EDIT: I completely misunderstood something and thought we were able to do multiple nominations per category. I feel happy with what I wrote about SZA, so i’m leaving it as an honorable mention for posterity, but I’m retracting that nomination and putting in:
Flower Boy by Tyler the Creator
When Garden Shed leaked and rumors went around about Tyler coming out, I didn’t know what to make of it. When queer lefty friends came to me and said “you have to listen to the new Tyler album!” I thought the sky had fallen.
For a long time, I loathed Tyler’s music. His first few releases were edge lord crap, throwing out slurs and rape jokes just to get a reaction. There was always that element in Odd Future, but I forgave it in other artists like Earl because they grew past it. For a long time, Tyler wallowed in that Eminem nonsense, and I just wrote him off. With Flower Boy, Tyler grew up and moved past the immature bullshit to give us something both heart wrenching and hype as fuck. November and 911/Mr. Lonely just about made me cry. Who Dat Boy is the anthem of the summer, and I will fight all yall saying Mask Off or I’m The One or whatever.
Growing up is tough. It’s even harder when your childhood is documented in a bunch of mixtapes that millions of strangers downloaded. But Tyler grew up and then some. There is a whole lot of good music this year (enough that I had this comic misunderstanding mentioned in the edit) but Flower Boy moved me because it was one of the best albums of the year despite the fact that I was sure it’d be the worst.
retracted SZA nomination
CTRL by SZA
It’s going to take me a minute to get there so strap in. The tl;dr is that SZA made a great album. Beyond that, she made an album that stood out, despite a great deal of things that could have easily let it fade to the background.
TDE is the Golden State Warriors of rap. To an outsider who just knows one big name, Kendrick or Steph Curry or Kevin Durant, it is easy to assume that they’re the one true star. The reality is that TDE and the Warriors are astonishing because they have deep benches, and every single person on that bench is a star. Even Swaggy P and Lance Skiiwalker.
I think until very recently, it has been easy to ignore how deep the TDE bench is. Partly because Kendrick has been on an incredible hot streak, eating up the limelight, and partly because so many of their talents took some time to develop. Just about everyone on the label gets better with each release, and that pattern was just hard to see for some time.
I doubted that I would like CTRL at all. SZA had an EP from two or three years ago, and it just did nothing for me at all. There was one song on there, Sweet November, that I really liked, while the rest fell flat. I went into CTRL hoping that she had developed more songs like Sweet November and found a pleasant vibe. I came out of CTRL knowing that she had spent these years developing as a songwriter and vocalist and improving in ways I couldn’t possibly have foreseen. The songs on CTRL are influenced by Frank Ocean in that they resist pattern and structure, but still sound like good traditional R&B because of the smart production choices and her strong vocals. Her lyrics are authentic in a way that was hard for me to describe for a long time: her lyrics are like tweets. They mix brutal honesty about depression and anxiety with cryptic in jokes and they leave me with the impression that SZA wants you to understand most of what she’s saying but wants to keep some of it for herself in a way I relate to.
I’m going to do some more nominations tomorrow, and across those nominations one thing is going to become very clear – 2017 has been an astonishing year for R&B. This is coming off the heels of 2016, another astonishing year for R&B. CTRL could very easily be eclipsed by the considerable talent among SZA’s labelmates or the field of great stuff in the genre. For me, it very nearly was! I don’t think I took the time to appreciate how much I really loved this album until a friend sent me his best of the year list the other day. Now I’ve listened to it 3 times today and still have songs I want to marinate in and take more from. So yeah, it’s a long nomination, but all because I’ve felt very suddenly overwhelmed by how great this album is.