About halfway through Blood Bitch, a friend of the Norwegian writer and singer Jenny Hval asks what her new album is about. "It's about vampires," Hval answers, with a giggle. "It's about blood!" Through a mix of ambient noise, spoken word, and avant electropop, her fourth album under her own name scrutinizes menstruation, vampirism, and femininity. If there's any justice left in the Critical Music Establishment, Blood Bitch will be remembered as one of the most significant musical accomplishments of the year. Listening to it from start to finish is an experience I haven't been able to let go of, like a waking dream.
Hval has made a habit of stating her intentions in the text of her albums. On last year's enigmatic and incredible Apocalypse, girl, she made her mission statement clear with a bit of spoken word, asking rhetorically, "What is soft dick rock?" She answered: "Using the elements of dick to create a softer, toned-down sound." That sound turned out to be a fusion of orchestral avant-garde and minimal electro, with probing lyrics meant to open conversations about late capitalism and gender—specifically male sexuality and vulnerability—without the drippy academic posturing you'd expect from the subjects.
Blood Bitch, being about vampires and blood, takes a subtle turn toward the pulsing electronic textures of the late 1970s and 80s, the broad sinewaves of exploitation and slasher film soundtracks. The effect is achieved, in part, through the legendary ARP Odyssey, a classic analog synthesizer of the early 70s favored by Kraftwerk at the end of the decade. Waves of dense, foreboding chords and Klaus Schulze–style arpeggiations fade in and out, often over throbbing electronic drum machines. It's a wonderful sound.
Overall, Blood Bitch is much more focused than her previous work. Blood is all over this record, including the sumptuous limited-edition bloodred vinyl edition that would have been released this month on Sacred Bones, had its pressing plant not had a meltdown last month, delaying a handful of releases. If you've somehow forgotten that you and everyone you know are wet sacks of blood and mucosal tissue, Hval has made it her business to remind you here. The mood breathes from ambient sound and spoken word to a handful of more straightforward pop anthems that wouldn't sound out of place at the tail end of an early Björk record.
But Hval hasn't abandoned the commitment to avant-garde and noise that she showed on Apocalypse, girl. For production, she re-enlisted the veteran noise musician Lasse Marhaug, who has collaborated with the Japanese noise divinity Merzbow and the drone-metal outfit Sunn O))). The album's most accessible and transcendent moment, "Conceptual Romance," whose instantly memorable chorus finds Hval's lazily ethereal voice sailing above sub-bass and bleary synths, hits harder for arriving on the heels of a disconcerting abstract interlude made up of percussive synth stabs, Hval's strained hyperventilating, and one lyric: "It hurts everywhere." Even in the more polished pop single "Secret Touch," she can't help but shout the word "death!" over a rollicking "6 Underground" beat. These tonal shifts and contradictions give the album its depth and make the attempt to hear it as a collection of singles a fool's errand. This music is meant for weed in the bathtub, or a long walk over a bridge, to be listened to from beginning to end, in album form.
Her commitment to taking risks is stunning at first and endearing on subsequent listens. At one point, she offhandedly pulls a nihilistic sound bite from the British documentarian Adam Curtis, adding to the album's collagist feel. She even briefly raps, "I've never really loved a dog / Last night I took my birth control with rosé / ... keep that birth under control." In her more abstract songs, like "The Plague," she grasps toward a beauty not easily captured through traditional Western forms of music, the messy beauty we all share: pores and fetuses, spit and cum and matted pubic hair. Still, the most resonant moments are the poppiest tracks, dredged from Hval's messy world. Throughout the album, she expertly employs sonic and lyrical clutter as an allegory for the muddle of her own emotions. The arresting bridge of "Conceptual Romance" proves the point: "I don't know who I am, but I'm working on it / I'm high, high on madness / These are my combined failures / I understand infatuation, rejection / They can connect and become everything, everything that's torn up in your life."
These ten tracks are unlike anything you'll hear this year—a sort of vast and overwhelming menstrual musical. It's also very easy to imitate and tease, or dismiss the work as self-indulgent liberal artistry (though anyone could be forgiven for cringing at the line, "Like capitalism, it works like unrequited love"). But this is not music that's meant to be perfect. It's an uncomfortably personal glimpse into Hval's mind, a space very separate from the predictable banalities of everyday life. This openness presents a very broad target for those who no longer have patience for what might be called challenging music, even when it sounds as graceful and penetrating as this.
Hval knows all of this. In a stray line, she asks: "My own art history?" and answers herself: "My combined failures." But it's possible, if you spend enough time in this album's fleshy folds, that a record about blood and periods and vampires and mucosal discharge might make you feel just a teensy bit uncomfortable. And I'm pretty sure that's what great art is supposed to do. As she says on the album, "Don't be afraid / it's only blood." —BEN SHAPIRO
DAMN SON WHERE DID YOU FIND THIS?
Tobias Hansson and Michael Thorsby
Hip-hop history is made on the margins. For much of the 2000s, as the music industry worked its way online and as rap's center of gravity moved south, those margins were the gray-market mixtape industry. It was on mixtapes—both official, artist-sanctioned releases and unofficial DJ compilations—that the most influential rappers of the era, above all Gucci Mane and Lil Wayne, but also 50 Cent and Nicki Minaj, staked out their places in the game and built their legacies. The aesthetics of these tapes were messy, both sonically and visually, filled with sensationalized DJ drops and marked by their over-the-top cover art. As much as the gaudy, blinged-out art of Pen & Pixel now visually defines an era of rap in the popular imagination, it's likely we'll remember the late 2000s by the lurid covers nodding to current events and the voices yelling "Trap-a-holics" and "GANGSTA GRIZZILLS!"
That is, of course, if any of it is preserved and not wiped clean in some shortsighted copyright-enforcement scheme, as authors Tobias Hansson and Michael Thorsby note in the introduction to Damn Son Where Did You Find This? The book, out this fall from British publisher Koenig Books, anthologizes more than 500 mixtape covers along with interviews with five notable artists: KidEight, Miami Kaos, Mike Rev, Tansta, and Skrilla. It's an important project, memorializing a part of recent rap history that isn't often reflected upon, even if, as a text, it spends too much time redundantly pointing out that cover art exists to grab consumers' attention and that comic books and movie posters influenced covers of tapes with titles like Evil Empire & DJ Fletch Present The Hangover and Jay Z Starring as Batman. Each of the interviews focuses on similar design and business minutiae rather than offering many behind-the-scenes stories that the average fan might enjoy.
Still, the mere fact the book exists makes it valuable. As streaming pushes music into a more corporate, sanitized, cleanly efficient realm online, undertakings like Damn Son Where Did You Find This? are an essential part of recognizing the genre as it actually existed. —KYLE KRAMER
The Brooklyn-based DJ Jubilee has described her debut LP as being "based around a night out"—a sort of floodlit field trip through pre-party bedrooms, death-black nightclubs, and the vanishing point of taxi rides home. What is clear from After Hours is that Jubilee has certainly been enjoying better nights out than us. The story takes in dancehall as easily as it does Jersey club, ghetto house, and the subterranean clatters of UK grime. It's a survey of a Brooklyn club scene infatuated with diaspora and cohesion—that is to say, you can hear every influence deliberately, yet it never feels disjointed. These scattered influences root the album comfortably on Mixpak, a label that has helped make dancehall one of the defining sounds of Brooklyn's underground, giving the genre a home away from Jamaica. And best of all, while the "mission statement" is well executed, Jubilee never betrays her prime operation: making huge club tunes. This is good shit to dance to. "Wine Up" is a devastating, ebullient floor-filler, and if someone doesn't play "Opa-Locka" at my funeral, consider me posthumously disappointed. Outside of the belters, there are the incidental moments. "JMZ Interlude" captures the streetside swell of the fizzing traffic and smothered beats, where "Snooze Button" pulls sleepy-eyed, celestial magic from the small hours of the morning. —ANGUS HARRISON
Acclaimed alto saxophonist Steve Lehman makes technical, sinewy music influenced by avant-garde jazz and contemporary classical composers. But he's also a lifelong hip-hop fan who has covered songs by GZA and Camp Lo. Sélébéyone, his most extensive engagement with the genre, features the rappers HPrizm (aka High Priest), formerly of the experimental hip-hop group Antipop Consortium, and Senegalese artist Gaston Bandimic, who raps in Wolof. (Sélébéyone is Wolof for "intersection.") The tracks—composed by Lehman and French soprano saxophonist Maciek Lasserre—combine improvisations, shifting time signatures, atmospheric synths, frenetic drum programming, and samples of squealing saxophones. Yet throughout this dense, complex material, the bass and drums maintain a steady pulse, allowing the rappers to find their flow. Bandimic, whose percussive and consonant-heavy Wolof allows for a greater variety of rhythmic emphasis than English could, deals deftly with Lehman's jagged beats. Few rappers have sounded as comfortable over an odd meter as Bandimic does on "Cognition," in which he raps in 5/4, and on the dazzling final track, "Bamba." Both HPrizm and Bandimic are Sufi Muslims, and their lyrics express a desire for greater self-knowledge and communion with God. Between this and the imposing musical landscape, Sélébéyone often feels like a spiritual journey or trial. —ANDREW KATZENSTEIN
Stones Throw Records
If you had to boil hip-hop in 2016 down to two words, they would likely be "yes lawd." The amount of objectively good shit that has come out this year is so substantial you could stack each on top of the next and climb calmly to heaven. Gospel and soul influences have helped to anchor almost every hip-hop release this year from The Life of Pablo to Coloring Book. NxWorries—a project from California singer Anderson .Paak and New Jersey producer Knxwledge—builds on that trend, folding both artists' versatility into a smooth mixture of jazz, soul, funk, old-school hip-hop, and modern rap. But for something that sounds like it would be more chaotic than a beehive in a washing machine, Yes Lawd! is seamless in the way it traces the constellations of black-music history, and almost celebratory in its weightlessness. Like Thundercat and Noname, the artists involved have respective credits that extend way beyond "vocalist" and "producer," with .Paak featuring on six tracks on Dr. Dre's Compton and Knxwledge working on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly. Yes Lawd! also has the privilege of being one of the few, perhaps the first and only, releases to sample dialogue from an episode of Rick and Morty. So there's that. —EMMA GARLAND
Danny Brown's Atrocity Exhibition is a ride through the dark corners of a drug-addled mind, and it's the sort of ride you hop right back in line for after you've finished. The adventure starts with Brown boarded up in a room, three days into a bender with no end in sight. But for a guy on the brink, he has some clearheaded epiphanies: ("Everybody say you got a lot to be proud of / Been high this whole time don't realize what I done / 'Cause when I'm all alone feel like no one care / Isolate myself and don't go no where.") For the next hour and change, Brown shriek-raps on ghettotech-tinged tracks ("When It Rain") and others that channel J Dilla ("Lost"), all of which would be nearly impossible to rap over if he weren't one of the best. The production alone could double as the score for a torture-porn thriller, with Brown adding to the house of horrors by addressing everything from addiction to loneliness to death. In the midst of the spooky experimental stuff are hits like "Really Doe," a posse track that feels like a Wu-Tang homage with expert one-upsmanship from Ab-Soul, Earl Sweatshirt, and Kendrick Lamar. Although it's not always easy to listen to, Atrocity Exhibition is never boring and is easily the most far-out album from the most far-out dude in rap. —ZACH GOLDBAUM