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Hits and Misses: Kanye’s Introspection, G.L.O.S.S.’s ‘Trans Day of Revenge,’ and Twenty One Pilots Go Reggae

MTV’s critics disembowel 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 Hazel Cills, Jessica Hopper, Doreen St. Félix, Charles Aaron, Simon Vozick-Levinson, Meredith Graves, Sasha Geffen, and Alex Pappademas.

G.L.O.S.S., "Trans Day of Revenge"

Cills: It was such a good feeling to look on the internet Monday and see that G.L.O.S.S. had released a new EP. They are such an uncompromising, fantastic punk band, and in the aftermath of Orlando, Sadie Switchblade’s in-your-face, fuck-you calls for a trans uprising feel more urgent than ever. “Trans Day of Revenge” is a plea to trans women to “break the cycle” of abuse at the hands of men, politicians, and the police — but it’s also a reminder to their cis audience of the abuse these women suffer every day. A middle finger to keeping the peace, “Trans Day of Revenge” is unsettling and powerful.

Aaron: Compared to their earlier frenzied noise barrage, this is like an enraged Judas Priest heading out on the highway looking for righteous, retributive justice on abusers and enablers. For a band whose name stands for Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit, they now sound like they want to do some major shit-stirring.

Hopper: For all the (old) folks forever lamenting that contemporary punk doesn't have any meaning, or doesn't have anything to be angry about, “Trans Day of Revenge” is a dialogue-squashing rebuttal — though not sure G.L.O.S.S. has dialogue on the agenda. To borrow the old Profane Existence slogan, they are making punk a threat again. An explicit threat. Here for it.

Kanye West feat. Sampha, "Saint Pablo"

Pappademas: Only technically new Ye — the internet dubbed it “Closest Thing to Einstein” when he performed the eight-minute version at a Yo Gotti listening party at 1Oak in February, in between extemporized riffs on Apple and Taylor and butt stuff — but who cares? I hope this record is never finished and will continue paying Tidal the Kanye bill every month as long as Mr. West promises to keep on Livejournaling in Pablo's margins. On this one, he's in full Kanye Kardashian mode, detailing a nonsensically specific range of high-class problems (that $53 million in personal debt, for starters) and rendering them improbably relatable, like he’s just another married artist with two kids trying to keep the wolf from the door. Which is totally absurd, but it’s not as if keeping things in perspective has ever been Kanye’s forte. What he’s good at is framing everything as life-or-death; every time that shivery Sampha hook comes back around, it lets cold air into the song, imbuing picayune professional adversities with existential stakes. From My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on, Kanye’s been making a low-key concept-album cycle about how oppression — the Man acting on the Devil’s behalf — can reach into the most rarefied spaces in American life and lay hands on you, reminding you who you aren’t. But God is everywhere in Ye’s cosmology, too — in the sky, in the club, in the C-suite. He can leap from “One set of footsteps, you was carryin’ me” to “Negotiatin’ with Apple, it was Larry and me” in the space of a single bar like it’s all the same story. Which — in his world, and maybe in yours — it is.

Vozick-Levinson: He's never going to stop teasing the fans who miss the old Kanye, is he? The first verse is him at his most self-aware, skating on the paradigm and trolling conventional thought: "The media said he's way out of control ... I'm not out of control, I'm just not in their control." As Alex says, it's a verse Kanye could only have made this year, in his current iteration of conflicted celebrity – which makes it that much more fascinating when he ends it with a call-back to one of the most iconic lines from his first album: "I wasn't supposed to make it past 25." Kanye turned 39 last week, and it feels like he's daring himself and his audience to consider all the ways another decade-plus of life has changed the guy we heard on The College Dropout. It's a profound moment. Then he ruins it in the second verse with some stale-ass stereotype about how "the Jews" are good with money (uh, thanks, Ye?). Wouldn't be a Kanye song in 2016 if it didn't piss me off within seconds of enlightening me.

Hopper: In six minutes he rebuts theories and misunderstood motivations and unpacks the last year of both his public and private existence, ping-ponging from his voice cracking with emotion on “real family stick together” to spiritual petition to business deals to pure hubris. I love the way the vocal edits drop in, little bits crammed in — it makes me wonder what lines came when. I want timestamps. It’s an answerback to a year, filled with serial postscript. Who else do you want to hear do that for six minutes? I mean, hell of an assist from Sampha, but Yeezy’s Pablo-mode is so rich. Here for a Pablo without end.

Aaron: Proggy B-side wins again! “Saint Pablo” is another baroque Yeezy plea for understanding and salvation, transmitted live from the VIP water closets of the global fashion darknet. “Did you see this fucking glass, fam, it goes all opaque and cloudy when you shut the door! Shit is wild. What, God, was that you?” Meanwhile, Sampha focuses and trembles your heart every time his refrain floats around on its bed of grandiose synths and contemplative silences. Where’s Ralph Waldo Who? Will this album ever be finished? I hope not. Will we notice if it is? Probably not. Kanye crowdsources his self-esteem like all of us, one delusional tear at a time. We are (on) one. We are one. What?

Safaree, "Panda (Freestyle)"

Aaron: If we’re being generous, this is maybe the tenth-best “Panda” freestyle? And that’s exceedingly generous. Nicki Minaj’s ex now gets regularly clowned by her for being “corny” – and hot garbage like this is why. Trying to recast himself as a dancehall don dubbed the “bloodclaat punani ninja” just makes a bad situation worse. Dude, fall back, please.

Pappademas: What’s the first-best “Panda” freestyle, though? I think it’s entirely possible that Desiigner will never do anything except rap “Panda,” but he raps “Panda” better than anybody else ever will.

Hopper: I love this only for Nicki’s sake, for the glorious gift all people deserve, which is to see a hated ex publicly embarrass themselves in the stride of their misbegotten self-confidence.

Vozick-Levinson: "Punani ninja" sounds like something Ali G would call himself. Are we sure it was actually Safaree in the booth, and not a horrible new Sacha Baron Cohen alter-ego?

St. Félix: This freestyle isn’t at all helping Safaree prove that he did in fact write a majority of Nicki’s verses during the years they were together — or that he’s over her. I take it “Punani Ninja” is supposed to be an answer to one of Nicki’s egos, Nicki the Ninja. But Nicki the Ninja didn’t do music videos on some random overpass in Queens.

Graves: Hey Pappademas, the one true “Panda” freestyle — and the only one I acknowledge — is Lupe Fiasco rapping about Chinese takeout. Orange chicken! Panda!

Kaiser Chiefs, "Parachute"

Graves: When it comes to music, I usually live and die by "if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all," but I cannot wrap my head around this one bit. This cannot be the Kaiser Chiefs of "I Predict a Riot." Many of Those Bands From That Moment could probably make excellent new music (Test Icicles, Art Brut), but maybe not if that new music is going to be so transparently "someday my five-year-old may want to attend a private university, and knowing this, rather than trying my hand at the stock market, I’m going to make music for cell-phone commercials." Please go back to sounding like Cock Sparrer making music for Uniqlo dressing rooms.

Vozick-Levinson: Proof that trop-house isn't for everyone. This soggy shrug of a song makes me long for the verve and subtlety of Dance Tent Coldplay.

Geffen: Speaking of Coldplay, I’m pretty sure it’s been illegal to name anything any variant of “Parachutes” since 2000. Also, every synthpop cliché that plagued SoundCloud from 2009 to 2012 shows up in this song. I don’t think it’ll sell a single cell phone.

Pappademas: Can’t say I ever expected to find myself talking about a new Kaiser Chiefs song in 2016 — back when people cared about these distinctions, my money was on the Futureheads — but given that, I guess I’m not totally surprised that they now sound like a pastel tank top fluttering on a flagpole above the saddest corporate-sponsored beach party of the summer.

Cills: I’ve never particularly cared for Kaiser Chiefs, but this song is especially boring. I don’t know if I hear trop house here, Simon, as much as I hear a weirdly late take on chillwave. Either way, in claiming elements of dance music for themselves, they seemed to have forgotten to also pick up some energy or drops or anything remotely lively to mix in. Also, what a terrible intro to the album! If this is the single, can’t see how there’s much going on for the rest of the record.

Aaron: What’s more shocking to me, rather than the fairly precipitous change in direction on this song, is the fact that this is the SIXTH Kaiser Chiefs record, and that the last one debuted at No. 1 in the U.K.! Also, “I Predict a Riot” is their FOURTH-most-popular U.K. single – hearken back to the sad-lad refrain of "Ruby Ruby Ruby Ruby RUBY!" When these guys appeared in 2003, it looked like they had all the staying power and musical depth of, say, Bowling for Soup (who have apparently released 10 albums, so eff me!). All that said, and considering that their original sound was extremely derivative anyway, I’ll give them credit for trying something different. Too bad it’s something so indistinctly and blandly different that it doesn’t even deserve a genre tag or comparison except maybe “Reimagine Dragons.”

Hopper: I like to imagine that he’s singing “If we only got one parachute / I’ll give it to Muse.” Only one band this corny should survive; the other should plummet to the earth.

Danny Brown, "When It Rain"

Graves: I think I’ve established that I’m here for anything Danny Brown does, but this song feels particularly special because of the inclusion of a Delia Derbyshire sample. I hope this encourages more people to learn about her and her role in pioneering electronic music, both specifically for women and in general.

Geffen: It’s funny that this is coming out so soon after that Avalanches song, because they couldn’t be tonally more different. The Avalanches remain fun, lightweight, carefree; Danny Brown raps like he’s telling bad jokes over their tubas. There are no stakes there. “When It Rain” is nothing but stakes. It’s a bus that’ll explode if it stops, and it comes packed with subtle effects that make it perfect for the Warp umbrella. Listen with headphones (or, like, surround sound), because the way the vocals pan from channel to channel creates this whole new dimension of urgency and danger. I think Brown has something of a reputation as a “fun” rapper. “When It Rain” makes it clear he’s not kidding.

Aaron: Good grief, the ferocity and velocity of word-ammo that comes careening out of Danny Brown’s mouth not only needs to be heard on headphones to fully absorb, but it needs to be rewound about 20 times to catch all the idiosyncratic touches. Comparatively speaking, this is one of Brown’s more direct hits, but it’s far from radio-friendly, unless maybe it was remixed at half-speed with all the laser-lit enunciation removed, which would be a travesty.

Twenty One Pilots, "Ride"

Vozick-Levinson: Twenty One Pilots' breakthrough hit was called "Stressed Out," which is coincidentally how their latest Hot Rock smash makes me feel. This sounds like someone tossed Sublime's 40oz. to Freedom in a blender with a few handfuls of freezer-burned ice and set the dial to "eh, fuck it." That said, I'll admit to finding this band's huge popularity weirdly fascinating – they're probably the biggest new rock band of the last couple years. Does anyone here actually like Twenty One Pilots? Who's riding with "Ride"?

Geffen: I’m bashfully raising my hand here. When I used to commute to work with a broken tape deck, Twenty One Pilots’ “House of Gold” was an oasis in the desert of screamy alt radio. I think the hooks on “Stressed Out” are masterful even if the lyrics are shallow and whiny. Tyler Joseph’s vocals have incredible range, in terms of both notes and texture. These guys are a breath of fresh air after Imagine Dragons, who ruled the rock charts with a comical self-seriousness and a misplayed taiko drum, or, I dunno, Grouplove, whose free-associative lyrics and shrink-wrapped banality didn’t sit well with me. Is it wrong that I hear a lot of The Pixies in what these two dudes do? The loud/quiet dynamics are there, and so’s the self-deprecating nerviness. “Ride” supplies my favorite 21P contrast of gentle falsetto and rap-rock gruffness, so I’m happy with its chart reign.

Aaron: Well, I wish I heard what Sasha hears, but I just don’t. Twenty One Pilots are nice boys who continue to embody the most clichéd aspects of a multitude of genres. Always, it seems, they must break into dorky, pinched rapping, and overall their annoyingly pitched vocals remind me of that time Limp Bizkit backed up Chris Carrabba at the KA house (oh, no, that was a hallucination I had during a root canal). This song works very hard to be marginally catchy, at least if you’re 12 and screaming along real loud (which is one definition of pop, I suppose). But the half-baked yet overblown reggae one-drop beat is all summer-camp chutzpah and guyliner and no sense of maybe-I-should-chill-the-fuck-out-a-little. This is “Hot Rock” in the sense that it spews lava and ash that will ultimately destroy and bury the genre forever. The only surviving eyewitness account of the extinction event will be a stricken letter by noted lawyer, author, and percussion magnate Grohl the Elder. White people: This is why we don’t deserve nice things.