Monday, February 8th, 2016

Zayn – Pillowtalk

The first to go solo goes solo…


[Video][Website]
[4.58]

Crystal Leww: If Zayn were your boyfriend, he would bury his face in your chest and you would fall asleep with his infinite eyelashes brushing up against your skin. You would wake up realizing that you forgot to set an alarm and rush out the door, forgetting your keys. If Zayn were your boyfriend, he would bring you those keys at work and as he kissed you goodbye, you could smell the whiskey on his breath at 10am. After seeing you make a face, he runs his hand over his head and mumbles, “Babe, it’s Saturday, innit?” apparently not noticing the bus was full of people in suits. If Zayn were your boyfriend, you’d come back home from work after a day of getting beaten up by your boss at 10pm and he’d be wearing basketball shorts and eating cereal on your couch and writing poetry in his little knockoff Moleskine from Chinatown. He’d stop and scramble some eggs for you and listen to you bitch about your boss. If Zayn were your boyfriend, you would know that he would not be the boy who you could marry, not even the boy who you could bring home to your dad, but you would still probably be in love.
[7]

Maxwell Cavaseno: Y’all will accept the corniest sexual innuendo over Imagine Dragons music from anyone, as long as it’s from someone terribly pretty, huh?
[2]

Scott Mildenhall: Shouted syllables in search of a hook. It almost feels like lazy thinking to infer that Zayn desires imaginary cred points here, but he really, really does, and that is not a positive. Eschew choruses all you like for now, but you’re going to need them again at some point. The ideal version of this song is called “Battlefield,” and that had a big one. “Pillowtalk,” by comparison, is aimless in its bluster, and, accordingly, only half the earworm it could be.
[6]

Katherine St Asaph: Zayn clearly wants to parlay his maybe-not-voluntary departure from One Direction into some kind of storyline proof that he’s the Justin Timberlake of the group, but all musical signs suggest he’s really more the JC. The track tries to evoke trap, or alt-R&B, or really anything that’d position Zayn outside the boy-band crowd, but what it actually evokes is an emory board fetish. Zayn’s voice is as strained on the high notes as the half-rap, navigated measuredly and cautiously like he’s trying not to fail Idol Drake Week; and yet nothing he does is as strained as the Tedderesque percussion. Pillow talk’s supposed to be sweet, but not when guys make a huge production of it.
[3]

Patrick St. Michel: Every rebranding needs to start somewhere, and “Pillowtalk” checks off every box Zayn needed to post One Direction — “Zayn says ‘fucking!'” It’s a necessary statement — albeit not a particularly interesting one, considering the breathless attention in the last few months already revealed he’d do this. But does it have to be such a drag? Zayn hits on plenty of good ideas, from the smudged electronic edges to the slow-thrust beat, but fails to take them anywhere beyond that. This is The Weeknd on spin cycle.
[4]

Edward Okulicz: No, no, no. Can people who leave famous groups to find success on their own please stop trying to establish their brand so self-consciously, and instead, start trying to put out massive pop bangers instead? Zayn’s brand is already “pretty boy, sings high notes, likes sex.”
[5]

Cassy Gress: Zayn clearly has Miguel on the brain, but I wonder if he shouldn’t be thinking of Timberlake instead. JT shed the boy band mantle pretty quickly, possibly with “Cry Me a River,” and definitely by the time of “Sexyback.” Unfortunately for Zayn, his solo debut absolutely reeks of “I’M A MAN NOW, also I am a serious artist please take me seriously.” Even more unfortunately, if you replaced some of the synths in this with guitars, and added a little harmony, maybe sped it up just a smidge, it would be absolutely indistinguishable from a 1D song. Part of the reason Justin was able to move on from N’Sync in the mass consciousness so quickly is that N’Sync ceased to exist, and nobody else in the group had any significant solo success at all. Zayn has to contend with (on hiatus, but still) 1D still kicking around and putting out singles that sound remarkably similar to his. I understand he likely had reasons for leaving other than “I don’t want to be in a boy band anymore,” but this feels a little directionless. (Pun not intended.)
[4]

Jonathan Bradley: This would sound a whole lot better with, ooh, say, four extra dudes on harmony.
[4]

Alfred Soto: Solo maturity is aiming for Usher’s “Climax” using Ryan Tedder chords.
[4]

Thomas Inskeep: Sounds like Ryan Tedder trying to write a boudoir ballad for the Weeknd.
[4]

Brad Shoup: Pop loves explicit dichotomies, but Zayn may have ruined them forever. Not really though: the love/hate thing will outlast us all, even the man who sang “paradise” four times, then “war zone” four times. He dives under pronunciation, trying to get to that feeling; all he finds are trap hits that sound like ducks.
[5]

Lauren Gilbert: The author is dead. The author is dead. The author is dead.  That’s what I have to keep reminding myself, listening to this track. I find Zayn Malik intensely irritating, between the self-righteous interviews and public insults towards his former band. And yet: this is good. It manages a languorous, smoky sexiness that ANTI is clearly trying for, and I think Zayn is actually more successful here than Rihanna. I’d have sex to this track, and I’ve never been a particular fan of One Direction.
[7]

Monday, February 8th, 2016

Erykah Badu – Phone Down

…tree up?


[Video][Website]
[5.50]

Patrick St. Michel: All too often, bringing up phones in a song today leads to either some sort of gloopy observation about how obsessed we are with our Androids or just an embarrassing attempt to be with it. Badu pushes the phone to the side, not trying to say anything about technology or communication but rather accepting its place in everyday life and, well, focusing on topics to get someone to put the device down. The song itself doesn’t go anywhere particularly interesting with this idea, but the chilly minimalism works well and this approaches phones better than most. 
[6]

Brad Shoup: An OK hook made obsessive, like a drunk thought you hang onto for your near-term sanity. I can practically see the streetlights reflecting off the dark tint, but I can’t see anyone else in that limo.
[3]

Jonathan Bradley: It would be so easy — it would make so much sense — to imbue “Phone Down” with uncertainty: to draw out tension and emotion by hinting that maybe the singer isn’t as distracting as she hopes. Badu eschews this approach entirely: she knows what power she has, and, repeating herself over and over, is insistent in her assertion of it. The icy trickle of melody — beyond the hard-edged beat, there’s little more to the song — builds the intimacy, and Badu edges towards seduction, “I’ll cut mine off, too.” A wrinkle: there’s no sign she intends to follow through on any of her promises. It’s an ingénue’s ploy, but someone this sure of what she wants has no interest in playing the ingénue. But she could.
[8]

Maxwell Cavaseno: Erykah Badu trolls the world by emulating how utterly shit the post-Drake style of songwriting is and still managing to do really well with it, based off being iconic and because we’ve settled for far less.
[1]

Alfred Soto: This trifle of a mixtape boasted an agreeable Todd Rundgren reimagining and a major Drake rethinking. “Phone Down” benefits from an emphatic Badu: she’s compelling when issuing commands.
[7]

Cassy Gress: I’m bopping my head, I’m grinning at “I can makey I can makey I can makey putcher phone down.” Why do I like this so much when I didn’t like Rihanna’s “Work”? Erykah’s singing this completely straight-faced, and is not really saying anything funny, but something about the cadence of this reminds me of a joke, I think the way that she comes back to “put your phone down” immediately no matter what else she says. Add in the synth that sounds like spooky ghosts, and it’s all coming together and working somehow.
[8]

Friday, February 5th, 2016

Jennifer Nettles – Unlove You

Earned wisdom.


[Video][Website]
[6.50]

Anthony Easton: This is Martina McBride level overemoting and oversinging, and Martina McBride is like the Sirk of female melodrama (which, I think, makes Nettles the Todd Haynes — unless Dolly is Sirk, and that makes Nettles Haynes on account of the Christmas Dolly movie) 
[8]

Alfred Soto: “If I were twenty-five, I know what I’d do,” she sings, and what a pleasure to hear an artist celebrate her age by honoring her limits and suggesting she has untapped possibilities. Nettles’ prominent twang gives her the lived-in virtues that transform the generic into the specific; it’s as solid as good Martina McBride.
[7]

Jonathan Bogart: Country, by virtue of its (spurious) claims to folksy athenticity, has an uneasy relationship with the big dramatic pop that has been the dominant form of recorded schmaltz ever since Caruso, but if we must have country that tries to compete head-to-head with the big, bludgeoning work of the likes of Leona Lewis or Adele, this is one best-case scenario.
[7]

Thomas Inskeep: Nettles has one of the great soulful voices in country, akin to Wynonna (the gold standard), so her records will rarely be out-and-out bad. But she’s not a great judge of songs, and while “Unlove You” starts off promisingly — atmospheric almost like a Daniel Lanois production — by the second verse it gets overblown and a bit overwrought. Call it a draw.
[5]

Cassy Gress: So many bells of recognition were dinging in my head while I listened to this, but I couldn’t figure out why, because I have pretty much no frame of reference for country music outside of 1999-2002.  On the second runthrough, it hit me: this is like “I’ll Be Okay” by Amanda Marshall.  It’s got the faded, smoky steel guitars, it’s got a sort of scratchy voice (although Jennifer Nettles’s voice is less scratchy and more just, out of the back of her throat) and eventually it just goes out in the rain and cries some epic tears.
[7]

Brad Shoup: A thirtysomething hookup song with the bombast reserved for a younger set. There’s no lust in Nettles’ delivery, just lightly worn despair, which might be its own kind of wisdom. It’s like an “Ashes By Now” where no one burns.
[5]

Friday, February 5th, 2016

Flo Rida – My House

Not a Lou Reed cover.


[Video][Website]
[6.00]

Thomas Inskeep: I am befuddled by how, exactly, Flo Rida has become one of the most consistent hitmakers of the past decade: this is his 11th top 10 pop single in America. All of the evidence from his singles, however, shows that, much like Black Eyed Peas, he succeeds by going for the lowest common denominator. His songs are party “jams” without any charm, designed for maximum kegger/bottle service impact; “My House” is no different.
[1]

Jonathan Bogart: I went into it hoping for a Madness flip, but this is almost as good. Flo Rida’s the most consistent pop-rapper of the past decade, which now that I think about it may mean he’s the most consistent pop-rapper of all time.
[7]

Brad Shoup: What a lane Flo’s carved. I’ve never seen anyone yell “DAD” at him: he’s pure product, a melodic pop-rap heavyweight with no need for cred, or even visibility. Shit like “My House” does all the work: that creeping left-hand piano figure, that gorgeous synth-sax counter, the “Impeach the President” sample. All of it forms a field where Flo Rida can harvest as much corn as he can handle.
[9]

Cassy Gress: The piano reminds me of the Four Tops, and the drums and that saw-wave sax work well. Remove the pre-chorus, which is, I don’t know why it’s like that, but it doesn’t match anything and is, I think, about a different house altogether, and we’re golden.
[6]

Alfred Soto: Singing like a “Sesame Street” Muppet before recalcitrant children, Flo Rida returns after a three-year absence with a Jason Derulo discard.
[4]

Will Adams: My happiest moments socializing in college were in houses — not trudging through the cold to yet another place a friend told me was happening, not bumping into strangers in a club and feeling like everyone was looking at me, not blowing all my cash at the bar in a futile attempt to sustain my buzz. It was enough to swirl a warm beer in my hand, sit on a couch, and laugh with whomever was there: best friends or the familiar face from a lecture. Since graduating, the feeling’s continued; I long for my other friends to see the value in just staying in, realizing that we don’t have to go out to have a good time. “My House” is a party anthem for the homebodies, and that it’s delivered by Flo Rida, reigning champion of insipid club fare, turns it into something amazing.
[9]

Maxwell Cavaseno: The funny thing about “My House” is…well, for me, it’s that he used “Impeach The President,” meaning longtime copyright holder Aaron Fuchs is getting paid off or suing Flo Rida later. Also, it’s a straightforward pop/hip-hop track. The “Impeach” thread reminds me of another jam that rode this sample: “I Love College.” “Impeach The President” is funky as a motherfucker, so if you just have a sweeping chorus, minimal track and those drums? You’ll do great. And even someone as mediocre as Flo Rida, who I just saw getting out freestyled by the flabby gutted son of Mike Rotunda on WWE last week, can make this work as a jam. Those drums sell themselves, man.
[6]

Friday, February 5th, 2016

Jeremih – Oui

Yes!


[Video][Website]
[6.71]

Jonathan Bogart: My Twitter bio for the past couple months has included the words “grown man in my suit and tie.” I’ve been in the tank since the album was released. It’s nice in here.
[9]

Maxwell Cavaseno: Here we find Jeremih in the peak form that he demonstrated years ago and didn’t get to make as a breakout single for a while, instead wasting time trying to fit every other trend (to greater and lesser results). It’s fascinating that when you think of the morose and murky Drakk impersonators cluttering airwaves how Jeremih is so spritely. ‘Oui’ is straightforward and earnest in a sea of self-loathing, a standout amid his experiments by giving joy and hope to stressed listeners.
[7]

Crystal Leww: This is the level of vibe and sexiness that Justin Timberlake was trying to go for, right?
[7]

Thomas Inskeep: Jeremih: the poor man’s Miguel, willing to make the cravenly commercial records that Miguel won’t. This isn’t bad by any means but not particularly special, even with the Shai quote. And I can only imagine he titled it “Oui” (wink wink) after the hardcore porn magazine.
[5]

Alfred Soto: No contemporary R&B singer has squandered his talents in the last eighteen months on useless guest appearances like this drummer by training, and if his record label woes are true I suppose he’s gotta remain in the public eye. The excellence of Late Nights surprised me, woeful appearances by J. Cole and YG aside. Elongating verse syllables doesn’t become him, but grunts do. So does harmonizing with himself.
[7]

Cassy Gress: Sometimes when I listen to a song, if I have had my brain busy with something not-music for a while, my brain forgets how music works and until it remembers (usually within a minute or so), music is essentially a bunch of disconnected incoherent sounds.  That happened the first time I listened to this, and the first 30 seconds  was painful. It sounded like someone restarting a song over and over and not getting the notes right. With my brain in proper working order, it doesn’t quite sound like that, but it’s… not great. At first I thought the piano glissandos pretty, but after a while it’s like hammers bashing my head. There’s a pre-chorus bit where the beat changes and he gets mumbly and all I can picture is his mouth flopping around, but the note he hits on “maybe if weeeeee” is a pretty nice note.
[5]

Brad Shoup: The hook “there’s no we without you and I” is beyond trite, but not so those aw yeahs. He haws against those harplike piano plucks: also effective. He settles into a reverie, sighing out a window about a suit. The track feels improvisational — especially when he settles into a throwback minor mode on the bridge — but the best compliments come off the cuff.
[7]

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

KING – The Greatest

Title meet score…


[Video][Website]
[8.45]

Thomas Inskeep: KING make cool, distinctive R&B with a Sade edge, whose influences span decades. They look like an updated version of SWV, around-the-way girls who knows what’s up, but their sound has more in common with ’80s Brit-cool soul like Loose Ends. “The Greatest” celebrates Muhammad Ali, and its accompanying video celebrates (with cheeky, clever Atari-esque graphics) black athletes of all stripes: if this feels like the most chilled-out anthem of empowerment you’ve ever heard, it’s probably because it is. The first great single of 2016.
[9]

Alfred Soto: A shimmering hologram, “The Greatest” has the beauty of a Swain-Jolley production: think Imagination or early Bananarama. The women don’t press further than they need; lines “Riddle and rhyme/the bravest thing is living in my prime” get no more emphasis than “I’m taking home the gold.” It’s unusual for a vocal group to take its cues from the synths and sequencers.
[8]

Cassy Gress: There are so many little crackly bits and sparkles and clicks and echoes and aural flutters in both channels of this song that it’s sort of messing with my head. The toms have a great reverb and bassiness to them, I’m always tickled to hear chords unexpectedly resolving into the major key, and this gets a great groove going. My only real quibble is that “who wants a run with the number one?” seems to be lifted out of a different song, one that doesn’t sound like a Lisa Frank sunset. I was disappointed when I realized the song was fading out.
[9]

Iain Mew: Afloat on the serene cloud of harmonies, I barely noticed that they were singing “flashing faster than the speed of light”, but the synth line somehow conveys the action without disrupting the reverie. “The Greatest” is like the winning moment taking part in something competitive when the world seems to slow down as everything goes exactly right. Except that never lasts long enough to give three minutes of blissful certainty.
[9]

Leonel Manzanares: I love it when a track is in the right spot between laid-back and busy. The Nintendo sounds and the aquatic synths recall this brilliant wave of Soundcloud producers creating the next musical revolution from their bedrooms, but unlike most of those digital native kids, their sonic punches aim for pop timelessness, and they manage to connect that hook. Quite appropriate for an Ali tribute.  
[8]

Maxwell Cavaseno: If you wanted to know what MKS was supposed to sound like had they not been buried by the ineptitude of Dev Hynes and perhaps with some of the smirking wisdom of Kid Creole, well look no further.
[7]

Will Adams: “Who wants a run with the number one?” goes the hook, flipping the song into competitive mode. It gives edge to the ultra-smooth production, which is so sumptuous on its own that it would’ve earned my high score.
[8]

Jonathan Bogart: The lyrical conceit of romantic sex as athletic competition is not generally one taken up by women (and you’d have to delete “romantic” to get more than trace amounts from men). But by injecting just the right amount of humor in both delivery and production, muffling and processing their voices until it sounds like they’re gasping for air without breaking a sweat, KING makes “The Greatest” sound not ruthless but cooperative, in the sweetest two-become-one sense possible.
[9]

Brad Shoup: If Green Gartside had been into boxing and humidity, this’d be your result.
[8]

Megan Harrington: Pleading ignorance of boxing in its entirety, when I listen to “The Greatest,” I hear Los Angeles. Today’s cinematic depictions of the city are so lush and commanding that they might be what 80s dreamers thought Mars would look like this decade. KING are traveling backwards, coating their work with a sticky layer of hairspray and packing it into a silver cruiser. “The Greatest” radiates an arid heat that only existed at the dawn of smog and in this murky past it almost boogies. 
[8]

David Sheffieck: Like sliding into a hot tub after a long day, champagne glass in hand, and feeling the tension and stress drift up from your toes, through your back and shoulders, until it floats away on the nearest breeze.
[10]

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

Rihanna ft. Drake – Work

Don’t worry, we didn’t accidentally publish this post too early and take it down, only to re-post it a few hours later in full…


[Video][Website]
[6.55]

Katherine St Asaph: Rihanna is now decidedly not a pop star, which is convenient, because the idea of the pop star has all but imploded. It’s also convenient because Rihanna’s presence on pop radio has also imploded, even after donning a Met Ball-sized Ed Sheeran costume on “FourFiveSeconds.” Something about the release of Anti has probably also imploded — it’s weird reading people ascribe unflappable creative control to Rihanna when nothing about the Anti campaign suggests any such thing. Even the title Anti suggests a hasty repositioning: “anti” as in anti-event album (something last done by Miley’s Dead Petz, though I get that people want to forget that exists.) What’s likely going on instead is that Anti was cobbled together from whichever tracks weren’t scrapped, dated or unfinished — “Desperado” is why Justine Skye got “Bandit,” I bet — with its best track released (again!) as a snippet. Even “Work” is evidence: a pretty common theme for lead singles (either actual lead singles or lead-singles-via-retcon) by artists in career trouble, one we last saw by Britney; at best they’re viscerally determined, at worst they sound like the disembodied direction of some industry asshole, given to the artist to sing. But Anti largely works, and so does “Work.” Rihanna mines so much petulant tension out of a steely, brittle dancehall track (an astonishing number of peanut gallerists seem to be unable to recognize it, or patois); whether you think it’s biographical or not, it’s palpable. Drake is at his Drakest, i.e. a making-you-set-your-Gchat-status-to-“busy” elemental, but he doesn’t ruin it anywhere near as much as “What’s My Name,” so he’s fine. Will it work out for Rihanna? Hard to say — even the timely production (those Tinashesque woodwinds!) is deliberately prickly. But it’s Rihanna at her most interesting, which counts for a lot.
[7]

Alfred Soto: I’m having a decent time until The Drake Drone drags Rihanna through one of its psychodramas (“I spilled all my emotions tonight, I’m sorry” — I’m sure you are). But her verses at least coincide with an ethos committed to the issuing of product, often expedient. Not this time. “Work” represents one of the few persuasive moments when her Caribbean roots influence her vocalizing.
[5]

Cassy Gress: I’m thinking about “7/11” here, and it’s not that they sound alike, it’s just that this sounds like it was put together in 30 minutes in the studio, except moreso. I wasn’t really invested in Rihanna having a particular sound or anything, and I mean, the patois is fine, the dry nasal vocals are not new to her, and I sort of like the beat, but the way this melody is written, it sounds like the entire thing with the exception of maybe the chorus was ad-libbed. And underenunciated. And lazily edited. wer-wer-wer-wa-wa.
[3]

Jonathan Bogart: Nobody but Rihanna could get away with such mushy syllablization, dragging her voice out with such a concerted lack of effort that it stands as a raised middle finger to the pop-fan ethical ecosystem that demands hard work, the performance of effort, in exchange for respect. Rihanna is above respect; unlike Nicki Minaj (who shows how much she actually cares with every vibrating molecule of her overachieving theater-kid being), she doesn’t just claim not to give a fuck. Which, since dudes have made mush-mouth vocalizing over futuristic beats a point of slacker pride for basically ever, is its own form of triumph. Drake, with his actorly enunciation, sounds like a positive Poindexter next to her, and the pointillist dancehall beneath them both suggests a robotic future in which Rihanna’s drawling refusal to be organized is the only human element left.
[10]

Crystal Leww: “Work” doesn’t really work until Drake’s part comes on, but as soon as you hear his verse once, the whole thing just clicks in a way that is impossible to forget. While Future became more well known for his stream of consciousness, slurred rambles, Drake adopted the delivery cadence and did it better, with instantly more quotable lines, a more sung rather than slurred vocal style, and a vulnerability that appeals to many women. In 2013, “Hold On, I’m Going Home” was the thesis for Drake’s Winning But Lonely schtick, and here, Rihanna’s adopted the attitude from her point of view. While there are lonelier moments on Anti, there are few moments that are so desperately trying to feign not-giving-a-fuck-let’s-party quite like “Work.” There are steel drums in the background, for fuck’s sake! But she sounds so lonely at times — “You took my heart on my sleeve for decoration” — before burying herself back in her work, work, work, work, work, work like any girl who is trying to desperately ignore that heartbreak. This is not the big Rihanna single that soundtracks the summer that she’s become known for, but “Work” functions better for sloshing around on wet February sidewalks anyway.
[8]

Patrick St. Michel: It’s easy to miss all the sadness oozing out of the edges of “Work,” given how much warmth Rihanna’s voice gives to words repeated over and over and over. Yet each listen — and the minimal dancehall-inspired beat and the way those six “works” just get lodged in your head guarantee multiple plays — reveals the tension underneath, how those repeated words suddenly feel like record scratches reflecting the inability to move forward. And beneath all that “work” is exhaustion pushing up against passion. Drake stumbles in as the physical manifestation of a Leisure Suit Larry dialogue box, yet it actually works wonderfully here given the emotional push-pull going on. But ultimately this shines because of Rihanna, who turns the feeling of frustration into a great pop song.
[8]

Leonel Manzanares: Dancehall Rihanna will always be my favorite version of her, and that bouncy riddim, combined with Boi-1da’s muted synths, gives enough space for both RiRi and Drake to make their natural chemistry shine. It doesn’t move much, though, but that chill Caribbean vibe is always welcome. 
[6]

Brad Shoup: One of the many great things about being Rihanna is that you never really have event singles. “Work” sees her unspool her thoughts exactly as she wants to: the measuring belongs to Drake, who doesn’t really belong here, not at this energy level anyway. The Sail Away riddim is trimmed for the current, tropical climate; she’s free to strut from stem to stern.
[7]

Thomas Inskeep: I love the way the “Sail Away” riddim is turned inside out for the super-stripped-down digital dancehall of “Work,” and also the way Rihanna’s both instantly recognizable here and a bit of a cipher, allowing her voice to be heavily processed and filtered at various points. “Pon de Replay” always felt like fake “island” music to me, a cheap cash-in on her Caribbean-ness. This, on the other hand, sounds like she’s proudly embracing who she is. Drake helicopters in for a verse about — I have no idea, but he doesn’t distract, at least. I’m enamoured by how deceptively simple the sum of these parts sounds.
[8]

Will Adams: “Work” sounds like it’s always climbing, from the low-end kick drums slowly working their way in to the mix to the unstable chord progression inching upwards toward (but never reaching) any tonic. Things like this, as well as Rihanna’s slurred delivery and the obligatory presence of Drake, made “Work” an underwhelming lead single. But taken in the context of Anti, it worms its bleak way into the endearing mess of an album.
[6]

Megan Harrington: Anti is raw, unpolished, rough, and loose. It’s a mess. But messes aren’t without appeal, and it’s not like the criminally botched rollout didn’t prepare every fan, critic, and 20-something living in Brooklyn for a mess. For years the internet at large has salivated after, practically worshiped, certainly canonized Rihanna’s street style. It’s an enormous down jacket that swallows her whole body but for two tiny feet with six thin straps securing stiletto heels. It’s a baby pink full suit with a baby pink fur shawl draped across her arms and around her back. It’s wine colored lipstick the texture of velvet. It’s always something different, sometimes immediately confusing because in the world, the one I travel through where every lumpy body is swaddled in poly-cotton blends, no one even dares to try Rihanna’s taste on for size. It’s well understood that she’s the only person with enough presence to fall on the right side of the style/costume divide. On “Work” Rihanna offers little more than that presence. The patois is her prerogative, on a song that generates so little momentum it sounds like another cut corner. She’s here, and even with so little of herself invested she overshadows Drake and Boi-1da. Rihanna, in all her magnetic disarray, is the only compelling aspect of this song. 
[4]

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

iKON – What’s Wrong?

#RejectedSongTitlesFromPurpose


[Video][Website]
[4.18]

Madeleine Lee: Now this is more like it! Where iKON’s last round of singles consisted of a lullaby and a paint-by-numbers trap song, with “What’s Wrong?” and “Dumb & Dumber” they’ve found a solid direction that isn’t just “here are some genres.” And yeah, it sounds like present-day Big Bang, but in these songs there’s a spirit of exploration that Big Bang seems to have given up on, on the assumption that they’ve found it all. “Dumb & Dumber” is “Bang Bang Bang” as a jock jam; “What’s Wrong?” grounds the festival rock of “Crooked” and “Sober” with Actual Teen angst and more glam synths, and while it ultimately comes out overcooked compared to its keep-it-simple-stupid predecessors (that fake record slowdown into the bridge, ugh), I appreciate the effort anyway.
[5]

Maxwell Cavaseno: Why is it that these groups will always stay impressively on point sometimes with R&B/rap in doing their best to stay with the times, but every time one of these groups attempts to “rock out,” the best they can come up with is something that sounds like an Aly & AJ cast-off?
[2]

Leonel Manzanares: There’s no doubt that Bobby and B.I, the de facto leaders of iKON, are very talented. The problem is that the concept for this band has been seriously misdirected. With “What’s Wrong?” they go for the party-starting EDM route, and while the chorus has a nice ring to it, the rest of the song falls short in every aspect. It’s obvious that YG is looking for a right successor to Big Bang (with both iKON and WINNER), but replicating their sound is not gonna take them anywhere, even if the sales are high. 
[5]

Iain Mew: With Big Bang no longer doing this kind of shouty rock semi-ballad, it makes sense for someone else to step in, but they sound precisely as sloppy and half as charismatic.
[3]

Jonathan Bogart: If you’re going to snarl, make me believe you’ll bite.
[5]

Cassy Gress: This is barely a [5], and it really should be a [7] or an [8], and that vexes me tremendously. There are so many good pieces here, and all of them are just underdone or poorly performed. Donghyuk, who gets the pre-choruses, has a very obnoxiously nasal voice. The opening vocals (“if you ever loved somebody say yeah”) sound like Kidz Bop vocals to me.  The guitars and bass are mixed too low and need a harsher, grungier sound, and the drums sound cheap. And ughh about that damn “I unplugged the stereo, party over” vwerrrp sound just before the vocals begin, which serves no conceivable purpose. But, you look up the lyrics, and it’s spot on! The speed and F-G-Am chord progression work really well together! Jinhwan has a real early-00s American alt-rock sound in his voice! You think about how this would have sounded with better singers, with better mixing, and this could have been a much better song.
[5]

Alfred Soto: The Black Eyed Peas, still an influence.
[3]

Thomas Inskeep: Fewer guitars than 5SOS, but a similar attitude – and better songs.
[6]

Will Adams: Shame, the intro had me really excited for some melancholic electropop. Instead I got snot-laden bubblegum punk.
[4]

Patrick St. Michel: Whereas before they embraced seemingly “cool” sounds a little too closely, here iKON say screw it and go all in on gooey, unhip sentimentality for the better. It’s a song about a disintegrating relationship where the drop ends up being a scream-along hook fit for rock radio. Still, earnestness can’t hide the bony awkwardness of B.I screaming “yo DJ, funk this party.”
[5]

Brad Shoup: They should’ve stuck to negging idols.
[3]

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

St. Lucia – Dancing on Glass

What’s that, you say? You wanted more references? Here you go:


[Video][Website]
[5.82]
Alfred Soto: Oh gee — here’s a “Midnight City” clone at least four years late with a colorless Dave Gahan yelling across sonic forebears that are Grand Canyon wide.
[5]

Patrick St. Michel: Artists are always going to turn backwards for ideas, which is fine, but maybe it’s worth asking just why they feel the need to poke around the past. Is there something about pop music from the ’80s worth exploring and connecting to the present, or are you just trying to get in on that sweet, sweet “Shut Up And Dance” diorama action? I hear “Dancing on Glass” and all I imagine is a guy half-laughing at a Depeche Mode poster.
[3]

Thomas Inskeep: If Blancmange had made it to ’88.
[6]

Will Adams: Airbrushed, technicolor synthpop might not be the freshest idea in 2016, but Jean-Philip Grobler’s real strength is being very, very good at what he does. The formula of “Dancing On Glass” — buckets of fluffy synths, supersized drums, Grobler’s honeyed voice at the fore — is familiar yet so effective, and that needn’t be a deterrent.
[7]

Cassy Gress: St. Lucia sounds like a tenor version of Dave Gahan, and the backing track is an extra-reverby version of… I’m not sure what, but “St Elmo’s Fire” keeps coming to mind.  Something is missing: a hard downbeat before the chorus? e.g. “never gonna stop until it’s broken” boom boom “how long until we learn…” It’d be less of a hesitation and more of a fuse being lit. Or maybe the bass line could be different — the bass notes in the chorus seem slightly out of sync with the rest of the synths, like they’re playing a different part of the song. Really, the main issue is that this keeps reminding me of other songs I would rather be listening to.
[5]

Edward Okulicz: Dave Gahan does a Boy George impression over a… “Go West” impression? Cool, and kind of banging, though the second half of the chorus lacks the big explosive ’80s power of the first.
[7]

Maxwell Cavaseno: Sounding like a meeting of the minds between Vince Clarke and uh… whomever has songs like this out in the modern age (they all sound the same to me!) It’s a solid bit of work for an electronic pop record but doesn’t feel more special than say, any Neon Trees single.
[5]

Jonathan Bogart: My disappointment that St. Lucia turned out to be a man was tempered by the reflection that St. Vincent did the same thing the other way round; and the music, a hazy-remembered recreation of AIDS-era paranoia-on-the-dancefloor anthems, is lovable enough in its own right.
[7]

Brad Shoup: For one, it’s nice to hear a song about dancing that admits we’re not that young. For two, he’s a fantastic pre-modern-pop structuralist. “Elevate” was airtight, but in particular the countermelody was perfect, and perfectly deployed. Here, it’s the pre-chorus, which renders the theme legible before the frenetic bounce kicks in. Not that he’s tugging a new thread, although he builds something sturdier out of the silence/violence rhyme than anyone else I can think of. And he found the midpoint between “Midnight City” and “Ain’t It Fun”!
[7]

Leonel Manzanares: That chorus belongs in the closing credits of every 80’s teen movie, so I played it on top of every film in my John Hughes Box Set and watched the magic happen.
[7]

Katherine St Asaph: Plexiglass is the better metaphor — unnaturally slick, crack-resistant, supplanted by better alternatives.
[5]

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

The Rubens – Hoops

It only took three of them (Gotye DQ’d on a technicality), but finally a Hottest 100 winner earns the hallowed [4]…


[Video][Website]
[4.00]

Jonathan Bogart: If white people don’t want to be called boring, maybe we should try being less boring.
[4]

Alfred Soto: Brevity counts, and this Australian top ten has a decent hook, but after two plays I can’t figure out what it’s supposed to say other than a particular combination of drum machine and guitar strum.
[5]

Thomas Inskeep: It’s been suggested that the Rubens’ sound is “trademark RnB-meets-blues-rock swagger.” I suppose that might be true if your benchmark for “RnB-meets-blues-rock swagger” is Modest Mouse.
[4]

Jonathan Bradley: It lopes amiably along with half a hook and an R&B-aspiring efficiency placing it in the lineage, if not the echelon, of mid-’00s Spoon. The a cappella moments are the most striking and the least advised: the blockish vocal is not remarkable enough for less to be here more. The finger-snaps and synthetic handclaps work better: they deliver some fun to what could be an exercise in indie-pop box-checking. As a single, “Hoops” is modest and not unenjoyable; it’s as a national poll-topper, however, that it befuddles.
[5]

Maxwell Cavaseno: Mumbles McGhee and the soul-rock posse here aren’t winning any awards for a song format that’s built to sell passion and receives a guy less interested in what he’s doing than the listener could be at their worst. I think even he’s rating this lower than I am.
[2]

Cassy Gress: Hear me out: this reminds me of a dark “Row Row Row Your Boat.” I don’t mean that it’s childlike, or that the words have become meaningless; lyrically it reminds me of a relationship that I pushed far enough back in my mind that it took me three listens through to remember. It’s the “hoooops and everything, get back” — “hoops” is the longest-held note in the chorus, and it stands out rhythmically in the same way that “merrily merrily” does. Plenty of pop songs end with a counter-melody over the chorus, but this one feels more like a round. Really, really wish the singer (who sounds sort of like Harry Styles just rolled out of bed) would have finished at least one of those choruses on the low A; it feels unresolved without it, but that’s probably the point.
[6]

Brad Shoup: Pretty bold to write the whole song around a placeholder word. Is that an oblique strategy? 
[4]

Megan Harrington: The good news is that now that The Rubens are here there’s nowhere left for The Black Keys to go. 
[2]

Edward Okulicz: My first instinct was “oh my god is this like a Milky Chance cover?” because melodically, I hear this weird relationship to “Stolen Dance.” It’s a lot better than that though because having a drum beat and electric instruments and an actually punchy hook elevate the song enormously. The singer’s voice has more fuzz than the backing, but I’d sing this one around a campfire, if that matters, and I was forced. It’s only 2 minutes and 40 seconds so it drops its payload enough times to work but doesn’t last long enough to cloy. Like most recent Hottest 100 winners, it strikes me as a song a lot of people like a bit (and would have come in around 40 if it had come out in 1995), rather than one that’s a Gotye-esque popularity monster, but at least this year I agree.
[6]

Patrick St. Michel: Sweet D-League action.
[2]