Mar 7, 2020 Citation

On Good Music

by Jack MapelLentz ‘22

Genres: the quest to fulfill humans’ insatiable desire to sort everything; to quantify. One might think that pop music would be the most, well, popular, right? Think again: rap and hip-hop, as I’m sure you’re all well aware, have taken the world by storm. The vast majority of kids don their headphones and queue up some Juice WRLD; Trippie Redd; Lil Uzi Vert. I, too, as I write this, am listening to a masterpiece. Yet, if I had to guess, I’m sure that none of you have heard of it: Bon Iver’s 22, A Million. Few other albums or artists — and few other things, in general — can etheralize my emotions anywhere near as eloquently as Justin Vernon’s aching falsetto and exquisitely existential-yet-introspective lyrics. Alas, you have never heard of him. I know one person has, though; you may have heard of him: Kanye West. After hearing the song “Woods” off Bon Iver’s 2009 EP Blood Bank, he crowned Vernon his “favorite living artist,” saying that “I love Justin the way Kanye loves Kanye.” Listen to his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — considered by many to be one of his finest LPs — and one of its highlights, “Lost In The World,” is constructed around that very song; it opens with a direct sample: “I’m up in the woods / I’m down on my mind.” Another example, though less famous: Sufjan Stevens, who crafts everything from the bittersweet-acoustic Carrie and Lowell to the sweeping multi-instrumentation of Illinois and omnipresent synthesizers on The Age of Adz, is a favorite of Childish Gambino — he actually remixed the whole of Illinois in college under his original mcDJ alter-ego. Kendrick Lamar, arguably one of rap’s greatest artists ever, sampled one of Stevens’s tracks on a song off To Pimp a Butterfly. Try to classify Stevens or Bon Iver into any genre, though, and you’ll invariably fail. Even Kanye, as of late, evades any traditional classification — a rapper releasing a gospel album? One thing is clear: the best music, I have found, is that which falls between the cracks. Now, it’s not as if people haven’t tried to label it; “alternative” is often tacked on such albums. But could Bon Iver’s electronic-esque 22, A Million and recent i,i be any farther from the wind-whipped wintery guitar of For Emma, Forever Ago and the glistening horns of Bon Iver, Bon Iver? Artists — even songs — are unclassifiable. Yet such music’s evasiveness of labeling is, in a way, what makes it so meaningful: it exists to capture that indistinguishable, fleeting feeling into reality, and in doing so, it blossoms into an art as powerful and legitimate as any other. Rap/hip-hop can be quite magnificent in its own right — and I am not detracting from its greatness. No single genre, though, can capture the full spectrum of emotion in the way that the un-genre can. I find solace from the overbearing weight of consciousness in the retrospective sadness of Clario’s glinting “Alewife” (I adore Immunity as a whole); the expansive, nighttime folk of Gregory Alan Iskaov; the optimism of Owl City; the wintery isolation of the aforementioned For Emma. The conflicting emotions of Ritt Momeny somehow make my own feel a little less crushing. Julien Baker gives tangibility to my deepest sadness; Beta Radio exestentializes it and simultaneously grounds me in reality. Though this all seems, at surface level, quite far from the burgeoning rap of today, the two are much closer than is obvious, as evidenced most perfectly by Vernon and West’s recurring collaboration (they recently released another single, “Take Me to the Light,” alongside their friend Francis and the Lights). Ritt Momney’s melodies give way to avant-garde rhyming; on the other end, Juice WRLD drifts from the rhythm-heavy production of mainstream rap into melodic progressions. I’ve come to love Lil Uzi Vert’s “The Way Life Goes” — its heavy sampling of Oh Wonder’s “Landslide,” another sublime track, binds me even further to his words. In the end, this is all to say a simple thing: the conventional rap that’s come to define so much of today’s music is not the only music. It’s artful in its own way, but it — as a genre — simply cannot stretch so deeply into the swelling well of emotion that music unbound by genre reaches so artfully. This other music exists, too, and it’s absolutely breathtaking. Maybe this is far-fetched, but it might just change your life. It certainly changed mine.