Written by: Michael Strait
Mostly gonna be more positive this time. Here, have a bunch of songs I like – and one I don’t.
Y’know, I’m convinced there will never be a more soulful sound in the world than the house groove. It’s an inherently, overwhelmingly gorgeous fucking thing: an ethereal synth bassline, a bouncing, all-encompassing set of electronic drums and, most importantly, the sampling! A good chopped-up, stuttering vocal sample, integrated well into a song, fills my soul up with love like nothing else in this universe. UK Garage and its various offshoots are best for this, with their twisted and swirling female soul samples, but American house is no slouch either. All those elements, combined, end up creating a sound that is gorgeous mostly because of how tonally complex it is – it’s fuckin’ groovy, and it makes you dance, but it also doesn’t feel grounded on this Earth; the bass synth tones always sound just a bit too heavenly, the melodic (well, usually more like textural) lead synth accompaniment too shimmering and shiny, and the vocal samples too distant and nostalgic, like elements of songs you used to know in your youth that now soundtrack your dreams in misshapen fragments. It’s deeply human, but also feels like it’s in connection with something greater; it’s dance music as meditation music, the physical as the religious.
Anyway, what does all this have tae do with lil Azealia Banks here? Well, part of me kinda wants to hate her for songs like this, considering how closely tied house music has always been with the LGBT community she seems to hate, but I can’t quite bring myself to. This, see, is a great house song – not a great house beat (though certainly a good one, with all the elements that make house music so divine) but a great dance song sandwiched quite nicely into a pop song structure. Another reviewer on RateYourMusic has already noted the way they let the tension rise and build before finally introducing that big, big beat, and it’s surely a great moment, but the greatest moment – to my ears – comes at exactly 1:18, where she unexpectedly launches from that quietly confrontational rapping into a tender, super pretty vocal melody completely outta nowhere. It’s inspired, especially considering that it didn’t even need to exist – Azealia’s easily got the strength as a rapper to carry an entire song on the back of her verses, and I’m sure nobody’ve complained if the song was just three and a half minutes of her spitting that venom in her pleasingly deep voice, but the hook adds a welcome softness that goes nicely with those synths. So, what we’ve got here is a pop song that understands how house music works and knows how to mine from it without just cluelessly appropriating it – it’s a gem, in other words. And it ain’t even one of her best! Of course, it ain’t one of the best house songs ever, either, so I don’t really know why I made it the recipient of my love letter to house music, but it proves that Azealia has retained a frustrating level of talent even as her mental health seems to have spiraled down the drain. Great singer, great rapper, great taste in beats – now if only she wasn’t a fuckin’ Trump supporter…
The Chainsmokers & Coldplay – Something Just Like This (2017)
The Chainsmokers make music, I guess, but it’s the lowest and most debased form of music I can imagine. Most bad music at least leaves me something to say about it, but the Chainsmokers usually don’t; their music is not just bad but boring, and those who know me know well that this makes my blood boil far hotter than the most ridiculous pile of overambitious failure ever could. The guy from Coldplay’s on this, I guess, but I don’t care; with the Chainsmokers, all guest vocalists are melted down and poured into the same vat of nondescript, ineffectual dullness. There is absolutely nothing worth saying about the Chainsmokers and I have no idea why I’ve already said so much. Though I do suppose it’s worth noting here that the drop on this song is almost exactly the same as the one they used on their prior single “Roses”, which was always perhaps their only tolerable song; not content with merely figuratively making the same song over and over, they now appear to be doing it literally! Give these hacks no quarter.
“Bubblegum Bass” my ass. There is nothing bubblegum about this; this is twisted, malicious, paranoid and discordant, and one of the most thoroughly noncommercial things put out by a popstar in the last few years. Charli’s always been a terrible lyricist, and that’s as true here as it ever were (“Ice cubes on our tongues because we like to keep it freezy” – aaargh), but for the most part here she actually works as a sort of pointed parody version of the Instagram generation; she’s proudly vain and bellicose, gluttonous for attention and seemingly incapable of fidelity. “All my life, I’ve been waiting for a good time,” she sings, and it looks like she’s gonna have to wait a bit longer – this track most definitely does not represent a good time. I sure as hell have a good time when I’m listening to it, though.
French Montana & Kodak Black – Lockjaw (2016)
I’ll tell you what Kodak is – he’s a texture. His lyrics are nothing, his flow no better, but his voice is one of the most legitimately fascinating and unusual things I’ve heard in rap recently. It’s like his throat is made of sandpaper, his words coming out all scratched and crumbly, falling apart by the time they exit his mouth so one can barely make them out at all. “It be hard to understand because my jaw keep lockin‘”, he says, and I’m skeptical, but at least he acknowledges it.
I love his voice, personally, but it does render him a kind of one-trick pony. Aside from that voice, after all, there’s nothing to his music except the beats. Fortunately, the beat here is absolutely fantastic. This’d fit right in on an early A$AP Rocky or Lil B mixtape, this would – it’s prime-tier cloud rap, atmospheric without forgetting the importance of melody and without feeling corny or cheap. This smooth, gleaming backdrop really emphasises Kodak’s jagged knife of a voice, and French Montana’s contributions ain’t all that bad either. He’s still a forgettable bloke, but his vocal tone really ain’t bad and he rides this beat like a professional. I tell ya, if you’d told me a track by French Montana and Kodak Black was gonna be one of the smoothest and nicest things of the year I’d have looked at you funny, but here we are.
Calvin Harris – Slide (2017)
“Starin‘ at my diamonds while I’m hoppin‘ out the spaceship!”
This song is lovely, and I hope I hear it all over the radio this summer. That synth riff isn’t particularly memorable, but it’s not meant to be – it’s more a texture than anything else, sliding in between the various vocals to add to the general sense of warmth and wellbeing laid out by that confident, breezy bassline and those glowy pianos. Frank’s an absolute star, of course, but that’s no surprise; the guy’s voice has always sounded rather like a nice, warm blanket, and his melody here is so obviously perfect for the song’s mood and atmosphere that I’m having difficulty coming up with any sort of way to describe it. I guess “relaxed” will do; this melody perfectly captures the feeling of laying back in a car as the wind blows through your hair and the midsummer sun beams down on your face, not quite hot enough to be uncomfortable but warm enough to keep the windows rolled all the way down all the same.
As for the two Migos that bothered to show up, well – they’re not here for very long, but Quavo’s just as good a melodist as usual and Offset’s sense of humour fits this track like a glove. They know well enough to tone down their more abrasive street rap tendencies for this track, and there’s certainly nothing in their lyrics that contradicts the overriding mood here. This is a song for sweet summer days, and as much as I hate the Florida summer I can imagine this track making it a little bit more bearable. Nicely done, guys.
Lady Gaga – Million Reasons (2016)
Look, I can’t really defend this song.
The melody in the verses is, well, tiny! Almost underwritten, in fact! The lyrics are repetitive at best, trite at worst! It sounds like a million other ballads on the radio!
But I love it!
I can’t help it – I really do love it. Her voice is searing – it just powers through all the noise and interference, cutting a great hole through which the light of that gigantic, huge, fucking gorgeous chorus can shine and burn away my ability to really appreciate all this song’s many flaws. It’s absolutely mawkish, totally lacking in any sort of nuance, maybe even clichéd – but it’s a sincere and unpretentious cliché, and I believe she means every word. If you hate this song, I can’t blame you; if you want to sing a lament for the direction Gaga’s career has taken, I’ll fully understand. But don’t involve me, ‘cos I’m on board with this shit. I’ll never fully outgrow my teenage love for soaring, sky-high arena-pop hooks, and this fulfills a need I didn’t know I still had in my life. Thanks, Gaga.
Little Mix – Black Magic (2015)
Yeah, so I can’t tell any of them apart and I don’t give two shits. The tunes are gorgeous, the drums are big, the groove is smooth and the mood is… erm… lewd? Aw, fergit it with that rhyme scheme…
Anyway, yeah, I really love this song. When a pop song’s been blessed with a hook this good it almost doesn’t need anything else, but actually this song has everything else a pop song could ever possibly need, from those proudly, naively life-affirming teenage lovesong lyrics to the wonderful and intelligent way each melody resolves itself. They’re all good singers, too – they’re all maybe trying a little too hard to imbue each syllable with verve and charisma, but there are four of ‘em, so you never have time to get tired of any one of them in particular. The guitar groove has drawn some comparisons to Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, and I can totally hear it in the chorus, but for the most part this is more nostalgic for the nineties than the eighties. I’m okay with that, actually – the nineties were pop music’s dark age, but if this sort of revisionism is how people wanna remember it I can’t complain. I’m gonna be humming this tune till the day I die, my dudes – don’t let anyone tell you it’s not a great song.
Katy Perry – Chained to the Rhythm (2017)
I like the soft, velvety production on the pianos. The melody is catchy and sweeping, but it’s not obnoxious and it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to insult me. The lyrics do, though – but what did you expect? This is Katy fuckin’ Perry, the worst pop lyricist of our generation; exactly why she ended up being the first popstar to go political in the wake of The Trumpening is beyond me, but I guess I can’t complain about the sentiment. I will certainly complain about the lyric “Stumbling around like a wasted zombie”, though! “We think we’re free”!? Shut the fuck up, you rich airhead!
Shame, too, ‘cos aside from those lyrics the hook is actually pretty good. Like the rest of the melodies on this song, it’s surprisingly and pleasantly understated, avoiding the arena-pop clichés Katy’s never been sincere enough to pull off while carrying a fair amount of danceable energy. The bass is good, too, at least sonically if not compositionally. And Skip Marley’s part doesn’t really bother me as much as it probably should – the lyrics are more trite middle-class faux-rebel nonsense, of course, but melodically it fits right in and his voice actually provides a fairly nice and natural contrast to Katy’s. So, yeah – musically intelligent, lyrically dumb; not a bad song, all told.
I’unno if we should be thanking Lil B or Chief Keef (probably both!), but rap’s punk revolution has been in full swing this decade and this song is an excellent summary of its ideology. It can’t really be compared to punk rock, of course, because it’s utterly materialistic and proudly self-centred (what could be more American than that?), but it rejects technicality and perfection in favour of absolute simplicity and brutalism. Rap has always been inherently boastful and combative, after all, and this new generation is just boiling away the fat. Older heads may complain that these lyrics lack nuance or artisanship, but the core message is the same. “Why should I keep juggin‘ all these broke boys?” is, roughly speaking, a sentiment you can find expressed in rap music from just about any era; this song just eschews wordplay as a needless indulgence and gets right to the point. Traditional conceptions about rapping – the point of it, the basic reasons for doing it – go out the window; the new wave challenges and disdains them all. This song explores the contours and limits of the human voice, not used in a traditionally musical fashion but simply the cadences, textures and cracks associated with speaking in rhythm, and the physical and spiritual impact this can have when combined with floating synths and rolling, smooth bass. And if it sounds ridiculous to talk about the “spiritual impact” of such a profoundly materialistic song, well, you probably place the spirit on too lofty a pedestal anyway – in my experience most spirits really just want to relax. So lay back in the sun with this blasting from your speakers, or bounce to it in the backseat of your mate’s car – your spirit’ll be at peace either way.
Rihanna – SOS (2006)
The pulsating groove on this song is taken from a Soft Cell song, yes – but it’s better here. It sounds more muscular and, if ye can believe it, darker too. With that loud percussion punctuating it, it sounds downright aggressive and dangerous – and then so does Rihanna, except she drops the “dangerous” and replaces it with “sexual”, ending up in exactly the right place between roaring, drunken cornered tiger and whispering lynx. And the melody teases and undulates while those squelching computer bleeps echo in from the distance, and bam – I’m in another world entirely, albeit one a little bit too twilight-y for my poor human eyes to make out in full.
Trent Reznor has spent nearly his entire career trying to make this song. Naturally, he hasn’t managed it.