How do you properly measure the substance of a year? Time spent with family? The amount of retweets you've garnered on Twitter? Or perhaps the hours you've wasted watching trash TV? Comebacks, for me, are the true measure of a year—stories about resilience and drive and hard work. Here, before we say goodbye to 2014, the year's best comebacks.


Almost everything you've ever needed to understand about OutKast is contained on "Chonkyfire," Aquemini's final communique. "Bring your umbrella 'cause young fella it gets no weirder," Andre 3000 raps before yielding to the chorus, "We reign, reign supreme, preme, Dungeon, Dungeon kings." The beauty of the refrain is found in its repetition—a signature call-and-response device often deployed in the black church—but also in its acknowledgement of Dungeon Family, the rap-soul collective that gave OutKast its start. Andre 3ooo and Big Boi were among DF's youngest members but would soon become its most famous by utilizing an unfamiliar technique within the southern-rap universe: redirection. These were stories about the folkways of a particular people and a specific region—East Point, the West End Mall, etc—reframed into alien, space-hued jazzscapes and launched to distant points of the galaxy. The music of OutKast has always been outsized in its aesthetic, and their Atlanta homecoming in late September, after years and years of wondering if the duo would ever share a stage again, came as a long-needed salve for fans. Under Centennial Park's blue expanse, Dre and Big towered like giants, summoning deep cuts like "Crumblin' Erb" and "West Savannah." The duo will probably never record another album, but surrounded by family and friends in those moments, none of it mattered. OutKast was back. ATLiens—finally, triumphantly—home at last.

Comedy's Once Kings: Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock

The first time Dave Chappelle performed at Radio City Music Hall was 21 years ago, in 1993. He was 19 and nervous. But who wouldn't be? He was opening for Aretha Franklin, Queen of all that is rhythm and blues and southern-dipped soul. Chappelle's was a career on the upswing, and nobody—nobody—could have predicted what would follow.

This past June, 10 years after he'd all but disappeared from the public eye and turned his back on a $50 million contract for Chappelle's Show, Chappelle returned to Radio City for an 11-show stint. "You don't know what it's like to be missing for ten years," he said during his set. "People keep asking me, 'Dave, why did you come back?' And there are two reasons. One, I love entertaining people and it's what I should be doing with my life. And two," he paused, certain the timing had to be just right, before bursting into that familiar Chappelle caw: "I got some bills due!"

Months later in September, Top Five, the meta-autobiographical film about funnyman Chris Rock, debuted at the Toronto Film Festival. The movie was quickly acquired by Paramount and set for a December release. Early reviews signaled a resurgence for Rock, a comedian of high regard who has never been able to successfully shoulder the weight of a major film by himself. During the movie's press run, Rock spoke with New York's Frank Rich in a now-infamous interview. "When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it's all nonsense," he said. "There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they're not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before." And that was only a portion of one interview. The talk with Rich trumpeted Rock as many had come to know and love him: honest, unburdened, sharp as ever. Chappelle's return months before only magnified the importance of Rock's words. Here they both were in 2014, two former Kings of Comedy back to reclaim their thrones.

The McConaissance Renaissance

I did not expect Matthew McConaughey to be this good this late in his career. As an actor, his mid-career catalog includes mostly forgettable titles: The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch, Sahara, and EDtv. But around 2012 something began to change. McConaughey's choice performances in Mud, Magic Mike, Dallas Buyer's Club, and The Wolf of Wall Street displayed flourishes of an actor finally hitting his stride. The critics called 2013 "The McConaissance"—replete with powerful cinema-making and eventual Golden Globe and Academy Award wins; it was all more than deserved. Writing for The New Yorker early this year, Rachel Syme described McConaughey's recent spate of films as "a bold second act in the American actor's life which somehow feels as novel as it does deliberate." But, really, The McConaissance was just beginning. True Detective, the gonzo-crime drama that ran on HBO, arrived with the force of coastal Louisiana winds (it remains the actor's most enduring work to date), followed by Interstellar, the sci-fi saga that positioned McConaughey in the lead role of one of the year's biggest films. If 2013 was the coming out, then 2014 finds the actor fully assured, ready for a third, fourth, and fifth act.

The (Unlikely) Dallas Cowboys

History guides us. The past is the present is the future. Empires are assembled, tragically dismantled, and reborn again. The NFL's Dallas Cowboys are one such story. After a series of Super Bowl wins in the 1970s (71 and 77) and again in the 1990s (92, 93, and 95), the Jerry Jones-helmed organization has gone without a memorable season for nearly 20 years. But if history is any indication, that could all change very soon. When the pre-season commenced in August, the team—quarterbacked by Tony Romo and powered by running back DeMarco Murray—lost four games in a row. It was, unsurprisingly, the Dallas Cowboys many of us knew all too well: unexciting, lopsided, mediocre. But then they started winning. One game. Two games. Three games. Seven games. Eleven games. Twelve games. It was no fluke. Although I can't predict what will happen against the Detroit Lions on Sunday in the playoffs, the Cowboys's dominating, and utterly surprising, season has, quite simply, been a marvel to watch.

D'Angelo's 14-Year-Long Deliverance

It's still too early to properly assess D'Angelo's long-anticipated album, Black Messiah, which was released just after midnight on December 15. It is, like all good albums, one that requires time. But I will say this: I believe in music's power to heal and its power to save lives. Amid mass protests in Ferguson and New York City, Black Messiah—a sometimes-messy, but wholly inspired synthesis of live instruments, soul, and Virginia funk—arrived heaven-sent, right on time. To be sure, this is an album that heals.

The Fractured Sports Idol

The trust we extend to others, though not always easily offered, is easily broken. For example, the faith we put in our sports heroes to be exceptional individuals on and off the field, only to eventually find out they aren't as strong-willed and as honorable as we dreamed (or, more accurately, we finally face up to the reality that has been there all along). It is a kind of betrayal, and one all the more hurtful given our belief in their trueness. Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, and Adrian Peterson are proof of that. But our understanding of The Fractured Sports Idol came to us in many forms this year: a once-unmatched competitor, Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant returned after a year away (a knee injury sidelined him for the 2013-14 season). The image we see of Bryant now, one that finds the 36-year-old champion in the twilight of his career, is of a fading effigy. It's a grim, unavoidable portent: the end looms, and often without applause. At the opposite end, there's Derrick Rose, the 26-year-old Chicago Bulls point guard who has been out of action for almost two years but is still very much at the dawn of his career. He's a rising talent in the NBA and a likely future Hall of Famer—a little bruised, sure, and perhaps not quite what we thought he would be—but the potential, even after two reconstructed knee surgeries, is unmistakable. So perhaps Rose's story is the one we look to for inspiration. "[I] just try to think everything through, process everything, realize where I'm at in my life," he told ESPN in October, speaking of his mindset going into the season. "Realize some of the things I didn't achieve that I wanted to achieve. And just try to learn from my mistakes. And learn from other people's mistakes."

Rihanna on Instagram

Update: Rihanna still doesn't care what you think about her. It's the Barbadian singer's best, and most endearing, quality as a pop star. Where artists like Beyonce and Taylor Swift offer manicured versions of themselves to the public, Rihanna has taken another route altogether. She harnesses her sexuality and no-fucks-given philosophy into a sort of work-in-progress role model. Celebrated poet, essayist, and activist June Jordan termed the #badgal-feminist lifestyle decades ago: "I am seeking an attitude," she wrote. So, when Rihanna returned to Instagram in November after a six-month hiatus (Instagram originally banned her after she posted topless photos from a cover shoot), it was a sign that we needed someone like her on the photo-sharing service, and in our lives. Rihanna is proof that we should all live a life with no filters. It's just more fun that way.

The Young People's Movement

It's hard to believe, but Martin Luther King Jr. was only 34 when he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Mathew Ahmann, who'd help organize the historic march and was an associate of King, was 31. John Lewis, then-chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), spoke as well. "We are tired. We are tired of being beat by policemen," he said. "We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again, and then you holler 'Be patient.' How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now." Lewis was 23.

The battle for equal rights throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was largely fueled by young people. It's a fact many often forget, or choose to ignore. And yet here were are again, 50 years later, rising against injustice and fighting against state-sanctioned brutality in Ferguson, New York City, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and elsewhere. This, too, has become a movement powered by young people. The names of activists and organizers battling in the trenches day in and day out is long—among them, Natasha Gray, Nyle Fort, Shaun King, Joshua Williams, Deray McKesson, and dozens more—and the dedicated core has shown that, not unlike King, Ahmann, and Lewis in 1963, true change can spark from the youngest among us.

[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]