I’m not gonna lie, picking a new track for the week was a struggle, and not in a good way. None of the tracks on my radar were atrocious, but if I never hear any of them ever again I’m totally cool with that (should’ve stayed retired Logic).
So I broke one of my stupid listening habits rules- normally if an artist drops a single for an album that’s coming out in the same week, I’ll just wait to hear it on the full project. But if I was going to get a FN&OTOWT (wish that was catchier) out this week that had to change.
And luckily it worked out.
I had a different stupid self-imposed rule to ignore with this week’s favorite old track. I’ve only written 4 of these, and I hadn’t fully considered how long I would wait before featuring the same artist again- but I knew I didn’t want it to be this soon.
But I want this to be “authentic”- that sounds really magnanimous but it’s the right word. I want the old track I talk about to actually have legitimately stood out to me, otherwise I could literally just go through Stevie Wonder’s discography and talk about one song every week (he’ll definitely end up in one of these soon). So I’m talking about another St. Vincent track this week– if you’ve got a problem with that I really need you to re-think your priorities.
Favorite New Track of the Week: “Are You With That?” by Vince Staples
I don’t know where to place Vince Staples’ discography in the hierarchy of 2010’s rap. There’s probably not many albums I’ve listened to more than “Summertime ’06”, but I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favorite albums. Prima Donna’s one of the more standout hip-hop EPs of the last decade. I really enjoyed the big swing he took on “Big Fish Theory”, but he didn’t quite hit it out of the park- and I think that’s kind of what you can say about any Vince Staples project. Still, it feels wrong to put him in the group of artists who have lots of good not great albums because he’s a notch above that (Vince Staples> J. Cole, fight me). But he’s not on the level of Kendrick Lamar, or Danny Brown who were putting out multiple undeniable classics at the same time Vince was breaking out.
I think what holds Vince back is actually part of what makes him stand out. If you’ve ever seen him in an interview you know Vince is unabashedly Vince at all times. That’s true even on the mic and his lowkey, laid-back delivery is a staple (I’m sorry, I promise I won’t do it again) of his music. And it works- his bars sound effortless, and they somehow pop even more thrown over a huge beat like “Blue Suede”. But at the same time he reminds me of older superstar athletes like Lebron James, who are so good they can coast, still drop a triple-double, but save that next gear only they can reach for when they really need it.
Except, Vince doesn’t go to that next gear. He’s incredibly consistent- I wouldn’t say there are any bad tracks on any of his studio albums. But I’m not sure I can point to any one track that’s special. Don’t get me wrong, “Norf Norf” is a classic but it doesn’t break any new ground or tap into any next-level performance.
But if Vince came out with the best Hip-hop album of the year- any year- I wouldn’t be surprised.
So the actual track; “Are You With That?” starts off with Vince rapping about some pretty familiar topics: growing up struggling in Long Beach, and joining the Crips. But in the last few lines of the first verse, he starts to touch on some more nuanced feelings he has about this time in his life. “If I die for the guys have my candlelight going up like the club” lets us in on a level of connection to the other kids Vince banged with that he hasn’t put as thoughtfully on past tracks. Vince has been pretty vocal about discouraging kids in Long Beach or anywhere from following in his footsteps, but in the 2nd verse he admits there’s times when he misses that time in his life. It’s clear it’s not the trapping he misses, it’s the “Crips that lay under the ground” and the friends he has that are still on the streets, living a life that -for better or worse- he doesn’t fit into anymore.
This is all broken up by a super slick hook that the verses seamlessly slip into. Kenny Beats is on the production- as he is for every track on the new album- which is murky and understated, a style Vince has always sounded great over. I’m loving the more layered introspection we get on this track, and I’m really hoping to hear more when I listen to the rest of Vince’s self-titled fourth record later tonight.
Favorite Old Track of the Week: “Strange Mercy” by St. Vincent
I could gush about this track in a lot of ways, but I really want to use it to talk about one of my favorite things about music.
I was listening to this track early in the morning while getting ready for work earlier this week (becoming a recurring theme with the old track of the week). It’s not the most uplifting “get ready for the day” song, but I had the “oh little one” motif stuck in my head when I woke up. Who knows why.
And as I listened I found myself really focusing on the lyrics- the way you do the first week you’re listening to a song. I know what Annie Clark was writing about when she wrote this song. I’ve known for years. But on this morning I came away with a completely different, personal interpretation.
I won’t go into the specifics of what the song was written about or what it pulled out of me because that’s not the point. The point is that there’s more to great songwriting than picking a topic or idea and effectively conveying it as you intend. When purpose and thought and honest emotion is put into lyrics and the performance of those lyrics, the impact they can have on people is incredible. Someone can take away exactly what you intended for them to take away, they could take away something tangential, or it could be something completely out of left field. The point of music or art in general is to evoke some kind of feeling in people, and I think it’s really beautiful that people can connect to a song in so many different ways.
This is a St. Vincent track so I do have gush a little bit. Once again, she’s able to keep your attention and pull at heart strings with just 18 lines. Unlike “The Party” the lyrics are a lot less dense here, but just as purposeful. The repetition ties the narrative together beautifully, and the straightforward tone keeps the listener from overthinking a simple yet emotional story. If you break up this song instrument by instrument and examine them on their own, each part is so sparse you’d think it’s ambient music. St. Vincent is a master of making a song sound fuller and so much more intricate than the sum of its parts, and that’s the key to what makes “Strange Mercy”- the album and it’s title track- so great.