I have a new book out, so you know what that means! It’s time to drop the official playlist for Lions Will Tame Leopards, Book 5 in the Flirting with the Zodiac series.
It’s really funny: I always procrastinate with these playlist posts. I don’t know why. They’re actually one of the easiest types of post to put together. With the last couple of books, The Bull by His Horns and Main Squeeze, I dragged my heels because I didn’t have a playlist already put together. I had to reconstruct them after the fact, which is a touch unpleasant.
With Lions, I had a playlist that I started before I began drafting. I kept adding to it while I was working on the book. So I already have a playlist. I just have to … write about the songs on it, why they’re there. And I know why they’re there.
And yet … I’ve had this blog post on my to-do list for weeks, and I just keep putting it off, putting it off.
So. Deep breath. Cold water. Let’s run through this.
From the Heart of Africa
I started drafting Lions Will Tame Leopards in the spring of 2020. I had a few inspirations. One of them was revisiting the world of Final Fantasy VII, which was one of my first fandoms. It resurfaces every now and then as Square releases new content, so I’m almost constantly revisiting it. I always forget how inspiring it is for me, and every time I go back, I see something new.
I already knew that Lions would feature big cat shifters; Nix and Bern, two of the central characters, had already made their debut in Riding the Dragon. And, I mean, the book represents the constellation Leo—the lion. Of course the book was going to draw on some African inspirations. (There are other factors within the Zodiac series that play into that as well, including the idea that I have at least two cultures speaking to each other.)
BLM and Moving to Support
This was also about the time George Floyd was murdered, sparking mass protests in the US, in Canada, and elsewhere. I admit I was searching for what to do—how could I show support? A black square on social media or “BLM” in a profile is not enough.
At this point in time, I’ve done several things—I’ve been to a protest; I’ve continued to try to decolonize my work. But monetary reparations are also necessary. And so is appreciating and supporting artists. So when Spotify shoved an “African Beatz” playlist in front of me, I decided to peruse it.
I know Spotify hardly pays anything—artists need millions of plays to get even pennies—but it seemed like a starting point, if nothing else. Perhaps I could discover new-to-me artists that I will continue to support. And I’m quite aware that most popular music can be traced back to African rhythms. We borrow a lot and don’t give due credit or compensation.
One of the first songs I encountered on this playlist was “Trouble” by DRB Lasgidi, Teezee, Boj, Fresh L., & Tems. This song is practically Nix’s theme song: “I’m trouble making trouble / trouble is more exciting.” Nix is trouble—and he’s a lot of fun for it. That’s why the playlist kicks off with this song; how could it not?
More Vibes, More Culture
“Body Count” is slower, darker, dirtier, and it works for Nix on a couple of levels—our favorite intrepid leopard has a couple of “body counts” he could tell you about, although this song only addresses one. I love the rhythm of “Bop Daddy,” while the chorus of “Beamer” fits Nix and his team to a tee.
Possibly one of the catchiest songs I discovered is “Fkn Around” by Phony Ppl, featuring Megan Thee Stallion. This was my first introduction to the creator of “hot girl summer.” The smooth rhythm and the drums make this track one that’s likely to get stuck in your head. And the lyrics—I can tell you this fits Nix’s MO, especially the line “‘cause I’m young and I can’t be tied down.”
“Rover,” “Eve Bounce,” and “Opo” are all more danceable tracks. (I’m particularly fond of “Opo.”) DJ Neptune’s “Nobody” includes lyrics that mix languages, which feels fitting, especially since Nix doesn’t understand “human.” The last song in this section is “Krrrr (Phum-imali),” which is almost entirely in Zulu. I love the darker, edgier sound, which is supplemented by the vocals.
I’d added a lot of these songs over what was initially the bones of the playlist: a lot of pop, starting with the latest from two queer-anthem icons, Charli XCX and Lady Gaga. Charli XCX is an artist I’ve been growing into, if you will. I first encountered her on Icona Pop’s “I Love It” back in 2013. But now I’d rather listen to Charli herself. Her hyper-pop, late-1990s sound speaks to me.
I picked two tracks off her How I’m Feeling Now album, released during the earlier stages of the pandemic. “Detonate” is a very Nix song—“why should you love me?”—and the idea of a bomb going off works very well with him also being a spy. (There are definitely a few bombs in this book.)
“Claws” is maybe my favorite track on the entire album (although, I really love most of it). The slower tempo, the repetitive almost vapid chorus—and the title—seemed to fit Nix. The way the track breaks up into cacophony at the end was also fitting for the overall tone of the book—a little sinister, a little dangerous, breaking up into something harder to listen to.
I’ve been a fan of Gaga for longer. Her track with Ariana Grande, “Rain on Me,” is more staid pop fare than Charli XCX’s work, but it’s catchy nonetheless. The idea that Nix would “rather be dry, but at least [he’s] alive” really works for this book on a few different levels.
Throwing It Back
“Jealous (I Ain’t with It)” by Montreal duo Chromeo has an amazingly retro ‘80s feel. I’d heard it on the radio a few times, and I always thought it must have been some long-lost 1980s hit. Given how popular synth wave and retro sounds are now—especially with Madonna and other 1980s icons consistently making lists of queer anthems—I felt like this one fit in here too.
Chromeo’s track is only faux retro—it’s actually from 2013. But I did toss a few real throwback tunes on this playlist, starting with Stardust’s “Music Sounds Better.” Released in the late 1990s, this track is a staple these days. There’s always been something about it that made me think it was a Daft Punk production.
Turns out, I wasn’t too far off. It features one-half of the iconic electronica duo. I didn’t actually put any Daft Punk on this list—I could have; in fact, I think “Digital Love” might be the theme song for the entire Zodiac series. It might be my favorite track ever: Daft Punk’s Discovery disc has lived in my car for years; I’ve had it endlessly on rotate since it came out (just a month shy of 20 years ago as I write this).
I picked “Music Sounds Better” for Nix and Reg though—“love might bring us back together” is a major theme for Lions.
White Artists Using Black Music
Moby’s “Natural Blues” is another house track from about the same era. When it first came out, I had no idea about the genesis of this song. The vocals from from a 1930s recording by Black vocalist Vera Hall. Her voice is haunting and the lyrics speak to the harshness of Black existence in the early twentieth century. The recordings were made on a train, even, and she sings acapella. I rediscovered the Moby version of the track because of a remix from another artist I like. That inspired me to look up the lyrics and to actually find the original recordings on YouTube.
It’s something of a problem to add Moby’s use of her vocals here—he’s a white artist who took Black music and used it to enrich himself. (As far as I know, no estate nor heirs were given any portion of the royalties from the track.) Still, this is likely the way most people have encountered this amazing vocalist—and adding it here lets me talk about the troubled history here. I think it serves as a reminder that we should always be digging deeper—and that we need to respect that so much of our music can be traced to Black people who were often not compensated at all.
In another example of white artists remixing Black artists, “Make Your Move” is an early aughts remix of a 1980s hit by the Poynter Sisters. I don’t think I ever heard this song, even though I was in enough clubs when it dropped. Discovering it on Spotify made me realize how much house/dance/electronica/EDM has evolved in the last 10 to 15 years. The track, with its long, snare-heavy intro, is almost comical now. But for me, it evokes that era. And I love the way it mixes with the 1980s synth-wave sounds. I’m not quite sure what’s so evocative for me, but this track just works. And yes, I can definitely see Nix offering up that challenge: “Make your move/step across the line.”
Rihanna’s been, I hope, handsomely compensated for her contribution to pop music and beyond in the last decade. She’s started a number of other ventures, and let me tell you, I love Fenty foundation. I can pick almost any brand, because I’m the person makeup companies think of, but Fenty is amazing. That it comes in all kinds of shades makes it even better. And I love what Ms. Fenty is doing in the realm of lingerie too.
“S&M” felt like the right track to add here, because, once again, the lyrics just fit Nix to a tee. “I may be bad, but I’m perfectly good at it”? I can definitely see Nix crooning this line, maybe at a karaoke bar.
“So Close” is actually a track from last year, but it has a heavy sense of nostalgia. It’s also about a love that didn’t quite make it. I think it fits the middle of the book, where Nix and Reg begin to fall apart.
“Deep at Night” is another older EDM track, one that I, once again, hadn’t heard until I found it on a “way back” playlist. Sure, this one talks about wolves, not lions or leopards, but there’s something about this song that does suggest a hot summer night in an urban metropolis. I like to imagine the early scene of Reg and Nix taking their motorcycle ride with this as their soundtrack. Or maybe there are other motorcycle rides, other attempts to escape into the shadows-and-neon of the Rasalan night.
“Don’t Call Me Baby” takes us back even further, to the turn of the millennium. It has that retro-1970s feel, which makes it even more retro now. And I love the “grrrrl power” lyrics here—I can definitely envision Nix singing this, even if it’s “gendered” wrong for him.
Capping It Off
I heard “Good as Hell” by Lizzo for the first time in late 2019, and I’ve since gone through pretty much her whole discography. May I just say I love Lizzo? I love her music, and I love how she presents herself. I realize that her self-empowerment anthems aren’t really for people like me or Nix, but I love them all the same. Lizzo encourages all of us to embrace ourselves, and each other. “Juice” is such a fun hit of self-esteem—and Lizzo’s lyrics encourage us to share that too. It doesn’t hurt that I can definitely see Nix “blaming it on [his] juice.”
“Truth Hurts” is probably more of a Nix track though—it’s dismissive, petty, and ultimately aimed at pumping the singer up again. “You tried to break my heart? Oh, that breaks my heart—that you ever thought you had it”—Nix would definitely be this sarcastic and dismissive.
Ariana Grande’s “Into You” might seem like a bit of a non-sequiter from here, but I felt it was fitting for Nix and Reg. Again, the slightly edgy, dangerous beat gives us a sense of two people who are desperately attracted to each other—and Nix and Reg are both dangerous, a little bit scandalous. And Nix would definitely ask for less conversation and a “little more touch my body.”
The final track is yet another one that comes out of left field: “Waste My Time” by Langston Francis. This song, for whatever reason, reminds me of summertime. And I think it perfectly sums up how Reg feels about Nix: “Boy, [he] worth the drama.”