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Hits and Misses: Kendrick’s Back! Plus Feist, Zayn, and Gorillaz

Our critical roundtable on the songs and videos of the week

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. When Kendrick releases not one but two new songs in a week, that goes double. Welcome to Hits and Misses. This week’s roundtable includes Tirhakah Love, Hazel Cills, Molly Lambert, Doreen St. Félix, Meaghan Garvey, Charles Aaron, Meredith Graves, Hilary Hughes, and Simon Vozick-Levinson.

Kendrick Lamar, "The Heart Part 4"

Love: Leave it to Kendrick to turn an album teaser tune into an underhanded diss record. Whether he’s ticked off at Drake, Big Sean, or someone else entirely, Cornrow Kenny starts off “The Heart Part 4” sounding relatively unbothered. He's so comfortable underneath the squawk of seagulls and a California sea breeze, it doesn’t even sound weird hearing everyone’s favorite anti-capitalist rap about being “devoted to fuckin’ up bundles of paper.” Outside of the exciting discussions about which rapper is implicated in lines like “Shut the fuck up, you sound like the last nigga I know / Might end up like the last nigga I know / Oh you don’t wanna clash? Nigga, I know,” there isn’t anything all that enticing about "The Heart Part 4." It has all the fixings of a good Kendrick record — funky midsong chord progressions, apocalyptic provocations (“The whole world gone mad / Bodies is adding up, markets about to crash”), political misgivings (“Donald Trump is a chump”) and black comedy (“You jumped sides on me, now you 'bout to meet Westbrook”) — but nothing that feels particularly new. To be fair, a good Kendrick song is better than many other artists' best songs. But “The Heart Part 4” is much more about the function of getting fans excited about a new album than anything else.

Vozick-Levinson: Is it wrong if I kind of don't care at all which famous rapper Kendrick is subbing here? It's fun to hear him go off, whomever the target, less because of any superior claim to artistic legitimacy and more because he's so good at saying he's great. "Technical foul, I'm flagrant, I'm foul / They're throwing me out, you throw in the towel" — you don't need to know the details of the elaborate NBA friendship drama that he's supposedly referencing to enjoy that backhand boast. An extended on-record feud with another A-list rapper strikes me as a tedious prospect in 2017, but I'm all for any album cycle with room for a knock like this.

Cills: When the song started, I was thinking, There’s something so powerful about making a diss track this chill. Even something as simple and casual as the way he says, “Don’t tell a lie on me, I won’t tell the truth 'bout you,” like he’s whispering it into someone’s ear as he passes them at a party. And then he calls out the unnamed “punk ass” and I was like “OK I’LL TAKE THIS TOO!” I love the misleading beginning and the swerves this song makes. But once he got to “the whole world gone mad, bodies adding up, markets about to crash,” I wondered if this was even a song about a person or more a general feeling, a rage directed at the universe.

Aaron: TFW he clears his throat and scorches the earth.

Kendrick Lamar, "Humble"

Cills: Whoa whoa whoa, just when you think The Young Pope is over, Kendrick gives us a sequel!

St. Félix: I am shook! California is shook! In a week's time, Kendrick has not only managed to redirect a good deal of the laudatory rap conversation back his way — remember, Drake released either his second- or third-best album this month — but he's also showed us some versatility. Is Kendrick Lamar going to release a visual album on April 7? #BeyoncesInfluence. But Pac's, too. The Mike Will piano-chord beat's staunch faithfulness to an early-to-mid-'90s West Coast vibe is sort of jarring, but in a good way? Back to the video. Teaming up with Missy Elliott's long-time director David Meyers resulted in an over-the-top, exhilarating mash of images: Kendrick in a choir of black heads, Kendrick under a hairdryer after (presumably) getting his cornrows done, Kendrick in a fish-eye, and of course, Kendrick in black-professor wire-rimmed glasses.

Aaron: The man is lit from within at this point. Whether it’s spiritual rapture, or fealty to hip-hop’s art of war, or petty ego shit, he’s aglow with a power that no one can challenge on a raging, rivery level of flow (I believe Kanye once spoke about this powerful point in one’s career). You can rappity-rap diminish him for wordiness or arrogance or clumsy misogynoir or hook deficiency, but you’d be fighting the tide of history. He’s the one propelling hip-hop in fast-forward, whether it fits any particular leftist/capitalist/consumerist/infotainment desire. And I may be corny, but that “TED Talk"/"meds talk" couplet is a keeper.

Vozick-Levinson: I did a double-take when I heard him say "I blew cool from A/C, ay / Obama just paged me, ay." Did he really just say that? He did! No other rapper on his level could sneak a health care law punchline into their single, this week of all weeks, without it sounding super forced — but Kendrick did, with a finesse that reminds me of Jay at his peak. I hope Paul Ryan hears "Humble" at the gym and weeps bitter tears.

Graves: This beat sounds like somebody put OG Maco's "U Guessed It" in the dryer with a pair of sneakers. "Humble" sounds like it could have come out of Project Blowed, positing Kendrick again as a skilled historian. Now I need to hear what every other rapper in the history of Los Angeles would do with this beat, anthologized.

Hughes: Every single one of the video’s 183 seconds could be screen-shot, blown up, and hung in a gallery or a museum. This is on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Lemonade levels of care when it comes to iconography and gravitas. I hesitate to say that he makes any of it look easy or effortless, as his attention to detail is just as cunning as his wordplay — it's the stuff of dedicated, exercised brilliance — but that’s the impression that he gives here, and that he gave with To Pimp a Butterfly and good kid, m.A.A.d city before it. He doesn’t blink or break a sweat as he makes short work of mythology and history and the headlines, and yet he’s still — yeah — humble. I’m so ready for the summer of Kendrick.

Feist, "Pleasure"

Graves: As a way-way-longtime Feist fan, this is giving me So! Many! Feelings!!!!! Like the feeling that I’ve time-traveled back to right after she released The Reminder, when we all remembered how good Let It Die was, when it was still acceptable to really like Ani DiFranco, and when we all, temporarily or permanently, forgot about Broken Social Scene. It’s so nice that her voice takes precedence in this arrangement. This is not “1234,” and thank god for it. Most of my first listen to “Pleasure” was spent worrying and waiting for some booming kick drum to crack that perfect Throwing Muses–esque acoustic hard-candy shell, so I was pleasantly deflated by the hand claps at the end. To have gone six years between albums will inevitably earn Feist the backhanded merit badge of her sound having “matured,” when really it’s remained consistent. She’s undeniably one of the more talented vocalists and arrangers of our generation, and hopefully this record will remind people of that, if not introduce new listeners to her work for the first time. And for what it’s worth, I really, really want to hear Lorde cover this. Like … really.

Garvey: Omg Meredith — don’t even JOKE about forgetting Broken Social Scene! But yes, as someone who spent much of the mid-2000s crying to “Let It Die,” this at once takes me back to before the decay of indie rock was but a twinkle in Seth Cohen’s eye, yet it feels very much unique from Feist’s impeccable catalog. Still, I find myself digging the droning intro and beautifully empty first chorus way harder than the propulsive second half, because obviously songs called “Pleasure” should be as dead-eyed as possible. Whatever. FEIST BACK.

Cills: Agreed on that dead-eyed quality, Meaghan. I wasn't too crazy about Feist's last record, Metals, so I like that "Pleasure" has that same sort of whispery, maybe-recorded-in-a-closet intimate feel of much of Let It Die. And I totally agree with you, Meredith, on how people will probably say she has "matured." If anything, "Pleasure" feels like a throwback to a much earlier time in Leslie Feist's career. After The Reminder, I remember her speaking about how the tour kind of messed with her and how that informed Metals. ("I was playing to bigger audiences than I had ever fathomed, and I had gone a little deaf, I mean emotionally deaf," she told the Times.) I like that she's the kind of musician who will take six years off from making music, from being in the public eye really, and come back with a small, cynical little song like "Pleasure."

Lambert: I like how lushly nocturnal “Pleasure” sounds. It’s like a Wong Kar-wai movie.

Aaron: Molly, YES! It’s got a moody, garage-rock whir, and I can imagine Maggie Cheung (or Leslie Cheung, et al.) careening from some seedy apartment down the stairs and out onto a Hong Kong street, flailing and striding in torment and desire.

Vozick-Levinson: I remember coming across Let It Die in a pile of promo CDs in 2004, listening without expectations, and feeling like I'd found some lost classic from another decade or a far-off country. (Farther-off than Canada, I mean.) "Pleasure" has that same magic vibe, which it shares with all of Feist's best work — it's beaming in from somewhere outside of contemporary pop or indie-rock, someplace individual and pure. Like Hazel, I admire her ability to take extended breaks from making art for public consumption and come back sounding exactly like herself. And wow, Meredith, from your keyboard to Lorde's ears. The only thing better would be a whole EP of Feist covers from her.

Gorillaz feat. Popcaan, "Saturnz Barz"

Love: There may not be a group of artists more prepared for the world’s spiral down the digitized abyss than Gorillaz. The sterile, claustrophobic electricity on “Saturnz Barz” turns wondrous as an open synth gives way to Popcaan’s narrative. On paper, their link shouldn’t fit, but with a drawn-out choral wail connecting Popcaan’s self-referential verse (“Know a few Popcaan songs oh, and feel dem know me / Four mile me used to walk to school, dem know man story?”) to 2-D’s disenchantment with the “holograms beside me,” “Saturnz Barz” just sorta works. Conceptually, as a group known for its animated characterizations, there’s a cruel irony here: Even within their digital bodies, created to make themselves accessible to a wide range of audiences, they’re still “dancing alone.” Digital doesn’t imply forever, and accessibility doesn’t always mean you’ve dodged isolation. Gorillaz, it seems, have woken up to the notion of interconnected loneliness and are, at the very least, showing signs of a desire to do away with the digital symbols of “a mirrored world” altogether.

Aaron: The whole production seamlessly moves from comforting to alienating, while Popcaan’s voice carries a matter-of-fact dread that simply lights a cigarette from a burning barrel and smirks at the lawlessness and chaos around him.

Lambert: Who knew the 2000s revival that would feel most vital would be Gorillaz? I guess when your genre is genre pastiche, there are always new worlds left to explore. It just makes sense that a group of digital cartoon avatars whose name is a self-referential joke about The Monkees and the constructed quality of popular music would become our truth-speaking spirit guides. Like their heroes Big Audio Dynamite, the unifying quality to all Gorillaz music is its looseness — the cool loucheness of Damon Albarn's voice, writ large. “Saturnz Barz” features the always delightful Popcaan, as well as production from The Twilite Tone and drummer Remi Kabaka. They also produced the new album's Vince Staples–featuring “Ascension,” which has immediately become the leadoff hitter on my summer 2017 mix, with its Baltimore-club chorus of Staples repeating “The sky’s falling, baby / Drop that ass ’fore it crash.”

Vozick-Levinson: I like this song — it's like an extra-gloomy "Tomorrow Comes Today" for our sour times, with more Popcaan — but I love "Andromeda," their disco-spangled D.R.A.M. duet. After Plastic Beach in 2010, they toured the world with a gigantic GORILLAZ light-up sign and two members of The Clash in the band. I can't wait to see how they top that if they tour this next album.

Zayn feat. PartyNextDoor, "Still Got Time"

Garvey: Holy hell, it’s the first Zayn song that doesn’t feel like Ambien! Granted, I would take a Bieber remix over this version in a heartbeat, but still — this is fun, which is really all I can ask from Zayn “Sex Is Very Serious and Yes, I Have It” Malik. Not really sure how this will play into the current diaspora wars in More Life’s wake, but man, there is really nothing better than West African highlife guitars. Also, Murda Beatz is clearly having his best year ever.

Cills: Why does Zayn sound like his mouth is full of marbles? I agree that this is a much better direction for him than, as Meaghan said, his super-sExY adult phase, but this isn't quite grabbing me. I suspect it will get lost in the riptide of Calvin Harris's latest single and "Passionfruit," but we'll see...

Lambert: I assume Zayn is so serious about sex business because in One Direction the band’s image was contractually restricted to over-the-pants action only. Now that he is free, he wants to make sure we all know he goes all the way. I’m here for breezy-summer-singles Zayn.

Vozick-Levinson: I, too, appreciate it when A-list pop stars fully commit to making summer songs that sound like summer. Sometimes they don't, and we get stuck with a moody autumn ballad or a blandly enjoyable song that could take place in literally any month of the year. Given the way climate change has altered the traditional weather cycles where I live, this seasonal creep is a non-negligible issue. So I'm pleased to agree that Zayn and Party's new single is summery as hell, as is the Calvin/Frank song Hazel mentioned, and at least half of More Life. Make a playlist! Pop a refreshing can of seltzer! Happy equinox!

Aaron: Highlife guitars are magical, I agree, but this also sounds like a sexy-times Vampire Weekend parody. Plus, I could swear this song was playing in my room the last time I went to a Sandals Resorts property. Or was it that Myrtle Beach condo? Hard to remember when Zayn’s steaming up all the windows.


VMAs 2017