Listening to more music feels like a cop-out New Year’s resolution. Of course, discovering more artists to binge and songs to stream for hours on end is a goal for many. And as January has already passed, I saw myself looking back to 2023’s early birds and eager entrants. In a month that couldn’t boast many full-length releases from industry megastars, there were still many tracks worthy of being played on repeat during a wintry walk to class or to transportive oneself away from snow into the sun.
“Casa Lopez” – Venna, Masego, Mick Jenkins
Those in search of an escape to warmer climates and pining for the ease of long summer days should turn no further than the track “Casa Lopez.” Singer-songwriter Masego (of “Tadow” fame) teamed up with London producer and saxophonist Venna and Chicago rapper Jenkins to bring us this relaxed, dreamy track. Boasting the smooth saxophonic signature of many of Masego’s other works, Venna’s expert instrumentation provides the perfect interlude between Jenkins’ punchy,pronounced verse and Masego’s delicate hook. The song’s light drums throughout, underlying its ethereal horns and strings, conjure up images of a faraway island, where listening to such a tropical track would feel much more fitting. But still, “Casa Lopez” is a reminder that despite the freezing temperatures now, a languid, lounging beach day is only a blink away.
“the BLACK seminole” – Lil Yachty
Atlanta rapper Lil Yachty teased us with his more melodic side on various tracks throughout past albums, even collaborating with superstar Tame Impala and providing an excellent guest verse on the Australian act’s song “Breathe Deeper.” That said, Lil Yachty releasing a full-length, experimental rock-rap fusion album wasn’t expected by most hip-hop fans, but that is exactly what “Let’s Start Here” is. I want to highlight the album’s intro track: a grand entrance to a dizzying and otherworldly-produced project. Evoking inspiration from fellow modern artists’ utilization of guitar solos and other rock elements (artists such as Childish Gambino and Travis Scott come to mind), “the BLACK seminole” welcomes Yachty to the stage of psychedelia. With its unabashedly loud drum fills, musical breaks and prominent bass guitar, tYachty’s voice echoes and pulses through the six-minute track teeming with rocking energy. In an album that takes fans on a journey through a brand new, untouched world for Lil Yachty, “the BLACK seminole,” is the “bon voyage” to commence a trip to unknown destinations with the full confidence that it will be a good time.
“Mt. Fuji” – Kota the Friend
Chicago rapper Kota the Friend has made an aesthetic and career of going against the cultural grain and neglecting mainstream trends for an unapologetically personal style. Prioritizing genuine storytelling and rapping above all else, the song “Mt. Fuji” features the mellow, relaxed lyricist expressing the joy of finding inner peace over a fittingly airy piano riff: “Not pretentious, it’s messy when your ego is boasted / Now you at the mercy of fickle-minded people and jokers.” Within a world dominated by voices bragging about conquering foes, amassing wealth and besting the competition, Kota is the foil. And while I do appreciate those other voices for their lane and capability of producing high-quality music, to see emcees like Kota bragging about being friends with his neighbors and not having enemies is a welcome change of pace. “Mt. Fuji,” like the larger work it is a part of, is a laid-back, relaxed track that allows listeners to revel in the little moments of calm in an otherwise hectic world. The track embraces standing your ground against oppositional forces.
“Selfish” – Slowthai
Originality in hip-hop is harder to come by with each passing generation of artists, but England’s eclectic, irreverent Slowthai manages to stay unique. His seminal album “Nothing Great about Britain” (2019) remains one of the freshest projects in UK Grime, if it can even be boxed into such a genre. He followed it up with a work of similarly high quality in the album “TYRON” (2021). Now, the artist has returned with “Selfish” as the lead single teasing his upcoming project, “Ugly” (which stands for “U gotta love yourself”). “Selfish” is a hard-hitting, reverb-heavy, darkly-toned song seemingly destined for underground pubs and seedy spots. The singer alternates between a steady, meditative delivery and a raspy, growling one, lamenting how people try to emulate his style—a futile pursuit. Tyron’s aggressive, angry chorus of, “I’m just thinkin’ for myself / Thinkin’, I’m just thinkin’ for myself” not only encapsulates his frustration with the unimaginative voices of the industry, but also demonstrates, through its own merit, just how much Slowthai has separated himself sonically from his would-be competition.
“Do You Like Me?” – Daniel Caesar
“Ask and you shall receive” seems to be the mantra for fans as the ever-elusive Daniel Caesar released the fittingly interrogatory single “Do You Like Me?” this past Friday, presumably in the leadup to a new album this year. Only his fourth single in more than two years, Caesar is primed to debut a new full-length project for the first time since 2019. The singer’s latest is an example of Caesar doing what he does best: crooning love songs over simple beats. Gentle guitar strums and a nonchalant, almost behind-the-beat drum pattern allow the artist’s biggest strength—his voice—to shine. His yearning, clawing hook, “Do you really like me, Do you really like me?” leads wonderfully into the tentatively optimistic, “I guess we’ll find out / I guess we’ll wait and see.” Caesar expertly conveys both his desperation and his hope in a track that walks the listener on a familiar stroll of emotions, resulting in a musical experience both emotionally relatable and sonically enjoyable.
For a month of new beginnings, the same old routines and everything in between, these five songs are a few of my musical backdrops to a time when we may or may not be forming the foundations for unknown possibilities. But that’s why music is so stubbornly persistent in our lives. Whether it be a snowy January morning or a sunny evening in July, our musical discoveries allow us to adapt to our surroundings, be it embracing them, or taking us to distant places.