Hitsville High

The unlikely music factory at Pinole Valley High School

SF Weekly  (Cover Story)

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The lunch bell rings at Pinole Valley High School, and hordes of teenagers swarm out of squat, rectangular bungalows.

Since the fall of 2013, Pinole Valley’s 1,200 students have been learning out of 83 portable buildings placed on what used to be a baseball diamond next to the school’s track. The old school, a one-story building dating from 1967, was torn down two years ago to make way for a substantially larger replacement, replete with palm tree-lined walkways and enough classrooms to house 400 additional students. The estimated opening date is 2019, which means three classes of Pinole Valley students will spend the entirety of high school at a campus that lacks an auditorium, cafeteria, gym — or buildings in general.

But on this Friday in March, aside from the facts that there are no lockers on campus nor hallways (other than the outdoor paths between bungalows), Pinole Valley could be any other suburban high school in California. In the central eating area — a collection of cement picnic tables partially covered by an awning, the main hang-out area for students — students dine on packed lunches or meals purchased from one of the two cafeteria kiosks. Seagulls hover nearby to swoop up stray bits of food as a delighted senior hugs a plush white teddy bear while telling a gaggle of girls how her boyfriend asked her to the prom.

A combination of pop and hip-hop songs play from a lone speaker connected to a cell phone carted out to the lunch area by the student government — a weekly tradition, Principal Kibby Kleiman says, that has rolled over from the old school.

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Mo’ Buttons, Mo’ Remixes

RJD2 and his inventive, wearable music-making technology.

SF Weekly

music1-rjd2-9b50c819e8b0057a-1RJD2 is a fiddler. Whether it’s music or contraptions, RJD2 — the DJ and producer born Ramble Jon Krohn — has a knack for taking things apart and then putting them back together in an unrecognizable way. Reached at his Philadelphia studio on a recent Wednesday afternoon, he was busy cutting yet another remix of another artist’s song.

Remix offers are common for RJD2, who enjoys tinkering with other artists’ songs when he has the time. Just because he’s offered the chance to remix a song though, doesn’t mean he’ll take it. He won’t “blindly commit to a remix based on who the artist is,” and has been known to turn down remix offers “because I’ve thought the song was perfectly fine in its incarnation and there was nowhere to go with it.”

Remixing a song, he says, is more a matter of deciding what he’ll cut from a song and what he can do with what’s left. “I need to have a path forward,” he says. “I need to feel confident that I can come off well doing my thing on a remix.”

In addition to tinkering with songs, RJD2 is also a big fan of tinkering with contraptions. In 2006, while on tour with Soul Position, his side project with rapper Blueprint, he designed a harness to strap a 20-pound Music Production Center (MPC) sampler/sequencer to his chest so that he could make beats live, while walking around the stage. He called the device “Mo’ Buttons.” “I wanted to take the nerdiness out of the whole dude standing behind a table staring downwards motif,” he says.

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Dancing To Wait

Tinashe on her upcoming world tour, her hard-earned dance moves, and her continually-delayed sophomore album

SF Weekly

It’s not easy being a pop star. Just ask Tinashe.music2-tinashe-2dcf6a39629a8435

On a February morning, a week before the 23-year-old singer’s three month international tour begins, she’s prepping for a photo shoot. By 10 a.m., she’s already been up for hours getting her hair and makeup done.

After the photos, she’ll join dancers from her upcoming tour at a studio in North Hollywood for roughly 12 hours of rehearsal. Though that sounds like a lot of work — and it is; their rehearsals typically end around midnight — it’s absolutely necessary.

“The majority of the numbers in the show have movement, so there’s a lot to do and a lot to put together,” Tinashe says. “We waited until a week before the tour to start rehearsing.”

Practicing 12 hours a day for an upcoming tour is not the norm for most musicians. But then again, most musicians are not Tinashe. A dancer since the age of 3 who turned her childhood bedroom into a home studio, Tinashe has long been known as a hard worker. She wrote, recorded, and produced her first three mixtapes herself, and directed and co-wrote her early music videos. And though spending copious hours on dance routines might not be “necessary because the majority of artists nowadays don’t dance,” being the rare singer-dancer is precisely why she feels the need to incorporate dance into her show.

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Who Is Joanna Newsom?

Demystifying Northern California’s enigmatic harpist

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In 19 minutes and 53 seconds, I tried to crack Joanna Newsom. I wanted to figure out who she was, because Newsom, a 34-year-old singer and harpist raised in Nevada City, is an equation that doesn’t add up.

Since Newsom emerged on the scene in 2004 with her debut studio album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, fans and journalists alike have been trying to figure her out. (She’s even had problems with stalkers.) With her long, flaxen hair, whimsical song titles, poetic lyrics, and ethereal, polyrhythmic song structures, there’s something otherworldly about her. (Tolkienesque terms like “Elfin princess” and “wood nymph” are frequently used to describe her.)

In her music, Newsom is haunting and cryptic. Though her sound is firmly rooted in folk, it’s not the happy, cutesy folk of Simon and Garfunkel or Peter, Paul, and Mary. Instead, she sings about loneliness, loss, regret, and misunderstanding — that is, if you can understand any of her lyrics in the first place. Newsom’s voice is high-pitched and quivering, and her lyrics are couched in metaphors and symbolism — so much so that one fan has created a website devoted entirely to deciphering her lyrics. (In “The Things I Say,” Newsom even sings a few lines backwards.)

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Metal 101

Gary Holt, The Guitarist For Legendary Thrash Metal Band Slayer, Explains The Genre to a Novice

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Last month, I went to see Metallica perform at AT&T Park the day before the Super Bowl. It was the first metal show I’d ever attended — and it was terrible.

The music was loud and clamorous, the vocals were sinister and throaty-in-an-evil-way, and the overall experience was much darker and ominous than I’d expected. I spent three hours with my mouth agape in horror, resisting an urge to cover my ears.

But as I looked around the audience, I saw 40,000 people were vibing to the music. Cacophonous, raucous, and scary though it was, these people — normal-looking, not-dressed-in-black people — were digging it. Like, really digging it. The guy next to me stood up for the entirety of the show, and the guys in front of me couldn’t contain themselves from throwing up devil horn hand symbols every few minutes. It was clear something was afoot. But what?

I needed help. I would never be converted, but I needed to understand why people listen to metal. And who better to explain metal than Slayer, another legendary metal band of the 1980s?

From a hotel room in Wisconsin, Slayer guitarist Gary Holt took the time to explain the genre to me and provide some insight into why people are drawn to it. I still don’t get metal, but I at least now sort of understand the genre from a metal lover’s standpoint. (Click here to read more)

Verses From The Cubicle

Rapper Enon Gaines Splits His Time Between Tech Work and Music

SF Weekly

music1Twenty-eight-year-old Enon Gaines is sitting behind a white desk in a peach-colored cubicle at the San Rafael headquarters of software firm SafetyChain. Eleven other cubicles dot the room, which Gaines refers to as “a mini cube farm,” and light reflecting off a manmade lake outside glimmers through the windows.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon and, like millions of other people, Gaines is at work. This April marks his one-year anniversary as a project manager for the “food safety and quality operations” company, and his seventh year working in the tech industry as a whole. (Before SafetyChain, Gaines worked at a teacher accountability company in San Francisco.)

After the one-hour commute from his home in Vallejo, Gaines usually arrives at the office around 6 a.m. At 3 p.m., he heads home, where he transforms from techie to musician.

“I live a double life,” says Gaines, who raps and sings under the name PhenomENON. “Once I’m done with work, I spend the rest of the day writing songs, listening to beats, rehearsing, and playing the guitar.”

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Reduce, Reuse, Record

Howard Remixes Themselves in New EP Please Recycle

SF Weekly

music2So you form a band, hole up in a studio, and record your debut album. It’s released to rave reviews and accolades from fans and critics alike. You play some shows, maybe even go on tour. Then you head back to the studio to start working on your next record.

But rather than start from scratch, you decide to listen to that first record again for inspiration. “Damn, it’s good,” you think to yourself. “But I wonder what it would sound like if I took this out and added this in?” You start toying around with the stems of the song. You remix the separate recordings of each individual instrument, placing the rhythm guitar here and the hi-hats there, and the bass in the background.

Before you know it, you’ve created an entirely new song using bits and pieces from the old record. “What a brilliant, economical idea!” you think to yourself. “Perhaps I should make more songs like this? Or maybe even an entire EP?”

This is what fans of the Brooklyn-based quartet Howard will hear on the band’s upcoming EP, to be released on March 25. Called (appropriately enough) Please Recycle, the concept album was crafted entirely from the stems of the band’s debut album, Religion. And the two sound nothing alike.

Religion is a folksy indie-rock record replete with acoustic guitar strumming, tinkly keyboards, glitchy electronic melodies, and plaintive vocals. Singer/songwriter and band founder Howard Feibusch says he was largely inspired by Fleet Foxes and Other Lives while writing and recording the album, which he describes as “folktronica.” (Click here to read more)

Will Wiesenfeld of Baths Keeps It Weird

SF Weekly

music1-baths-89b3c94aa4c88b7aIt’s the middle of the day in the middle of the week, and 26-year-old Will Wiesenfeld is sitting in his West Los Angeles apartment, staring at his computer. His cat, Pluton — a domestic short hair with dark lines around his eyes — lies on the desk next to the humming machine. As his master roves Hot Wire for a hotel room to stay in during an upcoming tour, Pluton appears to roll his eyeliner-lined cat eyes.

Master and cat post up at this desk on the regular. This is where Wiesenfeld, who performs under the name Baths, concocts his music. This is where the magic happens. Or rather, this is where the weird and different happens.

“A lot of the time, I’ll make a song that I’m super stoked on and end up hearing something that sounds really similar to it and be really disappointed and have to start something new,” Wiesenfeld says. “That’s my end goal with making music: To make what I don’t tend to hear in pop music.” (Click here to read more)

A Different Stream

Zoë Keating Wants to Disrupt The Music Industry — In Artists’ Favor

SF Weekly (Cover Story)feature-1-44cc1d7ed8801999

It was springtime 2015, and Zoë Keating was staring at rabbits.

Through the curved window of the Georgian house outside of London, Keating, a critically acclaimed independent cellist, and Imogen Heap, a Grammy-nominated singer, watched the animals on the lawn. The house belonged to Heap, who grew up there and later purchased it from her parents. Although it was surrounded by all the tropes of the English countryside — rolling hills, bluebells, and the wild rabbits — it was only a few miles outside of London in a government-protected swath of wilderness. If they looked closely enough, the women could see the city in the distance.

It was Keating’s second day as Heap’s guest. Or maybe it was her third. Ever since her husband’s death two months earlier, she had trouble keeping track of time. “It was all a blur,” she recalled months later. (Click here to read more)

Autograf Shares Tips on How to Craft a Killer Remix

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The Chicago electronic trio Autograf formed a few years ago when three friends (Jake Carpenter, Louis Kha, and Mikul Wing) decided to start an art group of sorts. They built pop art-inspired creations, such as an 8-foot-tall can of soup, threw parties, and eventually turned to making music.

But rather than craft original pieces of work, Autograf chose to make remixes.

“When you put out your very first song, that’s almost the hardest one because it’s hard to get people to listen to it,” Kha says. “That’s why remixes are helpful, because you’re working with something recognizable that people already know.”

The first remix, released in 2014, was a reinvention of rapper 50 Cent’s club banger “Magic Stick” into a hazy, glitched-out, deep house jam. Then followed riffs on artists such as Amtrac, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Pharrell, to name just a few. It wasn’t until last May that Autograf dropped their first original creation, “Dream.”

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Electronic Musician, Slow Magic, Is Inseparable From His Mask

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Slow Magic, an artist who plays drums and makes electronic music, won’t tell me his real name. Or his age. Or where he’s from. He won’t even tell me where he is as we talk on the phone and, since I’m a journalist, not a CIA agent, I can’t track his phone and find out for myself. The only things I know about him are that he’s a dude, he sounds rather young, and he wears a mask. So I ask him about the mask and I (finally) start to get some answers.

Slow Magic’s mask is striped, rainbow-colored, and outfitted with L.E.D. lights that change color with the music during his shows. It has almond-shaped eye holes, two ears, and looks sort of like a zebra-fox-wolf on acid. “It’s open to interpretation on what kind of animal it is,” says Slow Magic. “And I think that’s the essence of the whole project: It’s imaginary, so anyone can interpret it how they want to and they’re right.” (In that case, I’ll call it a zebra).

Slow Magic has worn a mask since his first show in 2012 because he’s a firm believer that “it’s more exciting to focus on the identity of the music than on the identity of me.” The original design, created by his “friend who is an artist,” has stayed the same over the years, just with a few improvements. Today’s iteration is sturdier, made of plastic and wood, and is “to an extent, pretty sweat proof.”

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Singer/Producer Natasha Kmeto is an Electronic Music Unicorn

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When you coming back, baby? When you coming back? / I will love you down, baby / When you’re coming back.

So starts the first track of electronic singer-producer Natasha Kmeto’s sophomore album, Inevitable. Though the lyrics are indefatigably simple, they reveal a fair amount about the musician, much more than she let on in her 2013 debut,Crisis. Listeners might pick up on Kmeto’s penchant for singing about love and relationships. Astute listeners might even figure out that Kmeto is queer.

No song on the album is more upfront about this than “I Thought You Had a Boyfriend.” In this cavernous deep-house track, Kmeto picks up on clues that a girl might be into her and questions her intentions. Though some of her listeners don’t understand — “I occasionally glance across audiences and I’ll see a couple dudes that look at me like, ‘What is she saying?'” she says, laughing — it is her most blatant and revealing song to date.

Kmeto, who lives in Portland with her partner of four years, “officially” came out six years ago. She says that after experimenting with women and questioning whether she was bisexual or gay, she came out to herself first, before letting her family members know one by one.

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East Bay Rapper Azure’s New Album, Leap Year, Has Been A Long Time Coming

SF Weekly

 

It’s 1 p.m. on a Wednesday, and Azure is in his L.A. apartment watching the new Spike Lee film, Chi-Raq. Although he’s lived here since September, the apartment has a sparseness to it that is less a reflection of Azure’s interior design aesthetic than an indicator of his busy schedule.

Since the fall, the 27-year-old rapper, born Justin Park in Pinole, Calif., has been on the road quite a bit, either touring with Bay Area rapper (and HBK Gang founder) Iamsu!, for whom he DJs, or driving back and forth between the Bay and L.A. to record music with his recently formed rap crew, Down 2 Earth. And though he enjoys staying occupied, all of the traveling has taken a toll. “It just eats up so much time,” says the MC, who has planned for the last year to drop his fourth album, Leap Year.

On the SoundCloud page for Leap Year, which was released on Jan. 12 (and was premiered worldwide by SF Weekly), Azure issued an apology to his fans. “2 my listeners from the early days, I know I took a few extra moments to deliver this project to your ears,” he wrote. “I didn’t want to give you something rushed so I took my sweet time widit.”

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Singer and Bassist Jennie Vee Is On Her Way to Becoming The Next Courtney Love

SF Weekly

It’s Thanksgiving Day and singer Jennie Vee could care less.

“I’m the most anti-holiday person ever,” says the 32-year-old from Canada, who headlines Oakland’s Stork Club on Friday, Dec. 4. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve not really enjoyed holidays. I can’t wait for them to be over.”

Vee’s blasé attitude is right in line with the punk rock ethos that has always guided both her life and music. Though she grew up in a “strict Catholic household,” Vee became a Goth, dyed her hair “every color of the rainbow,” and went vegetarian — and later, vegan — at a young age. She taught herself how to play guitar simply by listening to albums from Hole, The Cure, and Jane’s Addiction, and to this day, cannot read music. As a teenager, she dropped out of high school and moved to England because that’s where “all [her] favorite bands were from.” When she returned to Canada in her late teens, she formed a rock band called Tuuli and recorded a full-length album and EP. Over the next few years, through her own hustling and hard work, she wrote songs for a Comedy Central series and got a handful of tracks used on a Canadian cartoon show, as well as the hit teen drama television series, Degrassi: The Next Generation.

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Kehlani’s Tsunami Christmas was a Tsunami of Mishaps and Disappointments

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Kehlani has had a hell of a year.

The 20-year-old R&B singer signed to Atlantic Records and embarked on her first international tour. Her second mixtape, You Should Be Here, dropped in April and is now nominated for a Grammy for Best Urban Contemporary Album. Rolling Stone named her one of the “10 Artists You Need to Know” and Billboardcalled You Should Be Here the “first great R&B album” of the year.

Her back-story is interesting, too. Kehlani, who grew up in Oakland, lost her father shortly after she was born due to gun violence. Her mother, a drug addict and criminal, was arrested when she was a baby, and Kehlani was taken in by her aunt when she was three-months old. When she was 16, she moved out and became homeless, stealing from big chain stores and sleeping at trap houses. She’s also openly bisexual, and it’s common knowledge that she had her first girlfriend by ninth grade.

So, when I heard that she was headlining a show at the Fox Theater (two shows, in fact), I figured I should check her out. Given all the hoopla about her this past year and her recent single, “The Way,” with Chance the Rapper (which has almost 8 million plays on YouTube), I was intrigued. Why is Kehlani so hot right now? I wondered. Not only was the Saturday night show I was about to attend sold out, but the Sunday night show was, as well. And there weren’t even any named openers – the show is billed simply as “Kehlani and Friends.”

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Can Yungcloud Replace SoundCloud As The Next Major Music Streaming Site?

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It happened overnight.

On May 6, Jude Mc and Marcellus “MFK” Marcy, roommates in Los Angeles, were hanging out in their Koreatown apartment and ruminating on the current state of music streaming platform SoundCloud and the changes the site’s Berlin-based founders might make next.

Since 2014, SoundCloud has rolled out a number of additions, revamps, and policy changes to what was once the Wild West of music streaming and sharing. When the site launched in 2007, it was a place where half-finished demos, bootlegs, and copyright-infringed remixes could be uploaded and shared freely. Now that copyright infringements are staunchly patrolled, songs — and sometimes entire playlists — are regularly nixed from the site.

In the beginning, SoundCloud was free. Today, it offers paid subscription plans ranging from $38 per year to more than $100, and caps non-subscription users’ uploadable content. A continuous play feature that slips in “featured” songs has been added (unlike YouTube’s autoplay feature, it cannot be turned off), and the site has been rebranded to appeal more to listeners rather than the artists and producers who upload content in the first place.

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Richmond Rapper Wantmore N8 Drops His Socially-Conscious Debut Album For The Masses

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David Duff’s body was on the floor when police arrived at his Richmond, Calif. house shortly before midnight on Dec. 30th. Only 23 years old, Duff was dead of a single gunshot wound. Three days before Duff’s murder, another man was shot and killed at a Richmond intersection. And two days before that, on Christmas night, five people, including a 19-year-old mother and her 2-year-old daughter, were shot at (but not killed) in the city.

Duff’s death marked the last homicide in Richmond during 2015, bringing the death toll to 21 last year (in a city whose population hovers around 107,000), almost two times the rate of 2014. The city consistently ranks as one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S., with 2015 marking the highest death toll since 2011.

“[In Richmond], a beautiful Tuesday night can turn into a deadly Wednesday morning,” says 27-year-old rapper Wantmore N8 (née Nathaniel Flentroy, Jr.). “If you stand outside for 15, 20, 30 minutes, two things will either happen: Somebody comes by shooting or the police comes.”

Despite these harsh realities, N8, who grew up in a south Richmond neighborhood the locals colloquially call “the backstreets,” has never left. “There’s no way around it,” he says. “It’s home.”

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The Electronic Duo Bob Moses Puts Canada on The Map

SF Weekly

It’s easy to offend people, especially online. Doubly so if you’re trying to be funny. Just ask electronic duo Bob Moses, who posted the line “Music that will make you want to build a highway through a low-income neighborhood” under their Facebook bio.

“It’s a joke,” says Tom Howie, one half of the duo. “A sarcastic nod to where the name really comes from.” (Spoiler: Robert “Bob” Moses was a legendary and controversial city planner in New York City who campaigned for highways over public transit and who was accused of displacing African-American communities in his zeal to remake America’s idea of “urban.”)

One of the reasons why the pair like the Facebook quip and the name Bob Moses is because it ties them to New York. Howie and his other half, Jimmy Vallance, grew up in Vancouver, Canada, and knew each other peripherally from shared classes in high school, but it wasn’t until October 2010 that they reconnected — in a Brooklyn parking lot outside of a Lowe’s home improvement store.

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With His Black Radio Albums, Robert Glasper Introduces Jazz For The Modern Ear

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Jazz is no longer cool.

Once the dominant soundtrack for nightclubs and bars, jazz is now relegated to elevators and radio stations at the lower end of the FM dial. Compared to newer genres like rap, jazz is an antiquated musical style, one that’s better suited for older crowds than younger Snapchat-obsessed audiences. You won’t hear it at house parties or while shopping at H&M. In fact, chances are, you won’t hear it at all.

But pianist Robert Glasper is trying to change that.

“The jazz genre hasn’t progressed in a long time,” says the 37-year-old musician. “And young people are not interested in it.”

About five years ago, he realized that to save the genre, it needed to become more palatable to the modern ear. By interweaving other musical styles within the framework of jazz and finding big name artists to collaborate with, Glasper, who once claimed he had “musical A.D.D.,” landed on a solution. (Click here to read more)

Live Review: A Metal Virgin Goes to Her First Metallica Show

SF Weekly

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Let me start this by saying: I don’t like Metallica. It’s nothing personal against the band, I just don’t like metal to begin with (be it speed, heavy, or thrash). And yet, when I was invited to Metallica’s show at AT&T Park on Saturday night (a.k.a. CBS Radio’s The Night Before), I figured why not? Could make for an interesting article.

My coworkers gave me warnings. They told me to bring ear plugs and to expect a lot of black clothing and men — particularly men with long hair who like motorcycles and beer. As a lone female who had to take two forms of public transportation (gasp!) to get to the show, the over-abundance of testosterone and close quarters sounded less than appealing, but such is the life of a journalist. Sometimes you’ve got to dive into the trenches and squish into narrow train cars and breathe the same air as bewildered tourists, Super Bowl fans, and drunk fuck boys to get your story.

I purposely decided to do no research before going to the show. I knew metal was loud and brash and full of thundering drum and guitar solos — and I think I stumbled upon a stage where it was playing at last year’s Electric Daisy Carnival (before quickly retreating) — but other than that, I knew little about the genre.
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Fuck Valentine’s Day: 10 Anti-Love, Pro-Single Songs to Get You Through The Holiday

SF Weekly

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Last year, I became a statistic: on Valentine’s Day, I broke up with my boyfriend. According to data culled from Facebook relationship statuses, this is the most common time of year to ditch your ball and chain (second only to Christmas).

Since the odds are high that something bad might happen to your relationship this Feb. 14, here’s a list of 10 pro-single and anti-love songs to help get you through any rocky romantic circumstance.

Regardless of whether you’re happily single or not, these songs will do at least one thing: make you feel not (so) shitty.

And sometimes, that’s enough.
1. “Get Out” by JoJo

Get Out (leave) right now / It’s the end of you and me

JoJo was only 14 when she sang this song about a lying, cheating boyfriend (whose unfaithfulness she discovered by creeping on his phone). Cheating and lying are deal breakers at any age, but JoJo showed wisdom beyond her years. If, like JoJo, you find yourself in a similar situation (even if she found herself there via subterfuge), dump their ass.

Life (or love) lesson: Snooping is okay. And if you find something incriminating, dump ’em.

2. “Loner” by Kali Uchis (Click here to read more)