February is Black History Month and this year HCCS will be giving you music recommendations each week from Black artists from all-across American History. To kick-off our first week, here are some recommendations from junior HCCS member, Alex Johnson.
Kendrick Lamar: Starting off this series is probably my personal favorite artist of all time: Pulitzer-Prize winning rapper Kendrick Lamar. He’s one of the best rappers in music right now, with at least 4 really great projects in his discography, depending on who you ask. The production Kendrick has on his albums is catchy enough to be accessible, but dynamic enough to stay interesting after multiple listens.
Specifically on (in my opinion) his best album, 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, he combines soul, jazz, and 70s-inspired funk with more modern hip-hop production to make an all-encompassing musical expression of the Black experience. And his thought-provoking lyrics about topics like resisting temptation in order to follow God’s teaching, being Black in America, colorism, mental health, the downsides of fame, etc., as well as his skill as a writer and storyteller make Kendrick Lamar an essential figure in music.
Start with this album: good kid, m.A.A.d city. I think To Pimp a Butterfly is a slightly better album, but GKMC is a great starting point for Kendrick. It includes songs that are more favorable to the mainstream like Swimming Pools and Poetic Justice, along with some of the best songs of his career, including maybe the best storytelling track he’s ever made: Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.
Or start with these songs: Swimming Pools, Alright, HUMBLE.
Anderson .Paak: Anderson .Paak is an incredibly talented vocalist, rapper, and drummer. He and his band, the Free Nationals, have created some of the best R&B/soul/funk music of the past couple decades.
The first thing that jumped out for me about .Paak is his infectious energy. He just has this sound to his voice that draws you in and gets you in a good mood, especially on his 2016 album Malibu and his 2019 album Ventura. Also, his lyrics range from funny to romantic to sincere to protesting and never stop being great. And the instrumentals he produces with the Free Nationals are incredible. Songs like Come Home and Celebrate showcase the nostalgic funk sound that .Paak does so well, while songs like Parking Lot show how they’re not afraid to branch out into more abstract soundscapes. In short, I think everyone can find something to like in Anderson .Paak’s music.
Start with this album: Malibu. Malibu is the album that introduced me to Anderson .Paak, and I think it’s a great place to start. It contains some of .Paak’s most infectious hooks, best lyrics, and most well-structured instrumentals.
Or start with these songs: Heart Don’t Stand a Chance, Come Home, Celebrate
Noname: Noname only has 2 projects out right now, but Telefone and Room 25 show so much talent in just over an hour of music. She offers sharp critiques about social issues like being a woman in America (and a woman of color), and occasionally religion as well. And her writing borders on poetry, weaving intricate literary themes and references along with straightforward, heartbreaking lines like on Casket Pretty, a devastating look at police brutality against Black Americans.
Also, Noname has stepped back from music a little in the last couple years, starting a nationwide book club that discusses topics like anti-racism, the Black experience, and the flaws with the prison industrial system, among others, through the lens of books written by POC authors. Noname is undoubtedly one of the most talented rappers making music right now, and I can’t wait to hear her next single, Rainforest.
Start with this album: Room 25. To me, Room 25 is the better of her two albums. Not to say that Telefone isn’t good, it’s also great, but Room 25 has some of Noname’s best concepts, lyrics, delivery, and instrumentals.
Or start with these songs: Window, Diddy Bop, Self
Michael Abels: Switching to instrumental music, Michael Abels is one of my favorite composers of the past few years. He’s famous for composing the scores for the award-winning movies Get Out and Us. I want to focus on his score for Us, though, because what he did for it is very impressive. The inspiration for the main aspect of the score is the Luniz and Michael Marshall song I Got 5 On It, and it’s actually played in the movie. The bass line and high synth countermelody from the original song have a horror movie sound to them, or at least they did to Michael Abels. He took those two aspects and transformed them into an incredibly tense musical background for Us that also serves the plot, which is an incredibly hard feat to pull off. I think Abels deserves much
more credit than he gets.
Start with this album: The Us soundtrack. That’s it.
Or start with these songs: I Got 5 On It – Tethered Mix from US – you’ll hear exactly how Abels flipped the Luniz sample into this great horror movie score.
MF DOOM: MF DOOM is an enigmatic figure. He started his career as MF DOOM in the late 1990s, with his album Operation Doomsday, which established the character he was portraying, a “supervillain” who performed wearing a metal mask (or metal face —> MF, get it?) inspired by the Marvel villain Doctor Doom.
He gained underground popularity with this album because of his cartoon-sampling production and witty bars. But he truly became legendary with his landmark collaboration with the incredible producer Madlib on their 2004 album Madvillainy. Songs on here like Accordion, Meat Grinder, Curls, and All Caps became iconic for DOOM’s tight, ever-changing flows, Madlib’s production, and DOOM’s insane rhyming skill. (Like seriously, he’ll rhyme entire lines with other entire lines.) MF DOOM unfortunately passed away in October of last year, but the amount of quality music he made over his 30+ year career solidified his legend status. I’m becoming more of a fan of MF DOOM with every new song and album I listen to, and I’m sure you will too.
Start with this album: Madvillainy. Incredible flows, great production, unmatched rhyming, weird comic book references, what more could you want in a rap album?
Or start with these songs: Meat Grinder, All Caps, One Beer
Like these recommendations? Check out our Instagram page for more throughout the month!