When the stars and planets align, MTV’s writers and critics assemble to weigh in on new hotness, chart trash, and glimmers of hope in the pop-music landscape. This week’s roundtable includes Doreen St. Félix, Meredith Graves, Ira Madison III, Charles Aaron, David Turner, Hilary Hughes, and Simon Vozick-Levinson.
Graves: “I’m drunk enough to admit that I’m mad you continued living and enjoying yourself after our breakup” — usually I’m here for this so long as it’s a pop song and not something some random guy is doing to my friend. But whereas critical writing on “Hotline Bling” determined that it was, at worst, like waking up to an unsolicited series of annoying but ignorable drunk texts from a former fling, “Don’t Wanna Know” toes into “maybe you should block this guy on every social media platform” territory.
“Is it better now that I’m not around? ... Are you happy? ... I don’t wanna know ... ” We know you don’t wanna know who she’s fucked or who she’s fucking. There’s a whole episode of Black Mirror about that ... and hopefully in season 3, there’ll be an episode explaining how the best rapper alive got sucked into a parallel universe where he was obligated to appear on said song for less than 20 seconds.
St. Félix: I once described the guest verses that Kendrick does on white pop stars’ songs as charity work. Now I'm realizing they’re actually a part of his rapping identity! Kendrick has never been immune to corniness, sure, but the ease with which he snuck in earnestness with the erudite gave him a pass. There's nothing smart about this Maroon 5 song. It's not even a good “dumb” pop song. Like Meredith says, you can’t just recapitulate a Drake song without an ounce of its charm. Nor can you recycle the kiddy pan-flute-synth thingy from Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” without vocals that match. Maroon 5 has really only been inoffensive since their second album, but "Don't Wanna Know" raises the stakes: Now the band is getting on my nerves.
Turner: Kendrick’s gonna age very well into some pleated khaki trousers, is what this verse tells me. The Compton rapper can make powerful art when the time calls for it, but his guest verses the last couple of years have felt like someone else was holding his pen. That I could imagine Tyga or G-Eazy rapping this should be a cause for concern. Back to Maroon 5’s contribution: This is a nice bit of pop-infused trop house. It's certainly not good, but I'm happy if it means that the never-ending summer vibes of 2015 will continue to live. Never forget OMI!
Aaron: NO LESS THAN $100K. That’s the lowest amount of money that Kendrick Lamar should have accepted for this ill-conceived mass-marketing opportunity. Otherwise his perfectly serviceable bars of do-ya-woo-ya romantic claptrap should’ve never gotten past the texting stage. Meanwhile, in the world of white-soul elliptical workouts, Adam Levine sets his cozy, stubbly falsetto afloat, inevitably shifting into a showoffy, do-think-of-me? croon, over the summery trop-house vibes that David mentioned above (and indeed, trop maestro Kygo collaborated on another track with the Maroon boys). But guess what? It’s not summer anymore, and even if it were, this second-tier trifle wouldn’t have warmed up anybody but diehard Maroonies. And while the rest of us get fouled by the sexist 2016 presidential shitbucket, the last thing we need is Adam Levine whining for sympathy as the wronged party in this particular scenario.
Madison III: Listen, y'all already knew I'd like this song before I heard it. I have a strong pull toward white boys with soul (mediocre as they may be), and if there's genuine soul in their voice and not shucking and jiving like some ex-boyband members I could mention, then I fall for them even more. This is all to say that I unironically love Adam Levine. I love his voice. It has been a siren's song to me ever since I worked one of their shows at Milwaukee Summerfest while in high school in 2002. When he sings "are you happy now?" in his trademark falsetto, there's nothing else you can tell me.
Sure, the song itself is pretty cliché and on the lower end of great Maroon 5 songs, but it feels fun and trance-like, like a last gasp at a summer vibe as the end of the year barrels toward us. Maybe that's off-putting to everyone else, but it's perpetually summer in Los Angeles, so the song doesn't feel out of place to me. I've never truly classified Maroon 5 as a California band, but they fit right alongside my beachy tastes for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Best Coast, and Hole's third album. I'm pretty sure Kendrick recorded his verse on Instagram Story, that's how much he couldn't be bothered to put in an effort, but it oddly fits the song. Doreen is right — Kendrick plays to his corny side all the time, and this song is just corny enough to be the perfect union for Kendrick and Adam.
Hughes: I get the sense that Adam Levine heard Major Lazer and DJ Snake’s “Lean On” too many times when pop radio was piped into the room during commercial breaks on The Voice, internalized “MARIMBAS: GOOD!” and then that somehow manifested here. To Ira’s point, one of the more likeable qualities of Maroon 5 (and Adam Levine as a frontman, in particular) is that they take ownership of their sound, cheesiness and all. If this sounded like a Maroon 5 song instead of the half-baked leftovers of someone else’s session at the studio, that’d be less disappointing. Let this serve as a cautionary tale: You have to put effort into sounding effortless.
Vozick-Levinson: The year is 2062. A 75-year-old Kendrick Lamar has just been honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature in a shocking reversal of the award committee's decade-long trend of favoring WhatsApp poets from Mars. Furious thinkpieces fill the interplanetary airwaves (several of them emerging as early favorites for the 2063 Nobel Prize in Thinkpieces). "Out-of-Touch Swedes Cement Their Irrelevance with a Vote for Grandpa Rap," writes one highly respected cultural critic. "Sorry, But Music Is Still Not Literature," wheezes a cryogenically frozen take robot from the mid-2010s. "Of Course Kendrick Deserves the Nobel — How Could We Forget That Incredible Concept Album He Made Three Years After To Pimp a Butterfly? You Guys It Was SO GOOD! Greatest Rapper of All Time, Case Closed!" shouts a lone voice on NuFacebook. Someone, somewhere, listens to an old Maroon 5 song and lets out an evil laugh.