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 Tirhakah Love, Meaghan Garvey, Doreen St. Félix, Molly Lambert, Hazel Cills, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Eric Torres, Charles Aaron, and Simon Vozick-Levinson.
Young Thug, “Wyclef Jean” video
Vozick-Levinson: I love this song, but I'm mystified by the excitement around the video. It just seems like the director is trying way too hard to be clever. A famous musician was late to a shoot? You don't say! That's like breaking the fourth wall solely to inform the audience that water is wet and the pope is young. If directors had done smug, self-indulgent stuff like this in the '90s, the "November Rain" video would have sucked — you think Axl arrived on time for that one? That said, I'm happy about anything that keeps Jeffery in rotation into 2017, so I'll stop complaining and start hoping this takes "Wyclef Jean" to the top of the charts.
Garvey: Yeah, I have very mixed feelings about this video. Does the level of self-satisfaction here counteract the fact that they made it work? I want to say yes, that the video’s meta-ness is not nearly as deep as the directors’ many interviews might suggest, and that the only artist involved whose perspective on the video I’m interested in hearing is Thug’s. But honestly, I enjoyed it a lot, almost in spite of itself. Or, at the very least, I watched the whole thing and thought it captured something I love about Thug (if not about the wacky world of music videos) — that sometimes, opting out entirely is its own art form.
St. Félix: I dislike this treatment and have a lot of disdain for the thinking behind it. I think it's corny! The text, I mean. I can't help but read into the snarkiness about Thug not showing up. Maybe the directors thought they were demystifying something about the process behind shooting B-roll that Making the Video didn't already teach us, but they're wrong. I'm happy the footage is out only because we get to peek into Thug's wonderfully twisted brain. But I am so put off by all the commentary and text intrusion.
Lambert: I agree, it’s totally corny. And I’m not convinced it’s not staged? Kinda smacks of forced virality. I like a good meta video, but this is snotty and just distracts from the great song. Feels more like a director bro’s reel cut to a Young Thug song than a Young Thug video.
Aaron: First off, I think it’s probably fake, but I don’t know if that makes it more or less annoying. The only creative idea was Thug’s — kiddie cars with normal-sized people in them and a normal-sized police car with kids in it, then destroying it. Beyond that, eh. But if I’m being totally honest, I agree with Meaghan, in that it got me to watch until the end.
Love: I can’t lie, when I first watched this video I thought it was pretty cheeky. It’s a change of pace from the manufactured music videos we’ve grown accustomed to — like, did anyone see a Beats Pill in this video or a random bottle of Pepsi perfectly placed in one of the mini-cars' cup holders? Nah. But its replay value is nil, and I agree with Doreen that the text is really corny after a while. If I wanted to read while watching a music video, I’d just watch one of those shitty fan-made lyric vids on YouTube. I do love “Wyclef Jean” as a song, so the biggest mistake of this video’s meta-ness is that you almost forget it’s actually playing in the background. What a shame.
Julia Michaels, “Issues”
Love: Aww, doesn’t this song bring you back to those old Bieber days when he’d sing to teenage girls on the webcam? Michaels wrote Bieber’s hit “Sorry,” and this song fits in a similar vein, even if it’s a little less interesting. Something about it reminds me of female pop-vocal stylings circa 2013. Maybe it’s the overused trap-snapple-pop beat or her relatively tepid relationship woes. The song is just fine, in that it serves the purpose of introducing Michaels to mainstream audiences as a vocalist, but that’s about it. I would’ve liked for her to be a bit more accusatory. She reflects on her own faults: “When I’m down, I get real down / When I’m high, I don’t come down.” Her mans, on the other hand, “gets mad” and starts damaging property — but all is well because we’ve both got issues. Girl, this is unhealthy. Please be careful.
St. Félix: Yeah, I have to agree that the sweet drawl Michaels uses to sing about some sort of domestic unhappiness is unsettling! Why these lyrics? The beat is fine enough. I was itching for a real drop or increase, which never happened. Either way, the transition from songwriter to singer is not an easy one, and not something any woman has done in pop recently with much success besides Sia. My assumption is that this single is timed to ride off the explosion of the track Michaels worked on for Ed Sheeran, forthcoming, called "Dive." If that's the case, I don't think that the introduction was weighty enough. What this song does achieve is pitch-perfect radio-friendliness. I expect I'll spend many car rides home hearing this pop up regularly in the rotation by springtime.
Cills: Oh, I’m into this. I certainly hear that radio-friendliness, but I also hear a weird edge to how this song is put together. It has pleasing parts (that breathy vocal, the snappy beat, the girlish strings) but together they don't make a pleasing whole. It’s a creepy track! And I love how it’s a song that makes you itch for a drop, as Doreen says, but completely withholds it, and in doing so, only adds to how anxious it makes me. It’s maybe not the big blowout single that Michaels needs to fully introduce herself as a name-brand pop star, but as a little taste of what we can expect from her, I say it’s pretty promising!
Willis-Abdurraqib: I agree that the pacing of this song is pretty uncomfortable, or at least doesn’t feel like it matches the song’s vibe. It feels like the beat is supposed to be building to something greater, and then it never really does. I really like the hook because it feels the most vocally frantic, and she wears that well. And also, yeah ... I think the “we’ve both got issues, but we’re in love, so isn’t it wild?” narrative to describe what feels like a very bad relationship is a pop-music trope that I’d like to see die down.
Vozick-Levinson: I'm willing to bet that if we first heard "Issues" in Justin Bieber's voice, we'd recognize it instantly as a hit. As it is, it didn't take more than three full listens for this song's many interlocking mini-hooks to win me over. That same unresolved, barely-there quality in Michaels's songwriting didn't stop Selena Gomez's "Good for You" and "Hands to Myself" from going Top 10 in 2015 and 2016, and I have a feeling that once everyone gets used to the idea of Michaels as a pop star — whether it's with this song or the next one — she'll be right back there in 2017.
Lambert: It makes a ton of sense that she wrote “Hands to Myself,” which doesn’t unleash the tension until that very last moment of “ImeanIcouldbutwhywouldIwantto?” But I’m not crazy about “Issues” — it needs more sonic acidity to match the lyrics and help balance out the candy-sweetness of its chamber-pop styling and the undanceable tempo.
SZA, “Drew Barrymore”
Love: I’ve been ready for SZA szn ever since she characterized her sound as “brown grunge” in November, and while that’s not really some grand departure from her work prior, “Drew Barrymore” does showcase the developing strength of her voice. Coupled with a more focused, introspective mood, I heavily dig how lived-in her lyrics are becoming. To some extent she’s the awkward, self-effacing character in the quintessential “cool girl” mold. So when she asks “Am I warm enough?” it reads to me like, Now that you’ve gotten a taste of these contradictions, are you down to stick around? Some of her earlier work got bogged down in crisscrossing metaphors, making it both tiring to connect all the dots and easier to fall into the ambience of it all. But “Drew Barrymore” pivots toward a plainspoken narrative tone without shedding any of her penchant for mysticism. I’m really looking forward to how she tiptoes that line when the album drops.
Torres: “Brown grunge” is actually pretty on point here — the guitar line that threads through this song oddly gives me “Black Hole Sun”–lite vibes. I’ve always been a SZA fan, but I feel like she really stepped it up on her very good 2014 one-off “Sobriety.” She seems to be leaning more and more into that song’s more straightforward vibes — I love her music best when it’s a little dreamy and nocturnal but still, as you mentioned, Tirhakah, lyrically plainspoken. Coming off her standout appearance on Anti last year, she definitely seems poised for a capital-M Moment — I hope it happens.
Vozick-Levinson: This is a smart choice to reintroduce SZA to the casual pop fans who may only know her as Rihanna's duet partner on "Consideration" — this song matches the earlier one's slow-roll tempo and conversational cadences closely enough to imagine them sequencing well in a DJ set, which is probably the point. The challenge in marketing SZA's music is that she's better at creating a richly detailed mood over the course of an album than at getting everything she has to say across in a three-minute single. "Drew Barrymore" might not change that, but like everyone else here, I like the way it points forward to the popular breakthrough we're all hoping for.
Lambert: SZA had me at “You came with your new friends and her mom jeans and her new Vans and she’s perfect and I hate it.” I love everything about this — the warm strings as she sings about worrying she’s not warm enough, worrying too much about a quality that’s so clearly evident. “Drew Barrymore” is warm like an oxblood lip color or a perfectly worn-in pair of Vans.
Aaron: Echoing Simon, SZA’s been better at creating an arty, time-lapse atmosphere that she evocatively drifts through, rather than one memorable song that she fully inhabits. But this one’s different — the live-band nuance has more punch (especially the guitar), the hook doesn’t play coy, and she sings with directness and commitment. The opening line Molly mentions is hilariously affecting, but then she also quips, “Somebody get the tacos, somebody spark the blunt / Let's start the Narcos off at Episode One.” Sounds like she knows exactly what she wants and who she wants to be.
Spoon, “Hot Thoughts”
Vozick-Levinson: Spoon might be the most consistent act in indie rock: Every three to four years, they ride back into town with another finely tuned variation on the sound their fans fell in love with in 2002 or 2007. That can lead to accusations of stagnancy, but I see something beautiful and rewarding in their steady evolution over the years. This shivery groove is one of their sharper departures; those dizzy chiming bells on the chorus give it an unexpected pop kick, something like the brass section on "The Underdog" a decade ago. It's catchy enough that I've played it five or six times in the last hour, and weird enough that I'm still not bored.
Aaron: Dadcore sex bomb, baby, yeah. Tasteful voyeurism from the SUV limo to the surreptitious Shibuya hotel room check-in. Don’t forget which credit card to use. “Took time off from my kingdom,” coos Britt Daniel. Catch his concupiscent groove, but don’t forget to tip primo drummer Jim Eno on your way out.
From First to Last, “Make War”
Vozick-Levinson: Skrillex is one of the most gifted and original minds in pop, but I dunno about this reunion with his old band. To me it sounds like the paradise/warzone analogy of Zayn's "Pillowtalk" expanded into a full song, with the unsettling-sex-metaphor dial nuked to hell and some reasonably OK Bush-era rock guitars thrown in. I might not believe it was actually recorded this decade if it weren't for the awkwardly shoehorned-in Snapchat reference in the lyrics. But I realize that I'm outside the target audience. I have no nostalgic feelings for this band. Does someone who liked From First to Last back then want to tell me why I'm wrong?
Willis-Abdurraqib: I think this song is very bad! I liked From First to Last in 2004, when I thought the world was out to get me and they dropped a little gem of an emo album called Dear Diary, My Teen Angst Has a Body Count, which, looking back, was a bit much. But this is a bad reunion effort mostly because their sound isn’t really a comfortable fit anymore. It all feels forced, especially in the clumsy lyrics. I think the tongue-in-cheek template for emo lyrics has either upgraded or gone away altogether, and they’re reaching back into an empty well.
Aaron: I think this song is not very bad! One of the great and generation-dividing things about emo was that it obliterated the arena-rock guyline between what was horrifically pathetic and what was courageously vulnerable. AND THE CHEEKY PUNS. I mean that sincerely, but then again, like, who really fucking cares, because Sonny Moore is now Skrillex, and very few of the people who used to care deeply about From First to Last seem to care that much anymore (see Hanif above), and isn’t it weird how that line about Snapchat already feels nostalgic. The main thing I remember from the 2000s about From First to Last is that they were more hysterically tuneless than most emo bands and less deliriously cataclysmic than most hardcore/screamo bands, which could create an in-between wail that was doubly satisfying or doubly frustrating or doubly forgettable. This song kinda does that, but I defer to the aging, apocalyptic youth.
Snakehips feat. MØ, “Don’t Leave”
Aaron: From Iggy Azalea’s “Beg for It” to DJ Snake and Major Lazer’s “Lean On” to Major Lazer and Justin Bieber’s “Cold Water,” Danish singer-songwriter MØ has been climbing the pop charts as a malleable moppet sidekick. But here, it’s all about her presence as a flawed Human with Intense Feelings (who seems to really dig Tove Lo). Prepare to have the chorus of this heart-pounding, subtly produced synth-pop ballad stuck in your head for months: “I may not ever get my shit together / But ain’t nobody gonna love you better than me.”
Cills: As much as I love a good Scandinavian who’s proud to be a fuck-up, I can’t get into this. I think it’s because I love MØ when she’s serving something that really moves, even if she’s just playing the wistful counterpart to EDM cuts. She’s more than just a vocalist, and I think she can stand on her own in a song, but this doesn’t suit her IMO.
Yasutaka Nakata feat. Charli XCX & Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, “Crazy Crazy”
Garvey: Been waiting for this one to drop for a while: J-pop super-producer Yasutaka Nakata takes the lead on a new single pairing kindred spirits Charli XCX and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. I’ve been super wary of Charli’s collaborations with PC Music — “Vroom Vroom” was instant anxiety-attack fodder — but “Crazy Crazy” captures a similar spirit without all the post-ironic heavy-handedness. I’ve always felt that PC Music’s actual music aimed for Nakata’s evil-cute playfulness but never matched it, and this is a perfect example of the difference. Not sure if I’d call it a hit, but if it introduces some Charli XCX fans to the endorphin rush that is Capsule, Nakata’s first group, I’m in full support.
Cills: I’ve been waiting for this too, because I love these crazy Bs. I will say, I’m surprised by the scatterbrained production here, not because it doesn’t work well with both Kyary’s clusterfuck toybox aesthetic and Charli’s current revamp, but because Kyary’s latest hits (as well as Nakata’s work with Japanese girl-group Perfume) has favored very glossy, predictable, streamlined electronic music. Ultimately I think this song is really fun, though it could potentially sound like pure torture to another ear. But maybe that’s the point? I want pop music that can fry all of my senses, honestly. My question is, if this a single that isn’t attached to either Kyary or Charli but to Nakata himself, is he coming out with a record? I’d be really down for him to pull in a bunch of American pop stars for a project (*stares at Ariana Grande*).
Torres: What! I love this. I’m not super familiar with Kyary’s work, but Nakata’s Kylie Minogue remix from a few years back is one of my favorites, so I’m happy to see him working with Charli — both her and Kylie’s voices are just bright enough to jell exceptionally well with this kind of hyperactive J-pop production. I also definitely agree that Charli is a better fit here than with PC Music — I’m 100 percent ready to forget “Vroom Vroom” ever happened, TBH — and I hope this helps tip her further toward becoming the global pop star she clearly wants to be.
Vozick-Levinson: I also love this song. It's incredible and so needed. Does anyone not feel like they're going crazy this week? I'm not watching the inauguration because I'm not into snuff films, even when they're about something as flawed as American democracy — but I'm happy to have this song on deck as a form of thematically apt counter-programming. I'm not as ready to write off Charli's future with SOPHIE and PC Music as some of you seem to be, though. This song makes me hope she spends the rest of 2017 working with all kinds of super-charged, divisive pop freaks, from the ambiguously ironic to the deeply genuine and back again.
Aaron: I’ve been patient with Charli’s more avant excursions and have tried to find the positives, but it’s always felt like aesthetic labor, while this floats along so giddily that all I can think about is dancing dizzily in one of Yayoi Kusama’s hallucinatory polka-dotted infinity installations. Nakata’s production buries you in bunnies. CHOOSE CRAZY!