What happened this week? What didn’t happen?
No more rock gods died. We’ve got that going for us. Aside from continuing my Prince binge and getting cereal lessons from Kendrick Lamar, I replayed one of the greatest video games of all time. I luxuriated in some deep house tunes. Oh, and Beyoncé dropped one of the biggest surprises I’ve ever heard from a pop star.
Things are looking pretty good from here.
Beyoncé – Lemonade
I was never really a Beyoncé fan. Sure, I enjoyed the big singles, recognized her A-level game, but never really enjoyed a full album. I’d really tried with Sasha Fierce, but her energy always felt constrained, compromised across the length of an album, only fully erupting on a song or two.
Without hesitation, I call this album a pop masterpiece. I haven’t felt this awed by the sheer audacity of a major league r&b album since Frank Ocean’s explosive breakthrough Channel Orange in 2012. There’s a physical power running through these songs, threatening to burst at any moment. At the end I’m left giddy and exhausted, thankful for the emotional workout inside such an impeccably produced environment.
At 45 minutes, there’s zero room for filler on this set. Even the requisite ballad tracks fit perfectly in the emotional arc, morphing into harder-edged pieces seamlessly. The guest vocals seem efficiently hand-picked for their variety and expertise in respective styles, with Jack White attached to the most angry tune, The Weeknd layering icy cool on a track sampling Isaac Hayes’ Walk On By, James Blake painting rings around the contemplative heart of the album, and Kendrick Lamar delivering an anthemic, hair-raising verse on Freedom. Still, the most surprising weapon in the arsenal is Beyonce’s voice itself. Her elastic physicality bounces between hopeful whisper and raging lament, fluid and dangerous. Anger and exaltation share the state equally. There’s a deeply personal story being expressed here in gigantic, universal terms, captured in its perfect moment.
I could go on, comparing it to D’Angelo’s massive comeback, Black Messiah (a best of 2014 release), but I’d rather leave you with the trailer for the visual edition of the album. It’s just a tiny taste of the incredible imagery found within what amounts to a nearly feature-length film of pure visual poetry. There’s nothing quite like seeing Beyoncé’s gleeful smile as she smashes cars with a baseball bat, fire erupting behind her on every beat. Watch it if you can. It’s held hostage on HBO streaming right now, but it’ll be everywhere soon enough.
You can buy the album almost anywhere, but I guess it’s only streaming on Tidal for now. I have no desire to pay for another streaming service so I’ll probably buy the CD. It comes with the hour-long visual album on DVD anyway!
Black Jazz Consortium aka Fred P
I discovered Fred P during an extended deep house binge, following my infatuation with all things DJ Sprinkles in 2014. Along with Frances Harris (another best of 2014 artist), this trio became my anchor in the world of languid rhythms and lush atmospheres, quietly propulsive beats and drifting thoughts.
Somehow unaware that I was rediscovering him under a different guise, I found Fred’s album Reactions of Light on Spotify, produced under the Black Jazz Consortium name. It’s a much more low-key affair than the deeply personal releases from either Sprinkles or Harris, with an almost purely instrumental take on the genre that never explicitly touches on social issues or overt drama. There are little snatches of vocals here and there, but they’re quickly subsumed in the mix. Still, it nails that foggy night drive atmosphere as perfectly as possible, with hints of funk and techno folded into the dark glide. Percussion is ever-present, but kept hushed, allowing the more ambient aspects of the sound to take over.
This is dance music to think to, dream to, write to. It’s what I’ve been looping at least once a day at work, first thing in the morning. Check out mid-album highlight Deepness.
deepness is a state of mind, you know
it’s those elements that define a moment
where you let go and you’re free
You can listen to the album on Spotify.
The Last Of Us
I normally write about a film here, but this week my heart belongs to The Last Of Us. This game originally came out on PS3 in 2013 and when I played it then, I considered it one of the greatest games I’d ever experienced. The story left me shaken, with an ending that felt knotty, uncomfortable, unable to leave my head. I usually replay games pretty quickly when they’re this good, same as a movie that I’ll watch a couple times at the theater, but I held off this time. Three years later, with the remastered PS4 edition at hand, I was finally ready.
It lived up to all of my memories and then some. I think my familiarity with the world made me less anxious about the tense zombie parts, more able to fully appreciate the story being told, the nuance of these beautifully realized characters. The narrative and gameplay arcs dovetail perfectly, with each descent into darkness followed by bursts of light and joy. Each nail-biting enemy encounter is balanced with relaxed exploration of a beautiful new environment. Each burst of harsh violence is reflected in the profoundly affecting story of loss and love, the lines a man would cross to avoid the former and hold onto the latter.
There is no ludonarrative dissonance here. Instead, we have a complete experience, an emotionally exhausting ride that left me sitting in silence long after the credits rolled, thinking about what I’d do if any of this were real. I probably wouldn’t change a thing, and that shakes me. This isn’t something that can be said for nearly any game, but it’s good to know that they’re reaching a level of maturity on par with novels and film. This is why I feel no qualms with talking about a game instead of a movie this week.