Are children the future? No, just Future. Photo via Tara Hunt on Flickr.
Look out internet: a new color-changing, interactive list that tells the future has arrived. In essays about songs and artists, as well as an introduction about identity politics, the New York Times Magazine has assembled "25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music is Going" in its second annual music issue. The list, which debuted online on March 9 and hit newsstands the weekend of March 10, is an attempt at comprehensive and representative survey of what's going on in the music in 2017. It both introduces readers to underground artists like the Brooklyn rapper Ka and pays homage to classics like Leonard Cohen and contemporary greats like Solange. If nothing else, it makes for a great playlist since no matter what genre you favor. It has it all—and as editor Nitsuh Abebe says in his introduction: "Everyone, allegedly, listens to everything now."
In last year's list, the entry that bore the closest resemblance to an electronic track was Justin Bieber's "Sorry." With the exclusion of both mainstream dancefloor bangers and innovative, underground producers, THUMP gleaned that the New York Times Magazine saw the future of music as "absolutely not electronic." This year offers more of the same on its face. Not even Daft Punk—legacy producers who manned the boards for one of 2016's biggest hits—got a mention. But there's an undercurrent in the list that seems to recognize the mainstream proliferation of electronic music. Two remix and sample-based tracks get a special nod for their DIY creation, online provenance, and general ebullience. And throughout entries from Migos to Adele to Kelela, the authors seem to recognize the importance of how a song plays on the dancefloor.
That's because in this year's list, electronic music is everywhere—it's just hiding in the skirts of hip-hop and other genres. It's in Cainon Lamb's bassy minimalist beats that Missy Elliott achieves a more understated swagger. Metro Boomin's woodwind sample on "Mask Off" that draws you further into Future's depressive spiral. However, except for the write-ups on Kanye West's "Fade" and Kelela's "Rewind," acknowledgement beyond a name-check and one-line description of the producer and their creation is hard to find on this list.
Reading between the lines this year, the future of music is absolutely electronic—even if that message is only conveyed in subtext. It's clear from the selection of songs chosen by the NYT Magazine—with its abundance of producer-driven hip-hop and R&B tracks, and the mentions of how these tracks translate to a club experience—that music that speaks to our contemporary moment has an electronic backbone.
The New York Times Magazine may have only accidentally championed electronic production. But quite intentionally, the list does have a lot to offer in its take on music as a refraction of our political moment, and assertions about the future of music as a radical, identity-driven force. Here are some of the takeaways from the future of music according to the New York Times Magazine.
The electronic songs the article champions pay homage not to unique sounds coming out of the electronic underground—which usually does portend the "future of music," as pointed out in THUMP's analysis last year—but instead to songs that exemplify the perception of electronic music as a crowd-sourced medium. "This Girl," the 19-year-old French DJ Kungs' frothy house remix of a song from Cookin' on 3 Burners, comes in at number nine on the list. While the entry casts the song as a summer feel-good banger, plenty of songs fit that bill. What seems to have made this one "speak to the future" is its organic rise to viral popularity on the Spotify charts, and the track's origin story of something that came about by messing around on YouTube.
The only other track that could easily be described as electronic is the looping sample of Shirley Caesar's "Hold My Mule" as popularized by DJ Suede the Remix God. The writeup casts as its value is its collaborative spirit: DJ Suede invited others to add verses to and remix the track, and it went viral. Chris Brown joined the fray with a dance video to the song, and to date the "U Name It Challenge" has over 42 million results on YouTube. We guess sampling in pop music is cool again. Because memes. Has somebody told Girl Talk?
The figure of the enigmatic lyricist holds the adoring gaze of many a music critic. The Fader's Amos Barshad contributes an almost write-around of Future, in which he struggles to get a lot out of the artist, and concludes that Future is as tight-lipped in real life as he is dark and circular in his music. As in the entries on Missy Elliot, Young M.A, and other rappers, the writer only briefly mentions the producer behind the track (Metro Boomin). Instead, he looks to the lyrics and the person spitting them for what the song contributes to the "future of music." Maybe lyric-less electronic music is harder to analyze for its contribution. And at least in this list, it takes a back seat to the person holding the microphone.
Many of the songs that "speak to our moment" and portend the future on this list either offer escapism (as on Kungs' "This Girl"), wallow in misery (as on Future's "Mask Off"), or speak angry truth to power (A Tribe Called Quest's "We the People..."). Apparently we are collectively going through tough times, and need our musicians to light the way. That's hard to disagree with.
In Wesley Morris' entry on Adele, he recounts the cringey but endearing Grammy's moment when Adele said Beyonce deserved the Record and Album of the Year awards. Morris says this echoed Macklemore's public apology to Kendrick Lamar, and that "recognizing, in the present, that you're permanently indentured to the past" is the task of forward-looking musicians. The focus in this list on the identity politics of Solange, A Tribe Called Quest, Kanye West, Shirley Caesar, and even Adele recognizes how important our artists are to bringing new perspectives and airing hard truths.
Thomas Chatterton Williams' essay about Kanye's "Fade" is a genius reminder of house music's underground black roots that nails the impact of electronic music in our current moment. Chatterton Williams writes "house music—much like West himself—is unabashedly black and Chicago-bred, but somewhere along the line, it grew cozy in Europe and came to be seen as catering to white people." This narrative has been expressed before by more underground artists like Honey Dijon, but Chatterton Williams' recognition of its presence in a Kanye song pays homage to both the artist and the musical legacy.
It's easy to critique any list that makes a bold assertion for what it inevitably leaves out. For example: for all the hand-wringing over Adele, where's Beyonce on this list? How about someone like Thundercat, who just released an album that ticks all the "future" criteria—identity driven, depressive-yet-escapist, meditative but hopeful. Or even festival mainstays like the Chainsmokers who may not be musical innovators, but seem to be bringing tech bro #disruption to the pop charts.
But just because an opinion-driven piece will invite criticism does not mean it's not worth making, and arguing with. It can be hard to tackle big issues like systemic racism, drug abuse, and even free speech head on without getting either too heated or too depressed—there's just too much at stake. So when the news is too hard to swallow, maybe it's spirited conversations about the most exciting artists grappling with the same tough issues that can help us imagine a future we want to live in.