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DIIV’s Zachary Cole Smith describes “Under the Sun” as “a moment of levity amongst the heaviness” of much of his upcoming double LP, ;Is the Is Are. Most of the record’s singles have been accompanied by statements of intent from Smith: a vivid description of substance abuse, an exploration of the “struggles along the path to clarity, sanity, and sobriety,” and at least one blatant representation of the album’s “darkness.” “I really wanted people to be able to understand the words and connect with them,” Smith has said, and his willingness to acknowledge the past while looking towards the future seems like a step in the right direction.
“Under the Sun” is perhaps Smith at his most vulnerable. In a Tumblr post explaining that it’s a love song to Sky Ferreira, Smith becomes markedly moved. (“I don’t think I would have made it out if it weren’t for love,” he writes. “Not really sure what else to say.”) The tone of the track itself is quickly euphoric, beginning with its chiming opening guitar. As each instrument joins, most notably the rather (ahem) sunny guitar that carries the song, Smith declares his constant devotion: “Yes I’ll come back to you/ No I won’t ask where you run/ Under the sun.” It’s poppy, positive, and pure, all of which add up to an exciting move from DIIV.
Future and the Weeknd went in very different, very well-documented directions in 2015. Eschewing pop fame, the Atlanta rapper immersed himself in codeine and the dense trap beats of his pre-Pluto ;days. The Toronto singer, on the other hand, largely shed the sparse sound of his famed ;Trilogy in favor of MJ-worshipping, ;Max Martin-heralded pop success.
But the Weeknd did maintain his trademark destructive behavior. In this regard, he and Future are kindred souls. They’re self-aware yet unapologetic, and operate best in the shadows. On “Low Life,” Future drags the Weeknd back into the depths from which he had hardly receded. “I just took some molly, what else?” Future confesses from the onset, as if there’s no alternative. The Weeknd simultaneously pulls some melody out of Future Hendrix, who never really starts or stops singing. Together, they find a middle ground of deadpan lyrics and palatable sonics. The Metro Boomin and Ben Billions-produced beat creates a similar contrast with echoey vocals or piano chords layered on top of drill snares. Nothing is surprising to Future and the Weeknd. No behavior is deplorable. They both sound natural and expressive on “Low Life,” free to act and emote however they’d like.
Celebrity is a funhouse mirror. It amplifies certain characteristics of those who live within its frame. Kanye West became world-famous several times over during the last decade, and certain parts of his public persona seemed to swell in response.
There was the ego, always there, but now ostensibly justified by success. There was the sensitivity, easily turned to bitterness and aggravated by those who didn’t like seeing a black man defend a black woman at the expense of a white woman. And there was his grief, for Donda West and perhaps for other relationships. These elements metastasized into a potent artistic combination that yielded three very different albums.
In retrospect, the first of those albums, 808s and Heartbreaks, marked a farewell tour. No more, it seemed, were listeners to be granted access to Kanye’s family business, at least not the business of those who weren’t fated to live (or actively living) beneath all of the lights. And his sound, once so warm, grew colder, culminating in the icy sweat of Yeezus.
But in 2016, the gates have cracked open. The release of “Real Friends” (and a snippet of “No More Parties in LA”) today has fans screaming that the old ‘Ye is back. In its subject matter, its sound, and most crucially its vulnerability, “Real Friends” does share many features with the music Kanye made before 808s. Pivoting off MF Doom’s “Deep Fried Frenz,” West airs his guilt over—what else?—his extended family and old friends, as well as his deep anger with certain relatives, an elaboration of the lament on the 808s track, “Welcome to Heartbreak.” One story he shares, about having to buy back a computer stolen by a cousin, is a miniature study in anguish, as emotionally exhausting as “Only One” and far less effortful.
But if this track evokes the artist that fans think of as old Kanye—an impression enhanced by its cover art—then it’s also one that makes enormous use of what he’s learned since Graduation. After six listens, the most memorable lines are those sung with Auto-Tune. (After a dozen, everything is of a piece.) And West’s attitude has little in common with the buoyant outlook of his youth. “Real Friends” is heavy, grizzled, and sad. The track may be warm, with Kanye’s own production enhanced by the beautiful looping influences of Madlib (who produced the snippet at the end) and Dilla, but it’s the opposite of joyous.
As it stands, the song is tagged on Soundcloud with its title, #realfriends. But when it first was posted, the “friends” was missing. The only word left to describe the song was the one that, fair or not, will feel the most fitting for those who are rejoicing to have this version of Kanye West back: Real.
As Porches, New York’s Aaron Maine typically writes from the perspective of a sordid loner. Right on cue, the hook from “Be Apart,” off his upcoming LP Pool, goes, “I want to be apart of it all.” It’s very much in character, and it subdues any speculation that his Domino debut might be a starmaking endeavor. Thematically, “Be Apart” seems to contradict its form—a synth pop song mixed by Chris Coady (Tobias Jesso Jr., Beach House, Future Islands) in L.A.—but it’s still 2-D, nearly monophonic. This is a mockup of dance music made on Mario Paint for people whose dance moves have as much rhythm and range of motion as those of Toad.
Context matters, though, and “Be Apart” is an unusually upbeat, innocent song for Porches. When he sings the hook, it comes across as: “I want to be a part of it all,” echoing the city’s definitive paean to personal reinvention. (Not surprisingly, it was inspired by Maine’s move to the big city after growing up nearby in Westchester.) But Maine’s handsome, hungover tenor and the deflated synth tones express that success is not a foregone conclusion. “Be Apart” appears less about the ecstasy of the dance floor than a more particular kind of excitement—one that comes with embracing the fear of the first step towards it.
Nine albums in, ;Woods ;have changed course a few times, albeit marginally. Just compare “Sun City Creeps,” the opening track of the upcoming ;City Sun Eater in the River of Light, ;to the opener from their ;last album: ;”Shepherd,” with its Sweetheart of the Rodeo ;pedal steel, was warm and beautiful. ;”Sun City Creeps” ;veers away from country sheen, instead riding a sort of world music noir. A horn section opens things on a gentle, mournful note, and their staccato guitar and languid horns ;nod to old Ethiopian jazz records, mariachi bands, and Ennio Morricone soundtracks. For most other bands, these sort of aesthetic shifts from record to record rarely work, and worse, tend to look like desperate attempts at staying vital.
Most other bands aren’t Woods, though. And given their pace—nearly a record a year for 11 years—it can be easy to forget that they’re phenomenal musicians. But when the song calls for it, they’re expertly flashy, coming through with a frantic electric blues solo at the song’s midpoint. They’re arguably even better when hammering out the details—how they suddenly double up a melody, the way Jeremy Earl’s trembling voice adds tension, how they shift from minimalism to their all-hands-on-deck funk jam, and so on. It’s thoroughly captivating. Considering how many genres you could peg in “Sun City Creeps”—and despite how they’ve never made a song quite like it before—it’s impressive that this sounds definitively like Woods. Perhaps Earl’s vocals provide a through line, but it’s heartening to see this band consistently head in new directions without ever losing their voice.
Someone track down his cousin: Any fan of Kanye knows his muse works in fits and starts, and his output can be as erratic as a mood swing. Choosing to follow the dour “Real Friends” with “No More Parties in L.A.” is yet another exercise in extremes, which suits him just fine: a self-described “38-year-old 8-year old,” Ye chases after what’s motivating him no matter how eccentric the inspiration. Here he mentions “I was uninspired since Lauryn Hill retired” and “I know some fans who thought I wouldn’t rap like this again” in the same way he delivers a hilarious anecdote about an assistant crashing his matted Maybach. He also references his memorable line from The College Dropout’s “Breathe in Breathe Out”—“first nigga with a Benz and a backpack”—with “a backpack nigga with luxury taste buds,” a great callback to how ably Ye can so easily identify with two different class of rappers.
Kanye still resonates after all these years by pulling you into his story, with vivid images about texting and driving and André 3000’s extended hiatus next to a line about “whole family getting money, thank god for E!” That ability to connect to listeners is what sells us on the problems and lifestyles of the very, very rich, to the extent where no matter how ridiculous some of his lines are (“any rumor you heard about me was true and legendary”) it feels like something we can relate to. Which is, of course, patently absurd.
And the fact that a six-minute song with a monster Kendrick verse and a painterly Madlib beat goes by in the blink of an eye reinforces how revitalized Kanye is after a spotty 2015, dropping these songs weekly (although this one was three days late) as if to prove he can still do it. Between “Real Friends” and this song is an air of the unfiltered rawness of “old Kanye” that makes you wonder if Swish will be as off-the-cuff, and, frankly, charming. We’re in for a doozy if it is.