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 Hazel Cills, Tirhakah Love, Molly Lambert, Hilary Hughes, Sasha Geffen, Ira Madison III, Meredith Graves, and Simon Vozick-Levinson.
Lana Del Rey, “Love”
Hughes: This makes me feel kind of bad for writing off Born to Die as Benadryl-pop five years ago. “Love” is endearing as hell — I'm very, very here for anything that involves a bass line that sounds like it’s being plucked underwater and a tug-of-war between romantic fatalism and optimism. I found myself rewinding this multiple times, to make sure I was hearing her word choices correctly and appreciating the weight of them. “It doesn’t matter if I’m not enough / For the future or the things to come / 'Cause I’m young and in love” hit me especially hard, as did the juxtaposition of the frame that had a car full of grinning young lovers careening into the molten surface of the sun with a coo of “Don’t worry, baby” behind them. She managed to write a dreamy love song that’s fully weighted in the fuckery of today without explicitly saying that.
Love: I’m still slow on the uptake when it comes to Lana Del Rey, mainly because I’m perplexed by her obsession with ’50s- and ’60s-era Americana. It seems like a narrow lane to cut your teeth in, but — due in no small part to the gorgeous, intertextual cinematography of her music videos — she’s made a career out of it, and who could be mad at that? “Love” is refreshing in that it hints at Del Rey approaching a futurity her work lacked in the past. Her songwriting here is gravid with meaning; the pain and impulse suggested in the line “Seen so much, you get the blues, but / That don’t mean that you should abuse it” center care and understanding in a compelling way. Her words skew lunar, considerate yet standoffish. It’s not hard to imagine this song as what the moon might say to the Earth as it slowly inches towards the sun.
Cills: I love Lana! And find this song incredibly moving, as well as the video. We’ve been so inundated with protest music, or music that’s trying to say something spectacular and articulate about this horrible time we’re in, and there’s something so blissfully soft and simple about “Love.” Listening to this I was reminded of something Ann Powers wrote last year about a Zayn single and how so many recent pop songs — like “Stressed Out,” or “Pillowtalk,” or even older songs like “We Found Love" — are less about uplift and more about just getting through the day. "Hopelessness, defined through today’s Top 40, is a condition of being aware of the mess the world has become. The confusion they’ve inherited is a trash pile young people set alight to guide their way,” she wrote. And I think we're going to get a lot more pop music like that in 2017. "Love" sounds like a take on a world that’s way too scary to process. I certainly don’t feel like I can always process it. Instead, Del Rey focuses on the small thing we have: love. The result is just what I want from her right now.
Geffen: There hasn’t been such an effective gunshot sound in pop music since “Paper Planes,” and “Love” aims down such a different barrel from M.I.A. that it’s amazing the shot made the final cut. But there it is, clicking softly behind the chorus, which, by the way, goes on forever with no pretense that Lana’s doing it all in one breath. It would have been easy to stitch together takes into a continuous melody, but she’s unbothered, taking her time, taking as many lungfuls as she needs, no rush. That ease and transparency softens the “oh you kids!” lyrics, which in blunter hands might come off cloying. It’s like she’s gently amused with us and beckoning us to be gentle with ourselves, too.
Lambert: It’s funny, I couldn’t tell if the click was a gun or a cassette player, either of which would fit into Lana’s aesthetics perfectly. I’ve been enamored of “Love” since it leaked. It’s certainly the most euphoric Lana song in … probably ever? The “Don’t Worry Baby” reference signals a much warmer kind of melancholy than Lana’s done before. She has spoken about her obsession with SpaceX, and this video coming out right before the TRAPPIST-1 announcement feels like kismet. It’s like Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks theme song “Falling,” but with the sensation of floating upward instead.
It was a huge bummer that NASA announced the exoplanets news at the same time the government rolled back transgender protections. My friend Graham Kolbeins posted a photo of the gorgeous exoplanet renderings with this sobering caption: “We don't yet understand the most basic forms of decency to other living creatures (let alone other humans) on this fragile planet, and yet I can't stop longingly gazing into these sci-fi renderings of other worlds.” I cynically feel like those planets are just new places for the ultra-rich to colonize with their bad people and ideologies. So Lana’s rendering of space as the place to be free, a futuristic lovers’ lane, feels wildly optimistic. The dreamy but down-to-earth depiction of the young lovers hanging out at Fosters Freeze feels more remotely achievable. Who knew queen of sadness Lana Del Rey would be the only one who could help make me feel hopeful about the future again? I love how “Love” sounds like it was recorded in zero gravity.
Vozick-Levinson: My favorite thing about Lana these days is her underrated sense of humor about herself. When she opens with a mock-patronizing nod to "you kids with your vintage music," she's being funny — and when she segues from that joke about The Idea of Lana Del Rey into a genuinely tender chorus about how strange it is to be anyone, it just goes to show how gifted she is at having her cake and eating it too. 2015's Honeymoon was full of double-edged moments like this (the spoken-word T.S. Eliot interlude and the ballad about ice cream come to mind), and the way "Love" amplifies that ambiguity into something grand makes it one of her all-time best singles.
Future, “Super Trapper”
Hughes: I maintain that this video is the love child of Jaws and an episode of MTV Cribs, and I wish more videos were the love children of Jaws and MTV Cribs.
Madison III: I love a hypnotic trap song. I kept expecting the song to go a bit harder, but after a while I was lulled in by the beat. It's nice to see some variations in Future's music, since there's such a sheer volume of it at this point and some songs can tend to fall into a rut of what we've heard before. Not the case with this song though — it slaps severely.
Lambert: Lull is right. This is like the world’s chillest lullaby for the world’s chillest baby. And for obvious reasons I am here for the line about Molly that’s pink like Miss Piggy.
Vozick-Levinson: As the proud owner of, like, a dozen volumes of the Rockabye Baby series, I concur on the excellence of this very chill hustler's-anthem-slash-lullaby. I wrote a few weeks ago about how much I am feeling soothing music, and this fits right in.
Maroon 5 feat. Future, “Cold”
Madison III: I love Maroon 5. I'm going to come out and admit this here in a public place, because I am not ashamed of it, and also, this song is fire. I thought V was a fine album, but it didn't have the spark of 2012's Overexposed, which is just really fun to listen to. "Cold" is pretty much a jam (and with a Benny Blanco coproduction credit, it's no surprise) — it reminds me why I loved when Maroon 5 turned into a party-anthem band with "Makes Me Wonder" back in 2007. That they've been going so strong for well over a decade doesn't surprise me. They're a quintessential L.A. rock band, like a poppier Red Hot Chili Peppers, and they always manage to provide a great soundtrack for driving around L.A. with the sun beaming on your face. Maybe they should've made the soundtrack to La La Land.
Lambert: I love when Ira makes his argument for Maroon 5. I’ll restate the case I made when they first became world-famous: Every generation gets The Eagles they deserve. Adam Levine’s inability to believably deliver the line “I gotta go to Future’s house, he’s having a party” in character as himself makes me extremely glad he never tried to cross over into acting. This song is pretty forgettable; they specialize in earworms, but this is more of an earlarva that never quite manages to fully burrow inside. It needs more bass or a hookier groove or something.
Vozick-Levinson: Molly, I can't believe you forgot Adam Levine's very convincing performance as "a guy like Adam Levine, but not literally Adam Levine" in 2013's Begin Again, the slight but sweet rom-com that Irish softie John Carney directed between Once and Sing Street! His actorly depth is evident here as well: When he tells Future over the phone, "Fuck yeah, I'm coming. I'm ... super ... pumped," I truly believe that's what he sounds like when he is pretending to be friends with another popular musician IRL. Anyway, I also like Maroon 5, though not quite as much as Ira does; It Won't Be Soon Before Long is a legitimately fun pop-rock album, and they've reliably churned out a catchy, shallow radio hit every year or so since then. "Cold" meets that standard with ease. It's not exactly memorable, but it's pleasant while it's happening.
Love: First off, Adam Levine would never deny a Future party. He’s not that washed. As an unabashed Maroon 5 advocate — I didn’t know there were so few of us left — it’s hard to admit that the Maroon 5 portion of “Cold” feels subdued. Levine expertly accentuates the sub-bass on the opening flourish, but I would’ve liked to hear a more ambitious effort here in terms of composition. The schematic keystrokes are fine, but they jut out underneath what’s otherwise a pretty fun, classic-Blanco synth rhythm. Future’s verse works to quicken the pace — it’s a wonder to see how comfortable he’s become writing centrist, harmless pop — and inject a meaningful amount of fun. What’s even more amusing in my estimation is the ridiculous video. Though some of the images Levine conjures up while tripping are pretty standard, the whole situation kinda feels believable. I got a real chuckle out of his deadpan “You’ve never made that request” when he calls his boo thang at the top of the vid, and his conversation with Future after his spirited guest verse is a highlight, too. Could’ve done without Levine explaining the whole situation at the end, though.
Rae Sremmurd, “Swang”
Graves: From pantomiming punk guitars to smashing pineapples all over the stage at their shows to delivering the weather on French national television, the brothers of Rae Sremmurd are always having approximately nine to ten times more fun than anybody else, ever. And that kind of authentic joy, of which “Swang” is an extension, is so vital and important right now. The beat goes hard, and there’s still plenty of money being thrown around, along with girls and booze and dancing, but (and I know this makes me sound like I am Definitely Very Old) it’s somehow more age-appropriate. It’s a bunch of kids fucking around on a golf course, smoking weed with little old ladies and joyriding golf carts, and filming it all on what looks like a Salvation Army VHS camcorder, which I’d argue is an important rite of passage for many American teenagers. Even the coordinated dance routines look like they’re straight out of a high school talent show. Kudos to the Brothers Sremmurd for making it look like the coolest and most fun thing in the world to act your age, with all the keg stands and glory that entails.
Cills: Yeah, this video is great. There’s something kind of John Hughes-y about it, reminding me of party scenes from Weird Science or Ferris Bueller's Day Off in which ’80s country-club yuppie spaces get totally trashed in the name of teenage fun. I LOL’d when the old guy dropped a roll of hundreds onto the golf course. Thank god we have Rae Sremmurd to teach us how to have a good time.
Vozick-Levinson: There's something so blissfully utopian about the Sremm siblings' vision of life. Swae Lee's falsetto floats up to the stars; Slim Jxmmi elaborates online that "Swang" is a song about "rocking together; like, everybody coming together." So much is wrong with the world, but if SremmLife 2 is generating singles this great almost a year after its promo cycle began, there are still things to be thankful for.
Lambert: Totally slobs-versus-snobs ’80s moviecore, except in this case the slobs (Rae Sremm) are also much better-dressed than the snobs (preppies). Love that beat that sounds like a duck trying to escape a humidifier. Picturing a fantasy sequel video where they take Mar-a-Lago and push Trump and his flunkies in the pool.