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, Sasha Geffen, Tirhakah Love, Meaghan Garvey, Hazel Cills, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Meredith Graves, Charles Aaron, and Simon Vozick-Levinson.
2 Chainz feat. Gucci Mane and Quavo, “Good Drank” video
Willis-Abdurraqib: I could talk for hours about how much I love this video and all of its Prohibition-era aesthetics. I’m not a fashion expert, but I think I can comfortably say that plaid pants are a bold and inspired choice for any of us, but particularly for someone as tall as 2 Chainz. That’s a lot of plaid. It also has to be said that I feel like this is one of the rare current music videos that comfortably fits with the tone and vibe of the song. It doesn’t feel like it’s attempting to do too much from a thematic standpoint, or trying to outshine the music. I like the music-video-as-massive-production approach as much as anyone else who grew up in the era of Michael Jackson, but I really appreciate a video that acts as a gentle complement.
Garvey: Completely agreed. This is such an understated mood for these guys — due in part to the Mike Dean production that sounds like something Lil B might’ve rapped over in his prime — which lets me focus more closely on charming details in the verses. Uncle Chainz usually overemphasizes his bars for effect, but here his delivery is calm, gently modulating rhythmic patterns instead of leaning on punch lines. Gucci, who looks better in a peacoat than anyone alive, serves a tasting menu of different ways to pronounce “Kevin Durant.” And I think the softer side of Quavo is my favorite side of Quavo. I found this whole experience incredibly soothing!
Graves: Can we go back in time and remake Lawless starring these guys instead of Tom Hardy and Co.? Meaghan, I really like your use of the word “soothing” — I find myself incredibly comforted by Gucci Mane in general, but especially here in that very warm-looking coat. This video is cozy and super textural, from the intentional (warm, woolly clothes, sequined vintage dresses and fur stoles, black-and-white filters and selective colorization) to the unintentional (why can the “CHANEL” part of 2 Chainz’s necklace go unchecked while the logo has to be blurred out?). Between all those layers and a tempo close to resting heart rate, “soothing” — like sitting under a wool blanket while the warm embrace of Robitussin begins to relieve you from a head cold — is the perfect word for it.
Vozick-Levinson: Yes, totally, to all of the above. I spent a lot of last year seeking out soothing sounds — from Psychic Temple’s wonderful conceptual cover album of Music for Airports to the softly chiming piano loop underneath 21 Savage’s “No Heart.” This song is comfortably nestled in that same range, and as Doreen wrote this week, ambient (or ambient-adjacent) music has only become more appealing in 2017. When Quavo specifies “drop-top, no hot box” in the chorus, it makes me think of “Good Drank” as a perfectly paired night-and-day B side to “Bad and Boujee,” which makes me like both songs even more.
Aaron: Uncle Chainz, indeed, the Plaid Potentate of Pimpology. Gucci, Mike Dean, and Quavo appear in their distinctive, aesthetic fullness. The ease and confidence displayed by everyone — from bars to styles to sonics — couldn’t be more intoxicating. It’s like a runway show crossed with a vacant-lot cipher, yet it’s so distinguished.
Arcade Fire feat. Mavis Staples, “I Give You Power”
Geffen: Arcade Fire’s gut-punchiest songs tend toward the oblique; that’s how they spread themselves so broadly. “Wake Up” and “Rebellion (Lies)” light more fire than “Reflektor” because the former prod you out of complacency on a visceral level and the latter is about iPhones. “I Give You Power” is lyrically broad to the point of becoming generic, but it refuses the dynamism of Arcade Fire’s anthems. It wraps itself around a groove and never breaks free.
Mavis Staples works well here as a counterweight to Win Butler’s frantic vocals. I just wish she had more to do, more to play against than a drum machine and a two-note bass line. I want more from this collaboration than a thin meditation on a reductive theme. Is it useful now to suggest that the people have the ability to withdraw the power they’ve bestowed on their leaders? There are so many more players than an “I” and a “you” in our current geopolitical nightmare, so many more nodes of power than can be counted in a dark disco duet.
Vozick-Levinson: As an aging ’90s hip-hop fan, I am obligated to ask whether this is some sort of prequel to “I Gave You Power,” the song on which Nas raps from the perspective of a sad gun. No? OK, cool. Now that that’s out of the way, I really like this. To Sasha’s point, yes, it’s reductive, but so are the best protest songs. I think there’s real value in reminding individuals of their power to gather, organize, and resist, especially at a time when so many are feeling powerless. It’s a basic point, for sure, but a useful one right now. I like the bareness of the arrangement, too — it suits the square-one message and the calm resolve in Mavis’s voice. When that Neon Bible church organ comes in just before the two-minute mark, she sounds even more awesome, in the literal sense.
Cills: I agree that the minimalism here works. I think everyone is figuring out how to address our political hellhole in their art and lives; that Arcade Fire are starting from a simple place instrumentally means something. The clunky, simple drum machine and lyrical repetition serves as a reminder that power doesn’t have to come from glossy protest songs or places of technical expertise.
Love: What’s really difficult about nailing a protest song is that balance between universalism and timely criticism. I’m all for reminding people of the power they wield — the easily forgotten notion of the president working for the people is on point throughout this record — but how does it fare without specificity? “I Give You Power” falls short of capturing our political moment in full because there’s no sense of present-day frustration. In theory, as Sasha alludes to, this song could be about anything under the auspices of “you and I,” but the urgency of the here and now requires a bit more. I’m not expecting a whole political agenda, but just saying, “Remember this is a democracy!” doesn’t do it for me. At least tell me what side you’re on. Mavis Staples makes this record, though, and it’s a delight to hear a blueswoman’s voice on such a plodding song. I was really expecting her to hit all of the gospel runs when the organ kicked in, but she kept things intimate. If there’s any agenda the song puts forth, it’s the #MoreMavis2K17 campaign. Someone start a GoFundMe.
Aaron: To pull off such a minimal groove, Arcade Fire would need a rhythm section, or a drummer, or a drum programmer, or at least someone with a rhythmic clue to quicken the pulse. But what’s here isn’t particularly moving on a physical or emotional level — sorry, the ominous organ doesn’t signify beyond gospel tourism — and I hope Mavis got a decent check for showing up and doing Mavis things on such an unformed track.
Chrisette Michele, “No Political Genius”
St. Félix: I can’t listen to this without wincing. Michele seems intent on creating a moment out of no moment. Understandable, considering she hasn’t been selling music. By now, we all know that she (1) agreed to perform for the current president and (2) was dragged for doing so. Rather than not respond to the backlash, or just admitting that she was swayed by a check, Michele is trying to milk the situation, fomenting ridicule where before there was just dismissal. In addition to being “no political genius,” she’s no martyr. Poetry-wise, she’s no Maya Angelou, either. It’s more than disingenuous to claim “White House invites me, you call me their coon / I am the butterfly growing from history’s cocoon” in an overly emphatic spoken-word cadence. I find her invocations of serious history more offensive than the fact that she performed, because it’s so transparent that she’s doing so for her singular benefit.
Vozick-Levinson: This is a textbook case of making a bad situation worse by not knowing when to stop talking — and she’s still going, with a confusing new interview this week in which she argues that performing at Trump’s inaugural ball was a way of “[standing] up for the women who’ve felt disrespected and the minorities who felt disrespected.” (????) But even if we look past the misguided politics, this is a very mediocre piece of slam poetry. The pacing is all off, and the clichés are too many to count. I hope to forget this soon.
Willis-Abdurraqib: I’m no poetic genius, but this is awful.
Aaron: Hanif, you are a poetic genius, and this is awful.
Love: Chrisette, my god. Aside from the decision to perform at Trump’s inauguration at all, that Michele would assume that skinfolk would feel represented in her coonery is just wildly self-righteous. Apparently some members of her family disowned her after this performance — I suppose they, like the rest of us, are exhausted with Michele’s dry-ass elitism. I do hope she returns to their good graces, but “No Political Genius” is a terrible start. This sad attempt at spoken word reminds me of her 2014 EP, The Lyricists’ Opus, which conceptually matches this track’s disingenuousness verging on false advertisement. I’m more offended by this ham-fisted reach toward black people than the actual performance. I hope the check was worth it.
Father John Misty, “Pure Comedy”
Vozick-Levinson: Just took a huge sip of extremely hot coffee and read the news, now to listen to the new Father John Misty song for some light escapism — pfffffffft! Ah, shit. The new-school Randy Newman’s latest jape is on the bleak side, and I can’t blame him. He’s not the only one feeling extra disillusioned with humanity this week. What bothers me a little is that this time it feels like the joke is more on us, the dumb sheeple in his audience, than on his own vanity, like it was on his last album (which I liked quite a lot). Maybe I’m missing one of his many layers of irony, or maybe this song is just too real. Either way, he’s still got enough of my benefit of the doubt that I’m looking forward to hearing him talk his way out of this fix on the rest of the album.
Geffen: As an anemic, I haven’t felt this seen since “Pennyroyal Tea.” Aside from the iron deficiency shout-out, I’m lukewarm. The melody doesn’t hold enough life to carry the freshman-atheist-in-World-Religion-101 rants. Human folly is a rich and seemingly inexhaustible subject, but it helps to be specific when dissecting it. The world-weariest parts of I Love You, Honeybear landed for me because Papa John drew it all home to himself and his spouse. “Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity / But what I fail to see is what that’s got to do with you and me,” from “Holy Shit,” resonates on a more piercing bandwidth because it rests on two players: “you and me,” not the broad, hand-wavy “each other” at the end of “Pure Comedy.” I like the chaotic build on the production end. I just don’t think the soapbox is big enough to fit a whole grand piano.
Cills: I just wanna say that I only call this man Papa John’s Misty. Anyway, I agree with Simon that there’s something kind of sinister about this. At first I figured it was a melancholy little treatise on internet trolls and the right-wing nutjobs who’ve taken over our country, but I’m not sure whom FJM is pointing the finger at. The last thing we need right now is a snide track about how much he hates to say it, “but each other’s all we got.” The video, which includes YouTube clips of beauty hauls, people eating fast food, and Pepe memes, certainly doesn’t help, nor does it make me sympathize with his schtick here.
Garvey: Perhaps this was cathartic to create, and that’s cool. But I am so skeptical of the impulse to flip the rise of fascism into lolzy content so casually. We are so accustomed to the palatable efficiency of memes as ways of sharing information; still, to witness horrifying White House briefings immediately digested and spat out in the familiar parlance of Twitter humor has been unsettling, to say the least. On one hand, this makes perfect sense. It’s not like we woke up last Friday on a strange new Earth; we are still bound to the same language, technologies, and habits as we were before. Still, I worry that in siphoning whatever absurdist entertainment value we can from these horrors, we grow more comfortable living among them. The jokes stopped being funny a while ago. I appreciate the illustrated elements of this video, but the rest feels nauseatingly wry, even with the tacked-on humanist ending. I guess if the statement you really want to make about all of this is “THIS IS SO DUMB LOL,” then art-school cringe comp as a format makes sense. Because, ya know, snarky internet humor has proven so useful thus far!
Aaron: I just don’t see this as especially ironic or jokey or confusing. It’s obvious what FJM (or PJM, per Hazel!) is despairing about, which is the same thing that any sentient, slightly humane American is despairing about right now — our own fetid, disgusting Orange Revolution. Maybe dude should’ve spent more time nailing the chorus rather than cramming all those syllables into the verses, but eh, we could do far worse for an empathetic, Elton John–influenced ballad that stares at what men have wrought and recoils elegantly. Now, whether that’s anything anybody needs right now is another question.