Repeat to yourself: My music will get me through the next four years. My music will get me through the next four years. My music will get me through the next four years. Here are ten great songs from last year. Maybe one of them will get you through the next four years.
10. GOOD Music – “Champions”
Some songs are easier to defend than others. I can’t praise “Champions” for the agility and finesse of its participants’ deliveries or the thoughtfulness of their lines. At one point, Kanye West rhymes “nothin’” with “somethin’” and then “nothin’” again, just so we all know what kind of song we’re dealing with here. Much of the lineup on this track—the aforementioned West, plus Gucci Mane, Big Sean, 2 Chainz, Travis Scott, Yo Gotti, Quavo (of Migos), and Desiigner—reads like that of a walk-on team. But “Champions” still works, riding triumphantly on the backs of these emcees who, while lacking in lyricism, excel in personality. There were a lot of excellent hip-hop tracks last year from far better wordsmiths, but not Aesop Rock nor the duo Run the Jewels nor the entirety of A Tribe Called Quest could sell me bars as gleefully silly as 2 Chainz’s “My new bitch gon’ pull me a new bitch / Then pull me a new bitch / See that is a snowball effect.”
9. Funkadelic – “Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You? (Remix)”
Despite the funk mantle having been hoisted by the likes of Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and, more recently, Childish Gambino, space funk deity George Clinton has consistently retained relevance since 1970, when his two bands Parliament and Funkadelic debuted with albums Osmium and Funkadelic, respectively. In 2014, Funkadelic released “Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?” as part of their sixteenth studio album, First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate. The original version of the song was as smooth and crisp a funk song as one could desire, but it contained far too much empty space to justify its length. Enter Compton rappers Kendrick Lamar and Ice Cube, who fill out the track quite nicely, the former’s warm, unhurried flow contrasting the latter’s steely grit. It’s a silky, bouncy track that celebrates the music and career of an interstellar icon.
8. Kanye West – “No More Parties in L.A.”
It’s hard to identify exactly when Kanye West stopped caring about lyrics. Scientists have narrowed down the scope to the years following his 2010 opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but we don’t yet have the technology to explore further. But what’s confounded the world’s top researchers even more is “No More Parties in L.A.,” from West’s latest album The Life of Pablo. The album mostly foregoes substance and wordplay in lieu of some terrific instrumentals, but on “No More Parties in L.A.,” Kanye West manages to run away with a track that features upstage expert Kendrick Lamar. It’s a rarity whenever Lamar isn’t the best emcee on a track; it’s downright baffling that Kanye West, in 2016, could be one to outdo him. Reminiscing on his rise to superstardom, West spends a majority of the song breathlessly embodying the fierce braggadocio of new Kanye with the lyrical precision of classic Kanye. On top of a beat co-produced by West and Madlib, “No More Parties in L.A.” is a beautiful piece of retrospection that fires on all cylinders.
7. Bruno Mars – “24K Magic”
I cite “Treasure,” from Bruno Mars’s Unorthodox Jukebox, as the pop singer’s first step towards his true calling. Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” would further propel him in this direction, but it was on his latest album, 24K Magic, that he fully embraced a proper stylistic ethos: the pop-soul throwback. “24K Magic,” the album’s title track, glistens with a slick post-disco sheen atop thumping ‘90s R&B synths. Mars has perfected the art of the self-aware nostalgia trip; “24K Magic” exudes a goofiness that prevents its self-awareness from veering into condescension, while its self-awareness elevates its goofiness above puerility. It’s not that Mars has necessarily become less cheesy as a songwriter in the years since hits like “Grenade” and “Just the Way You Are” made pop radio that much more cloying—he’s just since learned how to utilize that cheesiness to spin mawkishness into 24-karat gold.
6. Leonard Cohen – “You Want It Darker”
Leonard Cohen’s entire final album centered itself around death, its inevitability, and Cohen’s quiet resignation to it. “If you are the dealer / I’m out of the game / If you are the healer / It means I’m broken and lame.” Cohen no longer wants to fight with God. Interestingly, Cohen has spent his whole career framing earthly and human action in a religious context, but in speaking directly about God, Cohen translates the object of his worship into worldly entities: dealers and healers, enablers of sin juxtaposed against restorers of life. “You want it darker / We kill the flame” ends every verse; Cohen remained humble in his songwriting, but even in his final months, he was unable to avoid a very obvious truth: that his career, his music, and his poetry were a candle in the dark for so many. And as somber as this song and its accompanying album are, Cohen’s illumination remains bright, as it has even in the wake of his passing.