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Obama’s Summer 2016 Playlists: A Grossed-Out Critical Analysis

The president has pretty good taste — and then things get a little porn-y

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With almost three whole months left before the election, we need a political distraction. We’ll take anything. Even a 39-track suite of musical suggestions from the president of the United States, helpfully divided into “Daytime” and “Nighttime,” in which the latter consists mostly of unambiguous sex jams. Holy shit.

Obama did this last year, too — even the Day/Night thing — and the 2016 version is once again a demographically shrewd mix of obvious hits and deep cuts that reveals something about the national psyche, or at least his own. But by the time you get to the song literally called “Green Aphrodisiac,” you may get a little, uh, uncomfortable.

Let’s wade in, though, and hope for the best. Here is a track-by-track breakdown, featuring letter grades and alternate suggestions where applicable. Trigger warning: “Classic Man.” OK. Good luck.


Wale, “LoveHate Thing

No Wale. This is nonnegotiable. I don’t care that he’s from D.C.

Grade: C-

Suggested alternate: Kendrick Lamar, “Alright.” Say what you mean.

Leon Bridges, “Smooth Sailin’”

Suave, soulful, firm but inoffensive, a pleasing throwback without tipping over into “retro,” enormous appeal for NPR types. We get it.

Grade: B

Courtney Barnett, “Elevator Operator”

Shrewd pick for the Indie-Rock Darling set, though Barnett has a song with more current thematic resonance for the Obama family.

Suggested Alternate: Courtney Barnett, “Depreston.” It’s about house-hunting while sad.

Grade: B+

Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, “Home”

Hippies for Capitalism: pass. You’re celebrating summer, not trying to sell someone a crossover SUV.

Grade: D

Suggested alternate: Tame Impala, “Let It Happen.” If you want to zone out, let’s zone out.

Sara Bareilles, “Many the Miles”

I’m sure Sara Bareilles is enormously charming in person, but this needs way more pathos.

Grade: C

Suggested alternate: Bonnie Raitt, “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Dedicated to 45 percent of the country.

Janelle Monaé, “Tightrope”

Quietly one of the best songs of the 21st century. Make sure you get the version with Big Boi, though.

Grade: A+

Jidenna, “Classic Man”

Obama’s in the Jidenna Hive! A very dad pick, too bizarre not to be charming. This song has aged about as well as Doge, which is to say pretty goddamn well when you actually think about it.

Grade: B-

Jay Z [ft. Pharrell], “So Ambitious”

This ain’t on Spotify (thanks a lot, Tidal), but don’t worry, you’re not missing anything: It’s from The Blueprint 3. At least it’s not “Beach Chair.”

Grade: D

Suggested alternate: Jay Z, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” Because duh.

Manu Chao, “Me Gustas Tú”

No objection — simultaneously a populist gesture (dude is an international superstar) and a sop to worldly rock critics. But this does get you thinking about who’s conspicuously absent here.

Grade: B+

Suggested addition: Pitbull [ft. Kesha], “Timber.” A future presidential ticket. Write it down.

Common, “Forever Begins”

“No Common, either” is also usually nonnegotiable, but this selection is basically trolling Fox News, so we’ll allow it. Better to troll everybody, though, by picking something from Electric Circus.

Grade: B-

Suggested alternate: Common [ft. Erykah Badu], “Jimi Was a Rock Star”

Aloe Blacc, “The Man”

Too corny even for the dad-in-chief, and a throwback to the disappointing 2014 NFL draft class. Plenty of splendid, slightly edgier R&B stars to choose from nowadays.

Grade: C-

Suggested alternate: Jeremih, “Oui” or Ty Dolla $ign, “Horses in the Stable”

Nas & Damian Marley, “As We Enter”

If you want some reggae on this thing, fine, but why not pick something with more commercial appeal?

Grade: C+

Suggested alternate: Magic!, “Rude”

Nina Simone, “Sinnerman”

Always worthy, but this might really bring down the room. There are other ways to sneak Nina in, though.

Grade: B-

Suggested alternate: Kanye West, “Blood on the Leaves”

Prince, “U Got the Look”

A fantastic Prince selection that, alas, ain’t on Spotify either. (Again: Screw you, Tidal.)

Grade: A+

Aretha Franklin, “Rock Steady”


Grade: B+

The Beach Boys, “Good Vibrations”

Way too on-the-nose. You want kitsch, then go full kitsch.

Grade: C-

Suggested alternate: The Beach Boys, “Kokomo”

Gary Clark Jr., “Don’t Owe You a Thang”

Mildly sassy, but nonetheless ticks the same respectability boxes as Leon Bridges. If it’s blues you want, you need more grit and resignation.

Grade: B-

Suggested alternate: Buddy Guy, “Done Got Old”

Gin Wigmore, “Man Like That”

Bluesy rock with way less respectability, and what your Discovery Weekly playlist would burp up if you put Elle King’s “Ex’s and Oh’s” on repeat for too long. Is her name really “Gin Wigmore”? Don’t answer that. Thanks for the tip!

Grade: A-

Charles Mingus, “II B.S.”

Hell yeah. Take Beneath the Underdog to the beach with you, if only for the way Mingus spells the word schitt.

Grade: A

“Nighttime” (UH-OH)

Chrisette Michele, “If I Have My Way”

To repeat: This is a full playlist of presidential sex jams. Did the first lady approve this? Was it collaborative? Definitely don’t answer that.

Grade: B+

Esperanza Spalding, “Espera”

Excellent troll of Justin Bieber here, but sub it out for something from her bonkers new album, where she goes all prog rock.

Grade: B

Suggested alternate: Esperanza Spalding, “Good Lava”

Aaron Neville, “Tell It Like It Is”


Grade: A

Ledisi, “Alright”

A 2007 not-quite-sex-jam about being broke but content that neatly predicts the ’08 recession. The wrong “Alright,” but OK.

Grade: B-

Denise LaSalle, “Trapped by a Thing Called Love”

Obama is done even trying to appeal to the youth, and good for him.

Grade: B+

D’Angelo, “Lady”

Sure, but on the other hand, again: Say what you mean.

Grade: B

Suggested alternate: D’Angelo, “The Charade.” (“All we wanted was a chance to talk / ’Stead we only got outlined in chalk.”)

Tower of Power, “So Very Hard to Go”

Can’t argue with the vibe here, but the cheeriness is not exactly in keeping with the national mood.

Grade: C+

Suggested alternate: Curtis Mayfield, “(Don’t Worry) If There Is a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go”

Carmen McRae, “Midnight Sun”

Big-time dad pick here; that he passed over the Ella Fitzgerald version is suspicious.

Grade: B-

Caetano Veloso, “Cucurrucucú Paloma”

Best song about a lonely, horny dove ever, probably.

Grade: B

Corinne Bailey Rae, “Green Aphrodisiac”


Grade: D+

Suggested alternate: a song that does not have “Aphrodisiac” or, for that matter, “Green” in the title

Mary J. Blige/Method Man, “I’ll Be There for You / You’re All I Need to Get By”

Best hip-hop love song ever? Definitely. If you’re Sasha and Malia, do you want to be in the house — any house, no matter how large or how White — with your parents when this comes on? Definitely not.

Grade: A-

Billie Holiday, “Lover Man”

Double yikes!

Grade: B

Fiona Apple, “Criminal”

The thought of Obama watching this video is just a little too much to deal with. I wonder which version of Extraordinary Machine he prefers.

Grade: B+

Chance the Rapper, “Acid Rain”

Very glad Chance snuck in here, but he’s got songs that better capture Obama’s likely frame of mind.

Grade: A-

Suggested alternate: Chance the Rapper, “No Problem”

Miles Davis, “My Funny Valentine”

Same deal as Chance. C’mon, dude, you’re through pandering to the electorate, so go ahead and indulge yourself with some Bitches Brew.

Grade: B-

Suggested alternate: Miles Davis, “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down”

Anthony Hamilton, “Do You Feel Me”

Sex-jam discomfort only growing. We need a hard, disconcerting pivot here; fortunately, another track on the American Gangster soundtrack qualifies.

Suggested alternate: Public Enemy, “Can’t Truss It”

Grade: C+

Janet Jackson, “I Get Lonely”

Oh, Christ. This is from The Velvet Rope, even. It’s basically the sonic equivalent of putting a tie on the doorknob.

Suggested alternate: Vacate the fuckin’ premises.

Grade: B-

Lizz Wright, “Lean In”

The good news: no Sheryl Sandberg tie-in. The bad news: “Go slow / Take your time / Eyes open wide / Follow me inside.” Things are escalating.

Grade: C-

War, “All Day Music”

“Let’s have a picnic, go to the park / Rollin’ in the grass till long after dark.” We better wrap this up before something really gross happens.

Grade: C

Floetry, “Say Yes”

Too late. “All you gotta do is say yes / Don’t deny what you feel / Let me undress you, baby / Open up your mind and just rest / I’m about to let you know / You make me so so / So so so so so so / You make me so so / So so so so so so.” We’ll just see ourselves out.

Grade: Yuck