Thursday, February 13th, 2020

Meek Mill ft. Roddy Ricch – Letter to Nipsey

More music with a message…


[Video]
[6.00]

Julian Axelrod: We see it on social media every time someone passes: a flood of strangers and vague associates drowning out tributes from those who actually knew the person. On this almost-anniversary Nipsey tribute, Meek Mill and Roddy Ricch recreate this awkward dynamic. Roddy, who was inspired and mentored by Nipsey before his death, draws on every facet of the late rapper’s life, music, and legacy to paint a portrait of Los Angeles with the blood of his still-beating heart. But Meek’s more established, so his awkward allusions to vengeance and vague Vegas plans get first billing. When he admits Nipsey’s death forced him to consider his own mortality, it taps into a relatable moment when grief turns to guilty self-reflection. But maybe don’t put it in a song?
[6]

Will Adams: The one positive of “See You Again” is setting that low a bar for tribute rap songs. “Letter to Nipsey” clears it breezily with the sentimental beat you’d expect (electric piano chords, emotive guitar), but where the verses cut deep, Roddy Ricch’s hook grasps at straws and barely clutches one.
[5]

Tobi Tella: This could’ve turned corny or extremely distasteful, but both artists give us pure, unadulterated heart. Meek basically ignores the beat with a rapid-fire stream of consciousness that feels like legitimately pouring his soul out: not pretending to be Nipsey’s best friend, but truly verbalizing the power of his influence. Ricch’s chorus is melodic and hard to listen to, and his verse shows versatility I didn’t know he had. A beautifully pleasant surprise.
[7]

Alfred Soto: As far as tributes go, it’s not sticky or defensive: Meek can’t hide his rage, and Roddy Rich lays down credible verses about the depth of Nipsey’s mentorship. It has the freshness of a solid first draft.
[6]

Thomas Inskeep: A sincere song for their murdered friend/mentor (in the case of Ricch) that, while affectionate and well-meaning, doesn’t really do much. Your enjoyment of this will directly relate to how much you enjoy Meek Mill and Roddy Ricch (albeit when the latter isn’t making funny noises like he does on “The Box”).
[5]

Brad Shoup: Two men with no unique claim, just grief that still registers almost one year later. Papamitrou works up a West Coast roll that’s half dirge, half chill, and Meek jumps the track so hard he almost falls off. He and Roddy flit all over, trying to capture too much, maybe, but honorably. We just embrace the only life we know.
[7]

Thursday, February 13th, 2020

Taylor Swift – The Man

«What man?» “The man,” Marco explained, explaining nothing.


[Video]
[5.67]

Jonathan Bradley: For a feminist song by an artist whose music is rarely explicitly political, “The Man” focuses its attentions on one woman in particular. That is a good thing; Taylor Swift writes best from personal experience, and this is a more immediate and sharply felt song than the blandly participatory, elections-inspired “Only the Young.” “I’m so sick of running as fast as I can,” says Swift, but she doesn’t sound weary; she sounds resentful. And she should be, too: the public and critical response to Swift has been explicitly gendered for her entire career. One of the sharpest songwriters of her generation, she has been abjured as frivolous and feminine; petty and jealous; a scold and a snake; too nice, too nasty, too promiscuous, too prudish. (“The negative traits ascribed to Taylor always sound like a greatest-hits list of every bad characteristic associated with womanhood,” Molly Lambert wrote in 2014.) “The Man” is, as Swift tunes often are, broadly applicable. But it’s also specific in its indignance. These are wounds felt personally.
[8]

Vikram Joseph: Taylor’s lyrics are normally best when she’s writing about heartache, but they are so strong here — incisive, funny and bitingly on point about the ways in which women in the public eye are castigated for things that men are celebrated for. “What I was wearing / if I was rude / could all be separated from my good ideas and power moves” is particularly good, and the bridge contains probably the only acceptable instance of a mad/bad rhyme in pop history. Musically, “The Man” is deceptively amiable, almost to a fault — it’s fun synth-pop but feels like 1989-lite, “Out Of The Woods” with too much of the fizz dissipated.
[7]

Katie Gill: Swift’s superpower is the ability to release all the worst songs off of her album as singles. (Calling it now, her next single will be “London Boy.”) “The Man” is far too happy and peppy for a song about institutional sexism, with a chorus that heavily relies on the line “I’m so sick.” The mixing choices are bizarre: those “yeah”s hiding in the background are so awkwardly placed that it makes me wish goat remixes were still in vogue. And for an artist who still struggles to get past that iconic moment of being compared to Beyoncé, it’s a weird choice to make a song that will inevitably be compared to Beyoncé.
[4]

Katherine St Asaph: For all the Discourse that smogs up everything Taylor Swift does, especially (but not only) when it involves politics or feminism, “The Man” is not really of that world. It’s Taylor Swift finally getting around to releasing her own “If I Were a Boy” or “If I Was a Guy” or “Do It Like a Dude”: a standard topic for pop songs, alongside “fame sucks” and “I rule.” These songs are rarely great, tending lyrically to The Wing ad copy (lowlight here: “my good ideas and power moves”) and musically to midtempo resignation: sure, if I were a man then I’d be the man, but I’m not and won’t be, so why get angry or excited? (To Swift’s credit, she works with the resignation; there’s genuine wistfulness to the “running as fast as I can” line, if not wistfulness that’s explored far.) These songs also subsume personality: The artist is no longer herself, just a woman among the class of women — and actually not even that defined, just not a man. Taylor Swift, being Taylor Swift, doesn’t make herself totally anonymous — the multiple lines about getting to chase models, specifically in the way Leonardo DiCaprio does, seems like a deliberate reference to the tabloid world of the Squad, Kaylor, etc. But for every spot where her vocal inflections sound indelibly like herself, there’s one where she sounds exactly like Katy Perry, one where she sounds exactly like Sia, one where she sounds exactly like early Britney, and many where she sounds like late Britney, who by then sounded like everybody else. (And since Swift and Joel Little are the only writers, for once it isn’t a demo vocal’s fault. Which means neither are the scanSION isSUES.) Will it shift the narrative? That’s the main reason this exists. Will it be anyone’s feminist awakening? Given that her stans recently exhumed and endorsed a slimy blog post by one of the most notorious pustular men of publishing because it let them harass a woman for reviewing her PR documentary — another standard form of pop-star content — the snooze button’s been hit on that. Will it take up man-sized space on the radio? Clearly; it is a song by Taylor Swift. You’re the man now, dawg.
[5]

Brad Shoup: For someone who’s gotten so adept at threading personal storytelling in and out of celebrity narrative, Swift suddenly, inexplicably, writes like someone who hasn’t browsed a magazine in years. She must know that Leo’s romantic excursions are a punchline at best, and that anyone else dropping a couplet like “What’s it like to brag about raking in dollars/And getting bitches and models” would be in for a straight week of surgical editorialization. As usual, her verses are intricate machines of melodic development and rhythmic gymnastics. But the chorus makes me wish she’d pulled a reverse Porter and gone full pitch-down. I know she can afford it; she’s the man.
[3]

Kylo Nocom: Taylor’s precise satire ends up a greater priority on “The Man” than the melodies, leaving a more impressive statement than a tune. Neither Blue Neighbourhood squeals nor choral presets are intriguing by 2020, making me wonder whether Joel Little realizes, almost seven years after Pure Heroine, that its influence is getting boring now. (Yeah!)
[3]

Alfred Soto: Those staccato synth chords and Taylor Swift’s stentorian delivery distracted on a rather effective album sequence last August. Radio play, however, has revealed the mild gender subversion explicit in the chorus, especially the way the electronic space fails to distinguish it from the competition. Exposure, alas, spolights “If I were a man/Then I’d be the man.”
[7]

Tobi Tella: For an album billed as her “most political yet”, Lover mostly sidesteps real discourse. “The Man” is gloriously unsubtle, but I’m not sure how true Swift’s conceit rings. There are some great confrontations of double standards here, mostly of her dating history; but would Taylor Swift, a woman who writes gooey emotional pop songs about love, be “the man” in any circumstance, regardless of gender?
[6]

Michael Hong: Does anyone remember that interview around the release of Lover, where she explained why she wrote that dreadful second verse of “You Need to Calm Down?” It’s hilarious: a statement by a woman whose allyship stretched as far as a throwaway “boys and boys and girls and girls,” now expressing public indignation at the mere idea that one might perceive her as a homophobe. As a result, we had to suffer through “why are you mad, when you could be GLAAD,” which somehow earned her GLAAD’s Vanguard Award, further proof for cynics that Taylor Swift had become an expert at gaming the system. “The Man” is more of the same, Taylor Swift honing in one way she’s a minority and filtering out all her other privilege. It’s punctuated by a weak statement: “if I was a man, then I’d be the man,” ignoring the fact that “the man” is more commonly used as a symbol of oppression. Nothing about the track challenges any piece of existing culture; even the call-out of Leonardo DiCaprio is more of a playful little ribbing, something Taylor might joke about to him during one of her extravagant yacht parties. “The Man” is a brilliant piece of marketing, a demonstration of Swift’s ability to flip social issues into sounding personal and branding herself as a feminist. It helps her sell her own records while elevating her own standing. But as a song, it’s another awkward and clunky moment that she seems to perceive as her own little mic drop. Hopefully next time she’ll a) hire some women personnel in the studio and b) learn about the concept of intersectionality.
[1]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: I’ve criticized Taylor Swift before for her political silence, so I feel hypocritical now — especially as a cisgender man, especially in the context of her recent Netflix documentary — saying this sounds heavy-handed and awkward. Taylor explores the political less clumsily than Katy Perry circa 2017, but that’s hardly a compliment. “The Man” is a message song, and it achieves its goals confidently, without mincing words. But Swift is a talented songwriter with many more interesting things to say, and has even talked about similar themes in more interesting ways (see “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince”). Lover is full of intimate, gorgeous pop songs like “False God” or “Daylight,” so to push this as a single is disappointing. #JUSTICEFORCRUELSUMMER
[5]

Lauren Gilbert: “The Man” is a theme song for every woman who has had a man explain to her that if she just smiled a little more and tried a little harder, of course it’ll all work out. It feels like walking out of a horrible job for the last time, looking at the sky and knowing — absolutely, with a certainty you never have about yourself — that you’re better than that place, and you’ll make more than they will, anyway. And I’m completely here for these MUNA-esque synths and Taylor’s half-rapped “bitches and models.” OK, so I docked a point for rhyming “man” and “man” in the chorus. But Taylor’s still got it; this bitch still knows how to write a damn song.
[9]

Ashley Bardhan: The production is deceptively honeyed — gumdrop bass and candy button high hats. It does its job in distracting from how frustratedly deadpan Taylor sounds, probably proving her point that “it’s all good if you’re bad/and it’s okay if you’re mad,” as long as you’re a man. She uses the word “bitch” twice in the bridge, a testament of anger from the pop star who doesn’t publicly curse very much at all. She spits it out, “I’d be a bitch, not a baller,” as if singing the word will get rid of it. Of course, a famous white woman like Taylor Swift wields the kind of power that most women won’t even allow themselves to dream about, but still, I feel sorry for her. 
[7]

Edward Okulicz: In a sea of competing takes, cut-through is achieved by blending the incisive thoughtfulness of Taylor Swift with the head-scratching vacuousness of…. Taylor Swift. I wonder which man wrote the hook that made it so catchy. If you’d once written an entire multi-platinum record by yourself and still people assumed you were ghostwritten, you’d throw your hands up too.
[8]

Alex Clifton: “The Man” is a bit basic and one-note, but then again, I never expected a detailed intersectional rundown of systemic oppression in a four-minute pop song on an album titled Lover. The message of the song–“if I was a man, then I’d be the man“–is one of Swift’s weaker chorus lines, because it’s so redundant and clunky. Still, other lines like “when everyone believes you, what’s that like?” hit like a dart. I’ve had my share of those experiences myself, some which I still struggle to talk about, and unfortunately I know way too many other women do. To hear someone as big as Swift sing about it in a song, knowing she’s had her own experiences with sexual assault and harassment, is really powerful to me. “The Man” is not the best song on Lover, but it does make me feel more hopeful about the state of the world, if only because there are going to be teen girls listening to this and deciding that they’re going to make a change in the world for themselves. There were no songs like this on mainstream radio for me when I was thirteen, and I wish there had been. So if this song makes young girls feel like they can and should fight for their rights, Swift has done her job.
[6]

Isabel Cole: I mean, it could have been SO much worse.
[6]

Wednesday, February 12th, 2020

Carly Pearce & Lee Brice – I Hope You’re Happy Now

I hope it brings you bliss…


[Video]
[6.00]

Thomas Inskeep: A remarkable song sung to an ex, cleverly done as a female/male duet and sung from both sides. The woman (Pearce) seems to sincerely sing “I hope you’re happy now” to the man (Brice), while he’s a mess and comes off as more bitter/sarcastic while singing the same line. The songwriting here is so sharp (Pearce co-wrote with Luke Combs (!) and two others), and Pearce and Brice’s voices harmonize beautifully — this is ace. 
[9]

Alfred Soto: Oh, it’s not an Elvis Costello cover? Dang. Deluxe regret, which means the principals think it unseemly to show much emotion.
[3]

Katherine St Asaph: Emotions, I guess, described and molded to the adult-contemporary specs of “The First Cut Is the Deepest” or “How to Save a Life” or — sorry to remind you — “Two Is Better Than One. Like a bed carefully handwrought in the 1800s fashion, none of that tacky fiberglass or cardboard, thank you, and also none of what beds are for. To millions of people this is the epitome of real music.
[5]

Brad Shoup: They each try to shade the title differently, but I dunno how successful it was. They’re too concurrent for this to be a real two-hander, and it’s up to the impatient backbeat to really put the angst over.
[5]

Kylo Nocom: A self-destructive meltdown song that’s consciously trying to keep its rage inside. Brice’s yelping is appropriate for the pain, yet the gentleness of Pearce’s voice is necessary to build up to the second chorus’s glorious catharsis.
[7]

Michael Hong: It’s nice to hear duet partners who sound like they’re on the same page, but the reading of the titular line feels more reserved, with the spiteful bite of a bitter ending rather than the amicable split its video would suggest. It’s certainly a shame that we’re left with this numb uncertainty, as the pair have considerable chemistry on the track, and their pleading voices suggest closure that’s overturned by Pearce’s final lilt.
[6]

Edward Okulicz: The verses here are wonderful, built on two measured performances, lovely harmonies and an air of gentle care about the whole production. The first run-through of the chorus sounds a bit clumsy, as if it’s too small for those boomy drums, and the whole thing sounds like it’s going off the rails. But the switch to Big Pain and Big Emoting actually works wonderfully the second and third times through. Filing this away for karaoke purposes.
[7]

Tuesday, February 11th, 2020

Dua Lipa – Physical

It’s okay! Move that boogie body!


[Video]
[7.50]

Leah Isobel: It is a dark and stormy night. In a sinister science lab located somewhere in Carmen Sandiego’s plush pomo lair, a pop singer plugs in a neon light, shrugs into a next-season Gaultier lab coat and gets to work. In the reflection of her gold-tinted goggles we see her add one (1) part Extract of “Into You,” one (1) part Juice of Newton-John, and four (4) drops of Synthesizer Spice into a contoured beaker. She turns on the flame of a Bunsen burner; stream gushes from her concoction like a geyser, emitting a high, keening refrain. She whispers a few luscious words into the steam — “diamond,” “sssimulation,” “adrenaline” — but her experiment still lacks a certain something. Then — BOOM! — in a thundercrash of lightning, it hits her. Eureka! She turns and sees her reflection illuminated in the glass of an emergency axe container, kept onsite in case of fire. “Well,” she chuckles to herself as she breaks the glass with a four-inch stiletto heel, “I am creating something… hot.” Axe in hand, she chops the neon light into pieces and stuffs the shards, now glittering like a million sequined dancefloors, into the beaker. With the addition of this Decoction of Disco, her potion bubbles… it burbles… then KABOOM: it explodes the entire building and half of the surrounding city! She stands in the wreckage as thunder splits the sky above and sirens wail in the distance. We see Dua’s eyes glow green before she throws her head back to the sky and screams: “GAY RIIIIIGHTS!”
[9]

William John: Probably the best example of what parts of the Internet’s stan culture would facetiously refer to as “gay rights” from a mainstream musical artist since… the last Dua Lipa single, or, failing that, “Into You.” Like those precedents, “Physical” is camp but magisterial; playful but extremely melodramatic; sweeping, dance floor ready, and dripping with an exultant swagger. Her reminder to “hold on, just a little tighter” at the bridge is, truthfully, a hollow gesture; at that stage, the listener is so deeply embroiled in her glorious disco caprice as to not really be capable of gripping anything at all.
[10]

Jackie Powell: It couldn’t be clearer that Dua Lipa had something to prove not only to herself, but to the pop music intelligentsia on her sophomore offering. What has struck me most about the Future Nostalgia cycle is how Dua is executing every facet of it with confidence. On this track, she’s not afraid of hitting notes that eclipse the breadth of her previous singles, especially on the bridge. “Physical” is a representative offering of exactly what she’s aiming to prove. Each track we’ve heard so far reflects a different decade accompanied with a modern polish. I don’t think I’m the only one who believes Olivia Newton-John’s ’80s exercise sexual metaphor smash “Physical” deserves the tribute it’s getting here. There’s a clear homage paid to her and to Patti LaBelle on Lipa’s own “Physical.” I’m going to interpret her lyric “We created something phenomenal” as a bit of a double-entendre. Not only is it about sex in the narrative of the track, but it’s a comment on Lipa’s approach to this era and her confidence on every single part of it. The sexual symbolism isn’t just in the lyrics, but also in the track’s composition and the narrative communicated in the visual treatment. The vocal highs that she hits on the bridge represent a climax musically and sexually. She has so much confidence in the visual treatment, she spends most of it braless. That takes guts.
[9]

Tobi Tella: Dua Lipa’s perceived lack of personality has turned out to actually be lack of a schtick preventing her from artistically evolving, something many of her peers are plagued with. Also, I’ve died and gone to gay heaven.
[9]

Alfred Soto: The way Dua Lipa’s unexpected bon mots and smoky sultriness ride the beat and compete with the strings compensate for a production too dressed up in leg warmers and headbands for my taste — I mean, her exhortations are more fearsome than erotic. 
[7]

Julian Axelrod: Pop’s ’80s revival arms race has escalated to its natural endpoint: the accidental exhumation of Olivia Newton-John. I wish Dua Lipa had used “let’s get physical” in a more literal iteration; singing it over hyperdrive synths guarantees it’ll be never played in its intended setting, especially when she has half the energy of ONJ. But she hit the mark where it counts: This is going to rule spin classes for the rest of the year.
[6]

Brad Shoup: A throwback training-montage track that suggests sex but is really about dancing and Olivia Newton-John erasure. This is Stranger Things pop.
[5]

Thomas Inskeep: Sex is natural, sex is fun, sex is best when soundtracked by throbbing ’80s synths. 
[6]

Ashley Bardhan: Okay, fine, I enjoy horny music. Sue me! This song is what would happen if ABBA was brought back to life as a bunch of hot 20-year-olds in little shirts from Fashion Nova. The “let’s get physical” chorus feels a little lazy since it’s a direct lift from Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 hit, but this is a great song to listen to while thinking about that video of Charli XCX holding poppers. No complaints here.
[7]

Alex Clifton: I’ve underestimated Dua Lipa. Her first album had some hits and misses, but Future Nostalgia is shaping up to be one of the best pop releases of 2020 based on the strength of its singles. “Physical” is a cascade of rainbow lights in a roller rink and makes me long to go out to a club, one where I can get down in a huge crowd of people and dance my white-girl ass off poorly. I’m an extreme introvert, so anything that makes me want to leave the house and be around strangers is powerful stuff indeed. It’s a little cheesy, but who cares? It’s a love letter to the ’80s with all the campiness a song citing Olivia Newton-John should have. I’m desperately in love with Dua Lipa after hearing this, and I have a feeling “Physical” will be one of my favourite songs of the year.
[9]

Stephen Eisermann: Dua Lipa has quietly become the pop superstar that so many of us wanted Carly Rae to be. Both women make incredible music, but it is Dua who has found commercial success; after hearing “Physical,” it seems pretty obvious why. It’s a retro-laden, power-pop track that is extraordinary only in the way Dua delivers it. What should be pedestrian instead is hypnotic, infectious, and oh so delicious. 
[8]

Lauren Gilbert: I promised a friend I’d blurb this song, and now that I’ve sat down to write it, I have nothing to say. It is a perfect pop song — Dua knocks it out of the park on this record. I keep getting distracted from writing jamming to the track. I’m dancing while lying down on my couch. She created something phenomenal; we are left with no choice but to stan.
[10]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: I’ve justified Dua Lipa’s dearth of personality in years past, but this is where things don’t add up: her dead-eyed singing makes no sense during the chorus, whose synths lack the fervor to make up for clinical vocal melodies. Around this time last year, we had Lizzo’s “Juice”; now we have “Physical” as an example of ’80s pastiche that only feels like it exudes energy and passion and charm.
[2]

Will Adams: It’s neat to have a single that’s its own Initial Talk remix, but the synthpop revivalism is a bit too literal, to the point of putting all its chips on an Olivia Newton-John quote. It’s not until the bridge — “keep on DANCING!” — where the drama locks in and starts, but only starts, to feel real.
[6]

Kylo Nocom: Dua Lipa, determined more than ever to win the Popjustice £20 Music Prize, accidentally transforms into Alice Chater in the process.
[5]

Katherine St Asaph: If “Physical” being by Dua Lipa wasn’t hypertargeted enough to the Popjustice set, is that the synth progression from Saint Etienne’s “No Cure for the Common Christmas” in the intro and beneath the chorus? It’s certainly the same height of drama. The track attached isn’t quite so charged: a little too Lady Gaga circa “Applause” and a little too Peloton instructor quoting Olivia Newton-John for absolutely no reason besides the culture deciding at some point to make the phrase a permanent, meaningless meme. (The song doesn’t even sound particularly ’80s; the disco strings are the decade prior, and the vocal squiggles on the verse are so specifically 2016 a time traveler’s on their way to erase them.) Dua Lipa only betrays a personality on the spoken-word bridge; ironic how that and the vaporous intro, the least physical things on this track, are the most thrilling.
[7]

Vikram Joseph: The intro feels like a prickling at the back of your neck, the one-line pre-chorus feels like plummeting six floors in a broken elevator, and the chorus is such a headrush you can practically smell the poppers: “Physical”‘s thrills might be straightforward, but they’re visceral as fuck. There are vintage Lady Gaga vibes, the “come on!”s are surely a nod to “We Are Your Friends,” and the whole thing reminds me, inexplicably, of Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life.” But Dua Lipa is starting to make this all seem effortless, and the panache with which she delivers “Physical” easily pulls it clear of the gravitational field of its forebears.
[9]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: “Physical” dares us to be the boldest versions of ourselves. It finds itself at the perfect intersection of confidence and lust. Dua Lipa is flirting with you with a playfulness she can only possess because she already knows you’re going home together — and she won’t let you leave until the dancing is done. Dancing here is instinct, it’s synths that sound as sweet as they do sinister, it’s salty like the sweat that rolls down your forehead after you’ve been, well, physical. Dua Lipa is crushing the Confessions on a Dance Floor album that I’ve long been waiting for Lady Gaga to make. Dance floor music has long been my site of refuge and catharsis, so it’s refreshing to be reminded that it can still sound so immediately, eminently thrilling. 
[9]

Kayla Beardslee: This doesn’t quite reach the heights of “Don’t Start Now,” but damn it comes close. “Physical” should, in theory, be a cookie-cutter pop girl release, but Dua proves once again that she is the most important element in her music. The producers are doing everything right too, but who else could pull off her endearing smirk in “common love isn’t for us” or that wonderful growl in “follow the noise”? And Dua takes us through a transcendental bridge that highlights the best qualities of her voice: singing simple lyrics that say everything they need to, she’s breathless yet confident, desperate for touch yet satisfied with the musical world she’s helped to create. Something phenomenal, indeed: this rollout has been a joy to follow.
[9]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: “Physical” takes the opposite approach to “Don’t Start Now” — while that song’s studio version swallows up its singer in a beautifully constructed, sterile disco pastiche (the live versions and remixes are much better), turning her into just one more retro cog, “Physical” makes her the center of attention. The production around her is good enough (the synth preset change right before the chorus starts is especially nice), but not particularly coherent or hooky on its own. In the vacuum left, Dua gets to have more fun, charismatically switching between vocal styles and walking around like she owns the place.
[8]

Jibril Yassin: A powerhouse vocal colliding headfirst with production that’s neither plodding nor limp. It’s a song that’s meant to feel like a blockbuster and after a few failed tries, it’s thrilling to hear Dua Lipa finally nail the landing and sound like the superstar she wants to be.
[7]

Michael Hong: “Physical” is magnetic. Its pulse is unrelenting, its atmosphere is shadowy and captivating, and Dua Lipa gives possibly her best vocal performance. There’s no sense of the up-and-coming performer who delivered everything with stolid execution, instead, “Physical” is a sly wink of a pre-chorus leading to a forceful command: “baby, keep on dancing like you ain’t got a choice.” Dua Lipa is at the helm, all thoughts and any other desires are out the window, and the night is neverending. 
[7]

Joshua Lu: Several of Dua Lipa’s past hit songs have relied on a marketable veneer of cool: “New Rules” works because she’s the straight-talker friend giving advice, “Don’t Start Now” necessitates a stoic character who can’t be bothered to fret about her ex, and even on collaborations like “One Kiss” does Dua employ a rather unemotional voice, like she’s a blank canvas for Calvin Harris’ more playful and engaging production. “Physical” feels like such a departure for Dua not just because of its obvious throwback sound, but because this veneer of cool is completely torn down when the song reaches its rushing chorus. She sounds more and more desperate as her voice climbs and the synths soar above her, and her cries of “come on” ring as desperate instead of dominant. The song is indebted to pop titans of yesteryears (Olivia Newton-John obviously inspired the title, but the theatrics of the song feel more indebted to Bonnie Tyler or Patti Labelle) to the point of it not really feeling like a Dua song, but she sells it all so convincingly that it feels like a natural fit. It’s part pop song, part epic showdown, and I look forward to Dua continuing to push herself to the forefront of mainstream pop music greatness.
[9]

Scott Mildenhall: Little wonder that Lipa’s so keen to get physical, given that she’s “dreaming in a simulation” — her focus seems to be on the former, since the latter exemplifies the aimlessness of the verses in comparison to the locked-and-loaded chorus. That has its thrills, yet never feels as loose as seems intended. “Physical” comes across too in love with the idea of being a kind of Perfect Pop to actually be it; an anthem for kinetics developed via science textbook.
[7]

Tuesday, February 11th, 2020

Tenille Townes – Jersey on the Wall (I’m Just Asking)

Here are your answers.


[Video]
[5.17]

Thomas Inskeep: Townes asks questions of God in light of the death of a high school student, and does so directly and poignantly, with smart, simple production backing her up (acoustic guitar, organ, piano). Having the song not be a ballad is smart, too; its movement helps it along.
[6]

Alfred Soto: It accumulates power with each instrumental addition, and the young Tenille Townes doesn’t go for bathos — that’s the lyric’s job. 
[6]

Brad Shoup: Combines the tail-thump of the last decade’s filter-folk with a chorus that reads like the children of “Dear God” wrote “Dear God.” I know I should probably be in therapy, but I’m much more interested in the mom that’s muddling through than Townes’ high-school teleology.
[3]

Julian Axelrod: That is a hard swerve into Colton Burpo territory. Twist aside, I like Townes’s voice; it’s world-weary and naive enough to sell the song more than it deserves. But it’s hard to embrace her “aw shucks” approach to dead teenagers. That parenthetical feels mighty defensive.
[4]

Iain Mew: I’m frustrated by this song because it’s so close to being great but falls short in what seem like obvious ways. The musical sweep of it works perfectly: the way it starts by treading softly but swells with an appropriate sense of inevitability to the plaintive emotion in “I’m just asking.” Lyrically the first verse and the simultaneous distancing and fondness in referring to the departed as “twenty-seven” does a good job in setting it up, too, and the “Do You Realize??” naivety in “how do you keep this big rock spinnin’?” is cheesy but in the best way. But the uniform craft of the music isn’t matched by a lyrical consistency. When she goes from speculation about yearbooks to certainty about the crash it makes it distractingly difficult to position her place in the story and just how personal it is, and “are you angry when the Earth quakes” is a complete clunker, a question posed the wrong way round that pushes whimsy at exactly the wrong moment. I wish she got out of her own way a bit better.
[6]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Automatically gets points for being about questions and not answers. When it’s over, I’m left with a reminder of the sadness that everyone feels after a personal tragedy; it’s better than the false satisfaction of easy answers.
[6]

Tuesday, February 11th, 2020

070 Shake – Guilty Conscience

Guilty… pleasure?


[Video]
[6.70]
Leah Isobel: “Guilty Conscience” is a heartbreak song that rests on a series of ambivalent images presented as facts: “you look at the moon in the morning;” “I don’t wanna think nothing bad / This time I won’t;” “there goes my guilty conscience.” Combined with the heavy Auto-Tune cloaking Danielle Balbuena’s voice, that lyrical approach creates an atmosphere of numb detachment that plays against the urgent rise-and-fall of the melody. This vocal drama plays out over the kind of blasted-out, degraded ’80s-wave synths that signify good times gone bad. When I saw a therapist, she told me to ground myself during a panic attack by naming the objects I saw, to keep my feet on the ground by rooting them in something physical. It doesn’t always work. This song sounds like that failed attempt — it’s like she’s receding into herself, then drowning.
[8]

Thomas Inskeep: A sad song whose sound almost makes my heart break. 070 Shake’s vocals sound anguished, and paired with happy-sad ’80s synths, this twist on bass-heavy pop-soul finds its way to my ’80s-teenaged core and makes me feel so emo.
[7]

Kylo Nocom: Emotional synthpop that attracts with its whiny chorus. Repeat listens reveal the flaws: some awkward phrasing in the last two lines of the hook, an aggravatingly basic drum break, rap verses that lack fun.
[6]

Alfred Soto: Her commitment to the lyric impresses me, rattling my confidence in the rest of the track. Call it commercial anxiety or whatever, but the echo and number of percussion loops strike me as zealous production.
[7]

Nortey Dowuona: A wasp swarm of synths arrive in the sky as 070 Shake pulls the bass from the tar and sets it free in the swamps. The drums begin to shake the trees as 070 Shake stands alone, watching the bass and synths flee, her eyes full of guilt and shame. As the drums begins to maul the bass, 070 Shake walks back as the drums start piercing the synths, and she kicks open each wasp hive and lets them swarm. As she cries in rage, they sweep onto the drums’ legs, slicing them and freeing the bass, which leaps up to bite the drums, the bass and synths cheering, and 070 Shake smiling, her guilt purged.
[8]

Brad Shoup: Another example of copyright fright — the idea that the ghost of one melodic/rhythmic fragment owes anything past a nod to “Stand By Me” is poison. Anyway, this is pretty funny: 070 is relieved that she, who cheated first but in secret, has the moral high ground. That’s prime dirtbag pop.
[6]

Vikram Joseph: The video, with its hazy colour palate and juxtaposition of urban decay and fragile, simmering masculinity, made me think of Eliza Hittman’s excellent, brooding slow-burner Beach Rats. As a song, “Guilty Conscience” aspires to the cinematic too, but something far less subtle — it’s mostly a showcase for a glittery, sentimental chorus that’s indebted in equal parts to synth-pop and classic rock ballads. That chorus does a lot of heavy lifting here — in between, the verses fill time pleasantly but feel both underwritten and underperformed — and repetition starts to dull its gleam by the end.
[6]

Alex Clifton: Dreamy, gauzy, and blurs together entirely, although not in a good way. I keep thinking of “Circle the Drain,” which felt like the kind of song you could play on loop forever and get lost in it. Here, however, the reverb is way too much, the words are swallowed by the production, and the effect is rather like Charlie Brown’s teacher going “womp womp womp womp” over a trap beat. I think this could’ve been good, but it just ends up boring me for three minutes.
[4]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Instead of winning you over with sex-fueled passions, “Guilty Conscience” justifies infidelity with a disingenuous blame game (the American analogue to many a French film, I suppose). Really, though, it’s about the displacement of shame: pastel-hued synths and slurred vocalizing grant an uneasy contentment, like smoking a cig to get your mind off everything. She sings because she wants to feel right, and every melody leaves you convinced she somehow is. A good tune can absolve anyone of their sins, it seems.
[8]

Julian Axelrod: 070 Shake always sounds like she’s trying. Not trying too hard, and not doing that singer thing where you make it clear you’re really trying to hit those notes. But she sounds naked and vulnerable in contrast with her aloof persona, and on big notes, the ache in her voice feels like a chasm a million miles wide. The oblong synths and stuttering production provide moody atmosphere, but she sounds like the coolest preteen alive. It lends a nice vulnerability to what’s essentially a fuckboi dream pop jam, like a Notes app apology projected on a planetarium. Eventually you stop fighting and give in to that voice.
[7]

Tuesday, February 11th, 2020

Porter Robinson – Get Your Wish

Back on the dance floor after four years…


[Video]
[6.89]

Will Rivitz: Participating in the EDM industry is exhausting. Its unceasing emphasis on the energetic and the functional, its tracks required to provide fuel for throngs of dancers exhausted by many hours on the floor, often runs directly against artists’ desires to convey to their listeners exactly how burnt out endless late-night club sets make them feel. Just look at how sad the industry’s most superficially euphoric smashes have been over the past few years: its superstars make crowds move by singing about their fundamental inability to commit to something good, their fundamental inability to save something good from imploding, and their fundamental inability to move on from something good that has imploded. “Get Your Wish,” unsurprisingly, indulges in this exhaustion — Worlds, Porter Robinson’s 2014 debut LP, arguably entrenched this burning-up/burned-out dichotomy in the mainstage festival world more firmly than anything else released before or since — but it is shocking how deeply its misery cuts. As opposed to the tracks by the SLANDERs and Illeniums of the world, which despite their melancholy still unequivocably slap, I can’t imagine this song’s glacial chorus or pause-menu intro making people move, or its tissue-paper-delicate vocals spurring a sing-along quite like any of Robinson’s previous tracks. Then again, as Robinson’s first single in four years ahead of his first album in six, a song this emphatically tired serves as a welcome and appropriate return. Those of us who came of age alongside Robinson’s rise are now in our mid-to-late 20s, sans the rigorous and endless travels and travails of an artist of his caliber but beginning to understand the emptiness of “Get Your Wish”; there’s a reason people often peg “raver retirement age” around 30 or so. That Robinson would return to our world with a call to reflection in both form and content suits those of us grappling with the responsibilities of adulthood and bodies exiting their primes perfectly. “Get Your Wish,” unless I’m underestimating my ability to scream along come summer, will never bang at the function quite like any of Robinson’s previous work. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
[9]

Alfred Soto: Listening to the ease with which Porter Robinson commits to ethereal modesty, I remembered My Bloody Valentine’s “Blown a Wish.” This one’s got a dance beat, which, like it or not, is supposed to coax people — singer included — out to the floor. 
[5]

Kylo Nocom: An enlightening conversation I had with a family friend/part-time raver resulted in my perspective on the excesses of EDM changing for the better. The most poignant thing he said to convince me to join him was that I would be able to find my own niche among the acts that play, emphasizing a certain universal kindness that feels apt for after-the-festival-IG-captioning yet feels too sincere to knock down. I did, however, take offense at his idea that I would identify more with the emotional future bass vocal-led stuff. Stuff like “Get Your Wish” fails to move me, partially because of an admitted lack of tolerance for failed euphoric EDM moments, partially because the vocals are pitched into hellish chipmunk squeaks. Between this simpering anthemic stuff (God, even a violin!) and something like Rezz, give me the noise.
[4]

Edward Okulicz: Boy does this song lay it on with a trowel — the rush, the strings, the wistful hooks. I was going to derisively state it was a collection of tropes searching for an animated show or RPG to soundtrack the climax of. But it just keeps coming back for more, getting more absurdly epic and lovely, and there’s enough here to soundtrack about six climaxes. Manipulative drivel, absolutely, but I’m easily and willingly manipulated.
[8]

Julian Axelrod: The best part of any Porter Robinson song is the rush — that moment when the whole track achieves lift-off and the processed vocals fuse into one cybermetallic ray and it feels like a civilization’s worth of emotional data is beamed directly into your head. Most of his songs start in the stratosphere and shoot even higher, but “Get Your Wish” is unusually restrained. The hectic drums keep the ricocheting toy piano earthbound, which makes the hooks harder and the come-downs softer. It’s an exciting change in dynamics for Robinson, and a sign that he hasn’t reached his greatest heights quite yet.
[7]

Jonathan Bradley: This reconstructed piano and glitchy pastoralism is not unfamiliar territory for Porter Robinson, but this is the first time I’ve heard him align the sonic elements in a way that suggests more than decoration. Imbibing more Yasutaka Nakata than before, “Get Your Wish” shimmers with wistfulness and wonder, not just synth bouquets.
[7]

Brad Shoup: It sounds like a Nakata production slowed to a strut. I’m talking runway-modeling-in-a-music-video strut, a delightful choice for a song about getting crushed by your dreams. Keys twinkle like harps; Robinson pitches himself into the register of a kindly angel.
[8]

Vikram Joseph: If it weren’t for Porter Robinson’s pitched-up vocals this could have slid comfortably into the pillowy, expansive mid-section of I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It without raising any alarms. Take that how you will, but I fall easily for this kind of dewy, gently glitchy, tentatively hopeful synth-pop. The way the chorus pushes through thick, foamy drum pad sounds sounds exactly like perseverance.
[7]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: Gorgeous in its subtlety — I almost like it more because it lacks a conventionally big drop, or even a build to something. Instead it seems to grow organically, bringing in more details less as rising action than tangents, and finally ending in the musical equivalent of midsentence.
[7]

Monday, February 10th, 2020

Zico – Any Song

Any dance challenge…


[Video]
[6.00]

Alex Clifton: “Any Song” is fun and bouncy but the chorus lacks the punch I’m looking for. Zico asks for “anything exciting” and there are some exciting flourishes here — I particularly like the Mario-style instrumentation that hits around the 1:30 mark — but it doesn’t hit as hard as I’d like it to. Either way, though, Zico sounds like he’s having fun, so I hope he is having a good time with his friends.
[5]

Michael Hong: The success in “Any Song” lies in the fact that it really could have been any song — all that was needed was a splice-able section to create some dance-worthy viral video and a couple of your most famous friends. The thrill of Zico’s half-rapped half-sung vocals eventually wears thin on the track’s dreadfully indulgent runtime. 
[3]

Alfred Soto: The Korean scion turns to melodic rapping for his wannabe crossover. A second play reveals a fervid production: multi-tracked harmonies, distorted keyboards, even hints of salsa. Years of meaningful syntheses will teach this. 
[7]

Julian Axelrod: I love the intro’s jazz piano feint, and I love how it shifts and mutates throughout the song. Zico always finds his footing, even though he’s never standing on solid ground. That’s confidence.
[7]

Thomas Inskeep: I mean, I didn’t expect a new single from Korean rapper Zico to feature a near-reggaeton shuffle-beat — let alone a samba-esque coda. But lemme tell you, both work — it all works, because Zico ties it all together with such ease. The fact that he’s such a conversational rapper doesn’t hurt. Same with the piano anchoring the track.
[8]

Brad Shoup: Lively without being truly enlivened, “Any Song” is an ode to guys bein’ dudes, putting on sweats, pairing smartphones, and chasing each other up and down the keyboard. Zico moves from room to room with the laid-back assurance of a seasoned host.
[6]

Monday, February 10th, 2020

Tennis – Need Your Love

Because they’re called Tennis. Get it?


[Video]
[7.00]

Ashley Bardhan: Freshman year of college, I would go on walks around the river for about three hours, then go back to my dorm and eat an entire carton of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. When I’m lovesick, I feel like my skin is dying to crawl right off of me and hide under my bed. Freshman year I was lovesick, and sophomore year I started listening to Tennis. I cuff my jeans. I like this song. I like when she says “I hope you’re happy/I hope you’re pleased/I thought you were a victim but it’s clear to me/Baby, you’ve got more poison than sugar.” There are 28 grams of sugar in a carton of Ben and Jerry’s.
[8]

Leah Isobel: I can’t tell if this song’s loveliness makes me like it more or less — the lyrics are legibly angry but, outside of the “baby you’ve got more poison than sugar” pre-chorus, they favor coded recriminations and some frankly awkward phrasing. It’s a kind of conflict-aversion that feels true to life, but that hesitation to really call a jerk a jerk means that the emotion gets swallowed up in Tennis’s characteristic indie-pop sunshine.
[6]

Kylo Nocom: Thumping keys and Emile Haynie-esque drums of early 2010s radio-alt (exhibit A, exhibit B) fuel the venomous breakup lyrics, Alaina Moore taking after the spunk of Angel Olsen circa 2016. Just as you think you’ve got a hold on the song, a lovely crooner by way of “It’s Too Late” slows the track down into what seems to be smitten admiration. Despite the contrast, it becomes obvious that it’s a sly trick hidden in plain sight: “I need your touch/like I need a bolt of lightning from the sky above” only works if you consider the narrator as terrified of the prospect of falling back in love with somebody as awful as the subject. Tennis explained it themselves on Genius, yet people in the video’s comments still read romance into a song that’s absolutely opposed to the idea of it! Tennis knows how to use the neat tempo transitions as more than just a novelty: a little auditory joke for a lyrical bait-and-switch that switches right back.
[8]

Nortey Dowuona: A slumbering piano snores really loudly as Alaina Moore jumps on the bed with the bass and drums, then immediately flees through the whole house, with synths just drinking their coffee and trying not to hear anything. As the piano goes back to sleep, the synths try to pull the lead singer and the bass and drums off the bed, but they just wake the piano, who decides to go back to sleep, and synths, relieved, takes the lead singer, bass and drums down to make them pancakes and then get them off to school. As they pick up their last pieces of their various science and music projects, the piano comes downstairs to see bass and drums jump roping while the lead singer is writing a short story. Piano sits down with synths and they share the last dregs of coffee.
[10]

Julian Axelrod: The fast-verse slow-chorus trick is fun as a songwriting exercise, but in practice it feels like two solid indie pop tracks were fused in a whimsical accident at the Fat Possum Records pressing plant.
[6]

Thomas Inskeep: Almost two songs in one, the first the piano-and-drum-led verses, the other a more ’70s chamber-pop kind of chorus, and not only are both great, they meld shockingly well. Alaina Moore’s voice has just the right menthol-cool notes to make it all work. But really, it comes down to the song construction here, which is astounding.
[9]

Brad Shoup: The lurch from blithe verse into slow-paddling chorus was surely fun to rehearse. The result, though, is a song that feels like two Carole King demos stitched together.
[5]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: That tempo change — from the peppy, upbeat verses to the sweeter, slower chorus — is the trick that makes this song work. It feels like the little moments in a day where you suddenly fall into introspection.
[7]

Alfred Soto: It changes tempos and moods just because, offers a lovelorn lyric without the passion, and gets winsome when it hasn’t earned it. 
[4]

Sunday, February 9th, 2020

Bonus Tracks for Week Ending February 8, 2020

We have more writing for you to read this weekend!