It’s incredibly frustrating not being able to know the meaning of everything, especially when we’re used to calling up Wikipedia for answers whenever we’re stuck. DAVID BOWIE’s final message to us – a glorious, harrowing, cryptic message – before his death from liver cancer on 10th January could be an elaborate two-fingered salute to our knowledge-obsessed world, packed as it is with hints, winks and dead endings. Since Blackstar’s release on Bowie’s 69th birthday (a birthday he shares with Elvis) and the Starman’s shocking demise two days later, people have been poring over the meaning of the lyrics (what is the “Villa of Ormen”?), occult symbols in the videos to Blackstar and Lazarus, and the album artwork, which designer Jonathan Barnbrook insists still holds one undiscovered treat for fans.
What does become apparent after several listens to Bowie’s parting statement is that he’d evidently reconciled himself to his fragile mortality, and faced it head on. And what better way to sign off than to throw everything at it, and take risks that other artists daren’t: how very Bowie. Producer Tony Visconti recalled that they listened to a lot of Kendrick Lamar during the making of the record – but it’s not rap or hip hop. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin and drummer Mark Guiliana were recruited after Bowie saw them playing in 55 Bar in New York, and the pair add a frantic insistence to the LP – but it’s not a jazz album. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy helped out with some ideas and percussion – but Blackstar is not an electro banger. It is, in short, everything that Bowie saw as the future of popular music. In giving us Blackstar, he’s given us back our hope.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Scorned by an unfaithful lover. Scorned as a black woman, “the most disrespected, unprotected and neglected person in America”, as observed by Malcolm X in 1962, whose statement you’ll find sampled on BEYONCÉ’s powerful, political, personal and poetic visual super-album Lemonade.
The video for Formation unapologetically calls out violence against black communities in America: the “stop shooting us” graffiti, the references to Michael Brown and to the structural violence against black communities in New Orleans post-Katrina, the submerging of the police car. Black Lives Matter. Fast forward to the Super Bowl halftime show: the Black Power salute, the nods to Michael Jackson, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros/I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” This declaration of black pride on a stage set for family-friendly neutrality stunned conservative white America. “Racist.” (HUH?!) “Too political.”
Reportedly dealing with husband Jay Z’s infidelity (opening track Pray You Catch Me begins “You can taste the dishonesty”), Bey navigates waves of emotion, from hurt, to self-doubt, to rage, to hope and a call to mobilise. She has urged fans to call out police violence and stand in solidarity for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. She took the Mothers of the Movement – the mothers of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin – to the VMAs as her guests. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned; heaven probably hath no capacity for love like these women either.
“If I filled up your mass graves/And attacked your countries/Under false premise/I’m sorry,” sings ANOHNI in her wonderfully tortured and affecting voice on Crisis, as the lush beats and dance-friendly electronics of co-collaborators Hudson Mohawe and Oneohtrix Point Never dance around a rare vulnerable moment in Hopelessness’ unflinching dressing down of liberal America. And she doesn’t stop there, railing against mass, government-sponsored surveillance on Watch Me (“I know you love me/Cos you’re always watching me”), giving Barack Obama both barrels over his kill lists and “executing without trial” on the angry Obama, and calling for them to “Explode my crystal guts” on Drone Bomb Me, in which she assumes the role of a 7-year-old Afghan girl.
That she launches these attacks from an ambiguous standpoint allows Anohni to point the finger at both those on the left and the right for their hypocrisies and their moral indignation. This isn’t a ‘political’ album in the parochial manner of, say, Polly Harvey: it’s a hard-hitting reproach from a self-confessed ecofeminist who’s no longer afraid of stepping on toes after a decades-long battle for acceptance as a trans woman in a patriarchal world.
In February, Anohni wrote an essay about why she wouldn’t be attending the Oscars ceremony after becoming the first transgender person to be nominated for an Academy Award (her collaboration with J. Ralph, Manta Ray, for the documentary Racing Extinction was nominated for Best Original Song). “As a transgendered artist, I have always occupied a place outside of the mainstream,” she said, continuing, “I have gladly paid a price for speaking my truth in the face of loathing and idiocy.” It doesn’t always have to be hopeless.
Lucian Grainge’s internal memo to the staff of Universal on Monday 22nd August may well be the biggest piece of evidence in assessing the state of the record industry in 2016. Coming just days after FRANK OCEAN’s double album shoulder drop – releasing visual album Endless on the subscription service Apple Music to fulfil his contract with Def Jam (a subsidiary of Universal Music Group), followed 24 hours later by the superior, more conventional album Blonde on his own, ‘independent’ label – CEO Grange’s decree banning all UMG artists from signing “exclusive” distribution deals with streaming services still feels like a petulant move from a man smarting from being out-manoeuvred by one of his prized assets. Months of hype and ‘leaked’ release dates for Boys Don’t Cry – Ocean’s fabled follow-up to 2012’s genre-smashing hit Channel ORANGE – fizzled into intrigue about who’d shafted who, and how Def Jam essentially wound up with a 45-minute, un-marketable music video stuck behind an effective paywall on Apple’s streaming service. The fact that Blonde went on to sell 276,000 units in its first week – only Drake and Beyoncé have had bigger first week sales this year – only heightened the perceived tensions.
Musically, Ocean occupies a more comfortable place on Blonde than perhaps he’s ever done before: less prone to flitting between ideas, more controlled and sensual in channeling his moods. Endless wants for a structure, something – anything – for the few brilliant moments to cling to. But you still get the sense that the obsessive in Ocean has been quelled somewhat, and he’s reconciled himself to his relationship with RnB. Only Frank Ocean knows if that’s a good thing or not.
Refusing boats, fencing in, dental checks, dismantling camps and building walls – xenophobia has crept into our everyday lives and made itself a home. Step forward M.I.A. and AIM – a hybrid-sounding celebration of migrant culture and resilience. Take her visually arresting video for Borders – placid brown bodies lying motionless on boats, attempting to scale fences, wrapped in gold foil shock blankets on foreign shores. M.I.A. doesn’t shy from the imagery of the humanitarian crisis played out on European waters and, lyrically, it’s just as cutting and poignant – “borders”, “politics”, “police shots”, “identities” and “your privilege” are juxtaposed with the social media tat that keeps us immersed in our own fragile egos and at a distance from empathy (“being bae”, “your goals”, “slaying it”).
AIM is not without controversy (a misdirected questioning of the Black Lives Matter movement; pissing off Paris St Germain; scuffles with her label and MTV). But it is a scattered collection of songs full of compassion for migrants and refugees – Survivor touches on her own experience of coming to London as child refugee from Sri Lanka via India, Freedun, featuring Zayn, sings that “refugees learn about patience”, and Ali R U OK?, inspired by an overworked Uber driver, tackles the exploitative work carried out by migrants and the obligation to send home remittances.
In a world that feels hell-bent on inciting fear of the “Other”, AIM is a record full of global reverb: a vital acknowledgement of the moveable feast of migrant culture and the shit people endure.
You Want It Darker coaxed LEONARD COHEN, ready to dissipate like smoke in the cold winter air. Like his lover and muse Marianne Ihlen, whose letter from Leonard on her deathbed brought a wandering tear to many eyes. His words, as ever, lay testament to the trying and suffering and the slithers or swathes of light that mark the human condition; belief, loss, sensuality. The inevitable mortality, played out like King Herod and the baby boys in this year Anno Domini 2016; Cohen himself one of the most recent casualties.
But there is a hopefulness to be found in his life and work. Take Hallelujah. Pored over for five years, his genius belies the instant gratification-type brilliance we so often associate with the greats. In the arduous craft of the song, there is hope – that perseverance can produce greatness. To grasp that Cohen only came to terms with touring in his 70s. To know his depression lifted. To learn he enjoyed the sensory experience of swimming. To understand it took the help of others for Hallelujah to be recognised. To tell a story of a Biblical hero committing two mortal sins, adultery and murder, but to know he is forgiven. There is hope in all these things.
Or take the final line on You Want It Darker, sang on String Reprise/Treaty: “I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine.” A prerequisite for that wish of a guarantee of love is a hope for the future. Now, more than ever, we need that hope.