It’s been something like six years since Ciara had a big pop hit, and it’s a tribute to her tenacity that after years of missing the mark she finally created something that connects. For that she, and everyone else, can thank Mike Will Made-It, who delivers the most stunning (those drum beats!) and friendliest track of his career. Not his most daring or deepest mind you, but it’s good that his sound is adaptable to artists who aren’t rapping about how stoned they are. Still, this track could use a little depth, and it isn’t going to come from Ciara, who needed her tenacity for the simple reason that she never was that good, even when she had hits.
DJ Khaled featuring Drake, Rick Ross & Lil Wayne—“No New Friends”
How dare people try to be friends with Drake now that he’s famous? They just want some of his fame and money to rub off on them. He’d rather hang with his real friends, his true friends, the ones he knew before he was famous. He’ll even stick with the ones who can’t really hack it anymore, like Lil Wayne. After all, you won’t catch Wayne hanging with people he didn’t know before he was famous. Except for Drake, of course. But Drake is special. At least, that’s what he keeps telling us. But then, why should we believe somebody who isn’t willing to be our friend?
Just like Michael Buble, Sara Bareilles is an artist I enjoy when she’s being sarcastic, and find unbearable when she engages in sincere uplift. This isn’t horrible, but it pales next to Bareilles’s previous singles, and portends a load of schlock in the future. C’mon Sara, there must be someone who still pisses you off. Maybe you and Buble could do a duet where you really tear into each other.
Lana Del Rey—“Young and Beautiful”
Del Rey’s inability to project or phrase makes it hard to tell just what direction she’s approaching this song from, but I’m going to assume, since this is from The Great Gatsby soundtrack, that she’s pretending to be Daisy Buchanan. Problem is, she sounds more like Myrtle, the gas station owner’s wife who deludes herself into believing that Daisy’s husband, Tom, is in love with her and ends up being killed by Gatsby’s car while Daisy is driving. Myrtle isn’t young and beautiful, and she’s too shallow to have an “aching soul”, but she’s convinced herself of both all the same. Sounds like Del Rey has, too. But she hasn’t convinced me.
Hustle Gang featuring T.I., B.o.B., Kendrick Lamar & Kris Stephens—“Memories Back Then”
Another great T.I. rap (two in a row!), and this time the words are as important as his timing and flow. But B.o.B. is ordinary as ever, and it’s beginning to look like Kendrick Lamar’s misogyny is not only real, but deep. Either that or he’s been doing so many features lately he’s started to fall back on cliches to get by. So, if you feel like it, edit out the T.I. verse for a best of, and hope for a remix with someone equally inspired. Just think what Andre 3000 could do with an idea like this.
Zac Brown Band—“Jump Right In”
Ever wondered what James Taylor would sound like if he fronted a jam band that was really into Jimmy Buffett? Me either, but here it is all the same.
One thing that the new singles dominated market is starting to do is destroy the old release schedule paradigm. Last year’s summer lull was barely a lull at all, and here in mid-January the big guns are putting singles out when the memory of Christmas has barely faded, with the surprise release of Justin Timberlake’s first new music in six years leading off. The Taylor Swift single is something of a surprise as well, not just in terms of quality (poor), but in its being released at all. I imagine it was forced by popular demand—why else put out a Target-exclusive bonus track as a single just a couple of months after the album?
Blake Shelton—“Sure Be Cool If You Did”
Shelton has found the perfect groove, and it’s called Seduction. He’s charming, relaxed, has a good sense of humor even if he’s never witty, and honest about his desires without ever being heavy-handed or appearing lecherous. His boyishness has it’s limits, though. He appears to live in a world where he has no responsibilities other than satisfying women as well as he can, and making sure they have a good time before and after. His universe is the singles bar, and the world outside either doesn’t exist or can be easily shrugged off. People who appreciate that sort of fantasy should lap this up, because “Sure Be Cool If You Did” is the best job Shelton has done in this style yet. Though it’s hardly a compliment to say that Shelton is good at being shallow.
Taylor Swift—“The Moment I Knew”
It’s easy to understand why “The Moment I Knew” wasn’t included on Red. For all the emotional relationship shifting Swift does on the album, she never resorts to pouting, breaking down in tears, or acting like a spoiled brat (entitled, maybe, but never spoiled). She does all that on “The Moment I Knew”. She’s never sounded more unappealing, and all the songwriting craft in the world—and right now she’s the best—isn’t going to make things any better. I don’t want to jump to conclusions here, but let’s face it: if you have a couple of bad relationships, there’s no telling what the cause might be, so you can just soldier on without worrying about it; but if you’re working on numbers three, four, five, or whatever, it’s time to check your own head and not be putting all the blame on others. Something is wrong, and it’s not just them.
OneRepublic—“If I Lose Myself”
Can we assume that EDM is over now that OneRepublic has embraced it? “If I Lose Myself” is EDM-lite, to be sure, but it’s still EDM. Gone are the clattering, over-miked but at least human-sounding drums that have marked almost every Ryan Tedder production until now. Instead we get a smooth machine beat and looping synths reminiscent of Phillip Glass or Terry Riley in service to another of Tedder’s bland but oh-so-sincere love lyrics. It reminds me of when Steve Winwood went disco in the softest possible way. Goodbye, EDM, it was nice knowing you.
Timberlake is too serious a talent to write off, but “Suit & Tie” is too shallow a record to take seriously. The Timbaland beat is great (and I’m sorry to say that that’s a surprise), and Timberlake has never sung better, but this is a song about dressing up to go out with a woman with a great ass, and nothing more. If anything, the quality of the music is too high, and when it gets deflated by the lyric it almost hurts. Retro-sophistication will only take you so far if all it does is swim on the surface. As for Jay-Z, I suspect he was brought in in consideration of his sartorial habits, not because his rap fits the song.
B.o.B. featuring T.I. & Juicy J—“We Still In This Bitch”
This isn’t unlistenable, and everyone involved raps well, but I find it almost impossible to pay attention. The title tells you what they’re going to say, and they don’t dare swerve from the script. “We Still In This Bitch” is as pro forma in its way as B.o.B.’s pop records, and without the benefit of a decent hook.
The things guys will say to get laid. Geez.
Kendrick Lamar—“Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”
It’s a muddled comparison, I know, but Kendrick Lamar is essentially Drake if Drake were capable of deep thought (as opposed to giving it lip service). Here, he even chooses a theme close to one of Drake’s own: how his friends have changed since he became famous. Lamar admits that he’s taken advantage of his fame even while complaining about those who are trying to take advantage of him, which isn’t far from Drake’s own admissions. Drake always sounds angry, though, and shrugs others off with barely a thought. Lamar doesn’t do that. He doesn’t sound angry or even irritated. Mostly he sounds disappointed, and his disappointment isn’t directed only at others. Since Lamar talks to himself so much on his tracks, I wouldn’t be surprised if the “bitch” who’s killing his vibe isn’t sometimes himself.
B.o.B. featuring Taylor Swift—“Both of Us”
Well-meaning, well-crafted sincerity, devoid of any deep emotion. Swift’s hook is gorgeous, and B.o.B., despite the clichéd lyric, gets a certain intensity into his voice, but not even the most talented pop artists could make much of such generic sentiments. As the success of “We Are Young” suggests, we’re going to get a lot more of what I call “get together” music in the near future, which is a good thing overall. But fun. had the sense to include some specific personal details in their anthem; this is just B.o.B. and Swift wishing the world well and signing off. I expect more from both of them, especially Swift.
Carrie Underwood—“Blown Away”
Is Linkin Park writing Underwood’s songs now? Because that’s what this reminds me of more than anything else. I know she has good intentions and is trying to do something serious (the obvious precursor is Garth Brooks’s “The Thunder Rolls”), but the record starts too big and then never really builds; it just goes on, without giving you enough detail to justify the overwrought arrangement. I appreciate Underwood’s willingness to experiment, but she’s either trying too hard or being misled. Couldn’t she get her pal Brad Paisley to produce an album for her? She could use his sense of proportion.
Juliet Simms—“It’s A Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World”
Glee Cast—“Shake It Out”
Jana Kramer—“Why Ya Wanna”
Kramer’s traditionalism is refreshing, but her songs aren’t. This is fine, but it’s also ordinary, and it lacks something to give it a kick and allow her real personality to come through. Though I like Kramer better, in its own way this is as mechanical as Lady Antebellum.
The Band Perry—“Postcard From Paris”
This shares all the strengths of the band’s previous singles—the clever turns of phrase, the melodic grace, the youthful romanticism—only in a milder form, and in a way that makes them feel rote. But then, this is the fifth single from their first LP, so it’s understandable if the inspiration seems pale this time out. Where’s that new album?
One thing you can say about Bruno Mars, when he writes made-to-order hooks for other people’s records they at least have some emotional edge to them, which is more than Ryan Tedder, who’s responsible for this one, has ever managed. This is the worst sort of processed cheese, slimy and sticky and totally lacking in flavor. As for B.o.B., he’s obviously hoping to re-elevate himself to the pop plateau Mars placed him on two years ago. I assume Mars himself wasn’t available. I have a feeling Ryan Tedder is always available—for a price, that is.
Carrie Underwood—“Good Girl”
I appreciate Underwood’s willingness, even desire, to rock out, but this jumble of clichés isn’t the best way to go about it. For one thing, she needs to settle on a single rock style; this jumps from Joan Jett to hair metal to glam without ever settling down long enough to plant its feet on the ground (or the stage). Plus, like too many of Underwood’s records, both the rockers and the ballads, it sounds mechanical—even when she gets loose everything seems to be carefully planned. It’s weird to think that right now the best country singer to come off American Idol is Kellie Pickler: any song you could choose from 100 Proof is better than this one.
Carly Rae Jepsen—“Call Me Maybe”
Since Jepsen is twenty-six this isn’t technically tween pop, but it shares all the virtues of the genre and then some. It’s bright and bouncy, with a gorgeous and striking arrangement, but with enough of a self-possessed edge to make it hit home in ways you don’t expect. Not enough is made of how strong girls are in tween pop—even when they’re crushing over some boy they maintain their sense of dignity and self; in fact, one of the virtues they see in boys is the possibility of using them to increase their own strength and worth—not in the trophy sense, but in the sense of a real partnership. It’s a far more mature point of view than you find in most pop written for people in their twenties, which is why it has always seemed ironic that radio programmers think of tween pop as kiddie music. Jepsen may change that, because what she adds to the usual mix is sex. “Where you think you’re going, baby?” is one of the sultriest lines of the year, and the ambiguity as to who’s saying it, Jepsen or the boy she’s infatuated with, only makes it hotter. A great record.
“Fly/I Believe I Can Fly”, #56
“Cough Syrup”, #65
“What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)”, #66
“Here’s To Us”, #73
“Glad You Came”, #90
I’m still not entirely sure what to make of this record, but it’s growing on me. Stylistically it’s a jumble: country-folk harmonies on the intro, then Brazilian drums, with subtle touches of auto-tune and other electronics, and lyrics that are half chant and half Paul Simon-like confessional, covering a lot of uneven and difficult to navigate emotional ground. They do work one neat trick: the song starts as a generic complaint about a directionless life and then progressively adds more and more personal detail, as if the singer were realizing the roots and depths of his feelings as he goes along, and ends with what sounds like a breakup—whether from a lover, a city, or an entire life, is hard to tell. I suspect the jumble is intentional, and meant to lead somewhere, but they haven’t quite figured out how to do that, even if they do know where they’re going. Allowing the generic parts to overwhelm the personal stuff is a big mistake, and sometimes the connections they hope to make aren’t there. Promising, for sure, but I’ll withhold judgment for now.
Rihanna featuring Chris Brown—“Birthday Cake”
Despite all the controversy over Chris Brown’s appearance on this record, the only real reason to listen to it is The-Dream, who creates a track that’s far dirtier than any of the lyrics and has more personality than either of the principals. One question, though: is that Robyn singing the bridge, or Rihanna imitating her? Uncanny, either way.
“Muthafucka Up” (featuring Nicki Minaj), #74
“Make It Nasty”, #91
“Mothafucka Up” has a great beat, and Tyga makes the most of it, chopping up the rhythm on one line, riding it for all it’s worth on another. He may not have much to say, but he has the flow down. Minaj, meanwhile, plays it safe rhythmically and lyrically and contributes nothing special. Even with that let down it’s still far better than what Tyga delivers by himself on “Make It Nasty”, which is filler from beginning to end.
I’ve never been much of an Usher fan, but thanks to Diplo this is as stunning as everybody says it is, a mix of lust, regret, self-realization and despair built on the most minimal of grooves. What’s most impressive is that even though the sound is open and spacious, the overall effect is one of claustrophobia, with electronic buzzes servings as symbols of the singer’s darkest and most despairing thoughts as they surround him. Best touch: the disembodied, wordless vocals that are sampled and dropped seemingly at random throughout the track, like some long-hidden pain suddenly rising to the surface.
Jason Aldean—“Fly Over States”
As someone who has “drove through Indiana”, I can appreciate Aldean’s point of view, but once again the defensiveness of rural pride becomes a stumbling block. Or maybe I should say offensiveness, since the catalog of rural charms always seems to be used to attack shallow urbanites for their lack of appreciation of things like farmers (someone should write a study of how farming has become a self-sacrificing, patriotic act in the southern imagination while remaining a corporate monstrosity in reality), “water color” sunsets (which can be found anywhere) and girls from Amarillo (who can also be found anywhere, especially on the coasts, because they can’t wait to get out of Texas). Aldean doesn’t milk this as much as Montgomery Gentry and others, at least not lyrically, but since he’s a master of musical overkill the effect is much the same. It’s still chauvinism turning towards bigotry, no matter how you play it.
Young the Giant—“Cough Syrup”
I suspect something “important” is being said here, but the lyrics and music are so generic and vague that it’s hard to get a bead on—something about the state of the world or generational apathy or personal ambivalence or something. The biggest problem is that I can’t tell whether the cough syrup reference is about needing a cure for the world’s ills or the desire to narcotize oneself into oblivion. The most confusing point is the line about “one more spoon of cough syrup now, oh whoa oh”. Do syrup addicts use spoons? I always thought they swigged straight from the bottle. And isn’t cough syrup designed to treat symptoms, not the actual illness? What good is that? Do these guys even know what their metaphors mean?
Written to order for ESPN, and it sounds like it, though it’s not that bad. Nelly is an expert at mixing genres (he did feature Tim McGraw on a record once, after all), and this has a pleasant pop lilt with slight indie touches over the hip-hop rhythms and synth squiggles. It’s soft for a football song, but then its intent is more uplift than fist pumping. And the joke about waving to his mom on TV is perfect.
B.o.B. featuring Andre 3000—“Play the Guitar”
More decent rapping from B.o.B., but the real stars here are Andre 3000 and Bo Diddley. Diddley, of course, provides the beat (and snags two songwriting credits in the process, one as Bo Diddley, the other under his real name, Elias McDaniel—did he think that would make him twice as much in royalties?). Andre, meanwhile, delivers a rap that starts on top of a Church’s Chicken, swings over to Europe, encourages kids to take up an instrument and eat their vegetables, and ends with him strumming in a practice room, defending his musical approach (“Do you cry in tune, nigger?”). Not a great record overall, but Andre’s rap is a keeper. Where’s that Outkast record?
B.o.B. featuring Lil Wayne—”Strange Clouds”
B.o.B. has been putting so much energy into the pop side of his career that I’d swear this is the first time I’ve heard him rap. That can’t be true, but that’s the way it feels. He isn’t bad—good flow, some nice twists and turns both in the rhythm and the words—though more derivative of T.I. than I’d expect him to be. Wayne, meanwhile, sounds more alive all the time. His rap feels like it came off the top of his head for once, and while it isn’t brilliant, he seems to be regathering his strengths. Not a moment too soon, either.
Bruno Mars—”It Will Rain”
Somewhere under the overkill of fuzzy synths and staggered beats you’ll find a very good song with sharp lyrics and a distinct Motown feel. I’d love to hear a slightly more uptempo, sparsely arranged version. In the meantime, we’ll just need to listen past an arrangement dictated more by it’s place on the latest Twilight soundtrack than the song itself.
Nickelback—”When We Stand Together”
Of course it’s awful, it’s Nickelback. But consider this for a moment: these guys are so slow at what they do—their new album will be only their third since 2003—that this song must have been written long before the Occupy protests or maybe even the Arab Spring. Yet here it is, right on time. Putting its laughable aesthetics aside, it’s exactly what it should be for this moment in time. If these lumbering Canadians could feel this coming, possibly months ago, and sympathize, it may be a lot bigger than anybody thinks. A hell of a lot bigger.
T-Pain featuring Wiz Khalifa and Lily Allen—”5 O’Clock”
Adding soul raps to a Lily Allen track is a brilliant idea, but this goes on too long, and except for the organ that weaves it’s way through the track like T-Pain’s conscience, doesn’t add much. It also, of course, places the emphasis of the song on Allen’s physical, rather than emotional needs, and turns her into a nagging, if sexy, bitch. I’m not saying it does total disservice to Allen’s song, but it puts the weight on the least interesting aspect. And Wiz Khalifa only makes it worse.
Lloyd featuring Andre 3000 & Lil Wayne—”Dedication To My Ex (Miss That)”
I wish this wasn’t such an obvious take off from Cee Lo’s “Fuck You”, not just in terms of lyrical content but in sound, as well. It’s very good, and Andre 3000 is great, but the imitative quality and the shallowness of it can’t be avoided. “Fuck You” was great because Bruno Mars and Cee Lo live and breath retro soul; Lloyd is just following in their footsteps, not forging a path of his own. That may be his whole problem: as much as I’ve enjoyed his music, I still have no idea who Lloyd is.
Jason DeRulo—”Fight For You”
I thought retro-sampling had hit bottom with Gym Class Heroes’ borrowings from Supertramp, but it’s impossible to underestimate the crassness of pop culture. Just when I thought DeRulo might be worth listening to, he comes up with this. I realize that sampling the African chants from “Wanna Be Starting Something” is cliche, but Toto is not an adequate replacement. Not at all. What could possibly be next and/or worse? Pablo Cruise?
Blink 182—”After Midnight”
These guys have matured enough that they don’t ruin their mediocre song with meaningless histrionics, and Travis Barker is a damn good drummer. It’s still a mediocre song, though, sung by very mediocre singers.
Luke Bryan—”I Don’t Want This Night to End”
I really enjoy the way the melody of this flows and changes pace as it goes along, creating a romantic atmosphere all on its own. Which is good, because the arrangement, the vocals, and the lyrics do nothing to add to the feeling.
Zac Brown Band—”Keep Me In Mind”
Brown is a one-man 70′s retro movement. So far he’s focused on the laid back sound of Jimmy Buffet and the somnambulist crooning of James Taylor, but here he ups the tempo and the tension by recreating the muzak-americana of the pre-Michael McDonald Doobie Brothers. All he has to do now is tour with Fleet Foxes and take over the world by putting it to sleep.
China Anne McClain—”Calling All the Monsters”
Leave it to Disney to turn Britney’s Spear’s current sound into family-safe Halloween music. They do it very well, too. This is brighter and snappier than Spear’s has been in a while, and though the voices are young, this is never corny or cheesy. It’s a good, catchy, electro-influenced dance track. Not to mention that it cuts Lady Gaga off at the pass, keeping her from releasing a seasonal record along the same lines.
Is this guy capable of doing anything but feel sorry for himself? Fame didn’t turn out to be as much fun as he thought it would be; no one understands him or how hard he works; and there are all these women! Makes you wonder what he got into the business for. It sure wasn’t the music.
Jason DeRulo—”It Girl”
I have mixed feelings about this record, largely because I find myself liking it more than I think I should. Most of DeRulo’s records have been terrible, but this time around he switches up his style, dumping his usual dense, sample based hip-hop for a lighter, more straight-ahead sound. Some say he’s trying to be Bruno Mars, but what I hear is a less desperate, more relaxed version of Chris Brown. In other words, a pleasant, minor talent who doesn’t carry a lot of excess baggage around with him. I doubt he’ll ever do anything great, but at least he isn’t an embarrassment.
Jay-Z & Kanye West
“Who Gon’ Stop Me”, #44
“Niggas In Paris”, #75
I have real difficulties with Watch the Throne. The music is often brilliant, but the lyrics are intentionally paradoxical, full of contradictions and ego-based hyperbole that are hard to work around or excuse. The opening line of “Who Gon Stop Me” is a perfect example: “This is something like the Holocaust/Millions of our people lost”. It’s a powerful statement, and like much of Watch the Throne, it places current events in a deeper historical context. Whether or not that context is fully justified in relation to what most of the tracks are about, however—that is, being rich and living high—is open to question. The overall stance of the album is that the suffering African-Americans have gone through is justification for those who are successful exalting themselves, living as high as they can, and bragging about it as much as possible. It’s hardly a new idea, as they well know; just the title “Niggas in Paris” alone conjures up images of black men and women who were in a position to take advantage of financial independence and the relative racial freedom of Europe and did so to excess: Joe Jackson, Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, James Baldwin, and many others. What gets left out of the story are the great majority who don’t have anything to brag about; not just African Americans, but Africans, whites, Latinos, Asians, and the Europeans who make their living serving people like Jay-Z and West and satisfying their needs. Like Jay-Z said in “Empire State of Mind”, “Pity half of y’all won’t make it”, with the unuttered followup, “sucker”, implied in his phrasing. It’s a drug dealer’s mentality, and even if they’re aware of it, and unsure of it, and emphasize the irony of it, it still stinks.
David Guetta featuring Sia—”Titanium”
Guetta wisely lightens up his sound before the bombast takes over completely, and though this is nothing special at least it isn’t openly hostile to anyone with sensitive ears or a working brain. If he had found a singer other than Sia, whose lack of enunciation I find even more irritating here than on her own records, it might have been even better.
Miranda Lambert—”Baggage Claim”
After Revolution I was afraid that Lambert was softening up, and that the woman who had made Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was gone for good. Going by this and the Pistol Annies album, though, that judgement was premature. “Baggage Claim” isn’t a great record: rhythmically it’s a little stiff, and the metaphor gets stretched almost to the breaking point, but it brings back the take-no-prisoners stance that made Lambert famous, with only the slightest lessening of intensity. She may not be as brash as she used to be, but she makes up for it with a sense of confidence that may be even more impressive. She knows what she wants, she knows how to get it, and she knows that she can. My only worry is that she’ll try so hard to make a perfect record that she’ll mistrust her best instincts and stiffen up. That’s was Revolution’s greatest weakness, and you can hear some of that on this record. Still, this sounds like a step in the right direction.
Evanescence—”What You Want”
Keeping up with the times, Amy Lee and her new band mates toss a little Paramore-style melody into their mix, along with an easy to chant along with hook. I like this more than any Evanescence I’ve heard before, and for metal-edged pop (or is that pop-edged metal) this is high caliber. If the whole album sounds like this it could be another Superunknown (which should give you an idea of how much metal I listen to).
T.I. featuring B.o.B.—”We Don’t Get Down Like Y’all”
The change in style—less fuzzy synths, more hard beats—is appreciated, but it’s also a step backwards towards a style he moved beyond years ago. What is new, at least to me, is the blatant homophobia. If people have a problem with Odd Future, what are they going to think of “Listen up, fag bait/them hot pants bad for your prostate.” Maybe he is just a jerk.
Luke Bryan—”Drunk On Love”
Yet another song about a country girl shakin’ it for her man. In rap, women work the pole; in country, the tailgate. Bryan even steals an image from the blues: “Honey drips on the moneymaker”. Country radio programmers must know what that means, but I bet they’ll play it anyway. Pretty slow for yet another version of “Whole Lot of Shakin’”, though. I imagine Bryan intended this as a sexy grind, but since he doesn’t know sexy from a rusty pickup truck, all he gets is the grind.
You said it.
Mindless Behavior featuring Diggy—”Mrs. Right”
There have been a lot of good teen rap groups the last couple of years, but this record is so insane, with both the vocals and the beats run through an autotune turned up to 11, that the damn thing never touches the ground. By the end of the first verse you’ve lost your bearings: just where did they expect this to end up? Good for a laugh, but that’s about it.
Five Finger Death Punch—”Over and Under It”
I’d like to think this record is a joke, but there’s nothing about the performance that indicates that it is, and I suppose they mean it. Which leaves us with the oxymoron of a metal band who are overly concerned about the haters who spread rumors about them, such as suggesting that they give a shit. It makes no sense at all. If they’re over and under it, why bother writing a song? And why bellow all the time?
A good record that should be especially enjoyed by those who wish Bjork’s career had moved in the direction of pop instead of the avant garde. The catchiness of this, though, sounds more like a piece of luck than anything else, and since Goulding isn’t Bjork, I don’t expect much from her in the future.
Mat Kearney—”Ships In the Night”
I’d swear I’ve heard this song before. Thousands of times, in fact. Once, long ago, it may even have been something I enjoyed.
Dev—”In the Dark”
Dev is essentially an icier version of Ke$ha. The subject matter is roughly the same—clubbing, partying, and sex—but the approach is more distant, hence more erotic. As long as The Cataracs are providing her beats, there’s doesn’t seem to be any reason she couldn’t keep this up for ever. Here they create a Euro-disco feel, only with more restraint and without the melodic cheesiness, and the result is actually looser and warmer than their previous records. It’s the new version of cool—Selena Gomez’s records have some of the same feeling—and they’re masters of it.
Tinie Tempah featuring Wiz Khalifa—”Till I’m Gone”
I like the way Tempah raps—in his British way he reminds me of Pitbull—but his verses seem to have nothing whatever to do with Khalifa’s generic chorus. I wonder which came first.
Tyga featuring Chris Richardson—”Far Away”
Richardson does Bruno Mars/Hayley Williams, Tyga does B.o.B., but they can’t seem to decide whether they’re doing “Nothing On You” or “Airplanes”. Or maybe they’re trying to do both at once. Not that it matters much. This is mediocre either way.
David Hajdu at The New Republic continues to demonstrate his own mixture of research-rich, understanding-poor column writing, this time taking on what he call the “Renaissance of Pop Collaboration”. Hajdu, it seems, has just discovered the mix of mini-inspiration and profit-driven collaboration used to create most pop records (I call it mini-inspiration because it generally consists of writers and/or performers creating one section of a song, and counting on another writer/performer’s mini-inspiration to complete the rest). Hajdu gets all his facts right, but doesn’t seem to realize that this is something that’s been going on for a long time and has been one of the distinguishing characteristics of pop music for a decade or more. He also makes the somewhat bizarre assertion that Katy Perry is “coat-tailing” Kanye West on “E.T.” Or is it West who’s coat-tailing Perry? Is coat-tailing even a word? Whatever the case, Hajdu seems to operate under the impression that one or the other needs help from a bigger name to get a hit, even though Perry has just become the first performer ever to spend an entire year in the top ten, and West is probably the most important rapper of the last decade (he also fails to mention, or doesn’t realize, that the original album version of “E.T.” doesn’t include West’s rap).
I wonder what makes Hajdu consider this a renaissance, though, as opposed to an entirely new way of making records. Songwriting collaboration is nothing new, of course, but the classic songwriting partners whom Hajdu seems to be evoking by the term renaissance didn’t work in anything like the manner most pop songwriters do today. Though many songwriters and producers work together on a regular basis, and there are production/songwriting teams such as The Neptunes, Stargate, and The Smeezingtons, true songwriting partnerships are rare. Add to that the fact that many performers, once they attach themselves to a track, often bring in their own writers, or song doctors for hire, to help create their parts. And don’t forget those classic writing teams of the past worked face to face, whereas today many tracks are created by email or on shared servers, without the various contributors ever coming into physical contact with one another (B.o.B. and Hayley Williams of Paramore, who had a huge collaborative hit with “Airplanes”, first met when they performed the song on an awards show several months after it was released).
In the last paragraph, Hajdu seems to imply that this form of collaboration is a good thing, or at least that it fits the party music that currently dominates the charts. He doesn’t seem to consider the opposite possibility, that this simplistic music is a direct result of the logistics of modern record production. It’s much easier, after all, to write a party anthem from a distance than it would be to write something more involved and serious in intent. The difficulties of long distance songwriting may help expand and diversify songwriting in some ways, but it may also hamper the creation of more sustained, organic work, the kind that results from a writer sitting down and creating an entire song herself. As opposed, that is, to creating a hook to be attached to someone else’s bridge to connect to someone else’s verse to be laid over a beat that’s been sitting on a producer’s hard drive for six months, that closes with a coda another producer conceived on his laptop during a cross country flight two years ago, based on a sample from a record first released in 1973. There are advantages to both techniques, and certainly the more modern method results in records that are full of fresh and often startling musical ideas. I’m just not sure they’re filled with much thought, and without thought there’s no such thing as a renaissance.
Lloyd, who’s in the same position commercially as Trey Songz was a couple of years ago—good to great records, but no big hits—enlists the help of Polow Da Don and B.o.B. to beef up “Lay It Down”. Hope it works, though I wish it didn’t have to be done this way.