Emmett Robinson Smith
Song: “Ultralight Beam”
Artist: Kanye West
Album: The Life of Pablo
Label: GOOD Music/Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella
Released: February 14
The story of the creation of“Ultralight Beam” is worth reading. A product of a frenzied period of collaboration between artists ranging from Kirk Franklin to Swizz Beats with “best-idea-wins” as the mantra, the song captures more in five minutes than some artists do in their entire careers.
Of the meaning of the phrase “ultralight beam,” coined by West, collaborator Fonzworth Bentley says, “This is that connection that goes straight to heaven. This is the thing that people say is intangible, that people try to wrap their heads around.” “Ultralight Beam” is much more than the sum of its parts, a testament to the power of reaching for and achieving something higher.
Artist: Frank Ocean
Released: August 20
Let’s be honest: most of the songs on Blonde are song-of-the-year contenders. But “Ivy” is especially enchanting.
Co-written with Ocean by renowned producers Om’Mas Keith, Jamie xx, and Vampire Weekend’s secret weapon Rostam Batmanglij, its buoyant bassline and washed-out, West-coast guitar strums provide a delicate foundation on which Ocean recalls hazy memories of romantic naivety. Part of him longs for it, but part of him knows that they’ll “never be those kids again”. “Ivy” is the sound of a man trying to let go of his past despite the possibility of facing a much gloomier future.
Released: February 6
This song birthed a slew of essays and thinkpieces discussing everything from the “Red Lobster” line to Beyoncé drowning atop a sinking New Orleans police car in the immediately-iconic – and equally essential – music video. “Formation” is packed with implied meaning, a smart, subversive work that has already become a mantra for one of the United States’ most profoundly disadvantaged demographics. Not to mention a zinger of a beat from arguable producer-of-the-year Mike WiLL Made-It.
Song: “Pick Up the Phone”
Artist: Young Thug and Travis Scott ft. Quavo
Album: No, My Name is JEFFERY/Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight
Label: Grand Hustle/Epic/Atlantic
Released: June 3
Sometimes everything just falls into place. With “Pick Up the Phone”, Travis Scott reportedly wanted to be on the song so badly that he recorded himself singing the hook that Starrah originally had for it, then managed to market it as a collaborative single by himself and Thug. But it works. United, Thug, Travis, and Quavo, though inhabitants of similar styles, offer equally captivating takes over the slow-burning sparkle of steel drums, billowing synths, and crisp trap percussion. The three of them also open up more than usual, and Young Thug’s “Never will I cheat on you, never will I commit treason / Blowin’ a bag on you, do all of that for no reason,” is genuinely touching.
Song: “Glowed Up” (feat. Anderson Paak)
Label: XL Recordings/HW&W
Released: April 7
It seems too good to be true that KAYTRANADA and Anderson .Paak gained momentum at the same time and at similar paces.
KAYTRANADA’s funk-inspired drums and woozy synth lines work wonders for Paak’s sighing delivery as seen on tracks like Mac Miller’s “Dang!” But “Glowed Up” is arguably the best song either artist has come up with. Ethereal pizzicatos and a ghostly theremin lie atop menacing 808s and crunchy percussion while Paak sings of becoming “glowed up” – that is, of acquiring new success and discovering for the first time all the bells and whistles that come with it.