STRAIT TO THE POINT: Michael’s Bitesize Reviews: Vol. 3

Written by: Michael Strait

More singles! Once again, no theme here at all – just stuff I am interested in and felt inspired to write about. I should mention that if any of y’all have any singles you want me to review, feel free to suggest ‘em and I’ll try and include ‘em in the next list.

On with the show!

Lana Del Rey – Video Games (2011)

As far as I’m concerned, this is the only Lana Del Rey song. The first time I heard it, I was skeptical, and I still think the songwriting is underdeveloped. The verse melody is very basic, after all, and the whole thing feels a bit disjointed – there’s no prechorus and no bridge, and the end result is that each song segment kinda feels like it’s floating on an island by itself, lacking that seamless connection that makes the best pop songs so sublime. 

But by god, guys, the production on this thing. Those little flowering harp strokes; the strings, played with enough poise and patient reserve to keep them from seeming corny or melodramatic like strings in pop songs so often do; that quiet, deep bass drum, rolling in like some distant beast’s sleeping heartbeat. And I gotta admit that Lana herself is utterly captivating here, too; the way she delicately drops the last line in the chorus is legitimately goosebump-inducing, and she manages to sound fragile and vulnerable without coming off like some pathetic simp. Her lyrics aren’t particularly great, but I get the impression she means every one of them, and it’s that firm emotional grounding that keeps the production from sounding excessively airy or fantastical. To be honest, in my weaker moments this song leaves me feeling kinda depressed, ‘cos I’ve never experienced anything close to the life-affirming, soul-enriching love this song conjures and I don’t know if I ever will. If the world really does feel this gorgeous when you’re in love, then I’m missing out; all I can do is let this song wash over me and experience its glory secondhand. Beautiful song.

Also: very possibly the best music video of the decade. That’s exactly how ya do an aesthetic without making it overbearing; pity I can’t say the same of her other videos.

SahBabii – Pull up Wit Ah Stick (2016)

God, how weird is it that the streets are listening to this stuff? It’s a light, soft r&b ballad sung in a tender, feathery vocal tone through a thin layer of autotune, with some clean synths brightening up the background and a pleasantly wholesome set of lyrics about murder and armed robbery. This isn’t even weird for the trap scene anymore, that’s what gets me – it’s entirely normal these days to find hard street gangbangers bumping this sorta melodic croony shit, and I don’t think I’ll ever get over how surreal that is. ‘Course, the melodicism here isn’t actually particularly good – it’s basically just one little tune repeated over and over again – but I kinda like the vaguely hazy, druggy feel, and I can’t deny that it’s been stuck in my head for days. Looking back on this kind of music in twenty years is gonna be even more surreal than living through it, but as of right now I quite like it, and I’m sure I’ll continue to like it when the inevitable Drake remix makes it inescapable.

Coldplay – Hypnotised (2017)

Other people seem to be enjoying this, but personally I find it impossible to take seriously. The chiming keyboards and slide guitars sound kinda nice, I guess, and it’s certainly a tremendous step up from Adventure Of A Lifetime or whatever bullshit from their previous, but the double-tracked vocals fall somewhere between ugly and mawkish, and I’m not convinced the acoustic guitars belong here. All those major chords mean the entire thing ends up sounding kinda like the sort of stuff you’d hear in the background to a YouTube slideshow of pretty nature photos, and appropriately enough that’s pretty much exactly what the lyrics video is. It’s so corny that it actually made me chuckle the first time I heard it – I heard the introductory piano notes and assumed it must be an advert before I realised it was the actual song. Mediocre, in other words, like most of the stuff they’ve done since the turn of the decade. Ignore this.

Lorde – Green Light (2017)

I’ve listened to this song countless times in the last couple of hours, and it really holds up under scrutiny. Her husky voice is as utterly gorgeous as it ever was, of course, but there’s a newfound vindictiveness to it – she sounds like she’s spitting the words out with fury, even when she’s singing those higher-pitched harmonies in the refrain. The sonics, too, are good – not remarkably good, and they don’t do anything to distract from the excellent songwriting, but nonetheless they absolutely do the trick, and I particularly like the way the instruments go all distorted towards the end, fuzzing out like lite noisepop guitars as the song retreats from its emotional climax. But the real draw here is sheer catharsis of the hook, which has that wonderful pre-chorus buildup that develops more and more energy until those dark synths finally swoop right up underneath her, letting her ride them higher and higher as she desperately yells and purges all the black muck that has built up in her soul. It’s all very intelligently tuneful, too, and each new melodic development feels like a perfectly natural and satisfying progression. Her lyrics aren’t quite as immediately, impressively excellent as they often are, but that might actually be a sign of maturity, signalling that she’s lost the desire to prove herself as a poet and is now content with writing just the sort of well-constructed, intelligently simple lyrics that pop music these days could really do with. “Did it frighten you/ How we kissed when we danced on the light up floor?” may not be as evocative as some of the stuff on, say, “Team”, but it efficiently places a very complete emotional & physical picture in my head, and I think that’s just as valid a success. 


Man, I am so glad she’s back. I can’t fuckin’ wait for the album.

Lady Gaga – Born This Way (2011)

I wanna be very clear about this: this song is only enjoyable by total accident, and on its own terms it is an absolute failure. The clean synths in the verses are cheap and corny, the lyrics are trite nonsense and the melody is just kind of a waste. The chorus is kinda catchy, I guess, but it’s a pop song – you don’t get a pat on the back for that! 

Nah, I like this song ‘cos it’s cacophonous. Honestly, I can scarcely fathom how this song became a hit while Skinny Puppy languish in obscurity, because that massive, discoloured wave of lurching synths in the chorus is as abrasive as anything they ever did. That roaring mechanical whirr, pulsing in rhythm with those bludgeoning kick drums; that little falling treble sound, cascading through the cracks; the grating, popping little textures bubbling up from underneath every time the big synths fade away… I mean, fuckin’ hell, does the average person seriously enjoy this? I thought I was alone in my appreciation of discordant, assaultive electronic noise, but now I’m thinking that maybe my friends will be open to harsh noise & industrial music after all! Next time I get invited to a dance party I’ll throw some Guilty Connector on the playlist. It’ll work like a charm, I’m sure!

Blur – Parklife (1994)

Alright, so this is literally just a novelty song where the novelty is that it’s British, but I think it’s quite funny! The chorus is indeed just another part of the pastiche (designed specifically to evoke the 60s pop style for which Britain will always be famous, of course) but it’s also legitimately catchy, and those cheeky horns push it fully over the edge into the realm of pure cartoonish silliness. I also like how the guitars still retain just a touch of that angular, hard edge inherited from punk rock, though of course not enough to dent its popularity in the slightest. I know many despise this song for being among the most ridiculous excesses of Britpop nationalism, but I’m sure the self-parodic nature is intentional and I love it. Plus, I catch myself randomly muttering the words “Park-life!” all the time – though thankfully I’ve yet to do it in earshot of anyone else. Good song.

Lil Reese – Us (2012)

I can’t decide if Lil Reese is the apex of Chicago drill nihilism or its nadir. I guess he’s both; a true nihilist, after all, has no values whatsoever, and Reese’s valueless cynicism runs so deep that he can’t even be bothered to turn in anything that might be said to even slightly resemble a good verse. The hook has an air of foreboding, paranoid menace about it, I guess, but even then I’m pretty sure it’d be nothing without that beat.

And make no mistake: that beat is the only reason I’m rating this thing as high as I am. ‘Cos that beat is easily, easily one of the best trap beats ever made, and as perfect a summary of drill music’s appeal as I can imagine. Those gold-plated, percussive notes in the verses, and the machinegun hi-hats burrowing through and around them; those filthy organ strokes rubbing themselves all over the edge, leaving nearly audible dirt marks; that squelching, groaning synth riff in the chorus, squirming around like a malfunctioning mouse droid as additional synths and drums crash in all around it, collapsing the gilded walls and burying it under misery… heaven help me, it’s insane. That perfect, seamless fusion of opulent grandiosity with abrasive grit is exactly what makes the best trap & drill music so fascinating, and I guess that’s because it feels like a perfect musical expression of the conflicting and contradictory themes that have defined rap music for so long. That contrast between violent, grimy poverty and vain, capitalistic excess has been an inescapable dichotomy in rap music since at least Ready To Die, and in trap music it finally found a fitting musical reflection. There are, of course, many rappers who can do far better justice to this music than Lil Reese, but there are few producers who can capture its essence quite as perfectly as Young Chop. As far as I’m concerned, this song should be attributed to him; sometimes I forget Reese is even on this thing.

 

Nicki Minaj & G Herbo – Chi-Raq (2014)

A million remixes later, and I still think my favourite verse that’s ever been delivered over this beat is G Herbo’s right here. Nicki’s verse is great, of course, but I gotta admit it loses some of its impact after Herbo; lyrics like “Smack bitches, no smack cam/ Closed fists, no back hands” kinda lose any power to intimidate next to stuff like “Run up on a nigga with the llamas flyin’/ leave his loved ones all traumatized”. Still, she tones down all her corniest impulses here, and it’s definitely one of the best verses she’s ever delivered – those first four lines (“Ain’t yellin’ cut when it’s shootin’ time/ Sign up, it’s recruitin’ time/ Big wigs with a suit and tie/ And them big things got two inside”) are just the sort of clever, memorable opening a great verse wants, and her reserved flow melds to that malevolent beat like they were born together. 

But man, Herbo is just exhilarating. That guy’s in serious contention for the title of best rapper going right now, and this verse is one of his very best. Reading the genius page for this song is really fascinating, actually, because the contrast between the two verses is so clear – you have Nicki’s, positively drowning in similes, puns and cultural references, and then you have Herbo’s dispassionate list of facts, statements and ultraviolent threats. His verse is built like a concrete housing estate – monochromatic, utterly utilitarian, knucklebreakingly hard and covered in grimy stains from countless ill-fated endeavours, ‘cept these ones are more likely to be blood than vomit. His flow is highly aggressive, but it’s not an aggression borne of passion or anger so much as of territorial defensiveness and survivalist posturing. And he really does understand how rapping works, too – just listen to the way he places emphasis in the middle of the verse; “I’m in Hollywood, came from Kingston Food/ Shorties standing in the streets with tools/ Where I’m from, we don’t play no games/ Ain’t no April fools, you will make the news” – skipping the rhyme on that penultimate line was such a subtly brilliant move, ‘cos when he finally, cruelly twists the word news out of his mouth it comes with an inescapable fatal emphasis, really ramming home the naked, plain brutality of what he’s saying. Unladen with metaphor, unadorned with exaggeration, unencumbered by any moral scruples – there’s nothing here in the streets of Chiraq but death, and Herbo is its angel. This verse is everything drill music has ever aspired to be in a minute and a half; it’s incredible, and it blows me away every time I hear it. Straight brilliance.

Aside: an entire beef was conducted in remixes of this song! Not one, not two, but three tracks were exchanged – all using this beat. All great, too! That’s gotta be a record, surely?

Tempa T – Next Hype (2009)

Man, is this thing even a song? It feels more like a force of nature, or perhaps a sonic manifestation of raw potential energy. There’s almost nothing here except a synth riff and the vocals, but the synth voice sounds like it’s made of raw pig-iron and the vocals are so full of primal, overwhelming force that listening to it feels rather like placing oneself in the path of an oncoming train. Usually, when I encounter a five-star single, I’ll be able to come up with a bunch of pseudo-profundities to spout about its importance or the deftness of its construction, but I really can’t do that here. This song could shatter bricks; listening to it feels like tapping into an arcane vein of universal energy. Sometimes, when I’m blasting this on headphones, I accidentally touch a wall and feel momentarily surprised that the energy transference didn’t blast a hole through it.

Mariah Carey – Fantasy (1995)

In which Mariah Carey and Dave Hall take a really great Tom Tom Club song and give it the stratospheric commercial success it always so richly deserved.


Actually, I’m being a little unfair – this song is even better than the original. The new age synth intro is pretty wack, sure, but it doesn’t last long enough for me to deduct any points, especially not when the rest is this gorgeous. Most perfect pop songs take at least a couple of listens for me to confirm their perfection, but I knew this song was perfect the moment I heard it, and it’s still perfect now. Part of that perfection certainly does come down to that incredible weirdo-disco groove the Tom Toms came up with, but on the original it just existed for its own sake; here it’s the foundation for what feels like a whole rich, luscious universe of angelic light and otherworldly beauty. At least, that’s what hear when I listen to that first verse, which has the most utterly divine, joyous, totally contented and profoundly happy melody I’ve ever heard in my life. Shit, maybe it’s just the way she sings it, but the good vibes that wash all over and through me when I hear that tune are nearly indescribable, and the effortless way it transitions into that fluttering, floating, brightly glowing chorus just straight-up takes me into another plane of existence. No problems exist in this world when I’m listening to this song; the entire concept of imperfection becomes foreign to me. That sassy little G-funk synth, descending in that sweet little whistle past all the singing angels; that bridge, where Mariah’s voice echoes in from the distance, bearing sleepy impressions of absolute joy and perfect, contented wonderment… sweet Jesus, is this even music or is it essence dripped from heaven itself? This is transcendent. The love I feel for this song is overwhelming; it is one of the best songs in pop history. Absolute perfection.

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