Kendrick Lamar, M.I.A., and the Politicization of Popular Music

Kendrick Lamar, M.I.A., and the Politicization of Popular Music

Police harassment leads to crowd singing Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”

2015 was arguably the year of music as political protest. The fact that there are still people out on the streets in some parts of the U.S. chanting “We gon’ be alright” in solidarity with the victims of police brutality is a testament to the power of music to enact social change. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” has become an anthem for the anti-police movement in the United States in large part because it speaks to the universal. In a world of global terrorism, growing concerns about climate change, and systematic racial violence against minorities and people of color, we need music to express those fears and to stand in solidarity against them. Perhaps this is one reason why albums such as Run the Jewels’ RTJ2, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, and J. Cole’s 2014 Forrest Hills Drive became so popular in 2015—all albums released at the end of last year that seem to anticipate the radical formal experimentation and political message taken up by Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and the slew of popular “gangsta” rap albums in 2015 that include Joey Bada$$’s B4.DA.$$$, Dr. Dre’s Compton, and Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06.

However, the politicization of music in 2015 extends further to white artists and bands such as the brilliantly-named The War on Drugs, whose highly acclaimed 2014 album Lost in the Dream reached a wider audience this year with its nostalgic 70s-rock sound that has experienced a revival in the last few years with artists like Kurt Vile, Tame Impala, Mac DeMarco, and the Eagles of Death Metal—who gained notoriety in the last few weeks as they were the band playing when the Bataclan was stormed by terrorists that killed more than 120 people in Paris last month. The 70s-rock revival movement that has gained wider popularity in the last year is arguably a result of a desire for peace and reconciliation in the wake of some of the events of recent years that mirrors the sense of a dream of peace that was alive in the 1970s as a result of the Vietnam War, the anti-war movement in the U.S., and other events that shaped the 60s and 70s and the politically-charged music that we tend to associate with those decades.

The expression of political popular music is something that extends to today, as well, with the rise of electronic music and the female auteur, such as M.I.A., the Sri-Lankan born daughter of a political activist who blends Eastern and Western influences in her work. Earlier this week, she dropped a brand new song called “Borders,” which critiques the Western response to the Syrian refugee crisis and has been talked about by Pitchfork in an article called “How M.I.A. Is a Lifeline in Times of Terror.” Revisiting her earlier music, it is worth noting that although political themes underpin much of her work, M.I.A. has never been this overtly political before. In the video for “Borders,” she travels on boats with refugees and poses on barbed wire fences and atop CCTV cameras, while dropping lines like “Borders / What’s up with that?” and “Politics / What’s up with that?”

M.I.A represents pop’s politicization in recent years and can be compared with other women artists making bold statements about pop this year, such as Grimes, Bjork, and FKA twigs.

Bjork is perhaps the most political of the three in her activism for the environment and recent call for global action to save Iceland’s highlands. Artists like David Bowie, Damon Albarn, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Phil Selway, and Flea of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers are now urging world leaders to reach a deal on climate change at the current UN conference in Paris. Last week, Thom Yorke and Flea played Yorke’s “Atoms for Peace” on “Le Grand Journal,” where they also sat down to talk about climate change and politics. This weekend, Yorke, Flea, Patti Smith and more played at the Pathway to Paris concert at Le Trianon. The world’s music leaders are urging people to pressure their governments and ensure that the politicians reach some kind of meaningful agreement at the Paris conference, and are leading a political revival of music as a result. However, their messages all seem to be ones of peace and resolution and can only serve to unify people. In the words of Kendrick Lamar, we gon’ be alright.

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Freshly Squeezed’s 20 Best Albums of 2014

20. St. Vincent: St. VincentSt_Vincent_artwork

Annie Clark’s self-titled fourth album as St. Vincent blended her unique post-punk sensibilities with her sharp-witted lyricism and edgy guitar playing. Eccentric, dynamic, and calculatedly cool, St. Vincent is a truly modern rock record.


19. SBTRKT: Wonder Where We LandWonder_Where_We_Land

The highly anticipated follow-up to 2011’s self-titled debut SBTRKT showed off a different side of Aaron Jerome’s production, highlighting the names it featured rather than the SBTRKT enigma itself. Wonder Where We Land attempts to redefine the role of the producer in 2014.

Read the full review here.


18. TV on the Radio: Seeds Tvotr_-_seeds

TV on the Radio’s first album in three years following the death of bassist Gerard Smith in 2011 found the band back on their feet and still creating some of the most anthemic art-rock around, even after all these years. A band that will define the 2000’s for millennials.

Read more about TV on the Radio here.


17. Phantogram: VoicesVoices_album_cover

Voices embodied a kind of dualism, exploring big themes of life and death, and pushing further into the separate territories of electronic and rock music, seamlessly combined here. A record for music lovers of all kinds.


16. Ryan Hemsworth: Alone for the First Timehomepage_large.ba499333

Ryan Hemsworth has undeniably changed the face of electronic music in the last few years, and on Alone for the First Time, he challenges its conventions further, blending swaddling, pillowy production with guest vocalists from his Secret Songs label.

Read the feature here.


15. Flying Lotus: You’re Dead!You're_Dead!

A jazzy, electronic tour de force, You’re Dead! is a psychedelic trip into the mind of Steven Ellison, and its collaborations with Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, and Thundercat are just the tip of the iceberg.


14. Chet Faker: Built on GlassBuilt_on_Glass_album_art 

Chet Faker’s hotly anticipated debut lived up to the high expectations from 2012’s Thinking in Textures EP. A spanning, double-sided album, Built on Glass features Faker’s easily recognizable croon and clever lyricism atop gorgeous electronic production.


13. Spoon: They Want My SoulThey_Want_My_Soul

Hands were clearly a common theme of album covers in 2014.

Spoon’s unique brand of indie rock lived on on They Want My Soul, which soundtracked the end of the summer for the discerning listener. One of the best albums of the year by one of the best bands of the last decade.


12. Glass Animals: ZabaGlass_animals_zaba

Glass Animals’ textured, tropical debut was one of the best breakout surprises of 2014, and one of the most under-appreciated albums of the year. A brilliantly poppy, catchy debut, Zaba combined jungle sounds and drum loops to create a multi-layered, captivating electronic production.


11. Tycho: AwakeTycho_-_Awake

The follow-up to 2011’s Dive, Awake features more of Scott Hansen’s stunning electronic instrumentation as Tycho. Awake is an album to get lost in; for planes and trains and long car rides. Its combination of electronic production with live instrumentation is what makes it a truly modern record, for listeners of all genres.


10. Sharon Van Etten: Are We ThereAreWeThere

Sharon Van Etten’s beautifully honest self-portrait on Are We There made for easily the best singer/songwriter record of 2014, showing off a lighter, more playful side of Etten, but whose sense of lyricism still carries the weight of the world. And it featured one of the best album covers of the year.


9. Alt-J: This Is All YoursAlt-J_-_This_is_all_yours

The hugely anticipated follow-up to 2012’s An Awesome WaveThis Is All Yours took listeners further into the parallel universe in which Alt-J exist, through Nara, its mythical and musical utopia. This Is All Yours is an album to do what you want with, and lose yourself in in the process.

Read the full review here.


8. Jungle: JungleAlbum_66_296_ff6

The self-titled debut from the mysterious London soul collective Jungle redefined the genre in 2014, with timeless tracks like “Time” and “Busy Earnin'” giving listeners just a taste of the funk that permeates Jungle. Dancy, groovy, and so so fresh, Jungle is what’s good in 2014.


7. The War on Drugs: Lost in the DreamLostinthedream

The War on Drugs’ third album chronicled Adam Granduciel’s battle with depression, exploring themes of death and loneliness. A true work of genius, Lost in the Dream channels the greats of 80s-era classic rock in its swirling, authentic production. A record stuck in the past and yet somehow so modern and relevant.


6. Little Dragon: Nabuma RubberbandLittle_Dragon_-_Nabuma_Rubberband

Little’s Dragon’s first album since 2011’s Ritual UnionNabuma Rubberband, was a complex, conceptual record that further cemented the Swedish band’s unique sound and style as one of the most consistently brilliant crossover electronic acts in the world.


5. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2RunTheJewelsRTJ2

Darkly funny, politically timely, and underminingly brilliant, Run the Jewels 2 dropped a proverbial bomb on 2014’s otherwise lacking year of hip-hop. Killer Mike and El-P are “the jewels runners, top tag team for two summers” and have their sights firmly set on taking over the world.

Read the full review here.


4. Mac DeMarco: Salad DaysMac_DeMarco_Salad_Days

Mac DeMarco’s follow-up to 2011’s inspired a whole generation of youngsters to grow their hair out, quit their jobs, and chase their dreams. Well, not really, but listening to Salad Days sure feels like you’re doing everything just right.


3. Todd Terje: It’s Album TimeTodd_Terje_-_It's_Album_Time_album_cover

The Norwegian disco king Todd Terje released his debut album It’s Album Time this year to widespread critical acclaim. A jumpy, playful record that’s almost entirely instrumental, the album’s centrepiece, a cover of “Johnny and Mary” by Robert Palmer featuring Bryan Ferry cements It’s Album Time as an instant classic.


2. FKA twigs: LP1FKA_twigs_-_LP1

If you didn’t like FKA twigs’ debut, then you didn’t spend enough time with it. Cerebral, evocative, and boundary-pushing, LP1 represents an innovative approach to songwriting in 2014 and should be sticking around for years to come. A perfectly crafted pop record, FKA twigs’ debut shows us why we don’t need to listen to Nicki Minaj in 2014.


1. Caribou: Our LoveCaribou_Our_Love

Dan Snaith’s fourth album as Caribou, and the follow-up to 2010’s Swim, Our Love, explored pop music’s most universal theme in its inviting 42 minutes of euphoric dance music. “Can’t Do Without You” and “Our Love” are album highlights, but Snaith entreats you to enter his world on Our Love, and it’s hard to come back.

Read the full review here.