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Liner Notes for a Life’s Playlist


“Second Song”

In November 2003, K, my girlfriend at the time, took me to my first TV on the Radio (TVOTR) concert. A few weeks before the show, like a member of the band’s street team, K pushed their EP Young Liars on me. I listened to the music, liking some parts, but feeling confused about others. Were these cats some kind of mellowed Bad Brains (“Satellite”) or were they the doo-wop Pixies (“Mr. Grieves”) or were they an organ-drone Joy Division (“Young Liars”)? I could hear that they had dazzling musical ideas, but I didn’t know where they were trying to take me. I treated the EP in the same way you might treat a nice but unremarkable gift from a loved one: Notice, acknowledge, file, and forget it. After all, I thought then, could I trust the ear of someone who’d heard the hook on Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” as “Live and come back”? 

We caught TVOTR at Hailey’s in Denton, Texas, the college town where we both were living. The band pit stopped there for a night before heading to points west and north for more shows. That evening, the crowd was sparse, maybe twenty people. One song into the set, my ambivalence about the music turned into skepticism. The band’s multiple references and distorted sound made them seem incoherent. Worse, they didn’t yet have a stage identity or know how to move the crowd, not even that small one. Folks in the room seemed bemused; we couldn’t tell who these dudes were supposed to be. Maybe, on stage, they didn’t know who they were either. 

Early the next year, K, with her ear to the ground and her nimble, elegant fingers, had gotten hold of a promo copy of TVOTR’s first full-length disc, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, a few months before its March 2004 release. Though fuller and more cohesive than the EP, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes still has a chubby, undefined muscularity like early-career Charles Barkley: startling, powerful, ambitious, exciting, an All-Pro effort but not yet MVP level.

Even though we’d been blasting that album for twelve weeks before the band came back to Denton in May, their strengthened live sound surprised me. They’d ratcheted up their stage performances to meet the high quality of their new recording. During that appearance, when they broke into the second song, “The Wrong Way,” K hollered above the thrumming, revving bassline, “There goes the altar call!” Then, on her cue, my auditory canals quivered to attention and the music began to make sense: TVOTR could play through disparate modes because soul remained their foundational musical language. 

“The Wrong Way” opens with lines of lamentation and self-indictment about Black political action and public performance:

Woke up in a magic nigga movie
With the bright lights pointed at me
As a metaphor
Teachin’ folks the score
About patience, understanding, agape babe
And sweet sweet amour

When I realized where I was
Did I stand up and testify
Oh, fist up signify
Or did I show off my soft shoe
Maybe teach ’em a boogaloo
Busy playing the whore.

If the lead singers, Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe, had in fact caught the spirit and were stepping out front to testify, then the rhythm section—Dave Sitek (loops, effects, and guitar), Gerard Smith (bass), and Jaleel Bunton (drums)—was calling the crowd to step toward the stage and bear witness. And though the “church” was fuller that May night than on their previous visit, the group of young, white hipsters in the room probably didn’t recognize in the moment that they’d been called out: “Hey, desperate youth / Oh, blood thirsty babes / Oh your guns are pointed / Your guns are pointed the wrong way / Your guns are pointed the wrong way.”

Made up of a Trinidadian American from Long Island (Smith), a Nigerian American from St. Louis and Pittsburgh (Adebimpe), Black Americans from Pittsburgh and Louisville (Malone and Bunton, respectively), and an Anglo American from Columbia, Maryland (Sitek), it was impossible to ignore TVOTR’s Blackness. Though the song’s protagonist, as it were, declaims that he’s “No no no no no no no no no / New Negro politician,” he’s not giving up on Blackness, he’s rejecting those masks (magic niggas, respectable Negroes, and hip-pop minstrels serving diamonds on “little severed bloody brown hands / Oh the bling drips”) that are meant to comfort white audiences. Dropping the mask of grinning amelioration, the protagonist demands that onlookers and listeners not marvel at him, the Black (rock) bard, but instead, join him in radical confrontation against the war machine and the political status quo. This won’t be a peaceful march; it will be an angry, beat-driven, forceful retrieval of freedom: “I’m gonna take liberty / And I’m tellin’ you to take it too / ’Cause it’s right there in front of you.” 

And maybe, there in front of me on that night in May 2004, was a form of liberation: a Black rock band taking its first strides into freedom. Possibly their music began to gain fullness for me because watching Babatunde Omoroga Adebimpe dancing to the Bunton-Smith rhythm-a-ning, I recognized in that Afro-Midwestern transnational soul-man a practice of freedom, something I’d always wanted for my Congolese American self but had never truly inhabited up to that moment. 


Though TVOTR interweaves multiple musical styles into a globally Black sound, their music simultaneously evades and escapes generic divisions. At their best, the band unshackles listeners, letting us slip away from and rise out of categorical silos. On “New Cannonball Blues” from TVOTR’s Nine Types of Light (2011), Malone describes that release like this: “… baby follow the sound / That’s shootin’ out of your crown / There’s only one way up from the floor.” Dance, in a word. On the albums following Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, the band got listeners into the groove while singing critique about and throwing shade at contemporary American life. 

This might be an inherited trait from hip-hop. Listen, for example, to the perfectly trill “Dancing Choose,” from Dear Science (2008): In his way, Adebimpe raps his rhymes on top of Bunton’s hi-hat–snare pattern and Sitek’s foghorn-like synth-bass. As that track closes, as if to double down on the point, Sitek peels the mix back to the digital flutter at its foundation (a gesture that recalls Timbaland’s production on Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around” [2006]). That bleating trickle is an ellipsis punctuating a whip-smart read of that specifically American type: the know-nothing, consumer capitalist mouthing undigested media soundbites. Not only is this dude aiming the wrong way, but this “Angry young mannequin / American, apparently / Still to the rhythm,” can’t dance or catch the historical moment’s true beat. 


As the group’s main producer, Sitek erects the album tracks from samples and sound-collages in a way that suggests he’s a student of the Bomb Squad, Public Enemy’s production team. Listed as the lone scribe of “The Wrong Way,” Sitek’s lyrics (and the growling musical engine he’s arranged to propel them) express the group’s righteous indignation. Like the Bomb Squad shredding and restructuring Isaac Hayes’s “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” (especially their slick use of James Alexander’s bedrock bassline) below Chuck D’s epistle spitting, Sitek understands that his bandmates are most themselves when their music grows out of the fertile, arable fields of soul music. One alternative title for “The Wrong Way” could have been “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.” 

Speaking of alternative titles, isn’t Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes another name for Young Americans? Bowie called his 1974 album an expression of “plastic soul,” his name for the process of locating himself in Black American music while acknowledging that he was not of that musical tradition. ¹ Maybe TVOTR’s music is “elastic soul,” a musical sensibility that presents Black music as a thick but pliable root. “She done worked a root,” D’Angelo moans. “I put a spell on you,” Nina Simone warbles, comping melodically with her right hand, while working the root with her left. ² Black music’s adaptive properties allow TVOTR elastic musical reach without distending or diffusing the root’s essential nutrients; they can maintain their sonic grounding in global Black music even as their songs reference post-punk, art-rock, highlife, trip-hop. ³ The root’s fecundity inspires all manner of musical crossbreeding and hybridization. And yet, because of the root’s dominant traits, TVOTR is always contextually, linguistically, and soulfully fluent. When George Clinton and Funkadelic ask for the definition of soul, they can’t respond with any certainty. Instead, they claim that in Detroit “soul is a hamhock in your cornflakes.” Given TVOTR’s Black diasporic membership, soul might also be Trini callaloo on your hoecakes. 


“Family Tree”

What if Dear Science is a cover album about the musical endowment that Prince and Bowie willed the band? On tracks like “Crying,” “Golden Age” (with Smith massaging a bassline that points toward Louis Johnson’s bass play on Thriller as an antecedent), “Shout Me Out,” and “Lover’s Day” imagine TVOTR as a dance band under the sway of ’90s Prince; maybe they’d call themselves The Temple Thieves. On “Halfway Home,” “Dancing Choose,” “Red Dress,” “Love Dog,” and “DLZ,” think of them as a band called Ashy or TV718, a funk-infused band under the sway of Berlin/early ’80s Bowie.

When Sitek plays that bouncy, percussive Nile Rodgers–like riff on “Red Dress,” the song seems like an obvious rejoinder to Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” But when Malone sings the second verse, “Red Dress” veers into a Black narrative space: “‘Hey Slave’ They Called / And we caved / We answered / To a new name / Shout it loud shout it lame / But black face it / You’re such a good dancer / Oh you’re a star.” The first line of the verse is a multivalent taunt that encapsulates the quandaries of performing artistically while Black; points to the period when Prince would appear publicly with SLAVE penciled on his face; and to TVOTR’s shift from indie-label darlings to major-label heavyweights. 4 

The politics of “Red Dress” is also in the blasting horns, Smith’s boogie basslines, Bunton’s roiling percussion, the highlife guitar line, and the chromatic progression on Fender Rhodes carrying the track to closure. Perhaps TVOTR refashioned Fela’s “Zombie” to lament their new stardom. “Zombie no go think, unless you tell ’em to think,” sings Fela. Recalling the generational critique in “The Wrong Way,” Malone sings: “And you’ll all shake your hips / And you’ll dance to this / Without making a fist / And I know that it sounds mundane / But it’s a stone cold shame / How they got you tame / And they got me tame.” Malone’s red dress is a sign of acquiescence to the coming apocalypse. His image seems overloaded, too grandiose for rock music. But in the context of the War on Terror, worldwide economic destabilization, the degenerating climate and rising authoritarianism, maybe we are dancing to our own demise.

“Will Do”

One month after that second show in Denton, I traveled to London. My time in the city coincided with the beginning of TVOTR’s European tour in support of their first album. On June 2, 2004, I celebrated my thirty-second birthday watching the band play to a packed room at Barfly (now the Camden Assembly Pub). Late in their set, TVOTR whipped up “Wear You Out,” the penultimate song from Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes. On the album, the song is a prowling come-on, purposefully louche with its images of a bar full of “cocks runnin’ wild” and “hungry dogs” stirred to madness when the beautiful Brooklyn babe (the beloved to whom the lyric is addressed) enters the bar. Check Smith’s turnaround bass riff and Bunton’s martial pattern on the tom-tom circling below Adebimpe’s bourbon tenor and Malone’s quivering falsetto. Fattening and darkening the mix, Sitek pushes the song toward orgasmic climax. 

 Listening to TVOTR play the song live in London, I heard Prince in the protagonist’s mixture of vanity, threatened physical aggression, humor, direct address of the beloved, doubt, and cocksuredness: “Is this light flattering? / Did you notice my crown of feathers / And check out my vital vibrant comb? / Oh puff chest out and play strong / Grab you by the hair and pull you along // Or do I just talk to you / And tell you what I really / Really really want to do.” Prince has influenced the songwriters avuncularly. Since the younger musicians cannot cop Prince’s sartorial style, his stage presence, or his outrageous, multimode, pop musicality, they’ve attempted siphoning from Prince’s expressions of sexual hunger, his leaning on metaphor while calling simultaneously for explicit action, his ability to mock himself in the midst of maintaining his potent allure. On “Wear You Out,” TVOTR emulates Prince without imitating him. Their pastiche evades parody by amplifying their own identifying markers: Notice the twinkling chimes, wandering lines of flute and sax, the sustained organ chords mimicking the tough front and trembling approach of the song’s persona.

Months before I arrived in London, K announced that her summer travel plan didn’t include me. Out of a sense of self-protection, I built my own itinerary. We agreed to meet in Paris in late June: She’d pass through on her way to Kathmandu and a walking tour of the Himalayas and I’d post up in Montmartre working on my book manuscript. Out of hubris or longing or anxiety (surely all three simultaneously), as the band pushed “Wear You Out” toward its raucous peak, I dialed K’s number on my tiny, tinny Nokia mobile phone, held it above my head, and hoped she might feel my message, even if she couldn’t hear the music clearly back in the US. Thinking that my shaky romantic gesture could cut across the water and through the digital distortion only illustrated my miseducation in matters of the heart. All I mustered really was a scene from what Adebimpe would later call a “lovesick lullaby” on the song “Will Do.” 

“I Was a Lover”

When TV on the Radio’s Return to Cookie Mountain dropped in July 2006, I was traveling on the East Coast, revising a third draft of the book I’d started two summers earlier, and just crossing the threshold into a long blue-black night of the soul. The year before, my relationship with K had ruptured irreparably. Then, in February 2006, my father died suddenly. Mourning doubled. My psychological compass demagnetized, I couldn’t really tell which way was up. Limited emotionally, I only felt rage: It fueled and focused my life. Like Tunde sings on “Hours,” I was “aimless and alive / broken and defined.” I wouldn’t come to consciousness for another seven years. 

Return to Cookie Mountain became a soundtrack for my roiling psychological and emotional states. The album presents a Black musical group wrestling with itself and its cultural context, searching for the sounds and lyrics to narrate early twenty-first-century American life and the doom to come. Cookie Mountain arrived as American wars raged on two fronts (at least) and on the cusp of a large-scale, international economic recession. Though its first track, “I Was a Lover,” riffs on Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “The Love I Lost” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, it begins in heart failure. It’s built on a steady but arrhythmic drum-machine pattern rather than a four-on-the-floor dance beat. 

Sitek, working the production deck, beats, and guitar effects, adapted the song’s foundational rhythmic pattern from Massive Attack’s “Teardrop.” Though Massive Attack employed a drummer to actualize a heartbeat pattern (muffling the kick drum in order to brighten and emphasize the rim shot), Sitek programmed a thudding, tremulous kick rhythm and crispy-crack-splat digitized snare on a Roland TR-808. 5 While Massive Attack creates intensity playing Liz Fraser’s ethereal vocals against their sparse, temperamental atmosphere, Sitek’s RZA-like collage of samples—a snippet of a swelling brass section that sounds like wailing elephants; a melodically incomplete, twangy, isolated lead-guitar line; a cropped, fuzzy distortion wave punctuating the musical passage—swaths the beat in anxiousness. Then Bunton, working a drum kit, offers a pattern to the track that mimics, but never parallels, Sitek’s programmed combination. 

When Adebimpe and Malone enter the quilted maelstrom in fraught, angsty falsetto, the skewed, tumbling percussion heightens their hauntedness. The arrangement sounds weird because, unlike, say, Sam Cooke’s earthy, urgent lead vocal and Lou Rawls’s smooth, honeyed harmonizing on “Bring it on Home to Me” or the husky, double-barreled sensuality of Sam & Dave on “When My Love Hand Comes Down,” Adebimpe and Malone, leaning on lamentation, push against each other vocally, and away from neatly stacked harmony. As a socially resonant vocal technique, falsetto, especially in the context of soul performance, “allows artists to ask how high it is possible to go, how vulnerable it is permissible to be—how sexy, how extravagant, how cool and effervescent—and to emphasize the importance of cultivating and nourishing one’s own interior, especially in times of insurgent transition.” 

Generally, soul singers express impulsive, Romantic ideals about art, ardor, and their enlightening, heightening effects. But soul performers also deliver steadfast, realist acknowledgment of the messiness of human relations and political machinations. Rooted in African American gospel-music techniques, soul constitutes a capacious matrix of “strategic performances…meant to promote black thriving, if not liberation.” In falsetto, Malone and Adebimpe make “I Was a Lover” both an analysis of psycho-political anxieties and a way of practicing freedom. The narrative they unfurl in the second verse fleshes out that consternation: 

I’m locked in my bedroom, so send back the clowns 
My clone wears a brown shirt, and I seduce him when there’s no one around 
Mano y mano, on a bed of nails
Bring it on like a storm, till I knock the wind out of his sails
And we don’t make eye contact, when we have run-in’s in town
Just a barely polite nod, and nervous stares towards the ground
I once joined a priest class, plastic, inert 
In a slow dance with commerce
Like a lens up a skirt.

“I Was a Lover” is a break-up song. The split could be with hipsterdom—that plastic, inert, priest class—especially those folks who grew morose and apolitical once they realized that mass protestation wouldn’t stop the American invasion of Iraq or the War on Terror. The song could also be about the speaker of the lyric. He conducts a reflexive interrogation, launching his ego and id—“mano y mano on a bed of nails”—into civil war. And even though the song isn’t pitched toward ardor or meant to narrate sexual sublimity, the speaker is both lover and beloved. 

Adebimpe and Malone unwind a “soul narrative” about the consciousness’s effort to turn “struggle into stylized survivorship.” Wielding falsetto like a blade, Adebimpe and Malone perforate the sizzling distortion and cacophonous morass of American life in the early 2000s. Their dexterity comes from their soulful rootedness. It’s as though the band made “I Was a Lover” by pulling Curtis Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below…” or “Get Down” through the machinery of their musicianship to strip away the melodious orchestral funk and twist Joseph “Lucky” Scott’s grumpy bass reverb toward its darkest texture. We might call what TVOTR produces “distortion doo-wop.” 

Rather than join the “slow dance with commerce” that might produce something like the Bright Eyes folk anthem “Old Soul Song” (2005), TVOTR turns soul performance inside out by crafting a vocal attack that references and subverts traditional soul practices, turning rage into an overloaded, trembling sound system. During the song’s outro, sliding back into falsetto, Adebimpe and Malone repeat “I was a lover before this war.” They convert the keening, memorial feel of the opening line into something like a plea for reprieve from warfare, a howl of religious longing, an assertion of life, a prompt, a rallying cry and chanted dissent all at once. This closing is a claim and an imploration. When I was ready to return to my body, I whispered that line—“I was a lover before this war!”—over and over absently to myself like an elegiac prayer of repair and self-love. 


Five days had passed before I let myself weep. On April 26, 2016, D’Angelo and Princess (Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum) performed “Sometimes It Snows in April” on The Tonight Show. Crushed with the loss, D’s tears broke his voice and he couldn’t finish narrating Christopher Tracy’s demise.  Not even a third of the year had gone by, but Bowie and Prince were both dead. Mourning Prince and Bowie must be born of nostalgia—most of us didn’t know either man personally, intimately. Their songs charge the contingent chain of feelings, memories, ideas, and desires into that narrative I call “self.” Prince and Bowie cutting out, seemingly at once, meant that the two artists who performed “negative capability” long before I’d ever heard of Keats could no longer expand their catalogs. Their songs didn’t die with them, but the identity I’d invented in adolescence from their lyrics of starborn sexual healing and Romantic self-creation burned away—“Ashes to Ashes, funk to funky.” 6 

In May 2009, when we were both caught in our own eddies of sadness, my dear friend FP took me to see TVOTR at the House of Blues in Dallas. On tour supporting Dear Science, the band gave the crowd a beat and we—hearts aflame, bodies strained—rocked it jubilantly. Though I’d seen the band live seven times before, that night, that eighth show, their music was newly majestic. That night came to mind in July 2019 as I was working in Harlem, pulling some of these very ideas together when I learned that FP was dying from a rare, terminal brain disease. I sent her a text message acknowledging her illness and communicating my love. Because she had begun to lose her language faculties and manual dexterity, her response of mutual affection was brief but full. During the ensuing months, I sent short missives over the phone and planned a trip to Texas for March 2020. I was set to attend a conference in San Antonio, then I would venture north to Winnsboro, where FP, her physical powers diminished, was living under the care of her parents. Then COVID-19 arrived and I froze all my plans. 

Three months later, on June 4, 2020 (two days after my forty-eighth birthday), in a virtual appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Tunde Adebimpe performed a solo version of “Love Dog” from a makeshift A/V recording space in the home where he was quarantined. He’d draped kangas or kitenges to buffer his sound and create a backdrop for his laptop-camera headshot. Using effect and looping pedals, Adebimpe beatboxed and doo-wopped a multitrack instrumental to sing against. 

The unfathomable death tolls we witnessed daily then seemed to drape over the ragged, raw, demo-quality of Adebimpe’s rendering. The song’s ending hit hard that night: “Lonely little love dog / That no one knows the days of / Where the land is low is / Where the water flows to / And holds you.” When Adebimpe held that final line, I thought of FP and the final message I’d sent her three weeks earlier (May 13, 2020) on her fortieth birthday: “Thinking of you…All my love to you!” She couldn’t respond. 

FP entered the ether on July 2, 2020, a blackstar ascending, she spirited away a whole lot better off than us fools left behind. Strange that TVOTR’s forceful music-making has me offering these muted notes on death and a ruined romance. Possibly all this overlaps in my listening because my beloveds reside in the ghost notes of Smith’s plucked ostinatos and plunked arpeggios.

Maybe I hear it this way because the last time I saw them live, May 2015 in Louisville, I wiped away tears as the show closed. We—the band members and I—were entering middle age, transitioning from youth, ending and beginning at once. Christopher Tracy says “always cry for love, never cry for pain.” Maybe he also meant, “hold your heart courageously / as we walk into this dark place.” On “Province,” in the final line, when Malone, Adebimpe, and Bowie sing “Love is the province of the brave,” sustaining it for four beats in bright, strange, three-part harmony, they sound like The (new-wave) Impressions. Held in their woven, choral sound, the line is a psalm. Singing it to myself, I behold my beloveds returning to me, love after love, enlivened, and they buoy me up. 


1 Think of it like this: Pin-ups and Diamond Dogs were David Bowie’s way of paying homage to his musical roots, his British contemporaries and mentors, his way of announcing Ziggy’s retirement, and a way of mapping his westward movement from London to New York, and then out to the territory, the wild west: Los Angeles. Bowie’s Young Americans (1974) is the beginning of his long collaboration with the guitarist Carlos Alomar. Along with Dennis Davis (drums) and George Murray (bass), Alomar formed the damnedest and Blackest rhythm section for the whitest man in 1970s rock music. They anchored Bowie in “greens & beans” groove, what we might hear as their specific derivation of Afro-Nuyorican funk, a great-grandchild of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Spanish tinge.” In On Bowie, Rob Sheffield writes, “As [Alomar] says in the documentary Five Years, ‘This was the whitest man I’ve ever seen. I’m not talking about white like pink. I’m talking translucent white.’ Alomar took him to the Apollo Theater—and also took him home to fatten him up with soul food. ‘He was freaky. At one point I told him—and you’ll have to excuse my language—“You look like shit, man. You need some food.”’”

2 Listen to D’Angelo’s “The Root” on Voodoo (2000). Listen to Simone’s version of “I Put a Spell On You” on I Put a Spell On You (1965).

3 Listen, for example, to “Pray for Rain,” Adebimpe’s stunning collaboration with Massive Attack on the latter’s album Heligoland (2011). Malone and Adebimpe also add English-language vocals (and sometimes rhythm-guitar lines) to tracks by Amadou & Mariam (“Wily Kataso,” Folila [2012]) and Tinariwen (Tassili [2011]), Malian bands who sing in French, Bambara, and Tamashek. Notice Adebimpe and Malone harmonizing behind Black Thought and The Roots on their version of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round,” from Soundtrack for a Revolution (2012). Finally, trace Sitek’s production work for Santigold (Master of My Make Believe [2012]), Kelis (Food [2014]), and The Carters (Everything is Love [2018]) to hear the TVOTR sound sifted through three other kinds of soul music.

4 From 1993 to 1996, the beginning stage of his eighteen-year-long battle to recover his masters from Warner Brothers Records and extricate himself from an onerous contract with that company, Prince protested his professional situation with eyeliner pencil.

5 According to the liner notes for Massive Attack’s third album, Mezzanine (1996), Andy Gangadeen is the drummer of record on all the studio tracks, including “Teardrop.” 

6 Prince is one of the ghosts wafting through Terrance Hayes’s American sonnets. When Hayes writes, “My lover’s bewildering shadow is mine,” he’s consciously acknowledging Prince’s Romantic influence.


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