Correcting mistakes: why I picked “HYDRA 3D” as the best album of 2016 instead of “Lemonade”Martin_Canine NOTE: I already wrote another post on Beyoncé. Some elements will be present on both, but the general core is different.
In early 2017, I first ranked my favorite albums of 2016 - not on TheTopTens though, where I wasn’t AS active yet, but later on I adapted the ranking and repeatedly called back to it in my reviews, comments and lists. In this list, I ranked HYDRA 3D by German cyber hip hop group Dat Adam as the best work of the year, while Beyoncé’s Lemonade, which appeared on top of most best lists from critics, magazines and music lover website, all the way back at number 11. What happened here? The obvious answer would be that I found the one’s music more appealing than the other, but the real reason is actually a lot deeper. It’s a story about cultural differences, misinterpretation and expectations.
Lemonade might be one of the greatest and most ambitious releases of the 21st century so far, but back then, to me it was nothing but a collection of catchy pop songs. The qualities I recognized back then - it is an album that draws from a variety of influences, that are different as country, hip hop, gospel and psychedelic pop, performed by an artist who is one of the best singers of her generation - still stand, but that would be far too simple. It is a statement, one of a black woman of the South who made it big in a world that seemed to work against her, including her husband, and who most likely is a role model for many people out there living in the same circumstances. Its many influences go hand in hand with her culture as well as her inner feelings, they are like a soundtrack to her life, in both her strongest (Formation) and most vulnerable (Sandcastles) moments. There was a whole layer of aspects I did not see, and the deeper you look into the lyrics, the more closely you listen to her voice, and as a result, the better you understand its production. All 12 songs as a whole form a concept - they tell a story, split into chapters. But I did not see that in 2016, as puzzling as that may sound to you.
Back when the album was released, I never bothered logging in to Spotify and only got an iTunes account a few months later. It was simply not necessary to have these things because until 2018, physical media dominated the music industry of German language countries, but a couple of American artists I was a fan of released digital only works, which made me finally join in. You may wonder what that has anything to do with this album, which had a wide release on CD.
Well, to sell your CDs you need good marketing. You can’t simply drop a record one day and expect it to sell well physically. But Beyoncé did just that, and in a world in which your trusted streaming website immediately notifies you about a new release, that’s no problem - but it is over here. Another thing is that when Beyoncé releases something new, American media immediately write about it, so that everyone knows. But now, imagine a country in which Beyoncé is known to the wider public as being a former girl group member and having had a few hit songs in the 2000s, her most famous one being Halo, which still gets a lot of airplay. But also Crazy in Love is still well known, and back in the days, Beautiful Liar was her biggest hit, but it unfortunately faded into obscurity. Oh, and she starred in the remake of Pink Panther next to Steve Martin, Jean Reno and Kevin Kline. She’s still a household name, but “biggest star” of the decade (2000s)? Rihanna, Britney Spears, Anastacia, Nelly Furtado, Justin Timberlake, Christina Stürmer, Bill Kaulitz and Shakira would rather fight for that title. For the German version, remove Stürmer and add Sarah Connor and Xavier Naidoo. Barely anyone is aware of the fact she is married to Jay-Z, and even less that he cheated on her. Beyoncé’s private life is something that the Austrian and German media just don’t really care about. And so, I also was not aware of the transition she made from pop star to ambitious feminist music artist, because her self-titled album - the first one that contained more experimental music and bold lyrical statements than usual in pop, and is almost as brilliant as this one - widely went under the radar in Austria, and I haven’t listened to it either until I knew Lemonade. This is part of the reason why I didn’t look deep into the lyrics the first time I listened to it and simply gave in to the music (native speakers of German have that ability to tune out the lyrics of songs even if they understand the words).
In the USA, everything was building up to the album’s release. She first performed the lead single Formation at the Super Bowl - a hip hop song that, as I found out, is about her pride as a black woman who comes from the South. The political climate in the US was strained at that moment due to racially motivated police brutality and the resulting Black Lives Matter movement - which Austrian media did not talk about much, because the European migrant crisis was a problem of its own that caused the left and right wing to clash. To see a million selling superstar embracing her identity at the biggest televised event of the USA in such hard times must have been one inspiring moment. Around the same time, the much acclaimed music video that features associative imagery of police brutality and the disaster of Hurricane Katrina was released (the latter of which would go over every Austrian’s head because if anything there’s just a brief short note on the news when such a natural disaster occurred abroad - most would think the flood is just supposed to look good in the video). All of this went by unnoticed in Austria. Most people only heard Formation as the closing track of Lemonade, an album which, at number 9 on the Austrian Ö3 charts, is her second highest charting full length release ever (after Dangerously In Love at number 3). The single never charted. But two years earlier, a similarly motivational situation occurred in Austria when Conchita Wurst won the Eurovision Song Contest with a song that was interpreted as a LGBTQ+ pride anthem, Rise Like a Phoenix, one of the most famous songs of the decade. The ESC is a music contest in which several mostly European nations send in one song each and then pick a winner. Conchita Wurst, the drag queen persona of singer Thomas Neuwirth that was a minor celebrity before, was Austria’s candidate of 2014 - and won (the second time the country won - the first one was Udo Jürgens in 1966). The contest is differently received in the different countries. For example, in Germany it is barely taken seriously as a music show, but in Austria, it is one of the biggest annual events that gathers the whole nation in front of the TV. After the win, the song was everywhere, and LGBTQ+ pride was boosted all over the nation. Formation must have done the same thing for black women, just that both the group and the country are much bigger. To top the hype around Lemonade, it had an avant garde film featuring its songs broadcast on TV, which - you might have guessed - never aired in German language territory. The only people who saw it were the ones that bothered to put in the DVD that comes with the album, although most probably assumed it contained your average bonus material.
Neither the album Lemonade nor the song Formation appeared on laut.de’s best lists at the end of 2016. But one Beyoncé song was included - coincidentally, it was the same one I added on my original list as well: Freedom. This was the lushest and musically most overwhelming moment of the record, the one that was undeniably brilliant even if she sung about her toilet seat - although it was, of course, much more than that. The album was rated 4 out of 5 stars though (the review never mentioned Formation - probably they were assuming that it is just a brag rap song as well), but they reviewed it much like a pop album, a very good and musically artistic one though. In the meantime, Rolling Stone awarded it the extremely rare 5 star rating, and called it a reminder that even though we lived in a time when legends died, giants are still among us. Back then, I would have agreed with laut.de (which is rarely the case), today, I fully team with Rolling Stone (which also isn’t the case that often).
So, all in all, there was barely a reason for me to assume it was anything else other than a nice pop album by a talented singer. Knowing its nature by now - the embracement of culture, the social commentary, her personal struggles - this of course increases its quality by miles, also musically.
In the meantime, Germany’s hip hop scene was at a state that would turn out to be a turning point for the genre. With the release of Bushido’s Vom Bordstein bis zur Skyline in 2003, the synchronicity of American and German rap was broken - different beats, attitudes, techniques, aesthetics and backgrounds emerged for both countries. German rap grew darker and more aggressive in tone, the beats became orchestral and sinister, there were less taboos and more gimmicks. After Bushido’s celebrated beginnings (betwen the late 2000s and early 2010s he received lukewarm reception, since 2014 he’s in his renaissance), Kollegah became the universally acclaimed most creative mind in the genre that was often claimed to have taken the title “King of Rap” away from Kool Savas who held it since the late 90s. His lyrics had a vocabulary other rappers could only dream about, his word play was on a highly advanced level and I don’t think there is one line in any of his songs where he doesn’t rhyme at least four syllables, but often up to nine per line. He influenced the “rap game” significantly and it evolved into a battle rap oriented show, in which the cleverest punchline, best rhyme and most brutal style was seen as superior.
In 2016, Fler and his much anticipated Vibe album injected trap into Germany. With that release, suddenly the feeling for the music, e.g. the flow and how well your vocals work with the far smoother beats, was seen as the main quality seal. Ironically, Fler was the most featured artist on Bushido’s breakthrough album and therefore was a part of the project that started it all. Before the release, Fler’s notorious interviews, which often featured Kanye-like outbursts, went viral: in them, he declared his hate for the current style-over-substance attitude of the genre and the focus on lyrical complexity while ignoring credibility and musicality - he specifically attacked the movement’s biggest name: Kollegah (they made up in 2017). His album topped the charts and was positively reviewed, while Kollegah’s album of the year, Imperator, was seen as one of his weaker efforts, although still topping the charts - it was the beginning of a change. All of that would speak for Vibe to be my album of the year, and it did rank highly on my list as well, so why Dat Adam’s work? Allow me to elaborate.
HYDRA 3D is where two progressions collided: the before mentioned evolution of German hip hop, and the fact that YouTube became a bigger and more widely accepted medium next to TV and radio. Previously seen as a new pastime toy, the website soon had their own celebrities in German language territory as well, and they slowly but steadily started appearing in other media as well. Teen magazine Bravo now featured them next to stories about singers and actors, they suddenly got roles in movies, were guests on TV shows and - most importantly for this post - released music, mostly of humorous nature, that managed to chart. All of this was… universally panned. Sometimes rightfully (Liont’s album), sometimes it was solid (ApeCrime’s albums). One of the most subscribed German channels belonged to a guy that called himself Taddl, who uploaded Let’s Plays and useless facts. Often, his friend Ardy, who had a YouTube channel of his own, joined him. Then suddenly, sometime in 2015, all videos by both of them disappeared from YouTube. After some time passed, the two released a statement through a single video. They just couldn’t identify themselves with the content anymore, they changed a lot, and hated having made the last couple of videos mainly for the money, not for the fun of it. It was honest, and it was a risky move, as the two completely vanished from the surface of the Earth (later on, Taddl got into more detail). That day, the seemingly feel good world of YouTube was confronted with a harsh reality.
Some time has passed when an EP titled Chrome was released by a group called Dat Adam. The trio consisted of Taddl and Ardy on the microphone and Marley as the producer. It was deliberately not set up to indicate who the members are, and it is known they turned down a major label contract to remain in control of the project. The sound was largely trap inspired, although very trippy (that was a year before Vibe), the lyrics were about living a free life. Ultimately, it became known who was behind the project and it was hyped in advance on YouTube. It ultimately peaked at number 5 in Germany - but topped the Austrian album charts. An unexpected success. And most surprisingly: critics really liked it. So far, everything was still very light hearted though, and their trap music was good entertainment.
In the meantime, Dat Adam did what they could to avoid being associated with the YouTube scene: they changed their looks significantly and performed on music events that are associated with “real” musicians rather than internet stars. In addition, while their videos were entirely humorous, as a band they stood in for messages such as fighting superficiality, not following trends, not selling out, and - most prominently - veganism. Then they announced their debut album for 2016. This time, there was promotion, but it was more minimalist: before every other YouTube video you watched, there was a teaser for the album, consisting solely of the hologram on the cover artwork rotating to the sound of deep sonar sounds. It was mysterious and gave nothing away what they were going for, and it made you curious for what’s coming up. Then, as the first musical output, the title track received a music video - and it was spectacular. It featured Dat Adam in a spaceship with big budget effects, directed by Shawn Bu, the guy who made Darth Maul: Apprentice. It already hinted at the fact that this project was going to be bigger. With an extended instrumental intro, futuristic vocal filters and a wild electro beat, Dat Adam lyrically announced their arrival on the scene, and that they had to restore it.
Then the album dropped. And it kept all the promises. Denying to follow any of the conventional sounds and structures, the songs unfolded electronic soundscapes that were unpredictable in shape and shifted between surreal drug trips and punkish anger. German hip hop never crossed over to other genres and styles like the American one did, and barely moved away from its trademark sounds, and Dat Adam took it all one step further and dared to simply execute the music they were truly feeling. It is usual that artists pick an already fully produced beat and then write their respective verses over it - with Dat Adam, this was different. During the production and writing, all three members were present in the studio and interpolated their ideas so that the outcome was a common vision in every aspect. The group made clear in their interviews and social media posts that for them, an album is a more artistic work than an EP, which is absolutely audible. Even the booklet of the CD gives the instructions that the listener should sit down and carefully listen to the record all the way through. Overall, it was way more ambitious than your average album that aims for genre fans, and it was clear they were going for more than just a quick buck.
And lyrically, it felt like a complete counterattack on everything that German hip hop, and even a large part of society took for granted. While German hip hop is a genre of exclusion (“I am better than you because you are this and that”), “HYDRA 3D” is all about inclusion. Even though they did celebrate themselves, they invited the listener, no matter who they are, to take part in their movement (“no matter of girls or dudes / all those who feel it are part of it / no matter if black or white / and no matter if poor or rich / and no matter where anybody is coming from / because we all don’t freakin’ care, we are all the same”) and take over a world that bothers too much with status signs. They had an overall problems with the system and the expectations you have of celebrities. They disliked the idea of having fans rather than friends, they did not feel like following pop culture and they sure as hell didn’t like the capitalistic idea of climbing up the ladder of success. In the album’s shortest song, Taddl, who is the sole artist to be heard on it, calls out the destruction of planet Earth, criticizes the misuse of phrases like “F the System” without people knowing what it means, stands in for legalization of cannabis and makes clear money isn’t the most important thing. Probably most importantly: the album contains Sanageyama, which, even taking all acclaimed songs and albums of the year into account, is one of the greatest tracks of the decade. The artists bleed out all of their concerns and what tormenting thoughts about the people of the earth keep them awake at night, with melancholic vocals by Ardy and authentic, impulsive screaming by Taddl. Fully intense. And all too real. Best quote: “Why are so many in love with their ego? / why is democracy no democracy? / and why don’t all beings deserve a life?”. Three questions, maximum impact.
HYDRA 3D was received warmly by critics. It may not have been applauded like the second coming of Christ, but for a band that was still seen by the press as “a bunch of internet personalities pose as music artists” before, this was a milestone - and with so much sociocritical and challenging content delivered with so much rough emotion, critics couldn’t do any different than take the band and album seriously as artists. In the meantime, the internet hailed the album as a masterpiece. It felt like their triumph, their proof that the guys out there are real artists, not just some funny dudes making a bunch of video clips for fun. YouTube of course celebrated it and almost every bigger channel, regardless of content, talked about it, often overwhelmingly positive - but also social media went crazy about it. And it do well on the charts. In both Germany and Austria, it peaked at number 5, without the support of either a major label or another well known music artist (Dat Adam were even bigger in Austria than Germany. Here, they always charted a tad bit higher, or at least at the same position. Unlike in Germany, they also had a hit song over here: Forrest (from their EP Chrome), which peaked at number 5 on the Austrian, but only number 22 on the German charts). In 2018, Dat Adam parted ways, after they would release 2 more EPs and another album, which were moderately successful, but couldn’t keep up the hype, and which were very good, but never revived this colossal moment of questioning everything and still being so open minded.
Both albums are absolutely worthy to take into account for the title of best album of the year - and both albums may need to be seen from their respective country’s point of view. In many ways, Lemonade and HYDRA 3D are complete opposites. Beyoncé’s is a story of how someone from a group that is criminally oppressed and mistreated made it as a million selling idol - Dat Adam’s is largely about deconstructing fame and capitalistic ideas. Of course, they came from another background. They are white males belonging to the major social group of their nation - and they don’t know the feeling of being proud to have made it even though the world around you always puts others first. On HYDRA 3D, they want a world in which ideas of background, gender, status and physical appearance become irrelevant, with everyone being equal with no need to even care about differences. Lemonade however is specifically about finding pride in these differences, and celebrating them. These are all things I did not immediately get through to because I misinterpreted the background and meaning of a lot of the songs at first, but now knowing them, I appreciate them much more. These two points of view on what it means to set a statement against the injustices of the world can be seen as being prime examples for the respective cultures: Germany says “we are all the same”, America says “we are all different, but we are equal”.
So which album do I like better? HYDRA 3D explores a larger spectre of themes, but Lemonade cuts deeper on those it deals with. I believe that Dat Adam are really desperate and actually have nightmares about how everyone keeps on counting their likes when all around them the world is burning. But Beyoncé’s stories are more personal and give more insight to her personality. At the end of Lemonade, you feel that you experienced pure catharsis (and I am pretty stunned I did not realize this when I first heard it), and also want to be as strong and make your voice be heard, while at the end of HYDRA 3D you feel that this world’s mentality - and maybe your own - needs to change in order to prevent a big disaster. It’s a tough choice, but now I think that Lemonade will get the title. There are many more layers, it has a more well rounded concept and it simply feels more gripping listening to someone laying open their mind - it also has an even wider musical spectre, although in their respective genre, both are very ambitious and far from being mere crowd pleasers.