On January 1, 2017, Barack Obama was the president of the United States (though, a sitting duck), and Donald Trump, the President-Elect, had yet to be inaugurated. On January 1, 2017, there was no proposed Muslim Travel Ban, or a country-wide fallout. The idea of “alternative facts,” was still mulling around in the mind of Kelleyanne Conway, and had yet to be uttered out loud; protesting had yet to become a fixture of weekend activities. For the most part, many were bracing for what was to come from a Trump presidency. On January 1, 2017, Kendrick Lamar had yet to release, DAMN., Migos had yet to release Culture, no one knew what would become of Bad and Boujee; Cardi B had yet to release Bodak Yellow, and for the most part, Cardi was still marveled as a reality-television, social media star; and Jay-Z’s infedelity, turned musical saga, was still kept deeply under wraps.
On December 1, 2017 it’s hard to imagine a world where these events had not taken place. 2017 has been a year filled with good music, political tension, bad music, protest, technological advancements, and more. And, the music released this year has reflected all of that. Music — like other art forms — has been used as a means of offering a voice, an escape, a place for rage (example: YG’s Tour “F*ck Donald Trump” tour), a place for hope, and sometimes a combination of all of those things.
Narratives in Music: 2017
The narratives for 2017 read like one of Andy Cohen’s reality TV scripts. Here are a few. Kendrick Lamar delivered another critically acclaimed album, but now has the commercial appeal to boast. Jay-Z, openly discussing his infedelity, and a living legend by all merits, has shown us how rap, as an art form, and rappers can evolve. U2, still touring and churning out albums, proved that they aren’t a legacy act (at least yet). Mumble Rap, which was (and is?) the butt of many Rap-purists jokes, has taken its place in mainstream music, as young rappers who have built a following on Instagram and SoundCloud have leveraged their followings for hit singles. Migos, and its members individually, has proven themselves to be a hit-making, powerhouse. Speaking of hits - Metro Boomin singlehandedly created a sound that just about everyone is mimicking. This year alone, Metro has produced 5 top 10 singles and collaborated with Gucci Mane, Big Sean, 21 Savage, Offset, and Nav for albums/mixtapes.
After years of anticipation, SZA finally delivered a full-length project, and it was well worth the wait. Additionally, while some have argued that R&B is dead and gone, and is only useful for OVO samples, there have been a batch of artists that have shown the range of possibilities and dexterity of R&B from PJ Morton to Daniel Caesar, Jordan Rakei to Bosco. On the Jazz front, artists have taken the art form and ventured into new spaces. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah has taken improvisation, chord structures, and the spirit of jazz and fused it with elements of Trap and Bounce music; Thundercat has taken major steps as a vocalist, and songwriter, yet remains true to his jazz roots, while Kamasi Washington continues to prove himself as one of today’s best horn players.
2017 has also posed some questions that will have to be answered in the future. Is Cardi B built for a long lasting career, or is she simply here for the moment? Will her album — whenever it’s released — live up to the hype? Is Drake’s run as the voice of mainstream rap coming to an end? Where will mumble rap go, and how will it evolve? Is Metro Boomin overexposed? And in an age where rap groups have all but disappeared, Migos have reinvigorated a lost tradition, but with each individual member starting to take off (all pun intended), will tension ensue? Will they remain together? We’ll have to wait to get some answers, but it’s worth paying attention to.
A Cultural Shift
During the 57th Grammy Awards, Prince was tasked with presenting the award for Album of the Year. Before presenting the award, Prince made a seemingly simple, yet profound statement – “Albums still matter. Like books and black lives, albums still matter.” But, isn’t it obvious that albums still matter? I mean, Prince was presenting an award for ALBUM OF THE YEAR; surely albums still matter, right? It’s fair to say that Prince was on to something. In essence, Prince was eluding to the tide turning toward a song-based economy. Singles, now more than ever, rule the market. Playlists have gone from being that tab on the side of your iTunes library that was geared toward making exercising bearable, to becoming a central fixture in the music industry and music listening experience.
Record labels and artists alike used to rely heavily on radio spins, and the Billboard Hot 100 as metrics of success. But, that’s old news now; those platforms still matter, but not nearly as much as they once did. For the moment we’re in now, it’s about playlists, creating moods, making a feeling that’s good for the moment. For example, consider some of Spotify’s playlists:
Today’s Pop Hits – 18.3 million followers
Viva Latino! – 6.7 million followers
RapCavier – 8.4 million followers
Hot Country – 4.3 million followers
Are & Be – 3.8 million followers
Landing on one of Spotify’s playlists has, in some ways, become the new standard. If you consider Apple Music’s 30 million paid subscribers, Tidal’s roughly 3 million paid subscribers, the rise of Amazon Music, you can see the tide has changed. But, there’s a compromise. If your goal is to make it, and stand out on a playlist, then you cater your music to be easily digestible for as many people as possible. The goal is to create moments, and not comprehensive, front-to-back stories. The way we consume music has changed, and artists have changed how they create and market music. In fact, because of the “playlist culture” we live in, albums have become shorter, trimming a lot of the musical fat, and I’m all for trimming musical fat (looking right at you Chris Brown and your 45-song album).
[THE NOT SO DEFINITIVE] Top 50 Albums of 2017:
Without a doubt, playlists are dominating the music industry, how music is marketed, and how we consume music. But, every artist hasn't completely ignored constructing an album. Believe it or not, artists are still making complete albums from front-to-back. And in some cases, artists are making albums, while still appealing to playlist curators, and radio programmers. So, without further ado, here are the [not so definitive] top 50 albums of 2017:
50. Cage Tropical - Frankie Rose
49. Boo Boo - Toro Y Moi
48. Part I - Exmag
47. 2008 - OverDoz
46. FEELS - SNOH AALEGRA
45. WAR AND LEISURE - MIGUEL
44. BROKEN LAND - KENNETH WHALUM
43. ALL AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ - JOEY BADA$$
42. IHY - IMAN OMARI
41. ABOUT TIME - SABRINA CLAUDIO
40. NO DOPE ON SUNDAYS - CYHI THA PRINCE
39. #TALP - BRIK.LIAM
38. THE 1ST - WILLOW SMITH
37. THE NEVER STORY - J.I.D.
36. AT WHAT COST - GOLDLINK
35. PERSPECTIVE - KAMASI WASHINGTON
34. b. - BOSCO
33. NO DATA - DAYE JACK
32. THE EMANCIPATION PROCRASTINATION - CHRISTIAN SCOTT ATUNDE ADJUAH
31. YOU ONLY LIVE 2WICE - FREDDIE GIBBS
30. BIG FISH THEORY - VINCE STAPLES
29. BRICK BODY KIDS STILL DREAM - OPEN MIKE EAGLE