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The 10 Most Beautiful Words in Popular Music, 2016

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

10. SCARY.”

— Kanye West, “No More Parties in L.A.”

He means scary-good, in reference to the verse that Kendrick Lamar has just spit when Kanye interjects to provide this one-word commentary with the awed conviction of someone who has just witnessed a Muhammad Ali knockout. We are all well aware of Kanye West’s I’m-being-dead-serious voice (which he has summoned to discuss topics as varied as the rightful winner of a VMA to the rightful inventor of the leather jogging pant) but I don’t think I have ever heard him say anything with such solemn gravity as he says the word “SCARY” in this song. And yet, for an artist who takes a lot of flack for being narcissistic, this word actually functions as a moment of generosity: It’s an offering to Kendrick, a genuine expression of game recognizing game, a moment of reciprocity from one motherfucking monster to another.

9. “Foooouuuck”

— Nicki Minaj, on DJ Mustard’s “Don’t Hurt Me”

No artist since Bob Dylan has played so deftly with the elasticity of vowels as Nicki Minaj, and she does some truly epic taffy-pulling on this new DJ Mustard song. Remember that episode of Broad City in which Abbi and Ilana try to go off the grid for a day and, encountering a group of hot dudes playing soccer in the park and not knowing how to interact with them without Tinder, resort to yodeling “WANNAFOOOUUUUCK?” in their general direction like a couple of horny Swiss mountain climbers? That is exactly how Nicki says it here. I wish this song were not a Tidal exclusive so a single other person in the world could know what I’m talking about.

8. “Laptop”

— Iggy Pop, “Paraguay”

Iggy Pop always has been blessed with the ability to make the most innocent word sound as vulgar as the most toenail-curling profanity. (A personal favorite: On 1977’s Lust for Life, he pronounces “success” in such a way as to suggest he is actually sneezing the word.) He really works his magic in the final few minutes of his great, most recent album, Post Pop Depression, when he unleashes a tirade against technology, the internet, and modern life writ large that is far too vicious and entertaining to be dismissed as a simple case of “old man yells at cloud.”

It’s not spoken word so much as seethed word, and nobody will ever seethe quite like Iggy Pop. There are plenty of runner-up words in this song (“clod,” “turd,” and “in-for-maaay-shun” among them), but I’m going to bestow the honor on “laptop,” because he utters this word with such withering disdain that I am too ashamed to ever use one again. Which is why I am scrawling this article with my fingernails onto a bunch of old chalkboards I found in a heap of garbage. Is that punk enough for you, Iggy?!

7. “Motherfucker”

— Paul Simon, “Cool Papa Bell”

Just very dope to hear Paul Simon say “motherfucker.” Twice!

6. “… desperado”

— Rihanna, “Desperado”

Don Henley, Linda Ronstadt, and a small nation’s worth of American Idol contestants know it to be true: “Desperado” is a beautiful word. So I love what Rihanna does to it in this song — especially in those first moments, when she confidently pauses for a beat and then compresses all four syllables into a tiny space, crunching it up on her forehead like an empty beer can. She makes the word sound hard.

Rihanna’s “Desperado” is not a cover or even a direct allusion to the Eagles’ ballad, and anyway the songs have totally different power dynamics. The OG “Desperado” is an impassioned plea to a dispassionate person, an exhortation for the desperado to let his guard down, to let somebody love him. Which is perhaps why, over the years, it’s a song that’s often been covered by women (even though, interestingly enough, Don Henley originally wrote it about a male friend of his named Leo). Don’t get me wrong, I go straight up Elaine Benes’s boyfriend when I hear Karen Carpenter sing this gorgeous song, but the gender dynamic — grizzled, unfeeling man out riding fences, forlorn woman waiting for him at home — feels a little old-fashioned.

The partnership described in Rihanna’s “Desperado” is more about equality than a push-and-pull of opposing forces. “I’m not tryna go against ya,” she sings to the titular man. “Actually I’m goin’ with ya.” Throughout the song, she exudes the kind of cocksure, heroic nihilism usually reserved for the cowboys in old Westerns, not the girlfriends left at home singing their songs. This is the album — and, if we zoom in, the song, and the lyric, and the word — on which she proved it to be true: Rihanna is not The Girlfriend. She is John Wayne.

5. “Shutupkissmeholdmetight”

— Angel Olsen, “Shut Up Kiss Me”

… because that phrase is all one word in the mouth of Angel Olsen, the kinda-possessed-sounding folk-rock singer who feels everything so hard that she rarely has time to stop and take a breath. She delivers this line with such urgency that she makes anyone who uses the spacebar seem dead inside.

4.WOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

— Swizz Beatz, Kanye West’s “Famous”

You know how at the end of Inside the Actors Studio, James Lipton always asks his guests that questionnaire that ends with, “If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?”

This. I would like to hear this.

3. “Dude”

— David Bowie, “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”

Some mornings I wake up and suddenly remember that David Bowie is dead, and the fact of it smacks me in the face so hard that I want to go back to bed and stay there for about 57 years. I remain grateful for the embarrassment of riches he gave us throughout his career, and especially those on his final album Blackstar, which contains a wealth of parting gifts in the details, not the least of which is getting to hear him say, one last time, “dude.”

2. “Controlla”

— Drake, “Controlla”

What is a controlla? It kind of sounds like a rare type of seashell, or a particularly gorgeous tropical bird, or perhaps a model name currently being focus-grouped to make self-driving cars seem less sinister (“Style. Luxury. Ease. The Toyota Controlla”). But in reality, “controlla” is none of these things; it is just the sound a Canadian person makes when he is trying to sound Jamaican.

I kid, I kid. I really like the way Drake says “controlla,” and I think Drake really likes the way Drake says “controlla” too, because the entire chorus of this song is basically just Drake saying “controlla,” stretching out different parts of the word, caressing its curves like a lover’s silhouette. Dancehall Drake is officially a thing, and the success of his no. 1 hit “One Dance” proves that is a fact we will be dealing with for at least a little while. All of the pros and cons of this new iteration of Drake are present in this one word, “controlla”: It’s at once an homage to and an erasure of the culture from which it draws. (In keeping with this, the self-proclaimed King of the Dancehall, Beenie Man, appears on the song, and his 1995 “Tear off Mi Garment” is prominently sampled; but on the flip side, Popcaan, who appeared on the original version of the song, has been scrubbed from the single.) So, who’s driving this thing? Dancehall itself or the Canadian guy unabashedly in love with it? The chorus of “Controlla” tries to put us in a state of hypnosis, and it’s effective enough to — for better or worse, and at least for a few minutes — put that tricky question on hold.

1. [Three-way tie]

“Fu*k”— Beyoncé, “Don’t Hurt Yourself”

Fuhcking”— Beyoncé, “Sorry”

“Fuck”— Beyoncé, “Hold Up”

I have a distinct memory of being 13, listening to Destiny’s Child’s The Writing’s on the Wall, and thinking it was very bold of Beyoncé to, at the end of the song “Bug A Boo,” sing the line, “I don’t give a damn cuz you’re a bugaboo!” (She said the D-word! And right after a reference to the pope, no less!) This moment stands out in my memory only because of what came before and after it, because in those days it always seemed like there were words Beyoncé — or any mainstream female pop star, really — couldn’t say.

Since then, times have changed and mores have gradually loosened. But still, before this year, we had heard Beyoncé say the F-word only a handful of times, most notably during the Monica Lewinsky part of 2014’s “Partition” (although, to be fair, that was more of a “fuhhhhh”). Then this year, in early February, we heard her use it to describe an act that, when performed to her liking, earns the coveted reward of all the shrimp in the world. No disrespect to those F-words, but this is not an ode to them. This, instead, is an ode to every time on Lemonade that Beyoncé says “fuck” in a way that does not reference the conjugal act. This is an ode to Beyoncé taking off her earrings. This is an ode to Beyoncé, uncensored, letting us see her angry.

“Who the fu*k do you think I am?” Bey asks in the opening line of the glorious rage-volcano “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” and the stroke of genius lies in that tiny bleep that covers up approximately .0001 percent of the word, not bowing to censorship so much as pointing out the absurdity and futility of it. As if we don’t know what she’s saying. But that microscopic bleep — not to mention all the years of folded-hands, good-pop-star-girl repression that’s come before it — only makes the final verse of the song that much more cathartic, when Bey is at last free to release the full force of her feeling: “WHO THE FUCK DO YOU THINK I AM?” Getting to hear Beyoncé swear, in all her gleeful glory, is the Garbo Talks! of the new millennium.

Were I forced by some malevolent soul to pick my single favorite moment on Lemonade, it just might be that one, or it might be the part at the end of “Sorry” when she sighs, “He always got them fuhcking excuses,” accentuating the expletive like the world’s most lethal eye-roll. Or even just the simple, subversive thrill of hearing Beyoncé say, “Ima fuck me up a bitch,” in the middle of a song and a video that is a kind of daydream of a violent revenge fantasy that no one (well, except maybe bell hooks) would mistake for a reality. Beyoncé is economical enough with her swearing that each of these words hits like a dagger. For once, this is not focus-grouped, meme-friendly Beyoncé. This is something a little more dangerous, and a lot more true.

Over the past few years, Beyoncé’s laid claim to some other F-words: “flawless” and “feminist” come to mind. But on Lemonade, though, her most stirring song of self, the F-word she ultimately revels in most is something more powerful than even “fuck.” In every sense of the word, it’s “Freedom.”