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.
As the weather warms up, so do the charts, and the result is weeks like this, with twelve debuts, and without even the excuse of a big album release or a TV singing competition (the pop-chart equivalent of steroids; they bulk you up, then they drive you insane). There is, however, controversy, which puts no less than three records on the chart this week. Add a YouTube phenom, a non-LP country (!) single, and a batch of new tracks from artists who have been away for awhile, and you almost have a case study in how records make the charts these days. All we need is a track from a commercial, one from a TV show, and somebody who died.
The real secret of Psy’s success isn’t his goofiness in both looks and approach, or his so-called satire (he’s more an ironist than a satirist), but his masterful command of pop structure. “Gangnam Style” was probably the best structured pop record to hit the chart since Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”, and “Gentleman”, though simpler, is even tighter. It also helps that he knows how to write captivating melodies over his austere beats, and comes up with lyrics that, even if you don’t know what they mean, fit perfectly in terms of sound with the beats and the music. In other words, Psy’s success isn’t just a freak happening; he really knows what he’s doing.
Luke Bryan—“Crash My Party”
This is a surprise, at least in business terms: a non-LP single released at the same time as the album, which already had a lead-in single, “Buzzkill” released a month ago. But then, “Buzzkill” hasn’t done that well (it’s been sitting at 38 on the Hot Country Songs chart for three weeks now and isn’t on the airplay chart at all), and with the increasing power of digital in the country market an experiment like this makes a lot of sense. It also sets up a possible deluxe edition of Spring Break…Here To Party sometime in the near future. But even though I have a soft spot for non-LP singles and think there should be more of them, the mediocrity of this record leaves me cold. For a guy who’s supposedly making party records, Bryan sure does have a fondness for sluggish tempos.
Hunter Hayes—“I Want Crazy”
Remove Hayes’s vocals and what you have is a Nashville session group’s version of Mumford & Sons, or rather what Nashville session groups think M&S would sound like if they were country boys who could actually play. This is interesting. Put Hayes’s vocals back in, though, and all the interest goes away.
Selena Gomez—“Come & Get It”
I’m all for Gomez becoming a dance music diva, but if she’s going to succeed she needs to find better material than this, and she especially needs to find something that suits her voice. She’s trying too hard on the chorus, and the strain shows. The best part of this record is the bridge, where her voice matches perfectly with the music and you can hear the promise in it. Working with Esther Dean and StarGate isn’t going to fulfill that promise, though. I hope there are some RockMafia cuts on the album. They know how to set her voice better than anyone else ever has.
Ray J featuring Bobby Brackins—“I Hit It First”
There are, of course, examples of rap sexism more despicable than this, but not by much. Whatever you think about Kim Kardashian and her version of celebrity for celebrity’s sake (I don’t think about her at all, myself), no woman—no human being—deserves to be talked about the way Ray J talks about her here. That is, as an object (not even an object, but an amorphous thing, an “it”, desired for nothing but sexual pleasure) to be passed around, with the first person to temporarily enjoy its services claiming permanent ownership, even though they’ve long ago moved on to other “its”. In terms of maturity, this song is roughly the equivalent of blog commenters shouting “First!” I just hope Kanye West doesn’t make an answer record: anything he could do would only be stepping down to Ray J’s level, and suggest that his feelings for Kardashian aren’t on a much higher plane.
Avril Lavigne—“Here’s To Never Growing Up”
Written by Lavigne, her producer, her boyfriend, and a couple of song doctors, this is product at it’s purest. I bet her boyfriend wrote the chorus, since he’s shown a talent for that sort of thing in the past, and the rest was filled in from various Ke$ha records. I wonder which of the five came up with the Radiohead line, the only hint of life in the entire track? Does anyone actually shout along to Radiohead, though?
If this record stopped before LL Cool J comes in, you’d have a sincere, if often mistaken, attempt to make sense of the disconnections of southern life, history, and myth. It wouldn’t be a great record, and it would still, especially in the country market, be a controversial one, but it wouldn’t be the laughing stock LL Cool J’s ignorant presence turns it into. I can forgive the clumsiness of his rap (it’s not like Paisley gave him much a of a beat to work with), but not the stupidity of it, which is half ignorance and half the entertainer’s desire to play along and reinforce his host’s point of view no matter what that might be. If there’s a demonstration of anyone’s moral corruption on this record, it isn’t Paisley’s. Not that Paisley is right. Any form of southern pride that embraces the myth of the confederacy as opposed to the reality (face it, folks, your ancestors fucked up, and for all the wrong reasons), should be rejected by anyone with half a brain. Maybe Paisley realizes that, but if so it doesn’t come across here.
Paramore—“Still Into You”
Cutting down to a three piece has worked wonders for this band. First off, it allows them to concentrate on playing up to the strengths of Haley Williams’s songs instead of rolling over them and squeezing the life out. Second, and even better, Williams rises to the opportunity by broadening her approach, widening her emotional palette, and refusing to back down from her view of reality. The end result, Paramore, is the artistic breakthrough of the year, the equivalent, say, of what Soundgarden did on Superunknown, or Lil Wayne did on Tha Carter III. There are a couple of ordinary songs, and a couple of less than successful experiments, but there are no bad tracks, and the best of them are more than great, they’re revelatory. Even when Paramore utilize pop cliches (pomp-rock synthesizers, gospel choirs, ukelele), they make them signify by putting them in service to William’s sarcastic, angry, never bitter, and ultimately optimistic point of view (the gospel choir goes “Don’t go crying to your mama/’Cause you’re on your own in the real world”).
“Still Into You” is a love song, of sorts, but one dedicated not to new love but to a long standing relationship. Williams removes any chance of sentimentality by singing it in a slilghtly sneering but still emotional voice, as if she felt the need to cover up her gooier feelings for fear of making a fool of herself. It’s a perfect match for the music, which rocks up and remakes what would otherwise be a hackneyed set of changes. Williams means every word, though, and the verse about meeting her boyfriend’s mother and then telling him for the first time that she loves him is perfect, even in its ambiguity (was meeting mom wonderful? terrible? The sentiment works either way, and we don’t really need to know). Here’s hoping they can continue in this vein for a long while to come.
WE the Kings—“Just Keep Breathing”
I knew there’d be fun. imitators, I just didn’t think they’d be this bad. But how could they not be, when fun. itself skirts the edge of self-parody? Maybe I was lying to myself.
Scotty McCreery—“See You Tonight”
I wish his material was better, but McCreery is turning into one hell of a singer. It’s not just his voice, which has always been a wonder, but the way he handles it. He knows he sounds best when he’s smooth and controlled, so he makes a point of never overstepping, even on the chorus (he also wisely downplays his lower register, which was beginning to sound like a gimmick). As his voice matures, that control is going to sound even better. Now he just needs to find more mature songs. He’s only nineteen, so it makes sense for him to still be singing material pointed at a teen market, and this is smarter than it appears at first. But in another year he’ll be beyond this sort of corn-fed, safe romanticism. Here’s hoping he’s smart enough to make something out of it.
Fabolous featuring Chris Brown—“Ready”
Brown’s hook is bland and the beat is nothing, but even if they were better I would find it impossible to listen after Fabolous says “get your shit wetty/Oops I mean your shit ready, can’t believe I said that”. I can. Fabolous may not be the dumbest rapper in the world, but he’s certainly the dumbest on the charts.
Rocko featuring Future & Rick Ross—“U.O.E.N.O.”
Decent beat, good hook from Future, a competent rap from Rocko, and then in steps Rick Ross and his big mouth to mess everything up. And I don’t just mean the molly-rape lyric. Ross has become so full of himself that almost every word he utters drips with self-love, so much so that he’s lost the ability to distinguish between what’s “street” and what’s stupid. If he says it, it must be right, right? His product-placing of Reebok (right before the rape line; no wonder they dropped his ass) is on a much lower level of offensiveness, but it’s still offensive, and the rest is nonsense. What’s even more depressing is that even without the controversy this would probably still have made the chart on name recognition alone. That’s how rap works these days, and this is what you get.
The big news this week, of course, is the addition of YouTube streams to the formula Billboard uses to create the Hot 100. The new system propels “Harlem Shake” to number one (the first time a previously unknown artist has debuted in the top spot), and causes a lot of movement in other areas of the chart as well. Rihanna’s “Stay”, for instance, thanks to an appearance on the Grammy awards and a video in which Rihanna is naked in a bath tub, leaps 60-some spots into the top ten, and songs like “Gangnam Style” get a a new lease on life just as they were about to drop off the chart.
Overall, I think it’s a good idea. YouTube is a far better gauge of popularity than radio, and though the system is ripe with opportunities for abuse, it’s no more ripe that the pre-Soundscan days. We can look forward to a few years of constant novelty hits until the culture adjusts (as it will), but that doesn’t seem too great a price to pay for more accuracy. Besides, some of those novelties will be great.
The most important thing to remember about “Harlem Shake”, the track, as opposed to the Harlem Shake phenomenon or the Harlem Shake controversy, is that it isn’t finished. This is a backing track, a beat designed for someone to rap over (Azealia Banks had her contribution rejected by Baauer, but the freestyle versions are starting to roll out). This is obvious from the huge open spaces in the record, and the way the track drops in volume in the places where the vocals would go. It’s not meant to be listened to on its own, and its sudden discovery and viral infestation of the culture has more to do with luck and the desire of people to be silly than anything else. Even considered only as a beat, though, it isn’t much, though it’s good enough that the right rapper could make something worthwhile out of it. Of course, it’s too late for that; we’re stuck with it the way it is.
“Suit & Tie” has its great moments, but it’s a mess. As a follow-up, “Mirrors” is less of a mess, but it doesn’t have any great moments. What it has, instead, are bits and pieces of 80s pop and soul loosely strung together and stretched out for over 8 minutes of head-scratching mediocrity. It’s meant to be a love song, but the lyrics, and the way Timberlake sings them, create an odd sense of distance from the subject. When Timberlake says he couldn’t have gotten “bigger” without her, what exactly is he referring to? His career? His soul? The length of this song? At the same time, while she’s reflecting him, and he’s reflecting her, they’re both being reflected by a third mirror, which Timberlake says he could watch all the time (I thought he was watching her). Who or what does this mirror represent? God? The press? Timberlake’s third eye? One final question: if your lover reflects you back so perfectly, are you actually seeing her at all?
One Direction—“One Way Or Another (Teenage Kicks)”
I’ve mentioned One Direction’s rock tendencies in the past, and on this charity single they live up to them more wonderfully than I would have dared hope. They smartly play both songs for maximum aural impact, i.e. fast, hard, and loud, and don’t make any attempts to modernize or decorate them. I’m sure it’s something they dashed off in a couple of hours, but that’s a large part of its charm. Also, though this wouldn’t be as big a deal in the U.K. or Ireland, where “Teenage Kicks” was a big hit, it’s nice to know that somebody still remembers the Undertones.
Ace Hood featuring Future & Rick Ross—“Bugatti”
This is fairly ordinary, as might be expected, but I find myself fascinated by the title line, “I woke up in a new Bugatti”, if only because of the mystery it creates. Hood never explains where that Bugatti came from. Since he woke up in it, I assume it’s his, either through purchase or purloinment (most likely purchase, because who would bother to brag about stealing a car anymore?). The question is whether he even remembers how he got it. If he fell asleep in the car, that suggests he was pretty much wasted when he got in. Did he buy it when he was stoned or during a blackout? If so, has Hood achieved what might be considered a higher level of boasting? If he has so much money he can buy a car that costs over a million dollars when he’s wasted and not worry about it, his bragging rights would be somewhere in the astronomical range. $6,000 shoes are nothing compared to this.
P!nk featuring Nate Reuss—“Just Give Me A Reason”
P!nk’s permanently exasperated view of herself and her relationships mesh perfectly with Nate Reuss’s feigned confidence tinged with desperation, making “Just Give Me A Reason” an effective and affecting duet even if the lyrics don’t always connect. Still not sure whether the situation is resolved or left hanging, though that may be the point. Realest moment: when Reuss sings “My dear [addressing her this way, of course, is a sure sign that he has no idea what she’s talking about], we still have everything, and it’s all in your mind”, and P!nk replies in an undertone, “Yeah, but this is happening”.
J. Cole featuring Miguel—“Power Trip”
I’ve never heard anything from Cole that wasn’t mediocre, and here’s another one. Even Miguel’s presence doesn’t help, though it doesn’t hurt.
Joe Budden featuring Lil Wayne & Tank—“She Don’t Put It Down”
This has charted, I assume, on Lil Wayne’s presence, because Budden himself is so negligible I find it hard to imagine anyone would buy one of his records for him alone. Of course, Wayne hasn’t been that much better than Budden lately, and he doesn’t do anything to recover his standing here. He is easier to understand than Budden, but given what he’s saying, that’s not much of an improvement.
One disadvantage to the rapid embrace of EDM by just about everybody is that it has driven a lot of the minor artists who first brought the sound to the charts onto the sidelines (anybody else remember Cascada?). So it’s something of a pleasant surprise to see someone totally new make the charts on the formula. Not a great record, maybe not even a good one, but simpler and less aggressive than a lot of the big name EDM attempts, and hence a more enjoyable listen. I don’t expect to hear from Krewella ever again, but that doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy them while they’re here.
Alabama Shakes—“Hold On”
I wish this was better, I really do. I like to see people with legitimate musical sensibilities succeed, even if they can easily be lumped in with pretentious hacks like The Black Keys or Mumford & Sons. Brittany Howard has a voice, but she has a tendency to play up the worst sort of pseudo-blues phrasing. She often gets it just right, but too often she sounds like she’s either faking it or trying too hard. It would help if she had a more finished song to work with; this one sounds like a rough sketch. And though it’s no surprise that Howard’s vocals are sometimes reminiscent of Janis Joplin, the band’s application of the same earnest semi-competence as Big Brother may be carrying the idea of honoring your influences a little too far.
One of those weeks where nothing is great, but nothing is horrible, either. That doesn’t mean it’s all mediocre, just that the good stuff is rarely more than that, and the bad stuff doesn’t make you feel nauseous. It all congregates near the middle of the probability curve, just the way it’s supposed to. It’s not exciting, but it’s the way it is.
Tyga featuring Rick Ross—“Dope”
There are so many excellent beats out there, and so few excellent rappers. Tyga is fine, though he relies on crudity more than he needs to and references too many other rappers to make himself look cool. Rick Ross just sounds tired. Which leaves us with that ominous beat. It’s a great beat, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s enough.
Miranda Lambert—“Mama’s Broken Heart”
One of the best tracks from 4 the Record, with an intro that, surprisingly, brings the sound of dub, or at least the punk rock version, into country. Co-written by Kacey Musgraves (“Merry Go-Round”) and a couple of other people who aren’t Lambert but are following her blueprint, “Mama’s Broken Heart” is good, but it’s not Lambert-level good. If she’s going to set up her own songwriting workshop to provide her with material Lambert couldn’t do better than Musgraves, but it’s still going to sound secondhand if all her writers do is copy what she’s done before. Lambert’s found her sound and now, aside from the Pistol Annies, she’s playing it safe. She’d be better off stepping a little further afield.
Kid Ink featuring Meek Mill & Wale—“Bad Ass”
The beat is insane, but only Meek Mill makes the most of it, with a rap that, rhythmically at least, is almost as crazy. Wale, as usual, sounds lost. As for Kid Ink, I assume he got his name from his tattoos, not his writing skills. I’d love to hear some better rappers freestyle over this, though.
Florida Georgia Line—“Get Your Shine On”
“Cruise”, which is still in the top forty, has a rough energy that wipes away its weaknesses and clichés. This is smoother, less energetic, and all cliché. I hope they’ll be able to figure out why this won’t be as big a hit as “Cruise”, but I wouldn’t count on it. That kind of thing rarely happens on purpose, and is generally impossible to recreate.
Chris Cagle—“Let There Be Cowgirls”
I like the conceit of this, especially the detail of the angels demanding God make cowgirls and that they be “strong as any man”, but it’s really just an excuse for Cagle to turn up the mediocre hair metal. The result, witty though it sometimes is, is sludgy and dull by the end. It has its moments, like the whistle that interrupts the final riff, but those aren’t enough to save it. And the second verse makes it sound like Cagle could have another career writing Harlequin Romances.
Pitbull featuring Christina Aguilera—“Feel This Moment”
Pitbull not only isn’t ashamed of his commercial aspirations and how foolish he’s willing to act to achieve them, he’s proud. It’s taken him a long time to learn how to build a record that will appeal to every possible fan base, and he intends to take advantage of that knowledge, even if it means lifting one of the most recognizable and obvious hooks of the last thirty years to do it. His last three singles have seemed random in approach, but who knows, maybe there’s some strange plan behind them. So far he’s sampled Mickey and Sylvia, Toots and the Maytals, and now a-ha. How many different demographics can you capture that way? Is Glenn Miller next? Plan or not, though, it doesn’t seem to be working. None of Pitbull’s recent singles has made top ten, and the latest debuting at 99 isn’t a hopeful sign. Maybe that’s why Christina Aguilera’s chorus is about death. Talk about covering all your demographic bases.
…is barely a rap at all. It appears on Rick Ross’s “3 Kings” with Dr. Dre and Jay-Z. Ross, as usual, brags about money. Dre, as usual, promotes his headphones. And Jay-Z? Jay-Z doesn’t give a shit, and he steals the record. His rap is a mess. He starts lines, forgets what he was going to say, then starts them again. He tells the engineer to erase the track because it’s only a freestyle. He talks about buying clothes at T.J. Maxx in ’83 and then admits that he doesn’t even know if the chain existed then. Mostly, though, he talks about his daughter, how other rappers aren’t fit to wear her socks, and urges her to spray on them, conjuring the hilarious image of him holding Blue Ivy up while she pees on everybody he doesn’t like. Then, at the very end, he half apologizes for being distracted: “It’s just different now.” Has anyone ever come up with a better representation of the elation and confusion of fatherhood? Certainly not in rap. Intentional or not, it’s brilliant, and it’s the only reason to listen to this damn thing.
50 Cent featuring Dr. Dre & Alicia Keys—“New Day”
Another uplifting chorus from Alicia Keys (“Empire State of Mind” it ain’t), a familiar-sounding snare drum beat from her hubby, and 50 Cent at his most mush-mouthed, lying to us: “Nothing matters but the music/Music my first love”. It’s already the clarion call of second-raters around the world, but just a few years ago 50 Cent was saying music was just one element in his diversified portfolio, a way of making quick cash so he could do some real business. Guess that didn’t work out. Oh yeah, also featuring Dr. Dre as himself.
Listening to Miguel’s trilogy of brief mixtapes from earlier this year, Art Dealer Chic, the obvious comparison was to Prince, but this, a reworked version of the song that opened the series, is more Al Green, especially when Miguel is demonstrating his falsettos near the end (yes, he has more than one, and they’re all great). The song itself, and the arrangement, are too busy at times, but that’s because Miguel has more ideas, and feelings, than he knows what to do with, not because he’s covering up any defects. He’s still learning how to deploy his gifts, but this is the best R&B record since “Climax”, and he’s only going to get better.
Rick Ross featuring Wale & Drake—“Diced Pineapples”
If the title, which is a metaphor for both diamonds and pussy, but mostly the latter, doesn’t give you the giggles, Wale’s Smoove B impersonation on the introduction will (“The better my effort, the wetter her treasure”). Rick Ross lowers the temperature a bit, if only by conjuring up images of Rick Ross having sex, while Drake deepens the chill by doing his sad-sack-who-feels-your-pain-and-gets-laid-in-the-process routine. Wale’s final verse is already forgotten. In other words, business as usual.
This is so heavy. Not only is it about the Apocalypse (it says so, right in the lyric: “This is it, the Apocalypse”), but it’s also about the coming of a new age (“Welcome to the new age”). The singer himself, it turns out, is the one who’s radioactive (“I’m radioactive! I’m radioactive!”), and it’s all so heavy he has to stop before the end of the first verse to catch his breath; his inhalation is mixed higher than even the lumbering drums and super-distorted pseudo-dubstep bass, so you know he’s really feeling it. Somebody must like these guys, because this is the second track off their EP to make the Hot 100 in the last month. Every generation has its Queensryche, I suppose.
Keyshia Cole featuring Lil Wayne—“Enough of No Love”
I’ve always liked Keyshia Cole, even though most of her records have been mediocre. This is one of the better ones, a soulful lament with a good string arrangement, perfectly sung with just the right balance of strength, defiance, and bitterness. The song doesn’t build the way it should, though, and the chorus lacks musical punch and drama. Then there’s Lil Wayne’s feature. He plays it just right, at first, sacrificing enough of his usual charm to come on like the jerk the guy in the song is supposed to be, but he loses most of his energy along with it, and his rap tails out with a dumb play on Cole’s name that doesn’t fit at all. It’s a shame; a little more work and this could have been a great one.
Ne-Yo—“Let Me Love You (Until You Learn To Love Yourself)”
This isn’t a complete failure, but it feels wrong. Ne-Yo’s attempt to fit his subtle lover man croon to a Euro-disco backdrop sounds strained, not just vocally, but in terms of melody as well. Cutting his usual long, smooth lines into staccato bits strikes me as a mistaken compromise, a failed attempt to maintain his old musical personality in the face of commercial necessity. It’s more interesting in its way than the usual Ibiza outpouring, but not by much. And the title is a disaster. He needs the parenthetical, because he’s already written a song called “Let Me Love You” (a number one for Mario in 2005), but it sure leaves a lot of questions hanging in the air. Is he going to dump her once she learns to love herself, or is he holding back the full force of his affection until then? Whatever the case, the title sounds as compromised as the song itself.
Kendrick Lamar—“Swimming Pools (Drank)”
Despite putting out one of the best albums of last year (Section.80) and being officially anointed by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg as the savior of LA rap, Lamar has been keeping a fairly low profile, at least compared to, say, Frank Ocean. But in his own way Lamar is as emotionally open as Ocean is, and in many ways he’s better. He lacks Ocean’s soulful voice and falsetto, but he’s a brilliant rapper, and his sense of humor cuts deeper. Here he deploys more funny voices than a Funkadelic album to shade a serious portrait of a binge drinking loser who just happens to be named Kendrick. The silliest voice, naturally, is the one that gives him the best advice, while the hippest one tells him to fill his pool with liquor and “diiiive in”. Easily the best rap record to hit the chart so far this year.
Frank Ocean—“Thinkin Bout You”
Even without Ocean’s personal revelations, it’s hard to imagine how much further into the confessional form anyone could go than Channel Orange. His emotional confusion and the yearning that go with it shape and dictate the style and sound of the album, especially on this track, which opens the record and sets the stage for everything to come. He talks about the weather and begins to cry; jokes about the shallowness of his feelings and then admits he’s lying while collapsing on his bed in a single, brilliant line; finally he bares his hopes, his dreams, and his disappointments in a sweet, shaky falsetto that’s beautiful and unsettling, accusatory and pleading. Not a pop record, and its appearance on the Hot 100 may be the result of curiosity as much as quality (and I worry that some people are drawn to him because he reminds them of Drake). But anything that gives attention to a great record is fine by me.
French Montana featuring Rick Ross, Drake, Lil Wayne—“Pop That”
Montana’s raps are so difficult to understand that it’s no surprise that people think he’s making up new words. There could be two or three in every line for all I know. Rick Ross is Rick Ross, which is neither good nor bad. He’s just there, as usual. Which leaves Drake and Lil Wayne, one becoming more ordinary with every rap, and the other trying desperately not to be. Drake sounds more confident than ever, but all that means is that except when he gets off a good line (there are a couple here), he sounds like every other bragging rapper. Meanwhile, Lil Wayne flails around trying to find something that will stick, and comes up with one of the most disgusting sexual images I’ve ever heard. I’m not going to repeat it; you’ll know it when you hear it (I hope).
Thomas Rhett—“Something To Do With My Hands”
The title told me exactly what this would sound like, but it didn’t fill me in on how good it would be. If country is going to be the new rock and roll (or the old rock and roll with more twang and banjos for texture instead of synths) that’s fine with me, especially if the up-and-comers’ tastes in early ’80s rock continue to lean more toward Rockpile than The Eagles or Tom Petty. Like Eric Church, Rhett brings an energy to his music that’s missing from that of most of their peers, and he avoids the sheen of studio perfection that mars so many Nashville versions of rock (compare CHurch and Rhett to Tim McGraw or Kenny Chesney). Rhett is a little more laid back than Church, and sounds like he comes from the more privileged side of the tracks (he should; his father, Rhett Akins, was a minor country star in the late ’90s and still writes hits for others, including Blake Shelton’s “Honey Bee”), but he’s just as good at putting a song together. And in a genre that makes stars of overbearing hacks like Jason Aldean and Brantley Gilbert, he’s another glimmer of hope.
Ed Sheeran—“The A Team”
An old-fashioned piece of singer/songwriter acoustic balladry, with all the flaws inherent in the form. The hushed romanticism sentimentalizes the darkness of the subject—a young girl hooked on opium (at least I assume that’s opium in her pipe; who would sing about a crack addict like this?), forced into prostitution to support her habit, and slowly dying to boot—while the attempts at lyrical profundity and poetry end up trivializing the subject rather than illuminating it. The girl’s face, for instance, is described as “crumbling like pastries”. It’s evocative, but of what is hard to tell. Is her skin flaky? Buttery? Dusted with powdered sugar? And why change the pronoun in the final chorus? Is Sheeran blaming us for this situation he made up? Or is he saying we’re all addicts? Is being simplistic and engaging in faux-profundity another flaw inherent in the singer/songwriter form, or is it just Sheeran?
Train—“50 Ways To Say Goodbye”
Train’s hooks are so simple and obvious you find yourself humming along before they even start (especially, as in this case, when the new chorus sounds so much like the last one). Their beats are so bouncy that some rhythmic spring in your lizard brain sproings along in time no matter how hard your conscious mind tries to shut it off. Lyrically they’re goofy without being witty or challenging, though they do a good enough job at avoiding cliche to keep you listening for whatever nonsense they’ll come up with next. Their records are devoid of any actual emotion other than the desire to write a catchy chorus, even when the song is about a broken relationship, like this one. Even their irony is fake. In other words, they make children’s records for adults (or at least adult—cough—radio). They’ve been doing this for a couple of decades now. I’d admire their commercial acuity and tenacity if I didn’t hate them so much.
Big & Rich—“That’s Why I Pray”
Less than a decade ago, Big and Rich looked like the future of country music. Somehow, though, they never moved forward in the way people hoped they would, and the future they helped to anticipate arrived without them (see above). Now they seem a bit old-fashioned and out of touch. This is an above-average “trust in God” song, but just when you hope they’ll do something different (I would love to hear more from the unemployed guy who tells them not to mention God in his presence), they start pulling out well-worn and outdated ideas that we’ve not only heard too many times before, but are just plain wrong; i.e., teen pregnancy rates have been dropping over the last decade, not going up. Except in the bible belt, of course, where they’ve been trusting in God a little too much.
P!nk—“Blow Me (One Last Kiss)”
P!nk’s persona, the pop diva with the heart of a riot grrrl, can create interesting tensions in her music, but sometimes it forces her to overplay her hand. This is a step up from songs like her pre-maternity leave self-help ballad “Fuckin’ Perfect”, but she tries too hard. The song is already tough enough without the double entendre title parenthesis or the ear-piercing pitch of the “shit day” section. It’s not that I don’t believe that P!ink has shit days, it’s that the whole section is overkill and seems designed to do nothing more than give her a chance to swear and remind everyone how down-to-earth she is. Without it, despite it’s worrying 90s feel (guitar line courtesy U2, vocal harmonies on the verses courtesy Liz Phair), it would be a much better song. As it is, it’s slightly above-average and nothing more.
Tim McGraw—“Truck Yeah”
Not a great song, but there’s no doubt McGraw is re-energized now that he’s free of Curb Records. Anyone who thinks Emotional Traffic wasn’t pure contractual obligation should listen to how fired up McGraw sounds here. He’ll come up with better material, but as an announcement of liberation this isn’t bad. Also, the image of McGraw rocking out to Lil Wayne is pleasing in all sorts of ways (though I do wonder how you do that).
DJ Khaled featuring Kanye West & Rick Ross—“I Wish You Would”
Having decided that drunken award show ramblings and all-caps Twitter rants are damaging not only to his reputation but his self-respect, West has wisely decided to express his vehemence and air his frustrations on his records instead. The result, so far, has been a succession of singles in which his anger, instead of being diminished by expression, has grown, as if each record was feeding off the one that preceded it. “Mercy”, “Theraflu/Way Too Cold/Cold” (the succession of titles alone gives you an idea of how focused West’s rage has become), and now “I Wish You Would”, are all rants directed at anyone who has ever gotten in West’s way or dared to consider themselves his equal (excepting, of course, his mentor Jay-Z). Each has been more bitter and pointed than the one that came before. The most brilliant part of this campaign has been his using the bombastic, rap brag production of DJ Khaled as his base, taking the already prominent anger of the form and amping it to the breaking point. Rick Ross does his best to keep up, but he’s out of his league, and Khaled’s best contribution, aside from the beat, is a brief interjection expressing amazement at the majestic vehemence of West’s rap. West is working out so much aggression that I fully expect his next album to be full of laid back soul ballads and Chi-Lites samples. Then again, if he keeps up like this, it may end up as an album length equivalent to the intro of “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power To the People”.
Trey Songz featuring T.I.—“2 Reasons”
It’s nice to hear Songz breaking out of the soul ballad niche he’s come close to exhausting and being trapped in, and T.I.’s trying out a new flow and voice is a relief, as well (he’s barely recognizable as his old self). This is nothing but a goof, and suffers from not going far enough into the inanity that drives it, but I like it more every time I hear it, and it may turn out to be a keeper.
Pitbull featuring Shakira—“Get It Started”
What a mess. Pitbull’s willingness to try just about anything is one of his greatest strengths, but here he comes out with a start and stop dance track that doesn’t make sense even when it’s banging. Shakira’s presence adds to the mystery. This sounds like two incomplete productions slapped together in the hope that the marquee names on the label will make the accumulated trash a hit anyway.
Owl City & Carly Ray Jepsen—“Good Time”
Adam Young, better known as Owl City, should not try to be David Guetta (especially if he’s going to sing), and Carly Rae Jepsen, who, despite “Call Me Maybe”, still needs to establish herself as a career artist, shouldn’t be trying to help him. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a record that sounded like such an obvious cash-in on the part of everyone involved. From Young I don’t expect anything better, but “Call Me Maybe” is going to be in the top ten for the rest of the summer, and it’s way too soon to indulge in such an obvious ploy to keep Jepsen in the public eye. I also hear she’s working with Ryan Tedder. In a recent article in Billboard, Jepsen’s manager, Scooter Braun, was quoted as telling her that her life wasn’t going to be much fun for awhile. Doesn’t look like it’s going to be much fun for her audience, either.
Maroon 5—“Wipe Your Eyes”
Despite, or perhaps because of his second career as judge/mentor on The Voice, Adam Levine has become the most irritating, if not the worst singer of our time. Here, with the assistance of producer J.R. Rotem, he emphasizes this fact by singing, via sample, with one of the best vocalists in the world, Mariam Doumbia of the Malian duo Amadou & Mariam. Rotem and Levine compound the mistake by using one of the duo’s greatest songs, the ethereal and mysterious “Sabali” (co-written and produced by Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz; it may be the best piece of music he’s ever been connected with). The result is almost sad. Levine is so outclassed he doesn’t even try; his voice is hoarse and he sounds exhausted and depressed. If, by some chance, this results in “Sabali” getting the attention it deserves, then I guess this record’s existence will be good for something. But otherwise it’s not much more than a sour joke, one that even I can’t bring myself to laugh at. (Note: At least according to the Billboard listing, Doumbia, her writing partner Marc Antoine Moreau, and Albarn aren’t given a songwriting credit for this record; so maybe Levine’s vocal comeuppance is exactly what he deserves.)
More pop than Skrillex (who has done a remix), but still identifiably dubstep (whatever that means by now), this is notable only for the fact that it’s a real song, and not just a beat with some vocals thrown on top of it. They may even have written the song before they came up with the beat, but judging by the way it stops and starts and stalls as it stumbles along, I assume not. It’s not a very good song, and if it wasn’t for the music (and the record’s placement in a TV commercial) no one in the U.S. would have noticed it. It did debut at number one in England, but it was a slow week.
Wale featuring Rick Ross, Meek Mill & T-Pain—“Bag of Money”
What a generous guy Rick Ross is. Here, after giving Wale a brief guest spot on one of his many tracks, Ross turns around and allows Wale to release it under his own name, letting a little of that Rozay magic rub off on him as he struggles to establish a career (based on his rap here, he needs all the help he can get). Mind you, Ross knew this wasn’t a great track, and that it wouldn’t be a huge hit, even with T-Pain autotuning (or T-Paining I guess it’s now called—not to be confused with trepanning though the effect is often the same) in the background. Generosity has it’s limits.
Linkin Park—“Lost In the Echo”
For Linkin Park, not bad. The lyrics lack their usual vague generalization and overbearing pretentiousness, and the music continues to modernize their sound without turning it into novelty dubstep. Not great, of course, but at least it isn’t laughable.
Nickelodeon has tried every way to make Big Time Rush into real stars rather than just tween faves. They’ve given them top production and decent songs, got Snoop Dogg to do a guest spot, dressed them up in suits like Il Divo, everything. Here, they get modernized, their name shortened to BTR (already the name of one of their albums), and pointed roughly toward the same musical territory as The Wanted and One Direction. It doesn’t work, largely because the song is too busy and complicated (is anything on the radio simpler than the stuff The Wanted sing? They make nursery rhymes sound baroque), but also because, as singers, the members of BTR are undistinguished. You can’t create pop stars out of nothing, after all, or at least nothing but looks.
Zac Brown Band—“The Wind”
This is better than most of Zac Brown’s stuff not only because it’s fast, but because it’s so loose. He lets the band show off in the best possible way, and the record not only zooms but swings (maybe Brown’s been listening to some Kentucky Colonels in between the Jimmy Buffett and James Taylor). And, for the first time I’ve heard, Brown sings like himself instead of one of his heroes. Turns out he doesn’t have much vocal personality of his own, which explains a lot.
2 Chainz featuring Drake—“No Lie”
Drake’s misogyny is more subtle than that of other rappers (and rockers, and country singers, and so on), but it’s still misogyny. Instead of calling women names and physically and/or verbally mistreating them, he argues that they’re complicit in his manipulation of his celebrity to test drive women who strike his fancy. They all know what he’s about, right? So fuck ‘em and forget ‘em. It’s an old story, and Drake can’t be completely blamed for it, but considering the guy has built a career on his self-doubt and worries about his moral compass his inability to cop to his own bullshit is offensive. And for all that, Drake, who is rapping better than ever, is the least offensive thing on this record and the only reason to listen to it. 2 Chainz wouldn’t recognize a woman as a human being even if she kicked him in the nuts. Though I do encourage somebody to try.
Tony Lucca—“99 Problems”
Justin Bieber—“Turn To You (Mother’s Day Dedication)”
I’m having a hard time understanding the new, “mature” Justin Bieber. “Boyfriend” mixes dark, sensual music with some of the most naïve, unerotic lyrics ever heard, while this tribute to his mother is more reminiscent of southern rock murder ballads than a paean to a loving parent. He’s either mistaken sounding somber with sounding adult, or his much-vaunted precocious talent doesn’t extend to an understanding of what any particular piece of music means. That would go a long way toward explaining the emotional blankness of his singing.
Adam Levine & Tony Lucca—“Yesterday”
Jermaine Paul—“I Believe I Can Fly”
Christina Aguilera & Chris Mann—“The Prayer”
A lot of people are impressed by Bentley—or at least they were impressed by “Home”—but I’m not one of them. He’s a better than average country rocker, but only slightly. Put him in a battle of the bands with Eric Church or Miranda Lambert, even Blake Shelton, and they’d wipe the floor with him before the second song. On a good night he might be able to take Justin Moore, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Usher featuring Rick Ross—“Lemme See”
This is a step up from “Scream”, but nowhere near “Climax” (a tall order, I admit). The beat has a jumpy, eerie quality to it, but the song itself doesn’t work. Ross’s Trayvon Martin reference is too soon, and in some ways too little. Usher himself sounds, especially when he shows off his chest, as if he’s engaging in self-parody. That would be fine if it fit with the music, but it doesn’t. Maybe he hasn’t quite figured out all this electronic stuff.