Thursday, August 6th, 2020

Taylor Swift – Cardigan

I need some fine wine, and you, you need to calm down…


[Video]
[7.09]

Vikram Joseph: If releasing a gaudy outlier as a first single has become your calling card, what happens when you release an album so unexpectedly cohesive that no song is more than one standard deviation from the mean? “Cardigan” serves instead as a haunted, delicate gateway to Folklore, a wistful slow-burner on an album full of them. The piano hook is indelibly The National, the vocal cadences in the verse almost unbearably evocative of a Sufjan Stevens song I can’t quite name. It’s been a long time since Taylor Swift has sounded so patient. But none of the myriad influences that have been waved at “Cardigan” and Folklore over the past few days can obscure how intimately she inhabits these songs. For all of her genre-fluidity and sporadic affectations, she’s developed one of the most distinctive songwriting voices in pop; the soft surge of the final chorus, buried memories rising to the surface, could only be her. “Cardigan” is (probably) fiction, but it’s rooted in the specifics of vintage Taylor: old clothes, streetlights, smoke, nostalgia. As a first single from Folklore, it serves both as closure and prologue: the movie, unreeling, about to begin.
[8]

Lauren Gilbert: It’s Taylor’s best lead single since “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” it’s thematically appropriate for the album, and after “Look What You Made Me Do” and “ME!” it’s a relief to get an inoffensive I’ll-do-the-dishes-to-this-track. And yeah, that’s also the problem — it’s also better suited to being an album track that I’ll mostly skip in favor of that brilliant bridge on “illicit affairs” or the contained spite of “mad woman”. There are whispers of brilliance — the clack of heels on cobbles, “dancing in your Levis / drunk under a streetlight” — but they’re outweighed by the clunky cardigan metaphor and lyrics that don’t show that TSwift brilliance (“sensual politics”, really?). It sounds like just some indie record, and it’s not much better than hers — at least not Taylor at her best.
[6]

Thomas Inskeep: I’m not particularly a fan of Swift in pop mode — I find her too busy, too bombastic, and I mostly loathe Max Martin’s work — but I’ll never deny her way around a lyric. So getting to hear her songs in a different musical setting on Folklore is refreshing, and I really like her collaboration with The National’s Aaron Dessner. “Cardigan” isn’t close to my favorite on the album; its synthetic drums rub me the wrong way against the rest of its instrumentation. But those words — “when you are young they assume you know nothing” — and the way Swift sings them, yes. 
[7]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: On a meta level, Taylor writing a song about something as trivial as a cardigan is kind of hilarious–but also, who hasn’t come across an ordinary object and suddenly felt the pangs of nostalgia and forgotten love? “Cardigan” crafts a decently compelling song around this narrative, although it ultimately feels a little too long and self-indulgent. Of her songs about articles of clothing, I much prefer the sultriness of “Dress,” or that fake-out moment in “Style” where she says “Takes me home/Lights are off/He’s taking off his coat.”
[6]

Alfred Soto: Conceits, whether by John Donne or Robert Forster, depend on the surprise generated by accuracy. A cardigan is such a specific article of clothing — genteel in its affect — that to compare herself to a cardigan doesn’t match the scenario she limns. Yet the sense of mounting doom created by violins and a smear of Mellotron, the court reporter’s self-control with which Taylor Swift goes from sharing a list of crimes to becoming the plaintiff: It’s chilling stuff, spookier than recent material by Aaron Dessner’s other band.
[8]

Iain Mew: The National’s back catalogue has many examples of this kind of rolling, nagging piano mood working to magnify the depth of feeling in ambiguous words. That’s a less-than-obvious fit for Taylor Swift, who doesn’t need the magnification. When she exchanges “when you are young they assume you know nothing” for “I knew everything when I was young,” it’s a precise moment of glory that feels wrong to be as constrained as it is. There are so many levels of meaning sliding out from “you put me on,” though, from the metaphorical trying on, to playing her record, to putting her on the spot, that the one line alone justifies the approach.
[7]

Jonathan Bradley: The twilit piano line murmuring beneath “Cardigan” is Swift’s announcement of Aaron Dessner as her comrade in Folklore, but the song is a demonstration of how she chooses her writing partners and why. This is a very Swiftian song, from its romance of artifacts and tableaux to its fairytale ending — in this case, Peter Pan — and Dessner’s role is to mark these elements as belonging to the world of The National, too. He is there because Taylor recognizes his ability to draw out ideas that exist in her own writing; perhaps she knows that Dessner’s band is familiar also with kissing in “cars and downtown bars,” and perhaps she knows the small space separating dancing “drunk under a streetlight,” a “heartbeat on the High Line,” and being mistaken for a stranger you pass under the silvery, silvery Citibank lights. (I once said that she “doesn’t play nice with the other kids,” but maybe that’s only the case when the meeting is agglutinative rather than collaborative.) This is the first Swift single that, like many others, I first heard as part of an album before I did as a standalone song, and so its role is different: it is here to suggest and to intimate rather than to command attention. Perhaps that’s why it melts away so well: a song that trickles back into darkness even as it builds to its quite practised climax. With it claiming its place at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 immediately on its release, it is surely one of the most cloistered pop songs to have taken that spot in a long time, more so even than the mini-trend of plaintive ballads that manifested towards the end of last year. Maybe that’s one of my favorite things about this song, and the record from which it comes: even as the whole world delights in it, it feels more than anything like it can be all mine. 
[8]

Alex Clifton: As soon as the first few piano chords start, chills run up and down my arms, and repeated listens haven’t dulled the thrill. Swift’s voice curls around each note in a way that follows me around for the remainder of the day; the production is an ocean of ghosts I’m willing to swim in forever. Listening to “Cardigan,” it’s like I’ve already had a lifetime of memories with this song. It conjures out of nothing, nostalgia for all the reckless loves I had when I was younger and memories I thought I’d forgotten. I’ve long been a Swift stan (in case that wasn’t stupidly obvious), but this song, and Folklore, have hit me on a deeper level than I expected. I’m in love.
[10]

Katherine St Asaph: I put off hearing this for so long. I am never going to be able to listen to a song that, upon being praised(!!!!!), resulted in hundreds of people deploying G*merg*te harassment tactics against colleagues; not without feeling ill. Nor am I cool with the other side of the Discourse, i.e., that enjoying the folky sound waves that comprise “Cardigan” is deluded in such a way that enjoying the similar folky sound waves of a no-name coffeeshop songwriter is not, because the former’s apparently part of a diabolical boardroom plan (as if only pop stars have PR, or the kids are still marketed to by besuited boomers, rather than 28-year-old Steak-umms heirs reposting 4chan shitposts) to make Swift seem “indie,” the only way to fall within the coverage window of… which press outlet, exactly? (Why is a Serious Principled Label parroting Blind Gossip?) But I don’t usually enjoy these sound waves. I’m not enthused about Swift’s “The Man” of the Woods and don’t love The National, though this sounds more like Colbie Caillat. The central conceit was forced enough when it was feeling like a plastic bag, and it’s not improved as a bag from the Sparrow rack at Anthropologie, full of glurge and shapeless knits. (The cardigan has inevitably been defictionalized, and has turned me into Regina George.) So it is a surprise, if not exactly pleasant, that I don’t hate this. Taylor’s still assembling songs from Taylor Swift Phrases like prefab scrapbook patches, still Thought Cataloguing her way through NYC. (Has there been a single point since the High Line was built, not counting quarantine but I wouldn’t be shocked, when it was empty enough of tourists to feel a distinct heartbeat, or to do anything but mill forward like cattle?) As usual, the song is massively sheltered about what constitutes a bad boy — my 68-year-old mother is considering getting a tattoo — and wildly optimistic about the chances they’ll stop chasing new thrills. The one hint at potential complication — being saved/faved while feeling like an old cardigan under someone’s bed, i.e., maybe not yours or his– goes unacknowledged, making me suspect it isn’t a hint at all but bad songwriting. But while “Cardigan” remains unexciting, it’s at least pleasantly layered, an upgrade from flat beige to soft autumn cottagecore. (It’s also, after “City of Stars,” the second song lately to remind me of Lisa Hannigan.) Too bad listening to it makes me feel sick. Look what you made me do.
[5]

Joshua Copperman: I take no pleasure in reporting how sick I am of Folklore: the discourse, the stan attacks, and the songs themselves. I quickly wore out “Exile” and “Betty,” which are some of her best songs. People who loved Swift most when she embraced her worst instincts — the Reputation defenders confuse me — or went shiny pop — the 1989 haters do too — have also turned their back on her here, not unfoundedly. This inexplicable choice for a single sounds like a rough draft of “Light Years” meeting a rough draft of “Wildest Dreams,” and rarely more. (Think Girl Talk, but more like Man Whimper.) That’s not the point, though — the lyrics are. The in-joke with the Swifties is that she made an album of Track 5s; “leaving like a father/running like water” is one of her best one-liners, and it’s not even the climax of the song like “so casually cruel in the name of being honest” was. The way she uses the cardigan and Levi’s is like her T-shirts shorthand. Folklore has lots of these Easter eggs. They’re a payoff, a confirmation that it was worth investing time in Swift, making her music inextricable from her followers. Swift has intertwined her career with fan interaction, with chart obsession, with genre shifts as canny business moves, and the stans have evolved from passionate publicists to old-fashioned record executives. The song could be a note-for-note cover of “Sugar Wife,” but if the Metacritic score is high enough, and if the song is successful on streaming and radio (a format they may not even listen to), they won. Why should I care about how a song makes me feel if the loudest component of its target audience barely does? This could be just a lovely, if slight, ballad, but nothing is ever “just” anything with Swift; the songs don’t matter so much as their success. You play stupid games and you lose stupid prizes, then you place a hex on the teen working the carnival. That’s how the line goes, right?
[6]

Tobi Tella: Taylor Swift is a highly self-centered artist, not in a way that reflects ego but a hyper-awareness of her perception. Every album since 1989 has had multiple songs dealing and toying with how she’s perceived in the public eye, and those that don’t are mostly straightforwardly about her, Relatable Rich Pop Superstar Taylor Swift. I don’t think “Cardigan” is perfect; the production is nice but never moves anywhere beyond that — a problem the whole album has — and the cardigan line itself is a little hokey. But there’s something so fresh about it. Even without knowing the intended story, the experience is different and visceral compared to her past music. A whole world of more interesting perspectives is opened when she looks outside herself, and it’s a step that I wish was taken long ago.
[7]

Tuesday, August 4th, 2020

Eric Church – Stick That in Your Country Song

To recap: today we’ve featured songs about pop stardom and country music… perhaps a bit of foreshadowing for later this week?


[Video][Website]
[5.17]

Alex Clifton: “Stick That In Your Country Song,” as a title, could go one of two ways: it’s either going to be a “good old days” look at older country music (i.e. not Luke Bryan), or it’s going to try to tackle social issues. I was surprised that Church went for the latter, and was definitely not expecting a bridge about how teachers are underpaid. I appreciate the fact that he is grappling with these kinds of issues within the country scene, seeing as how a lot of modern country music reflects a very specific, unrealistic, and skewed version of what America currently is. It gets a bit vague after a while to the point where “stick THAT in your country song” sounds meaningless, but I appreciate the effort in trying. Is this a low bar? Yeah, probably, but one worth noting anyway.
[5]

Will Adams: Stick what in my country song, exactly? Vague lip service to strife in the States? Acknowledging that war kinda sucks, man? Beleaguered schoolteachers whose biggest problem is apparently “kids climbing off the walls” (hint: it’s not)? Blowing out my speakers in my car??? It’s hard to say, and that’s the point. The admittedly decent arrangement tells us this is daring, but Church displays nothing but toothlessness.
[4]

Thomas Inskeep: I love that Church uses “Stick That” to call out country artists/radio for endless hits that are puerile and anodyne (hi, Luke Bryan!), specifically citing conditions in Detroit and Baltimore, and the plight of the American teacher. I wish he were even more pointed, though. As is, I expect this to top out in the teens of the Country Airplay chart at best; country radio doesn’t like being scolded, even though they couldn’t fucking deserve it more. Church talk/sings this with a passion that you don’t hear enough of in commercial country these days; his vocal gains steam as the song progresses, till he sounds like he’s about to spontaneously combust. The arrangement backs him up nicely.
[8]

Katherine St Asaph: The rock is hard, the gospel is stirred, the anger is fiery. The bravery is nonexistent. It’s telling how the most sincere fury comes from the verse with no Message whatsoever (“Light the arrow…”), not the listicle of topics that have been regularly stuck into country songs for quite some time. Even restricting oneself to the 2000s, and leaving out minor acts or critical darlings like Angaleena Presley, John Rich had a single not that long ago called “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” — which was more specific, and at least pretended to be about Rich’s own community, rather than gawking at problems over there, happening to them. “Stick That in Your Country Song” is yet another entry in the tiresome, intellectually dishonest, but ever-lucrative genre of bemoaning the state of the world — here, the world of country airplay — without saying anything that’d endanger one’s own place in it. Remember how Church criticized the NRA? Are there perhaps ways that the ubiquity of guns might affect the lives of teachers, or veterans, or people in North Carolina as well as Baltimore? Stick that in your country song. You wouldn’t even be the first.
[5]

Alfred Soto: His genuine talent and occasional greatness contingent upon the tug of war between reactionary tendencies and his contempt for those who relish them, Eric Church is by far the most interesting of the last fifteen years of male country stars. He can write “Kill a Word.” He can articulate white male rage on the rather terrible, unconvincing “Dark Side.” So he writes a song about what country songwriters leave out of country songs but leaves in the reactionary tendencies, which he mitigates with a passionately sung verse about underpaid teachers and churning guitar parts. 
[6]

Steacy Easton: Look, good instincts here, and some solid guitar playing, but some of it is kinda racist and some of it is silly, and a lot of it doesn’t earn its gravitas, sliding into bathos and a kind of self-conscious failed art. 
[3]

Tuesday, August 4th, 2020

DJ Khaled ft. Drake – POPSTAR

Once you pop you can’t stop! (Though we wish you would…)


[Video][Website]
[2.43]

Katherine St Asaph: Never stops never stopping.
[1]

Oliver Maier: Is Drake being ironic when he calls himself a popstar? It’s natural to assume he’s too big-headed to really cop to such a role, perhaps he feels that it’s too antiquated or reductive an idea to fully encapsulate him. At the same time it’s not like he expresses that outright; he cops to the title pretty straightforwardly here, after all. It’s interesting — moreso than anything going on here musically anyway — that you can infer so much about what the role might mean to him, that he accepts it less as a genuine descriptor about who he is and more as a badge that he can flash, for instance, to get the police off his back or win girls over. It’s similar to when he called himself a “singing n***a” to dis Meek Mill 100 years ago in 2015, or solidified his pop dominance by turning himself into a laughing stock; Drake only grows bigger the smaller he makes himself look. No wonder he’s so insecure! Anyway, the song sucks ass.
[2]

Thomas Inskeep: Drake sounds bored as he phones it in on (sorry) “another one,” but he can’t possibly be as bored as I am, listening to the end result. 
[3]

Will Adams: Drake ruminating on his ubiquity over a beat by the equally omnipresent DJ Khaled is one of the most obvious concepts a song can have. In harsher terms, there is absolutely nothing of interest to this. Okay, except for the fact that on the verses Drake’s intonation resembles John McCrea on “Short Skirt / Long Jacket.”
[2]

Leah Isobel: If any hip-hop artist from the past decade has the right to call themselves a popstar — with the all-quadrants, all-radio format dominating star power that implies — it’s Drake. (Well, really it’s Nicki, but whatever.) But that broad appeal can also signify a certain softness and palatability, and “POPSTAR” is as middle-of-the-road as its name implies. For one thing, the production is monotonous and grey; for another, these are not his best bars. He sounds most alive when he muses on wanting “a quick death, and an easy one” in the first verse, and he name-checks Scooter Braun, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, his platinum plaques, and Turks and Caicos like he’s reading a shopping list. Contrast this approach with DaBaby and Kevin Gates’ lively take on the same concept, where the whole point is that rap stars are pop stars without compromises. Here, Drake just sounds compromised. Oh, and DJ Khaled was also in the room when this was made.
[3]

Alex Clifton: Drake, if you were a popstar, you’d inject this with some brightness rather than the same brags we’ve heard from you before — you sound downtrodden. DJ Khaled, if you wanted people to dance to this thing, you’d have a hook in this bloody song rather than the gloomy-ass strings haunting the back. Go back to bed, both of you.
[3]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: Well, at least it’s good to know that Drake is also as bored of his own fame as we all are. 
[3]

Thursday, July 30th, 2020

Usher – I Cry

He can cry, he can write a thoughtful song about fighting toxic masculinity, but can he do a front flip on beat?


[Video]
[7.00]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: As a statement of vulnerability and solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, “I Cry” succeeds on every front. And that matters more than any comment that I could make about how unremarkable it sounds. 
[6]

Alfred Soto: The evolution of Usher from a singer whose empathy outmatched his command over his instrument into an artist who only needed the right vessel so he could unleash his newfound command was obvious by Confessions, long ago and far away. On “I Cry,” Usher connects his own professed lack of compassion for the sisters in his life with his self-absorption with his arsenal of gulps, octave leaves, and melismatic tricks. He shouldn’t have gotten away with it. 
[8]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: Protest Song as Lenny Kravitz pastiche — the opening piano chords, all boring majesty, fake you out in their self seriousness, but Usher’s strength has always been making rigid songs sound more fun than their base state. 
[7]

Thomas Inskeep: A lovely, sensitive (yet not mushy) midtempo record about how men shouldn’t be afraid to cry, sung absurdly well. I mean, we all know that Usher can sing his ass off, but this is some truly great vocalizing. Combine this with late 2019’s “Don’t Waste My Time” and Mr. Raymond’s got a solid new album gestating.
[8]

Katherine St Asaph: A lush soul arrangement, all glissando and falsetto and slo-mo teardrop chords, undermined by that incessant prefab drum loop on the chorus. But when I imagine the track without, it sags, so clearly something is needed there. Just not this.
[5]

Alex Clifton: Simple, stirring, and a slap to the face against toxic masculinity. Thanks, mate.
[8]

Wednesday, July 29th, 2020

Victoria Monét x Khalid – Experience

Disco has made me rich, and now they’re after me…


[Video]
[6.57]

Kayla Beardslee: ATTENTION LISTENERS: Do you love the feathery disco glitz of “Say So” but want a Dr. Luke-free substitute with slightly more lyrical weight? Do you want to invest in the music of a charismatic R&B performer who’s gotten rich enough writing for other artists that she can approximate creative freedom in her solo work? Do you enjoy watching artists improve with every EP? Call 1-800-EXP-RNCE and use promo code NULUV to gain fast-track access to the discography of Victoria Monét today!
[7]

William John: April’s “Dive” was probably enough for Victoria Monét to be discussed merely in superlatives, without reference to her more well-known colleagues. She’s in the company of more friends on “Experience”, but any questions as to who is bringing the most star power to the table are answered by the end of her first breathy line. She exudes control and poise, even when her words indicate otherwise, and it’s a delight to hear her sleekly navigate her way through S.G. Lewis’ parade of trumpets and fistfuls of glitter. Khalid’s mumbled verse is virtually unintelligible, but well positioned; when Monét’s airy pre-chorus sails in afterward, all sins are forgiven.
[9]

Alfred Soto: “Tell me what you came for,” Victoria Monét asks. Honey, this. This. Honey-baked disco reliant on kick drum and the singer’s modest mirror moves, “Experience” boasts no wasted gestures and has the clean anonymity of many dance classics. 
[7]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: Disco-pop that leans so far into the gloss that it becomes featureless. Everyone’s talented enough to coast, but even In These Times ™️ we should do better than the bare minimum for dance tracks. At least the outro horns are nice!
[4]

Katherine St Asaph: “Lightning, this is what you came for,” goes another song on this theme; “Experience,” then, is the post-storm mist. As disco it’s diaphanous, more head than body, skimming over all feels — even the hook, “I’m hoping that experience can get you to change,” is held at an “I’m actually at capacity” emotional remove. Monét’s voice is a natural fit, light as Bath and Body Works spray — which will inevitably have her compared to her mentor, but the effect’s really more Cassie. Khalid, with his grainy-earthy voice, is not such a natural fit, and I can’t imagine the level of vocal-production mechanics necessary to turn him into a backing-vox sigh — but somehow, they did it! Sadly, no such vocal molecular gastronomy was applied to the horns, which couldn’t sound more General MIDI if they came with a tech spec.
[7]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: Victoria Monét’s “I’m all out of love/You gave it away” hook is feathery light and lovely–so why does Khalid have to come in and drown the mood? His enunciation on the second verse is so swampy that I can barely understand a word. It’s a shame, because Victoria Monét is more than strong enough to stand on her own, and by herself, this could have been so much fun.
[6]

Oliver Maier: Monét is content to continue being the person who reminds you that Ariana Grande exists, and Khalid is content to pour honey over proceedings. I can’t make out a word he’s saying, but I don’t suppose it matters. Utterly forgettable but plush and pleasant in the moment, and not the shallowest disco throwback single in recent times if I do “Say So” myself.
[6]

Wednesday, July 29th, 2020

Lil Baby – The Bigger Picture

The shirt says it all.


[Video]
[8.29]

Andy Hutchins: If DaBaby’s “Intro” was triumph in rap in 2019, this is defiance and resilience circa 2020: The better Baby head-fakes with a single bar about whip appeal and then launches into one of the more blistering critiques of the current moment of American failure any citizen will deliver. He’s viscerally vivid when it comes to the paranoiac existence of Black people in a country still coming to terms with them as people (“I find it crazy the police’ll shoot you / And know that you dead, but still tell you to freeze”; “Stare in the mirror whenever you drive”; “Must not be breathin’ the air that I breathe / You know that the way I can bleed, you can bleed”) and perfectly relentless over the instrumental, as Section 8 layers insistent drums, delicate piano, and siren synths to mimic the tempest that is this “hell of a year” in American life — one so profoundly fucked that “What happened to COVID?” comes off as a dark joke. Even the most Instagram-ready bars — “Every colored person ain’t dumb, and all whites not racist / I be judgin’ by the minds and hearts, I ain’t really into faces” — work because this is, at its core, an exhausted acknowledgement that that’s not the point: “There’s a problem with our whole way of life,” charges the hook. And yet, the soul of “The Bigger Picture” is hope, and belief in a future: Baby’s proclamation that “We can storm any weather” gets followed by “You know when the storm go away, then the sun shine,” whether this world deserves that optimism or not. As anthemic and vital as music gets, and sincerely moving to boot.
[10]

Tobi Tella: The strength and conviction it takes to release this, especially in the current rap environment that has seen fanbases mostly co-opted by white people, but the line between anger and empathetic is rode well, and the honesty pouring out of this is beautiful. Beautiful enough for me to not sideeye at that COVID line.
[8]

Alfred Soto: The track contradicts the title: as filigreed as a miniature. Unafraid to look afraid, Lil Baby uses his high-pitched timbre and mixing board distortion in the service of a July 2020 journal entry. He wills himself not to dismiss the white people whom he’s justified in hating. The most hortatory line is the best: “Fuck it, I’m goin’ on the front line.” 
[8]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: Compelling mostly for its inner conflict and imperfections– in Lil Baby’s uncertainty, in the obligatory feeling of his lyrics (“we gotta start somewhere/ Might as well start here”), he conveys the weariness and resolve that allow “The Bigger Picture” to work as a protest song. The song’s worldview rooted in personal experience rather than movement politics, regardless of the protest chant samples, and it succeeds on the strength of that; you get the sense of thinking out loud rather than canned speeches. It’s not always artful or coherent, but it works nonetheless.
[6]

Edward Okulicz: This is just such a mass of complicated emotions — numbness, weakness, the feeling of power that one could change it — that it almost feels ridiculous dissecting it line by line or sound by sound. But “The Bigger Picture” does so much right. Take the newsreaders on the opening, the female voice relaying atrocities that have terrified millions with a numbed intonation, as if livelihood and life is just a thing to report. Take the audacity of saying “God is the only man I fear.” Take how every line seethes with intent and feeling, drawing a line between the everyday fears that were there before with the new ones. It’s impossible not to feel those fears a little.
[9]

Thomas Inskeep: This is the most astute song I’ve heard linked to 2020’s police brutality/Black Lives Matter protests, from a rapper from whom I frankly didn’t expect it. This is thoughtful and smart, with a subtle musical backing that accents and doesn’t outshine Baby’s lyrics.
[9]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: With sangfroid, surgical precision, and arresting directness, Lil Baby perfectly captures 2020’s political and racial zeitgeist in the same way that Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” did in 2015. “The Bigger Picture” isn’t a pretty picture, but it’s one that America needs to confront if it is to ever eradicate police violence and systemic anti-black racism. 
[8]

Tuesday, July 28th, 2020

Kate NV – Plans

We hope you’ve made plans for a high scoring day…


[Video]
[7.88]

Alfred Soto: Just when I thought this Russian singer-songwriter’s twitchy synth groove had run out of crinkles to smooth it pulls a few more as Kate NV, submitting to the demands of the bass guitar, scats over more synths. And the hell did that sax come from? Like Nilüfer Yanya, she’s cheerfully at ease with collaging material.
[9]

Katherine St Asaph: Much is made of contrast: a tense post-punk arrangement, every moment a twitch of staccato voice or crackling-knuckle percussion, yet one with plenty of spacey interludes to fall into.
[9]

Jessica Doyle: The anachronistic comparison I want to make is to “Baker Street,” on the flimsiest of grounds: both songs are longer than the pop standard, both pull a lot of power from saxophones (although the saxophone sounds themselves are of different origin, and to different effect), and both have the effect of befriending the listener by describing disconnected anomie. Gerry Rafferty employed the second-person “you” to extend a subtle empathy: “And it’s taken you so long to find out you were wrong” is immediately understood as not a condemnation but a regretful reflection. Kate NV has the same “you,” but her “Everything has changed / Surely you noticed this” is delivered in an almost confiding way. You noticed? You don’t have anything optimistic to say? Then come sit right by her, and listen to her say, “There are plans on this planet somewhere,” in a tone too wry to be convincing and therefore comforting.
[8]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: Existential dread, but make it camp.
[6]

Tobi Tella: One of the most succinct summaries of the general dread that comes with living in the world at that moment. During a time where I’m desperately trying to feel like I have control over anything, Kate’s lyrics remind that everything is terrible and the leaders and systems we look to for order are all shams. The more I listen, the more I think this would probably be crushingly depressing if it didn’t sound so funky and smooth.
[7]

Oliver Maier: The kind of song where you know you’re in safe hands from the first 10 seconds or so. Kate doesn’t lean on the bassline too hard though — “Plans” has enough left turns and rabbits pulled out of hats to end up feeling wonderfully disoriented, but still familiar in ways you can’t quite place. The runtime betrays it just a little.
[8]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: The first time I heard “Plans” I was instantly taken by it — every element felt like a barbed fruit, hooking onto me in ways that I did not fully understand at the time. As I unraveled the song, listening in to the bassline or the saxophone, I realized gradually what Kate NV is doing here. “Plans” is at once crammed with detail and flourish and appealingly bare — there’s never too much going on, which allows for each individual detail to expand out into full screen. It’s a song that’s stretching out the form of pop to full use, curling its fingers around the canvas and pulling until the point of near crisis. At the heart of it all is Kate herself, her wry vocal performance undergirding the instrumental experimentation and preventing the surface from breaking.
[9]

Kylo Nocom: Though the music-wide galaxy pull towards pop conventions sometimes concerns me, “Plans” seems to be free of cynicism, instead indicating an artist who has genuine interest in the pop format. Kate NV’s minimalistic approach towards melody allows for her to play around with the surrounding arrangements, incorporating idiosyncrasies that suggest an enthusiasm for obscure new wave yet never using them as mere decoration. She may lyrically bemoan her inability to plan against the ever-changing world, but the efficiency of this track suggests a strategic approach towards songwriting — a breath of fresh air compared to modern artists in the played-out synthpop tradition.
[7]

Sunday, July 26th, 2020

Bonus Tracks for Week Ending July 26, 2019

Thursday, July 23rd, 2020

City Girls – Jobs

We’d say it’s a timely title, but when the hell in 2020 wouldn’t it be?


[Video]
[6.00]

Leah Isobel: “Jobs” is admirably efficient; Miami and JT come in, drop their bars, and leave. It’s not as effusive as their past work, but it’s lean and focused, and their rapport is as strong as ever.
[6]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: A [4] for Miami, a [6] for JT. Everything else is a wash, but the former feels overly derivative (somewhere between “Savage” and “Nonstop,” which is to say at the exact center of contemporary rap), while the latter at least has enough switches to flip to make “Jobs” feel less like drudgery.
[5]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: In this economy, where elites are protected from economic and health risks and value humans as expendable capital, thank you, City Girls, for the hilarity and subversiveness of “I don’t work jobs/Bitch, I am a job.” Capitalism, what’s good? 
[7]

Katherine St Asaph: Something tells me a lot of people are going to be really feeling this song in the next month or two. Although maybe in remix form, i.e., over 2 minutes.
[5]

Thomas Inskeep: “I don’t work jobs, bitch, I am a job” is a great line, and Yung Miami and JT have wonderful voices and flow. That said, with this clocking in at 2:01, I want more verses and more song.
[6]

Alfred Soto: I can foresee a moment, like a similar one with DaBaby, when their boasting and teasing will sound blah. What stops me: I love their vocal tone. Far from star-worthy or even immortalizing, City Girls sound like normal people with unusual self-confidence. This is the secret of good hip-hop and dance.
[7]

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020

Ne-Yo ft. Jeremih – U 2 Luv

Keep an ear out for the follow-up retro throwback, “U2 Luv…”


[Video]
[6.17]

Thomas Inskeep: Sampling “Juicy Fruit” and interpolating “Computer Love”? A pair of singers as solid as Ne-Yo and Jeremih on the track? Not to mention Ne-Yo returning, wholeheartedly, to the R&B sphere that raised him? (About time he moved away from EDM crap and garbage records with the likes of Pitbull.) This is pure Adult R&B catnip, which means it’s also pure catnip to me, specifically. One of the year’s catchiest and best.
[10]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: Basic in conception, execution, and style, “U 2 Luv” is a love story that begins and ends with Ne-Yo and Jeremih’s nostalgia for the ’90s. 
[4]

Katherine St Asaph: The “alt-R&B” conversation has died down, maybe mercifully, but at a weird time considering the lushness like this R&B’s longtimers are producing. The samples (prominent, great) aren’t the only thing in “U 2 Luv” that’s out of time. There’s some “Don’t Disturb This Groove,” some of what mid-10s Miguel was spinning, some artifacts late-’00s R&B — I’m thinking of the autotune, not today’s blearier sort but more fizzy, shimmery, decorating the vocal line with cartoon rocket trails.
[7]

Alfred Soto: Because neither artist has excited me since Barack Obama’s first term, I saw the numerical title and shuddered. I don’t know if they sing together or benefit from the wizardry of engineers, but their harmonies twist like creeper vines over an impressive repurposing of the “Juicy” beat. “U 2 Luv” gets better with each play.
[7]

Scott Mildenhall: The theory that three minutes and thirty seconds is the optimal length for a pop song runs into trouble when that time drags as much as it does here. If Ne-Yo wasn’t so busy awkwardly turning Netflix on and off during a massage, then he might have come up with a few more ideas for a song that would work just as well, or even be improved, at a length of one minute and ten.
[4]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: A mediocre example of the vaguely-’90s throwback R&B that will play on rap radio for the next 12 months. It’s better than “24/7“, about on par with “On Chill“, and slightly worse than “Back Home.” They’re all worse than “Don’t Waste My Time,” which happens to be the one that doesn’t get as much play.
[5]