Wednesday, November 14th, 2018

Ariana Grande – Thank U, Next

How about that ever-elusive five spots on the sidebar?


[Video]
[7.62]

Julian Axelrod: Ariana’s career-defining year has run parallel to her marathon of heartbreaking and overwhelming personal setbacks, occasionally intertwining but mostly existing as twin poles of her professional triumph.  So it’s understandable, if unexpected, that she’d attempt to close the loop with a comment on her crazy 2018. But as her contemporaries have shown time and time again this year, it’s hard to rewrite your narrative in real time. So it’s amazing that “Thank U, Next” is tolerable, and even more amazing that it’s, well, amazing. Sonically, it’s nothing to write home about; Ariana can do this kind of bittersweet, insidiously catchy R&B in her sleep. But as an act of celebrity, it’s unparalleled. It’s an assertion of independence in the ashes of tragedy. It feels ripped from the headlines and borne from the heavens. It’s the pop star equivalent of sticking the landing after a 10-minute floor routine. And just as she predicted, the song is a smash.
[8]

Pedro João Santos: Sweetener capitalized on its three most out-there tracks, but the other cuts approximated Grande to an organic, twinkling sonic palette favoring crushed velvet beats and free-flow melodies (plus a healthy amount of yuhs). “Thank U, Next” is that album’s spiritual successor, a minimal, shimmery R&B-pop number that floats like a cloud through synth blips and luscious harmonies, doubling down on the feel-good — yet bold — artistry. The title encapsulates the lyrics: gratitude and willingness to move on, the first anchored to exes with earnest name-checking, the second stemming from new values instilled upon Ari in the emotional aftermath. It could be a sanitized kiss-off, immaculate and frictionless, but the lyrics don’t smooth out the past but pick up from a point of underway recovery, inhabiting a lilac microcosm of serenity and warmth. No wonder the single’s become her first US No. 1 and found credence among so many demographics, with how regenerative, lush, and immersive it is. If Sweetener was the advent of an imperial phase for Grande, this single cements it — all while abandoning the very notion of imperial pop.
[8]

Edward Okulicz: I like how Grande’s just dropped this brand-new single the same week she also dropped the “Breathin” video, making a mockery of any concept of discrete album campaigns. And she’s half-pinched the title from an Alanis Morissette song, but also half-pinched the concept from a completely different Alanis Morissette song. Also, as she’s smart enough to know that being a crank about your exes reflects on one’s choices more than anything, she’s also smart enough to not deliver the meme-able title with withering sarcasm, just a little grin. It’s a little throwaway, given as generously to her fans as to her exes. 
[6]

Leonel Manzanares de la Rosa: The line “One taught me love/One taught me patience/One taught me pain” is the source of the endless wave of memes, but it’s also the source of this track’s incredible power — it’s memorable, descriptive, accessible — because it sums up the reflective nature and the underlining serenity of the song as a whole. It works in the same way as the contrast between the beat (garage-esque in its production, rather than its cadence), the jazzy chord progression, the nocturnal vibe of the keys, and that irresistible upward chromatic motion in the bass. 
[8]

Katherine St Asaph: The most Mariah-esque song Ariana’s done since Yours Truly, both in her meringue vocal — the most convincing she’s ever sounded in that mode — and magnanimously, memeably presented shade. (A lot of people have claimed it isn’t, but come on: This is an over-effusive “and after the breakup I’m just doing so much better” Instagram update, with the ex tagged, in the language of a dismissed American Idol auditioner.) Not sure it’d work as a standalone song, like if it were an untagged mp3 — but of course that analogy doesn’t work; it’d be asking her to be an anachronism.
[7]

Jonathan Bradley: “Thank U, Next” is self-affirmation wearing the robes of grace: it is a sweet song, but Grande’s appreciation for her past loves is the sort necessarily created from closure. It’s a soft cruelty: These men, named and presumably listening, are able to impose such a warm presence on her past precisely because they no longer matter in her present. Their names have been subsumed into incidents of her own history and points of personal growth (“one taught me love/one taught me patience/and one taught me pain”). And the woman who emerges — “her name is Ari/And I’m so good with that” — is able to revel in how decisively she’s moved on: this lyric really is more “next” than “thank you.” The sonics help the song hew to a gentler interpretation, however: here is a composition woven from threads of filtered light, luminous like Grande’s high and lambent tone, which resolves into photons for an “I’m so fucking grateful” hook that only almost becomes corporeal.
[8]

Taylor Alatorre: “Thank U, Next” is primarily an Ariana Grande song about Ariana Grande, but it’s partially an Ariana Grande song about Mac Miller. It was disgusting, and yet so very predictable, to watch the world’s least self-aware people try to blame Ariana for Mac’s death, and if this song had just been a middle finger to them it likely would’ve been an instant classic. Likewise, if Ariana had put Mac Miller aside and focused only on her recent breakup with Pete Davidson, that would’ve been fine too; she can get around to the heavier stuff later, and she’s had to process so much tragedy through her music already. But combining the two men into one song, and then making it about the lessons she’s learned from all her past relationships, leads to an emotional muddiness. Her one-line tribute to Mac Miller is nice enough — she uses his real first name, calls him an “angel,” and sends him posthumous gratitude. But he’s still slotted into the same lyrical schema as three living ex-boyfriends, implying that his permanent exit from this world is roughly equivalent to Big Sean’s departure from Ariana’s daily life. Surely that wasn’t the intention, but the context points that way, and for a single whose cover artwork is a collection of news headlines from the day before its release, context is everything. The title, taken from an inside joke and strategically deployed for maximum virality, is a prime culprit in this flattening of emotional response. It’s there for you when you need a quick reaction to some guy you’ve never heard of announcing a presidential bid. It’s the Judge Judy eye-roll, the Kamala Harris stare-down, the James Harden interview walk-out. It’s everything but a reflection of the song’s ostensible themes of graciousness, introspection, and personal growth. This may be the most performatively honest #1 hit in some time, but that doesn’t negate the overwhelming falseness at the core of its marketing. Give me righteous pettiness or give me big-hearted serenity, but don’t give me one and tell me it’s the other. After all, it’s not as if thanking your past lovers with varying degrees of sincerity is new in pop music. Ariana’s innovation is the “next,” and to my mind it’s not a good one. If I wanted to buy into a narrative of human disposability, in which every person I come across is worth only as much as their in-kind contribution to my hero’s journey, I would just become a libertarian.
[3]

Alex Clifton: I flipped my shit when Ariana subtweeted the hell out of Pete and thought that “Thank U, Next” would naturally be her wrath unleashed in one full song. I was so wrong, and I am so glad I was wrong. “Thank U, Next” is not just a Mature Breakup Song where Grande refuses to take cheap shots at her exes, but a single imbued with a genuine sense of gratitude most breakup songs seem to lack. “Don’t be sad because it’s over; be happy because it happened” is a well-worn platitude that seems impossible in the moment, but Grande handles it with grace by thanking all the boys she’s ever loved and what they’ve taught her. The most important relationship, she realizes, is the one with herself, which could come off as cheesy but feels like a revelation the same way it did in Lorde’s “Liability.” But where “Liability” got swept up in melodramatic self-pity, Grande’s song feels both vulnerable and light. It’s classy and delicate, and a banger to boot. 
[9]

Alfred Soto: The sweet malice suggests peak Janet Jackson, and the restraint by all involved is in service of a track that sounds wonderful on the radio.  It takes more effort than you and I know for a star of Ariana Grande’s size to resist the tug of self-empowerment bromides. 
[7]

Vikram Joseph: “If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” — no, sorry Ru, repeating something that often doesn’t stop it from being trite and reductive. If no one’s born to hate, then equally, none of us are born loving ourselves to pieces. “Thank U, Next” is about growing into yourself through your relationships with others, and honestly, if we take “relationships” in the broader sense, how else does anyone do it? All we really do is take the best parts of other people and use them to patch ourselves together, to create a whole that’s more convincing to ourselves. The state of well-being and self-acceptance that Ariana Grande attests to feels true enough to override the slightly self-congratulatory tone in the second verse; she’s earned it. The song rides a comfortable, shimmering groove, assured enough to feel effortless but catchy enough to achieve instant meme-dom. Love, patience, pain: if you don’t love somebody else, how in the hell you gonna love yourself?
[7]

Stephen Eisermann: There’s something so freeing about rising above any previous relationship pettiness and just appreciating everything, or anything, you experienced during your time together. It’s easy to associate a failed relationship with negativity because that’s always how we think of failure, but Ariana frames the discussion around her exes differently. There’s nothing too specific besides their names, but that vagueness allows listeners to replace each name with one of their own exes so the sentiments become more real. Even her more relaxed singing style lends to the relatability of the track: No longer do we have to belt with her, we can just humbly sing along.
[9]

Tobi Tella: A song referencing her celebrity exes may seem like a shameless attention grab, but if one thing is clear, it’s that this song is coming straight from the heart. It has been quite a 2018 for Ariana Grande, and her releasing another song like “No Tears Left to Cry” would feel inauthentic. These are easily the best lyrics of her career, honest and genuinely uplifting.
[9]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Ariana Grande’s humility and forgiveness are moving, but “Thank U, Next” finds its power in what they reveal: the necessity of self-affirmation in surviving a breakup. It’s a sturdy framework with which Ariana can procedurally move past any relationship. Whenever she sings it, she’s not just reminding herself of any personal growth but reenacting the very steps that led her there, refuting any doubts that tell her otherwise. The pre-chorus shows how it’s done, changing “one” to “she” to “I,” but also “taught” to “got.” People have said she “moves on too fast,” so she leans into that idea by rifling through a list of exes in the very first verse. Considering her parents divorced, Ariana was probably also victim to sneers that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” How does she respond? By mentioning the strength her mom gained through that separation. Even the title, a millennial wink, points to a reframing of self. That “next” — sung with the casual indifference of a clerk, the playful callousness of a dating show contestant — is a portrait of self-love, of self-preservation through resilience.
[8]

Jibril Yassin: Scoring this an [8] solely for the “I’m so fucking grateful for my ex” line because it’s one of the best examples of Ariana making “Thank U, Next” feel like sincere self-reflection. I already miss the strange pinball lands that defined Sweetener, but thankfully she’s retained its cheeky and irreverent tone, out in full force during the second verse. Is it great that after her whirlwind year, this slice of earnestness is what earned Ariana her first #1 single? The answer is an unequivocal yes. (*Ariana adlib voice* next)
[8]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: This isn’t Ariana Grande’s best song, her best single, or even her best single from this year. And yet it’s one of those songs that feels preordained to greatness, a coronation where most pop hits are more like a negotiation for your attention. The Ariana Grande of “Thank U, Next” wastes no time in immersing you into her perspective — aside from a light, lilting electric piano-sounding loop, that’s all there is. And yet she never grates, never forgets that the song is both an exercise in image-play and an actual workable song for its own sake. It’s a weird flex — not in the Twitter meme sense, but in its simultaneous confession and restraint. There’s a version of this song that is vengeful, cruel, or even just smug, and Ariana knows that you know that. But by playing on that possibility — both in the song’s prerelease hype schedule, which seemed spite-fueled, and in the song itself, with its naming-names energy — she makes her own positioning seem all the more powerful, a portrait of pop magnanimity.
[8]

Joshua Copperman: I initially thought about “Thank U, Next” as a reflection of the ways streaming has changed music, not just turning everything into depressive Muzak, but gradually making Spotify no different from Instagram or, importantly, Twitter – a screenshot of Ariana’s tweet is even on the cover. That take was taken. But the point stands; it’s a Twitter thread, possibly a Notes screenshot, as a song. “Thank U, Next” uses the rapid pace of social media to its advantage, to the point where the pre-chorus is a pretty great meme in and of itself. In twenty years, the names, loaded with context and meaning now, will mean as much to younger listeners as Monica, Erica, Rita, and Tina. But as has been referenced before, in 20 years we may all be dead anyway. There’s no reason for songs to be timeless classics when we’re apparently headed toward the end of time, so why not live in the moment? Why not try to better yourself, become more self-sufficient, learn gratitude while having people think you’re either coming out or outing Drake? There’s enough depressive music on the Hot 100 as is. Real, hard solutions (well, mostly) are needed instead of vague gestures toward self-care. This is what separates “Thank U, Next:” it uses being Extremely Online to its advantage, and exposes Ariana as the definitive millennial star all along, raised on the Internet, coming of age as the world falls apart, facing trauma and trying to cope with it when your brain is irrevocably changed. By that point, the rest is simple: You release two albums in a year, be as self-referential as possible, compress the last two years of your life into three and a half minutes, and fast-track it to release half an hour before SNL. (How do you like them transparent dangling carrots, Pete?) Forget the tilted stage; forget the wasted zombies; forget the Illuminati mess. “Thank U, Next” is the apotheosis of incorporating a public persona into music. In a vacuum, it’s not that great a song musically, but it’s rare that you remember a Twitter thread two weeks after it’s gone viral either. This will be remembered, if only to show how Ariana adapted perfectly to the culture of 2018 by proving that she was in tune with it the whole time.
[9]

Wednesday, November 14th, 2018

RM – Seoul

BTS member makes his own “One Great City!”…


[Video]
[5.62]

Taylor Alatorre: You have to admit it’s a gutsy move. Just last year BTS released a song as part of a Seoul tourism campaign, along with a commercial that aired in over 100 countries. And then their biggest star goes and releases a song whose most memorable lyric is “I hate you, Seoul.” Taylor Swift, this is not. But by choosing instead to indulge his inner James Murphy, RM both stays true to his artistry and promotes the city with far more effectiveness than any consultant-driven campaign ever could. “Seoul” is still an ad of sorts, but it’s one steeped in a millennial model of authenticity: we expect to be lied to by authorities, so we seek out different authorities who will not hesitate to tell us precisely why something, even a mostly good thing, sucks. The music is not the kind you hear in tourist commercials, but rather the kind tourists might actually listen to when they want to bask in their dissociative loneliness. In other words, it’s your basic post-chillwave pop that Spotify recommends to you at night, but with an added kick to allow for contemplative rapping. For the most part, RM makes observations that anyone who’s lived in a big city can relate to, and even without a translation, the soft yet roughhewn tone of his voice makes his conflicted feelings shine through. One lyric stands out in particular: “the Han River that carries too much han.” Often translated as the “beauty of sorrow,” han is a cultural concept whose centrality to this song could form the basis of an entire essay. Here I will just note that Yanagi Sōetsu, the Japanese collector of Korean folk art who developed the “beauty of sorrow” framework, was one of the earliest recipients of South Korea’s prestigious Order of Cultural Merit. Last month, the members of BTS became the youngest recipients of this award in history. The burden of representing an entire country, or its largest city, is a tough one; with “Seoul,” RM displays the quiet confidence necessary to carry it.
[8]

Juan F. Carruyo: Seems that dedicating songs to cities is hot business right now. Reedy flute patches give way to jazzy Yamaha DX7 chords that remind me of the hypnagogic pop trend of years ago. Yet the main falsetto-ed hook that drives the composition is too saccharine and derivative for it to make a real impact. 
[3]

Nortey Dowuona: Bubbly, plush synths wash over RM’s syrupy croon. He launches into a lilting singsong flow, then hops into a sweetly appreciative cry for his home of Seoul. Then he drops into a soft-spoken flow, which morphs into singsongy again as he launches into the chorus once again, the 808s laughing behind him.
[7]

Thomas Inskeep: The track is nice enough, I guess, but I vastly prefer RM (f/k/a Rap Monster) when he sounds aggressive, not all soft and easy like this.
[4]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: The agreeable, synth-driven R&B that UK duo Honne makes has found surprising success in Thailand, South Korea, Singapore, and elsewhere. Anyone keeping tabs on Asian pop charts and record stores would, at the very least, have a passing familiarity with their existence, but those sticking with Western news outlets probably haven’t heard of them. Given their dearth of popularity in the West, Honne revels in the niche they’ve found. “We love you Seoul 💜” reads their comment on this single’s YouTube video. 4.6K people agree. There’s a poignancy in all this brushing up against RM’s conflicted relationship with the city. For Honne, Seoul is just another place where outsiders have welcomed them. For RM, it’s the very reflection of his success and its limitations, his joy and his pain, his past and his future. It’s the entirety of his life–his self–constantly holding a mirror to his face. Given his group’s enormous success, these feelings of urban isolation are only exacerbated by the role he inexplicably has in representing Seoul (and by proxy, South Korea at large). What else can he do but use his music to escape?
[6]

Maxwell Cavaseno: In a throwaway rejoinder to a musician’s anecdote about the many trials and tribulations of networking, another said, “You never connect with whom you try to, you simply connect with those you do.” It’s a lesson Kim Namjoon would do well to learn. It’s easy to pick on RM because he’s always been eager to do a little bit more in order to prove himself. “Seoul” bears a lot of that complex in how eagerly the sung and rapped parts strive for depth about the city that’s become a central force in his life and career, a place that dictated his past and his future in ways both trivial and inconceivable. The problem is, this personal act of labor comes across as dense and obtuse, a monolith in the sand that clearly has gravitas but is difficult to gain real context from. “Seoul” is just moments of tension away from being clear, but so fixed and pressed upon the listener that it simply cannot feel like a release.
[4]

Iain Mew: The song’s ambivalence via contradiction comes off as rather pedestrian. It’s elevated by two things: RM’s heartfelt tenderness, and the way that Honne break up the main mode of blank chill with the occasional wheeze of dinky The Research synths, like so many loved old spots amidst the skyscrapers. 
[6]

Alex Clifton: I grew up in Buffalo, NY. It’s a cold, snowy city that a lot of people say they’ll escape from, and then they make their way back and raise a family there. I left nearly ten years ago, and I was glad to leave it back then. But there are certain things I still love and miss, like the way the air smelled in October just before the first snowfall of the year, or the sounds of a Sabres game, or the feeling of being in a crowd at a hometown Goo Goo Dolls show. I can never get back to that place–the Buffalo I left is a different place now–but I was always drawn to the tension, the feeling of hating six months of snow while also secretly relishing it. “Seoul” hits on these feelings (more artfully than I can phrase them) and is exactly the kind of thoughtful work I expect from RM. Moreover, it makes me feel peaceful, like it’s okay to have these alternate feelings warring inside. RM’s overriding musical message has always been to remind listeners that they’re not alone, however they feel, and he’s done it again.
[7]

Wednesday, November 14th, 2018

Charly Bliss – Heaven

Artist named Charli/y wants to go back to 1999…


[Video]
[6.90]

Julian Axelrod: My aversion to scratchy-voiced ’90s revival rock made me slightly skeptical of Guppy, but “Heaven” smashes a pie in the face of my expectations. The hooks are sharper, the riffs are gnarlier, and the quiet-loud tension delivers a bigger catharsis when they rip into another barrage. There’s an obvious irony to a song called “Heaven” that sounds like a slow descent into hell, but Eva Hendricks’s sugar-high drone offers brief moments of salvation amidst the carnage. It’s a fresher, bolder take on grunge, suggesting an alternate universe where Toadies ruled the decade instead of Nirvana. Maybe Charly Bliss isn’t reviving rock’s past, but positioning themselves as figureheads of rock’s future.
[8]

Jibril Yassin: Charly Bliss work in a genre full of hundreds of underrepresented bands whose entire discographies are currently languishing in a landfill or, worse, a power-pop fan’s record collection. What’s made them stand out is their endless energy and talent for crafting incredibly catchy songs with hooks and guitar riffs better than your ’90s fave. On “Heaven,” Eva Hendricks floats above the maelstrom of heavy guitars, opting to avoid the emotional bluntness that defined her Guppy lyrics to offer something akin to domestic bliss with a loved one. It’s the best slow dance ballad the Angus soundtrack never got. 
[7]

Katherine St Asaph: The Wholesale Meats and Fish to Guppy‘s Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack, a dispatch from a world where the former album is so canonical nobody needed to look it up. If only that were our world and there was an abiding scene, maybe something like Burger Records without the teenage-dirtbag skew. (If there is, please correct me, with audio links.) Also, a band that knows their appeal, whether served sugary or crunchy; when I saw them play in Brooklyn earlier this year, they announced to a roaring crowd (paraphrased) “This is a song about a CRUSH!” (In an alternate world, Carly Rae Jepsen is the third frontwoman of Veruca Salt. Discuss.) Extra point for the “daughters and daughters and daughters” bridge, as feminist as anything that’ll get credit for it this year.
[9]

Katie Gill: Since Weezer’s devolved into complete and utter parody, I’m glad that Charly Bliss has taken over their rulers-of-college-radio title. This song is a joy! The pounding grunge-ish chords contrast perfectly with Eva Hendricks’s childish, lilting voice. It’s an amazing combination that the structure of the song flatters WONDERFULLY.
[7]

Taylor Alatorre: That skyward-looking chorus, a case of truth in advertising, is really all you need. The zigzagging, Speedy Ortiz-esque guitar lines can be appreciated on their own terms, but they seem to exist in a separate dimension from the rest of the song; something had to fill all that empty space. As someone raised on wordy, shouty punk, there was a time when this vague, shadowy lyricism would have gotten on my nerves, but it suits the pensive mood, and the gut-punch line about daughters lends a dash of meaning to the formlessness.
[6]

Vikram Joseph: For a song called “Heaven,” this feels more like a queasy purgatory — closer to the sludgy, soured-in-the-sun grunge of Kyle Gilbride’s half of a Swearin’ album than the sugar rush of earlier Charly Bliss singles. It ransacks a different section of the ’90s alt cupboard to Guppy, and although Eva Hendricks’ Kim Deal sing-speak impression in the middle eight is a nice diversion, “Heaven” is certainly less fun for it (although, what could possibly be as fun as “Westermarck”?). Like Swearin’, Charly Bliss really bloom when they fuse sweet and sour into an acerbic confection, but the sweetness never turns up here, and it doesn’t feel nearly hyper enough. I guess this is growing up.
[5]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: It’s all about the swing of the chorus, the most effective bit being Eva Hendricks’s delivery of the titular line. “Now that I’m in heaven,” she sings, sounding absolutely elated as her voice drifts into space, and it’s only the second time around that she comes back down to earth to complete her thought: “…with you.” It’s a simple but affecting portrait of love’s all-consuming nature, how the feelings that arise from being with someone can be more exciting than that actual someone. This frenetic, love-struck energy balloons in the bridge, with Hendricks declaring that she’ll fill her house with “daughters and daughters and daughters.” “Heaven” may not be one of Charly Bliss’s catchiest songs, but it does have some of their best songwriting, and they’re as charming as ever.
[6]

Ian Mathers: In the ranks of songs titled “Heaven,” this one isn’t going to beat out the Talking Heads, Emeli Sandé, or the Psychedelic Furs, but that is a pretty high set of bars to pass. Charly Bliss’s sweet roar is still a perfectly great take on the subject, though; here Heaven is a certainty, the feeling of assured bliss, of not being able to lose, of not even being here at all. Which ranks it above, say, Bryan Adams.
[8]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: Unlike certain guitar groups that have touched on the subject in recent years, Charly Bliss seem unconcerned with heaven as anything but a symbol for the pure rush of new love. As such, the song is lyrically thin — nothing sticks except for the daughters of the bridge. Yet Hendricks’s vocal performance and the grungy work the rest of the band puts in more than make up for it. It’s nothing special in the world of grungy crush-pop indie — maybe not even the best version of this song we’ve covered in the past few weeks, tbh — but good enough to be deeply re-listenable.
[6]

Alfred Soto: The sweet abrasion caused by those intro harmonies call the Breeders to mind, but Charly Bliss has elementary pleasures in mind, and damn, are they good at them. Received fun is still fun.
[7]

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

Simmy – Umahlalela

Not too shabby for a first appearance…


[Video]
[8.43]

Julian Axelrod: It’s hard to talk about Simmy without talking about Sun-El Musician, the Jukebox fave who featured her on his last album and produced a good chunk of her solo material. As you’d expect, their sounds are pretty intertwined, and Simmy acquits herself perfectly within his world. This track is another Sun-El beauty, balancing a million conversant parts (a skipping xylophone, a mumbling bass, an army of sputtering shakers) into a unified, cohesive ecosystem. But Simmy gets top billing for a reason, because this is her show all the way. Her multi-tracked falsetto is the brightest color in the palette, and she divines real emotion from the depths of the groove. Most dance vocalists either dominate a track or sink into it, but Simmy stays atop the beat without getting lost in the noise. Simmy and Sun-El are both integral to the success of “Umahlalela,” and they’re equally integral to the future of pop.
[8]

Will Adams: What makes Simmy the perfect complement to Sun-El Musician’s soundscapes is the warmth she brings to deep house that usually tend toward melancholic. The lush harmonies are one thing, but her presence when up close is captivating enough to lead me through the five minutes of subtly building groove.
[7]

Alfred Soto: The loop and horns give “Umahlalela” a Friday-night-at-the-VIP-bar chillwave vibe, and it gathers intensity as it approaches its last minute. This needs no remix, no coaxing — this South African artist undersings to beguiling effect.
[8]

Nortey Dowuona: Slumming, glistering bass buoy soft, twirling drums and hovering AC synths as Simmy smoothly breaststrokes through the water, before launching into butterfly as the chorus rises, then dives deeper as the sax synths sink in and the bass starts loping instead of strolling, then evaporates when glittering synths wash down, dousing the drums and then swept away by them, drawing the bass back over the water. Finally, the sax synths sink in with the hovering synths, mixing it all into a gooey, sweet oval of groove.
[10]

Juan F. Carruyo: The multi-tracked choir at the refrain is just bliss. Very interesting use of dynamics, as the beat stays the same but it arrives to a feeling of thematic development by just adding or subtracting the voices, turning out a very quietly compelling track. 
[8]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: “Umahlalela” teems with so much life that it seems aware of its own existence. Few songs invite listeners to get so deeply lost in their grooves, fewer still make you feel that their warmth is vital nourishment.
[8]

Ramzi Awn: “Umahlalela” features the same sprawling dessert landscape as Janet Jackson’s “Together Again,” but with an intellectual warmth rarely heard in popular music. Simmy puts forth an uncanny vision. Drawing on a dozen different references and yet utterly original, the single is a study in melody and the fabric of sound at the same time. Finally, one to write home about. 
[10]

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

Cardi B – Money

In which it turns out that it IS all about the cha-ching cha-ching, ba-bling ba-bling…


[Video]
[4.78]

Tobi Tella: Cardi B’s incredible rise to superstardom was extremely quick, so it makes sense that it also didn’t take long for her to start releasing throwaway singles. “Money” has a fine beat and a fun chorus, but it’s hard to connect with because it feels like more of the same, which is troubling considering she only has one album. She can still make a questionable punchline work through pure charisma (“Bitch I will black on your ass/Wakanda Forever!”) but to be honest, it’s getting a little old.
[5]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: This is exactly the kind of song I expected Cardi B to be making after “Bodak Yellow” broke big last year. I was wrong then, but the arc of the pop universe is long and bends towards lazy singles.
[3]

Andy Hutchins: First: Producer J. White — whose fuller J. White Did It name is an obvious rip of Mike Will Made It’s full nom de boards — might need some of the cheese Cardi craves for her egg to stave off the lawsuits from the folks who produced 2 Chainz’s “Watch Out” and OG Maco’s “U Guessed It,” because only a skittering Lex Luger-era snare roll truly distinguishes it from those productions. But the greater failure of “Money” is that this is a Cardi doing more sneering than smirking rather than deftly balancing the two: The “WAKANDA FOREVER” punchline is a hilarious callback to the halcyon days of Black Panther being in theaters, but the jokes generally aren’t as funny as her best material. “Money” is a competent but largely unnecessary song, and seems quite likely to be Atlantic’s test balloon for re-saturating the airwaves with an artist who has already had five top-30 singles of her own in the last 18 months and has featured on five more top-15 songs in the same time. “Money” is already a top-15 hit in its own right, so, in a sense, Cardi can hold her own against titans of pop like Drake — but if she has to sound this tired while doing it, I’m all for her standing apart from Drake by spending as much time with Kulture as she wants before hitting the booth again in earnest.
[5]

Nortey Dowuona: Low, sinking bass drums drop, hop out the grave then swing as Cardi spars with it, ducking, wearing and stinging as the piano puts up her dukes, keeping her on her toes.
[7]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: The production isn’t striking enough to help Cardi exert the power of her imperialistic reign over the listener, so her rapping sounds strained and bored by the end of the third verse. While references to her daughter and Offset make “Money” more personal, her personality isn’t what’s really driving the song. Without that, the result is little more than generic bravado.
[3]

Julian Axelrod: When your personality is as big as Cardi’s, a complex beat or elaborate concept is just unnecessary baggage. So I appreciate the simplicity of this track: a few piano notes, some frantic hi-hats, a disembodied “Money, ho!” and a single-minded devotion to the bag. It gives Cardi ample space to spread out and talk her shit. Sometimes I forget how inventive a writer she can be; even on a straightforward cash anthem, she’ll drop a line like “All my pajamas is leather.” If this is the first taste of her new album, it’s not paving any new ground. (This could easily be a bonus track on the inevitable Invasion of Privacy Deluxe reissue.) But if you ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
[7]

Joshua Copperman: “Get Up 10” was Cardi doing “Dreams & Nightmares,” “Thru Your Phone” was Cardi out-Nicki-ing Nicki’s Roman persona, and this is Cardi’s take on “Humble.” She once again brings her personality, but compared to those other songs on Invasion of Privacy this isn’t as fleshed out, which is exactly what made that album so good. “Money” is more in line with what doubters thought that album would sound like, which means: some neat ideas, but rushed and not nearly as quotable as her best songs can be.
[5]

Juan F. Carruyo: Cardi’s insistence of documenting in-song her obsession with a never-ending pursuit of wealth is a well worn trope by now, so much that it’s conceptual but she never re-contextualizes the cliches she declaims or even offer some kind of introspection about how it feels to finally be on the other side. It’s mere boasting, and she does boast well. But I get no pleasure from this. 
[2]

Alfred Soto: Like Cary Grant in Houseboat or Father Goose, Cardi in “Money” offers the pleasure of a born performer basking in the audience’s pleasure in a well-honed star persona. No one remembers Father Goose either.
[6]

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

Dua Lipa & Blackpink – Kiss and Make Up

Are we the forgiving type?


[Video]
[5.80]

Jessica Doyle: The other day, leaving the supermarket, I glanced at the magazine racks and saw a pop-issue devoted solely to BTS. Dang, I thought, maybe this K-pop-increasing-in-global-prominence thing really is happening. And now here’s another milestone: a perfunctory, spiritless collab where the invitation came from the Western side.
[3]

Katie Gill: This is definitely a Dua Lipa song that Blackpink got invited to collaborate on, not anything that the two worked on together. Which means that unfortunately for Blackpink, they’re stuck on a middle of the road Dua Lipa song. Everybody’s voice is amazing: all the women get to show off their lower registers to beautiful effect. But the song itself is third single filler: boring lyrics with a boring hook.
[5]

Alfred Soto: On first listen the fader tomfoolery and decent hook compensate for the invention; on second listen the kinetics create the impression that “Kiss and Make Up” has something to say, and the fader tomfoolery remains such.
[5]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: “Touch me like you touch nobody” is a compelling phrasing of an old lyrical conceit, and Dua continues her hot streak, providing a charismatic performance on the first run through the verse-pre-chorus-chorus that sets the tone well for the rest of the song. The song itself is a bit too slight to support the full integration of all four parts of Blackpink, but not for lack of trying. Yet in the end, “Kiss and Make Up” feels deeply unnecessary, both in neither-here-nor-there position it holds in the discographies of both artist and group and in its overall attempt to bridge pop styles. Even with that in mind, though, the song is fun enough to not wear out its welcome.
[6]

Nortey Dowuona: Tapping bass synths wash ashore with flat, clattering percussion as Dua Lipa glides over it all without picking up a thing, while Blackpink sink into the production and swirl it into cotton candy around them to float out of the mush.
[6]

Vikram Joseph: This sounds instantly recognisable — that buzzing, burrowing hook which screams early-2010s pop, the achingly familiar chorus melody — but feels full of character, loose-limbed and breathless. It’s elevated by spacious, clubby production and an oscillating left ear-right ear trick that succeeds in drawing me deeper into the song, which reveals itself as an atmospheric, idiosyncratic bilingual banger.
[8]

Matias Taylor: As of late, pop stars have been shying away from hyper-kinetic, unabashedly catchy bangers so it’s refreshing to hear a major-pop-star-pop-song so urgent and frantic it basically interrupts itself to launch into the chorus. Blackpink show up halfway sounding as clipped and polished as the expensive-sounding synths behind them. Their earnest, brassy performance contrasts well with Dua’s underrated ability to emote while maintaining an impossibly cool, detached aloofness.
[7]

Juan F. Carruyo: Cool vocoder intro that’s probably the third coolest thing about this song. Dem-bow riddim contributes to a heavy tropical feel that’s probably not as in vogue as it used to be. However, the best thing about this is how the melody constantly rides the upbeats in syncopation, both in the “ayayayayay” that denotes the pre-chorus and after in the bridge. 
[7]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Much like the generic dancehall beat that Banx & Ranx provided for boy band Rak-Su, “Kiss and Make Up” benefits from having production that’s tastefully inoffensive. Anything too flashy would distract from the vocals, and there’s plenty of fun sing-along moments that allow for a personal insertion of personality. That titular line can be sung with the lustful wink of “Put your hands all up on me,” the casual directness of “This love’s important/don’t want to lose you this way,” or the anxious desperation of “Can we work this whole thing out?” And at the very least, it’s as amusing to replicate as Rosé’s “I, I, I, I” sequence. Your personal Choose Your Own Adventure, where taking part in the journey is more exciting than the familiar end result.
[7]

Alex Clifton: I like Dua Lipa and Blackpink both, but…
[4]

Monday, November 12th, 2018

Nguyễn Trọng Tài x San Ji x Double X – HongKong1

A Vietnamese trio heads to China…


[Video]
[6.33]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Befitting of hypnagogic rewatches of ’90s Wong Kar-wai films, “HongKong1” is imbued with the dim flicker of neon lights and the soft hues of pastel lighting. The synth arpeggio sounds frustratingly cheap, but this is otherwise admirable for its overall pleasantness.
[5]

Juan F. Carruyo: Jazzy chords underscore the very affecting melody, which is just five notes or so, yet it never develops, giving the song a cyclical nature. The soft and understated synthesizers give the song a slightly icy feel but the singer displays enough vulnerability to make this track a truly arresting one. 
[9]

Iris Xie: These styles of gentle, rocking songs always are so interesting to me, because they’re way more focused on sublimating the listener into a specific moment of time, like if you touched a totem in order to access your nostalgia. I like this one, but not so much as a song, but more as a mood, due how much of the song seems to escape to the ether with its extremely pared down sound, especially when compared to other songs with similar vibes. But still, it is a mild one that you’d sing at karaoke towards the end of the evening, with circulating lights cascading down on you and your totally drunk friends. It is also a song best fit for drinking a crisp, light beer and looking out to the ocean, with your shirt clinging to your back due to the summer humidity. Inoffensive and light.
[5]

Will Adams: Vies for lush but can’t overcome its foundation of guitar presets and out of the box drums.
[5]

Jonathan Bradley: The chilled soft-rock could be Dan Bejar as easily as any of his 1980s antecedents, though the styrofoam drum machine breaks the mood somewhat.
[6]

Iain Mew: The Hong Kong that inspired this song, with its 20 million views and assortment of cover versions, isn’t the Hong Kong of now. It’s not even the real Hong Kong of the past, but the cinema Hong Kong of the ’90s (including, but possibly not limited to, sad Stephen Chow love stories). Perhaps that’s why it feels like a comedown flip of Mondo Grosso’s “Labyrinth,” which had present day Hong Kong for the site of the perfect video to its mixed ambivalence and electric possibility. “HongKong1” is a remove further on from that, possibility and action and blood drained out, a potent moment of preserved bittersweetness that has grown fuller with age.
[8]

Monday, November 12th, 2018

Alice Chater – Hourglass

Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…


[Video]
[5.62]

Iain Mew: I’d prefer if it was a little less “Hung Up” and a little more “SOS” or “Beware of the Dog” (the heavy breathing and screamed bit are on the right lines) but if we do have to go back, back to 200x, this is a great formula to revive.
[6]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: I’m ok with artists aiming for 2000s Kylie and Madonna in 2018, but this hook is understated in a way that’s more tedious than trance-inducing. The bouncing bassline and flecks of synth during the verses are invigorating, and the bridge is a nice dynamic contrast to the rest of the song. So close.
[5]

Iris Xie: The trash gay in me loves this song, the sour bitter bitch isn’t too sure. This is basically a ’90s-style android amalgamation of Kylie, Madonna, Britney, and Gaga, complete with ice blue eyeshadow and leotard. But who is Alice Chater? There are a few good moments here, in the verses where she coos and does some fast half-rapping that plays with the instrumentals. But overall, I find myself confused by the song and can only label it as a “reluctant grower” — there’s no sense of abandonment and too much control. It has all the funk guitar licks that would fit in a Sweetune-produced song, and a hook-y chorus that could handle a simple dance routine, but fails to stick in your head.  The song is in a transmutation circle of its influences, it lacks a thesis for a head, and is disconnected from the verve of ball and disco culture from where this music stems from. It could be so much more if I just knew who this singer was, and if this singer decided to take up space and add some more them to it. A meandering myriad of middleness.
[3]

Katherine St Asaph: It’s always a pleasant surprise when a song that’s getting a push from YouTube and other PR outlets is good. Something-something compression of the nostalgia time cycle, but if “Hourglass” is a sign that tastes are moving from supposedly-inherent-to-the-streaming-medium tropical chill pop (a thinkpiece claim that has always been [citation needed]) to Kylie/Gaga electro, I don’t remotely mind.
[6]

William John: Well, I suppose it was inevitable that Lady Gaga’s 2008 aesthetic (itself highly reverential to the Human League, who provide the indefatigable synth hook here) would some day be revisited. Unlike those Gaga singles, however, “Hourglass” isn’t revolution or reinvention — just recapitulation.
[5]

Jonathan Bradley: “Hourglass” sounds like a dance smash torn in three directions: in one, by the sophisto-pop of its Human League sample; in another, by the brassy club tug of its hook; and in a third, by the sleek digitized impetus of its groove. All of these intrigue me, and I can’t tell whether the song is weakened for not settling into one or benefits from the constructive tension between them. 
[7]

Will Adams: Electrified disco that’s equal parts Kylie and Dannii would catch my attention in any era, but in today’s somnambulant pop landscape, it’s a welcome shot in the arm.
[8]

John Seroff: That bassline is a “Loba”-alike and the much-bombast-about-nothing is straight out of Gaga’s playbook, but “Hourglass” lacks the pace, joie de vivre, and charisma of its clear late-aughties disco influences. Lord knows all this stuff is carefully contrived by definition; I suppose I either like the seams to show a bit less.
[5]

Monday, November 12th, 2018

Post Malone x Swae Lee – Sunflower

With great Swae Lee comes great Post Malone?


[Video]
[5.56]

Joshua Copperman: First off, can we just acknowledge how good Into The Spider-Verse looks? Not just in the literal sense, but in the way it looks to incorporate Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s meta tendencies into a genuinely compelling story. I hope it doesn’t turn out like Post Malone’s music, where the lushness gives otherwise banal sentiments the illusion of grandeur. An ideal soundtrack for Spider-Verse should be as colorful as the movie looks, and even the lyric video deserves a better, more relevant soundtrack. Considering what’s happened to the live-action Peter Parker, even “Ashes” would be more appropriate. But that lyric video is effective, doing its best to lend weight to an unremarkable, weirdly arrogant song (“you’d be left in the dust unless I stuck by you”). The movie’s likely going to be great on the visuals alone, but concerning the soundtrack, for now I don’t feel so good.
[5]

Juan F. Carruyo: It’s a soundtrack song, so it’s appropriately cinematic. Cavernous boom-boom clap drums follow deep synth bass tones and an air of menace. Though it’s Post Malone who’s ostensibly bringing them sweet sweet monetized clicks; in practice, his gravely voice emoting corny lyrics about being a sunflower is just very off-putting. So, it’s a minute and a half of pleasing melodies sang by Swae Lee before it crumbles down. 
[5]

John Seroff: Live long enough and you’ll hear all the radio stars of your youth gently rinsed and recycled into audio pablum echoing down the grocery store aisles. For a generation that may not have longevity as an option, this Post/Swae collabo helpfully offers prewashed pop, elevator-friendly out of the wrapper.
[5]

Iris Xie: Both Post Malone and Swae Lee’s delivery takes sweet lyrics and makes them sound labored and tired. What gives? I understand they’re trying to do a floaty, sweet summer vibe, but I just get the feeling of two men who are trying to woo another girl for the hundredth time, without really self-reflecting on what they are doing. It makes such nice platitudes sound generic, and leaves me cold.
[1]

Jonathan Bradley: I’m reminded of a certain mode of 1990s alternative rock, a style that had expanded its stylistic outlook so far beyond the rudiments of guitar music that its connection to generic tradition was its mulish white masculinity rather than its sound. “Sunflower” made me think of the spacey anomie of Filter’s “Take a Picture,” but it fits into the late-rock pluralism of everything from Crazy Town to OPM to 311 to Primitive Radio Gods. “You mightn’t like Post Malone,” an old friend told me when we were catching up for the first time in a few years and comparing notes on contemporary sounds, “but you remember his choruses.” Then he hummed a couple hooks from Beerbongs & Bentleys, an album I’ve heard once, and I realized how right he was.
[6]

Julian Axelrod: I’ve finally figured it out: If we want to make Post Malone tolerable, we just need to slowly inch him as far away from rap as possible. This is the most engaging and sincere Post has sounded in a while, and it’s on a song that’s closer to Drive-era synth pop than rap. Swae Lee’s presence helps a lot; he’s a similarly feelings-first wailer who twists every bar into a hook, and he’s innately charming enough to sell “She wanna ride me like a cruise” as a Hallmark sentiment. But their combined charisma is a bright new coat of paint on the conflicted devotion that pervades most love songs in rap today. It’s an asshole aria, it’s the dirtbag blues, it’s “Islands in the Stream” for guys who sell whippits at house parties. And it’s way better than the phrase “Post Malone and Swae Lee present a song from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” has any right to be.
[7]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Post Malone and Swae Lee use this Spider-Man soundtrack opportunity to take on the superhero role in a relationship. Is this codependency or men just being snotty? Either way, things seem awry, so the two deliver sweet melodies to keep things at bay. In the moment this is soothing, if fleeting; keep it on repeat and you’ll be convinced to stay.
[6]

Alfred Soto: Swae’s bray (brae?) increases in volume as his swinish admissions get more pronounced (“Or you’ll be left in the dust, unless I stuck by ya”), while Post Malone puts his gravel to empathetic use. They don’t cancel each out so much as act as amiable mirrors — they could easily have switched places and no one would’ve noticed.
[6]

Taylor Alatorre: You can always count on the lead single from a Spider-Man movie soundtrack to provide a quick-and-dirty snapshot of the musical landscape. In 2002 we got post-9/11 post-grunge; in 2004 it was post-Unplugged Dashboard; in 2007, post-Coldplay melodrama; and in 2014 it was an unholy amalgam of misapplied talent and wasted money, just like the film it was made for. Now it’s 2018 and Sony/Columbia have enlisted Post Malone and Swae Lee, two of-the-moment sing-rappers with whom Miles Morales would undoubtedly be familiar. The track is clearly inspired by emo rap, but in Dashboard terms, it’s more “Hands Down” than “Screaming Infidelities”; the hazy atmosphere and ornamental guitar plucking are no much for the earnestly romantic, if lyrically ambivalent chorus. It’s for this reason that Post Malone, despite his “Rockstar” pedigree, is outshone almost completely by Swae Lee, whose melodic tendencies are more suited for earnest romance. Aware of his own limitations, Swae uses his singing voice with strategic aplomb, strictly regimenting his phrases so they pierce like beacons through the fog. It helps that he still sounds much younger than his 24 years, which results in the typical rap lyric “she wanna ride me like a cruise” being transformed into a singular projection of both innocence and precocity. This frank mention of sex makes his decision to self-censor by saying “bad bad” even less explicable, and thus more charming. More than anything else, “Sunflower” sounds like adolescence, an achievement that largely exonerates its underdeveloped view of women on grounds of verisimilitude. Teenage boys are perpetually unsure of themselves and act tough or spiteful in order to mask their vulnerabilities: nothing new under the sun. What songs like “Sunflower” offer them is a recognition of shared suffering and a chance to embrace their vulnerabilities — a permission slip to feel unguarded feelings for a few minutes. As long as there are boys and girls in America having sad times together, there will be a need for these songs.
[9]

Saturday, November 10th, 2018

Bonus Tracks for Week Ending November 10, 2018

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