When the 2010s started, the cultural landscape looked a little different than it does now. Netflix was strictly a mail-order DVD business; Spotify hadn’t arrived in the United States; Drake had yet to release an official album; no one had heard the phrases #OscarsSoWhite or #MeToo. But with the nitrous boost of technology in its engine, pop culture would utterly transform over the ensuing decade — changing not just how we consumed it, but also how we talked about it.
Before the 2020s start and we’re moving around in self-driving cars, we at LEVEL wanted to take a look back at the moments and experiences that transformed us — from movies to music, and from podcasts to platforms. It’s been a hell of a run, y’all. We can’t wait to see what the next transformation looks like.
‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’
Peter Parker’s origin story is a drag on repeat. Radioactive spider. Ungrateful teenager unintentionally causes the death of good ol’ Uncle Ben. With great power comes great responsibility, my ass. When Andrew Garfield took over for Tobey Maguire, Jack Nicholson’s epic line from his turn as the Joker in 1989 felt like an appropriate response to the state of the franchise: this story needed an enema. Thankfully, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is more than a cleaning. It takes your friendly neighborhood wall-crawler and grounds him in a space that Black and Brown kids can relate to without alienating other hues.
Miles Morales — Spider-Man in this dimension of the Marvel multiverse — isn’t flawless. He’s a bit awkward under his cool exterior. The cut is clean, sure; the unlaced Jordan 1s are fuego, yeah; and the caramel skin is the Black and Brown boy magic your children needed. But he lacks confidence, finds it hard to fit into a majority White space, and is anything but charming with the ladies. He also has a highly dysfunctional (and unintentionally stereotypical) uncle who he idolizes. Uncle Aaron is great with Miles, even encourages his graffiti writing, but murders people as part of the Kingpin’s syndicate.
All that runs hard against the feel-good vibes Post Malone and Swae Lee’s “Sunflower” evokes, but this animated classic is intended to be real. Growth isn’t easy, and Miles is a massive work in progress fighting to come to grips with his new power (which, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with any of the enhancements that the spider blessed him with). His new power is belief in self, and it’s right at the surface. We spend most of the film hoping he’ll claim it — because once our kids see what belief in self can accomplish, anything is possible.
—Jermaine Hall, editor in chief
The signs were subtle at first. White women using the phrase “my guy” on Twitter; a hipster Williamsburg sandwich shop serving chopped cheese. By 2018, when Desus and Mero left their Viceland show for the paycheck and writing staff of a Showtime deal, there was no mistaking it: the Bronx was officially in everybody’s house. But while the duo treated the 2010s like a media Triple Lindy — bantering their way from Twitter to Complex to MTV to sold-out live shows and their own damn premium-cable late night show — the purest distillation of their energy remains their weekly podcast.
Bodega Boys has none of the usual elements that people have come to expect from folks-on-a-mic podcasts. No guests. No outline. No produced pieces. What it has instead is magic. Weird cold-open sketches that feel like they were cooked up 30 seconds before the mics turned on (and clearly for the sole purpose of letting permahyped Mero burn off enough energy to sit still for the next 90 minutes). Speed-recited lists of aliases that have grown steadily since the podcast began in 2015 (for the record, “Deonardo DiTrappio” and “Barmelo Xanthony” remain undefeated). And most importantly, a rapport that has evolved over more than 180 episodes to become — no joke — one of the best improvisational dynamics in all of comedy.
Plenty of comedy podcasts have lasted longer. Plenty rank higher than Bodega Boys on the “charts.” (A depressing number, actually.) But none are as consistently funny, let alone being consistently funny while helping to upend the overwhelming Whiteness of podcasts. Whether talking Black Twitter or orange idiots, from Smacked City to New Jersey family life, Desus and Mero have turned sneaky-smart smartassery into not just a gig, but a career — and kept that same energy throughout. Audio art, indeed.
— Peter Rubin, executive editor
Kanye West, ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’
I heard “Power” at the doorstep of a 2010 summer in a shitty apartment on a stereo that cost more than my monthly rent. About two months before the song started to circulate on radio and beyond in July, a shaky mp3 made the rounds, which could be downloaded off of sites bursting with ads and pop-ups. But it was worth it, for the near five-minute payoff of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s first official single
No matter how difficult the creation behind them actually was, the first three Kanye West albums felt easy — like he was finding new ways to stand atop his own crescendos in his sleep, and creating singular work for himself and others at an impossibly rapid pace. Even 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak felt like a reckoning, a gloomy emotional outpouring seamlessly woven into West’s newfound affinity for sonic scarcity and vocal modulation.
Dark Twisted Fantasy was a project forged in Honolulu, where West had exiled himself after growing disillusioned with fame and weighed down by grief. The project was talked about, mostly, in a cluster of rumors. Elton John was maybe flown down for a studio session, but maybe not. Seal was there, someone would say. The Wu-Tang Clan was all there, getting together on a track, perhaps. The fun of the album, before it arrived, was attempting to guess what it would look and sound like upon its arrival.
To hear “Power” for the first time, for me, was to revel in a specific moment: around the 3:20 mark, when West’s voice exits the scene and the song is upheld only by meandering and distorted keys, stumbling their way into a wall of strings, and then all being met with a growing chorus of chants and claps. I loved hearing this moment in “Power” for how it showed West giving in to the controlled chaos of noise — the understanding that when enough sound is strategically forced into the same small space, harmony becomes a clear option. It was the chaos that West had been attempting to harness in his own life, finally granted some clarity on an album.
MBDTF remains an uncomfortable masterpiece. The labor seeps through the sound. It is sometimes a hard album to listen to because it feels like it was a hard album to make. At his peak, Kanye West’s primary skill as a producer was that he consistently seemed able to get the best out of people. It’s how we end up with Nicki’s verse on “Monster” or Rick Ross on “Devil In A New Dress.” And in this way, West opened the decade as he is closing it, albeit with a different cast of supporters: convincing people to follow him to lengths of his own design, trying to pull him away from exile and into healing.
—Hanif Abdurraqib, contributing editor
When Atlanta first premiered on FX in 2016, I was iffy. I knew that my guy friends loved it, but it took me a few episodes to tune in. I didn’t think it would be a show for me, and I was okay with that. But all it took was one episode to hook me: “Juneteenth.” Watching Earn (played by Donald Glover) navigate an extremely awkward party celebrating the end of slavery while pretending to be married to the mother of his child, Van (played by Zazie Beetz) felt relatable and far-fetched all at the same time.
Fast forward to season 2 — where we meet the creepy Teddy Perkins, watch Paper Boi (played by Brian Michael Tyree) go on a wild-goose chase with a fast-talking barber, and then literally and nightmarishly get lost in the woods — Atlanta became must-see television. It’s not the show you relegate to idle nights with Hulu; you watch live as a Twitter family, so that you don’t miss any jokes. And while I can pick out exact matches in my group chat who remind me of Earn, Alfred, and Darius (Lakeith Stansfield), I can immensely relate to Van. In the “Helen” episode, we see Van excited to celebrate her German culture at an Oktoberfest, only for Earn to feel entirely out of place, which ultimately ruins her experience. That kind of nuanced mixed-race experience is rare these days, and to see it play out on a hit show felt like therapy. As an NYU alum I have to give props to my NYU brethren Donald Glover for repping Black millennials in the realest — and most hilarious — way.
— Jada Gomez, senior platform editor
Megan Thee Stallion, ‘Stalli Freestyle’
Every burgeoning rapper has a single doubling as gateway drug. The strain hits different for every fiend. Sometimes it’s a regional thing. When Drake dropped So Far Gone, he cracked the Billboard charts with “Best I Ever Had” and “Successful,” but if you asked any Houston high-school hypebeast in 2008, the most throwed joint off that mug was “November 18th,” Aubrey’s ode to DJ Screw and drank. (There’s a reason he plays that record every time he comes to the city of purple Sprite.)
A similar phenomenon tore through H-Town in 2017, just with a homegrown star. Before Megan Thee Stallion was a known quantity in rap circles, she had a hive of her own — and with “Stalli Freestyle,” she gave her Hotties the perfect tool for proselytizing to the uninitiated. In less than two minutes, the rapid-fire blitzkrieg conveys pretty much everything you need to know about rap’s new duchess.
For starters, Meg has bars. She’s stunting on whomever you thought was That Girl: “You know yo bitches not fuckin’ with Megan / Yo nigga not even fucking you naked.” (And for dudes thinking they getting off scott-free, she’s got the heat for y’all, too: “If it ain’t good then I ain’t finna fake it / You fuck like a rabbit, grow up and stop playin.”) After a few self-aggrandizing bars and an obligatory Beyoncé comparison, she finally turns her attention to the other rap girls you thought you loved — and Young Tina Snow turns the thermostat to Ice Dragon. “Ya favorite rapper only use onomatopoeias / You dont wanna hear it ’cause you only wanna see her.” Girl. How the... what?! Quit playing with em, Meg. Stop it!
At this point in the high, if your homies still have working ear holes, they’re losing their minds. The fact this formula has never failed to endear my friends to her music (trust me, I’ve done it a lot a lot) means she’s onto something. Anticipation for her next big album is building, but between Tina Snow and this past summer’s Fever, we have more than a little bit to be grateful for. Call it recency bias, call it homerism, but Megan won the decade — and she’s showing no signs of slowing down.
— Tirhakah Love, staff writer
The Soundcloud Era
Underground, mainstream, rap, alternative, English, Icelandic, it doesn’t matter: I listen to it all. But after the LimeWire Era came and went, life for this young and broke music junkie became bleak. At 99 cents, single songs on iTunes were too damn expensive; Apple Music only had official projects: Datpiff & Livemixtapes were too limited; YouTube-to-MP3 sites were taken down by the DMCA defenders. I struggled in vain to scratch my auditory itch — until my best friend introduced me to Soundcloud, the fentanyl of music platforms.
What started as a place where all creators could share their work quickly transformed into the purest music platform on the internet. Its simple upload system fed a sea of demo tapes, live mixes, instrumentals, leaks, and singles that you couldn’t find anywhere else — a unique opportunity for endless music discovery. I was in heaven; whenever I found an artist or song I loved, I’d be recommended 15 other new mindblowing bangers.
And with the platform’s ascension came the emergence of a new kind of superstar: one who didn’t need a label, a budget, or a team to be successful. The Lil Uzi Verts and Smokepurpps of the world took control of their own paths, releasing hit after hit from their basement until the world was forced to take notice. The result was a cultural shift that’s still reverberating among major labels: instead of waiting for a deal to get big, artists are building buzz and using it as leverage to sign contracts that actually make sense. This type of anti-establishment, pro-Black shit is what I live for. (It wasn’t just “mumble rap,” either; Kaytranada and Bryson Tiller both saw their careers take off from SoundCloud success.)
Any kid with a computer can turn into a sensation overnight; any music lover can find new sounds that gave them those “WTF is this?!” butterflies. Where else can you listen to an unreleased Playboi Carti track, a Partynextdoor banger, and a random fire song from Lil Booty Juice in sequence? I’ll wait.
— Shaquille Cheris, executive assistant