Wednesday, January 20th, 2021

Bad Bunny x Rosalía – La Noche de Anoche

Tonight is the night is the night is the night…


[Video]
[6.67]

Rodrigo Pasta: Humorous! Certainly one of the funnier tracks on EL ÚLTIMO TOUR DEL MUNDO, a coy game between two superstars that should have collaborated sooner. Playing the love game is something difficult and only for the brave, and these two aren’t quite sure of how far their honor goes just yet. They’ve tasted each other, but what comes next? The chemistry’s there, but the burns are still too present. The song won’t come to any conclusions, but it will agree on the fact that said time spent together? Tough to beat. And as always, producer/mastermind Tainy’s instrumental is minimal but misty, with roughly-edged snares and escalating melodies that can’t look too far ahead. Also, I may be the only one to point this out, but props to co-producers Chris Jeday and Gaby Music, possibly the best vocal producers in reggaeton right now, as they subtly chop Bad Bunny’s verse to accentuate different letters (“sin mucha cotorra”, “que la vida’e- corra”), and reverberate Rosalía’s vocals, as if the audio was bouncing in an airy room. It’s the little things.
[9]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: Impossibly intimate, timelessly melodic, and so sexy it aches: it was only a matter of time before a Bad Bunny & Rosalía collaboration, and this melodramatic mini-affair is everything that I could have wanted and more. 
[9]

Thomas Inskeep: God, they sound so good singing with each other, and so good singing against each other. Can we get a whole album of these two?
[7]

Alfred Soto: No doubt it will help with streams, but Rosalía’s arch, self-aware attempts at feeling and Bad Bunny’s mumbled sincerity don’t gel. “La Noche de Anoche”‘s spareness turns him into a foghorn.  
[5]

Katherine St Asaph: Droning, punctuated by louder droning, with the occasional interlude of stripped-back droning. I wish I heard what others did.
[1]

Harlan Talib Ockey: This is one of those rare cases where a lack of interaction between duet partners actually elevates the song. Everything in the production and composition here builds up a feeling of solitude and separation: the chorus is broken into halves, with Bad Bunny and Rosalía each taking one, our vocalists only sing together in the final chorus, and a low-pass filter at the beginning of Rosalía’s verse makes the listener feel like we’re abruptly being plunged into an ice-cold ocean across the world. The other part of this puzzle is the beat, which remains largely static from the first chorus. The art it’s mastered, however, is how to disappear. You can practically see the way the narrators become distracted as they reminisce and fantasize, thanks to its carefully placed stutters and stops. What this all ultimately adds up to is the intentional absence of catharsis. Our narrators spend the track’s runtime thinking about what they want each other to represent, not reaching out to build a relationship. And they end “La Noche de Anoche” alone — which hurts, but it happens, and sometimes the mirage is better than reality.
[9]

Tuesday, January 19th, 2021

Playboi Carti ft. Kid Cudi – M3tamorphosis

Whole lotta blurbs…


[Video]
[7.50]

Al Varela: Whole Lotta Red was a mess, and I’d probably dislike it more if I was a Playboi Carti fan to begin with. I can’t see most of the album resonates with people outside of scattered hooks and beats that are maybe fun as a distraction every now and then. But credit to Carti for at least trying to take his music in a new, experimental direction. Even if it didn’t always work, it tells me there is a creative instinct in there somewhere. “M3tamorphisis” is one of my favorites for that reason. The swamped out bassy beat over Carti’s firecracker delivery and Kid Cudi’s signature hums make this one of the more unique songs on the album. One that has that sense of danger and an atmosphere that’s borderline alien. There’s not much to the song’s content, but it doesn’t need to have it. The point is to get you hype, and this song does it in a way that’s not only really exciting and cool but in a way that I haven’t really heard from any other trap rapper in this lane. 
[8]

Alfred Soto: On a swollen, endless album, “M3tamrphosis” is a standout: its insistent buzz, the way Carti breaks syllables into pellets that they bounce off the beats, the luxuriance in pure sound as expression, the entrance of Cudi for his baritone menace.
[7]

Rodrigo Pasta: Time might show that Whole Lotta Red was actually better than Die Lit, if only because it’s more eclectic, more maniac, more aggressive than ever before – a mainstream rap album that actively tries to act like an old-fashioned punk album. This song is key to that project, with a razor-sharp synthline like the world’s most powerful bidet, accompanied by Cudi’s disorienting vocals. It creates a feeling of dismay and hesitation, which doesn’t stop as Carti attacks the track like few others in his career. You can’t quite tell when the chorus stops and his verse starts, and his vocal delivery is frighteningly up-close, as the mixing accentuates those shapeshifting moments in his voice (“I feel like MorpheUs“, “mEtaMORPhosISSs“). This can’t be simply disguised as hype music, it’s something more sonically dangerous and pressing. Also, Kid Cudi’s here; good for him.
[8]

Nortey Dowuona: When one lets Cudi of all people be a more interesting and propulsive force while at half speed, what can you say? Despite his mounting avalanches or purrs, squeaks and shrieks, when Carti deigns to speak, it’s usually a halt to the crushing rise of the imposing and bulbous beat and whirring chainsaw synths and the raspy, spinning hums of Cudi, simply waiting patiently for the energy to seize the heart and move the ankles and not being converted. And FYI, if we’re talking about rappers who speak in hieroglyphics, Posdonous and Casual are still around.
[5]

Will Rivitz: I doubt Carti (famous, extremely cool, good rapper) has the same cultural touchstones as I (blog about pop music, tenuous nerd-chic at best, Ben Shapiro voice) do, but this nevertheless hits a smorgasbord of references I care deeply about. Its production draws from a late-aughts Hyperdub sound I fell in love with despite being too young and too many miles away to experience in person; its Auto-Tuned “I feel like Morpheus” drips with the same chaotic, corrosive confidence as Hannibal Buress; Kid Cudi contributes less in function than in form, not so much an essential element as an affirmation of his heyday’s indelible imprint both on Carti’s sound and my own understanding of what “emo” could mean as a wee teen. It’s not meant for me, but it’s for me all the same.
[8]

Katherine St Asaph: The beat sounds like something out of Secret of Mana, Cudi’s backing vocals are a fitting added note of ambience, and Playboi Carti wrings, if not novelty by now, definitely vitality out of blown-out Auto-Tune.
[7]

Thomas Inskeep: I’m a known hater of Auto-Tune generally, but Carti makes it as another instrument, another element in his arsenal, the same way that he-who-must-not-be-named did on 808s and Heartbreak (one of the most influential hip hop albums of this century). And Carti excels with it on “M3tamorphosis,” even though the track has a mostly basic trap beat, a basic chorus, and a nothingburger of a guest verse from Kid Cudi. Not only is the way Carti uses Auto-Tune distinctive, but his use of repetition is fascinating and compelling, practically turning phrases into Reichian drones; you can’t turn away.
[7]

Andrew Karpan: When you feel like this, nobody really can tell you shit. Playboi Carti so smoothly put together a Kanye West-style vamp-up that it’s vastly superior to the actual Kanye West track on his record. But there’s added value in comparing hip hop’s biggest head today with the erstwhile occupant of the throne. When West made his version of this song, he sang from a throne made of expensive classic rock samples, evidencing a posture of reflective remorse that revealed itself as little more than showman irony. But Carti is now and the world has changed. Power is measured by the steps you take and simple pleasures have become more interesting than long-winded grooves. The buzzing chords that light up Carti’s voice and the din of Kid Cudi’s voice, which hovers around the song in unintelligible groans like an ominous cloud. A certain kind of unintelligibility becomes part of the game and this is something Carti celebrates: “They can’t understand me, I’m talking hieroglyphics.” Fair enough! He speaks in feelings and “M3tamorphosis” is about feeling like a 10, so what other score could it get?
[10]

Tuesday, January 19th, 2021

Gwen Stefani – Let Me Reintroduce Myself

Nice* to meet you [*citation needed]


[Video]
[2.30]

Thomas Inskeep: Not even a “please”? How rude.
[0]

Jeffrey Brister: You know how nostalgia, in its most meaningless and insubstantial form, simply shouts, “hey, remember this?” at you constantly, with enough force to keep your focus away from the emptiness within? Well, what if that concept were a song, and also a mid-life crisis, and the video was a stew of symbols without referents, and the whole thing just irritated you because you have to refrain from referencing Mark Fisher because it’s trite to trot out the whole Hauntology thing? The conceit of “reintroducing” oneself, an artist with a storied history in pop music, via a song that evokes absolutely nothing temporally specific (though that guitar riff at the start sounds like Sugar Ray) is absolutely fascinating to me, but not for the reasons Stefani intended.
[0]

Aaron Bergstrom: Nothing says “still culturally relevant” like dressing up in your old clothes, awkwardly referencing your biggest solo hit (which will be old enough to drive in a few months), and literally singing the words “I’m recycling me,” all in the first verse.
[3]

Rodrigo Pasta: “It’s not a comeback, I’m recycling me” does not mean what she thinks it means. A meta-announcement that’s also meant to act as the real thing, and it ends up being neither. It’s not self-aware enough to be cynical, yet not stupid enough to pity it. It’s a superstar promoting herself as her brand instead of her music. Every time you think she’s gonna say something (anything!), it’s either a callback to the fact that she exists, or nonsense (“Ooh! 20-20-20-20-20 vision/That’s 100, but I’m not that good at long division” stands tall among the worst lines of 2020). It can’t even properly be musically retro since its “dancehall”/”ska” instrumental is the most sterile revival since Jonas Brothers’ “Only Human” — and it might be the worst song released since “Only Human”.
[0]

Leah Isobel: This is like a more crassly commercial version of “Red Sangria.”
[2]

Alfred Soto: Within seconds I knew “Let Me Reintroduce Myself” would become this year’s “Ironic”: critics and some listeners having a laugh at the expense of the female singer who doesn’t know what “recycle” means. But recycling is her approach: borrowing ska guitar here and Dua Lipa vocal moos there into a combustible mixture. If she didn’t sound so pipsqueaky, she might’ve made something better than compost.
[3]

Andrew Karpan: For most of Stefani’s three-minute meta-exercise on her own fame, Stefani evidences little remorse, reducing the cleverness of her pop cannon into reference points like so many nouns in a Billy Joel song. But amid all these hyperlinks, the ex-punk singer declares with a snarl that “no, I’m not records on your shelf.” Inside such moments of alienated labor levity, I can imagine that there’s hope yet for a Marxist pop star for these times.
[4]

Scott Mildenhall: What is “self”, beyond its rhyme with “shelf”? This song doesn’t seem to have an answer, but poses many such questions. The existentialism feels entirely unwitting, provoked by a protestation of selfhood that seems designed only to reassert Gwen Stefani The Popstar. After all the artifice, it’s thuddingly incurious. But it does have a nice beat.
[6]

Katherine St Asaph: Gwen Stefani’s whole career has been one continuous reintroduction of herself, as outlined in this retrospective, a gallery of horrifying re-introductions past (which is worse: some suit’s description of the “high degree of notoriety and equity in her brand,” or her father’s description of her sex appeal — end sentence, really — as “the healthy, athletic, happy, honest approach”?) She wanted to be the girl who had and ate the most cake: the iconoclast in debutante pearls, the wild rocker mild enough for a CosmoGIRL fashion page-filler, forever more wholesome than the surroundings she’d gotten into. How well it worked depended on how young and/or uncynical you were, as with the era’s other queen of ever-protesting branding, Jennifer Lopez — which is perhaps why “Let Me Reintroduce Myself” sounds like a GOOP version of “Jenny from the Block,” and about as convincing. For all her image work, Stefani’s sound was always malleable, from ska once upon a discography to the sproingy rock “Just a Girl” to the ’90s angst of “Don’t Speak” to the steely electro of “Hella Good” and the Linda Perry songs on Love. Angel. Music. Baby., to the garish experiments of the rest of that album and the next. She thrives or craters with her collaborators, but here that’s Ross Golan, responsible for some of the blandest Adult Hits records of the past decade. He recycles Andy Grammer and Maroon 5 as much as anything Stefani did. What survives of her are the wrong-side-of-WTF lyrics: the recycling line, the long-division line (I was joking about that algorithm thing), or the references to “records on a shelf,” which in streaming days exist as vintage kitsch as much as music, or being “free with a coupon,” like shows by artists who can’t get their arenas to sell out.
[3]

Will Adams: Like the other “I’m humble!” songs from Stefani’s contemporaries, “Let Me…” is so lacking in self-awareness it’s comedic. It’s a vanity single with misguided ambition; what, exactly, are we being reintroduced to? Stefani’s spent the last five years becoming a primetime and tabloid fixture along with an equally self-unaware partner. The angle, it seems, is to remind the public that she’s someone who unabashedly appropriated every culture under the sun for fast-fashion branding and giddily asks for more money for her video shoot as masked stylists finish their touch-ups. She’s not wrong to use “recycled”; the song itself is fine and unsurprising, a chipper morass of reggae whatever. So perhaps the real question to ask is: does this need to exist?
[2]

Tuesday, January 19th, 2021

Zoe Wees – Girls Like Us

But we don’t like this…


[Video]
[3.50]

Alex Clifton: I could predict every part of the melody before it happened, not just from an “oh-that-makes-musical-sense” way but in an “oh-I’ve-definitely-heard-that-before” way. On top of that, it’s generic and bland. I don’t know who Wees wants the “us” to be: all girls? Girls who have had their hearts broken? Girls with specific trust issues? I’ve seen this described as a “female empowerment” song that’s railing against societal standards for women, but if that’s the case, we’ve got a world of those songs already, and many of them are much better than what Wees has delivered here.
[2]

Alfred Soto: This blandly inspirational would-be anthem needs a stronger or more charismatic vocalist than Zoe Wees, for whom fading into a crowd seems like the point.
[3]

Thomas Inskeep: Here’s what makes this better than Wees’s last single, “Control“: it has a modicum of tempo. So I’ll give it +1, because apart from that, this is just as bad, from its fauxspirational lyrics to her overwrought vocal.
[3]

Iain Mew: The familiar melodic, rhythmic and inspirational patterns may sound like yet another “Read All About It” without the rapping, but at least it doesn’t sound like “Read All About It Part III.
[4]

Katherine St Asaph: Zoe Wees is a little like Bibi Bourelly, in that she adds grit and presence to material that would otherwise be workaday glurge. The rawness to “Girls Like Us” is more in Wees’s vocal than the trod-smooth melody and lyric, though “we don’t know who we trust, not even the ones we love” is a tad more honest than par.
[5]

Juana Giaimo: I appreciate that pop music is covering mental health these days, but I’m bummed out that most of the times it is just empty phrases that use the same metaphors we already know (darkness, mirrors, cages). Zoe Wees’ voice doesn’t work for me either. Last time we covered her, I thought it was because it didn’t work with ballads, but with this synthpop production she seems to be dragging the song down. But being fair, the music alone sounds as anonymous as the lyrics. 
[4]

Monday, January 18th, 2021

Black Eyed Peas ft. Shakira – Girl Like Me

And also one like Shakira…


[Video]
[2.43]

Rodrigo Pasta: This song is like a game: Find The Most Embarrassing Section In This Song. And oh boy, are there plenty of options to go with. Is it Shakira’s atonal squeal in the middle of the chorus? Is it will.i.am randomly saying words in Spanish in his verse (“I wanna find me achica“)? Is it his and Shakira’s voices not blending whatsoever in his verse? Is it him going “Oye, mami, estoy buscando una chica así” like a middle schooler doing a presentation for his class? Is it the tasteless Auto-Tune in Shakira’s post-chorus? Is it Taboo saying “Sacúdelo como Shaki” instead of “Shake it like Shaki,” wasting what could have been a tonally satisfying line? Is it him saying “a girl that uses her head” twice in a row, only changing “head” to “cabeza”? Is it apl.de.ap’s “la-la-latinas” chant? Is it him changing said chant to “SHA-SHA-SHAKIRA?” (It’s probably that one.) Is it half of his verse being namechecks of different Latin American countries? And believe it or not, there are so many more to choose from!
[0]

Juana Giaimo: The fact that Black Eyed Peas aren’t the most annoying thing in this track indicates how bad it is. There are seven songwriters in “Girl Like Me” and all of them thought Shakira shrieking was a good idea. Maybe if the beat was more fun it would work, but with this repetitive minimalistic track, it just sounds annoying. The Black Eyed Peas’ verses feature everything I hate about Latin crossovers: people rapping in Spanish just because they are collaborating with a Latin artist while using the common stereotype that Latin American women are the sexiest, loudest and don’t have any kind of boundaries.
[1]

Tobi Tella: Guys, I’m sorry for ever criticizing you for shamelessly appropriating white people songs. It’s not too late to go back to a less insidious form of culture vulturing!
[2]

Katherine St Asaph: Recording a Latin crossover cash-in, about nothing but the fact that it’s a Latin crossover cash-in? Not noteworthy, hasn’t been for decades. Recording a Latin crossover cash-in that namechecks not only Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” and (again!) various other artists they maybe couldn’t get for the album, but also “Shots” (via a namedrop of someone else), and “Electric Feel”? Now there’s that authentic BEP trend-jacking we expect. All the points are for Shakira, and none for the Peas, who with each verse make “I’mma be a bank, I’ll be loaning out semen” sound like better and better poetry. She just doesn’t cease to be herself; that coy flirt of a hook could come from almost no one else. (Almost; it also sounds like the kind of hook Fergie would sing, as well as the kind of hook Fergie probably shouldn’t sing.) I almost detect a note of mocking in her vocal, though that may be coming from inside the house.
[4]

Rose Stuart: I don’t even know. Why does this song have no structure? What is Shakira’s voice doing in the hook? Why do they keep saying “La-La-Latinas” as part of the beat? Does this count as fetishising Latina women? Or is it just fetishising Shakira? Did she agree to do this song for the ego boost? What possessed any of them to write a song about this? This is what I deserve for thinking a Shakira collaboration might get the Black Eyed Peas to return to the reggaetón inspired style that I loved from them so much in the 2000s that I’m still on occasion willing to defend them. Not today, though. There’s no defending this. But because will.i.am sold his soul to the Devil, I’ll almost certainly have this mess stuck in my head for the next month
[2]

Thomas Inskeep: Because BEP are nothing if not opportunists, I presume the simplistic production of “Girl Like Me” is so as to better avail itself to TikToks and the like? And because will.i.am is king of the opportunists, it’s obvious that putting together the Translation album, he thought: “Hey, Latinx music is streaming in huge numbers, let’s try that!” So we’ve gotten collabs with J Balvin and Ozuna, and now, Shakira — and damn if it hasn’t worked out for them commercially. (Artistically, not so much.) “Girl Like Me” is nominally better than its two predecessor singles, if only because Shakira is almost always a refreshing presence on a record, even a mediocre one — and sometimes she’s even better on mediocre singles, because her greatness is so glaring. She’s not great here, but she’s good. BEP are not so much, rattling off clichés about Latinx women.
[4]

Aaron Bergstrom: Shakira dials up the vocal weirdness like she knows she’s locked in a battle with will.i.am’s personality eradication algorithm, and we should all give thanks for that, because without her this is basically the musical equivalent of that time Trump posted a picture of himself with a taco salad and tweeted “I Love Hispanics!”
[4]

Monday, January 18th, 2021

Jazmine Sullivan ft. H.E.R. – Girl Like Me

Today we consider a girl like her and also a girl like H.E.R…


[Video]
[6.62]

Katherine St Asaph: The same story of a woman — well, two women, but H.E.R. totally subsumes herself into Sullivan’s narrative — crumbling underneath men’s inescapable hell rules as “Mascara.” This one, however, isn’t as thoroughly sketched.
[6]

Thomas Inskeep: Oh, I want to like this so much. But the production here (by Bongo ByTheWay) is too sparse, and Sullivan’s voice gets kinda screechy as the song progresses. (H.E.R. provides a solid second verse and sisterly backup.) The lyrical intent of “Girl Like Me” is great, but I can’t get down with the way this is musically served up.
[4]

Juana Giaimo: I feel that there is no connection in between the lyrics and the music in “Girl Like Me.” The warm acoustic guitar loop and the funny background noises are nice but they don’t transmit the desperation and angst of the lyrics. Jazmine Sullivan’s voice sounds quite sad and reflective at the beginning, but when at the end of the song they reach the emotional culmination, it just sounds like a competition to see who can sing in the most melodramatic way. And in the background, you can still here the guitar and noises still doing their own thing.
[5]

Ashley John: “Girl Like Me” is one end of Jazmine Sullivan’s modern woman spectrum. Where on “Pricetags” she declares confidently “I can be a freak, throw it back, let you toss it,” in this track with stripped down guitar and gentle back and forth with H.E.R, she is less certain. Throughout Heaux Tales, Sullivan explores the world through the many lenses of being a woman: of being the woman lusted after and here of questioning what she lacks compared to others. Aside from the literal sense in the lyrics, the message of “Girl Like Me” is mainly confusion. Sullivan doesn’t have any clear answers, but her willingness to sit in the question makes this a worthwhile listen. 
[7]

Michael Hong: “Girl Like Me” isn’t meant to be an anthem. It’s much more private, with Jazmine Sullivan and H.E.R., over liquid guitars like drinks, swapping stories of when they knew it was over. Of the shame of not being good enough, the desperate ache of wanting more. Jazmine Sullivan and H.E.R. let loose with extended runs and belted harmonies, but the true strength of “Girl Like Me” is in the “ft.,” the pair’s harmonies and ad-libs an invitation to be each other’s company, which for now, has to be good enough.
[7]

Alfred Soto: Far from Jazmine Sullivan’s best, “Girl Like Me” goes through its prescribed paces without raising a fuss. When she wails in the last third, the structure trembles.
[5]

Aaron Bergstrom:I feel moments of sadnеss knowing that, you know, just me alone and who I am is not enough.” That’s the last line of “Amanda’s Tale,” the brief spoken-word interlude directly preceding “Girl Like Me,” spoken by a long-time friend of Sullivan’s taking stock of how social media has fundamentally changed her approach to romantic relationships. That sentiment is deeply personal but universal, endemic to our current age but timeless. We’ve all felt some version of that not-enough-ness, even if it isn’t always triggered by Instagram. The unifying genius of “Girl Like Me” as a response is its commitment to nuance, creating space that can be filled any number of ways. The instrumental is textured and sparse, all clicks and hisses, echoing samples and fleeting percussion enveloping minimalist guitar, like an intricate nest painstakingly crafted from the materials at hand. It’s a backdrop that allows two generational vocal talents to shine mostly though understatement, touching on emotions from confusion and self-loathing to anger and defiance. Is there hope for a girl like Jazmine Sullivan? Unclear, but at least there’s a step toward understanding.
[9]

Nortey Dowuona: Jazmine Sullivan only arrives when she’s made something she wants to share, which in a time where making a Tinder as a well known singer can pop up on gossip blogs if a spurned dickhead sells it. Meanwhile, Jazmine is really trying to get her rocks off, while H.E.R. bitterly strips down, her pissed tone seeping through her usual honeyed voice and Jazmine tries to comfort her within her massive, oceanic croon, more anguished and desperate than bitter and kissed by the sweet honey guitars and dribbling percussion melting behind them. Jazmine mixes the bass as H.E.R. strums, the groove slinking then disappearing as Jazmine shakes it, a sadness and desperation as she says “you gonna make a hoe outta me.”
[10]

Sunday, January 17th, 2021

Bonus Tracks for Week Ending January 17, 2021

Friday, January 15th, 2021

NiziU – Step and a Step

Splitting the difference between J-Pop and K-Pop with no regard to their alphabetic contiguity…


[Video][Website]
[4.71]

Iain Mew: The Korean pop industry’s attempts at tailored international expansion make for a fascinating tale over the years. Wonder Girls’ Nick Jr. movie: not a success. Chinese sub-group Exo-M: more of a success, at least while it lasted. More sophisticated approaches to Japan got us to the joint Produce 48 reality show and IZ*ONE, a success in both countries, but very much a Korean-led one. NiziU are also the product of a Korean-Japanese reality show, but the Korean part is kept more behind the scenes, and they’ve been a much bigger success in Japan. I find it hard not to second guess who came up with which sounds and why, and the pounding positivity gets a bit much and flattens out the whole song, as enjoyable as some of the other more dextrous moves are. I’m not the specific audience, though, and it’s met its goals there.
[4]

Rachel Saywitz: This is the type of sugar-coated, cotton-candy flavored pop song where the candy is actually a few years old but you decide to eat it anyway because you’re adventurous and you have nothing else in the pantry, and when you bite into a stale, crusty piece, you can immediately tell this is not what candy should taste like, and with that thought in mind you bite into another grainy piece of candy because it still has some sweetness, and you could use any kind of sweetness right now given the state of your personal life. Anyway, this song is okay. 
[5]

Aaron Bergstrom: Repeated listens bring on a sensation similar to highway hypnosis, but instead of unconsciously driving home, you come to at your desk and realize you’ve sketched out plot arcs for two seasons of a partially-animated TV show for tweens that will use “Step and a Step” as its theme song. You have no memory of doing this.
[7]

Katherine St Asaph: Evokes teenpop at its dorkiest and EDM at its Zeddiest, and sounds stunningly dated — but I can’t imagine any year where it wouldn’t.
[2]

Thomas Inskeep: At a time when so many K-Pop artists are pushing the boundaries of the genre, NiziU’s latest single feels regressive, like we’re gonna party like it’s 2016. This is perfectly fine pop music, but it’s also basic as hell.
[5]

Anna Katrina Lockwood: NiziU is a JYPE girl group making their official debut — a genre of single that comes with a stunningly high bar, which “Step and a Step” just does not reach. It is a huge disappointment, especially on the heels of their excellent, zippy, maniacally arranged pre-debut single, “Make You Happy”. “Step and a Step” is, conversely, a merely serviceable girl group song. It’s twinkly, and cute, and it’s got hooks — it’s just that they’re not tremendously compelling. The members bring a significant amount of charm to the material of course, but nonetheless, this sounds like a song that was intended for Twice, then cast off and retrofitted for their younger Japanese counterparts here. 
[5]

Ryo Miyauchi: While the tastelessness of the generic tropical-house beat fails to elevate “Step and a Step” above a feelgood jingle, the lyrics show JYP following a textbook example of Japanese idol-song lyrics: “just believe in yourself” and “everything will be OK” are natural platitudes, eschewing cleverness in favor of earnest sincerity. Considering that “Step and a Step” is a J-pop single engineered by a K-pop company, it’s intriguing to see which aesthetic choices producers abroad deem characteristic of the market. JYP’s own envisioning focuses particularly on message over style, perhaps hinting that sentimentality works better than stylishness in J-pop. I don’t think they’re out of hand to suggest that, and seeing the success of NiziU last year, they haven’t been entirely wrong.
[5]

Friday, January 15th, 2021

Tones and I – Fly Away

Above the trees, over the seas, averaging [3]s…


[Video][Website]
[3.57]

John S. Quinn-Puerta: I had some affection for the simple guitar lick that pervades the track but the sheer amount of edifice built around Tones’ increasingly irritating vocals made me lose track of it halfway through. 
[3]

Katherine St Asaph: I understand the amount of hate Tones and I gets — people recoil at earnestness, and even harder at any female vocalist who dares to quirk — but I don’t like it and don’t agree. Fly me away to a less dismissive world, where Watson’s vocal crinkles are charming and enliven this otherwise fine inspiro-pop, which sounds better anyway in a year when “Firework” doesn’t play 50 times a day alongside it.
[5]

Rachel Saywitz: I would like to fly away from the moment I first heard this unoriginal, dull excuse for a motivational pop song. 
[1]

Thomas Inskeep: Toni Watson basically got lucky and hit a stream of liquid gold — multiple generations beyond her won’t ever have to work — with the awful global smash “Dance Monkey.” Her voice is an average singing-competition-show one, over-emoting every word, and she uses it to top generic dance-pop tracks that aren’t much more than Casio keyboard presets. “Fly Away,” full of “inspirational” clichés and lyrical tropes, is even worse than you might expect. I resent that someone as aggressively bad as Watson is an international star, while so many better artists can’t get a break; this song is the cherry on that puke sundae.
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Scott Mildenhall: “Dance Monkey” was still in the Australian top five when Tones and I released her lonely-at-the-top ballad “Can’t Be Happy All The Time”, so it’s good to hear her more sanguine daydreams now it’s only number 28. It’s good, too, to hear her temper her more elaborate instincts. Over-vocalising was never viable beyond that one time that will keep her in clover for a long time, and coherence for once cannot expose any clanging lyrics. Still wonky, but more direct, the edges seem sanded off. It would be interesting to know if she thinks that’s a good thing.
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Samson Savill de Jong: Sometimes the weird chipmunk warble that Tones and I puts on her voice slips and you can hear that she could be a talented singer, but it returns within half a second and I’m back to wondering how I can justify this reminding me so much of Passenger.
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Alfred Soto: The modestly creative arrangement — backup vocalists who gust like wind, say — matches the modestly quirky voice. Both mitigate this inspirational drivel. 
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Friday, January 15th, 2021

Aya Nakamura ft. Stormzy – Plus Jamais

Would it be a really bad joke to ask what Jamais did on this track?


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Wayne Weizhen Zhang: With Spanish language music increasingly mainstream and the final triumph of K-pop stan armies having finally transpired, one question I’m increasingly interested in is what language will be the next to penetrate the global English-speaking market. Why not French? Some might call it unlikely, but the inklings of a crossover have been bubbling under the surface for years; at this point, more than anything, what’s needed to take the language global is finding the right artist to be its herald. Enter Aya Nakamura: three albums into her career, she has undoubtedly cemented herself as French music’s hottest force, effortlessly marrying Afrobeats, pop, and R&B sounds with a healthy dose of French argot. She’s had her global hit, her infectious dancefloor moments, her viral TikTok dalliances, and her cross-language collaborations; now she just needs the song to introduce her to even more audiences. “Plus Jamais,” if there’s any justice in the universe, should be just that. An unassailable argument for her global superstardom, Nakamura torches her way through the autopsy of a relationship (“I gave you my heart/I’ll never do it again”), sounding right at home with a heartbroken, achingly charismatic Stormzy. Does the bilingual duet feel a little focus-group-tested in nature? Absolutely. But should we care about being catered to when the results are this electric? Absolutely not. This song feels important and Aya sounds massive; I hope it marks the genesis of more to come.  
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Joshua Minsoo Kim: There’s always been an emotional underbelly to Aya Nakamura’s songs, but it’s a bit hard for the average English-speaking American to see that given how lively the production can be. On “Plus Jamais,” it’s obvious: there’s so much weight placed on that faint guitar wail. Even when the beat enters, it sort of stumbles into the song before petering out again. She’s never done so much with so little.
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Nortey Dowuona: Aya gently dusts her voice in autotune, a plaintive note shining through the heavy, teetering bass and shifting synths as Stormzy’s gentle yet threateningly cold voice closes in. She slips away, as Stormzy has pretty much given away the game — if he simply followed Aya’s lead, he might not be facing losing her. The chipmunk squeaks are chirping out a warning that despite her regrets and fears, she needs and heeds.
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Alfred Soto: The mix turns Aya Nakamura into a guest on her own song, or, uncharitably, a sound effect. And while Stormzy sometimes registers merely as aural pleasure, it’s not a good idea to mute him too.
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Rachel Saywitz: Aya Nakamura sings with such an assuredness that is surprisingly strengthened by the digital processing of her voice; I hear her words as if they are floating directly into my brain, carried along with soft, despairing verses from Stormzy. 
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Thomas Inskeep: This French R&B track is pleasantly bouncy, but both Nakamura (a strong singer) and Stormzy (a superb rapper) are soaked in Auto-Tune for no perceptible reason. Why would you do that to vocalists who don’t need it? I am gnashing my teeth and banging my head against walls, because “Plus Jamais” could’ve and should’ve been better than this.
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Samson Savill de Jong: Criticising a song for being drenched in Auto-Tune feels very 2008, but my word it adds nothing here. It makes Aya Nakamura basically unlistenable for me, meaning that Stormzy’s soporific crooning becomes the best part of the song by default. When you’re relying on the rapper to bail you out by singing well (which to be clear, he isn’t), then it’s time to rethink the song. Never again.
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