Favourite Albums of 2017 – #5 to #1

Note: No song recommendations for each album here. Delve into each of the albums in their entirety – they’re worth it

#5. 4:44, Jay-Z

The barebones cover art of 4:44 is symbolic. Jay-Z strips down his grandeur, his mythical image, to share thoughts and emotions he admits to having kept buried himself. This album is perhaps Jay’s most “Shawn Carter” album – it’s confessional, introspective and contemplative all at once. Think the emotional wallop of Song Cry expanded to album-length. Jay’s rawest moments come when reflecting on his infidelity, apologizing to Beyonce with a vulnerability he’s never dared to show before. He reflects on his legacy, as a rapper, a businessman and a father honestly – rather than expanding his mythos, he deconstructs and examines it. It’s almost ironic then, that he’s at his most confident lyrically here that he’s been in a long time. He isn’t trying hard with his punchlines or technicality, but he deftly presents his troubles and victories with plenty of quotables along the way. The decision to pair with No I.D throughout the album clearly paid off too, with a sonic cohesiveness that many of his previous works lacked. 4:44, then, is grown-man rap, and one of Jay-Z’s best albums – and perhaps, the only true Shawn Carter album we have.

#4. A Crow Looked at Me, Mount Eerie

How does one talk about death – more specifically, the death of the dearly beloved? Artists across time and mediums have tried to translate the devastating finality of death into their creations, to varying degrees of success. Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum plays his hand by turning the all-encompassing grief of his wife, Geneviève Castrée’s death into “barely music,” as he puts it himself. Throughout the length of the album, it feels like Elverum is simply unraveling his knotted heart into words, with startlingly frank descriptions of the time before, around and after Castrée’s death. There is no convoluted attempt at philosophical musings or poeticisms, simply the reality of Elverum’s life let loose over sparse, intimate instrumentation. A Crow Looked at Me is a painful, utterly sad album – every listen nudges you to cry – but that’s what death is. There is no resolution; just a lingering image of his dead wife burned into Phil Elverum’s soul, and now, ours.

#3. Sleep Well Beast, The National

The National are the classical indie band, using traditional instruments to effect a certain maturity to their sound, while singing about the everyday lives of everyday people simply living and loving. What differentiates them, then, is that there is none of the pretentiousness attached to most bands in this niche. Sleep Now Beast is a gorgeous, glacial album that brings the heft that every new National record brings, musically and emotionally. Matt Berninger’s rich baritone wades through the swamp of life, and endures. That is the leitmotif of this album – endurance. The album rarely soars, rather seeking to persist. It does not vault over obstacles, so much as wear them down. The production is rousing, if not anthemic. It lays out a bed of sound that’s comfortably gentle enough to couch your tired heart, but acknowledges that resting alone is not enough to move through life. Sleep Now Beast is an important record – in the chaos of our world it, it implores one to take stock of what we have, and what we must not lose. And that is all it takes to live.

#2. DAMN., Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar is one the greatest MCs to ever grace the mic. End of. DAMN. is a meticulously crafted, stunningly written album that cements Kendrick as a musician who uses his skills not merely as a destination in itself, but as a vehicle to his message. This is his leanest, most accessible album, and it shows within every track itself. His rhymes are razor-sharp, condensing weighty ideas and philosophies into one-liners and tight metaphors, but equally adept at expansive, descriptive storytelling. Each song is a concept in itself, with appropriately moody production, delivering thought-provoking lyrics and quotables, often separated by a mere bar or two. He can go from the aggressive, barbed rapping of DNA. to the sensuality of LOVE. without ever compromising his lyrical dexterity. Kendrick is a purposeful, thoughtful rapper who can reel in the listener with deceptively simple ‘hooks’ and then confront them with the true depth of his music. This is best exemplified by album closer DUCKWORTH., one of Kendrick’s finest instances of storytelling, culminating in a disorienting, yet perfectly sensible twist that connects his music and his life in a utterly believable way. Saying he lives to make music, or that his music shapes his life would both be falsely reductive – for Kendrick Lamar, his music is his life. 

#1. Melodrama, Lorde

Melodrama is an album that is very difficult to describe objectively – it is a distillation of millennial heartbreak and recuperation lifted to celestial heights by one of the finest pop stars of this generation. Lorde couches the travails of a 20-year old in love in luxuriant sound, turning the ephemeral cascade of emotions that we attempt to deal with through the processes of love into tangible, memorable lyrics. Her synthesia shapes the album, infusing the music with a nocturnal quality that nevertheless glimmers under rave lights. Amidst spilt drinks, clothes quickly shed and shattered hearts, Lorde finds reasons to stay defiant, pick up her pieces and cruise down the highway without a care in the world. It’s a message that resonates in the depths of the young soul, from where we have shut out the light. Even as we overthink our punctuation use, we find a way to love till our breathing stops. It would be foolish to not drown in Lorde’s delicately emotive voice, and reminisce about the foolishness, the joys and the resilience of young love. It’s a beautiful thing, and no one captures it quite as beautifully as Lorde does.

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Favourite Albums of 2017 – #5 to #1

4:44 by Jay-Z

The hyphen in Jay-Z’s name might be back, but 4:44 isn’t really Jay-Z. For possibly the first time in his career, it’s an album by Shawn Carter, the multimillionaire businessman, the African-American man, the family man. In shedding the larger-than-life image of the rapper in the very first track, aptly titled Kill Jay-Z, he owns up to his past failings and in a lyric unprecedented for a rapper of his mythology, implores himself to be emotionally vulnerable (“Cry Jay Z, we know the pain is real/ But you can’t heal what you never reveal”).

Throughout the album, this sense of being brutally honest reveals a side of the man, the myth, the legend that few would expect the notoriously insular Hov to see, 13 albums into his epic career. On Smile, he acknowledges his mother’s homosexuality in a disarmingly sensitive moment – he doesn’t linger on it, simply expressing his support and admiration. Coming from a notoriously homophobic genre, it’s a powerful statement by one of the most influential voices in the community. On the title track, and the crux of the album, it’s clear that Shawn’s marriage with Beyoncé, his infidelity and his relationship with his children weigh heavily on his mind. He’s realized that his rap superstar lifestyle and image is untenable if it adversely affects his personal life.

The parallel track on 4:44 to Jay-Z’s maturing as an individual is his commitment to being rap’s elder statesman. Far more than on his last album, the frustratingly myopic Magna Carta Holy Grail, he confidently delivers sermons on his rags-to-riches story, wealth accumulation and distribution, and generational wealth in the context of being a Black man in America. Jay’s brags aren’t merely exhibitionist – they are repackaged as lessons to financial success, and rewards to be reaped. The Story of O.J. is a treatise on Black capitalism, delivered succinctly in a manner only Jay can (“I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99”). Family Feud and Legacy reiterate the need for uniting under the umbrella of Black excellence, and pushing the people forward on their own terms. Even as an outsider to the culture, it’s inspirational in its aim of inclusiveness and hardened determination.

With everything that’s going on in 4:44, it could’ve easily been a rather boring, draggy album. But it seems being Shawn Carter has broken the rapper’s chains (shit, the wordplay’s rubbing off). Jay weaves vivid tales with storytelling ability we haven’t heard since American Gangster using some of his best flows – the kind that gave him his legendary status – over painstakingly tailored production, all of which comes courtesy of No I.D. Clearly, Jay has been incredibly invested in this project, explicitly picking out and building songs around specific samples he grew up with. Jay’s brevity is well-documented, but applying it to such personal stories ensures we’re hooked on every word, and they hit with their full weight. When he turns up the aggression, like on Bam and Marcy Me, it’s with the cool head of a man who knows his power, and his confidence is evident in the many instantly-quotable one-liners he drops (“Before we had A&R’s, we had AR’s too”), his pop culture references on point (“Put that drum in your ear, don’t get Srem’d/I’ll Bobby Shmurda anybody you heard of”).

4:44 is the 13th studio album of a rapper with nothing left to prove – so he proves himself as a musician/businessman, a successful Black man with a complicated personal life. He sounds rejuvenated both as Jay – Z and Shawn Carter, and hence delivers one of the finest albums of his career. It’s an impeccably crafted, lucid elegy that will go down as proof a 47-year old rapper doesn’t need to rely on his stereotypical image to make waves in the culture.

4:44 by Jay-Z