Hits & Misses: Lana Del Rey Leak, Mac Miller, And Kehlani’s Latest

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 Hazel Cills, Jessica Hopper, Charles Aaron, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Eric Torres, and David Turner.

Lana Del Rey, “Super Movie”

Cills: Lana’s got dozens of unreleased or leaked songs floating around; you can head to this handy Lanapedia list for a breakdown. “Super Movie” is the latest shoddy demo leak, its lyrics familiar to anyone who’s heard another demo, “On Our Way.” But the super lo-fi bedroom-pop production here is just great. It makes me want whatever Lana Del Rey’s version of Cat Power’s Moon Pix would be, with all the fake weary Southern drawl in her voice. You get the sense she’s just writing this as she’s going along, messing around as an exercise, but that creepy, reverbed “spin me round, kiss me in your Chevrolet” chorus is pretty perfect in this song as is.

Aaron: Lana Del Rey unadorned breaks the spell I need to swallow her fantasia, so I’m waiting for the Malibu beach-house video where you’re not sure whether she’s gonna swan dive into the surf while taking a selfie. The “spin me round” moment begs for layers, more reverb and overdubbed choirs of seraphim. When she warbles, “I was funny once / And you were funny too / One day we woke up and we found that we had grew,” in her attempt at an authentic front-porch purr, it sounds more like a cringey audition for an Off-Broadway musical based on Moon Pix. That’s probably too mean, since this is just a leaked demo, but it’s also a reminder of why her heavily costumed pose and decadent production sheen are such a crucial part of the LDR experience — she expresses more realness the less real she appears.

Hopper: I love the shape-shifting of this track, which begs the question of whether it’s a proper song or freestyled 3 a.m. post-party riffing. She goes from faux-Texan slurred, vowels trailing like breadcrumbs and unsure (“you’re my true love, aren’t you, man?”), to a childlike pledge of fealty, to reedy and sober-sounding, purring the soft “r”s of a New England accent. Hearing it one way, it’s all the Lana tics, tricks, and clichés (including jamming “Chevrolet” in as a standalone line) being rapid-cycled through the song — but for me the charm here is hearing it as transformation, hearing it as a woman or different women plying this “Billy” for assurance. The naïve-voiced narration toward the end reminds me of LDR’s bouffanted progenitors, late-’60s country-pop icons like Bobbie Gentry and Jeannie C. Riley, though the rest of the song is very much of the no-fi Soundcloud now. The disorienting effect of hearing raw LDR set loose among the tape hiss and reverb, and not studio-polished, is that this sounds like the thousands of Lana imitators who are crowding indie rock’s lowest rungs right now. Meaning “Super Movie” sounds like Real Lana as a Fake Lana to me. Regardless, I’ll take it.

Mac Miller ft. Anderson .Paak, “DANG”

Willis-Abdurraqib: I think .Paak is operating at a pretty good level of consistency right now, and this song fits right into a good lane. It feels a bit like a throwback, maybe a modern take on a De La Soul B-side. Mac Miller is always a wild card, though I’m getting more comfortable with the fact that I kind of think he can rap. I’m not sure if this beat or the tone of the song is fitting for him, but he catches a decent groove toward the end, around the 3-minute mark. Which is a long time, but I often feel like Mac has to get warmed up to be effective. Sometimes it takes a while, but the payoff is usually good.

Hopper: Mac Miller is a brave man to hop into this hot tub of loose and languorous summerfunk sensuality with Anderson .Paak. Miller sounds a bit pinched, a little shoehorned in, but I appreciate the reach. Though by the time he was talking about how “this dick ain’t free,” I was just wishing he was trying a little less.

Joey Bada$$, “Devastated”

Aaron: This diligent Brooklyn MC has never been much of a pop presence, despite years of press acclaim, opening gigs for Wiz Khalifa, a recurring role on the TV series Mr. Robot, and an Instagram shout last year from presidential teenager Malia Obama (who wore a t-shirt with the logo of Joey’s crew Pro Era). But this feels like it might be his breakout shot, a festival-size “we made it” singalong with horn stabs and a fat drop and pleasantly rappity verses building into impassioned chanting that’s exactly the sort of thing people like to pump at every possible social function where people like to pump this sort of thing. I see myself by the grill, tongs aloft, acting a dadcore fool. Y’all?

Turner: Joey Bada$$ trying to be a pop star?! I like how that sounds. I guess this is a bit of age (24) versus when I first heard Joey back in 2012, but I really respect how committed he usually is to his own ’90s-loving worldview. It’s a conscious choice that fits his technical proficiency as a rapper and bleeds into his Twitter account just as much as his beat choice. That’s what makes “Devastated” a nice reprieve, it’s Joey kicking his feet up and having a simple good time, when often he doesn’t allow his music to be so free. Some kids enjoy sticking in the past, some enjoy never looking back, so maybe find a Joey who can do both.

Hopper: Here for the Joey Bada$$ pop crossover. More than tolerable. Looking forward to the inevitable quasi-EDM track and/or G-Eazy feature.

How to Dress Well, “Lost Youth / Lost You”

Cills: I've never really understood the appeal of How to Dress Well, but I recognize that this is maybe one of his weakest songs. In 2012, his minimalist synth-pop with echoes of R&B might have been a little cutting-edge, but these days it’s the sound of Top 40. And maybe that’s the place Tom Krell wants to be, because this song sounds like a Troye Sivan or Halsey track; its “Lost Youth” title and saccharine “I think I know what love is now” discoveries seem intended for someone who’s 21 years old, not 31.

Aaron: Totally agree with Hazel, this is HTDW going full-on pop crossover, with expansive, cavernous synth-swirling production (which is the polar opposite of the haunted lo-fi R&B that once had indie bloggers who don’t normally listen to R&B abuzz). There’s no coolly curated film dialogue or oh-so-clever loops anymore, just Krell’s wan vocals spruced up and nudged out into the spotlight. It’s neither powerful nor unique enough to challenge pop or R&B’s similar chart artists, while no longer being esoteric enough for Krell to pass as an underground tastemaker. Still, It’s certainly not clumsy or tacky, and the guy can write a decent hook. I just get the nagging feeling that it’s the sort of thing I’ll hear later on an airplane or in a movie theater and will hit Shazam and then go, “Mmmm, was this actually a hit?”

Turner: Yeah, this does have a “proper TV placement spurs this tiny song to a minor pop-cultural artifact” quality. Not to just add to the choir, but I’ve never been huge on How to Dress Well’s “white guy does R&B-type music,” and certainly not into the many people who’ve followed in his footsteps. “Lost Youth / Lost You” is sadly the kind of middle-of-the-road tune from him that I grew to happily ignore a few years ago. But if it does appear in an airplane movie, I won’t wince too much.

Hopper: I really hear this as loveless marriage between Troye Sivan and early-solo Sting. Take that how you will.

Torres: I sort of understand How to Dress Well’s appeal — his bread and butter is being painstakingly emotive to the point of schmaltz (and he’s always stepped clearly over that line for me) — but I just find this so forgettable and unappealing as an attempt at a pop-crossover moment. Its blandness is weirdly distracting — I’m with Charles in that it lacks the kind of power and uniqueness that would have made ti work, but I also think this kind of earnest attempt at pop without any of his odd, experimental musical flourishes is just ... out of this guy’s wheelhouse. Also worth mentioning that this was produced by Jack Antonoff, which is most obvious in that cheesy guitar solo.

Jenny Hval, "Conceptual Romance"

Cills: Jenny Hval’s last record, Apocalypse, Girl, was a fantastic, skeptical statement on self-care and the weirdness of possessing a body and performing femininity. And I hear faint echoes of those same themes in the abstract poetry of “Conceptual Romance,” as Hval explores the woman as object, losing herself to madness, failure, and “bad art” over gloomy, gothic cathedral-appropriate organs and synths. My favorite part of this song, and much of Hval’s music, is the celebration of self-doubt. “What can I say, I don’t know who I am, but,” she whispers, before dipping into that creepy little “I’m working on it, I’m working on it” singsong mantra. Aren’t we all!

Aaron: I connected with Hval’s music more cerebrally than emotionally before, but this song is so hypnotically beautiful that you can’t escape it. She sings directly to a lover in a delicately declamatory voice, vulnerable and feverish, her emotions flailing (with hints of Björk-ish rapture). Midway through, she trembles out a startling restatement of purpose: “This blood bitch’s tale goes a bit like this...” She’s wrangling with the ever-repeating dramatic cycle of infatuation and rejection, and musing that maybe the two might, just might, combust into something spectacularly, cosmically romantic (which ain’t never gonna fucking happen, but isn’t it pretty to think so?) Mmmm, she’ll get back to us later on all this. That muted, staticky burble of not-so-sexy sax on the outro says, “Meanwhile, watch out for grifters.”

Hopper: Love the pipping flutes that snake through the whole thing, that mix of wiley and organic with the synthetic roiling. Love that a gushy (girly) romanticism and heartbreak is presented, that's it’s all a bit like a corpse flower: a bloom that yields a gorgeous, fetid stink.

Kehlani, “Crzy”

Willis-Abdurraqib: I love this song. The lyrical approach really pulls me in, which could have a lot to do with Kehlani’s headlines. This song feels like a really triumphant return, it has a similar energy to a lot of the work I enjoyed on the You Should Be Here mixtape. The half-sung, half-rapped level of boast really works over this beat, too. It’s uplifting, truly. Also, there’s a great Allen Iverson reference tucked into the first 45 seconds or so, and that is always sure to win me over.

Hopper: I saw her in Austin this spring and was struck dumb by how good she was. She’s got a whispery kinda croon, but here I love how effortlessly she slips into rapping, how her voice still keeps the frayed edges when she’s belting. I want Kehlani to do some sort of Erinyes-like avenging-goddess triad (or vocal group) with Tinashe and SZA, to come restore the rightful order of things in 2017.


VMAs 2017