The first time I heard “Be Yourself,” I couldn’t help but laugh because of the haunting sentiment that an older maternal figure was commanding me to not drink and do drugs on a Frank Ocean album. Flashbacks to my mom hammering in these same values occurred. “Many college students have gone to college and gotten hooked on drugs, marijuana, and alcohol,” the voice warns us. “Listen. Stop trying to be somebody else. Don’t try to be someone else. Be yourself and know that that’s good enough. Don’t try to be someone else…” Appropriately, seconds later Ocean references doing tabs of acid in the first line of “Solo.” But as I listen to Blonde on repeat, I smile to myself, not because of the sample’s irony but the self-love Rosie Watson’s voicemail was advocating for. She’s confirming that being myself is good enough. I believe her.
The short interludes heard on Blonde are the reason I fall in love with the album over and over again. There’s something endearing and overlooked about Ocean sampling his friend’s mother and other familial voices. It elevates the role of sampling in pop music, promoting the sonic excerpts from mere musical building blocks to characters with something to say. It’s similar to the effect of Solange including the voices of her parents and Master P on her incredible A Seat At The Table, even if those monologues were recorded specifically for her album. Threading someone else’s voice into your album is not exactly a new technique — among many others, Kanye West’s use of Gil Scott-Heron on “Who Will Survive In America” comes to mind — but it seemed especially prominent this year, and especially relevant.
2016 has been a particularly tragic year. From the passing of musical legends to authoritative turmoil, these past 12 months have been packed with a lot of pain. For most it has been a year to mourn. Police brutality, DAPL, the Syrian refugee crisis, Donald Drumpf becoming president-elect: The list of tragedies seems to be never-ending. But all of these scandals, national and global, have made me contemplate who has the right to speak. This same question pertains to the music industry.
The use of sampling has come off as a way of coping — or even, for those moments when we begin to believe times are at their worst, a reminder that horrors have persisted through the decades. America’s year of existential crisis has impacted pop music and has seeped into its infrastructure, whether intentionally or not. Pop icons who have a voice that can be heard worldwide use not only past musicians’ thoughts and music, but also the voices of other artists, intellectuals, family members, and the oppressed to be re-contextualized and heard anew. In a strange way sampling is evidence. It’s evidence that the problems that exist today existed for past generations. It’s evidence that questions how far we have come as a society and as human beings. Samples prove that creative endeavors are tied to the past; they serve to inspire, comfort, and commemorate.
Consider the Range’s rebellious compositions. In an evolutionary step from the process of scouring record bins, 27-year-old James Hinton dug through an infinite amount of files online, scavenging YouTube for sounds, voices, and rhythms. This year’s Potential is a deconstruction and reworking, with fragments of found sound from a vast online archive incorporated into each track.
Hinton purposely wants to represent unheard of amateur artists within his music. He uses different strategies to find obscure and unseen videos, usually individuals singing or reciting to a webcam — never official music videos or anything with a tremendous amount of views. Similar to the way Ocean samples moments from his own life or Solange uses her loved ones’ memories, Hinton is attracted to the humanity that is found in intimate YouTuber video capsules. He chooses samples for reasons beyond their emotion and performance. In 2009 Hinton’s mother passed away. When he came across 13-year-old London rapper Kruddy Zak spitting the verse, “’09 was emotional/ It’s a memory that will never fade/ I wish that everything was still the same,” it seemed like a fateful, necessary inclusion.
Potential takes individual experiences and makes them universally relatable. Hinton’s samples reveal an accessibility and humanity that is lacking in other pop music samples, particularly the common trope of flipping a famous pop song into a familiar new hit. Like the interludes heard on Blonde, the Range’s samples don’t rely on the celebrity of ancestral sound, but on a democratic philosophy that lesser-known artists and individuals are equally worthy points of inspiration.
That said, recognizable samples can still make an impact too. At Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claire Festival, the first two tracks from his soon to be released album 22, A Million were available on vinyl. On the packaging, in legible text, were sample credits for “Queen Of Gospel” Mahalia Jackson. And indeed, her prominent voice bursts through the static of “22 (OVER S??N).”
Whether Vernon intended for this to be a political choice is beside the point since “How I Got Over” is inherently political. This classic was sung at the March On Washington in 1963 where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech. Jackson was a prominent figure in the Civil Rights movement, encouraging people to support boycotts. Additionally, she can be heard urging King on during his speech, shouting, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” Although a famous musical figure, Jackson encountered many instances of racial prejudice and hate. She was an active member of the movement, wanting to contribute and support in any way possible. Vernon took Jackson’s line, “Then I’m going to shout all my trouble over,” and later explained, “If there’s anybody that’s ever sang for all of humanity, it’s probably her. I couldn’t have sang that. To hear her voice bookend a Michael Lewis saxophone solo just made me really happy.”
On Blood Orange’s latest album Freetown Sound, which is already packed with personal ancestral significance, there is a range of samples and dialogues from other musicians like Vince Staples and creative minds like Ta-Nehisi Coates. Dev Hynes’ own contributions are usually politically charged; the one-off single “Sandra’s Smile,” for instance, pays tribute to Sandra Bland and other victims of police violence. In that same spirit, Hynes lets the current racial turmoil and violence in America contextualize the samples on Freetown Sound.
For the last 30 seconds of “Love Ya,” Coates discusses the over-awareness of presenting himself as an African American boy, which way to wear his hat or who to walk home with. “Desiree” samples audio from Paris Is Burning, a documentary about drag culture in 1980s New York City. “By Ourselves” pulls spoken word from Ashlee Haze from a poem titled “For Colored Women.” Through all the cracks and thinly-defined crevices of his album, Hynes finds the ample space to implement as many varied voices as he can. On the track “With Him” he samples audio from 1994 documentary Black is… Black Ain’t. The creator Marlon Riggs visualizes and advocates for intersectionality, which is what Hynes does sonically on the entirety of Freetown Sound. His samples serve as a reminder that basic human rights aren’t that basic for everyone in our “progressively modern” age — that even if we try to pretend to be someone else, as an individual or as a country, we’ll be reminded by the ghosts of history’s past that nothing can be great again if it wasn’t good in the first place.
To parallel Blood Orange’s political reflection, Kanye West’s use of Nina Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” is an example of a larger-than-life pop icon re-appropriating historical music and giving it a new edge. “Famous,” from the ever-changing The Life Of Pablo, created cultural shockwaves the moment Kanye took the name of the potentially slipping pop sovereign Taylor Swift in vain. Granted, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the celebrity gossip surrounding a track that markets itself on fame. Everyone and their cat had a take on the feud. But at moments when Swift versus West disintegrated into irritating radio noise, Simone’s verse — beginning with, “Man, I can understand how it might be/ Kind of hard to love a girl like me…” — haunted my brain on a loop.
First repeated by Rihanna in the beginning of “Famous,” Simone chimes in with the original recording near the three-minute mark. It’s from the 1968 album ‘Nuff Said!, which is weighed with sociopolitical significance. The majority of the album was recorded three days after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. Simone’s words echo even louder this decade, as ongoing systemic racism and violence gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement and forced conversations of racial inequity in the US onto the debating floor. A voice associated with Civil Rights Movement is being used in popular music and her message is still relevant — even if West, who has sampled Simone before, sometimes subverts her lyrics for his own purposes.
Another chronic sampler, Anderson .Paak, incorporates various clips from surfer movies on Malibu, an ironic, tongue-in-cheek move by an LA-based musician who doesn’t know how to surf. He also sampled Israel’s national anthem “Hatikvah” on his track “Come Down.” It’s an intriguing choice, since national anthems are political by nature, though Paak has not come out with a specific reason for its use. The lyrics for the song reference partying, but also keeping a steady independent stride. It’s about not looking back, but it can also be read as a literal account of getting high from the now legal (!!!) recreational weed in California.
How should this sample be reconciled in the context of this funk-tinged pop song? “Hatikvah” means “hope” in Hebrew. The song centers itself on the Jews’ desire to move to Israel and declare it the holy and free nation. Oddly enough it wasn’t the official national anthem of Israel until November 2004 despite it being written in the late 18th century. The anthem, which opens “Come Down,” is somber with a minor melody. “Come Down,” meanwhile, resembles politically minded party-starters like Parliament Funkadelic or James Brown. Paak raps in the verses and then is antagonized by his own layered vocals as the chorus. He manifests a call and response with his own voice, almost like the devil on your shoulder egging you on, taunting, “You might never ever come down/ It took too long to get this high off the ground/ Don’t run, just stay awhile.” Paak has commented that the essence of the song is in showmanship and proving any commentators wrong. Maybe its peculiar connection to “Hatikvah” is that both are songs of perseverance; or maybe Paak just heard in “Hatikvah” the foundation of a killer loop.
The track ends with another sample from the 1978 movie Big Wednesday by John Milius, a film about three friends whose ultimate passion is surfing. They avoid conscription of the Vietnam War and struggle with the perils of growing up in wartime. The film represented a love-induced vision of the ’60 that turned out to be more of a fantasy than reality. Who knows what these samples signify for Paak, but they’re cohesive in their melancholic tone, and they demonstrate the wide range of content that pop music is including in its background. Paak’s personal party anthem is imbued with the voices of prospect, both real and fictionalized.
One more sample from 2016 that is probably the most overlooked comes from Phantogram’s album Three. In the process of making their third album, Phantogram dealt with multiple losses and personal tragedies, one being the death of Sarah Barthel’s sister. The narrative of “Barking Dog” is from the perspective of someone who has committed suicide. The lyrics are ominous: “Hurt people hurt people too/ I’m sorry for what I’ve done/ Head on the bathroom floor/ Talking in your demon voice.” Even though the narrator is hurting, their loss is someone else’s mournful agony.
The majority of the instrumental background comprises a sample of Steve Reich’s Different Trains, conceived from the idea that if he were not in the United States traveling between separated parents by train as a child, Reich could have been in Europe traveling to his death by train during the Holocaust. Reich’s piece is a synthesis of the hypothetical and actual past, using the train as a symbol to bear the weight of historical meaning and hypothetical theory in an attempt to make sense of the Holocaust. It is divided into three movements: “America-Before The War,” “Europe-During The War,” and “After The War.” Phantogram’s beat comes from the final movement “After The War.”
“Barking Dog” is cyclic and repetitive, with Josh Carter’s vocals inhabiting an echo chamber at points. This repetition mimics the organization of Different Trains. Reich plays with the song’s contextual baggage and the literal sound. His music is immediately politicized because of the content, which in turn politicizes Phantogram’s music. Different Trains and “Barking Dog” are two creative works that are contemplating death and grieving the loss of life by playing with perspective. The restlessness of “Barking Dog” speaks to the anxiety of losing a dear one. Its repetition speaks to the anxiety of its inevitability. The use of Reich’s sample elevates the emotional weight of the track and also highlights ability for music to act as both an inspiration, a catalyst for understanding, and a form of memorialization.
Instead of sampling making public history personal, in the case of Hynes or Vernon, Phantogram makes their personal history a public parallel to the grief of collective memory. Barthel and Carter use their sampling for performative grief, which can be argued for many of the above artists as well. “Barking Dog” is a memorialization of a lost loved one, an outlet for mourning, and an addition to the aggregated documentation of pain. Although experiences and memories are specific for each individual, grief and loss are universal. It’s one more 2016 sample among many showing the pain endured in the past and acknowledging that that same pain as something we have to make peace with today.