A surprisingly good week, even if the best of the tracks are imitations of their betters. It’s interesting that many of those being imitated are relatively new artists: The Black Keys, Miguel, and (next week, via Hunter Hayes and We the Kings) Mumford and Sons and fun. A year or so ago, no one would have thought of any of those people as influential in any meaningful way, but now they’re working a sea change on pop radio, one that may be even more profound than EDM. I’m not saying it’s an improvement, but then pop rarely improves, it just sounds different.
Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly—“Cruise (Remix)”
Technically a chart re-entry, but since it’s more a remake than a remix, I thought I’d review it anyway. It’s terrible. Nelly would record with Alvin and the Chipmunks if he thought it would get him back on the charts, and this adds nothing while losing all the rough and ready charm of the original. The chorus still works, but that’s about it. Low moment: the southern white boys greet their guest with “What up, Nelly?” At least they didn’t say “Whoa”.
Chris Brown—“Fine China”
Even when his records are good (and this is one of his best), Brown’s past continues to haunt him, and it doesn’t help that he keeps reminding people of it. I don’t think he does this intentionally, but he seems oblivious to what the words of his songs mean. The title “Fine China” immediately calls up images of Brown as the bull in the shop, and when he assures his lover that he’s not dangerous all you can do is cringe. Musically, though, this is just about perfect, with it’s mix of a Stevie Wonder-ish distorted bass line, Michael Jackson-style hiccups, and a striking, if overzealous, string arrangement. The arrangement is too busy, but that bassline makes up for a lot. Brown has obviously been paying attention to Miguel, and decorates his slightly subdued vocals with slurs and falsettos, though not always in the right places. His falsetto isn’t as pure as Miguel’s, either, and his lyrical ideas (or the ones he buys, anyway), are as empty as always, even when they’re not cringe-worthy.
Jonas Brothers—“Pom Poms”
This is fluff, but I like it, which is more than I can say of any previous Jonas record. Their inability to maintain a career at Disney, though probably not their fault (Disney is much better at grooming female pop stars), is a kind of merit badge: they went through the pop sausage machine and came out whole, and maybe better than when they started. In a show of business savvy, they even bought back their masters (can we look forward to de-Disneyfied remixes? hope not). It’s odd to find them falling under the influence of The Black Keys, but that influence not only inspired them to write (or steal) a wicked bassline, but to clean up and focus their sound. And unlike the Black Keys, the Jonases have a sense of humor. “Pom Poms” is sheer nonsense, but nonsense has always made good pop, and this is a giant step in the right direction.
Nicki Minaj featuring Lil Wayne—“High School”
This is not only Minaj’s best single since “Stupid Hoe”—and a lot more thought-provoking—but she even got a rap out of Lil Wayne that follows a single train of thought for more than two bars (is she the only rapper in the world he feels challenged by, or is she the only person who can whip him into shape?). “High School” may be about nothing more than sex and dope, but it’s also about Minaj being in total control of the sex and dope (or, more specifically, taking over her lover’s drug business when he gets arrested), which means a lot. It also tells a story, which I haven’t heard any rap song on the pop charts do in a long time. The music is good, too, beautiful but vaguely sinister. This may be a step that will eventually take Minaj off the pop charts, but it’s still the right direction.
This thoroughly enjoyable piece of imitative craftsmanship provides the answer to one of the great mathematical questions of the age: how many people of average talent does it take to almost equal one Beyonce? Answer: four singers, one three-man production team, and fourteen songwriters. And she makes it seem so easy.