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It would be easier to recap 2020 by naming all the awful things that didn’t happen. From the jump it’s felt as if we were thrown into crises within crises in a never ending downward spiral – and we know we are all exhausted. By some miracle we have reached the end of 2020 with a shred of sanity and, importantly, some great music. Art is so often the healer of wounds inflicted upon us, both as individuals and as a collective society, communicating our insecurities and desires better than we could. Art is our gateway to better understanding ourselves, a way of finding peace amidst chaos.
We owe a lot to the musicians who craft such therapeutic masterpieces, so let us take this moment to celebrate them. The CentralSauce crew got together to give flowers to the artists who carried us through such unique levels of hardship.
Spilligion Reconciles the idea of fighting for peace
In the sweltering heat of a nation going up in flames, Spillage Village ignited a blaze of their own. While living together and recording the album through lockdown from a house in Atlanta, the artists witnessed the summer’s surge of highly-publicized extrajudicial executions at the hands of law enforcement, a violent wave of intranational division stoked by the American President and a pandemic that continues to disproportionately kill Black and impoverished Americans. Turning to their musical family to process the year’s chaos and despair as a single entity, Spilligion addresses the immediate inferno but also the persistent institutional violence that kindled it and continues to fuel the pyre. The album not only soothed my sense of spiritual imposter syndrome, but helped me to reconcile the perceived contradiction of fighting for peace.
To me, spirituality is an awareness of energy and sensitivity to the condition of the world. Part of what drew me to writing and journalism is the way that art can amplify the reach of that energy. While I’ve been writing all year, I’ve also been grappling with powerlessness in the face of chaos. There never seems to be enough words or the right words, and when the influence of that energy is difficult to measure, I found myself turning to more tangible methods of self-evaluation — compensation, position, recognition and even physical location. It’s not coincidence that the easiest markers to measure by leave infinite room for higher measures. I became lost in a cloud of not seeing.
Like any religion, Spilligion highlights the love of a collective as means to personal salvation. Many of the album’s hooks and choruses are sung in the combined voice of the group, but as a single entity. On “Mecca,” together they sing: “So come and follow me to the land / Because I love you, take my hand.” As an entity they project an all-knowing tone, but wisdom is not to be mistaken for omniscience. They know the path to a better place, but still project the fear of not making it there. It certainly takes courage to project love in the face of oppression, but love alone won’t save you from a deadly disease or stop law enforcement from shooting you in the street.
Income disparity in America is a leading cause of the rampant poverty amplified by the pandemic. Yet as J.I.D admits on “Ea’alah (Family),” our prayers for individual prosperity are often louder than our calls for peace and love. Conflicted, he raps: “You see what I’m made of, you see if I’m Abel, you see what I pray for.” In his desire for wealth he worries that he may be like Abel from The Bible, who murdered his brother Cain out of envy for God’s greater satisfaction with his sacrifice. Instead of joining together and questioning why they must sacrifice for the powerful, avarice led Abel to betray his own family.
Amid the collective’s calls to follow them and spread love on “Mecca,” J.I.D spins a parable that further differentiates the intentions of Spilligion from the surface level peace, love and sunshine. He raps about going out of his way to give a homeless man all the cash he has on him, apologizing that it’s all he can give. The man tells him how he’s been abandoned by his family and “It’s love when you do what you can when you don’t have to.” The lesson could end there, but taken aback, J.I.D instead tells the man to use the money to buy a gun and rob a bank. The man’s condition is the intended result of the systemic violence of poverty, oppression and institutional racism. While parables aren’t meant to be taken literally, you still can’t stop systemic violence by loving your enemy to death. You don’t have to choose between love and resistance — in fact, spreading love likely reinforces the idea of resistance to a violent system.
Since March, and probably before that, it’s felt like the walls have been slowly closing in. I’ve been trying to establish myself in a career field that’s shrinking by the day, while struggling with how to reconcile the disproportionate time I spend seeking personal prosperity with the strongly held belief that my impact on the world should be more tangible than my compensation. When Spillage Village closes the album singing together “We fall down, sometimes, on our knees” it felt like the first full breath of air I’d taken in months. Spilligion manages to capture all of the complexity of spiritual intention and practice and the power of coming together to spread love even if that means fighting. Just don’t fight so hard that you miss the collective love already in your life.
Artbreak Resonates with the humanity of grief
It’s almost as though certain bodies of work have innate foresight, as if they know the world will need them in the future, in ways they couldn’t have imagined. Often not included in the “steps of grieving,” music is the listener’s nutrition, their survival guide. Art tends to be the prescription we write ourselves.
2020 presented us as a human race with degrees of grief. The loss of self, the loss of others, the loss of homes, jobs, faith, humanity and yet it can feel as though there is no time to process each loss as we prepare for the next. Neatly packed into suitcases is the trauma of the year we hope to leave behind. But that which is not addressed always resurfaces. I choose to lean in.
Artbreak, an album by UK based rapper Raxstar, humanizes loss, connections and consciousness through the lens of his artistry. The album expands the mind-body experience in both literal and figurative senses through commentary exploring the nuances of losing his father, the loss of friends and of love. Released in 2019, apart from the track “My Dad” ft. Samica, I hadn’t truly given the work an immersive listen — little did I know it would be an integral part of my 2020 treatment plan. The spoken word and stylistic diversity is plentiful throughout the eleven song album. Each track evokes elements of Rax’s identity — be it British grime and jazz instrumentals or South Asian vocals and verbiage, specifically in “Luke’s Piano,” “Insecure,” “What More Can I Say” & “Chalkboard.”
“Artbreak” ft. Harris Hameed encapsulates us with haunting vocals whole in nature and complimentary to bars like “How do you bounce back from tragedy?/How do you cry when you feel so numb? / How do you stop floods of tears when they come? / Eyes so red and raw / Asking why you left us for.” Hameed’s voice resonates with a John Legend-esque quality — transcending and wholesome. The physical depiction of crying and vulnerability is all too often lost for male artists and in society at large. We’ve normalized love and celebration but have yet to tap into loss together, the breath-y and sniffly attributes of the track signal the symptoms we all experience. A feeling all too familiar this year, and yet so isolating.
“If the pain in my mind was scars on my skin / That you could read like bars from my pen / Would you show love? Or would you be far from a friend? / Or would you see me as a piece of art to defend,” “The Body” separates service from self, and asks listeners to examine how we quantify one another. Are we vessels void of emotion here to entertain or do we see the heart behind the music and the soul inside the body?
A cathartic album delving into the inner-workings of Rax’s emotions and mind was something I never expected to hear let alone resonate with, but perhaps during the most tumultuous of years, the acknowledgement of struggle felt radical in a world that was hurting. The standard anecdote for pain is usually positivity but perhaps to find a cure you need a vaccine that contains the virus itself to recognize it. Maybe that’s the secret, the more art we create tied to our humanity, the more we can focus on being human.
souvenir dives into an ocean of truth
More than any other form of artistic communication, expression of universality is most possible through music. It can be all encompassing. There is a certain level that can be obtained from instrumental music, however that could be compared to a piece of visual art like a painting or sculpture. Emotions can be evoked and it can even spur thoughts and ideas. Yet, when music includes instrumental composition with carefully crafted and specific lyricism and vocal melodies that hit on life’s intricacies, it breathes. There is a depth that is possible in a different way. The conscious and subconscious, the text and the subtext, the cerebral and the spiritual can effortlessly synchronize.
There are albums that do this wholeheartedly. Songs can do a version on their own, but only in a full body of musical work is there enough space allowed to incorporate true profundity. In a semi-recent tweet, singer & artist Jonah Yano typed, “i think songwriting is the pursuit of truth, learning to be honest with yourself and other people… i grapple with the truth a lot but writing really helps navigate that ocean.” I interpreted the truth filled ocean as a metaphor for the soundscape surrounding the lyrics. A human can feel simultaneously free and vulnerable in the ocean like they can in an album’s worth of their music. Yano’s 2020 debut album souvenir is an exercise in diving head first into a crashing wave then coming up for air on the other side.
Yano has expressed that through writing all of the songs, he explored different perspectives of his family members as well as his own views of them. You feel his self-discovery through this process in the texture of the vocals and instrumentation. No matter the perspective he sings from, it’s still his voice taking on the vantage point, until he concludes with the necessity of sharing the vocal delivery.
Yano starts the album with his own anger and hurt of which he obtains no control. He sings, “The fire is led by the embers up wind, up wind…scolded by November, porous is my frail skin.” Yano concludes singing in Japanese with his father about the shoes his dad bought for him to run with. An obvious yet poignant metaphor here encourages Yano to stand on his own, even though his father is there in spirit with him. What they sing translates to, “The sun’s setting. I’m gonna go buy some shoes. Shoes for my son, Ultraman shoes, size 16 cm. I’m a little proud of it. Don’t fall on your knees son.”
The arc of the album told through precise yet fluttering guitar, aching yet smooth vocals, and at times distortion balanced by silkiness in eleven tracks makes you feel like you know all of Jonah, or at least more of him than any conversation could tell you. No other piece of music in 2020 feels more human. Yano leaves you with a sonic souvenir of his essence. No other piece of art grants you total access to someone else so you can analyze more about yourself.
Take Time Fills the Empty Space
I’ve always had a tough time with letting myself slow down. Things are always either moving too fast or coming to a complete halt. Sometimes I’m out of tune and whenever I try to adjust, I get lost in the keys of life and a disastrous melody follows. I never let myself sit in the sadness.
On February 29th, Drake dropped the video for “When to Say When & Chicago Freestyle.” While I found both parts enjoyable, it was the chorus of “Chicago Freestyle,” sung in this audibly pitched way in the mix that struck a chord with me. The voice sounded ghastly and sorrowful. At first, I thought it was Sampha, who Drake has collaborated with on previous occasions, but it wasn’t.
Immediately googling Giveon, I found the most recent single of “HEARTBREAK ANNIVERSARY.” What I heard was far from a Sampha impression or rendition. A rich, deep baritone that cried with every lyric crooned. Around this time in 2019, I was dealing with the most difficult break-up.This time in 2020, I was embracing new love, but I’m a lover of reminiscence so I still played it. This anthem of finding time to take a second and look back on what once was scratched at the back on my mind. A month later, Giveon dropped his first project, TAKE TIME.
The eight track meditation dwells on the time he had with his love and the emptiness that’s replaced it with memories he sometimes wished would vanish. Ghosts of adoration that haunt him. Going a little over 24 minutes in runtime, the project is there for a moment. Just a spec of time to contemplate on what once was. Something I didn’t really allow myself to do when I went through break-ups — usually forcing myself to move on rather than stay in the moment when it came to my feelings. I would be hollow and trying to fill it up with various other moments of joy and excitement. I wouldn’t allow myself to feel the pain that needed to be there. Having emotional outbursts would hinder the time I needed to heal because I was then using that time of healing to deal with the moment of crisis while the underlying problems still existed.
Also, I was in love — enjoying the contemporary fruits of a new relationship that didn’t need recollection. “WORLD WE CREATED” was the only record I would play around my love in hopes of our future. Giveon would sing about the “world” they hoped to build as they spend more time together. A beautiful daydream that was meant to be the foundation of memories to come. Songs from the project entered my playlist to help with short 30 minute drives to work, writing poetry, and other smaller occasions. It was there but never in my face. That was until late August when I woke up from the fairytale world created and fell back into reality .
Unlike previous times of heartbreak, we were in the midst of pandemic. I couldn’t go to my usual distractions. I went on my first night walk in years and needed music to settle my mind. I pressed play on Take Time and mid walk, I sat down on a bench and just listened. I sat with the music and thoughts I held back. Like the project, the relationship wasn’t long but left a lasting impact.
After it was over, I wasn’t okay. In fact, I felt worse. In that grief though, my anxiety had calmed down. It was as if the piece that I was previously refusing to use had finally fit as the music gently put it in place. “LIKE I WANT YOU,” the record I heard months ago, hit different. I was in the midst of the moment — wanting love back but knowing it wasn’t meant to be. Each record was tailored made for my moment. It was in its sad embrace that I felt whole to keep walking that night and every night this year since. It was my turn to take time.
What Kinda Music Reminds us to find beauty in the details
In a year where the world decided to shut down, travel came to a halt and everyone dug in, ready to stay put and wait things out. I think we all wrestled with feelings of stagnation.
Seeing the same places every day. Interacting with the same small pool of people over and over again. Watching news outlets circulate damn-near identical headlines for months on end.
Naturally, the days would often blend together. Sometimes the world seemed incredibly small, as we all stayed holed up in our tiny little corner of the globe trying to be responsible by minimizing our social footprint as much as possible.
Freedom felt like a dream from years ago that I could just barely recall.
During this time, a lot of music lost its sheen to me. It was hard to find new releases that I really connected with on a deep level, releases that I knew would eventually become part of my identity during my very first listen.
But one album really stood out to me this year: April’s What Kinda Music.
Admittedly, I’ve been a Tom Misch disciple for several years now. I view him as one of the most talented singer-songwriters of our generation with absolutely delectable skills on the guitar and a rare knack for making every lyric hit the heart. He’s got a keen ear for some of my favorite genres: jazz, disco, funk, and hip hop. But until recently, I always felt like Misch’s career was closer to his musical floor than his ceiling.
All that changed when he teamed up with Yussef Dayes for What Kinda Music.
This is the kind of album that takes you places. The kind of album that only gets better if you close your eyes. An album that always has the capacity to surprise and keep you interested in how the production will grow and evolve.
What Kinda Music is not background music. It’s an awful choice to play if you’re trying to focus on some work. It’s not idly entertaining, or particularly accessible. It’s the kind of music that captures your attention, sparks your imagination, and makes you feel.
Sometimes it’s difficult to find the time for music like that. Paradoxically, it occasionally feels harder than ever to find time nowadays, despite time being our most plentiful resource.
What Kinda Music was so important to me this year because it’s a striking reminder that beauty is found in the details. Every time I revisit this album, I notice something interesting or delightful for the very first time. The more you listen, the more you concentrate, the more you immerse yourself in the album, the more it gives.
What Kinda Music is worth finding time for. It’s worth making the effort to be fully present. If you’re looking for a reason to disconnect and simply feel alive again, this is your chance.
Metro Dread Captures the Gritty reality of the year
Native Son’s Metro Dread, a desert island record for this desert island year, builds something beautiful from a well of timely terror, exploring personal anxieties, everyday adventures, uncomfortable truths and the very nature of America itself.
A Brooklyn native studying Art History, Native Son – then going by his birth name, Ano Chrispin – landed a few appearances in our Why We Like It series with his charismatic emceeing. His style fused humorous alt-rap witticisms with the low maintenance grooves of Steve Lacy; a straddling of the ever-thinning line between singer and spitter. It seemed for a moment that he might step back from the mic, but when quarantine hit, he swapped outright bars for more rock-infused songwriting.
It’s a good thing he did, as Metro Dread is more than just a silver lining. “Riot” is a relentless opener, one steeped in abrasive rock energy and a powerhouse performance. It might be defined by the kinetic drumkit, but it’s a league of smaller details that make “Riot” pop: the sly disorientation of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them ad libs; the synth overlay that ushers us into the chorus; the striking turns of phrase that stack atop one another to make verses and hooks.
The first single from the record, “Brown Water” finds heft in a more restrained beauty. An ambling guitar and delicate, harmony-laden vocal delivers a chilling meditation on police brutality and widespread discrimination. The systemic is filtered through the personal, his day-to-day existence coming up against flashes of ingrained prejudice and his own well-founded fears. It’s chased by “Domme Kinderen,” a lovelorn tune that spins feelings of anxiety, cynicism and public facades into a tale that rings true in this white-knuckle world. Here, his versatile voice, taken alongside the guitar and drums, comprises most of his toolkit – it’s the way that he plays with these few tenets that makes these tracks so dynamic.
A melancholy piano dominates “Serial Misery,” underpinning mentions of moonlight, cigarettes and the deep fountain of youth. A renewed energy reinvigorates the ivories, sending Ano on a life-affirming trip, and even when the track circles back to the spectre of death, it does so with a brighter outlook as Ano wonders “if [he’ll] be missed when [he’s] not around.” It’s a hefty lyric delivered with poise, something that Ano is exceptionally good at – few bars have stuck with me this year like “shot a scene and they got away swerving / oh, big Cab Calloway curtains,” an indelible telling, rich with both style and substance.
Those are threads that duel again on “Ragtime,” which filters heritage and habit though the skittish mind of a musician moving a hundred miles a minute. “It’s in my genes, it’s in my soul,” Ano croons on the hook, “I want to breathe, I want to go, I feel my beat… like ragtime.” Voice note “Staggerlee” falls as a raw moment on an already raw record, segueing into “Honey / Drowning,” an all-embracing closer that fashions vocal samples into percussive rhythms over which Ano bears his soul. More than just a bookend, “Honey / Drowning” is a true conclusion, folding the record’s many images into a deeply personal two-part odyssey.
Metro Dread is as New York as the many movements that inspired it – namely, the storied punk rock, no-wave and hip-hop scenes – but it’s also totally universal, a bastion of beauty pulled from hardships, trials and misadventures. The record itself feels like riding pillion down the streets and avenues of a metropolis, fate resigned to a relentlessly indifferent city where you’re more likely to Rest In Peace than rest peacefully.
If that ain’t a record for the times, then I don’t know what is.
bE gives us joy to hang on to
Here’s a morning routine that I’ve turned to now and then to help keep me sane this year. First, wake up. Next, lie down on your living room floor. Play BE. Breathe.
You will start with track one, “Life Goes On,” the lead single from the record that blends acoustic, folksy balladry with hip hop. As you lay on the floor, you can think about the year you’ve had, and just how much has changed since January 1, 2020 (“One day, the world stopped without any forewarning,” croons Jungkook). As you check your vitals and your energy, wondering how you will somehow persevere through another day of uncertainty, BTS will ground you back into nature: “Like an echo in the forest, another day will come as if nothing happened; yeah, life goes on.”
The more intense, awakening stretches–the ones that address the soreness and slowness most aggressively–will come alongside “Fly To My Room,” the four-member subunit effort that bounces lightly over a 6/8 beat, examining the “new normal.” You will sigh along with Jimin as he laments the year being “stolen,” and play along with V as he resolves to change his room into “his world.” The miscellaneous trinkets you haven’t put away, the dirty dishes and dusty screens, the meager winter sunlight; this is your world now. Even when it feels dire and unexciting, you can still spread your wings and fly around it.
But where that song’s playful skepticism teaches you how to accept your day-to-day and march on, “Blue & Grey” allows you to fall over, sigh, and not be okay. Over more acoustic guitars, the ambient, emotional number builds through reflections on one’s deep sadness. As Jin’s voice, quavery yet bright and comforting, releases the line “I just want to be happier,” you must allow yourself to feel that sentiment with him. Let yourself be upset. Allow yourself to acknowledge the weight on your shoulders. Continue breathing.
Release your breath and slowly get up through track four, a 3-minute skit in which BTS celebrate having reached the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time ever, making history for Asian musicians (and all outsiders in the West) in the process. This recording invites you to join in this moment with them in which they have just reached the pinnacle of musical popularity, 7 years after their debut under a fledgling, broke company, as a ragtag group of hungry teenagers with a message. As the celebration quietly roars in the ambiance, do plan your next 14 minutes; you’re about to exercise.
Whatever you choose to do, whether it be light cardio or heavy weightlifting, get your body active through track five, “Telepathy,” a thumping funk-pop track in which BTS celebrate their supporters. Clap, two-step, smile. Though most ardently addressed to ARMY, the fandom that has become integral to my world in 2020, Suga jubilantly emphasizes, in ambiguous fashion, that this is a song “for you.” As BTS celebrate you, make sure to celebrate yourself.
Keep this activity up into track six, “Dis-ease,” a stunningly dynamic track with influences from 1980s hip hop, modern R&B, and anthemic rock. It’s led by a J-Hope verse reflecting on productivity anxiety: “It feels like I should be doing something to the point my body shatters.” In this energetic romp, the Bangtan boys invite us to tackle our own “diseases.” How much of your hang-ups and desires aid you, and how much do you need to temper them? The space and stress of our current world have allowed us, at least, a moment for reflection — one through which we can become stronger.
In track seven, “Stay,” Jungkook, Jin and RM ground us once more in our human connectivity through an emotional EDM banger. It allows you first to fret over your loneliness, our months of separation from friends, family, and our active social lives — the things that make us feel truly human. But then, leader RM reassures us, through BTS’ signature number, that we continue to stay by each other’s sides, even though we are far apart: “Right at this moment, I think of you, wherever you are; why would that matter at all? We connect to 7G.”
Your routine will culminate with the album’s closer, “Dynamite.” It’s the song that went number one on Billboard, prompting track four, a skit. It prompts you to dance. It prompts you to put your shoes on, to keep your eyes on the ball, and, of course, to “shine through the city with a little funk and soul.” No, this is not a literal endorsement to party through the pandemic; but it is an endorsement of our human nature. As humans, we still want to have fun; to let loose. The track is a simple, enjoyable reminder that, though so much has changed, we still are who we are.
You need that reminder. You need to know that it’s okay to proceed as normal, even though circumstances, and our responses to them, aren’t what we are used to. You need to remember that, through all of this, it is still okay to just be.
Innocent Country 2 strikes a healing groove
My refuge. My shelter consisting of piano keys and drum loops. Repelling fear, anger and insanity, Innocent Country 2 has been my back-pocket guardian since the start of the pandemic. Every time that the opening notes of “Outro/ Honest” hit my ear, the tension in my limbs dissipate, the heavens open and coat me with the necessary strength to face each passing day. Moving within a hellscape is made easier when in your inventory is an album born from healing.
This album was not created, it was found. It is the culmination of two artists spending years growing, taking in musical nutrients from the creative cocoon they wove from four-bar-loops and rhyme schemes before they could finally reach within the purest parts of themselves and withdraw a magical, healing album. Quelle Chris and Chris Keys have collided continually on their musical odysseys, each time sparking something more grand. Their latest collaborative effort created a permanent fixture in the night sky.
Quelle manages to strike a balance between infectious melodies, playful bars and hard-hitting honesty over organic, soul greeting production. He also flexes his skills as a curator with every guest verse on the project being an unbelievable display of charisma and chemistry. On songs like “Sacred Safe” Quelle spins the spotlight to illuminate a perfectly placed verse from Cavalier whose mediation on suffering subverts what it means to suffer. He raps “I’m findin’ comfort in my personal space of pain / I’m just a sculpture getting shaped by mistakes I’ve made,” contributing to the plethora of poetry present which presented me with a kernel of hope in such a gloomy year.
When Quelle does take centre stage he strides with purpose. “Graphic Bleed Outs” not only features tear-inducing strings, but an impassioned and lucid Quelle who works to dispel the negativity within him in the name of catharsis. This theme of exercising out your demons extends to “Mirage.” Assisted by Earl Sweatshirt (a collaboration I’m sure I manifested) and Denmark Vessey. Quelle and Keys lyrically and instrumentally pick apart the granular details of their strife. Each person involved in this song showed up with the desire to heal the wounds inflicted upon them by the fast-moving, confusing malaise that is existence.
My biggest blessing of all this year is so closely tied to Innocent Country 2. Conducting my first ever interview with Chris Keys was an opportunity I’ll forever be thankful for and an experience that energised my mind and fed my spirit. With Keys I was able to peel back the beauty behind each note he played and understand where this album came from, particularly with the album’s centrepiece “Sudden Death.” Keys had sat at his keyboard for hours, searching for the right loop, with the bliss of that discovery eventually transmitting itself into the beat.
I reiterate, this album was not intentionally made, it was found within the endless creativity Chris Keys naturally oozes. Thanks to that conversation, what was a healing album became a point of inspiration. I can listen to these 16 songs and understand the power and the purity of creating music. When you remove your ego and outside expectations, you can create things that genuinely change lives. There is no limit to my thanks for, and to the lessons I’ll learn from, Innocent Country 2.