In Slate’s annual Music Club, Slate critic Carl Wilson emails about the year in music with fellow critics — featuring New York Times contributor Lindsay Zoladz, freelance writer Briana Younger, NPR music critic Ann Powers, Glitter Up the Dark author Sasha Geffen, Pitchfork contributing editor Jenn Pelly, WXNP Nashville editorial director Jewly Hight, Penguin Books author Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, critic Steacy Easton, Slate pop-culture critic Jack Hamilton, and Chris Molanphy, the host of Slate’s Hit Parade.
Jenn, I love what you wrote about music and the way it can foster community even when we’re not in physical proximity to one another, and especially amid the various social and political upending of the sorts we’ve had over the past couple of years. This year, I still barely went out; even as vaccines were more available in New York City and the boroughs began showing signs of nightlife again, emerging from the mental cocoon of isolation felt Herculean in scope. Instead, I clung to headphone music that sounded like being spoken to in sentences, as if to sub in the conversations I missed: songs that distilled the experiences on our screens and in our heads, the microclubs of Insta Live, and quasi-social FaceTimes in isolation. I particularly relied upon young women like Olivia Rodrigo, PinkPantheress, HAWA, and Self Esteem—their interiority was so specific, listening to it was like camping out inside their heads. They comprise a micro-generation of Billie Eilish acolytes, some even younger than the savvy 20-year-old superstar.
For part of the year, I felt an uncharacteristic disinterest in cinematic bombast. Peering out of my apartment post-vaccine was a ginger activity, caution necessary to reacclimate. Who, in 2021, attended a social gathering for the first time in months and didn’t feel disoriented, or that they’d lost their capacity for bon mots, cowed by the vision of full-bodied flesh-and-blood friends as opposed to Max Headroom busts chittering on a Zoom screen?
Not me, for sure. I glommed onto the awkwardness and felt spiritually seen by confessional music that could legibly translate on my tiny screen, scrolling through TikTok ‘til my thumb hurt and trying to remember the last time I felt anything as acutely as Olivia Rodrigo seems to. In trying not to dissociate, I gorged myself on the chatty bedroom club of PinkPantheress, a 20-year-old from Bath who plugs diaristic storytelling into UK garage and drum and bass gestures. Listening to her, I imagined her roaming a warehouse rave circa Y2K, while her lyrics pop up via thought-bubble. Her observations, about her own melancholia and relationships and disaffection, were pithy and thoughtful, sung conversationally in a high-registered lilt that eschewed try-hard vibrato. Break-ups became prosaic tragedies in the parlance of the group chat, even if she wasn’t that pressed, as on the gutting opening line to “All My Friends Know”: “Did you ever want me?/ No worries if not.” Of course this appealed to a British dance music stan who has, during the pandemic, hit an age that could feasibly be described as “middle;” PinkPantheress too was wrestling with the emotional tumult of a new life phase, sizing up the contours of young adulthood over genres and song samples—Sweet Female Attitude’s “Flowers,” Crystal Waters’ “Gypsy Woman”—that she wasn’t yet born for.
After I accepted that I’d gone grayer since March 2020, older but also wearier from an oppressive day job and mainlining the dispiriting doom of the news by the second, I quit that shit and relocated my fire. Bad Bunny, the biggest star in the universe as far as I and my WhatsApp chats were concerned, made his debut as both a pro wrestler and a flossy cartel flack on Narcos: Mexico and dropped “Volví” with Dominican American bachata megaliths Aventura, a lightly dirty number that felt like a torch-passing, Romeo Santos’s gossamer croon acknowledging Conejo’s level-up and relevance around the world. My friends and I turned it up and texted, virtually fainting from a video that reminded us that pop could still pump out heartthrob moments—and, with its reggaeton/bachata mutuality, blended music—for group bonding, even in our disconnect.
Bad Bunny is an artist that can traverse genre as agilely as any pop star. And I’ve really appreciated the discussion here on genre, particularly the ways industry terms have hemmed in musicians mostly according to race, and its usefulness or lack thereof as a designation. This has been a huge topic of discourse in Latin music for years, most prominently after the brilliant historians and journalists Katelina “Gata” Eccleston and Jenny Mota spearheaded “el movimiento” to supplant the racialized term “urbano” for music like reggaetón and dembow—music invented and made largely by Afro-Latinx artists. As those genres become increasingly consumed (and sanitized) by the Anglo mainstream, this continues to be a topic of conversation and derision; just last week, a pianist by the name of James Rhodes tried to knock reggaetón. (Gata summed it up perfectly in a guest column for the LA Times’ crucial Latinx Files newsletter: “Simply put, perreo’s intentional composition is the continuation of a legacy that aims to maintain and inspire a disenfranchised people.”) And yet this year saw one of perreo’s biggest triumphs yet: a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden for El Alfa, el jefe of Dominican dembow, long one of the most vital and exciting genres on the planet, and whose specificity—of language, of spirit, of rhythm—is crucial to its ingenuity.
Which is all to say, I’m of the mind that entirely eliminating genre can lead to erasure, specifically when the genre in question is self-designated and born of specific cultural and political influences. I feel this especially in a time when Anglos are working hard to make “Latinx” another political flashpoint, a dog-whistle term in the genre (ha) of “critical race theory,” that means little but represents a far-right resistance to racial and cultural difference. What it really symbolizes to me, in no uncertain terms, is the continued politicization of “Latinos” in the United States among the Anglo pundit class, without a true interest in understanding the diversity within our communities—”latinidad” is also a contested term; we are not a monolith—as well as a generalized disdain towards queer people both within and outside of Latinx cultures. To zoom out on that, take reaction to Lil Nas X’s grinding single “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” which set off its own wave of pearl-clutching in the form of its queer sexuality and winking blasphemy—not just from the religious right, but also among fellow rappers, some of whom cannot allow Lil Nas X to breathe without tweeting something homophobic. (After which he utterly smokes them on socials; one cannot beat Nas at his own game.)
Carl, you mentioned Meg’s “Thot Shit” video, which brought its own retort to the conservative response to last year’s “WAP,” sharply spoofing the classically boring mix of evangelical finger-wagging and compulsive titillation. Relatedly, there’s a salient passage from Jeremy O. Harris’s GQ interview with Lil Nas X from November that’s still rattling about my brain, underscoring that the call is also coming from inside the house:
I think you really are a part of the hypermasculine breakdowns that have been happening in hip-hop recently.
I think that’s certainly true. I’m not going to lie, I feel bad for DaBaby. I hope he grows from it. I hope he’s able to. But I don’t know. The whole landscape is very hypermasculine. It’s so great and so amazing that all these female rappers are breaking through. And, in a way, female rappers are the biggest rappers right now.
That’s another reason male artists are going crazy and feeling broken, right? For the first time ever, there’s not just one Lil’ Kim. There’s seven Lil’ Kims and a Missy Elliott. They can’t keep up. Because none of them are Jay-Z or Kanye, and they all know that.”
That the queering of mainstream rap has paralleled with the dominance of women in the genre is no coincidence. That’s not just because artists like Nas and Meg and Cardi are the most talented, charismatic stars, but because everything is starting to open up, in part because critics, industry folks, and especially young people on the internet are having these kinds of hard conversations and pushing culture forward. So even as I hemmed myself in again this year—to no avail, as I type this with a nasty bout of breakthrough Covid fatigue—there was still something approximating community in music, and that’s all I could hope for.
The 21 tracks I listened to most in 2021, in approximate order of obsession:
HAWA — “Wake Up”
Kamo Mphela — “Nkulunkulu”
Bree Runway — “Hot Hot”
Ty Dolla $ign ft. Bryson Tiller, Jhené Aiko, and Mustard — “By Yourself”
Bad Bunny x Aventura — “Volví”
Megan Thee Stallion — “Thot Shit”
Anz f. George Riley — “You Could Be”
Tokischa, Haraka Kiko, El Cherry Scom — “Tukuntazo”
Meenoi — “Salang Salang”
Amber Mark, “Worth It”
Doja Cat ft. SZA — “Kiss Me More”
Jarina de Marco ft. Empress Of — “Vacío”
PinkPantheress — “Break It Off”
Bomba Estéreo — “Tamborero”
Kali Uchis ft. SZA — “Fue Mejor”
Cassper Nyovest ft. Abidola and Boohle — “Siyathandana”
Katy B — “Under My Skin”
Tierra Whack — “Walk the Beat”
Burna Boy — “Kilometer”
Thuy — “In My Bag”
El Alfa ft. Farruko, — “Curazao”
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