I love ordering music, partly because of how much I learn from it! For example, I was fascinated by The Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rapand its pretty comprehensive look at the growth and development of the genre. In a similar vein, recently I was able to order The Women of Def Jam, which “features the female artists that dominated hip-hop and R&B from the ’90s to the present day” (from publisher).
If, like me, you’ve only got a vague sense of what Def Jam is, here’s the breakdown I found from The Guardian’s “25 Years of Def Jam” piece back in 2011: “From humble beginnings in student digs, the record label Def Jam is credited with bringing New York’s street culture and music to the masses – and even helping to elect a president… Although not the only label to export the music and culture of inner-city America to the world, Def Jam is the most significant, artistically and commercially. Key signings have altered the art form, among them LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, Jay-Z and Kanye West.” There’s a lot more to Def Jam now than hip-hop and rap, but it retains its reputation as helping to promote the cutting edge of the genre, especially at critical points in recent history.
The Women of Def Jamfocuses on a specific part of that legacy which is not as evident in the stories told about Def Jam’s origins: what it owes to women. The album announcement in Variety explains that this album was put together for Women’s History Month, not least because “over half of the Def Jam staff are women, including seven women of color in senior executive positions. Two of the three executive leaders are women. Of ten department heads, eight are women” (Tunji Balogun, CEO). It’s an encouraging sign as in some genres of music, including arguably hip-hop and country music, women have had to fight against cultural conceptions of what their role ought to be to find success.
This album celebrates how far we’ve come in that journey by paying homage to the greats. Even for someone like me for whom hip-hop and R&B are not my top genres, this album is star-studded; both household names and lesser-known gems are represented for a voyage of nostalgia, discovery, or both. Explore this blast from the past today!
As someone who’s had the song Emo Girl (featuring Willow Smith) stuck in their head on and off for weeks, I think this is a perfect time to explore controversial artist Machine Gun Kelly’s professional journey from hip-hop and rap to pop-punk and mainstream success, culminating in 2022’s appropriately-named album Mainstream Sellout.
He rose to fame with a series of rap and hip-hop mixtapes (generally acclaimed) before releasing studio albums, starting with Lace Up in 2012, General Admission in 2015, and Bloom in 2017. Notable features included rapid-fire flow and pride in an unattractive underdog image. Then in 2020 he made a dramatic shift from rap to pop/punk with the release of Tickets to My Downfall– a shocking, impressive, and fluid album still with rap-inspired elements.
Why did he make the move? Without knowing details, it reminds me of Lady Gaga’s professional journey (which is a blog post in itself) in which she made mostly loud statement pieces until she’d captured public attention and then, fame established, moved to a more stripped-down mainstream sound in albums like Joanne. (Lady Gaga, of course, has now moved back to her outlandish roots with the flashier album Chromatica, but I digress.) Sometimes musicians want to try something different and explore their other interests, but don’t have the freedom to do so until they’ve reached a certain level of success.
Whatever the reason he seems satisfied with his new career track, since he continued with pop/punk in 2022’s album, Mainstream Sellout. The reviews have been mixed, but the album has had big commercial success debuting high on the Billboard 200 charts. Emo Girl ft. Willow is particularly good track (though I may be biased in saying that) — it’s a good example of the overall pop punk revival going on in the 2020s, partly because it’s extremely self-aware of how it’s referencing a scene more than participating in it. Rolling Stone called it “gleefully derivative” and on the whole the feeling is of playing a part and having a ton of fun with it. Willow Smith’s vocals shine, her gen Z energy a good balance to Kelly’s so-called “buzzsaw bubblegum”.
For myself, I haven’t heard the whole album yet, but I enjoy Machine Gun Kelly better in pop-punk, which is one of my favorite genres. I know I may be in the minority; what are your thoughts on Machine Gun Kelly, Willow, or the pop-punk revival? Let us know in the comments!
Don’t miss these albums from iconic artists of the LGBTQ community, coming soon!
The Lockdown Sessions by Elton John is a collection of collaborations that the British singer recorded remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, featuring Miley Cyrus, Lil Nas X, Stevie Nicks, and many more. The tracks cover a variety of genres and moods for a truly eclectic mix. Personally, I can vouch for this album because I’ve already heard a few of the tracks, including Chosen Family (absolutely gorgeous track with a great message) and Nothing Else Matters (gives me chills every time). If you, like me, spent time in quarantine singing along to everything and making playlists, you might relate to this album!
Broken Hearts and Beauty Sleep by Mykki Blanco is the new album from non-binary boundary pusher Mykki Blanco, melding hip hop and rap with club and trap sounds as well as experimental elements. I’m excited for this one because I love more publicity for non-binary artists, AND I just recently discovered this artist through their essay in The Queer Bible (an excellent book!).
To discover other LGBTQ artists, try:
Halsey’s If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power – their most recent album which was accompanied by a film released on HBO Max, and which wrestles with the suffocating side of love, pregnancy, creation, destruction and how we claim and use power.
Brandi Carlile’s In These Silent Days : the 2021 offering from a country and folk rock staple. Encompassing both intimate contemplation and defiantly rollicking tunes, it’s an album exploring the full breadth of Carlile’s skill and power, with echoes of Elton John and Joni Mitchell, according to critics.
Sonically and lyrically, “Come Back To Earth,” perfectly establishes the feel of Swimming and encapsulates all the thematic elements of the album: breakups, vulnerability, addiction, despair, hope, and painful self-awareness. People connect with Mac Miller because he wasn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. He perfectly sums up what depression feels like when he wrote: “And don’t you know that sunshine don’t feel right / When you inside all day / I wish it was nice out, but it looked like rain /Grey skies and I’m drifting, not living forever /They told me it only gets better.”
Now, the lyrics “I’ll do anything for a way out of my head” are just haunting.
It wasn’t until after Mac Miller died from a powerful combination of cocaine, fentanyl, and alcohol that I heard his most recent album, Swimming, and immediately started listening to his other work, Best Day Ever, and The Divine Feminine, among others. Like the inimitable artists who preceded him in death – Prince and Tom Petty, most recently – Miller’s reputation as a real-deal artist is not diminished due to his struggle with addiction. In a short lifespan, he managed to eat, breath, and sleep his craft, so much so that he was always writing, creating, performing, and improving. Just 26 years old after dropping his self-produced August 2018 album, Miller made an inspired appearance on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Series, mere months before his body was found. His NPR performance immediately struck me as genuine as he bantered with his band and addressed the audience in between songs. Plus, Thundercat’s willingness to back you up is evidence of your awesomeness . But moreso: Mac Miller makes me feel something, and simple though that criteria may appear, it’s an indicator for great artistry. Even though he suffered, he nobly shared his vulnerability, sadness, and hope through his music.
Initially, the song “2009” was one of my fast favorites on the album, probably because of the self-reflective quality that the song conveys, both lyrically and instrumentally. The narrator appears to have looked back on his life having realized some hard-won truths but is ready to embrace a hopeful future. My favorite lyric is when he refers a conversation the narrator had with a woman and he cleverly characterizes her as an angel: “She tell me that I get her high ’cause a angel’s s’posed to fly”. The track has a dreamy wisdom about it that comes through the stripped-down instrumentation. Much of Miller’s music simplymakes me feel good.
Track number three, “What’s the Use” is a funky, laid back, feel-good groove featuring Snoop and that signature Thundercat bassline and that hits in all the right places and might be my favorite tune on the album because, hello, FIVE STRING BASS in the house
Then you have the trumpet-heavy funk and disco dance tune, “Ladders”, that seems to encapsulate the hope and despair Mac embodied in his music. Such a big, bright song evokes a wild night living large in the city but against the backdrop of a sad truth looming in the near future: that the sun would rise and the fun would be over. “Somehow we gotta find a way / No matter how many miles it takes / I know it feels so good right now / But it all comes fallin’ down / When the night meet the light /Turn to day. Where was it Mac wanted to go? Check out his live performance of ladders and the all-star 11-piece band on the The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Melodically and rhythmically, “Self-Care”(co-written by Dev Hynes of Blood Orange) is easily one of my favorite tunes on the album (but I’m hard-pressed to find a bad song on the album). Eerily, the music video portrays Miller lying in a coffin and nearly buried alive as he sings: “Somebody save me from myself, yeah /Tell them they can take that bullshit elsewhere / Self care, we gonna be good /Hell yeah, they lettin’ me go”. Given the trendiness of the concept of “self care” in a society marked by millenial backlash against the backdrop of growing social isolation in spite of vast widespread advancements in technology, Miller wanted to take better care of himself: he was envisioning a better life, but the question would be: how am I gonna get there?
A review in Pitchfork states so eloquently that the feeling of a work of art is indeed as valuable as the other more technical components of song crafting: “As always, Miller remains a step behind the prestige artists he emulates—Chance the Rapper, Anderson.Paak, and, increasingly,Frank Ocean, whose nonchalant songcraft looms large here. Swimming is less virtuosic than those artists’ recent works, but no less heartfelt, and the album’s wistful soul and warm funk fits Miller like his oldest, coziest hoodie. He may be unable to escape his own head, as he laments on the opener “Come Back to Earth,” but he’s decided to make himself as comfortable as possible while he’s trapped there.”
Co-written by Pharell Williams (does he collaborate with everyone?) , “Hurt Feelings” (awesomely described in this article as “weirdly cocksure”) is another super-catchy tune on the album with a beat that’s perfect for head bobbing, and oddly enough, one of the tunes I crank in the morning to psych myself up for work or life.
Check out “Swimming” for honest, heart-felt poetry from a young soul who lived the life he rapped about only to die far too young, long before he had a chance to love himself back to life.
Since we’re deep in the midst of summer vacation and hopefully none of the kids that you know are stuck in summer school, everyone is free to explore and run and, most importantly, not have to worry about getting up early and going to school. This break brings a conundrum to light as both parents and teachers begin to worry about the summer slide, also known as the time when kids start forgetting the important things they learned in the school year while they are on summer vacation.
How do we, as educators, parents, librarians, babysitters, etc, combat this? By making learning fun. Sure, we could bring home big tomes from the library and tell our kids that they have to read a certain set of pages before they can go outside and play, but the resulting struggle will instead leave everyone frustrated and angry and wishing they had something to bash their heads against. Let me help you avoid the agony and present you with some exciting and less injurious options. Let’s focus today’s blog post on history and alternative methods of learning, shall we? Read on!
I don’t know about you, but my difficulties in remembering things in school, and especially over summer vacation, always revolved around history. Blurgh. Textbooks made me fall asleep, I was always mixing dates around in my head, and THEN I discovered Hip-Hop U.S. History: The New and Innovative Approach to Learning American History. (I had found other similar works, not by the same authors, ranging from mixing poetry and music to math and music, but this, by far, was my favorite.) Blake Harrison and Alex Rappaport created Flocabulary, a website for teachers and school districts to find ways to teach anything ranging from social studies to languages arts to math and science to kids of all ages, but I particularly enjoyed this book. Number 1 reason: It has a CD of all the songs inside of it AND has an actual list of the lyrics! Each song has its own dedicated chapter with the lyrics broken down and explained in better detail. Be still your heart if you think this book is still boring. It’s not! Pictures are also added with quotations from that time period, perspectives pieces, and little biographies of the important people. You learn without actually realizing you’re learning! (And you’ll also have a few catchy songs stuck in your head to help you remember those pesky dates and important historical details!)
Let me share with you my most delightful learning find. This is the Crash Course YouTube channel, put together by none other that John Green, his lovely brother Hank, and two of their friends, Phil Plait and Craig Benzine. If these names sound familiar, yay! If not, let me introduce you to John Green, a writer of young adult books with works such as The Fault in Our Stars, An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson. He and his brother, Hank Green, also have another YouTube channel called Vlogbrothers, where they send videos to each other, but these are far less about learning, so let’s focus on Crash Course. Here you will find videos on literature, ecology, biology, world history, US history, chemistry, and psychology, and many more. I got hooked on the literature ones, where John discusses anything from authors to books to poetry and adds his own unique spin. Each video is animated and punch filled with learning and facts and humor and keeps you on the edge of your seat wanting to learn more. I highly recommend you check them out for yourself and let me know what you think in the comments below.
This blog post gives you a glimmer of some of the things I’ve found that have helped with my own learning. I’ve got more ideas rolling around in my head, so keep checking back. If you’re looking for different ways to engage the kids you know or are maybe curious for yourself about new ways to learn old things, contact us at the library and we’d be glad to help you!
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