Music Industry Revolutionary Richard Russell Breaks Down Every Song on His Star-Studded New Album

9. “Cane”

This is a cover of a song from Gil Scott-Heron’s 1978 album Secrets that’s sung by Ibeyi. How did you decide to tackle this track?

There’s a diary-like aspect to a record like this, and parts of your life can’t help but spill into it. In this instance, I just grabbed a CD of Secrets for the car, and when I heard “Cane,” I thought of the book the song is based on because I’d read it while I was working with Gil. And then I thought about Ibeyi and how I wanted to play it for them.

I also really wanted to have a reading from the book in the song, and it occurred to me that Kim Jordan, who was Gil’s keyboard player, has a fantastic speaking voice as well. So I asked her about reading from the book, and she did. There’s a lot of threads in there, and I really like the idea of being able to present a song that Gil wrote to people.

10. “Purify (Interlude)”

Peter Gabriel is on this song—but he doesn’t sing, he plays piano. Did you want him to sing?

We did a few sessions and we did record stuff with him singing, which is really good, but it’s not on the album. There’s something refreshing about people who are hugely famous but just here to play. I asked him about it once, and he said that he was only a weekend pop star. He really appears to have no ego, which is strange, given all of his achievements. Also, if you’ve got super famous people singing, there will be the potential to overshadow the song. There are some really famous people in the background of this record, which is quite nice and generous; they left the greater platform to the other artists.

11. “Be My Friend”

Ben Reed, who is in Frank Ocean’s live band and played on Blonde, plays guitar on this song. And XL released the physical version of Blonde. Which made me wonder: What’s your relationship with Frank, and did you try to involve him in the sessions for this album?

I would imagine he’s fairly inundated with people suggesting he does stuff. But I’m a massive fan, and he was an inspiration on this album. When I started making this record, I felt like the main inspirations were these warm ’70s records by Robert Wyatt, Curtis Mayfield, and Gil—really soulful albums that feel like they’re giving a bit of a hug. But while I was making it, there was this run of unbelievable timeless classics that came out, one after the other: D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, Lemonade, The Life of Pablo, Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell. And Blonde was probably the masterpiece of all of them.

I get a slight Miles Davis thing from Frank—he’s inspired when he’s inspired, and that’s attractive. And to do that, you have to value the inspiration above the norms of society, above the music industry, above the expectations, above the schedule, above everything. When you do that, it creates the potential for something truly important to occur.

12. “Everything Is Recorded”

This song is about appreciating the moment and taking full advantage of it, which is something you seem to be really great at. Do you have any tips as far as staying in the present and not getting distracted with nonsense?

Meditation is very popular for a reason, it’s one of the only things you can really do for your mind. I meditate every day. But meditation doesn’t necessarily have to be a formal practice, and if you just do things meditatively, that can be very good for you, whether that is playing an instrument or painting or walking. It can be incredibly important. There are massive upsides to the fast way we consume things now, but then there’s obviously a price to pay for things speeding up. This record taking such a long time might have to do with me making sure I wasn’t letting things speed up too much.


Remember the Discman? A Tribute to the Portable Music Players of 1998

By 1998, though, the alarm had subsided, and the Walkman and Discman were fixtures of public space. From today’s vantage, their capabilities seem laughably limited. Before leaving home, you had to think about what album, or what mixtape, you were in the mood for—and maybe carry at most a few extras. This was a curse: What if you got sick of the three tapes in your backpack? It was also a blessing: You could immerse yourself fully in Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” without the awareness that a thousand other songs were beckoning you, a scroll and a click away. In contrast with our current devices, as well as the early iPods, the Walkman and Discman were standalone music players, which have now gone the way of the landline. Indeed, this past July, Apple announced plans to phase out the Nano and Shuffle, the last two iPod models without internet connectivity.


Courtney Barnett Talks About Taking on Misogyny and Self-Doubt With Her New Album

On a warm day in January, Courtney Barnett is sitting on the banks of Los Angeles’ Echo Park Lake, watching dogs in booties trot past. In an hour or so she’ll be needed for soundcheck at a venue nearby, where she’s playing tonight with her partner, Jen Cloher, but for now, there’s time to enjoy the Californian sun.

We’re here to talk about her forthcoming second full-length album, Tell Me How You Really Feel. Barnett says the title should be interpreted both as an earnest request and a sarcastic denouement, and the dualism is fitting for a record that sees its songwriter—long celebrated for how she explores various personal and political neuroses with an almost terminal chill—wading through the misogynist swamp of an era that all but demands picking sides.

“I was definitely in a less-than-positive headspace,” the 30-year-old tells me, sitting at the foot of one of the park’s massive palm trees, arms wrapped around her knees. When Barnett started writing the record’s lyrics not long after the release of 2015’s Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, she found herself starting more song ideas than she was finishing, running into writer’s block that stemmed largely from a desire to avoid examining those unpleasant feelings.

She eventually worked her way through, with some help from an antiquated relic. “I got given this typewriter by an old friend, so I made a goal to write one page a day on that to get random thoughts out,” she says. “People are like, ‘Ugh, typewriters are so wanky!’ But there’s a rhythm to it that I really enjoyed.”

The results of that measured exercise turned out to be more jarring than she expected. Though she had previously excelled at weaving witty anecdotes with minute details of her friends’ daily lives, Barnett now found herself fueled by the need to work through her own emotional life. A previous Courtney Barnett might have avoided these feelings, but—thanks in part the frustration and sadness inherent in surviving times like these—she opted instead to lean into the discomfort.

“I’d try to write a song about someone I was close to who was going through something, but it would turn into a total self-help book,” she says. “When I look back, it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, I was trying really hard to help myself get through something.’”

That “something” is present throughout Tell Me How You Really Feel, which doubles as a handbook for surviving the present moment. Topics ranging from toxic masculinity (“I try my best to be patient, but I can only put up with so much! Shit!/I’m not your mother, I’m not your bitch”) to the effort required to just get out of bed in the morning (“Waking up to another dismal day/You’ve got a ways to go, you oughta be grateful/Sometimes I get mad/It’s not half this bad/Pull yourself together, and just calm down”) are all filtered through Barnett’s signature wry outlook in a way that is simultaneously more biting, more direct, and more unguarded than anything the songwriter has done before.


How Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea Became a Polarizing Cult Classic

Another decade and a half on, after a 2005 reissue that found NMH being praised by of-the-moment indie acts like Arcade Fire, Franz Ferdinand, and Caribou, and then following the reformation of the band for a lengthy reunion tour in this decade, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is still finding people. But it’s never been a record for everybody, despite being canonized, at least in the indie-rock world. There’s always been a vocal contingent who not only don’t understand what the fuss is about but who actively loathe the record. As intense as the devotion among the faithful is, there is an equally intense dislike of the record, from both casual music fans and critics and, in some cases, former fans.

To the converts, Aeroplane is a moving meditation on trauma and loss and hope, the kind of record that causes you to look at where you are and where you came from and think about what’s important. To its detractors, including those who once enjoyed it but later found it hard to bear, it’s infantile and even embarrassing, the stream-of-consciousness musings of a privileged dude sharing naive stoner wisdom. What is the root of this conflict? We can start by agreeing that In the Aeroplane Over the Sea isn’t an album you come to for mature revelation, and it’s very difficult to connect its subject matter to anything going on in the world at large. Where some records grow old with you and speak more to your present circumstances with each passing year, Aeroplane centers on a mindset that emerges during a very specific point in life—somewhere between the ages of 14 and 20, say, when you’re old enough to recognize that you no longer have the confused and fractured consciousness of childhood but young enough to remember viscerally what it was like. And that perspective is the key to how the record is received, and why it endures.

Aeroplane keeps renewing itself and finding new generations of fans because the record itself is forever young—it’s like a children’s book or a fairy tale, Where the Wild Things Are on wax. When you are listening to it, there are no adults around. The songs are filled with parents, yes, but we never know who they are or what they think. They exist only as a threat (“Mom would stick a fork right into daddy’s shoulder”) or as a repository for longing and need (“Daddy, please hear this song that I sing”). Their voices may as well be the “mwah-muwah-muwah” of the grown-ups on “Peanuts,” an unintelligible murmur happening somewhere offscreen.

The songs on the album seem to come from the mind of a child, and the action inside these songs feels both mundane and fantastical; when you are 8 years old and your neighborhood block is your entire world, you find that it’s filled with ghosts. Aeroplane is a place of nameless sensations and frightening desires, where historical imagery is scrambled, and lines between past, present, and future are porous. It doesn’t try to make sense of anything and has no answers; it’s an album of memories and associations, how skin feels against the grass and what passes through your mind the first time you realize your own powerlessness. It puts ultimate faith in raw feelings, the kind that consume you without logic or sense. The energy emitted by the tension between those who love Aeroplane and those who are repelled by it, like the center of a rope in a tug-of-war on the verge of snapping, is a major source of its power. Because In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is above all a portrayal of innocence, to love it is to imagine forces that want to extinguish it.


The 10 Best Music Videos of 1998

It was a time of visionaries—on both sides of the camera lens. In 1998, era-defining directors including Chris Cunningham, Michel Gondry, and Hype Williams were putting their highly stylized twists on artists like Madonna and Busta Rhymes, expanding the creative possibilities of music videos in the process. MTV dictated what audiences saw back then, but some of the year’s best visuals took advantage of the platform, beaming striking images into the homes of millions of teenagers worldwide. Many of those clips combined ingenious special effects to profoundly dramatic ends, while others took a cinéma vérité approach toward a local scene long before YouTube and WorldStar, or else cast a fisheye lens on a hypercolor future that hasn’t quite arrived yet. Each video in our top 10 is a dazzling display of sound and vision, and you can watch all them below.

10. OutKast: “Rosa Parks”
Director: Gregory Dark

OutKast’s Aquemini is the best album of 1998, and “Rosa Parks” is its triumphant visual manifestation. Big Boi and Andre 3000 playfully lay out the video’s concept at the outset, a mix of muscle cars and “space, futuristic-type things,” and director Gregory Dark somehow makes it all a brashly colorful reality. With both man-from-Saturn costumes and a marching band stepping past the local barber shop, it’s a testament to the outsized creative ambitions of the era’s most restlessly forward-thinking duo.


10 Overlooked Electronic Albums From 1998

By 1998, electronic music had been a major force in pop culture for a full decade—long enough for rave’s rough edges to wear smooth and the underground to splinter in countless directions.

That’s especially true of Europe and the UK, where jungle had turned to drum ‘n’ bass, trip-hop was earning Mercury Prize nominations, and there was a style of techno suited to virtually every hour of the day. The United States, meanwhile, was deep in the throes of the “electronica” revolution that had kicked off in 1997—a sort of preview of the EDM boom of 2011—thanks to imports like the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, and the Prodigy. It didn’t hurt that American rave culture was itself well established at that point, with local scenes fueling an array of styles ranging from West Coast deep house to Florida breaks. Just two years prior, a largely unknown French duo called Daft Punk had played its first-ever U.S. show at a campout rave called Even Further; that they made their first steps toward world domination in a muddy field in Wisconsin is a testament to America’s star-making power, even in an era when rock and pop still dominated tastes Stateside.

As for home-listening fare, Air, Massive Attack, and Boards of Canada all put out career-defining albums in 1998, each one converting listeners who weren’t already self-identifying electronic-music fans. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that all those albums can be found on our list of the 50 Best Albums of 1998.) Everywhere you looked, the landscape was shifting. Long-players from Moodymann and Theo Parrish retooled Midwestern American deep house for the album format. Artists like Autechre and Mouse on Mars were bending the grid to their own twisted purposes, while Pole’s crackling, deconstructed dub was laying the groundwork for the clicks ‘n’ cuts explosion just around the corner. And the electro revival was in full swing, bringing back the laser-zapping sound popularized by Kraftwerk and Model 500. It was hardly the last time that a formerly futuristic strain of electronic music would turn cozy and nostalgic.

If you scrape beneath the surface of electronic music’s dominant trends circa ’98, all kinds of other ideas were bubbling up too. Here are 10 such examples worth your time.


The 50 Best Albums of 1998

The term “neo-soul” was only a few years old by 1998, but the genre’s biggest stars were already feeling boxed in by it. Perhaps none were quite as pigeonholed as Maxwell, whose 1996 debut, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, was a magnet for comparisons to Marvin Gaye, Prince, and Stevie Wonder—none of them inaccurate, per se, but collectively they cast an impression of the singer as a standard-issue revivalist. With his dense, divisive sophomore outing, Embrya, Maxwell made it clear that he wasn’t trying to recreate his influences: He was trying to top them.

A paradox of easy grooves and difficult accompaniments, composed as if repurposed from fragments of far less cluttered songs, Embrya confounded critics and listeners alike with its new age spiritualism, florid production, unhurried pacing, and submerged melodies. Every track is swollen past the seams with flourishes. There’s a magnificently seductive three-and-a-half-minute song at the core of “Everwanting: To Want You to Want,” but the song rides out for twice that length, letting each of Maxwell’s session musicians get a few extra licks in. Yet as ponderous and unabashedly pretentious as Embrya could be, even at its slowest, it absolutely knocks, thanks to the bottomless basslines that reverberate through the wah-wah guitars, clipped horns, flutes, and celestial strings that cushion the most remote crevices of these songs. Even when Maxwell was trying to challenge the masses, he sounded gorgeous doing it. –Evan Rytlewski

Listen: Maxwell, “Everwanting: To Want You to Want”


In a World of Fakes, Maxo Kream Keeps It Very, Very Real

Maxo grew up absorbing his city’s classic hip-hop sounds, including DJ Screw and Geto Boys, but as he developed his own taste he started spending more time jamming out-of-towners like the Game and 50 Cent—“I like lyrical content”—and admiring Jeezy and Kanye West for their concise storytelling. He started writing his first songs in 2005 and was eventually drawn to the out-there production on Kid Cudi and ScHoolboy Q songs. “Nowadays, my playlist can go from Nas and Papoose to Lil B and Lil Pump,” he says before launching into Lil B’s “Like a Martian,” a droning 2010 track full of oddball flexes like, “I’m a pretty bitch.”

In 2007, Maxo started his own crew, Kream Clicc, which instilled in him an intense sense of responsibility and commitment, even deeper than his gang ties. “We got niggas from every gang in there—Bloods, Crips, Vice Lords, Folks, all that shit—and some of the homies from the suburbs,” he says. “I didn’t want all gangbangers in my shit.” But the Clicc has faced its share of turmoil, both from within and without. Maxo’s cousin, Andrew, who rapped as Woodrow Kream and was a member of the Clicc, was accidentally shot and killed by another member while they were high on Xanax. “That really woke me up and switched up everything,” Maxo says. “It made me more aware about Xans and how these lil’ niggas look up to me because of what I did in the past. And it makes me push and go hard for him.”

Maxo Kream: “Work”
(via SoundCloud)

In 2016, members of the Clicc, including Maxo, were arrested on charges connected to money laundering and organized crime. Following a sting operation, investigators allege the Clicc shipped marijuana from California to Texas by mail. Maxo immediately bonded out and denied the charges in a Twitter video. He denies involvement in any such operation, but the incident is a prime example of the kind of life he’s led. His music is built on these episodes; they are source material for his flashbacks. In fact, audio from the local news report of his arrest closes the Punken song “Janky.”

The latest setback in a lifetime full of them was last year’s Hurricane Harvey, which Maxo describes as “some World War III type shit.” When it hit, he was at the Mayweather-McGregor fight in Nevada, leaving him helpless to attend to family. “Houston was looking like a third world country,” he says. “My mama worked her whole life to get back to the suburbs just to lose everything to a flood. But she bounced back. I already got her a house. That’s where all my bread going right now: to make sure they good. That’s one thing about me, bro, I look out for mines.”

Being loyal is the highest possible honor in Maxo Kream’s world, whether it be loyalty to family, to crew, or to region, and that system is applied throughout his music. He vows to be loyal to who he is, too, even when that means sharing the darkest and most violent aspects of his past.


Rich Brian Is Taking Over the World—or Is the World Taking Over Rich Brian?

If you happened to walk into the right Jakarta mall at the right time in the early 2000s, you would have been able to see Brian Imanuel’s first public appearances. From age 6 to about 10, he played drums in his family’s Christian rock cover band. The group performed almost exclusively in malls. This is even less likely than it seems: Christians make up a mere 10 percent of all people in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.

For the first decade of his life, Imanuel lived near a goat farm in a modest neighborhood of Jakarta. After that he relocated almost entirely online. His family is ethnically Chinese, although he’s not quite sure how they ended up in Indonesia several generations ago. Their family band’s blend of novelty (a 6-year-old holding down the beat!) and familiarity (Christian covers) seems to have seeded Imanuel’s subsequent interest in meme culture, which operates along similar lines, albeit in a radically different context.

Imanuel was homeschooled from the second grade; after a year, his parents stopped assigning homework, which freed him to surf the web for hours a day. “I felt guilty for a while, thinking I’m such a lazy piece of shit,” he recalls. “Turns out I learned a lot of things from being on YouTube all the time.”

A pre-teen obsession with Rubik’s Cube solution videos was his entrée to a world of online tutorials. When he was 11, Imanuel discovered a love for the English language. Crucially, it wasn’t the blandly functional international English that attracted him. He was hooked on the slang-filled, hyper-referential dialects of his long-distance American friends on social media.

Imanuel chides his mother tongue of Bahasa Indonesia for being so inflexible that people are reluctant to say “I love you” or “sorry”—the former too romantic, the latter too formal. Language gleaned from Twitter and rap offered another world entirely. “I learned a lot about American culture by listening to rap songs,” he explains, describing how he looked up every unknown reference on Childish Gambino’s 2012 mixtape Royalty. Imanuel would speak English with himself to practice. One day, he realized that, even without an IRL interlocutor, he had even begun thinking in English.

Though it seems like he absorbed internet culture with ease, throughout our conversation it becomes clear that his meme-making fluency in American pop sensibilities is hard-won. We Americans irradiate the world with our movies, music, and economic policies. Yet the uniquely American mix of underinformed optimism and over-armed aggression simply don’t make sense to much of the globe.

“It took me a while to figure out the U.S. sense of humor, a lot of trial and error,” he says. “I would write down jokes to casually tell my American friend over Skype to see which ones he’d laugh at.”

He used his virtual buddy as a focus group in order to make stuff for YouTube itself, and not for his few friends in Jakarta. Imanuel understood the site’s true power as a machine for reinforcing Anglophone, white American sensibilities.

Case in point: Grammy-winning white rapper Macklemore is the origin figure for Imanuel’s potent strain of black-identifying Asian hip-hop. “I started listening to rap when ‘Thrift Shop’ came out,” says Imanuel. “Everybody on Twitter was talking about it. It became a meme for a second, and I was like, Yo, what is this? This is interesting. What if I learn how to rap this song?” That a white guy from Seattle served as his initial inspiration points to the genre’s rowdy global spread.

Now is an incredible time for hip-hop worldwide. French rap duo PNL’s cinematic cloud-rap globalism emanates from some undisclosed Parisian suburb; Germany’s RIN explores Auto-Tune emotionality; Ghana-based singer Mr Eazi’s light vocal touch makes his exquisite Afrobeat-dancehall slowdowns go over, well, easy. The picture widens even further when you consider frequent rap collaborators from adjacent scenes, like nervy Barcelona flamenco vocalist Rosalía. To top it off, the aggro sonics of trap have landed pretty much everywhere, primed by EDM. Against this varied tide, Imanuel’s pursuit of American fidelity is striking. But if meme is your medium, then you’re bound to follow the largest crowds.


Octavian Is Shaping the Sound of Rap in 2018—Just Ask Drake

Since he was young, Octavian has rejected authority figures, sometimes to his detriment. After his Angolan father died when he was 3, his mother moved the family from Lille, France, to London’s diverse Camberwell district, where she found work as a nursery school teacher. As he came of age, his unruly behavior drove her crazy. He rarely went to class, and on the streets, he flirted with a life ruffling society’s feathers.

Soon after starting secondary school, he was expelled for fighting and truancy. Panicked, his mother sent him to back to France, where he spent two disastrous years under the discipline of a wayward uncle. “He’s a madman, an alcoholic,” Octavian tells me, glancing at the floor. “I’d never had a man in my life, and I hated authority, always will. He would bang me up. I wouldn’t have it from him, though. I wasn’t a victim. I was fighting back, but I would get banged up.”

His uncle eventually had enough, and Octavian returned to his mom’s place in London. But after a year, she kicked him out for good. So, at 15, Octavian moved into public housing with a friend, Jordan Christie, who’d been cut loose from his own strict family. Too poor to eat well, and too hungry to drag themselves to the BRIT School—the prestigious performing arts center that reared Adele and King Krule—the pair shunned their scholarships and made tunes in a poky living room, while a neighbor filed daily noise complaints to the authorities.

Over the next few years, Octavian bounced between sofas when he wasn’t spending his nights out on the street, but remained attuned to the ups and downs of the local scenes around him. In these circles’ closely patrolled borders he saw something limiting, an echo of the power structures he’d always distrusted. With Christie, aka J Rick, as his producer, he envisioned a project capturing “the bad, the good, the grime, the ravers, the rich, and the poor” of the capital, in its scrappy, contradiction-rich totality. With the backing of an audiovisual crew that came to be known as Essie Gang—a play on south-east London’s “SE” postal code—he released two sharp, understated EPs, 22 and Essie World. But “Party Here,” he says, was the trigger—a fuzzy, melancholy, darkly exuberant and disembodied, hollowed-out party anthem, whose success will herald a salvo of forthcoming experiments.

Soon before the interview, someone puts “Party Here” on the speakers, and his friends erupt, assembling like sport champions by the kitchen table. Gleeful, they shout along the Drake-blessed lyrics—“Careful how you approach me and my bros…”—while hopping from foot to foot, fingers pointed skyward, loosely entangled in one another’s arms. A moment later, it’s over. Everyone breaks away and takes seats, as if unsure what just happened.