Hits and misses: dj snake’s ‘talk,’ kanye’s posse cut, beck’s ‘wow,’ usher, and the strokes’ return
Every week, our critics assemble and weigh in on new hotness, chart trash, and glimmers of hope in the pop music landscape. This week’s roundtable includes Meaghan Garvey, Hazel Cills, Jessica Hopper, Charles Aaron, Carvell Wallace, Meredith Graves, Simon Vozick-Levinson, and David Turner.
DJ Snake feat. George Maple, “Talk”
Hopper: DJ Snake putting the house in trop-house. I appreciate that this song comes in on a plinky, featherlight melody and house-y piano pounce that floats away as quickly as it arrived, and that it’s a minute before we get to the hook. The magic of this and the summer-owning “Lean On” is that delayed gratification — the punch of “Lean On” doesn’t come until 1:50 into a three-minute song. And right now it’s pushing one and a half billion views on YouTube. This trop-house gold rush pop can largely be explained by those easy metrics, but the difference with DJ Snake is audible in what he doesn’t do. After years of stadium EDM hammering our pleasure centers, our brain is beat-up — “Talk” is waking us up, letting us come to it, rather than bearing down on us.
Wallace: I understand that the streets are here for this gauzy tropical stuff right now, but I’m just, like, turn down for what? It is almost too pleasant and simple, even for a man whose whole calling card is four-note melodies. The one saving grace is that he does just enough complex stuff with the snare in the chorus to keep the groove deep. Despite myself, I have to reluctantly declare this one a low-key banger.
Turner: Embrace the low-key banger! The mid-2010s are the era of the low-key banger. Did last year’s rise of tropical house teach us nothing? In the last few weeks, I’ve gone from a fan to a near obsessive of DJ Snake, so this song arrives at just the right moment for my new DJ Snake standom. I only wish it was already the fall, when a breezy house romp like this will fully bloom into the world.
Aaron: I’ve been a Snakehead ever since I saw him blow Miami bros the f*** up at Ultra a few years ago, and I definitely prefer his deliriously turnt bangers — I mean, he was, like, four for four with his first few singles, which is a pretty bonkers winning streak. This is his second lower-key, trop-house-y excursion (after “Middle” with Bipolar Sunshine), and though I enjoy this mood far less than his tear-up-da-club madness, maybe it just further proves his slithery brilliance that he can shift gears so smoothly.
Kanye West feat. Desiigner, Travis Scott, Big Sean, Gucci Mane, Yo Gotti, 2 Chainz, and Quavo, “Champions (Round & Round)”
Aaron: Big Sean (always), Quavo (just ’cause), and Gucci Mane (at this post-incarceration moment) have something to prove, and seem like they come the hardest. Desiigner also has a lot to prove, and comes as hard as he can. No shots at Desiigner. “Panda” power! For me, this would’ve been more potentially classic if it’d just been Quavo on the hook and Gucci spittin’ whateva whateva, since their voices complement each other so well, but that’s not what we got and I’ll stop playing A&R mountain climber now.
Hopper: The only verse that keeps my attention here is 2 Chainz’s — as ever, he’s the hot knife through the butter here. This is too much of a good thing and the cast-of-thousands makes it feel like it’s “We Are the World” rather than the ’Ye song that is going to detonate my summer. It could be anyone’s song because it’s everyone’s song.
Turner: When this many different rappers appear on a song, it’s hard to not play a little backseat A&R. There are so many moving parts that the song risks feeling cut-and-pasted together — while Gucci Mane coming back is cool, why is Yo Gotti here? I love 2 Chainz and Big Sean probably too much, but their brand of puns-over-bars ismaaaaybe a little much. And Travis Scott, Desiigner, and Quavo are all sort of doing the same thing, except Quavo does mention white people saying he’s “radical.” OK, perhaps it’s a great thing no A&R tried to edit down this song, because all of these moving parts work far better than one would think.
Vozick-Levinson: I love that line, David. It’s true, I do think Quavo is radical! A Quavo solo album would be very rad, in my opinion. This song is no “Clique” and it’s definitely no “Mercy,” but it’s enough to have me looking forward to Cruel Winter.
Vozick-Levinson: Every few years, Beck makes an album that’s supposed to be a spiritual sequel to Odelay and Midnite Vultures. I’ll go to bat for a fair chunk of his latter-day work, but this is the first song he’s made in a long while that makes me think he could really deliver something that lives up to the freaky-deaky hedonistic party records he made in the last Clinton presidency. “Wow” sounds like the psychedelic purple pleather pants from the cover of Midnite Vultures got pickled in SoundCloud trap beats and started dancing on their own. It’s weird, groovy dad music, and I am powerless to resist its charms.
Hopper: The perdurable conversation about Beck is whether each album is a “return to form” — but what is Beck’s form? He’s such a shape-shifter, and he has spent the last two decades rooting through pop’s hot garbage and willfully evading genre mastery. Soon as the beat drops, of course, we are going to be trying to connect those dots (to Odelay), but between the double-clap slickness of “Dreams” and the low-gear slink of this song and its YOLO koans — to me, this sounds like Beck sparking off the pop zeitgeist. It also reminds me of Clipse’s “Mr. Me Too,” in the beat and seasick minimalism.
Aaron: I agree with Jessica, this sounds fresh like the first whiff of Beck off “Loser” and “Beercan,” but with the aforementioned groovy-dad sophistication, and if I can’t get with that, then I probably hate myself and want to die.
Wallace: This is Beck’s “f***in’ rainbows.” The innocence and simplicity of the message sets up a tension with his decades-long compulsion to wrap everything in multiple layers of self-referential genre collaging. A trap beat is good no matter what happens on it, but you sort of expect Beck to figure out some way to musically elevate the idea. Here, for most of the song, he just exploits it for groove and layers run-of-the-mill Beckish ooohs and aaahs on top of it. Thankfully, the song breaks free of its ironic chains at the bridge, where the horns swell and the vocals become unabashed. No matter how I feel about his ideas at the beginning, I’m always fully on board by the end.
Cills: Guess what, everyone? I’m a groovy dad too. Like, deep in my 22-year-old girl core, I am a groovy Beck-loving dad. I know this because when I stepped on Gov Ball soil last weekend and heard him playing “Black Tambourine,” I was like “WOOO!” And I really like the idea Simon floated out about Beck returning to that Odelay/Midnite Vultures sound. I’ll admit that I tuned out of the Morning Phase hype because it kept being sold to me as a Sea Change 2.0 and I’ll admit one thing further: not a huge Sea Change fan! I want my Beck music full of lasers and weirdo loops, and “Wow,” while not a stopped-me-in-my-tracks single, is at least a tiny step closer to that. Its chillwave, surrealist grooves are built on a goofy lyricism that is just sort of Beck-speak at this point. I’m into it!
The Strokes, “Drag Queen”
Hopper: Each Strokes record feels like they are renewing themselves through different takes on the ’80s. The dystopian synth future revision of this makes sense for a New York band in an Era of Trump Terror, but I kept waiting for Gary Numan to start singing “Down in the Park.” That the vocals sound like they’re cobbled together from an assortment of takes — maybe even from other songs, given the ways the lines disconnect or conjoin abruptly — suits the sense of disorientation they are trying to manufacture. Yet hearing Julian Casablancas crib a line from Sade’s “Smooth Operator” in a high-pitched voice usually reserved for murderous dolls and satanic children in ’80s horror films is enough to keep me from ever listening to this again.
Turner: The lyric video for “Drag Queen” is a mix of videotape distortion, wire-frame graphics, and a few moments that look straight from the video game Rez. The song does have a nice Miami Vicesheen, but Casablancas’s vocals are so distorted that it undercuts the polish. There are hints of the guitars and vocal qualities that make a great Strokes song, but it sounds twisted and misunderstood into a gloop of ’80s mush.
Vozick-Levinson: Criticizing Julian Casablancas’s vocals for being too distorted is like knocking the sky for being too blue — vocal distortion is his thing, it’s just what he does — but I agree that this song is a bummer. The production is all muddy and soupy, and who wants soup that’s made of mud? The crescendo at the end gave me a headache.
Wallace: I guess if you become as much of an institution as The Strokes, there’s a kind of existential weight that, by necessity, has to creep into your work. Why else would name your EP Future Present Past? This track — raw, self-serious, and laden with vague and nonsensical political platitudes — feels weighted down by an aggressive drive to troll the middling version of The Strokes that has appeared on t-shirts and dorm room posters for the better part of a decade. It feels desperate and angry, made up of aggressively alienated moments, like the part where he starts to quote Sade and gives up in the middle. I don’t necessarily mind messiness. But the problem for me is that these emotions are so strident as to overtake the music completely. I can’t hear the song for the feelings.
Aaron: The Strokes are like fairly well-adjusted and well-preserved child stars. They had one great role that they nailed, unintentionally promised way too much — the Return of Cool Rock — got famous, and then struggled to remember the plot. Now they remind me of Fred Savage showing up in that Austin Powers movie with a mole on his face. That said, I’d like to defend Julian Casablancas’s effort here. The relentlessly shifty, rumbling synth-punk (Joy Division jerked into New Order) and vaguely engaged lyrics like “I don’t understand this f***ed-up system” really IS HIM TRYING VERY HARD. More is the pity.
Cills: Yeah, this song is laughably too serious, all cranky rambling and weirdly dated, as David said, ’00s-does-’80s rock. It kind of reminds me of the SNL Weekend Update bit “Drunk Uncle,” with all the mumbled callouts of the war and the system you can just barely understand, except the Drunk Uncle here is … Julian. 🙁
Mike WiLL Made-It feat. Rihanna, “Nothing Is Promised”
Turner: In my list of dream projects that’ll certainly never exist, “Rihanna Rap Album” is pretty high up there. A lot of this is based on “Pour It Up,” but goddamn, why not just copy-paste that song a dozen times and yield a classic? “Nothing Is Promised” appears to be exactly that, and maybe dreams shouldn’t come true — this really treads the same production style and mood of “Pour It Up” without any of the swagger. Usually I’m pretty open to letting a song drill into my head, but the Future ad-libs make the song feel unfortunately dated to 2012 and I’m back to searching for the original “Pour It Up” again.
Garvey: 2012 was a great year — Future was in love, Rihanna was basically a rapper, 2 Chainz was dropping dad jokes on four out of every five songs on the radio — but David’s right, we can’t go back. Then we get into one of those “would you kill baby Hitler” situations where history goes awry and Metro Boomin never usurps Mike WiLL as Atlanta’s producer-king and Rihanna drops R8, full of “American Oxygen”s and songs that sound like this. Not a world I am prepared to live in.
Vozick-Levinson: I get what you two mean, but I dunno — 2016 is already a pretty great time to be Mike WiLL, no alternate universes necessary. He produced “Formation” and “By Chance”! Those are two of the best singles of the year, easy. This one doesn’t quite reach those heights, but I’m a fan of any song that leaves this much room for Rihanna to flaunt her lavish, untouchable cool right now.
Aaron: Totally agree with Simon — Mike WiLL ain’t exactly washed in 2016. His work on “Formation” and Rae Sremmurd’s album is impressive, and in the right pop-leaning context, he still brings the eerie strip-club ambience. But on Anti, Rihanna played off a roll call of varied producers (Travis Scott, 40, Mustard, No I.D.), who contributed whatever they could to the committee process, and developed her very own staticky, sketchy, sexually self-possessed sound. For whatever reason, Mike WiLL just doesn’t capture that here. I don’t know if he’s stuck in 2012 so much as he’s not sufficiently stuck on Rihanna.
Usher feat. Young Thug, “No Limit”
Garvey: OK, well, here’s a duet I did not see coming. Not a super exciting use of Thug’s talents, but it kind of works anyway because even phoned-in Usher is usually good Usher. Plus he makes, like, a million No Limit–themed sex puns. If a song where Usher says “I’ll C-Murder that / No Limit, baby / Give you that Ghetto D, girl / No Limit, baby” makes it to the Billboard charts, I will not be mad.
Aaron: Since the song is only eh, or uhh, and Thugger doesn’t naturally fit with Usher (though he does liven up matters when he rolls through), the song, uhh, rises or falls on its No Limit puns. Which are, as Meaghan mentions, plentiful. And, yes, if you were wondering, he does refer to his, uhh, equipment as “that Master P.” Uhh.
Vozick-Levinson: Usher missed a major pun opportunity here — how did he make a whole song out of No Limit references, including all those “Make ’Em Say Uhh” callbacks, and never once complete the phrase into “Make ’em say Uhhhhsher“? Too corny? That doesn’t seem like it was a concern in the writing of this song. Anyway, I’m here for Young Thug getting guest-verse checks from every major label he can, and I like how he turns “Usher Raymond!” into a tight little ad-lib at the beginning of the song, thus proving that he can say pretty much any combination of syllables and make it sound cool.
The Avalanches feat. Danny Brown and MF Doom, “Frankie Sinatra”
Graves: I’m shocked by how many people had issues with this track. “Frankie Sinatra” has everything most people have been into (or, at least, what people have pretended to be into) recently: A new release from a band who haven’t done anything for a looong time; a popular-but-still-suitably-obscure voice in Danny Brown; a surprise underground rap moment with MF Doom to add cred; and a sample that just as easily could have been scooped for Coloring Book, TLOP,99.9%, etc. Frankly, the idea that both Danny Brown and Doom would sign off on one track is enough for me, but noooo. Which makes me want to shake people and ask them if they’ve ever actually heard The Avalanches before, because this song totally picks up where “Frontier Psychiatrist” left off — and remember, that song came out 16 YEARS AGO.
Aaron: I love The Avalanches (who I’ve missed like that one cool friend you met at summer camp in fifth grade but never saw again), Danny Brown, MF Doom, and tubas, so I got no issues! Let’s be clear like Bareezus, this does not bang. But it is more fun than a barrel full of samples. And shouts to Doom for the second “Frankie” shout-out to Sir Crocker of NYC radio royalty. And Danny Brown rhymed about Vicodin again — my man!
Chris Christie and Bono feat. a member of the royal family of Jordan, “Hotel California”
“New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says he once performed a duet of ‘Hotel California’ with U2 frontman Bono at a party hosted by the king of Jordan … He says [King] Abdullah’s daughter played guitar during the performance.” —The Associated Press
Vozick-Levinson: “On a dark desert highway / Cool wind in my hair / Till I hit a miles-long traffic jam intentionally created by a politician as part of an elaborate revenge scheme …”
Aaron: Slow clap, sir.