Some Songs Considered #011: Vince Staples, Beach House, Bully, and Amy Winehouse
Welcome to Some Songs Considered, a column that recognizes they can’t all be zingers and truly appreciates the ones that are.
Vince Staples – Summertime ’06
by Bryce Rudow (@brycetrudow)
If the first time you heard Vince Staples’ name was earlier this week when I suggested he go over that beat-turned-song “Gold” by Kiiara, you’d be forgiven.
Even though he’s been lurking around the shadows cast by Earl Sweatshirt and Mac Miller for years now, it wasn’t until his 2014 EP Hell Can Wait that he really debuted himself to the world. But with Summertime ’06, his double-LP debut album that got released June 30th, he’s primed to be the soundtrack to Summertime ’15.# Contextually, it feels like the younger, hookier, (slightly less mature) brother of To Pimp A Butterfly, but where Kendrick seems destined to be a messianic hip-hop superstar, Staples is a much more complex character.
You can read a decently-thorough bio of him on his Wikipedia page, but the Spark Notes version is that Staples, 22#, is from Long Beach, California and was dealt a pretty tough hand. He ended up gangbanging by 15, but eventually fell, semi-unwillingly, into the world of music; as he admitted in a recent (fantastically done) interview with Grantland’s Amos Barshad, “Just being a hundred percent honest, [starting out] I did not care about music. Not even a little bit.” Only gradually did his sporadic, well-receieved guest verses lead to mixtapes that would lead to tours that would lead to record deals.
But now, only a few years later, he’s become rap’s hottest new name, and the music world is going to have to reckon with the fact that he’s just as disillusioned with the hip-hop industry as he is with the political status-quo in this country. In that same interview with Grantland, he even has to remind Barshad that the hip-hop world he grew up with is a lot different than the one Barshad or you and I might relate to:
‘It’s like, what is a rapper? Who are you? What do you do for me? You make songs and you disappear in five years. If that. You do nothing.’
Didn’t you ever hear anything in rap music that you loved that affected you?
‘Who was out? Name ’em, name ’em.’
Uh, the classics. Nas. Jay Z.
He cuts me off: ‘I’m 21 years old. 50 Cent was third grade.’
Wow. He’s right. I think some more. Jeezy?
He scoffs. ‘Why would I look up to Young Jeezy? ’Cause he made money? I don’t care about money. What has he ever said?’
OK then. I go back to the infallible ones. Didn’t you ever listen to Public Enemy?
‘Never. I would never do that.’
‘Never! I’m 21 years old. My mom was [listening to that]. Why would I listen to N.W.A if I’m not listening to my parents? Public Enemy would mean nothing to me when I was growing up. N----s wasn’t marching in Long Beach.’
Essentially, hip-hop has officially reached its existential, “Kill Your Idols” phase.#
The blogosphere vultured around this topic when Odd Future first blew up, but that was still back when we could pigeonhole them as Tyler the Creator’s rowdy bunch of ne’er-do-wells. Now, Earl Sweatshirt isn’t just some mysterious phantom, he’s one of the biggest names in hip-hop. And he’s releasing albums called I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside.
It’s not that these guys don’t care about their music, or even that they don’t care about hip-hop, it’s just that they’re realizing there’s more out there than just Spotify plays and festival billings. Which may be the best thing for hip-hop, in the end.
In a 2014 interview with L.A. Record, Dan Kern asked Staples: “You have a line on the outro of that Stolen Youth tape where you say you’re taking it ‘back, way back, back when people used to learn from rap.’ What did you mean?” To which Staples replied:
Motherfuckers is lying in their song. Everybody has cocaine, everybody is the man, everybody is this and everybody is that. When I tell niggas in these songs, ‘Don’t go by Ramona Park, somebody will kill you,’ I’m letting you know you can’t go into Ramona Park because you will die. I want motherfuckers to know the police is really killing people for no reason. I want people to learn about my surroundings. I want people to know what my parents had to go through. I want people to learn my story.
You’re not learning anything about nobody anymore because everybody is lying. That’s really what I want people to know. My music is actual and I don’t mean it like look how turned up we are, look what we do in the hood, this our reputation, we crazy. It’s not that. It’s … ‘My nigga, it ain’t funny.’ It’s gotten to a point where this shit is a joke now. Our communities are jokes. Our music is a joke. I tweeted the other day, my purpose in music is to make people feel uncomfortable. I don’t feel like people should listen to my music like, ‘This shit is crazy! This shit is tight!’ I want people to listen to my music and be like, ‘Damn, that’s fucked up.’
It may seem a bit jarring at first, but if Def Jam’s latest darling is saying stuff like that, and using his Twitter to influence policy changes#, and God got us, then maybe hip-hop is actually going to be alright, whether these 20-somethings going through their Sartre and Nietzsche phase realize it or not.
Beach House – “Sparks”
by Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse)
Beach House has undergone a full-scale renovation. Perhaps they were getting antsy after hitting an artistic stasis with 2012’s Bloom, an album that bottled the same lightning that the band found on 2010’s Teen Dream. The two records could’ve very well been a double-album release, so similar are the sonic and lyrical elements between them. This isn’t meant as a knock, mind you; the Baltimore dream-pop outfit devised a gorgeous, effective mode of recording with Teen Dream and simply opted to continue on that same path for their follow-up. They’re both massive successes, immersing the listener in an avalanche of shimmering synths and drum-machine tempos. They’re great, they’re just kinda… the same.
Before even allowing listeners a peak at their lead single, Beach House released a press release stating their intention to get back to basics:
“In general, this record shows a return to simplicity, with songs structured around a melody and a few instruments, with live drums playing a far lesser role. With the growing success of Teen Dream and Bloom, the larger stages and bigger rooms naturally drove us towards a louder, more aggressive place; a place farther from our natural tendencies. Here, we continue to let ourselves evolve while fully ignoring the commercial context in which we exist.”
The band freed their lead single “Sparks” on Wednesday afternoon, and indeed, they’ve has lopped off most of the gauzy ornamentation that made their previous LPs such oneiric experiences. The track sticks to the essential components, foregrounding the guitar with directness not seen since their self-titled debut.
And yet, this is not the band that charmed the pants off of audiophiles in 2006. # The simplicity has incited a hardening of affect, leaving the guitars harsher and the vocals buried deeper in the mix. Her cooing vocals made even wispier on this track, Victorial LeGrand does a deadly impression of My Bloody Valentine’s Bilinda Butcher. “Sparks” sounds more like early MBV than early Beach House, massaging sedated comfort out of abrasion and minor aggressions. Shoegaze sure isn’t the direction anyone expected the group to go in for their upcoming record Depression Cherry, and the risky gambit pays off, big time. It’s a bold, new sound for Beach House and they inhabit the aesthetic comfortably.
It takes a few listens to catch what she’s saying, but at the emotional crux of the song, LeGrand whispers, “It’s a gift taken from the lips.” It’s a softer sentiment than we’ve gotten from their previous work, usually given to beautifully articulated expressions of scorn. This is a band that assured us “In a matter of time / I would slip from your mind” not too long ago. The thrill of “Sparks” is the band’s continued evolution. Fresh coat of paint, bolstering the foundation, Beach House puns, Beach House puns, etc., thank you, goodnight.
Bully – Feels Like
by Lindsay Hogan (@LindsayHogan88)
What rock, punk and its offshoots are astoundingly good for, is writing honest lives of messy people.
When fronted by women, rock or “fuzz-rock” in this case, becomes a crucial platform for sharing the underrepresented experiences of the sex that has spent historically less time yelling into the mic.
I’m not making any revelations here. But I was watching my favorite, overly-philosophical pop culture critic, Mike Rugnetta, discussing the reclamation of “women writing women” vis-à-vis Taylor Swift. And while I’m definitely a supporter of the Swiftian narrative, I felt like the praise heaped on Taylor for writing and owning her life and music was a little primitive, especially when applied to the ladies rock and punk. Now Tay-tay is trying to sell records and rule the world- so good for her. But if you’re really vested in the idea of women finding liberation through writing their own lives in music, then Bully is the more appropriate artist to lob with praise.
Hélène Cixous’ is the feminist philosopher who caught my eye in the context of Ms. Swift’s 1989. Cixous says of women, “She must write her self, because this is the invention of a new insurgent writing which, when the moment of her liberation has come, will allow her to carry out the indispensable ruptures and transformations in her history.”
Essentially, women achieve power through writing their own narratives and blaze a more inclusive trail for the women who come after.
So, as difficult as it is and has been for women to break into rock-and-roll and project their own lives, the results are explosive. Bully’s debut album, Feels Like is a charismatic and feisty part of that tradition. Front-woman, Alicia Bognanno shares unfiltered, unglamorous chunks of her life without batting an eyelid.
At first listen, the album’s opener, “I Remember” doesn’t sound like a gut-wrenching breakup song, but it is. Through intimate, almost trivial details of a deceased relationship, Alicia Bognanno writes her regret and heartache without ever projecting fragility. It’s an all-too-familiar sucker-punch, ferociously packed into a minute and 50 seconds.
And if Hélène Cixous were a fan of fuzz-rock, she would be all over “Trying.” The song doesn’t play around Bognanno’s insecurities. Rather she looks into your eyes and screams into your ears a messy slice of her self-doubt. It’s an aggressive picture of a women exposed, but under her own terms.
Cixous characterizes this as a radical act; taking control of the portrayal of a woman’s own identity, thus allowing them to throw off societal expectations.
This doesn’t apply exclusively to Bully, obviously. But the ladies are still catching up on decades of dude-fronted, dude-centric rock music. And Bully is just the best band doing it right now.
Amy Winehouse – “Just Friends”
by Julian Kimble (@JRK316)
Recent discussion about the grief Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse documentary, Amy, prompts has brought me back to a familiar place: her music.
By the time I permanently borrowed Back to Black from a friend in early 2007, “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good” had already blown up. I, however, was more interested in the vintage feel of Mark Ronson’s production and the deep cuts. Deep cuts like “Just Friends,” which, to this day, is still my favorite song on the album.
“Just Friends” begins delicately, like sunlight creeping into your bedroom the morning after sleeping with someone you promised yourself (and others) you wouldn’t anymore. Many will find themselves in this dilemma; swearing that person off, yet unable to resist their magnetic pull. Many will also find themselves asking the same questions that Amy pondered (“When will we get the time to be just friends?”; “Can we be alone?”), wondering if a future together is practical or an unattainable fantasy. Similarly, they’ll have to consider (and most likely know) that friendship is equally unrealistic, as mutual desire will always test its limits.
Picture yourself at brunch with that someone; the thrill of the moment heightened by the knowledge that you two aren’t supposed to be together. You’ll notice their subtleties — the way the light strikes their eyes; their dining quirks; the words they can never properly pronounce — and wonder if a day will come when they’re all rendered meaningless. You’ll hear “Just Friends” in the back of your mind and realize that Amy Winehouse left her imprint on you and everyone else in a similar predicament.
That’s what she should be remembered for, not the darkness.
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