Best albums of 2021: Blackstarkids’ ‘Puppies Forever’
Their album eludes the nostalgia trap
The Undefeated asked our writers to pick the most important albums from an insane year. Find the rest of their selections here.
It took another cavernous and sometimes labyrinthian year of mostly repetitive and useless revelations for me to come to the one revelation that, it seems, is the mother of all the others currently tangled at my feet: The rumors are true, and nostalgia is a trap. I find it to be a useful trap, of course. I acknowledge it as a trap even as I wander its many halls, touching the framed art of any moment before this one, marveling in the “I was somewhere else once”-ness of it all. But a trap, nonetheless.
My commitment to nostalgia may be unchanging, but I have added nuances to my continuing down its path. I have decided that I don’t just want old things for the sake of old things, or even for the sake of sparking some memory that might spark some other memory. I want something old that feels new to me. Something from the past that offers some joy, or clarity, or grounding in the present. I think of this when immersed in hourslong hunts for vintage T-shirts. The Morris Day tour tees from 1986 or the Whitney Houston sweatshirt from 1991. I want something to arrive to me already well-worn, well-loved by hands not my own. A small act of confirmation.
I do try to stop short of this when it comes to music, particularly since my sonic impulses are all over the place, not rooted in any single shape or history. But there is a feeling that can be tapped into for me with greater ease. Enter Blackstarkids. Ty, Deiondre and Gabe, three Black kids from Kansas City, Missouri, who made my favorite album of 2020 (Whatever, Man) and arrived again this year with Puppies Forever, just when I needed it, in the familiar Ohio moment of summer tucking itself in and turning its back on fall’s flourish (though that moment is creeping later and later in the calendar, it seems).
Puppies Forever is an extension of Whatever, Man, which was an extension of Surf before it, also in 2020. These extensions aren’t without growth, but they’re all feeding into the greater Blackstarkids universe. A place where every day offers the feeling of waking up the first morning of summer vacation after your high school graduation. Or, the feeling of having one last night out with the people you loved in your youth before you each cross some unseen but acknowledged threshold into assumed adulthood. Their music traffics in a sonic nostalgia that might be familiar to anyone who went through their teenage years in the ’90s, but their lyrical themes also act as a portal — a way for a listener’s past selves to be rendered touchable to their present selves.
I’m playing into the trick of nostalgia by summoning touchable emotion here, but what I knew when I was young and what I craved, and still crave, are Black Midwestern coming-of-age stories, as varied and vast as the Midwest itself. And in the Greater Blackstarkids Universe (the GBU, if you will), the Black coming-of-age story is treated as a small series of quotidian but spectacular dilemmas, stretched out into songs with infectious hooks, adventurous production, electronic jabs poking holes in steady guitar backbones and drum beats. Increasingly, I love a series of songs with simple concerns, made immense, as simple concerns can sometimes become. So much of the thematic propulsion in the GBU relies on this expansion of so-called simplicity: they’re sad, but trying to overcome their vague, but immovable sadness (“Juno”) they’re in love, they think, but can’t figure out the puzzle of the emotion (“I Hate Being In Love”). Parents are annoying, but systems of power are worse (“Revolt Syndrome,” “All Cops Are Bastards”).
There is the feeling of everything at once that consumed what I believed to be the transition from my late childhood into my early adulthood, this incredulousness that people were expecting “real” things from me, which gave me permission to disassociate. Puppies Forever is a soundtrack for that moment. A soundtrack that might exist in real time for some, but also might unlock an understanding of a past for others. And, like all the best coming-of-age sagas, the album doesn’t offer any answers to the conundrum of this particular type of youth, it just is what it is. It’s bad sometimes and it’s gonna keep being bad sometimes, for decades and decades to come. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll find something to occasionally ease the chaos of it all.
I don’t pay much attention to the media obsession with pitting generations against each other, except that I know it’s been happening for almost as long as I’ve been alive. I’d guess it is an anxiety with getting older that might find someone, with the sun setting on their 20s or 30s, running to assess whether their clothing or hair is acceptable in the world of teenagers, grooming a newfound (and understandable!) anxiety about not wanting to appear like boring parents to a group of people they are old enough to have parented. The flaw in this, for me, is that if I were to subscribe to it, it could very easily make me a tourist in the land of youth, which I’m not interested in. That type of tourism, driven by a desire to remain close to whatever more youthful past I had, strips people younger than me of their fullness, their ability to operate with brilliance in an ecosystem that doesn’t entirely concern me, even if I sometimes benefit from its results.
Like I said, I no longer want something that makes me feel young, whatever that might mean anymore. I want something that makes me feel new. Something that arrives to me well-loved. Something that, if I’m lucky, makes me reconsider my own past, but not fall down the tricky well of wanting to relive it. I’ve lived enough, and I’ll take the trappings of my specific adulthood, small terrors and all. Blackstarkids are great because they are reporting from both the future and the past, simultaneously. And doing it with a delightful shrug. It ain’t great, but it ain’t the worst. It is what it is, and we’re surviving. Amen.