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 Sasha Geffen, David Turner, Doreen St. Félix, Charles Aaron, Ira Madison III, Simon Vozick-Levinson, and Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib.
Justice, “Safe and Sound”
Geffen: The shadow collective of French electronic music duos has decreed that it’s time for another one of their ilk to surface from the bunker. “Safe and Sound” is less squeaky-clean than Daft Punk’s 2013 offering to the wider world, Random Access Memories, which is great by me — of all the things disco should be, sterile isn’t one of them. That said, this single follows pretty much all the same rules of “Get Lucky” etc.: boots and cats and slap bass to the heavens. I enjoy some of the textures on display here (the bass is as juicy as they come, and I dig how the guitar oozes and dribbles all over the place), but this song isn’t doing much that I haven’t heard done every 40 minutes on pop radio three years ago. Can Justice still thrive in a post-RAM world?
Turner: I wish, but I also know in my heart that the answer is no — at least not as an act pushing new, original music, if Justice ever were. “Safe and Sound” is a strong single to me, but also inspires nostalgia for days of scoping out buzz bands on Hipster Runoff, listening to that Kid Cudi remix, and beginning to feel the pangs of being stuck in a city where bloghouse culture never hit. And that's the thing — nostalgia isn't always bad, but I prefer when electronic acts keep an eye on the future rather than the past.
Vozick-Levinson: Getting a little creeped out, personally, by the faceless choral vocals telling me to "man up" and the gigantic cross logo in the video. Why does this feel like the robot from "Digital Love" joined a fundamentalist cult? That said, like Sasha, I like the faux-fonky bass (c'est chic!) and the talk box licks. I would be totally happy to hear Swizz Beatz sculpt a beat out of this.
Madison III: This is the CUT. I just find the bass line sick. I love French electro music, and every so often, Justice, Air, or Daft Punk pop back up and remind me why.
Aaron: Zhooooosssssteeeeeccccce!!! We never really wanted them back, but here they are, so let’s put on our nu-rave party hats and scrounge around for old Adderall scripts. Does this, in fact, sound like MFSB’s “Love Is the Message” as played by the Red Hot Chili Peppers in an abandoned French cathedral? Or am I just getting woozy and delusional thinking back to that time we were screaming “We Are Your Friends” while smoking crack in an Escalade on the way to a post-Coachella bash at a suburban Mad Men pad in Palm Springs where there were Warhols in the loo and leather-jacketed French people in the pool? OK, I’m listening to this again, and it is exceedingly pleasant and interestingly constructed! Enough with my sarcastic reminiscences. Let these jive asses live!
Jidenna, "Little Bit More"
Willis-Abdurraqib: I listened to this whole song when I would have normally given up on it early, mostly because I was waiting for the moment when it would stop sounding like a Drake demo. That moment never came.
Aaron: I support Jidenna’s transformation into a faceless trop-pop-house vocalist so I don’t have to look at those Idlewild supper-club suits anymore. But for a song about partying, this just makes me feel tired. And what does “take you back to my shrine” mean?
St. Félix: What is it about the Wondaland universe? I could devote the rest of my life to trying to understand why Janelle Monáe and the rest of the Wondaland acts just haven’t gelled for the public or internally, for that matter. All the elements are there — style, concept, sound, and consolidation. Maybe the problem is that all of those components are too there, too consolidated? Too much curation cheapens. Which is to say, Jidenna — and let it be known, I am a card-carrying member of #JidennaHive, and a fan of everything he does, specifically because he does it — is a sentient In Living Color skit.
Madison III: I forgot Jidenna even existed, to be honest. When did "Classic Man" even come out? Ten years ago? I'm with Doreen. When is Wondaland gonna … release some new albums? Even Janelle dropped that "Yoga" song and then vanished again. This is fine, I guess. It sounds a little generic for the sound I thought Jidenna was going for, but it's grown on me.
Steve Aoki and Autoerotique, “ILYSM”
Aaron: I once went wave boarding with Steve Aoki and his girlfriend near South Beach — he was promoting an energy drink, I’d guess, but memory doesn’t serve — so feel free to discount anything remotely positive I say about this song. But here goes: Sampling Brandy’s voice from “I Wanna Be Down” and pitching it down to sound like an androgynous diva is a brilliant move, thereby not putting the focus on funny noises and #hashtag chants per Aoki’s track record. This almost sounds like a proper house song, thanks to the producers’ restraint in never going for a big, colossally predictable drop at any point. One actually could dance to this, instead of heaving your body around and trying to bat beach balls.
Turner: I actively try not to think much of the musical canon, because (1) who cares, and (2) how else am I supposed to stave off being an adult? But when I heard the "I Wanna Be Down" sample, I stopped the song just to be sure it hadn’t started emitting from another tab. Of course, songs can be sampled to hell and back, but when there is already a song that uses the same sample in a similar way — namely Blawan’s “Getting Me Down,” from 2011 — I have to raise a hand in objection. Well, I would, if not for the fact that Steve Aoki’s “ILYSM” is a fucking banger. Never mind: I’ll let all be forgiven for now.
Vozick-Levinson: This is a very enjoyable song — I bet it would be lots of fun to wave board to, Charles, especially with an energy drink in the mix — but I have to take a quick sec to question the implications of an EDM act called, uh, "Autoerotique." What is this person doing with their hands behind that keyboard stand? Do I want to know? That shit sounds like something Derek Zoolander would pick as his DJ name. Cool tune, though.
J Balvin feat. Pharrell Williams, Sky, and Bia, “Safari”
Turner: J Balvin doesn’t make bad songs. Well, at least he didn't on his 2013 album, La Familia, or on the majority of his recent follow-up, Energía. Yet “Safari” raises the issue, if only because the three guests — Bia, Sky, and Pharrell — zap away time from a singer who really doesn’t need any guest vocalists taking up space on his hooks. There's no need to disparage the song’s slight crossover appeal, but I’d rather point people toward his already huge singles “Ginza” and “Bobo,” which prove he doesn’t need any help carrying his own song.
Aaron: For a crossover reggaeton effort, though, “Safari” is a coolly low-key jam with a lot of subtly nifty production touches, so I can’t dismiss Pharrell out of hand, and he does croon in Spanish without sounding goofy (as does Bia). More than anything, this bubbles along like a soothing, early-evening Nuyorican hip-hop groove, built on layers of bongos, drum-machine splashes, bass blips, and a swinging piano loop. It does create the impression that J Balvin’s just another guest on his own track, but hopefully this won’t be his only single this year.
Vozick-Levinson: Love that piano loop. Dare I call it ... a chill banger? This brings back pleasant memories of the time when most anything The Neptunes touched was guaranteed gold (or platinum, for that matter). Pharrell has been laying kind of low in the last year or so, apart from producing Kendrick's "Alright," so it's nice to see he still has the old magic in his hard drives. And sure, it's no "Ginza," but I'm cool with anything that helps J Balvin's profile rise.
Adina Howard, “Bad 4 Me”
Aaron: It’s been 20-plus years since Ms. Howard showed up as a proud, take-charge G-funk freak who eventually stripped down to t-shirt and panties, had phone sex, and then gave us a private show — on her terms. Howard’s low-slung R&B grinding was always about nasty pleasures and deep grooves and respect. Her first single in nine years is surprisingly sweet and effervescent Motown tam-jam pop; but then you notice the love-ya-I-hate-ya lyrics, which Howard delivers with an exuberant doot-doot-doo. One gets the idea that some of her fellow freaks didn’t live up to expectations — the first couplet is about punching some dude in his “beautiful mouth.” The music may recall Meghan Trainor’s retro playfulness, but there’s nothing impish about Howard.
Vozick-Levinson: This sunny throwback came out almost a year ago, but it seems to be getting some new life on the radio lately (apropos for a single from an album called Resurrection). Good for her. There would be no Meghan Trainor without decades of Adina Howards. I would have liked to hear her go back to that original G-funk sound Charles mentions — particularly in a year when artists like YG and Kamaiyah have put that flavor back in vogue — but if we're doing the whole sweet-tooth Motown Top 40 thing, Howard deserves her share.
Willis-Abdurraqib: I thought I remembered this from the end of last summer! But I hope that now it gets a lot more traction. The climate is ripe for an Adina Howard revival, with this being her new lane. This is really sugary and fun. I’m always rooting for these grand comebacks, especially for black women in Adina’s genre. So many of them laid the groundwork for much lazier sounds we hear translated on the pop charts today. I don’t think this song will skyrocket to No. 1 on any charts, but I’d rather hear this retro-soul-pop effort from someone like Howard as opposed to someone like ... well, like Meghan Trainor, of course.
Madison III: I mean, listen, if we can get her to replace Trainor's nonvoting, black-culture-vulturing, middle-school bops, then I'm all for it. I expected this to be sort of nasty, like "Freak Like Me," but I fucking love this vibe. This kind of doo-wop ditty, now that it's popular again thanks to the aforementioned unregistered voter and Ariana Grande, is perfect for Adina. I would be all-in for a full album of this, and I think it could give her a great career revival. It's a little different from what the other R&B ladies are doing at the moment, and I think it'll help set her apart.
St. Vincent, Golden Girls theme song
Aaron: This creeped-out, ambient version of “Thank You for Being a Friend” — which was originally a festive, late-’70s soft-rock totem by pianist Andrew Gold, before being redone for the Golden Girls TV show with vocals from the Hoover vacuum cleaner jingle lady — could pass for the soundtrack to a spiritual meltdown in an unreleased Da Vinci Code prequel. But the choral-nightmare vocal drift also mirrors the feeling that I had after watching the classic Golden Girls scene where a depressed Blanche, on her birthday, asks for helpful advice from Sophia, who barks: “Sure. No matter how bad things get, remember these sage words: You’re old, you sag, get over it!” Stay golden, Annie Clark.
Vozick-Levinson: I can't tell if she's trolling us or not — at first glance, this seems like it could be a Father John Misty/Taylor Swift situation, making fun of our insatiable late-capitalist appetite for disposable covers of songs we already know. There's something perfectly America 2016 about the idea of a sitcom that's secretly so sad and empty inside. (Can Annie Clark cover the BoJack Horseman theme next?) But I can't detect any irony in the actual music, which is haunting in the same way as the ambient drone tapes that I sometimes stumble across on Bandcamp late at night. I find it weirdly beautiful, and I don't know if that says more about me or the music.
St. Félix: There’s only one good cover of “Thank You for Being a Friend,” and it is by a genius in a wig named Finally Aaron.