2020 was a pretty incredible year for quality albums. We’ve sailed through ninety eight other examples of this fact in the past few weeks. Yeah, I know, did I do a top 100 this year? No, I did a top ninety nine because I’m freaking gangsta. Hmmm, imagine if I’d remembered to list Ariana Grande’s last album? It might have cleaned it up a bit. Ah well, no harm no foul. If you’re wondering, it would have finished arooooooouuuuuuuund… 74th. Despite the raised competition though, despite a high placing on 2020’s list being more difficult than in most recent years, there was still only ever really one record that I ever really imagined finishing top.
070 Shake is Danielle Balbuena, a 22 year old Brooklyn native of Dominican decent who has stealthily being climbing up the Necessary Evil chart in recent years. Her unmistakable, tranquil voice that seems to have been digitally uploaded from the uncanny valley and wears the scars of the distorted transition, had obviously been used recently to add certain sparkle to hip-hop tracks that nothing else was ever going to be likely to be able to do. She appeared on Pusha T’s Santeria, the 37th best album of 2018, offering a haunting and seemingly otherworldly Spanish language segment that the listener assumed would have taken all the talent of producer Kanye West to make sound quite so idiosyncratic and mystifying, not realising that was just what Shake’s voice sounded like. West was similarly enchanted by Shake as I was- as anyone would be, enough to have her guest on two tracks from his own (unfairly maligned, really freaking good) solo record that year, the twelfth best album of 2018, on album highlight Violent Crimes and of 2018 highlight Ghost Town (the 13th best song of the year).
Shake could have quickly responded to the increased attention brought by being partially responsible for album highlights from two of the most critically lauded hip-hop artists of recent times. However, she wanted to make sure that her debut album was perfect, that it was as comprehensive and all-encompassing an introduction to her personal sound as possible. ‘Modus Vivendi’ (‘way of life’ in Latin) is an unimaginable achievement in that regard. In fact, shit, it’s pretty much an unimaginable achievement in every regard.
Under the circumstances of her previous brushes with fame and her recent experiences, it’s understandable that Kanye West is the chief influence on the sound of ‘Modus…’.That is in no way necessarily a bad thing though, and Kanye himself could do with having a chat with Ms Balbuena to get tips on which aspects of his sound and what sonic tricks he should perhaps be concentrating on now himself. Shake makes (being the ‘Shaker Maker’, if you will) sonically expansive 2st century hip-hop*, so of course Kanye West is going to be an influence, he’s quite an important part of how that sound has been developed. If you listen to an album by four white blokes with guitars, it’s likely to be ‘heavily Beatles influenced’. And also, yeah, probably a bit shit. ‘Modus…’far exceeds its influences though, it is by no means a hagiographic idol worship, the Kanye influence is undoubtably there but it’s never close to consuming or even defining the wider record. It’s far, farfarfar, far to good for that. One of the most enchanting thin about 070 Shake is how distinctive an artist she is, despite not turning any genres upside down or reinventing any effective tropes. If you listen to ‘Modus…’ for the very first time (which, by the way, you should all be doing right now), evenif you’d never heard of her before, by around track three you’d be nodding your head and exclaiming ‘Yep. This is definitely a 070 Shake album…”.
(*yeah, I know, if you want to call this hip-hop. I’m telling you, I’ve become particularly vexed with musical genres this year, where more and more artists have made lovely sounding hay by not limiting themselves to the useless tropes and outdated assumptions of one genre. Every right thinking person has high fived Metagirl in agreeing that ‘gender is garbage‘, and there’s only 64 of those, van we not all agree that genre is bullshit? There’s at least, like, 70 of those. Ah, no, 1’264 apparently. 070 Shake is ‘Brooklyn hip-hop’/’alternative R&B‘ which, wow, doesn’t even come close to it. 1’264 choices and that’s the best you can do??)
‘Modus Vivendi’ is an addicting, an irrepressible, a seducing album composed of Shake’s utterly masterful knowledge of hooks. All underlining that voice, a hypnotic and soothing drawl that seems to mispronounce words and barely register consonants in other cases. Shake’s personality would have been enough to carry a lesser album to great heights, but instead it’s all so perfectly pitched and produced to complete an absolutely perfect whole. As an undeniable and ensnaring introduction to a major new talent, it’s fitting that it becomes the first debut album to win Necessary Evil for a decade.
Right, now please give me some rest. I have an immigration law course in February, so my next task is revising for that, but you can expect the list of the year’s best songs and the statistical breakdown in March 2021sometime.Now piss off, go and talk to your family on Zoom