Every week, MTV’s writers and critics assemble and weigh in on new hotness, chart trash, and glimmers of hope in the pop music landscape. This week’s roundtable includes Ira Madison III, Hazel Cills, Jessica Hopper, Charles Aaron, Molly Lambert, Molly Beauchemin, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Simon Vozick-Levinson, and David Turner.
Rae Sremmurd, “By Chance”
Vozick-Levinson: The Brothers Sremm are joy incarnate, mythologically fly, party rap's Castor and Pollux. Here they rewrite "Do You Know the Muffin Man" with a pocketful of Xans and an eye out on the prowl, blessing us with another slippery hit of Tupelo honey. Mike WiLL Made-It's beat sounds like the gathering storm in the video; it reminds me of Beyoncé's "Formation," which he produced and co-wrote with Swae Lee, and makes me dream of a Sremmed-out Top 40. I give this song five pineapple CDs out of five.
Hopper: The sour-note beebee piano minimalism of this and Lil Yachty’s “Minnesota Remix” are, I pray, ushering in an era of fragile rap where casual macho need comes wrapped in crepe paper melodies. The video’s beach party–cum–storm front makes me imagine this as the apocalyptic aftermath of the terrifying ending of Michael Shannon vehicle Take Shelter. Don’t panic, Mike WiLL Made-It is soundtracking the afterlife, and Sremmurd dudes got working cash-stack phones.
Lambert: I love the stilted “Do you have any Grey Poupon?” phrasing of the chorus. I love Rae Sremmurd. And there is nothing I love more than a goth day at the beach. ENTER XAN MAN.
Turner: It’s hard to think of a group who enjoy the pomp of being rap stars more than Rae Sremmurd. The video reaffirms that: We see them at a beach partying with a few of their closest model friends and dance hype man SheLovesMeechie. The rumbling beat and sly hook aren’t quite as catchy as their first round of singles, but watching the video is a great reminder that better weather is on the way and “By Chance” assures its placement on all party playlists.
Aaron: OMG — it’s a Sremmurd Party at Zannie Beach, Hosted by Mike WiLL Made-It! Why is it only March!? Now, I don’t condone or support the snorting of crushed-up Xanax, especially at the beach, where wandering off from the group in a woozily euphoric (but soon-to-be desperately disoriented) state could be scary as fuck. But the track here is a beast – ATL trap’s familiar creeptastic music-box intro leads to a radioactive ooze emitting a thick, fogged-up rhythmic blur. And the Sremmurd kids are having a blast, effortlessly (it seems) toying with conversational vocal hooks, etc. What Molly calls the “Grey Poupon” phrasing is an amazing Swae Lee routine, where he asks a series of questions in a genteel accent: “Do you know one, by chance?” – of a tanned young lady. “Do you have one, by chance?” – of a roll of cash in a sports car. “Are you plugged in, by chance?” – of something to smoke. Only thing missing is Lil Yachty pulling up in his Lil Boat wearing a captain’s hat. Ahoy!
Madison III: This was shot like an indie movie I'd rather see than the boring ones that usually pop up in my Netflix. This haunted beach full of ghostly dancers, stacks sprawled across the sand, and abandoned pineapples appeals to every inch of my aesthetic. Why do I love Rae Sremmurd so much? Their unabashed sense of fun is inspiring and their spoken-word rap is easy enough to recite when you're stoned and drunk.
Domo Genesis feat. Anderson .Paak, "Dapper"
Vozick-Levinson: The beat sounds a little like Justin Timberlake's "Señorita," and I'm always down for songs that kinda remind me of the Neptunes in 2003. Dig the "casual afternoon jam sesh with Carlos Santana" guitar solo, too. It's all very slight-but-pleasant.
Lambert: Was trying to put my finger on what this made me think of and it’s Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass” — in a great way.
Hopper: I’ve been playing this song almost daily the past few weeks. I have a thing for songs with funk-stasis, that vamp more than go anywhere. This is .Paak’s year, to be certain, but this is not the hook-cameo that pushes him to ubiquity. The only real failing here is dropping a late-June single in early March, with nary a patio party in the offing.
Beauchemin: I was still waiting for the track to heat up for the entire two minutes. I like the cadence of this entire arrangement, but when you’re a rapper with a distinctly monotone delivery like Domo Genesis, the reason you include a feature like Anderson .Paak is to bring some lively soul into the chorus. On “Dapper,” .Paak isn’t so much a featured artist as a background singer cozying up in this song’s hook, which I think is a waste of his vocal talent and crazy-effusive drumming skills.
Cills: I agree, Molly, that Anderson .Paak definitely sounds a little scaled back here; it’s kind of a familiar hook. But I think the way he stays on the same level as Domo Genesis and doesn’t overshadow him works on this song, and Anderson .Paak’s lush and minimalist contributions complement that monotone delivery.
Aaron: I agree with Jessica: This is just so damn pleasant and you can play it over and over and still catch a little groove every time, and you can’t overestimate that. And considering that Domo doesn’t really change his stoner mumble all that much, it’s also surprisingly accessible. I can hear it in an upscale restaurant/bar in pretty much any gentrified or soon-to-be-gentrified American city; like, rap music for dressing up and chilling out. An ease-out-of-spring and then ease-into-summer song, as the jazz-funk keyboard sample flickers along with the sweet-talk lyrics. It sets a mood and takes the edge off and makes you feel young and suave. Anderson .Paak just enjoys the ride, which seems appropriate.
Young Thug and Lil Uzi Vert, “Dope”
Turner: I feel pretty comfortable in just not getting Young Thug in 2016, but then, on occasion, he does something like this. He free-associates a hook that makes me wanna keep listening to just enjoy the way he phrases “Woadie” or even just how he says “Liiiiiiike.” It’s such a minor line, but here I am a hater, back on the side of Thugga Thugga.
Willis-Abdurraqib: More than any other artist, I feel myself always wanting to take small pieces of Young Thug songs and hold on to only them, letting the rest of the song slip into the recycle bin. I think this feels equally incomplete. I want the hook playing anywhere I am, at all times. But the rest of the song crumbles a bit. I’m always really excited about Young Thug. I imagine his music like a cake with a bit too much frosting. Even if I have to scrape some of the excess sweetness off of the top, I’m still going to enjoy enough parts of it to keep me coming back.
Lambert: Maaly Raw’s beat is what makes this so replayable to me, like a music box submerging in sludge.
Vozick-Levinson: I love this song, same as I love a solid 80% of everything Thug has done in the past two years. It's exhilarating just to hear him say the word "ayyyyy," which, if I recall correctly, is one of the five elements of hip-hop. But there's a bigger question here: How tight would this sound with Elton John on the hook?
Aaron: Thugga’s the most risky, relentlessly WTF rapper since Lil Wayne’s mixtape heyday and this song’s an exquisite example – both the track and his voice are always on the verge of ricocheting around the room like a band nerd on Molly or fading out of consciousness entirely. Like, where’d he go? Boo! [Maniacal laughter] Unlike Future, he’s inscrutable, immersed in his curious craft. Yet it all sounds so effortless and small-scale and, like Hanif said, incomplete. That’s what I like about it. All his songs sort of bleed into one another, only ending when you shut them off or fall asleep. Lil Uzi stops by, dropping a goofy punch line: “Yeah, put that bleach all in my hair / Yeah, my girl she don’t got no hair / Yeah, cause she only use that Nair.” And off he jets, bleached twists bouncing. If you wanna know what it sounds like to be a stoned teenager in 2016, this is it: eerie, jumpy, silly, otherworldly, absurd, spouting nonsense for the sake of spouting nonsense, id repeatedly melting into ego. You know, what every stoned teenaged life sounds like.
Madison III: I have no idea why I like Young Thug. I literally understand 40% of what he's rapping, but it all sounds so frantic and necessary that it sticks in my brain long after I've heard it. It's got an inelegant charm to it.
Blake Shelton, “Came Here to Forget”
Beauchemin: The seed of my usual aversion to country music has to do with many of the genre’s signifiers – good women, trucks, land, dead dogs as a metaphor for hard times. I love this song, largely because it doesn’t talk about any of those things. I like the chorus and the doleful yearning in Shelton’s voice, though “keep saltin’ the rim” does sound kind of creepily euphemistic — but I’m willing to look past that.
Lambert: Molly, you just listed so many of the things I love in a country song! I love leaning into that hokeyness. The adult-contemporary feel of this song is boring to me. I don’t care for The Bleaknd. Give me a fiddle solo and a lyric about a campfire in a tractor full of whiskey any day.
Hopper: The decoy Sting/Coldplay mournful ethereality of this is so heavy-handed, but that is what makes it a perfectly glazed-ham narrative about him and Gwen Stefani being each other’s human Band-Aids. This is such a cynical and “candid” serving of pop-metatext, running counter to their “It’s True Love”–grade Life & Style covers and Gwen’s crushed -out album; Shelton singing about staying drunk to propel their relationship, falling in love just enough to use this to get over someone else is disarming. If you contrast this to his last round of courtship songs, like “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking,” so curious and eager about love, this is really fucking grim, which I appreciate. I would really like, say, Zola Jesus to cover this. Goth it out.
Cills: Everything about this song is unbelievably sad to me. That line, “Go ahead and check your phone / Like I’ve been checking mine / Nobody’s ex texting for a rewind” especially, but also this overarching pressure to “keep on keeping it lit.” It’s a song that plays reluctant all the way through and it’s a song about letting go (with another, new partner by your side, even!) that doesn’t even try to fake a sense of hope. I also really like Blake Shelton’s voice here; I think this is a song that could easily get overperformed, and he steers clear of giving too much. Overall, a real bummer.
Aaron: I’m frankly stunned by how powerful this is, and how real his emotion sounds. Even on his tearjerkers from the past, like “She Wouldn’t Be Gone,” he sounded like he was focusing on the songcraft or wordplay or performing the drama, and that’s why he always sounded kinda full of shit. Going dark wasn’t Blake’s thing. He was better just drinking her in like sangria. But like others have said, the lyrics here are intense and grim and hit hard. The melody puts out your lights. The little soft-synth production even works. Man, I guess the whole Blake/Miranda shit is deep; I fear for Gwen’s safety.
Madison III: Whoa, I had no idea I liked Blake Shelton! This song is kinda fantastic. There's nothing I love more than country noir — melancholy vocals, tipsy and slurred delivery, and the sense that the right "old lady" could drive you to murdering a rival with a farm implement. This is such a stark contrast to Gwen's current music that I can't wait for Blake's full LP so I can spend hours deciphering what they're truly saying about each other. This is some shit that Gwen would sing about on Return of Saturn. When is the shiny pop veneer of their relationship going to crack long enough for Blake's shadow to envelop Gwen and send her down the musical path I need her back on?
Willis-Abdurraqib: I think this song is pretty much everything that I can allow myself to like about contemporary country music. It’s deeply sad, but I think the writing is really carefully crafted. I feel like I’m sitting in a smoky bar with a really sad dude, patting him on the shoulder, and telling him that everything is going to be all right. I don’t really want to do that with Blake Shelton. But I’ve been there before. I never really thought I’d be able to relate to anything Blake Shelton, and yet here I am. I like that it’s driven by honesty instead of bitterness. So many breakup songs sung by dudes feel very juvenile, in content and delivery. This really feels like Shelton is, or was, as sad as he’s telling us he is/was.
Bosco and Speakerfoxx, “Shooter”
Aaron: This is an odd one, though it’s casual and cool and “dancehall-influenced” and kinda like M.I.A. if she was still interested in making records just for fun. But is it worth more than a listen, or will it make an impression in a club? I honestly don’t know and I felt the same way about their other song, “Beemer.” Maybe it’ll click over time, and they’ll probably get every chance to make it, since both ladies seem creatively connected in all sorts of ways within the music world and without. For better or worse, they’re exactly what I think of as “New Atlanta,” the sort of eclectic personalities who make a scene a “scene.” Oh, I just read Speakerfoxx once DJ’d for Gangsta Boo; that’s pretty legit.
Vozick-Levinson: Sounds more like Santigold than M.I.A. to me, notwithstanding those "Paper Planes" gunshots. But so what? It's a fizzy milkshake of a song, "get out of my face" vibes at their most delightful. I just looped it back four times in a row, and I might just go for five. I'm also realizing that I probably used the word "milkshake" two sentences back because Bosco's artist name makes me think of Seinfeld and chocolate syrup, but whatever. This one's a jam in my book.
Fifth Harmony, "The Life"
Madison III: This. This shit right here. Fifth Harmony coming in serving mid-breakup Danity Kane vocals is everything I've ever needed. The increasingly frantic beat, the distorted ’90s house vocals on the bridge, the nod to their gay fans with the chanted refrain "give it up for the kids" — I can imagine so many drag numbers to this song, so many times I'll get my life on the dance floor to it. I like "Work From Home," but I love this. Thank you, Fifth Harmony.
Vozick-Levinson: This song feels like it's all chorus in the best way — but dig those effusive verses, too. Best use of mai tais as a totem of stressless thriving since Jay sipped one with Ty Ty out in Nevada.
Hopper: The structure of their songs is 50% chorus, 20% prechorus, and the rest is just vamps and drops, and I love it. Dropping a song about earned relaxation and feeling good — and echoes of Bieber and Rihanna, the hard work of being a pop star! — on the heels of a single that is ostensibly about working is a nice fuck-you to the familiar dictates of Late Stage Capitalism Grind. Everyone deserves a break!
Cills: Love this #BlingRingPop. I love this song, but I can’t help but think it doesn’t sound like a girl-group song, which is maybe the point? Unlike “Work From Home,” I notice the girls share verses, it doesn’t have that “pass it off to the next singer” feel, and there’s a whoooole lot of Camila here. But it’s a serious banger, also really digging those distorted house vocals, and I know it’s going to have a killer music video (bring me some poolside opulence, please!). This plus “Work From Home” are really getting me excited for the record.
Willis-Abdurraqib: This is the kind of production and execution that I really like hearing in pop music right now. Like Ira, I really get a lot of Danity Kane vibes out of it, but also with that mid-2000s Diplomats-flavored production. I feel like I connect with this song much more than “Work From Home,” which was really cluttered with a lot of clumsy extended sex metaphors (when, really, one or two would have gotten the job done). This is really in the zone that I think Fifth Harmony excels in.