cutting in and out. The abrasive approach instantly dissipates during an autotune laden interlude at the end of the song, like the clouds suddenly parting and letting a little sun in.
Medslaus is one of the most inventive and exciting partnerships coming out of New York City right now, pay attention or you just might miss 'em.