Minnesota Music: a Playlist

1. “Good as Hell” – Lizzo

Should you ever find yourself in need of a song to help you get over a breakup, a falling-out with a friend, or just a general confidence boost, I would advise you to look no further than Lizzo’s prolific works. Her music shares a common thread of learning to love herself, expressed in such an honest and exuberant manner it is difficult to help yourself from getting caught up in her joy. “Good as Hell” is a perfect introduction to her philosophy of self-worth and self-love. It was the song that first put her on my musical radar. “Good as Hell” was my personal summer anthem of 2016, simultaneously an upbeat beach jam and a reminder of how important unabashed self-acceptance can be, especially in the midst of unfortunate circumstances. Yet this unflinching positivity is not the only hallmark of Lizzo’s work, and many of her songs touch on the more difficult aspects of loving oneself in what is sometimes a  profoundly depressing world. I personally have listened to her while getting ready for a party, but also while I was sorely in need of some self-appreciation during a particularly difficult finals season. Among her other songs, “My Skin” tells a powerful story of resistance to beauty standards while “Ain’t I” plays like a battle cry set to a heavily bass-boosted beat.

I remember my excitement when I got the opportunity to see her live in concert. concert of hers I attended the year after. The venue was somewhat incongruous, hosted in the theater of St. Catherine University, a space where the audience was clearly intended to sit politely, not stand and dance for the entirety of her set. But dancing was exactly what we did, the somewhat eclectic crowd, which included fortysomething parents, hipsters, college professors, and more. The fact that this one individual could inspire all of us to get up from our chairs, even those who seemed like they had never set foot on a dance floor in their life, was a testament to the power of Lizzo’s message of empowerment (a message that now seems to be spreading well beyond my state’s borders with the release of her charting new single “Juice”).

2. Us – Brother Ali

Brother Ali has covered a dizzying range of subjects in his discography, from his experience performing in Iran to the legacy of slavery on American collective memory. In comparison, “Us” deals with relatively simple themes of family, home and living in the moment. Yet the raw emotion of Ali’s music remains undiluted no matter what subject he chooses to focus on. The chorus, “I love the life I live, my laughter and my kids, I don’t know where it’s going but I like it like it still,” embodies an easily relatable message of learning to be at peace within the chaos of everyday life. But to truly appreciate the meditative optimism of this song, it is important to understand a little more about the man behind it.

Born in Wisconsin, he later moved to New Hope, Minnesota where he converted to Islam at 15. Some 22 years later, he attended the same mosque as one of my classmates in high school. With two kids from two marriages, he has confronted sporadic financial troubles. He even contended with the Department of Homeland Security which accused him of terrorist sympathies in 2007, freezing a money transfer to his record label. His own journey, often the subject of his songs, speaks to his resilience and honesty. When I listen to Brother Ali’s music, both tracks like “Us” and his more somber narratives, I am reminded of the range of experiences and backgrounds which make up my state’s music. Moreso, I am reminded of late nights talking with friends and even later drives home, when this song would come on the radio and I had the chance to appreciate the chaotic beauty of life.

3. Purple Rain – Prince

It would be remiss of me to compile any list of Minnesota music without featuring a song by the legendary Prince Rogers Nelson. Born and raised in Minnesota, Prince went on to have a career marked by astounding critical and commercial success that reverberated far beyond his home state. Nevertheless, Prince embraced his Minnesotan heritage, filming the music video to Purple Rain at our very own First Avenue music venue. The concert hall’s distinctive black walls patterned with countless painted-on stars containing the names of the bands and performers who have played there over the years are well-known among Minneapolis residents such as myself. Prince even set up shop at his home in Chanhassen, an otherwise obscure suburb known to me purely because I used to take swimming lessons at a pool there. This unique combination of international appeal and local focus is not common among most Minnesota musicians, who either downplay their roots or struggle to create fan bases out of state in the first place. It would not be an overstatement to say that Prince helped put Minnesota music on the map, and in no small way this article owes a great deal to his efforts.

Throughout his career Prince was active in defining the “Minneapolis Sound” a mixture of pop and funk Prince helped to promote in his numerous collaborations with Minnesotan bands like New Power Generation and 3rdeyegirl. My own interest in Prince’s music was reignited largely by his untimely death on April 21st, 2016, when a poster appeared on my high school’s bulletin board featuring a black-and-white photo of the singer’s face and the words “Rest in Paradise” below. In the days that followed, my local radio blasted Prince songs almost uninterruptedly, mixed in with interviews with former bandmates, family members, producers, and artists who had been inspired by his unique sound. Countless public sites lit up in purple to celebrate his life and work. The state legislature proposed to rename the Minneapolis airport in his honor. While these displays may seem excessive to an observer on the outside, they are a testament to the uniqueness and impact Prince’s work had not only on Minnesota music, but on our state’s identity. While Minnesota can at times be seen by outsiders as a cold, nondescript flyover state, Prince introduced a wild, at times transgressive alt-pop flavor to Minnesota’s image. His own life mirrored this: the juxtaposition of a suburban, fiercely devout Jehovah’s Witness with the bold, flamboyant performer embodying the sheer diversity of what Minnesotan-ness can mean.

4. Minnesota Mean – Carnage the Executioner

Out of all the songs on this list, I most vividly recall listening to “Minnesota Mean” on a cold January evening as I drove back from a friend’s house. Ironically, the radio station I first heard him on, 89.3—otherwise known as the Current—was among the numerous targets of Carnage’s verses in this song (“They don’t play me much on the local Current so I give up”). I remember being moved by his forceful takedown of one of Minnesota’s hallmark attributes: our supposed niceness.

To Carnage, Minnesota Nice carries a far more insidious connotation as a cover for passive aggression and unspoken prejudice. This song, and much of his other works, flow like a blistering indictment of our state’s much-celebrated pleasantness. But Carnage’s message is beyond one of mere criticism. Rather than purely condemning the state, he encourages Minnesotans to step out of their comfort zones and embrace being direct. To me, this challenge applies not only to our daily lives, but to our conversations about the systemic issues which continue to plague our state, and especially my hometown of Minneapolis. For a state which prides itself of inclusivity and equality, which was recently ranked the best state for women and boasts thriving immigrant communities, our cities continue to be some of the most segregated in the nation. Our history still smacks of thinly-veiled racism everywhere from country clubs to urban planning, including in my own neighborhood, which well into the 20th century upheld discriminatory zoning policies. My own experience with Carnage and his works began largely after my move to college. While I am undeniably proud of my Minnesotan origins, this does not preclude me from criticizing the areas where we fail to live up to our own standards. Confronting institutional racism and prejudice is a difficult process, one which brings us face-to-face with histories and current events that are hard to face for those, including myself, who believe ourselves to be on the right path. But in these regards, in order to truly make Minnesota nice, it is sometimes necessary to be a little Minnesota Mean.

5. Grey Duck – Doomtree

Up there with some of Carnage the Executioner’s work, the Minnesota-based rap collective known as Doomtree has produced some of the most fast-paced and intense music I have ever listened to. “Grey Duck,” off their most recent album All Hands, is the antithesis of stereotypical Minnesota music as one can get. The song begins with a pulsating electronic beat, which soon gives way to the rapid-fire stylings of the Doomtree members. It’s intense and, in my opinion, a fantastic song for dancing. The title holds a special place in my heart and the hearts of everyone who attended kindergarten in a Minnesota school. While children of 49 states sit in a circle to play the classic game of “Duck, Duck, Goose,” Minnesotan kids play “Duck, Duck, Grey Duck.” According to some, this peculiar variation is the result of two different Swedish versions of the game: “Anka Anka Gås,” (Duck Duck Goose) and “Anka Anka Grå Anka” (Duck Duck Grey Duck). The Swedish settlers who arrived in Minnesota in the mid-late 1800s, some conjecture, were adherents to the second permutation. Now, any Minnesotan you will meet (myself included) will insist that Grey Duck is indeed the correct way to play the game. This conviction was so entrenched in my mind that it never occurred to me that my friends from other states played a different childhood game until I started listening to Doomtree in college. One can only imagine my surprise when I realized that Grey Duck was not simply the norm elsewhere in the United States. Yet, I have no plans on halting my efforts to evangelize my non-Minnesotan friends of the merits of either the game or the song that bears its name anytime soon.

6. Shhh – Atmosphere

Alongside Prince, Atmosphere has produced some of the most iconic examples of Minnesota music, albeit known mainly by Minnesota natives. The rapper/producer duo of Sean “Slug” Daley and Anthony “Ant” Davis adopt a slower, more relaxed lyrical style to their music. Their work contains complex themes and at times shocking conclusions; in the interest of not spoiling your listening experience, I will have to simply say that “The Waitress,” in particular, ends on a very unexpected note. “Shhh,” in comparison, contains less of a narrative arc, but is certainly not lacking in storytelling. Serving as a foil to Carnage the Executioner’s work, the song celebrates Minnesota — and more broadly, the Midwest — as a pleasant, calm, yet vibrant region. Central to the song’s message, and the title, is its encouragement to never let others look down on you for where you are from. It encourages Minnesotans to “say shhh” to those who may look to judge us without having first visited our state and walked a mile around one of our lakes. But the song does not only deal with Minnesota. Its final run down of cities from Oshkosh to Sioux Falls, Duluth and Mankato also reminds individuals from other Midwestern states of the beauty of their homes – a beauty often overlooked by depictions of America that center on larger cities in the coasts. For me, the relaxed, upbeat tone of this song calls back memories of trips to parks, lakes, art museums and concerts—the little things that are special to my state and my home.

A Minnesotan at heart, Henry can be found wearing t-shirts in the dead of winter and complaining about the lack of snow. During his free time he can be found dancing (to songs by a Minnesota artist of course), reading sci-fi and drinking more Caramel Macchiatos than is strictly healthy. Feel free to drop him a line at henry.suckowziemer@yale.edu if you’re interested in hearing some more song recommendations.

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