This makes two years in a row now that an actual Album Of The Year contender has been released in the pre-holiday murk, a time traditionally reserved for Christmas compilations and extensive box sets, a time after lists of the year’s best albums have been published. That’s too bad — it would be nice to see Black Messiah represented on such lists, because it deserves to be there — but D’Angelo made the right call: The world needed that record right now; it couldn’t wait. Anyway, he’s at the top of this list of the week’s best songs, and he deserves to be there, too.
“Stairway To Heaven” and “Dream On” and every other great classic power ballad follows the same arc: The quiet and sensitive start, the slow buildup, the raging climax. The title track of Laura Marling’s new album Short Movie follows that arc, too, but it would be weird to call it a power ballad. There’s no screaming guitar solo, for one thing. There’s no chorus, for another. The grain of Marling’s voice only slightly changes over the course of the song. Instead, it’s a song as a runaway train: picking up momentum, picking up scraps of debris, heading off somewhere that feels dangerous and new. Marling has always been a folk singer, and this is a folk song in a lot of ways, with its strummy acoustic guitars and its haunted violins. But the way those things pick up momentum, they stop being there to aid the melody and join the rush of the air. And maybe it’s not a guitar solo, but if someone were to smash a gong around the time the song finally rattles to a close, nobody would blink. –Tom
Tink’s “Around The Clock” is a song about control. The 19-year-old Chicagoan’s flow is tenacious and her voice has the quality of slow-released vape smoke — it’s thick and calming, but Tink’s words drain any shade of doubt from a room. She’s pointed and precise, and she’s not fucking around when she speaks to the Men Of The World, “Nothin’ I hate more than a nigga with bitch tendencies/ That’s like 99% of y’all/ I tell these niggas bow their heads like I was rappin’ out the synagogue.” Tink has the tone of someone who knows that she’s too good to be an afterthought, and it doesn’t seem like she’ll have to tolerate that much longer now that Timbaland has announced he will be releasing her next album. His production on the track is plodding and minimal, its impulse matching Tink’s intimidating tone when she unleashes lyrics like, “I get a kick out of doin’ business and living life/ You get a kick outta fuckin’ bitches with hella likes.” A sense of humor is her salvation, making what could be an all-too serious song sound like a smirking battle cry. –Gabriela
“Truffle Butter” is the last of five bonus tracks on the deluxe edition of The Pinkprint, and it’s like: What? Why? Don’t you realize what you have here? Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, and Drake just teamed up on the same song for the first time in years, and that song, “Only,” was an ooky piece of crap, with Nicki insisting that she never fucked Drake or Wayne, but then Drake and Wayne are drooling all over her anyway. That song still became a single. And here we have Nicki, Drake, and Wayne together again, but this time, they aren’t doing weird tabloid-driven harassment shit. Instead, they’re all three going in hard on a murmuring and glimmering house beat, co-produced by the British dance producer Maya Jane Coles. They’re all riding the beat, staying in the pocket, competing with each other. Nobody wants to have the shittiest verse, and so nobody does. There’s no hook, and it doesn’t really matter, because everything these three say is a hook when they’re on. And when Wayne does get ooky, at least it’s a fun kind of ooky: “Truffle butter on your pussy.” –Tom
Tumultuous times demand tumultuous music. We saw that this year when, by sheer tragic coincidence, Run The Jewels released an album whose fury mirrored the long-simmering outrage and frustration that was boiling over into the streets. The music sounded angry — righteously angry — and it emanated real power. Every time a white cop got away with killing an unarmed black man this year, and every time police responded with a brusque rebuke of those who questioned their authority, RTJ2 felt more and more prescient. It’s crazy to think they recorded it before Eric Garner, before Michael Brown, before Tamir Rice, before #BlackLivesMatter. It was prophetic.
D’Angelo had some prophecy stored up, too. “The Charade” is at least three years old, its studio trickery the subject of rhapsodic Questlove praise in a 2011 Pitchfork interview. It’s been a part of D’Angelo’s live set since 2012, when WFMU said it was the best song of the year even through a curtain of YouTube static. It existed at those times, but now is its moment. One of our greatest living musicians saw history unfolding in front of him, and he entered into it with a historic statement to match. Our Black Messiah review rattled off the many touchpoints — Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Prince — and the album lived up to those totems, never more than on “The Charade.” The groove is hearty, but it moves like liquid. The melodies are ice until they’re fire. The lyrics — I mean, fuck: “All we wanted was a chance to talk/ Instead we only got outlined in chalk/ Feet have bled a million miles we’ve walked/ Revealing at the end of the day, the charade.”
Alternately, there’s a chance Kendrick Lamar’s new untitled song came together very quickly. We don’t know whether Kendrick’s been tinkering with this blast of finger-snapping, call-and-response street-corner soul-jazz since late 2013, when his new album was allegedly coming soon. Maybe he tuned into the Ferguson livestream last summer, shook his head, headed to the studio and wrote the whole thing on the spot. Maybe it came together last week, when a Cleveland police spokesman called protesting athletes “pathetic.” No matter how long it’s been in the works, it’s out there in the world now, and it sounds like turning a corner. “I shall enjoy the fruits of my labor if I get free today” Kendrick and his comrades chant amidst a squall of horns, acknowledging that there’s a real struggle with real stakes still on the horizon for America’s downtrodden. More electrifying still is the promise — the threat — that brings the song to its exclamation point. “We don’t die,” Kendrick assures us, “we multiply!” Here’s hoping his fierce optimism is warranted. In the meantime, there’s still a riot goin’ on because there still needs to be. –Chris