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, Molly Lambert, Charles Aaron, Doreen St. Félix, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Meredith Graves, Tirhakah Love, and Simon Vozick-Levinson.
Vozick-Levinson: When an artist tells you their new song is "not a single," they might be trying to manage expectations in case it doesn't perform commercially (or, better yet, in case it does). But I think Lorde really meant it here. This is such an intimate recording that it would be weirdly inapt to compare it to anything in the Top 40. It sounds more like one of the first-take demos you hear on a great songwriter's retrospective box set 20 or 50 years after the fact. That's what drives the contrast at the heart of "Liability": She sings about being emotionally extravagant, a forest fire of feelings, so wild and stormy that she drives others away, but what we hear instead is the soft hurt that lingers afterward. It's a very compelling effect, and a smart counter-riff on all the pop songs (including but not limited to "Green Light") that succeed by acting out or exaggerating their singers' too-much-ness. It makes me even more excited to hear the shades of meaning she finds in the title of her upcoming Melodrama.
Willis-Abdurraqib: I like this a bit more than “Green Light” because of how much more evenly paced it is — I kept waiting for it to ramp up, but not with any eagerness. I love that it stayed low and sparse. I also appreciate the weightiness of the lyrics, and how that weightiness doesn’t give way to anything overwhelmingly corny in the way of metaphor or narrative. It is hard to capture all of the feelings in this song with nuance and good writing, but "Liability" gives us so much in the way of grief/longing/regret/sadness, and it’s packed into three minutes. Best of all, I like that it seems to be done with honesty in mind, and not any sense of neatness.
Lambert: I also like this better than “Green Light,” possibly because it isn’t weighed down with the expectations of being Lorde’s big comeback single. It can just be what it is, which is, as Hanif said, a beautifully composed and executed song about emotional messiness.
Cills: Wow, “Green Light” HATERS?! I admit I didn’t initially love this when I first heard it. What’s beautifully sparse for you guys is a little boring to me. I wanted her to come out with another big “Green Light” track. But! I did love her performance of this song on SNL.
Lambert: I think I’m just less invested in Lorde being a pop star than Lorde being a Lorde.
Aaron: We are experiencing peak Lorde right now, and we should appreciate how she’s grown and evolved as a musician and how fully formed these songs are. I don’t think it makes sense to compare this to “Green Light,” really, because it’s intended to accomplish something else entirely. It’s such a wonderful companion to “Green Light,” which was a dance-it-out shout of liberation, while this is a ballad hacking through the shit from which she needed to liberate herself. The songwriting is flawless — there’s a palpable tension and momentum though the tempo never really varies.
Love: I’m with you, Hazel. “Liability” initially felt like a time-out nobody called for; we’re still in a mid-groove sweat, gyrating along to the emancipative kinesis of “Green Light.” The SNL performance really did it for me, though. Perhaps it does help, as Charles recommends, to think about “Green Light” and “Liability” as complementary pieces to a larger whole — and it’s easier to get that vibe watching Lorde perform the songs back-to-back. It’s one of the rare cases in which a live recording completely outpaces its CDQ counterpart. Questionable dance moves aside, we gon' learn not to doubt Lorde in 2017.
Vozick-Levinson: Wait, wait. I just need to pop back in here to say that I loved Lorde's SNL dance moves, whose unselfconscious abandon did more to elevate and inspire the chronically un-funky than any performance on the Studio 8H stage since Radiohead's 17 years ago. I'll show myself out now.
Stormzy, "Big for Your Boots"
Willis-Abdurraqib: At some point, I think we’ve got to start talking about Sir Spyro as one of the great producers of the era. I know that in grime circles that’s already happening, but this beat is a masterpiece. It fits his style of making beats that really cater to the voices of the artists he’s working with. This is also my favorite Stormzy: boastful and aggressive with a confident flow, not wasting a single line. I can also confirm that this song sounds very good in a car, as I heard someone blasting it in Connecticut two days ago, which was oddly satisfying.
Lambert: “Next year, I'll learn how to play the guitar” is the best threat, especially now that I’m reading it as a retroactive direct address to NME, which dared to trifle with Stormzy by putting him on its cover without permission. “Big for Your Boots” is like the soundtrack for a superhero to get suited up to, and that Sir Spyro beat feels like a series of pleasurable heavy kicks to the head.
Aaron: Agree with all of what Hanif and Molly said. This is a pure, joyous boom shot. I don’t know if anybody combines brute force, nuance, and quirky personality better than Stormzy. And like Molly mentioned, it's just a thoroughly enjoyable assault. I always imagine him jumping into the crowd and bumping and jostling and hugging it out with fans before, during, and after the song. And good lord, Spyro never slips — he keeps all the core playful ferocity of grime but cranks it up and ice-skates figure eights all over it. Also, piping-hot take, all you Chris Rocks: Stormzy, top five MC on the planet, right fucking now!
Vozick-Levinson: Cosign everyone's praise here. What really makes him a god-level MC on "Big for Your Boots" is the sense of humor rippling through the whole song, like he's too cool to be bothered even getting mad at the guy he's dressing down. My favorite example of this is in the second verse, in which Stormzy scoffs off the notion that he could ever sell out: "Nah, man, you're never too big to rebel / I was in the O2 singing my lungs out / Rude boy, you're never too big for Adele!" That's one of the funniest lyrics of the year so far, and I can think of a few self-serious North American rappers who might want to take notes.
Frank Ocean, "Chanel"
Love: This is quintessential Uncle Frank — a hearty blend of ambience and sparkle, with liquid chord progressions and provocative, emotionally engineered songwriting. His first solo single since dropping the Endless/Blonde twofer last year reminds us that Frank is one of those clever musicians who can wear both the catchy-hook and interior-imagery hats at once. It’s easy to think that any one of us could’ve come up with a hook like “Seeing both sides like Chanel,” but (1) we’d never sound this dope and (2) who’s got the stones to double down on the concept without sounding utterly corny? His lyrics allude both to the way he materially stunts (“Whole team diamonds is real / Showed ’em how to shine by they selves”) and how he aches for the warm touch of another (”I know you need to try for my belt / I know you seen it driving itself”). Don’t even get me started on that outro. This song is fire, and will stay on repeat till spring embraces us.
Cills: God, yes, I screamed at that “see both sides like Chanel” line. This is just such a gorgeous song. Lately, whenever I listen to Frank I feel like I might as well be staring into a Jeremy Blake video.
Lambert: Yes, this feels both Oceanic and oceanic — like the sun dappling on water.
Vozick-Levinson: This isn't the first time Frank has made me think of Joni, but it might be the best. The way he sings that chorus — two lines three different ways, each one with a little more care and longing in it than the last — is so beautiful. He's a gifted songwriter, but he's also just one of the finest singers, on a subtle, moment-by-moment level.
St. Félix: This is a very small observation, but I've always admired how sensually Frank can handle a brand. In the age of conspicuous advertisement, Frank manages to reconstitute iconic companies with real humanness. There's Visa cards and Chanel in this track — Chanel actually used the lyrics in ads this week — and there's been Nikes, and all those cars, video games, and consoles in the Channel Orange/Nostalgia, Ultra past. When has consumerism sounded so organic?
Aaron: Totally. There’s an ease with the brand-thirsty, posturing fashion milieu overall, which some musicians naturally have (A$AP Rocky, for instance), while others act like heathens crashing a cathedral (I won’t mention names). It’s still startling to hear, this far into Frank’s career, how his songwriting operates within such a malleable structure that he shapes according to his needs and emotions. The chords and verses flow and drift in unexpected directions, but it’s all done in such a low-key and confident way that you just get tugged along and experience fresh reactions every time you rewind.
Weezer, "Feels Like Summer"
Lambert: Little early for April Fools', but oof, I checked, like, five times to make sure I was listening to the right song. No guitars? Nothing recognizably Weezer-y whatsoever?
Cills: Wow, Weezer made a Twenty One Pilots song?
Lambert: Oh my god, that’s exactly what I was gonna say next! As someone who gave up on Weezer over a decade ago, this still hurts. “Beverly Hills” seems like a lesser crime.
St. Félix: Agree with everyone here about this limp dad-fest and would like to add that the line "Just a boy and his computer" seems like such an accidentally apt slogan for these political days that it makes me want to scream.
Love: “Limp dad-fest” sounds like the title of a Judd Apatow snoozer.
St. Félix: Is there any other kind of Judd Apatow movie?
Aaron: Late–Cretaceous period Weezer always reminds me of virtually every Weezer profile I read from, like, 2000 to 2005, when we were always reminded that Rivers had thousands of songs stored on his computer so he could release albums ad infinitum, if he so desired. Well, perhaps the truth was that 90 percent of those songs weren’t quite finished or refined and he didn’t know how to finish or refine them and nobody could help him, and so he tried not having sex, practiced Vipassana meditation intensely, took more classes at Harvard, and then finally said, “Fuck it, here it is.” And he’s just been dropping demo collections and song after song that sort of sounds like Weezer, but with none of the early magic. I sympathize, but this is still hard to listen to.
Kyle feat. Lil Yachty, "iSpy"
Graves: Strictly speaking, Kyle’s got bars, y’all. But even if he didn’t, I’d still be head over heels for this track based on the intro and hook alone. Yachty is often chided for being immature or undeveloped due to his love of singsong nursery-rhyme hooks over Fisher-Price beats, but the haters are eventually going to have to acknowledge the truth — that it’s not his sound that’s childlike, but his purity of vision, and that’s precisely why there’s a line around the block just to be near him. As rap music seems to be approaching a future in which everybody sounds like, well, Future (in both tone and content), imagine the liberation achieved in working alongside someone who says, “Fuck the haters, man, did you see that tree?” It’s an iced-out zen koan, brought to you by someone who so obviously lives in a world of freedom and pure wonder, and who brings his dudes on to share in that joy with him. As such, Kyle’s delivery comes with a smile you can hear 10 seconds into the first verse, and which dissolves into low-key giggles — giggles! — by the word “either.” All this talk about the rap game, and here are two young dudes, off in a little boat, playing I Spy — a game played for the sake of play, not because it will result in a clear winner, which is much like this track, leaving both Kyle and Yachty on top.
Lambert: This is the perfect song to listen to while pouring one out for Sesame Street.
Aaron: I cosign almost everything Meredith said so beautifully above. The intro itself is a quintessential Yachty moment. Kyle’s likable enough, but he sounds EXACTLY LIKE CHANCE! Anyway, the kid can rap and maybe I’ll get used to the voice over time. But even though I’m an incorrigible cornball who reads Winnie the Pooh to his son at night, the first time I heard this on the radio I involuntarily cringed at how faux-naïf it sounded.
Vozick-Levinson: This would have been, like, the 19th best song on Lil Boat, but even a song that's only half Yachty is far better than no Yachty at all. Personal highlight: the Scooby-voiced ad-lib after he describes his tour van as a new-school Mystery Machine ("Raggy!"). Here's to these meddling kids.