We let some dude tell us how much he knows about feminist music and you won’t believe what happened next
When I initially started working on this article, it was meant to be a quick wrap-up of some of the glut of amazing albums made by women so far in 2016. What I didn’t know is the minor torment I would feel trying to solidify a list of acts that encompasses the enormity of female talent that has released music this year. The obvious choices like Beyonce and Rihanna sprung immediately to mind, both having released their most confident artistic visions, Lemonade and ANTI respectively, in the first half of 2016. Still, it felt like I had nothing to add that hadn’t already been said about those albums.
The same feeling came up when I began to write about albums from other heavy-hitters. Albums like Ariana Grande’s Sasha Fierce-esque re-invention on Dangerous Woman, to Adele’s world-conquering 25, to Sia’s second album in the last two years in This is Acting. These albums are evidence that it has been an insanely strong year for women in music, but I just don’t have anything else compelling to add.
Still, if there’s a take away from the above, it’s that there is a pattern in the aforementioned artists I finally settled on to showcase the state of music at the halfway point of 2016. The artists above embrace fierce, individualistic interpretation of feminist theory in their art in a way that has never been seen before in widespread pop culture. It’s quite something to be witness to, but it never feels wholly authentic.
Yet, while all the Beyonce’s and Rihanna’s of the music industry push a late-stage capitalistic variety of feminism-as-brand, the underground is home to a compelling cast of characters that push feminist messages through their music without it feeling like a gimmick.
The following are three of my favourites from 2016 in no particular order. Partly, because ranking these diverse records seems unfair to the artists that crafted them. Also, because – to steal a line from the poem that opens Blood Orange’s recently released intersectional feminist opus Freetown Sound – “feminism says as a woman in my arena you are not my competition, as a woman in my arena your light doesn’t make mine any dimmer.” 2016 has been a pretty bleak year, let’s all be thankful the artists below are shining brighter than ever.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – EARS
The Buchla 100 is far from the most fashionable musical instrument to be playing in 2016. The temperamental synthesizer, originally created in the early 60s, is known for its scarcity, as well as its unpredictable modular innerworkings. It would seem strange then that Los Angeles-based singer-producer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith would choose the Buchla as her synthesizer muse to make EARS, her sophomore album.
Listening to EARS often seems like a meditative practice. Maybe it’s because the pace of 2016 society no longer allows for thorough analysis, but the burbling, Buchla-based synth soundscapes that KAS creates invite the listener to unwind like nothing else. This album calls for inward contemplation and repeat listens, which it fully earns because of Smith’s deft arrangement skills. Opening track “First Flight” sounds like the beginning of the earth as told by synthesizer, the arpeggiated synths that slowly open the track swell with an intoxicating life-force. It’s not until the final track, the 11-minute “Existence in the Unfurling,” that Smith fully shows her ability, using the Buchla’s dulcet, arpeggiated tones to send the listener back into the world anew.
Kamaiyah – A Good Day in the Ghetto
Kamaiyah’s career started with the kind of blink-and-you-miss-it moment that is really only possible in 2016. The Oakland, CA rapper had been on a slow, but steady ascent in Bay Area rap circles due to the success of her breakout single “How Does It Feel?” Still, Kamaiyah managed to surpass everyone’s expectations when she dropped her debut tape, A Good Day in the Ghetto, and became the overnight toast of the Bay Area rap scene.
A Good Day in the Ghetto is the kind of mixtape that makes hip-hop culture so alluring – music as escapism, born out of necessity and raw, enterprising individuality. Kamaiyah arrives as a fully-formed frontwoman, complete with an irresistible flow that has a deadpan bent that manages to sound sumptuously southern and hyphy at the same time.
Tape highlight “Niggas” is a not so subtle third-wave-feminist anthem, Kamaiyah rapping overtop of crushing, g funk-indebted Cali 808s about her love of casual sex and using men for their bodies. It’s the kind of overt, sex-positive song that Nicki Minaj does so well, but Kamaiyah never comes off as manic as Minaj. Instead, Kamaiyah raps from the back of the club, obfuscated by smoke and sweat, calm and confident in her abilities. That confidence comes through on every single word that Kamaiyah spits, trading blind braggadocios for conversational contemplations on what it means to have a good day in the ghetto.
Esperanza Spalding– Emily’s D+evolution
Like many a great album, Emily’s D+evolution was born out of a need to escape and reflect. What Esperanza Spalding had to escape is a little bit different from most trope-ish musical retreat tales.
In 2011, the Oregonian jazz singer-bassist had the relative misfortune of winning the Grammy for Best New Artist, which would normally be great, but Spalding won the trophy over acts like Mumford & Sons, Drake, and Justin Bieber. The internet exploded in equal parts anger and confusion over the announcement of Spalding’s win, finding “justice” in the form of Twitter death threats and heinous wikipedia page edits.
Still, the Grammy win launched her already-rising star into the jazz stratosphere. Unfortunately artistic fulfillment doesn’t often come from monetary gain, something that Spalding is quick to mention in most interviews she does. The years following the Grammy win found Spalding feeling frayed from career burnout and a need to refocus. As revealed in an interview with Billboard, Spalding found solace in the lilac-tinged walls of her brother’s Portland home, where the character Emily – Spalding’s middle name – was born.
Emily’s D+evolution is a concept album that is vastly different from Spalding’s upright, jazz roots, but never fully leaves them behind. Instead, Spalding finds a perfect producer in Tony Visconti, the man responsible for Bowie’s jazz-inflected Blackstar.
D+evolution often sounds like a this-works-way-better-than-it-should mix of late-era Opeth and Prince in the aughts, embracing his more overt funk sensibilities in the most maximalistic, overblown manner. Emily’s D+evolution is a sprawling opus akin to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, if only that album were somehow more unhinged. Spalding’s use of Emily as a vessel has created some of the best lyrical and vocal work of the year. Songs like “Good Lava” find Spalding devouring words with the speed of a rapper, but the tonalities and inflections of a classic jazz singer. The result is a mesmerizing mix of prog-rock-adjacent funk music that sounds like nothing else in 2016.