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Hits And Misses: MTV's Critics On The Latest From Gwen, Zayn, Twenty One Pilots, And More

Wherein we discover all music is now rap music.

Every week, our intrepid critics meet and discuss hits we love and hate, as well as new discoveries we stan for, spanning from the depths of SoundCloud to the heights of Country Top 40. This week, Hazel Cills, Meaghan Garvey, Jessica Hopper, Molly Lambert, Molly Beauchemin, David Turner, and Ira Madison III weigh in.

Zayn, “It’s You”

Cills: So, I wasn’t wowed by “Pillowtalk.” It’s sort of corny, but I gave Zayn some slack because, like all teeny-bopper pop stars looking to cross over into “adult” music, he has to get that super! sexy! #NSFW single out there to show he’s grown. But I’m here for “It’s You”! It’s so chilly and minimalist in a way that makes his voice — which we’ve never heard like this before and sort of reminds me of Thom Yorke — the star of the song. What do you all think?

Beauchemin: “Pillowtalk” left much to be desired — except Zayn himself, because let’s get real — but I’m into this upper-register cooing. I think Zayn, like Bieber, has a voice that can handle this kind of sophistry, but so often their lyrics are dumbed down to appeal to a mass market. I actually can barely make out what he’s singing in this song, but I like the cadence, so I’m sure whatever it is is probably not bullshit. I vote yes!

Madison III: Um … "Pillowtalk" is fire, and y'all can deal. It sounds like a sexy One Direction song without any of the Vandellas singing backup for once. I really dig it, but this? This I'm stanning for. The use of the falsetto, the stripped-down Spartan production, it all works. I'm even digging the winter-in-Shoreditch look he's got going for him, with the tattoos, the pink hair, and the floor-length trench. More of this, please. He's like the successor to Andy Gibb I always wanted in my life.

Garvey: Anyone who is this level of beautiful always ends up being super fucking boring. It’s chill, though. I still love him.

Lambert: Zayn’s pillow talk threatened to put us to sleep. “It’s You” is a step up. I’m down for the sad Roy Orbison yodeling in the chorus. His voice sounds like a theremin!

Turner: The idea that “Pillowtalk” went No. 1 on iTunes in 68 countries is absolutely horrifying to me. It isn’t bad, but 68 countries is a lot of countries. Either way, “It’s You” is fairly rote and boring, but I’m also a Weeknd stan, so throw in a little more electric guitar and sleaze and I’d probably declare it amazing.

YFN Lucci, "Talk That Shit"

Turner: Atlanta-based rapper YFN Lucci’s latest tape isn't full of bangers. There are no obvious club singles; his music is emotionally charged and follows the route of labelmate Rich Homie Quan. "Talk That Shit" finds Lucci drilling down on existential concerns ("A couple homies left but I don't need 'em") with straightforward lyricism, which is refreshing in light of the wave of Future and Thugga imitators on the market.

Garvey: Yeah, don’t get me wrong, Nayvadian hedonism is a wonderful thing, but there’s only so many times you can hear Atlanta rappers deliver same-y odes to Xanax. Which is one of the reasons I’m in love with this tape. It’s nice to hear a more earnest take on TM88 productions. This brings me back to a really specific moment in Atlanta rap, circa ‘12-’13: Future was fully tapping into his emotional Future Hendrix persona, Rich Homie Quan was making the best and most poignant music of his solo career, and guys like Young Scooter and Rocko were making unembellished but very affecting trap music. Very into it.

Lambert: The perfect Sunday brunch wake-and-bake soundtrack to go with your cheap mimosa, runny scrambled eggs, and hungover sense of dread.

Gwen Stefani, “Make Me Like You”

Cills: I really like Gwen Stefani — #problematicfav — because I’m such a sucker for her voice. So I’m excited for the next cycle of her career, even if Blake Shelton is coming with her, mom’s-new-boyfriend-style. “I Used to Love You” was great because I love tough Gwen, but I also love a sugary pop song about accidentally falling in love. “Make Me Like You” is a cross between The Cardigans’ “Lovefool” and hits from Kylie Minogue’s Fever album, which makes me hope Stefani is going to make a throwback disco record à la Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor. The live music video during the Grammys was not the smoothest move, but I think the song transcends the gimmick.

Madison III: The video was kinda goofy, but it fits the song, so whatever. I'm a huge No Doubt fan, but I love that we get to see the softer side of her in her solo stuff. The throwback vibe, courtesy of Carly Rae Jepsen's producers, decidedly works for Gwen because she's always felt pretty throwback in general. She's like a forgotten movie starlet from Hollywood's Golden Age. I definitely sense that Madonna/Cardigans/Kylie vibe, and it'd be great to see her finally give us a mature, sexy solo record. The Sweet Escape was allllmost there, but Pharrell made it a bit too cartoony.

Lambert: I’m also a mark for solo Gwen. She’s the Betty Draper of pop.

Thast, “Snitch”

Garvey: Thast (pronounced “taste,” FYI) is a rapper from central Florida about whom I know very little, other than that her SoundCloud is quickly becoming my most visited place on the Internet. She’s just got one of those voices that was cosmically ordained to be played at dangerous volumes on club speakers. Rappers working with super Internet-y producers — you know, the ones that exist exclusively on SoundCloud and still spell their names in \/\/I┼CH HOVS3 typography — doesn’t usually work for me, but this does. She put up a couple new songs, both of which are insane, but I’m giving “Snitch” the edge: brash, petty, massive, and minimal at the same damn time. It’s produced by Hi Tom, who’s from Norway — praise be whatever deities brought them together. Someone on Twitter told me it sounded like if Gangsta Boo had collaborated with the Neptunes circa 1999, and if that doesn’t sell you, well, I dunno what to tell you.

Hopper: She is everything. That raspy Flaahriduh burr in her voice, that perfectly disgusted tone that's there no matter what she’s rapping about, and that low-tech, clubby '80s chang-chang production — these songs are a blessing. Also, they underscore the perennially under-recognized legacy of Trina.

Lambert: [adds to spring playlist, plays song to flowerbuds so they bloom early]

Nothing But Thieves, “Trip Switch”

Hopper: They sound like the best metal band in Sacramento recruited a frontman who has been singing along to Jeff Buckley in his bedroom, but less erotic than the comparison implies. What I like about this song is that for most of the first listen, I thought the singer was female and aping Thom Yorke. “Like” might be the wrong word here.

Cills: Jet fronted by a Justin Bieber impersonator. Or there’s something sort of Muse-y about it, something about that little riff reminds me of, like, mid-2000s rock. This is a song you will most certainly be able to play on Guitar Hero, if that’s even a game teens play anymore.

Turner: Every song with guitars is increasingly making me feel like I am in a C-tier suburban mall, and “Trip Switch” is not different. Not bad, but so unremarkable I can’t remember if it was a rock song with a slight bit of synthpop or a rocking synthpop single. Is it 2007? Isn’t this what EDM saved teenagers from having to experience in their lives?

Hopper: They are a five-piece from England, according to this Google search I have just done.

Beauchemin: In addition to this song being blatantly unlistenable in my book, I really hated this video — watching dudes fight each other and swear for sport is basically my version of suffering through 30 minutes of Rachael Ray, which is to say: I find myself asking, “What did I do to deserve this?”

Twenty One Pilots, “Stressed Out”

Hopper: I have never heard this song before. The video for it has 113 million views. I feel this band’s Rosetta Stone is Eminem’s “Stan,” like that Dido-tenderness/Midwestern backpack rap sensitacho hangover duality was a revelation to these dudes long before they were old enough to get these hand tats.

Cills: I will admit right now that I know little to nothing about Twenty One Pilots. The weird, childhood nostalgia of this song, coming from two guys who are both in their late twenties, is kind of strange.

Turner: Yeah, this feels like it came out in 2001, and I guess maybe that means at 23 I’m old enough to be like, “Wait, didn’t we already do this before?” in terms of music. But, honestly, if we’re going to repeat the dynamics of the early 2000s, I’d much rather bring on the Linkin Park revival. Aren’t young people supposed to like angry and angsty music? Maybe nostalgia is the new angst. I wish I could turn back time to the good old days, when rap and rock were separate or, if they met, they were wearing masks.

Hopper: I am four songs deep into my Twenty One Pilots education by way of YouTube playlist. They are a real smorgasbord of genre. There are big, roiling EDM synths, a decent Ben Gibbard impression as stylistic tic, some rapping-about-rapping, and vague screamo tendencies. And they are like Chris Brown–level popular. How did this happen?

Garvey: If I learned anything from my introduction to Luke Bryan at the Grammys the other night, it’s that literally all music is now rap music. I miss New Found Glory dude.

Lambert: Guys, this song makes me want to die. What hath Fueled By Ramen wrought?

Granger Smith, "Backroad Song"

Turner: I haven’t driven a backroad in nearly a year. Maybe it is just the lyric video, but this feels like I’m back in college and traveling the minor roads of North Carolina. I kind of love this song.

Cills: I agree that a song that’s all about driving makes me nostalgic for the transportation itself — there’s just no romance to riding the NYC subway, nada. But I can’t help feeling like there is absolutely zero personality in this song. It’s a song that’s made for you to pass by on the radio dial and just settle on it because it’s easygoing and begs you to sing along. But maybe that’s exactly what it wants to be!

Hopper: I think this is the first time I have heard “33’s” shouted out as a tire size. This is a quiet shout-out to everyone who goes muddin’ in their trucks on the weekends. It’s basically the “That Candy Paint" of corny Top 40 Country. Garvey is right — all genres are now rap.

Lambert: I just heard this song for the first time on country radio, and even though it feels written by “country summer hit” algorithm, I’ll be darned if it doesn’t work. I think you have to be driving.