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Hits And Misses: Rihanna Reigns, Drake's "Pop Style," Dej Loaf Returns, And "7 Years"

Our critical roundtable disembowels the hits of today and tomorrow

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 Meaghan Garvey, Ira Madison III, Hazel Cills, Jessica Hopper, Charles Aaron, Molly Beauchemin, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Sasha Geffen, Doreen St. Félix, and David Turner.

Dej Loaf, “Make Money”

Garvey: Finally, Dej Loaf’s comeback! I feel like people have written Dej off because "Try Me" feels like forever ago — but this could be her year. She just dropped her first tape in a minute, All Jokes Aside, and it seems like she’s tightened up her straight-up rapping, balancing out all the melodies. The only guest is Silkk the Shocker! But the banger is “Make Money” — Dej owns this almost-trance beat, and toward the end breaks into what can only be described as a “Stilettos (Pumps)” moment, so I’m happy.

Aaron: Dej kills with a hooded shrug, but her R&B singsong always cuts more than her rapping. Here she rides a standard EDM beat with such an irresistible, flowing energy that you don’t want it to end. I don’t know if she could’ve pulled this off a year ago – sinister MC presides over the party and doesn’t have to drag everybody to get over. But this is an encouraging pop-rap swerve without losing her essence.

Turner: “Make Money” has an undercurrent that owes a lot to New Orleans bounce, which fits given how often Detroit rappers draw influence from Cash Money’s heyday. Dej is a great rapper and deserves another round of attention her way. Go Dej, go Dej!

Madison III: This is a cut. I love her voice — her flow is exuberant and yet still confident. I'm always here for another woman slaying in the rap game. The beat and chorus are gonna be stuck in my head the entire weekend, I can already predict.

Beauchemin: She had me somewhere in between “Make Money” and “Take Money.” The tone of her voice is really interesting. Admittedly, if I hadn’t read the comments above I wouldn’t have known if this was a male or female, since this is my intro to Dej Loaf and I feel like this is the voice that a lot of prepubescent-sounding male rappers aspire to — no shade, Rae Sremmurd. I’m into this, especially when she says “I only pop champagne just to pour it in the air.” THAT’S how you start the weekend, folks.

Hopper: This whole tape seems to be about her dexterity and drive — you hear someone pushing themselves and trying. No marquee name assists save for Silkk — that's confidence, but also someone who is asserting their vision. Hearing this made me wish Skrillex had tapped Dej instead of Rick Ross for "Suicide Squad" — her fluidity begs for a producer who can match that with artful, stadium-perfected EDM, or say, Natasha Kmeto. I want to hear Dej’s voice stretched every which way it can go, expanding beyond the frame we had fitted for her.

Lukas Graham, “7 Years”

Cills: Super corny, Instagram-filter pop music. It’s time-traveling tone kind of reminds me Five for Fighting’s “100 Years,” though Graham’s seems far more pessimistic and obsessed with his own isolation. I just feel like he’s trying to sell me this narrative about his lonely life but his lyrics (“remember life and life becomes a better one”) play as sincere as a Hallmark card.

Aaron: No disrespect, but Lukas’s mom and dad sound like real dicks in this song — telling him to get some friends when he’s only seven, and get a wife when he’s 11! Which is weird because they’re totally supportive in his other song “Mama Said,” which is, to be honest, exactly the same as “7 Years.” I’m starting to suspect that bro uses this “mama told me/daddy told me” device as a crutch and he just plugs in whatever parental advice fits the song, like, “Once I was 15-years-old and my daddy told me to prepare for my college admissions test or I’d get stuck at my safety school.” Also, did anybody else stop on the line “My woman brought children for me”? Huh? Did she pick ’em up down at Babies “R” Us?

Garvey: This is a THING now — arena-sized “introvert ballads” that kind of overthink the whole concept and lean way too hard on this carefree singsong and questionable rhyme schemes (see also: G-Eazy’s “Me, Myself & I”). Existential dread — but in a chill way — is the new flower crown at Coachella ‘16.

Hopper: This is like an emo reimagining of “Juicy” that then turns into a teenager’s revision of Mike & The Mechanics's “The Living Years.” I don’t need dude to bible-swear that, yes, at 11 he was stoned, drunk, and obsessed with stacking paper, but it’s like, c’mon dude. The single’s art, which features a dad wearing yellow socks with sandals and seersucker pants, forcing his young son to look over a cliff, really nails the terror of living.

St. Félix: What is taken from Graham’s biography is the ultimate age. Graham’s dad died at 61 — presumably why the life span stops at that age, which I’d thought was naively young, and now I feel really bad about. I actually continued down the rabbit hole of the lead singer’s life and it’s so interesting, as saccharine/disturbing a parable as this mushy song. Graham and the three other people that form the band grew up in Freetown Christiana, an “intentional” community in Denmark that literally sounds like the town in The Giver. You can’t take photos of the 800 or so citizens who live there, and the slogan is Live Life Artistically! Only Dead Fish Follow the Current! One of the few homes there was once raided by a feral cat colony. How macabre. Perhaps there’s some untold darkness lurking under this ditty. So yeah, my boy Lu is living life artistically and all you haters are a bunch of dead fish.

Willis-Abdurraqib: Very glad this song is here, because this thing happened yesterday when I was in an Uber in Austin, Texas. The driver asked what I did, and when I mentioned that I write about music, he said “I love Lukas Graham. Have you heard him?” And I confirmed that I’d heard this song and wasn’t moved by it, but thought that it had good radio potential. The driver replied “Sure. He’s from Norway or Sweden or one of those places. His accent is really weird, I can’t place it.” I told the driver that I was pretty sure Graham was Danish, and he said, “Yeah, that’s it. He sounds a little like James Brown, doesn’t he? The way he sings with that accent from the back of his throat ... was James Brown Danish?” After a long and uncomfortable pause where I realized that this was, in fact, a valid question and not a joke, I awkwardly replied, “Uhhh ... no ... no, James Brown was from South Carolina, I think,” and then I checked my GPS to see how much longer I was going to be in the car. That is my take on this song. I had a car ride more interesting than this song, but that won’t stop it from being a hit.

Beauchemin: I knew I was going to hate this the second I saw the burning book falling elegantly through the sky in this video’s opening moments. There’s something so basic and twee about using burning media — whether that’s a book, a love letter, an old photo — to capture the histrionics of nostalgia, but that’s really more of an issue that I have with this video rather than the song.

Wallace: It’s intoxicating to hate someone with such good intentions. I mean, what’s really wrong with old Luke? He’s a good kid. He’s got a nice clean tenor and the song is catchy. I mean, what’s his real crime? Just not being original? OK. He’s not original. And he’s earnest as all heck. And that’s the combination that drives people mad. When you take yourself mad serious but also what you’re doing is the tritest thing ever? That’s a hater's feast right there. Let dude live! Also, this song is terrible.

Meghan Trainor, “No”

Garvey: I would trade everything Ariana Grande’s done in the last year for her to jump on this song instead. Against all my better judgment, I like the production style so much I’m almost willing to forgive how confusing everything else is? Courtesy of Ricky Reed, known for his sick fedora game and for his work with Twenty One Pilots, Jason Derulo, and that Florida Georgia Line song FEATURING Jason Derulo.

Hopper: “No" was written and recorded in seven hours, which is a feat, though obviously Trainor has a knack. But what I’d rather discuss is the inescapable male gaze of the video, which runs counter to the message of the song. Why are they covering every part of Trainor’s body save for her boobs — shrouding her in that billowing metallic floor-length duster that is pure “Filene’s impulse buy” and other women’s legs? I like little bits of this song, but I mostly want the So So Def posse-cut remix this throwback begs for.

Aaron: It is awfully strange that the camera is so relentlessly searching out boobs throughout the video. I think she’s a clever songwriter, but the presentation is always a little off.

Beauchemin: This video is like what would happen if the Robert Palmer girls merged with background characters from Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century.

Madison III: That reminds me of the fact that "Bootylicious" was written on an airplane ride, according to Beyoncé, and that song manages to be much more empowering than … whatever this is. Don't get me wrong, I actually am here for "No" but the overall message of it is a little silly.

Cills: Clearly Trainor felt she had to shake off her doo-wop persona and I can hear the mid-2000s pop influences on “No,” but I wonder if that was the best move for Trainor considering she already gets billed as a nostalgia artist.

St. Félix: Totally, Hazel. This is giving me the most torrid flashbacks to when L.A. Reid put P!nk in fishnets and forced her to melisma every other syllable. Seems Mr. Reid is back at it. That’s also to say, this song and video would have been huge if it were on Britney ... 15 years ago.

Turner: I personally like this song, because I ironically love nostalgia and that the production style of 2000s pop song is oft referenced but rarely done well. This isn’t great but it’s fun, even if the lyrics are kind of silly once given an ounce of thought. Still, here for this song and Trainor attempting to be some kind of 2000s pop revivalist.

Willis-Abdurraqib: For all of her one-note attempts at pop, Trainor is really close to approaching complex topics with more nuance than she has. Ultimately, I think this is a bad song. I think all of her songs have been bad songs, and this is maybe the worst of them. I think the message itself is fine, but it gets entirely lost in everything else that is built around it. But even with all of that, I hope for a time when Trainor can flesh out some of the topics she’s been playing around with. Is it good to hear the word “No” repeated in a pop song? Absolutely, especially after hearing “I know you want it” repeated in a pop song for an entire summer only three years ago. But it feels like the song’s narrative undoes some of that work by being clumsy. Still, I’m rooting for Trainor. Which is an interesting choice I make, considering that I don’t like any of her music so far.

Wallace: I was at a gas station last weekend in deep East Oakland and a car came up BLASTING this. Like the kind of aluminum cans in a bag blasting I haven’t heard since about 2007. And before I knew what it was, I was like, “What this is? It kinda knocks” Then I realized it was Meghan Trainor and for a moment I became the Mr. Krabs meme, like “Don’t tell me Reid got the homies on that Meghan Trainor?!” But then dude got out of the car and he was like 65 with a Bluetooth in his ear. So, false alarm. That’s kinda what this song is.

Rihanna feat. Drake, “Work”

Hopper: “Work” crept to No. 1 and is now parked there, which says to me that America is coming around on a small-room Rihanna. She's groomed to deliver bag-of-hammers hooks and torrential ballads, but the restraint of the production, her measured range — the song is a balm. It’s so listenable — not because it claws at the pleasure centers of our brains, but because of the reprieve it offers. When it’s on the radio, the songs bracketing it sound garish, clownish, and overblown. In an era defined by sprawling, uncontainable forces and cloying perfection, the reasonable, human scale of “Work” shows us we had no idea how badly we needed it.

Geffen: “Work” is occupying the same cultural space “Know Yourself” occupied a year ago. It’s played everywhere and where it’s not played, people are singing it. Rihanna and Drake work like analogues in that they both can make a song sticky not with traditional melodic tools but by the way they slant their syllables — their pronunciation is catchy and singular to the point that it spreads like a meme. Plus, Rihanna is especially vulnerable here, and not surface-vulnerable like Drake tends to be. She’s out here pleading for that ‘something more’ in a relationship that can be so ardently desired without really ever being articulated. “I hope that you see this through” for me ranks as the most urgent Rihanna one-liner in a career stacked with them.

St. Félix: The Anti tour is more accurately Rihanna’s Greatest Hits Tour: The album’s perceived visual aesthetics dominate the set design — a sort of medicinally beige landscape, think Yeezus redux — but when I saw it at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, it was her older songs that drew the biggest reaction out of the crowd. That’s how it dawned on me that “Work” actually sounds like vintage Rihanna, like Music of the Sun with a better-blended weave. Rihanna’s tactic with her summer bangers — think “What’s My Name?” — has been to release them in the winter, and then let the single foment on the radio and in the #clerb until it becomes an event unto itself. “Work” follows that formula, although with the most potent juju she’s ever used.

Madison III: I am thankful every day that I live in an era of music defined by Beyoncé and Rihanna. This is like the halcyon days of the knowledge that there were gods atop Mount Olympus.

Aaron: This is Rihanna at peak pop queen power – strong, vulnerable, charisma so bright she makes everyone around her disappear from the frame. Drake’s confidence here is irrational and unearned. She needs to call the palace guards to dispense with him forthwith.

Drake feat. The Throne, “Pop Style”

Cills: All I could think of during Kanye’s “take you to the garage and do some karate” verse is the scene in Boogie Nights when Dirk Diggler is showing off his Bruce Lee-themed bedroom to Amber Waves.

Madison III: I mean, but that's a beautiful image. I'm still tripping over Jay's rap being shorter than a DJ shout at the beginning of a track. Metro Boomin says more than this on every record he produces. How you gonna drop a feature that's shorter than the character limit on Twitter?

Hopper: I like the part that sounds like it was made with a circuit-bent Simon game. Drake’s stern, static menace here is not my preferred Drake style, but at least it makes sense. Jay’s wooden drive-through of a half-verse fished from the I Ching is baffling, but what did we expect? Drake needs to fire whatever alleged ghostwriter is behind this song, because they are just straight up trolling these dudes with shit like this way/way/day/way rhyme.

Garvey: This mostly served to remind me that I keep forgetting to cancel my Tidal subscription. As much as I love “Facts”-style, wacky dad Kanye, referencing “Imma let you finish” is just too many levels of meme inception for me to deal with.

Willis-Abdurraqib: This era of Jay Z is my favorite era of Jay Z, because he has become that friend who promises to meet you at the bar, and then sits in his sweatpants for two hours, debating the pros and cons of leaving the house, before finally showing up, looking completely spent. It’s very human, I think. I want Jay Z to rap forever, one line at a time, on each song. Jay aside, I actually like Kanye’s verse. I like a Kanye verse that is explicitly not taking itself seriously, so that I don’t have to pretend to take it seriously myself. Drake’s verse is bad. The thing about bad Drake verses is that they often feel like he gets halfway through the creative process, realizes that it’s just not his day, and instead of throwing in the towel, he doubles down. I don’t know if Drake has much of a middle ground when it comes to the good verse/bad verse ratio. But “Chaining Tatum” earns his verse a fast-forward here.

St. Félix: While I do find it hilarious that Ye snuck in a Better Homes and Gardens-themed swipe to rectify the balance post the Great Pool Comparison of 2016, I am still concerned. Can someone from HGTV intervene in this three-year saga of Kanye remodeling his homes? I just want him to commit, you know? First, the Bel Air mansion the Kardashian-Wests never slept in, and now Calabasas. Kim can’t keep her boudoir in Kris Jenner’s garage forever.

Aaron: Ye sounds like he’s excited to be here, which is a plus, though the ghostwriter probably needed to take another pass. Drake is a great hook man, and if that’s all he did here, we’d all be a lot happier as a planet; also, his new grunting-at the-gym vocal style is distracting. Jay Z sounds bored of music; he’s clearly got nothing left to say, which is understandable – nobody wants to hear him bullshit about strippers and Instagram and lean at his age. "They still out to get me / They don't get it I cannot be got / And that's a given." Cool, you’re a paranoid rich guy. We get it. We got it on Magna Carta Holy Grail. Maybe he should get a reference from Kobe for that blood-spinning therapy in Germany. It obviously doesn’t work, but at least it’ll get Hov out of the house.