A handful of biz professionals this week (yes, even The Wanted), trying to find a way to tinker with their sound enough to keep it either fresh or relevant (it doesn’t need to be both). Only The Wanted succeed, and their youth probably has a lot to do with it. It’s hard on old pros when the business, and the entire cohort of fans, changes in the matter of a few years—though since it happens every decade and a half you’d think they’d be ready. This doesn’t affect the country folks much—the market changes so gradually that most people don’t even notice it until years after the fact—but boy is it smacking the hip-hop guys upside the head. Ludacris has no idea what to do, and Usher is only going through the motions. Maybe they should take some tips from Kendrick Lamar, whose “Swimming Pools (Drank)” entered the top twenty this week. The success of Lamar—and to a lesser extent Frank Ocean and The Weeknd—may be the most important thing to happen in hip-hop this year. There may not be room for someone like Ludacris anymore. I even have my doubts about Usher.
Ludacris featuring Usher & David Guetta—“Rest Of My Life”
This is worse than terrible—it’s unspeakable. It sounds as if it were made entirely of spare parts: a Guetta beat that goes nowhere, an Usher hook that’s laughable in its feigned intensity and ridiculous “meaningful” pauses, and a couple of Ludicris raps that appear to have been produced by a cliche generating algorithm, and may well have been performed by one (and I thought Lil Wayne had reached a creative standstill). Actually worse than Ludacris’s other current single, “Representin’”, which is saying something. Does this mean that the merger of hip-hop and EDM is already a dead issue? Or can Ne-Yo keep it going all by himself?
Jason Aldean with Luke Bryan & Eric Church—“The Only Way I Know”
The problem with country rap isn’t that it can’t be done well (though it isn’t in this case), or that it represents some sort of cultural imperialism. The problem is that it’s nothing more than an affectation, just another stylistic element for performers to add to their tool kit. When hip-hop and rap took over R&B they changed it completely: the sound, the style, the attitude, the lyrical content, everything. Country rap changes nothing. It’s just the usual rural chauvinism delivered in a sing-songy rhythm, nothing that hasn’t been done by plenty of performers in the past (and much better, too—Johnny Cash, anyone?). So I would hardly call Aldean and his colleagues daring. Besides, Aldean is a terrible rapper, and Bryan, judging by this, can barely speak at all. Eric Church wisely avoids looking a fool by singing the middle eight instead of rapping it. It’s the only decent part of the record, and it isn’t much.
The Wanted—“I Found You”
This is a surprise. After the relative failure of “Chasing the Sun” I expected a rehash of “Glad You Came”, and though this resembles that big hit in some ways, it’s better: less garish, with more variety and a lot more soul. It’s clumsy in spots, but the high points make up for it. The biggest surprise is that two of these guys can really sing. I have no idea which two, but I can wait until they start their solo careers to find out. Since this isn’t selling very well, that may be sooner than anyone expected.
Little Big Town—“Tornado”
Little Big Town is perfect at lighthearted fare like “Pontoon”, but when things get serious and a storm is threatening they can be as heavy-handed and portentous as Carrie Underwood at her worst, even if they’ve learned to tone down the bombast. “Tornado” isn’t much of a song, so they pack it with gimmicks lifted from the T-Bone Burnett school of record production: sparse, hard-edged instrumentation drenched in reverb (there’s a false ending that’s nothing but reverb); lots of echo; off-mike vocals and whistling; and various odd sounds thrown in at seemingly random moments. None of it has anything to do with the song, but it sounds impressive if you’re easily impressed by that sort of thing. I’m not.