The Best Albums of the Summer Were Exercises in Reinvention
Summer is a time of intense polarities, of feverish abandon and earned languor. There’s heat and purpose waiting to be seized in those unexpected, life-altering summer nights: on the dancefloor, at the bar, among friends. There’s equal chill, though, in the loss and grief that surface: historically, fatalities spike during hotter months.
Yet summer, at its glowing core, is a time of auspicious breakthroughs, and the best albums released across June, July, and August rattled with justifiable discovery. Excavating personal triumphs and public traumas, kindling love and sexuality, contending with struggle both emotional and economic. Discovering, ultimately, what it means, to shape yourself.
This year has been an especially promising moment in music, a reminder that the gold rush of creativity from artists as varied as Sunflower Bean, Nipsey Hussle, Young Fathers and others won’t soon let up. It’s also a year marked by pure volatility. Artists no longer hew to industry conventions; fall no longer heralds the most attention-commanding records. Pop giants like Beyonce, Jay-Z, and Kanye West all issued albums this summer. Drake and Cardi B were the two most-streamed artists on Spotify, with nearly 1 billion spins between them. And the ascendant California artist Doja Cat released the summer’s surprise viral hit, with “Mooo!”; amassing more than 10 million views on YouTube since dropping just three weeks ago (she later came under fire after defending past homophobic language in a tweet).
And in such transformative times, these six albums are perhaps the truest anomalies marking an era of Peak Music.
The Internet, Hive Mind
Steve Lacy is one of this generation’s most adept experimentalists—his SoundCloud-released teen-rock psalm “4Real” was one of 2017’s more gutsy propositions—and his work on The Internet’s fourth full-length, Hive Mind, is infused with the same daredevil spirit. Alongside prodigious frontwoman Syd and producer Matt Martians, Lacy helps the R&B collective innovate on the static, laid-back funk they’ve made their signature sound by simplifying their form into an even more cohesive symphony of earnest soul.
The album doesn’t squirm as much as its predecessor, the Grammy-nominated Ego Death, but that’s actually a treat: track by track, the melodies coalesce into a groovy sum. “Come Over” is a lurching, bass-heavy slow burner about a cat-and-mouse game of love, while “Next Time/Humble Pie” and “It Gets Better (With Time)” writhe with subdued righteousness (they’re perhaps the two standout tracks on an otherwise standout album). Today, a smattering of on-the-rise artists, particularly on SoundCloud, have built an aesthetic on fragmentation—piecing together dark disparate sounds, doing away with neat genre formulations—but The Internet are proof that reinvention need not be predicated on novelty or risk, but can simply be a matter of honing what you do best.
Ariana Grande, Sweetener
Last May at Manchester Arena in England, 22 people were killed when a terrorist detonated a bomb during an Ariana Grande concert. The singer’s just-released fourth album blossoms, resilient and rising, from the horror of that day. With production from Pharrell and longtime collaborator Max Martin, and guest features from Missy Elliott and Nicki Minaj, Grande soars, fashioning an album heavy on uplift and love. “When life deals us cards, makes everything taste like it is salt,” she sings on the title track. “Then you come through like the sweetener you are to bring the bitter taste to a halt.” A meld of plinking keys, dense synths, and candied hooks, the album derails where her three previous kept right on track: it’s still decidedly empowerment pop, but it feels less manufactured for radio play thanks to Pharrell’s spaced-out ruses (particularly on “Borderline” and “R.E.M.”) and the somber, passion-sick “Better Off.” Grande fittingly bookends the album with eulogies to the Manchester victims, and in doing so, delivers her most vulnerable record to date.
Buddy, Harlan & Alondra
There’s a boom happening out west. California is quickly developing some of music’s most promising young talent. Los Angeles’ Top Dawg Entertainment alone has a chokehold on the charts thanks to Kendrick Lamar’s triumphant reign with DAMN.—which won him a Pulitzer Prize; the first for a rapper—the Black Panther soundtrack, and Jay Rock’s unrepentant Redemption. There’s also the aforementioned soul-collective The Internet and gangsta rap traditionalist Nipsey Hussle, whose album Victory Lap is easily one of 2018’s best. Add the bang and boogie of YG (LA), Mozzy (Sacramento), Kamaiyah (Oakland), SOB x RBE (Vallejo), and Nef the Pharaoh (also Vallejo) with the R&B brilliance of Miguel and Ty Dolla Sign and you’ve got a new age renaissance on your hands. Then there’s quasi-newcomer Buddy, the 24-year-old Compton emcee whose debut, Harlan & Alondra, bumps, shakes, bounces with regional pride.
With unapologetic zeal, Buddy pays homage to black LA, past and present, through a stew of g-funk, soul, and breezy rap hymns (“Find Me 2” and “Shine” carry the force and grace of gospel songs). The album’s most politically charged paean, the ASAP Ferg-featuring “Black,” summons the ghost of Trayvon Martin and the Black Panther Party into a message of true urgency. “Just another black man trying to stay out the casket,” he raps. But it’s the album’s insistence on locality—its title is a homage to the two streets Buddy lived on for a time—that is paramount to its success. In doing so, the young rapper is attempting to reorient our gaze, from down South, the unofficial epicenter of hip-hop, back west, where the genre’s being injected with new life.
Jorja Smith, Lost & Found
London export Jorja Smith first came to international renown via More Life, Drake’s 2017 project of diasporic synthesis. But, really, the 21-year-old R&B prodigy is much more than the two features she was allotted on the rapper’s wobbly experiment. Smith is a true descendant of Amy Winehouse, with the swagger of Miseducation-era Lauryn Hill, and her cauldron of deep soul on Lost & Found, the singer’s beyond sensational debut, is obvious and expansive. Across 12 tracks, Smith swings her powerful, satiny falsetto like a hammer. The thematic landscape she traverses is just as impressive, spanning heartbreak (“Tomorrow”), state-enacted persecution (“Blue Lights”), juvenile abandon (“Teenage Fantasy”), and self-worth (“On Our Own”). For an album of such calculated beauty, Smith never once oversteps her boundaries, coloring within them with the radiant gloss and confidence of contemporaries like Rihanna, H.E.R., and SZA.
Blood Orange, Negro Swan
The polydirectional artist Dev Hynes—he’s a singer, multi-instrumentalist, director, and producer—understands the gravity of now better than most. The burden of the moment, if you’re black or queer or a woman or poor or any other identifier that white supremacy needs to smash out for its own survival, is a constant one. Hynes, working under the title Blood Orange, has faced these worries and injustices all his life, growing up in East London, and being exposed to them as a black queer person who moves through a world that does not always understand his body, his intention, or his work.
The work on Negro Swan, though, continues Hynes’s career-long expedition into the communities that have built him, and cushion him. The album’s skeletal core deals with how one manages trauma, and one of its smarter plays is to cocoon songs with audio from author, TV writer, and activist Janet Mock, who speaks in short bursts about family, the power of images, and the importance of “showing up.” One early track, “Jewelry,” finds Mock flipping an insult—telling someone they are “doing the most”—on its head, asking: “But why would we want to do the least?” Negro Swan is Hynes’ sixth album, his fourth as Blood Orange, and it unfolds as mostly minimalist, downtempo fare. It’s a quiet, curious thing that answers as many questions as it asks. It’s a record about healing and getting through the day, about hope and defeat and trying to figure it out even when you don’t know where to begin. In this sense, it may end up being the year’s most vital, even if most don’t realize it yet.
Nicki Minaj, Queen
Breakthrough and reinvention are what Nicki Minaj has aimed for steadily throughout her career. And while the summer’s top albums are linked by the very same pursuits, perhaps with conflicting results, Minaj’s is perhaps the most stark—and the most surprising for where it ended up.
For years, despite being one the most gifted rappers in the game, she was considered second-rate by some (mostly male) veterans. Still, the awards, the nominations, and the praise flooded in. The Barbz, her faithful online fanbase, held her down, often to the scorn of public approval. And Minaj’s stature grew; she became a solar system unto herself—a certified hitmaker, a trusted collaborator, and an unforgiving shit-stirrer. Queen, her fourth studio album, reckons with all of this. Which is to say, it’s an album about the drama of being, and what that brings with it.
Of all the albums on this list, Queen is the least impressive—though “Barbie Dreams,” “LLC,” and lead single “Chun-Li” are soaked with characteristic Nicki wit—but, it’s what the album symbolizes in the abstract that lends it extra weight. Both the lead-up to its release and its fallout were sullied by social media theatrics and a shady promo run. The occurrences helped to expose another side of the star: she didn’t just play the role of villain anymore, she was the villain. What, then, does it mean to use your identity as an instrument of persuasion, for harm or actual good or even your own means? It’s a question that requires tough truths. The pursuit of breakthrough is not a guarantee, either. Much of the harsh criticism that surrounds Queen is born of our own failed expectations for Minaj, and how we hoped she would mature creatively. But Queen, as a whole, represents Minaj’s evolution into who she wants to be—someone who, whether we approve of it or not, does things just as she sees fit.