Tuesday, April 2nd, 2024

Cardi B – Enough (Miami)

We can’t get enough of Cardi, which is why you’ll be seeing her again later today…


[Video]
[6.23]

Alfred Soto: A flex that tries to cow the feeble backing track, “Enough” is a demonstration of Cardi B’s talent for a contempt that makes exceptions for consonants. No one human enough to mind sits on the receiving end of “Enough” — this is pure brand extension and proud of it.
[7]

Katherine St. Asaph: I think I just took physical damage.
[7]

Leah Isobel: Cardi is truly Azealia’s daughter. Just like her mother, she can do some truly phenomenal things with a consonant sound; the way she launches the word “sluts” off her tongue or pushes the plosives into her nose on “got ’em thick like peanut butter/bitches is jelly about it” is pure ear candy. The glee in her voice elevates “Enough” past its vaguely tacky brand management, but not past its slightness. 
[6]

Oliver Maier: Cardi virtually feels like an elder statesman at this point, and her aggressive, carpet-bomb style of rapping would feel quaint and outdated if it wasn’t still so fun to hear her do it. There’s a real tactility to her flow that it took me a while to appreciate, but the way that she doubles down on certain plosives and syllables while snubbing others entirely is so clearly a strength rather than a weakness. She regularly pronounces about half of the letters of the word “fuck” and it still feels ballistic. Comfortably her best song since “Up” with bonus points for the “How Many Licks?” reference.
[7]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: Less a Cardi B song than the outline of a Cardi B song – if I turn “Enough” around in my mind I can imagine where a more engaged Cardi could fill in more compelling material, lines that would hit harder if they had a more specific image or funnier joke. Instead, we’ve got this, which is not quite there in so many ways that the whole thing capsizes. Dayenu? Not this time. 
[4]

Jeffrey Brister: I’ve always enjoyed Cardi B a lot more in this stripped-down, straight-ahead context. It gives the spotlight to her technical skill and hilarious writing, laden with punchlines and laugh out loud moments (three shots an’ I’m ready to FUCK — girl, same). This is the most satisfying kind of meat-and-potatoes rap.
[9]

TA Inskeep: I want and expect more from Cardi at this point than just endless boasting.
[5]

Nortey Dowuona: “Her” has four producers. “Enough” has three. Maybe it should’ve had a 4th to fix the chorus. Or the drums. Then again, “Sweetest Pie” had five producers, OG Parker and Romano amongst them, so maybe it’s not just the number. Maybe it’s OG Parker’s fault… wait, he made “Thot Shit”? “Slippery”? “On It”? “Ur Best Friend”? “LIGER”? Was this youngblood Parker on the boards today?
[0]

Dave Moore: Cardi B’s charm is effortless, so even a track that seems like it was assembled on autopilot has something to recommend it, grimly “hard-edged” (read: dull) though it may sound. She sounds fantastic on the Shakira single; maybe she should make a harder artistic pivot. Pick any direction you like… how about Cowboy Cardi?    
[6]

Ian Mathers: Whereas some of Cardi’s more notable rivals have, err, notably dropped off over time, this is her firmly succeeding in “Bodak Yellow” mode except… I think I like it a little better? The delivery and wordplay are even more confident (points for referencing “Just Say That” and “Knuck If You Buck” without just copying them), it’s got a better chorus, and the production is simple but effective. You can get away with a lot when your core is this strong.
[8]

Taylor Alatorre: Atlanta’s cultural hegemony over 21st century hip-hop is such that a back-to-basics NYC drill track can use “Knuck if You Buck” as its central signifier for choosing violence, and no one bats an eyelash. Not that I’m the first person to observe this, of course, but Cardi isn’t exactly giving me much to work with here. The beat is clean, suggesting danger without creating it; the flow is lean, snapping at haters without devouring them. One gets the sense that this was written as a comeback single, but for better or worse it doesn’t take the kinds of risks that are traditionally associated with such mass-marketed stabs in the dark. It is the first-ever notable release in the history of popular music to use the term “regular-degular,” though, and one figures that has to be worth something. 
[6]

Isabel Cole: Cardi always marries boastful menace with silliness so well. I hope this song kicks off a trend of don’t-fuck-with-me rap songs expressing badassery through fun animal facts and Dr. Seuss homages.
[7]

Mark Sinker: So this one has a little star, 
and this one has a little car 
Say! 
What a lot of bitch there are

[9]

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2024

Porter Robinson – Cheerleader

April Fool’s Day is over, now time for some SINCERITY…


[Video]
[5.92]

Taylor Alatorre: This song sounds embarrassing. It sounds excessive. It sounds like something you might regret putting into the world five seconds after hitting “publish.” It sounds, in other words, like high school. Porter Robinson’s post-brostep career has been an extended treatise on escapism — from the appealingly plaintive paracosms of 2014’s Worlds to the soothing self-inventory of 2021’s Nurture, with his Virtual Self side project managing to be both esoteric and stupidly self-explanatory. He’s crafted a series of immersive alternatives to analog messiness, allowing the listener to check out of the everyday and place themselves for a moment in a softer-edged realm, with more explicable rules and a more poetic set of problems. “Cheerleader,” though, offers the listener no assistance in either sidestepping or reconfiguring the uncomfortable reality into which they were born; music video aside, it’s not really a song about fanbases gone wild either. Instead it’s about the girl in your school’s Anime Club who gave out her deviantART username before her phone number and taught you against your will what the word yaoi meant. The fujoshi representation, besides filling a glaring gap in the TSJ search index, makes it clear that this is about a real person and not an avatar, and it’s that awkward flesh-and-blood realness which is precisely at issue here. Maybe she’s as real as him, and maybe he couldn’t live with that. The perspective of a boy who is unused to being the object of obsession is an under-explored one in music, probably because it’s very hard to land it within the narrow range of acceptable loserdom. But Porter sticks the landing by enveloping us fully within the loser’s headspace, where both his emo-inflected chagrin and his fragmented memories of the girl’s “cheering” are enshrouded by a waterfall of blown-out Obama-era detritus. If you ever wondered what a big room house remix of Two Door Cinema Club might’ve sounded like, or Oracular Spectacular if it had debuted on Beatport, here’s your answer. Other seemingly out-of-place additions — the bitpop cowbell, the Punk Goes Acoustic bridge, the hilariously overwrought drumroll that becomes less so the second time around — fit right into this 1080p capture of late adolescent bag-fumbling. Taken together, they convey a mismatch in interests and hobbies that may have seemed like a deal breaker at the time, but in hindsight was just another excuse to avoid vulnerability. Perhaps I only arrived at this gonzo interpretation because the 4chan-core single artwork serves as a kind of shibboleth for these things. If that’s the case, then I plead guilty: I ate the apple.
[10]

Oliver Maier: “We have Anamanaguchi at home.”
[6]

Hannah Jocelyn: I loved Porter Robinson’s Nurture for its unapologetic sincerity, a balm when emerging back into the world post-lockdown. I miss that early hopefulness as the years have gone on; even now, it’s hard for me to hear “Unfold” without being close to tears. “Cheerleader” is a frustrating detour, with inane lyrics about yandere fujoshis fetishizing Robinson — you know you’re doing nothing new when the Nostalgia Critic beat you to it, and Robinson hardly sells the can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em message better. Nurture, for better or worse, incorporated the pitch-shifting vocals of hyperpop into EDM (to the point where a trans woman musician I know grew frustrated with Nurture’s acclaim for doing what acts like Katie Dey had done for years, regardless of how Robinson himself identifies.) That’s worth acknowledging, especially as this attempts to go right to the source: 3OH!3 and Metro Station come to mind. Except there’s none of the polish that makes those songs work despite themselves — What’s with that tinny hi-hat? Where’s the low end on the guitar? Listen to “Shake It”; that song from 2007 sounds better than this one from 2024. It’s not enough to replicate the aesthetics; for some ungodly reason, Robinson decided it must sound like it’s coming from a Hot Topic speaker too.
[4]

Claire Biddles: We have “Shake It” by Metro Station at home.
[4]

Tim de Reuse: I admire the chutzpah to take a stylistic hairpin turn like this. And I appreciate the ability to do that while retaining the crystal-clear boom-bap production chops that made you a breakout sensation in the first place. And I appreciate how it makes its power-pop references clear without sticking to them too desperately. And I appreciate the sheer craft; birds fly, rocks sink, Porter Robinson writes synth hooks that wrap around your mind and squeeze tight. And I appreciate the line about getting drawn kissing other guys. But there’s a clean and edgeless quality here, a sterile expression of his EDM roots, that directly contradicts his attempts at a heartbreaking singalong. Nowhere does his voice crack with raw emotion; nowhere does it seem even possible that his voice might crack with raw emotion.
[5]

Kayla Beardslee: Porter Robinson’s doing anime OSTs now? Good for him.
[7]

Leah Isobel: I see this fitting into a whole universe of PS1/Nintendo DS aesthetic indie games, YouTube video essays about old anime, trans girls with Neocities websites, indie pop sung by vocaloids. I could call it hyperpop — not in the sense of overdriven chaos, but in the sense of the hyperlink. (HTML revival would be more accurate.) As such, it feels a little too precise, its scruffiness deployed too purposefully; I feel like this stuff works best when the self is obscured, and Porter is too big of a star to let that happen. But that also means the chorus is fucking massive, so I can’t complain too much.
[7]

Nortey Dowuona: The soft, limply placed drums in the song for once are not the sabotaging element in this song. The lithe, acoustic guitar bridge is even nicely played. The guitar riff, doubled by the synth, is the true arrow to the heart of this song. Porter is processed to hell and back, refusing to give over his composition to a more present, entertaining vocalist, but that riff is so grating and stiff that when it first arrives, sliding up as the culmination of the slowly hopping pre-chorus, it stops the song from progressing any further, simply pushing Porter into the background and leaving his Melodyned voice slack below it, struggling to be heard. Now, does this stop me from screaming that chorus in my head? Of course not. It’s not fair I have to keep hearing this grating riff every time, though.
[6]

Ian Mathers: God, I love that recurring, overdriven synth sound that kicks in on the chorus. If anything I wish it was more all-enveloping when it hits (yes, like shoegaze, yes, I’m predicable). There’s lots of other interesting things going on here, but I can’t quite get over that visceral rush enough to figure out my response to it all. Hit the whoosh button again, Porter!
[8]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: Not nearly dumb enough for me to enjoy its shtick.
[3]

Isabel Cole: This sounds like a One Direction album track in a universe where after they got kicked off The X Factor, Simon Cowell realized he could save so much money by replacing everyone but Liam with robots, only when they got into the studio there was some kind of malfunction and Zayn-bot started screeching uncontrollably and Niall-bot fell on his side crackling horribly with static while Harry-bot and Louis-bot took turns punching each other until they were dented beyond recognition, and that’s why it sounds like how it sounds. (Liam didn’t notice anything amiss, obviously; have you met him?)
[4]

Will Adams: At the heart of Nurture was its… well, heart. On that record, Porter Robinson wore his on his sleeve, crooning lines like “I’ll be alive next year / I can make something good” without a hint of irony. On “Cheerleader,” he surprisingly lets a bit of cynicism slip in. It’s not a leap to see how producing such earnest, sincere art would naturally invite fans to form parasocial relationships, to draw fan art but not know where to “draw the line,” to develop a near-fatalistic expectation of commitment. But between each of those details is a generous counterpoint, where Porter wonders if he benefits just as much from these feelings. It creates a fascinating tension, expressed best by the chorus: “IT’S NOT FAAAAIIIRRRRRR!”, stretched over a fizzy, tightly-wound power-pop arrangement complete with a skyscraping synth line. Porter just can’t help himself. We’ve all got feelings; why not scream them to the rafters?
[8]

Katherine St. Asaph: Porter Robinson’s brand of earnestness makes my heart feel burnt or dead.
[5]

Monday, April 1st, 2024

Future and Metro Boomin ft. Kendrick Lamar – Like That

A Drake diss track provides our highest  controversy of the day; it truly is April 1…

Future and Metro Boomin featuring Kendrick Lamar - Like That
[Video]
[5.40]

Andrew Karpan: “Like That” is probably the best of the varied anti-Drizzy discography that I’ve encountered so far; the flipped, forgotten Rodney-O record emerging out of the dust of a minor E-40 posse cut into a throbbing, pulsing menace that owns its own side of the street, untouched. Kendrick, like Pusha-T and then Meek Mill before him, finds inside Drake’s bloated success and notorious mediocrity a melancholy yearning to belong, which frankly confuses him. But this is, of course, why the devout listen to Drake in the first place.  
[6]

Taylor Alatorre: Not the second coming of Big Sean’s “Control” that I thought it was upon first listen; the Michael Jackson line is doing most of the heavy lifting as far as pure shock and awe goes. The Verse is more of an announcement of hostilities than a full engagement on the battlefield, sounding like an intended sneak diss that turned less sneaky after a few hard drinks. The time and place of its delivery matter almost as much as the content: “Wait, Kendrick’s on this thing? Can he say that about Drake on a Future album? How did Melle Mel get dragged into this?!” By design, it’ll never again hit as hard as it did the first time, but the jolt of that initial impact stays imprinted in your brain like memory foam. Credit to Future for humbly recognizing his limited role on this stage (despite being as influential as any rapper mentioned here) and to Metro for being good at sample clearance, both much unlike Big Sean on “Control.”
[8]

Alfred Soto: “I still got PTSD,” Kendrick rasps. Could’ve fooled me. He responds to the competition with zeal — from Future to Eazy-E. The first half sticks to Future’s tried-and-true. 
[7]

TA Inskeep: I can’t, and won’t, with Future’s gun-glorifying, misogynist lyrics. And Metro’s Barry White-sampling track is just lazy.
[0]

Isabel Cole: Shrooms are really having their moment in the zeitgeist, huh? I kind of like the inclusion of a whistle done by someone who can only whistle poorly, if only because you don’t hear that every day. The dull, droning rest of it, though, feels like something I’ve heard before, and I didn’t care for it the first several times, either.
[2]

Katherine St. Asaph: Doomy, like background music for surveying the world from a high perch. Kendrick just overkills Drake and everything else.
[7]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: The thrills of the Kendrick verse dimish with every listen – perhaps I’ve grown cynical (or just counterintuitive), but his performance last year on “The Hillbillies” (loose, fun, hanging out with his cousin) was a better demonstration of the appeal of latter-day Kendrick than this ceremonial airing of grievances, at once impressive and a little tedious the same way watching someone solve a cryptic crossword is. Future and Metro are exquisite hosts, though. The lifted synths and chants from the class of ’87-’88 lend the whole affair a charming old revivalist sensibility, while Future, a man of infinite regress into his own worst impulses, sounds gleeful. He whistles! Why isn’t that the story rather than warmed-over beef?
[7]

Ian Mathers: Imagine if the fierceness of the Kendrick verse (the only reason we’re here, right?) had inspired Future to match it even remotely. I don’t mind his sleepy affect most of the time, but it doesn’t really match here; the bit at the fade where he perks up is actually promising in comparison. Good production (so much so it basically gets a verse!), good ft., but Future drags it down.
[6]

Oliver Maier: A heap of irritating choices, bafflingly put together even before you get to the part where it fades out as Future is still rapping.
[3]

Nortey Dowuona: The discovery of Kendrick Lamar’s incredible ability is as unsurprising as it is predictable — there hasn’t been another figure blessed with either the talent or critical armor to take his place in the eyes of the larger public who don’t read good music writing and let YouTubers tell them what music to like — but the verse is at least good. It picks up the jengabuilt flows of Detroit/Bay Area rap and his long time record of disrespecting his peers for kicks and clout and actually has the bar “my temperament bipolar, I choose violence” comfortably lodged somewhere towards the beginning. It’s telling that Future has another verse on the song yet chooses to let Metro place it after a shrieking riff under some heavy kicks, then fade it out, almost as if the point had been made.
[8]

Monday, April 1st, 2024

Djo – End of Beginning

Keeping up with TikTok pop while we still can…

Djo - End of Beginning
[Video]
[3.75]

Leah Isobel: I kind of want to be a hater about this. “Stranger Things star makes budget Ariel Pink pop about growing up, goes viral on TikTok” is an insufferable Mad Libs narrative pitch. The lyrics feel cryptic in a bad way, like Djo is aware that he’s traveling well-trodden ground and straining to justify himself. And yet, his acting background comes through: his hammy Boris Pickett affectations lock him to the beat, keeping the song from feeling overly self-indulgent. It’s still a little mushy, but that’s not a crime.
[5]

Nortey Dowuona: Djo has rightly seized on his captive audience in order to launch his pop rock career, but it thankfully hasn’t spiraled the way the Childish Gambino project did to the point where there are insufferable fans and detractors duking it out over its merits — mainly because it’s too good to be dinged, but not good enough to be more than a popular actor’s passion project. Adam Thein’s limp drums, which have aged badly since 2022, can’t keep the overwhelming pace of the synth riffs or the lumpy bass left in the background of the mix. They support the toplines rather than drive the song, as many a baseline has done, but that then leaves the topline to hold everything up, which it constantly refuses to do. As for Joe Keery, he is no Childish Gambino before 2012. At least it’s short.
[4]

Alfred Soto: The Stranger Things actor is too old by at least five years to have taken Twenty One Pilots seriously.
[0]

TA Inskeep: Owl City 2024.
[2]

Dave Moore: The verses are synth fetishism worthy of an awkward Stranger Things teen romance subplot (derogatory), followed by a pale imitation of a Sufjan Stevens chorus (complimentary). The ingredients sort of work on paper — I am only human, which is to say a dork who was born in the ’80s. But the song just sort of sits there, like it was designed to be vaguely apprehended floating through a pop-up beer garden.
[5]

Taylor Alatorre: Are we just supposed to take these younger artists’ word that their work is primarily inspired by genuine Nineteen-Eighties music, and not the phantasmal refractions of it that were being created between 2008 and 2015 (and beyond)? Because whatever points I take away for roteness and facelessness, I may give back for honesty. Anyway, check out Twin Shadow’s new single “To the Top” if you get the chance. Sound of the summer.
[4]

Katherine St. Asaph: This is by a Stranger Things actor and supposedly sounds like the ’80s. What it actually sounds like is the driftier, understated parts of ’90s alternative radio playlists. And as someone who owns the Carice van Houten album, I fully support TV folks making vanity albums that don’t sound like what you’d think.
[6]

Mark Sinker: He’s singing “tear to cry,” but I first heard it as “diddikai”, the Romani term for a traveler not fully Romani. Maybe you can make something of this – musician who fashions his artistic persona round not being the character he plays in a multi-season Netflix series! – but I’m not sure I sensibly can. The song is pretty and mannered and flimsy; he’s way not old enough to have the wisdom he thinks he has. 
[5]

Isabel Cole: “I wave goodbye to the end of beginning” is a great line, capturing the moment when you might not feel particularly like an adult but understand, suddenly, that until recently you were very young, and now you are something else. I do remember twenty-four! Unfortunately the actual song is a plodding, soupy nothing.
[0]

Will Adams: When you’ve got an admittedly gorgeous arrangement of languid, synth-smeared indie-rock, the last thing you want to do is sound like a try-hard; and yet, Joe Keery’s delivery of clipping every syllable makes “End of Beginning” almost embarrassing to listen to.
[5]

Ian Mathers: There are some choices here I kind of like (mostly around the lyrics and vocals), but the guitar tone, the chiming synth sound, and something about the production overall feels instantly dated, like I’m already looking forward to me five years from now hearing this and going “yeah, a lot of shit sounded like that in 2024.”
[5]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: An absolute nothing of a song – but I know, deep in my heart, that if I had encountered this as a college freshman it would have absolutely rocked my shit. Keery is seven years too late for me, but I’m glad this exists for those who need it. Will I still feel this warmly towards this mediocrity if I have to hear it out in the world for the next year or so? Well, that’s not my problem right now.
[4]

Monday, April 1st, 2024

Charli XCX – Von Dutch

“If Von Dutch were alive,” said Burns, who runs a website about his friend at www.vondutch.freeservers.com, “he would hate all this.”

the letters t s j representing Charli XCX - Von Dutch
[Video]
[5.81]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: On February 12 of this year I predicted that “we can safely give the Charli lead single an automatic high controversy [5.00] and be done with it.” History will vindicate me.
[5]

Jackie Powell: A common Charli XCX motif is her admiration and sampling of 1990s and Y2K culture, which has allowed her to write songs that are cheeky with a dash of British wit. She does this on “Von Dutch” by comparing her reputation in pop to that of a cult classic, but struggles with the extended metaphor of how she’s what Von Dutch, the LA clothing brand that has had a recent resurgence, sounds like. The concept feels incomplete. I actually prefer the song’s remix with Addison Rae and A.G. Cook. The ad-libbed scream from Rae, the added verse, and the dropping of “I’m your number one” over and over again make the remix much more compelling and zany. The original will only really bang in drag bars—a fine place for something to hit, of course, but at this point I expect Charli to be pushing her own boundaries.
[5]

Alfred Soto: Like much of her output, “Von Dutch” represents Charli XCX’s fair to middling ambition to become a global pop star. Like much of that output “Von Dutch” strikes confused poses over shrieking electronics.
[3]

Hannah Jocelyn: Charli XCX said she wants to go back to 1999, but with songs like these she clearly wishes it was 2018: all the callbacks and bombast referring to when she was “the future of music” and not halfway to the headliner of an inevitable “hyperpop” nostalgia festival. I like the gloriously tinny snare, but in 2024 the bratty chant vocals sound dated (as does the album title that’s just brat in lowercase). The most exciting songs on CRASH to me were “Constant Repeat” and “Move Me,” which proved she could bring her “kinda rare attitude” to heartfelt ballads. “Von Dutch” is just mindless comfort food for aging cis male gays, which is fine — I’m the lone First Two Pages of Frankenstein defender, I get it — but she can’t say she’s my Number One when on this song, she’s my Number
[5]

Mark Sinker: I enjoy that Charli XCX lives in a room-sized selection-box of all of the rest of girlpop, everything constantly arriving with its conscious little tweaky echo of this or that prior item. They’re nice items, and we both like them, so why not? Maybe this feels a bit more hemmed in than is comfy, though: it has big Britney-feel, which is to say echoes of an aural highpoint that actually expressed a grim life lowpoint for Brit. As for Von Dutch, they currently have the one and only Wikipedia page with “Behind-the scenes tumult” as a cross-hed, which pleases me but also makes me anxious. 
[7]

Katherine St. Asaph: Once again, the nostalgia is miscalibrated: Von Dutch was trendy in the mid-2000s, while this sounds like the late 2000s. Specifically, it sounds like every song from the late 2000s I would have given a [7] or higher.
[7]

Will Adams: I whole-heartedly support pop stars honoring the advancements made by the likes of Luciana in support of the essential micro-genre of Obnoxious Banger.
[7]

Kat Stevens: I’m down for the Bodyrox ft Luciana revival! Is there a Fedde Le Grand remix?
[6]

Andrew Karpan: Pop music tells us to want to have it all, a maximalist vision that typically gets bigger as it goes on. Counterintuitively, part of the mesmerizing appeal of Charli’s records is the fact that there is no distance left for her to run and that her sound has become the sound of pop going nowhere but the present, busily manufacturing its cult appeal now for future observers to wax nostalgic about. “Von Dutch” is the most literalized version of that idea from her yet: a squeaky saran-wrapped PC Music-affiliated beat with a middle-aged pulse that never drops but simply hangs, like a foggily-heard echo of itself, like the memory of a club night experienced from the outside while nervously waiting in line in the cold. 
[7]

Jeffrey Brister: It’s perhaps a bit unfair to compare everything Charli has made recently to the transcendent Pop 2 (“Backseat” 4evr), but when I hear something as dull as this, I can’t help but pine for its melodramatic maximalism. The sounds are just so monochromatic, pulling from a desaturated set of Charli tics like grinding revving synths and choppy autotuned vocal snippets, all snapping together like a “build your own Charli song” kit in nothing but gray tones.
[4]

Kayla Beardslee: Why does this sound so bad?
[2]

Nortey Dowuona: That last Earl album was good. This Charli single is good. Some people just never live up to your expectations because they are not you. Unlike Charli, I don’t think it’s because of jealousy, just curiosity and frustration. Charli and Earl were never meant to be Method Man or Robyn — they had different tastes and trajectories, and slumming it as a major-label balance name isn’t the worst fate. You could be Tyga. Or Rita Ora.
[9]

Taylor Alatorre: It’s caked in an air of sweaty desperation dressed up as devil-may-care hedonism, which helps rather than hurts because of how unflinchingly skeletal the beat is, showing off its shotgun scaffolding to all who will see. She’s not trying to hide anything about how she’s trying to hide something. Never mind that the phrase “cult classic but I still pop” could be used to describe everything from the MC5 to DMB — it wouldn’t have suited their milieux, but it’s quintessentially XCX. It may be the line Charli was put on this earth to sing, even if through half-gritted teeth. 
[7]

Leah Isobel: The curse of being Charli XCX is that she is an asymptote: she can approach pop stardom, but she’s far too self-conscious to allow herself to actually embrace it. As a result, the curse of being a Charli XCX fan is that she becomes more obnoxious and exhausting every time she reaches a new career milestone. After scoring her first big worldwide hit, she spent her social capital yelling at Germans and collaborating with Iggy Azalea. Number 1 Angel and Pop 2 cemented her as a serious artist with conceptual depth and longevity while simultaneously sending her spiraling into stan Twitter hell, from whence she shall never return. She wears a T-shirt denouncing critics — which I am not mad at, please drag me mom yas! — and then logs on with hot takes about Pop Music And Stardom, as a critic does. She sees herself as above mass-market pandering and yet also below it, both superior to the culture and bitter at her inability to assimilate into it. (Gay people love her because she’s relatable.) Hence, “Von Dutch.” Its corkscrewing mania has the serrated simplicity that characterizes her riffs on punk music; it feels like a cousin to the unfairly maligned Sucker. But where Sucker balanced its brattier impulses with good-natured melodicism and emotional directness, “Von Dutch” is all needling cynicism and overdriven id. The song has a nominal verse/chorus structure but no big dynamic or melodic changes, no particular idea beyond “I’m lovable and awesome; look at my chart placements.” The need to serve as a pop single also keeps “Von Dutch” from entering the realm of the dumb-brilliant dance music that so clearly inspired it; it’s too much of a branding exercise, too interested in flattering its audience for getting it. And yet in its grating repetition, I still hear her insecurity beneath the synth buzzsaws. No one who’s convinced that they’re actually Living That Life would say it so directly, with such barely concealed desperation. The curse of being Charli XCX is that, deep down, she is still convinced that she is unlovable. The curse of being a Charli XCX fan is that I love her because she’s relatable.
[5]

Isabel Cole: I don’t know that I’ll ever stop feeling about Charli XCX like she’s my brilliant daughter who dropped out of med school to pursue a career as a wedding DJ: of course, honey, I just want you to be happy, but are you sure this is what you want? You don’t want to, like, try? At all? This is the kind of gleefully, knowingly brainless fun Charli can do in her sleep, propulsive without ever really going anywhere because the point is just to drive. She’s not living up to her potential, but much like a boring mom who doesn’t “get” her daughter’s life of Top 40 hits in mid-budget venues and weeknights spent doing ketamine with her friends, I am unsophisticated enough to enjoy it when she does songs that are songs, and this one does make me feel like I’m walking through the opening credits of my life when it plays.
[7]

Ian Mathers: I like it when the synths go THWOOM and/or VOORP.
[7]

Friday, March 8th, 2024

Feid & ATL Jacob – Luna

And with this, our second month being BACK!BACK!BACK!! concludes. See you in April, and let us know in the comments if there’s a song you’d like us to cover!

Feid & ATL Jacob - Luna
[Video]
[5.75]

Julian Axelrod: There comes a time in every young producer’s career where they attempt to become A Name: not a Jack Antonoff-style brand, but a more achievable lifestyle of equal billing on collabs, feature-filled solo albums, and festival slots that feel like DJ sets that feel like mid-career retrospectives. ATL Jacob sounds like a name you’d save in your phone after a one-night stand, but he’s attempting to become a household name. And like Metro Boomin before him, he’s diversifying his portfolio by expanding into international waters. Feid has been attempting a similar breakthrough for nearly a decade, so you’d think this shared hunger would translate into an electric collaboration. Instead, it feels more like a competent brand expansion. Jacob’s busy drums and flickering synths split the difference between Tainy and Owl City, while Feid’s lovelorn croon seeps into the empty space of the beat like Justin Bieber in his Jack Ü/Major Lazer era. It’s not terribly exciting, but maybe it’s working: four hours before I wrote this, Spotify published a “This Is ATL Jacob” playlist. That’s called name recognition, baby.
[6]

Nortey Dowuona: ATL JAKE ATL JAKE TURN INTO A TIGER STOP MAKING FOOD UNIVERSE TOTE BAG REGGAETON PLS
[3]

TA Inskeep: Not sure what makes this autotuned reggaeton single so different, why this has become the global smash that others haven’t. It’s perfectly serviceable and perfectly average. ATL Jacob’s beat sounds like a preset, while Feid comes across as a baby Bunny, perhaps without the personality. Maybe that’s the answer?
[5]

Ian Mathers: “Luna” does what feels like just one thing the whole time but manages to make it a virtue. It helps that the singer sells the performance like a steady undertow of yearning.
[7]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: Sad sexy, as in looking hot while being sad? Or sexy sad, as in performing heartbreak so tenderly it’s attractive? 
[7]

Katherine St. Asaph: A pleasant bit of droning sweetness, the kind of thing that Drake has attempted dozens of times but that his inherent Drakeness prevents him from pulling off.
[5]

Leah Isobel: Feid’s sad-robot-boy vibrato gives this open desert of a reggaeton track a pleasantly mournful, posthuman sheen; it’s a mode that always works for me. There should really be another minute or so of [wordless outro vocalizing] to drive home the indulgent drama.
[7]

Taylor Alatorre: The extravagant presence of ATL Jacob makes this seem even more like the product of someone who wants to feel sad, who wants to luxuriate in the recollection of a recent breakup because of the sense of profundity it brings, or because mucking around in our lucid memories is more fun and safe than stumbling through the unstructured present. That’s pretty relatable, even if most of us aren’t able to call up the “WAIT FOR U” producer to help make those feelings manifest.
[6]

Friday, March 8th, 2024

YG Marley – Praise Jah in the Moonlight

The closest to covering Bob Marley we’ll probably get…

YG Marley - Praise Jah in the Moonlight
[Video]
[5.00]

Andrew Karpan: A remarkably inoffensive excavation of nostalgia processed through smoov, professionally-made R&B, the debut hit from Bob Marley’s literal grandson made me think of that time Doja Cat flipped a Big Mama Thornton record to express some ambivalence regarding a larger conceptual project designed around improving the fortunes of the Elvis brand. The Marley version of this story is less convoluted and gifts us the historically notable presence of Lauryn Hill’s voice on the charts. Surely that’s more than, say, Pablo Dylan has ever done for us. 
[7]

Jackie Powell: At first I was shocked to see that “Praise Jah in the Moonlight” had no direct association with the film Bob Marley: One Love besides the obvious fact that YG Marley is Bob’s grandson, but maybe that’s intentional. While “Praise Jah In the Moonlight” samples from Bob Marley’s “Crisis,” it lacks direction and energy. What makes Bob Marley great is his pacing, simple but poignant songwriting, and singular voice. His grandson YG has close to none of that, and he uses a heavy layer of autotune to “enhance” his vocals. He copies and pastes two lines from his grandfather at the beginning that comment on happiness being a choice, but what follows is something completely irrelevant to that. Is this a love song? Is this about loneliness? The only redeeming part is when YG’s mother Ms. Lauryn Hill joins her son on the bridge and then takes the song out by herself in the outro with a vocal performance that’s much more melodic and catchy than the rest of the track.
[5]

TA Inskeep: A mid trad reggae record is still a mid trad reggae record, no matter a) the artist’s lineage and b) whether it blows up on social media. 
[3]

Joshua Lu: It’s nice to see a reggae song gain so much steam on the charts, even if it’s nepo baby reggae. “Praise Jah in the Moonlight” is notable for its singer’s lineage (and its sample of said singer’s lineage), but its easygoing vibe and inoffensive nature are likely the main reasons behind its global success.
[5]

Ian Mathers: This seems to be at least evoking a genre where the simplicity and repetitiveness of the production isn’t a demerit… but that’s usually partly because the vocals are compelling. Here, they aren’t, and they sound oddly washed-out and blurry too — which sounds like something I’d enjoy, but here just comes across as aggressively meh.
[4]

Leah Isobel: “Praise Jah in the Moonlight” has a slippery quality. Its production blends signifiers from reggae, neo-soul, and hip-hop, while its structure is relatively aimless. YG’s voice is processed in such a way that it slides off basically every line and pitch, so the lyrics’ nods at social criticism don’t quite cohere, either. The only line that punches through is more quotidian: “I’m just hoping that you’ll sing my songs.” There’s something so vulnerable and earnest about that, and something heartbreaking about the way that it’s nearly buried underneath Bob Marley and Lauryn Hill’s combined presence. It’s as if the weight of past generations presses out nearly all attempts to create something original or push culture forward, so all that’s left is plainspoken, inadequate confession. Get PinkPantheress on a remix, stat.
[6]

Katherine St. Asaph: Suffused with the subtext of everything it’s an inferior version of.
[4]

Scott Mildenhall: He’ll try and light a fire, this scion, but that joke is out of gas. Still, amazing to listen and picture the future of iterative I and I.
[5]

Nortey Dowuona: Unremarkable pablum. But the drums do knock.
[6]

Friday, March 8th, 2024

Dua Lipa – Training Season

525,600 sadbois…

Dua Lipa - Training Season
[Video]
[5.53]

Leah Isobel: Every time I try to write this blurb, I stare at a blank screen for 30 minutes before closing the page. I start with how the instrumental choices here invoke classic pop forebears — flamenco guitars that, in this context, feel like Madonna; descending piano lines that recall ABBA — and I come up short. I start with her affected enunciation, leaning into the simulated emotion (“I try to see my lovers in a gühd light”) and the, uh, being-British (“I hope it hits me like an aurrow“) that are her two trademarks, and I come up short. I start by comparing “Training Season” to “Houdini,” which did ultimately grow on me, and I come up short. I just don’t have anything to say about this song; it’s so taut, so perfectly and unremarkably muscular, that my attention bounces right off. So it’s a Dua Lipa single.
[5]

Katherine St. Asaph: Dua Lipa is the human incarnation of the [6] to [7] range. Here we have some exotica married to the amusing idea that the main attraction of a vertiginous, libidinous love affair is “conversation overload.” I don’t know — that line, and the surrounding lyrics like “he’s straight talking to my soul” and “are you somebody who can go there?”, come off so dating podcast-brained and thus absolutely safe that they make the instrumental sound overheated and unconvincing.
[6]

Jackie Powell: Red hair. Leather outfits. Vocal growling — it happened right here during Dua Lipa’s performance at this year’s BRITs. The disco of “Dance the Night” and Future Nostalgia has officially run its course. While I had questions about how convincing Lipa’s previous single “Houdini” was of her transition into “psychedelic-pop” and “Nineties rock,” Lipa makes a much more cogent argument for her new era with “Training Season.” With main collaborator Caroline Ailin, Lipa constructs an extended metaphor that equates dating to a high-stakes track meet. The influences of Kevin Parker and the Brit pop-rock of Oasis and Blur that Lipa grew up with are much more apparent — the heart of the song is a conversation between a guitar and a bass during the verses, in addition to a rhythm acoustic guitar that accents the chorus. The bridge — which is a full bridge, not just a bunch of vocalizations — is a melodramatic but compelling build that brings everything into complete focus. Her lyrics continue the extended metaphor about running, but finally we’ve arrived at the meet itself, and a classic piano serves as the person who formally tells the runners to take their marks and go. Throughout “Training Season,” Dua Lipa wields a type of command that’s edgier than her previous work. Interesting doesn’t have to be toxic, as she told Brittany Spanos of Rolling Stone, and “Training Season” is her way of responding to the toxic masculinity that has become part of the story of the pop rock music she’s influenced by. 
[9]

Ian Mathers: Ah yes, another installment in the Dula Peeps Men (Still) Ain’t Shit extended cinematic universe. From magic to sports, where will we go next? Farming? Food preparation? I do wish this was as fun to listen to as “Houdini,” though.
[6]

Taylor Alatorre: The anti-chemistry between Dua Lipa and her Stereogum-bait producers is even more evident here than on “Houdini,” and I find it strangely engrossing, albeit with the balance tipped toward “strangely.” Getting spins remains the goal, but there’s this constant tug-of-war regarding the best strategy for getting them. Kevin Parker tends toward memorable, if incongruous moments of harmonic tension and build-up, while Danny L Harle is presumably the one responsible for those geometric guitar plucks and the antiseptic bubble that is the chorus. Meanwhile, Dua Lipa is there, plugging her vocals into the the designated slots, feeling less essential to the character of her own song than ever. Such are the dangers of outsourcing your sonic re-invention to the indie gentry.
[5]

Andrew Karpan: I’m less of a cynic, and I think the idea of burning through various versions of Kevin Parker’s “Less I Know the Better”-type beat through the gasoline shimmer of hyperpop disco (TM) is as fine enough an idea as any to sell the Dua Lipa project — the value proposition of which remains largely unchanged, even as it continues to be twisted into slightly fewer, but more deliberate, directions. Her voice can always bend, but always the same way, beating on, against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the ’clurb. 
[5]

Dave Moore: I’m not sold yet on Dua Lipa’s chorus-agnostic era. As a perennial Lipa skeptic I thought the stylistic recession on “Houdini” worked for her, and I suppose it works about as well here, but the song is bereft of that one’s small pleasures. It sounds like she’s rubber-cementing random pop hooks together, whereas before it at least sounded like she was using chewing gum. 
[6]

Oliver Maier: Something like “Lay All Your Love On Me” is straining to muscle out from beneath Dua’s tepid synth-funk, but there’s never any real danger it’ll break free and liven things up.
[4]

Joshua Lu: There’s a deadliness to “Training Season” that few artists can execute as well as Dua, with her coquettish voice slinking around you like a snake does its prey. But where the song should grow in intensity, it instead chooses to shrink, and where it should throw a curveball, it instead aims for simplicity — why does the chorus end with such a standard fade-out that resets all of its momentum? The song has all the foundations of a great pop single but is too satisfied with sounding like a decent album track.
[5]

TA Inskeep: Her singles have a habit of sneaking up on me. “Levitating” improved by hearing it constantly out in the wild (I don’t generally do terrestrial radio, but it was unavoidable). “Cold Heart“‘s mash-up eventually sucked me in, and I can’t get the short sharp (un)shock of “Houdini” out of my head (it’s an [8], just a sparkling pop single). “Training Season” won’t join that class, as it has nothing to it but a mild EDM build (ca. 2008) in the chorus that just — ends. And Lipa sounds even more bored than usual.
[4]

Hannah Jocelyn: This would have been a [10] if it came out shortly after Currents; it’s still pretty great in 2024, with much more lively production than “Houdini” and genuine risks like that harsh synth towards the end. I’m on board with this direction!
[7]

Nortey Dowuona: I wonder if it burns Caroline Polachek up that Dua Lipa will have the big mainstream hit album she will never have and that Danny L Harle is involved with it. I would advise her to listen to Martina Sorbara’s 2002 album The Cure for Bad Deeds and accept her niche status instead of fighting it. It might just lead her to eggs over easy.
[6]

Dorian Sinclair: So, I read a lot. It’s my primary leisure activity. I read books that profoundly move me, books that open me to whole new ways of thinking, books I immediately recommend to everyone I know. But I also read a steady stream of 5.5/10 genre novels. They’re an important reset between more impactful works: faultlessly competent, reasonably engaging, instantly forgettable. This, to me, is Dua Lipa.
[5]

Aaron Bergstrom: Feels like it should work but comes off as listless, directionless, joyless. It’s a mild to moderate case of Training Seasonal Affective Disorder.
[4]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: Training season? Guess it makes sense that she sounds so out of breath in that chorus then. 
[6]

Thursday, March 7th, 2024

Brittany Howard – Prove It to You

We’re pretty convinced…

Musician Brittany Howard against a purple background, wearing shades
[Video]
[7.89]

Alfred Soto: What the fuck. I expected pop for NPR-affiliate listeners everywhere, not this homage to Clinton-era deep house where the percussion rattles and Brittany Howard gives the kind of anonymous vocal performance of which those dance classics were made. I’m on an airplane dancing, knocking drinks over.
[9]

Katherine St. Asaph: The frontwoman of Alabama Shakes making a throbbing, explosive, furiously sung dance track, kinda like the midpoint of Prince, Depeche Mode, and classic house, about an all-consuming crush — i.e., the most Katherinebait thing imaginable — is something I never expected. The extended edit is not extended enough.
[10]

TA Inskeep: A slightly warped take on late ’90s prime-era deep house — think Masters at Work-adjacent — is easily the last thing I expected from Brittany Howard’s sophomore solo album. And she sells it, with smart, crisp production and a voice that really can seem to sing anything. I love when queer art is this good.
[8]

Harlan Talib Ockey: Music journalism is simply finding a thousand ways of saying ‘good and also catchy’. It’s Brittany Howard doing house, of all things, and the synth chirp sounds like my washing machine. I love it.
[8]

Tim de Reuse: Out from the unremarkable feel-good beat grows a strange, growling sound-animal, lashing together every other element, supporting the echoing vocals from below while filling in the dead air between bursts of gasping, airy synths. Few house-revival efforts in this day and age reach this level of sonic cohesion, filling in every frequency like a jigsaw puzzle without letting anything cover up anything else. Tropical not as in “Tropical House” (touristy, antiseptic, manicured) but Tropical as in humid, dense vegetation, a buzz of color and sensation.
[8]

Ian Mathers: As someone who’s mostly hit the heights of “well, I wouldn’t actively avoid it” with Howard’s work before (solo or in a band), turns out I like her doing skronky, lovelorn dance music a lot more. Is the whole record like this? Do I need to actually seek it out?
[8]

Nortey Dowuona: Zac Cockrell on bass, Brad Allen Williams on guitar, Lloyd Buchanan and Paul Horton on keys, Nate Smith on drums: It takes a village to execute a producer’s vision. Brittany’s vision of four-on-the-floor pop is a compelling idea, but everyone clashes against one another. She mixes alongside Shawn Everett, forcing mastering engineers Emily Lazar and Chris Allgood to compress the raging bass, the overly loud drums, the stubby keyboard stabs. The latter jabs and rips into a box to create holes so that loose, squelching sounds can slip inside. I don’t know what was proven by this, other than that Brittany cannot execute her vision, nor abandon it to establish a community.
[5]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: I have been in a number of relationships where I am the one more likely to express my affection verbally. It can be rough at first to navigate, if only because underneath my love for speech is a stark reminder that it needn’t have supremacy over other modes of expression. And Jesus Christ, here is a song that makes this clear: the beat rattles and the synths roar, and Howard makes sure you can feel her passion even before she sings. “Prove It to You” is a nice three-minute reminder that we can all grow a little more sensitive to the ways we receive, well, anything from anyone.
[7]

Leah Isobel: “Prove It to You” isn’t so much a dance song as it is a rock song in dance clothing — or the other way around. While its straightforward, aerodynamic thump is conversant with house, all of its instrumentation is given a physical, earthy touch: its bass is overdriven and gritty, its kicks booming and heavy. In other hands it could come across as irritating authenticity-bait. Here, though, the effect isn’t vaguely patronizing but grand and kaleidoscopic, its momentum sourced from actual, felt urgency (“I will show you how I feel for you right now”) instead of perceived external necessity. Howard meets dance halfway; it’s kind of like love.
[8]

Thursday, March 7th, 2024

Twice – One Spark

Needs more (less?) ska…

Twice - One Spark
[Video]
[5.82]

Kayla Beardslee: It’s a convenient microcosm of Twice’s recent career arc that their three English-language singles have been better than the Korean title tracks of their respective albums. “One Spark” is nice, but its English companion song “I Got You” bursts open with an “OOOOooooOOoooh” hook that’s simple and sweet in its immediacy, whereas “One Spark” delays its best melody to the back end of the chorus. Just on the strength of the hooks, I prefer “I Got You,” but this is still more engaging than Twice’s last Korean title track, which was an overly serious take on ’70s retro that arrived years too late to the trend. There’s been a sea change with JYP girl groups recently: after a few years of muddled artistic direction, Twice, Itzy, and NMIXX are all barreling ahead with some of their most assured releases ever. “One Spark” isn’t even close to the best track on Twice’s most recent EP, but for once, it fits right in and lifts the whole project up.
[7]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: The instrumental sounds like a yassified version of royalty-free music. Elsewhere the spark catches but develops into more of a clumsy ember than a roaring flame. 
[5]

Alfred Soto: More like two sparks. This track never stops poppin’.
[0]

Leah Isobel: Late-period Twice is so poised and professional, their songs gorgeous and modern; in their hands, the explosive breakbeats on this chorus come off like a tasteful accent pillow, the ascending synth counterpoint like a classy credenza. But what is that dry-ass Disney-ass guitar supposed to be? A cheap Ikea rug?
[5]

Katherine St. Asaph: Boyfriend: Is this Pale Waves?
Me: Is this ska?
[5]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: Sadly not the ska revival track the opening guitar strums imply — but this is almost as good, a pop song like a perpetual motion machine. Every hook has another, slightly catchier hook it wears as a hat, every slowdown is accompanied by a speed-up, everything is calibrated just so. 
[8]

Michael Hong: Maturing in the West often means shedding some of the things you grew up with, whereas the opposite rings true in K-pop, where codependency in a group is its own form of currency. Songwriters Sim Eunjee and Melanie Fontana do an admirable job of balancing these incongruities, but there are traces of awkwardness in the ambiguity with which an “endless flame” can be an object of passionate and a lifelong friend. Despite some of the more awkward shoe-horned line readings, Twice inflect a sense of rush into the drum ‘n’ bass. It’s a way of turning the trends set by their younger cohort into an act of maturity, of transforming “One Spark” into a passionate dance, even if their lyrics aren’t forthright about it.
[6]

Nortey Dowuona: Pauline Cerrada, a songwriter on this absolute bop, has only one solo song, while Twice, assembled by the TV show Sixteen, have seven albums — three in Korean and four in Japanese, and this is a part of their thirteenth EP called With You-th. That’s the power of the K-pop industry: scooping up talent and cranking out fizzy pop bangers that the assembled musicians have to connect with, that the group members have to connect to. When it works, it produces this simpatico concept for each singer/rapper to link together, from intro verse to hook to trap breakdown to lily-white pre-chorus to nu-disco crank to drum ‘n’ bass and back again. It’s an electrifying mix.
[10]

Ian Mathers: We have covered Twice over a dozen times, and I have either missed every single one of them, or I simply haven’t retained a memory of any of those songs. Based on the perfectly fine “One Spark,” it could easily be the latter.
[5]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: An instructive K-pop single: the Atlanta bass and freestyle influence that informed Twice’s early work arrives alongside modish drum ‘n’ bass & stuttering club beats (their millionth trap breakdown is here too, but at least it’s subtle). The result is a song that’s effortlessly stylish to a fault, in constant search of a hook that can match the seamless genre blending. When they sing the chorus, it sounds like they’re losing their breath, chasing a high instead of delivering one. They finally get there when they bring in the handclaps. It’s only here that “my heart is burning” is delivered with the right balance of confidence and resignation. The production isn’t dizzying enough to conjure something epic, and so Twice are much more convincing when the passion is contained, like desire is swirling internally.
[6]

Taylor Alatorre: On a per-second basis, the most effective use of handclaps in a song so far this year.
[7]