back to class playlist illustration by June Le
These tunes are the perfect soundtrack for your back-to-school needs. (Illustration by June Le, Minneapolis College of Art and Design)
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back to class playlist illustration by June Le

Every new semester merits a new playlist. These five tracks are the staples of mine.

I make playlists for every occasion: seasons, semesters, Mondays, car trips, parties. I have upbeat playlists and slow, sad playlists, playlists that I like to run or work out to, playlists that put me to sleep, playlists that are extremely long and playlists that consist of only four songs.

Given my penchant for playlists, it should come as no surprise that my first instinct upon returning to campus, under strict coronavirus regulations, was to come up with a new selection of songs. Whether you have returned to your college campus like I have or will be studying from your laptop during the fall, here are my five top picks for the start of this new, unusual and uniquely emotionally fraught semester.

1. “Taking Responsibility” by Kilo Kish

One of Kilo Kish’s best solo tracks, “Taking Responsibility” is a moody masterpiece. I actually first heard this song on HBO’s “Euphoria,” and ever since, it has served as the soundtrack to my nighttime walks and car rides.

Kish vocalizes over a techno-sounding, somewhat eerie backup track with a heavy bass and snare drum loop. The artist sings in the chorus, “Don’t know where to go/I guess we’ll keep it on the low/there’s just no cure anymore/I guess we’ll keep it on the low.”

Kish’s lyrics explore loneliness and the feeling of being lost, floating in space without any sense of direction. Kish has a way of setting to music the kinds of words and phrases that echo in the back of your head long after you’ve moved on to the next song. “Taking Responsibility” is at once a fast-paced track and a melancholy one, a reflection on loss and solitude, a song to underscore the dark sense of uncertainty that has defined recent months.

2. “Blue World” by Mac Miller

Mac Miller’s “Blue World” is the kind of song that I listen to on loop consistently. Generally I get sick of songs after hearing them on repeat for weeks at a time. Not this one.

“Blue World” is one of the few fast-paced tracks on Miller’s posthumous album, “Circles,” but maintains the depth and artistry that is present throughout the deeply existential, downbeat record.

One especially notable aspect of “Blue World” is Miller’s wordplay in the chorus. “Well this mad world made me crazy/Might just turn around and do a 180/I ain’t politickin I ain’t kissin no babies/The devil on my doorstep being so shady,” sings Miller.

The song is set to a quick, synthy sequence of three notes, the likes of which I have never heard in a rap song before, but which undoubtedly defines the track. “Blue World” is some of Miller’s best work, and easily one of my all-time favorite songs heading into this semester.

3. “Freeze Tag” by Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, 9th Wonder, Kamasi Washington and Phoelix

One of the more recently released songs in my back to class mix, “Freeze Tag” is a lyrically intense and timely song set to an artfully layered R&B track consisting of drums, piano, horns and backup vocals. Though “Freeze Tag” features a breezy, upbeat melody, the lyrics speak to a much darker theme.

“They told me put my hands up behind my head/I think they got the wrong one/I’m sick and tired of runnin’/I been searching where the love went/I been lookin for a dove/Then they told me if I move they gon’ shoot me dead,” sings Phoelix in a heartful falsetto, speaking to police brutality against Black people in the U.S.

“Freeze Tag” is both a beautifully constructed piece of music and a lyrical testament to the structural racism occurring in modern America, a song that speaks to the current moment while maintaining the voice of the artist in a way that few other contemporary songs are able to do successfully.

4. “Baguetti” by Smino, J.I.D. and Kenny Beats

Smino, J.I.D. and Kenny Beats’ latest collaboration, released this summer, has added some much-needed levity to my back to class song selections: This rap track features unparalleled lyrical poeticism and a chorus that feels more relatable now than ever.

“I need a minute to meditate/Gimme a second babe/Full of regret I been stressing on everything,” sings J.I.D., joined by Smino for the second and third choruses.

“Baguetti” is a smooth, clever track featuring two rappers with satisfyingly distinct styles and voices. The song’s cover art is also very much worth checking out, a tribute to the song’s post-chorus: “Man I miss my dawgs, took off the roof/I took that s— off, spi-ri-tu-al/All you do is talk, that’s all you do.”

If you need a song to put you in the right kind of mood before yet another Zoom class, “Baguetti” does not disappoint.

5. “Work” by Charlotte Day Wilson

Another find from the outstanding soundtrack to “Euphoria,” Charlotte Day Wilson’s “Work” has been a staple of my back to class music lineup. The Canadian R&B singer delivers with this track, a song about putting work into a relationship in order to make things better.

“It’s gonna take a little time/But with you by my side/I won’t let go/ ‘Til I’ve got what’s mine,” sings Wilson slowly and soulfully.

Though this track was released in 2016, its lyrics and quiet forcefulness seem built for this moment in time. Wilson plays with the concept of “work” in the sense of emotional labor, alluding to “putting in the work” alongside “making things work.” The artist speaks to the patience that is required in order to move forward with someone — what message could be more applicable to a semester that is bound to be full of ups and downs, adjustments and disappointments?

Wilson’s “Work” is the kind of introspective track that I keep coming back to when I need a moment to reflect, or to reassess.

Amid the incontrovertible weirdness of this semester, music remains a comforting constant, a form of artistic expression that successfully underscores current events on a personal and national scale. These five songs, on heavy rotation in my earbuds as I return to class, are worth a listen for their style, artistry, and thematic relevance.

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