While driving down from New York to Philadelphia with some friends this past weekend, I encountered a series of unexpected shockers that forced me to close the new Hillary Clinton memoir I'd just picked up. And no, I'm not talking about any of the bombshells that Hilldawg drops in Hard Choices -- I literally just finished the preface. It's a long book. Gimme a break.
What I'm referring to is the fact that Sam Smith is all over American radio. Over the course of our micro road trip, I counted no fewer than four songs that floated the rising soul/pop singer's vocals across the airwaves: "Stay With Me," "Money On My Mind," Disclosure collab "Latch," and Naughty Boy's "La La La." Not too shabby for someone whose debut album, In The Lonely Hour, hasn't even dropped yet, huh?
Even though I'd speculated earlier this year that Sam was poised for success in 2014, I don't think I ever envisioned full-on pop domination, a feat that seems more and more likely as In The Lonely Hour's June 17 release date looms ever nearer. Just in case you're not totally familiar with our latest Artist To Watch, here's a quick primer on everything Sam Smith.
Who he is:
Sam Smith -- 22 years old from London, U.K. -- gradually made his mainstream breakthrough over the course of 2012 and 2013 thanks to a couple of uptempo dance tracks on which his vocals are featured: Disclosure's "Latch" and Naughty Boy's "La La La." Last October saw the release of his debut EP, Nirvana, and June 17 marks the drop date of his first studio album, In The Lonely Hour, which includes previously released singles "Lay Me Down," "Money On My Mind," and "Stay With Me."
But, I know what every self-respecting, card-carrying member of the Beygency out there is asking him or herself, and trust me: Sam is on your side. Kindly lower your pitchforks.
Why you need to listen to him:
Do you have ears? Cool. Then you'll have no problem picking up on all of the power and intensity brimming just below the surface of Sam's vocals, only bursting through the thin veneer of self-restraint at the most vulnerable points of all of his songs.
Listen to this exclusive MTV Artist To Watch live performance of "Stay With Me" below, in which boyfriend tells what might be the most beautiful and affecting morning-after story ever. (Certainly more beautiful and affecting than my morning-after stories when I tell 'em...)
What you need to listen to:
All of the aforementioned solo and featured tracks -- "Latch," "La La La," "Money On My Mind," "Stay With Me," and "Lay Me Down" -- are, obviously, an excellent start. If you're looking to delve further into the young Brit's highly emotive, acoustic side, then look no further than "Leave Your Lover." Have you ever been personally victimized by
Regina George unrequited love? Then bring Kleenex.
If it's more of Sam's casually turnt-up, synth-pop versatility you're after, then give "Safe With Me" a listen. The chopped-and-screwed vocal symmetry on "Don't you know your secret's safe with me?" is absolutely hypnotic, so be warned: You will fall under Sam's spell. If you think you're ready, download a free copy of the track below.
Why he matters:
Not to tokenize Sam, but I feel like it's hugely important how open and matter-of-fact he's being about his debut album's subject matter: "In the Lonely Hour is about a guy that I fell in love with last year," the singer told The Fader. "It’s about a guy and that’s what I wanted people to know -- I want to be clear that that’s what it’s about... I want to make it a normality because this is a non-issue." Yes, Sam's sexuality is not his sole, defining feature, but in a pop realm all but dominated by straight artists, a little queerness is definitely worth celebrating.
Yet, the significance of Sam as a person pales in comparison to the significance of Sam as an artist. In that same interview with The Fader, he noted: "I want to make the music that’s not there anymore. I’m so passionate about the singing voice... What I’m trying to do actually with my album is show that it’s my voice that’s leading. It’s my voice that’s the instrument." It'd take a bold person -- a questionably coldhearted husk of a human being, to be more precise -- to say that he hasn't achieved this lofty goal.
Why he's taking over the world:
Winning Critics' Choice at the 2014 BRIT Awards, having three No. 1 singles on the U.K. charts, and nabbing the coveted top slot on the BBC's Sound of 2014 are all well and good across the pond, but would such success translate stateside?
Apparently, yes. According to Billboard, Sam could very well sell upwards of 150,000 copies of his debut LP in its first week, potentially giving Lana Del Rey's Ultraviolence a run for the No. 1 position. Considering the steady climb of singles like "Stay With Me" -- now in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 -- In The Lonely Hour has a very good chance of avoiding a steep sales drop a week after its initial release, as well. Could it rival Adele's literally unstoppable, 10-million-selling 21 in terms of chart domination? There's no way of knowing yet, but I'd like to contribute an encouraging, if undecided, shrug emoticon for the time being.
The personal lyrics, the intimate subject matter, the powerful and trained technical ability -- they're all there in Sam Smith. I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised by all that radio play this past weekend. In fact, I'm starting to feel like his pop reign has only just begun.