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 Meaghan Garvey, Hazel Cills, Doreen St. Félix, Tirhakah Love, Charles Aaron, Hilary Hughes, and Simon Vozick-Levinson.
Lady Gaga, "John Wayne" video
Hughes: SO THIS IS A LOT, and I’m not entirely mad at it. I appreciate any Gaga production that goes near the absurd, campy maximalism we saw back in her Fame Monster days, especially with her “Paparazzi,” “Alejandro,” and “Telephone” vids that were bite-size features in their own rights. I’m into this connect-the-dots thing she’s doing with all of the Joanne videos, in that the latest picks up where the last one left off: She rolls away from the desert rager of “Perfect Illusion” into the pristine studio of the “Million Reasons” shoot, then switches gears again for the “Mad Max does Appalachia” vibe of “John Wayne.” This would’ve been such a fun opportunity for a longer video, as the whiplash from all the action here is enough to level you, but again, not mad at it. I just wish that gorgeous Gretsch didn’t have to be destroyed on the roof of that car!
Cills: When I think of pop depictions of #Americuh, cowboys and leather-clad boys and all, I tend to think of Lana Del Rey or Halsey or even the deserted motels of Ariana’s "Into You” video. Which is to say: super serious, grandiose, and Instagram-filtered. And because of that, I welcome Gaga’s twisted, cartoonish Natural Born Killers flair here, especially the manic Looney Tunes sound effects at the end, even if the sight of a car full of shaggy-haired, gun-toting, red-state dudes is probably more terrifying than sexy in 2017. Also, is she shooting bullets out of her heels??? Damn.
Hughes: Yeah, I actually screamed a little bit at her platform pistols, not gonna lie.
Vozick-Levinson: The best songs on Joanne are the ballads, but "John Wayne" is the best song after those, and I'm glad it got a video that matches its ballistic way-too-much-ness. The historical John Wayne was a racist, homophobic jerk (word to Chuck D); I can only hope this song and video annoyed his Trump-endorsing daughter. May we all become a little less strung out on John Wayne this year.
Mariah Carey feat. YG, "I Don't"
Love: How much of this record was produced just so Mariah could burn a wedding dress in the video? And how much did her approval of the YG feature come down to her legit love of being called "Ms. Carey"? I’m not sure, but this track carries the spirit of another Dupri-produced Mariah record, “Shake It Off” — and settling into that particular sound is a smart move. Where “Shake It Off” was fluttery and almost inspirational, “I Don’t” finds Mariah so done dealing with ain’t-shit partners that she might just swear off of them altogether. The dismissiveness works for and within the diva character she’s built over the years, and I love it. Mariah’s climb up the register isn’t nearly as crisp and seamless as it was a decade ago, but the moody beat lends itself to her nonchalant rap tone in the chorus. I just really wish YG wasn’t singing. I know he’s going for the Nate Dogg effect here, but it just ain’t hittin’.
Vozick-Levinson: "I Don't" is at its best when Mariah quotes Donell Jones — that little two-bar flash of melody fits her present-day range beautifully, and I'm a tiny bit disappointed every time this song slips back into its own, less memorable chorus. Like Tirhakah, I was hoping for more from YG's appearance. I wanted something with the verve and bite of his verse on "Don't Tell ’Em," and instead he gave us some light grumbles. But the bottom line is that Mariah sounds great — she's as comfortable on the track as she's been anywhere this decade — and I love the understated production from Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox, which smoothly fuses late-’90s R&B and present-day pop. Twenty years after "Honey," Mariah's still got the touch.
St. Félix: This is a real "auntie" jam. I can just imagine a gaggle of fortysomething women going on a girls' trip to Jamaica to cheer up a recent divorcée and blasting this track on the beach. Mariah's got a decades-long jurisdiction over the cheeky breakup song. Like Tirhakah says, "I Don't" is a cousin of "Shake It Off," but it also recalls the hair-toss, shoulder-shrug days of "Heartbreaker." I'm not so excited about YG. First of all, Mariah favors lyrical density and could have written a much better verse herself. Secondly, the male perspective just doesn't seem relevant to a track that's all about shedding off old work.
Brooke Candy feat. Sia, "Living Out Loud"
Garvey: A Brooke Candy single in 2017? Fake news.
Cills: THIS IS SO BASIC. Which is also to say, the production of this sounds like it's about five years old and the limp, "living out loud" empowerment sentiment seems more suitable for, like, Kidz Bop.
Aaron: Guess they’ve thrown in the towel on the whole "sleazier, more naked, more unhinged Iggy Azalea" gambit, after nobody cared about all those other videos. Instead, we get a faceless half-anthem/half–power ballad about Brooke being proud of being loud that’d sound better as a Sia deep cut.
Vozick-Levinson: I had to keep checking my browser's open tabs to make sure I wasn't just playing "Cheap Thrills" and "Chandelier" at the same time. I guess my point is, if this song is basic and unoriginal, Brooke isn't the only one at fault. Pop songwriters: stop recycling ideas!
Jidenna feat. Quavo, "The Let Out"
Garvey: JidennaHive, it’s happening: the Classic Man finally has a release date! (And he’s joking here, but god, imagine if this tracklist were real?) His 2015 hit — or, more accurately, his fashion sense — seemed to throw people off, catchy as it was. I witnessed a good deal of confusion over whether his dapper three-piece suits and canes were some kind of novelty act. In reality, the Nigerian East Flatbush resident’s style is thoughtful and meticulously researched; in a 2015 Fader interview, he explained his preference for double-round collars as a fascination with what freedmen might wear in the Jim Crow era. I sense his debut album is going to surprise those who thought the “Classic Man” thing was a shtick, and I can’t wait. That being said, the springy, Mustard-esque production on “The Let Out” feels a touch stale, a relic of radio trends that have since passed. Nothing a super timely Quavo feature can’t fix, though!
Vozick-Levinson: I have to admit that I was one of the people who thought of "Classic Man" as a better-than-average novelty song — and, to be quite real, the Roger Moore/Sean Connery analogy in the first verse of this one doesn't entirely convince me otherwise. But "The Let Out" has stayed stuck in my head longer than I expected it to this week, much like "Classic Man" itself, and I've learned enough from past experience to say that this song has a pretty good chance of passing the proverbial Barry Jenkins car scene test in a year or so.
Cills: I actually have a soft spot for DJ Mustard–y production, so while I agree it feels a little dated, it works for me on "The Let Out." I certainly let "Work From Home" slide last year.
St. Félix: While I do like this track, I'm a little disappointed that Jidenna didn't lean all the way into the Afrobeat-lite sound he'd dipped into before. I thought he really had something with "Little Bit More," and every club I went to that year seemed to agree. If "Little Bit More" had been released right after "Classic Man" that summer, Jidenna would have beaten Drake and "One Dance" to having one of the first pop Afrobeat hits in America. It's true that Jidenna, who went to Stanford, is impressively informed about the traditions behind what may seem like a kitschy, swaggering aesthetic. But it's also true that, much like other acts in the Wondaland universe, his aesthetic has seemed overdetermined, if not actually alienating. Being more adventurous with Nigerian-influenced sounds could close the gap in a good way for him.
Love: In some ways, I feel like “Classic Man” was Jidenna’s pop Trojan horse. That record’s tacit elitism, coupled with his fashion choices, cast Jidenna in the mold of a Talented Tenth–type brotha who wasn’t awake when the characterization proved moot. But the song doesn’t reflect the scope of his repertoire at all. “The Let Out” feels a bit more down to earth — though the “collars on the shirt, niggas tryna live respectable” line shows traces of Jidenna’s bougie tendencies. Quavo’s verse isn’t fantastic, but I think it works to reinforce Jidenna’s desire to float between highbrow intellectualism and nonchalant coolness. It’s fascinating that you bring up “Little Bit More,” Doreen, because, apart from its tight Afrobeat swank, it’s one of the early songs in which Jidenna doesn’t come off as this handsome yet pretentious villain, like he did on his shoehorned verse and presence on Janelle Monáe’s “Yoga” video last year, which was just ... why?