December’s Playlist Just Keeps Giving

December is a time for reflection, a respite from the weight of the year, a moment to pause, gather with family and prepare for the year ahead.

With the holidays comes the ritual of giving: giving gifts, giving time. We know that giving is healthier—psychologically and otherwise—than taking. Being grateful for what you have instead of pining for what you do not is also proving to be a powerful way of connecting with yourself and your community. A recent study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology discovered that an increasing materialism in American culture has led to an uptick in anxiety and depression in children, along with an increased chance they’ll display selfish behaviors as they age.

Gratitude counteracts that. As Robert Emmons, Ph.D., has repeatedly shown, displaying gratitude—keeping a “gratitude journal” is one such method—improves emotional and physical health and strengthens the bonds within communities. Other research has shown that “gratitude visits” raise overall happiness levels and life satisfaction.

Giving, especially without expectation of receiving, is a selfless way of expressing gratitude. This does not imply you need to give objects. You can offer your time and attention or donate to charities. At the most basic level, you can listen to others you don’t necessarily agree with—a challenging task in a time of political divide. And yet one that might help us all.

The playlist

You also can give the gift of music—a gift that almost always gives back to the listener. This month’s playlist features songs that have given me so much over the decades, all from one genre: hip-hop. True, this is a personal collection, mostly pulling from the “golden era” of the early ’90s, a time when the entire scene was sampling jazz and soul classics in an attempt to push the sound forward, the rappers rhyming about what they were seeing and feeling in their communities. Overall, this is an uplifting dive into rap.

Music is our soundtrack to life, and no genre impacted me as heavily as hip-hop during high school and college. While I have little time for many “stars” today, there are still plenty of solid records coming out every week, which is why I’m not limiting this playlist to one time frame. Recent records by Cypress Hill, Royce da 5’9”, Mr. Lif, Drake, A Tribe Called Quest and Pharoahe Monch all fit into this sound quite well.

Yet this playlist does have a sound, one rooted in the early ’90s. There are a few tracks by Anderson Paak, as no one carries the torch of classic hip-hop as brightly as he does. There’s “Link Up,” by his project NxWorries, which purposefully replicates the analog sound of the ’70s; “Bloody Waters” from the “Black Panther” soundtrack, an entire genre-bending record; and perhaps the most meaningful at the moment, “Dang!,” his collaboration with Mac Miller, the talented 26-year-old Pittsburgh native we recently lost way too young.

Speaking of “Black Panther,” we go back a few years in Kendrick Lamar’s catalog with “Compton,” the track featuring his longtime producer Dr. Dre. Dre also appears with 2Pac on the classic “California Love,” because how could we not hear this right now? Since Dre is there, so is Snoop, who closes the set. Always reaching in new directions, rather than putting up the expectable, we end with his latest foray into gospel. While we’re on that tip, Talib Kweli’s “Get By” is an absolutely uplifting experience befitting the best church choirs.

Public Enemy was my introduction to hip-hop in 1989. “Fight the Power” would probably be an appropriate choice, but in the scope of this playlist, “Can’t Truss It” simply fits better. Right around that time, Black Eyed Peas were putting out incredible music—sorry, I’m a pre-Fergie fan—and so “Clap Your Hands” from their debut slid in nicely. That said, their most recent album features a stellar track with Nas, “Back 2 Hiphop,” which, as the title suggests, they really do. I’ll take it.

In all honesty, this playlist could be days long, given how much hip-hop has given to me. A few final standouts, with context: “Naughty by Nature” was Jersey’s first big breakthrough in the genre, which everyone in my high school understood. The Fugees followed soon thereafter; that record, not their debut but “The Score,” defined my junior year of college. I can’t hear “Fu-Gee-La” without picturing an old friend singing along in my first apartment.

I was introduced to The Roots on a drive to the Jack Kerouac Festival in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1994, and while I didn’t include “Distortion to Static,” the song that stays with me on that long trip, “Don’t Feel Right” was blasting during a cross-country trip I took many years later—I specifically remember it keeping our caravan floating through Dallas.

We end where we begin, which is with my best friend, cruising around Manhattan in the late ’90s, “Umi Says” blaring in the autumn sky. I’m not sure a more perfect hip-hop album has ever been created; Mos Def will forever live in my mind as achieving that goal. Listen closely to the lyrics once you hit play—it captures everything that “giving” is about.

Photo credit: Spencer Imbrock, Unsplash