ESSAY// Before the Flood: Album of the Year Edition

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“And back when Mike Jackson was still Jesus,” ~ Chance the Rapper, “Acid Rain”

I.

I spend a lot of time with music, but you know a thing I only got to experience once (until now)? The feelings of massiveness and complete candy-like rush of when *NSYNC’S No Strings Attached (2000) was out. Also TLC’s Fan Mail (1999), and maybe Destiny’s Child’s Survivor (2001).


The Weeknd’s STARBOY (2016) gives me that feeling, and it’s even realer because I watched this boy, this young man tell his story for the better part of the last decade. I listen to it like an adult going through adult problems but I think too of all the children begging their parents to get Spotify for the new STARBOY record, squealing with delight when “I Feel It Coming” blesses the car radio, having their first kisses to “Ordinary Life” the world exploding around them as lips touch another’s, and the chorus and its bass and the harmonies and hearts beating~ Abel Tesfaye staring from a phone screen.

Abel painted his way to this place with great intention. He is today’s Michael Jackson, today’s Prince, if even only because he is to them what they were to James Brown.

II.

James’ shadow is just as big in the work of Trent Reznor. NIN’s largest hit aside from “Hurt,” the stripper anthem “Closer,” is a funk song. The JB’s innovations being foundational to the beginnings of hip-hop, almost every track on Nine Inch Nails’ 1989 debut Pretty Hate Machine is built off a gigantic rap beat~ a young composer just as likely to spit poetry on a song as he is to howl. At 51, Trent is still rapping and dropping breakbeats, so often “on the one.” His yelping rasp made to galvanize, to strike awe, to make the loneliest of the lonely rise like a dancing, fucking God is an update of the Godfather singing “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” This all precludes Reznor having produced an actual rap classic in 2007 with Saul Williams’ The Liberation of Niggy Tardust. Trent Reznor is the most lauded of our rock stars under 60; he is an “Academy Award-winner” an ambient wunderkind, a King of Pop, and a hip-hop pioneer.

He is also a social engineer.

III.

Jesus is an artistic idea representing a free-spirited, compassionate genius held down by money and borders. This soul suffers because they, the rest of the human world, is talking over the natural story, the actual thing that is happening on Earth. When Trent Reznor (or a late period Michael Jackson) flits from internal turmoil to spitting vitriol at the rest of societal order, the listener sees the obvious line being drawn.  I hear that in Before the Flood‘s (2016) score ~ a collaboration between Trent, Atticus Ross, Gustavo Santaoalla, and the Scottish band Mogwai. The title track’s pulse, fingers dancing nimbly across a piano, comes out of the same impulse to “make u move” that Rez felt when he was rhyming over Run DMC drums and sharing airplay with MJ in the 1980s. However there is a much larger movement being conjured, too.

IV.

I don’t want to spend time in this writing trying to describe the sounds of the album,
or individual tracks. Perhaps except for “A Minute to Breathe,”

I remember the first time I heard it, it sounded like a passable but purposefully
underwhelming Trent Reznor piano ballad. Just Trent doing his soundtrack work,
letting off a song~ exciting, if not generous. Months later, I see it as a stunning
experience. I get trapped inside the space of the verses, waiting with bated breath
for Trent to take his little gasp at the end of the second. The hitch of absolute
sincerity and speechlessness at the predicament we are in. That last “I justttt neeeed… a minute to breatheee” portion so obviously the titular flood as piano waves become impossibly grand* the godhand from Year Zero (2007) turning up a warm faucet.

V.

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