Todd Williamson/Getty Images for dcp

Hits And Misses: Tove Lo Plays It Cool, Ariana Grande Goes Retro-Soul, Plus Isaiah Rashad, Joey Purp, and More

Our critical roundtable disembowels the hits of today and tomorrow

Every week, MTV’s writers and critics assemble and weigh in on new hotness, chart trash, and glimmers of hope in the pop-music landscape. This week’s roundtable includes Hazel Cills, Sasha Geffen, David Turner, Hilary Hughes, Charles Aaron, and Simon Vozick-Levinson.

Tove Lo, "Cool Girl"

Cills: Post–Gone Girl pop keeps giving! Tove Lo takes the heart of genre-ruling songs like “Hold Up” and "Blank Space” and cools it down even more. I have to say this doesn’t pack the same punch as “Habits” or “Talking Body,” but maybe that’s because I associate Tove Lo with bigger songs, more textured bangers. She’s the gloomy pop Swede who flies her freak flag high, and she’s still flying it here, but in a far more relatable tone. Her dead-eyed, stony vibe only helps the song’s chilly sarcasm.

Aaron: Those first-album hits were such brash, skyscraper-shuddering cries of rough-around-the-edges “TRUTH!” that you wouldn’t immediately take Tove for a potential “cool girl.” The only possible convincing claim to her coolness was her dismissal of the usual tropes that saddle young pop women (a decent claim). She wasn’t an edgy tease or positivity poster-child or heartbreak kid. Like her friend Lorde, she talked shit in a defiant swagger over undeniable hooks. “Cool Girl” isn’t that; it’s more cagey and pulsing (the synth-bass kicks like a mid-tempo house jam). Tove is still curling her lip to announce her freedom, but it’s a more subdued lippiness. Still, the way she flips the chorus — “I’m a cool girl, ice cold, I roll my eyes at you, boy” – is sly as fuck.

Vozick-Levinson: Instrumentally, this sounds like the eerie house chiller Kanye was trying to make with "Fade." (His version is subtler, but this one is mercifully free of Post Malone, so let's call it a draw.) Dialing down her vocal intensity for this song was a smart move — it keeps you waiting for the switch-up, trying to figure out if she's messing with you, until it's too late and that ice-cold eye-roll of a hook has taken you under.

Hughes: I’m picturing her live set and appreciating how beautifully this tonal change-up would fit in between “Talking Body” and “Habits.” The contrast between those two tracks — which bank on her owning her mess, her spectacle, the magnetic pull excess and intrigue seem to have on her — and the reserved calm of “Cool” keep her from the one-note party pop of her first chapter. We already know that she’s great at losing control (in her lyrics, anyway) and even better at capitalizing on those impulses for instant hooks and insatiably addictive earworms. That she went for the opposite here makes me appreciate her range in a way I didn’t expect.

Isaiah Rashad, “Free Lunch”

Aaron: Coiled, yearning aggression that springs from the same sources as TDE labelmate Kendrick Lamar, but Rashad sinks deep in the pocket of producer Cam O’bi’s gently jittery guitar and languid organ groove instead of aching to jump out of it. The “meal ticket” mantra refers to food stamps — or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in Rashad’s home state of Tennessee — and the lyrics poetically traverse his family’s raw hunger in all forms, from money to clothes to busting nuts. His flow is more hypnotic than revelatory, but lines still sting on first listen: “I come from where you can’t suck my dick and leave my cousin out / In my hood, we call it clout / Fuck ’bout what you think of me.” He raps it like he’s jutting his jaw out at the world.

Vozick-Levinson: I remain impressed by the TDE family's ability to create a consistent, all-encompassing sound and vision across so many distinct perspectives. Isaiah Rashad raps nothing like Jay Rock or Schoolboy Q or Kendrick, really, but he colors in the lines of the universe they've sketched out, opening unexpected trap-doors into unseen chambers. He thinks of Chattanooga while he's dreaming out in California; memory is a prism, refracting past experiences of need and want onto the plush velvet backdrop of the present-day luxury he knows better than to take for granted.

Ariana Grande feat. The Dap-Kings, "Honeymoon Avenue"

Geffen: Three years after the final version of “Honeymoon Avenue” led off Ariana Grande’s debut album Yours Truly, she leaks the original cut — an all-analog version of the track featuring Sharon Jones’s legendary Dap-Kings. What would the world look like if saxophones and soulfulness were part of Ari’s vibe from the beginning? What alternate timeline are we missing out on? I love the way the big, throaty instrumentation pushes her delivery to its most exuberant here. Ari didn’t care about sounding cool on this session. She was happy to emote and emote and emote. In a way, she’s come full circle in 2016 — her role in Hairspray Live! will see her singing over the kind of retro sound that got cut from her first album. For what it’s worth, the slick, trendy album version of “Honeymoon Avenue” sounds way more dated to my ears than this timelessly buoyant rendition.

Aaron: I expected this to be corny as hell, but the Dap-Kings don’t go full retro, and her voice settles into the arrangement comfortably even though she pulls the ripcord as usual.

Turner: Yep, this version is an improvement on the original, and it fits with the faux-vintage Hollywood stylings that carried much of Grande’s debut. It's funny that I never connected the dots betweens Grande’s initial singles and the retroism of Meghan Trainor’s first wave before this. Not to say that Trainor would be any more tolerable if she simply adding the Dap-Kings — but if the Dap-Kings had made the final cut on Ariana's album, it’s hard to imagine them not getting phone calls from other pop stars mining the same field.

Hughes: Totally — although that’s a role the Dap-Kings have played for years: Their mainstream break came when Mark Ronson tapped them to give a solid, soulful instrumental foundation to Amy Winehouse's Back to Black in 2006. While it’s awesome that Grande is now introducing the Dap-Kings to fans who aren’t necessarily familiar with the liner notes to “Rehab” or the work of the indefatigable Sharon Jones, I’m hung up on the fact that they’re the ones elevating her, here — not the other way around. It feels like she’s accessorizing with the Dap-Kings as opposed to collaborating with them, playing dress-up with soul instead of committing to the vintage feel. And hey! That’s fine. I’m stoked that Grande realizes how rad the Dap-Kings are. On the other hand, this version of “Honeymoon Avenue” lacks the bombast I’d expect from a singer who’s working with the best soul outfit in the business. Bet it would kill live, though.

Sneaks, "True Killer"

Cills: I immediately thought "Can I have a taste of your ice cream?" I’m a sucker for any post-punk revivalist with just a drum machine and bass guitar at their disposal. Eva Moolchan’s moody talk-singing embodies that exact Bush Tetras vibe, which is all about sounding too cool for your own good, like she’s singing this song to the mirror while wearing dark glasses indoors. It’s great.

Geffen: Has post-punk ever really lingered in a casual mode? Ian Curtis tended to sing like he’d just stepped into a patch of quicksand, and even the more fun stuff tended to hold a certain authority. Delta 5’s “Mind Your Own Business” feels lighthearted compared to Joy Division, but it still carries a bite. Sneaks turns herself into a murderer without ever lifting her voice. I love how she smashes the phrase “true killer” into one word that she flips off her tongue like a fingerboard. The song’s over in less than 90 seconds, which is just enough time to establish a perfectly self-contained attitude. Truly no fucks were given in the making of this song.

Aaron: Sneaks started out on D.C.’s Sister Polygon label – this era’s Dischord for its fierce aesthetic independence and top-shelf quality, releasing records by Priests, Downtown Boys, Flasher, et al. And for one punkishly unadorned person playing bass and programming ticky-tack beats, Eva Moolchan stirs up more mystery, allure, assertion, and wry provocation than oodles of other worried-over studio projects by better-known acts. Also, this is great, FTW prep music for going out to any function that you’re not in the mood to turn up for. Definitely beats drinks, drugs, cigs, or group-texting about whether some asshole you smashed is gonna be there or not.

Turner: I guess I’m still feeling the decade-long shock of the early-2000s repurposing of post-punk, which in reality turned out to be a bunch of dudes trying too hard to re-create Unknown Pleasures, instead of the wide range of styles that post-punk encompassed. “True Killer” holds a raw cool that is aided by the marching bass, but is sold by Moolchan’s disaffected voice. The song’s angularity recalls hometown post-punk peers Gauche, who also revel in the freedom of rhythm and structure that post-punk offered.

Black Coffee feat. Mque, "Come With Me"

Aaron: Coffee’s a veteran South African house DJ/producer/instrumentalist who created a wondrously thumping remix for Alicia Keys’s “In Common” earlier this year, and the first single from his new album is so soothing and transporting that it should be available in tablet and liquigel form for summer’s dog days. A plucky guitar riff circles a skittering beat, along with Mque’s understated vocals, but Coffee keeps adding propulsive elements and before long, it’s like a block party just sneaked up behind you.

Turner: I keep listening to this song and being surprised by how sleep-inducing it is. That is not said with malice — it just makes me think of the way that OMI's original “Cheerleader” needed that slight tweak from a German kid named Felix Jaehn to spark the mainstream flourishing of the entire tropical house sound. Right now, “Come With Me” lacks a certain charge, but maybe we aren’t done finding new ways to embrace the chillness of our house-dominated pop landscape. The summer’s almost over, but the vibes will never end.

Vozick-Levinson: Not everything has to be trop-house, even in summer '16. I'm with Charles — this has all the calming kick of a good espresso shot. If I had a backyard, I would totally throw a barbecue and put this song on the playlist twice.

Vic Mensa & Joey Purp, “773 Freestyle”

Aaron: Lordy, this thing’ll light your wig on fire! A ferocious, give-and-go, two-man game from Chicago tourmates Mensa and Purp, “773” crackles with battle-rap bluster and punch lines that go, go, go! The sheer energy-blast of their voices, not to mention the manic, horn-blaring fanfare (produced by Papi Beatz), draws from no extant subgenre except “headcrack.” There are quotables galore, especially this from Purp: “Underpaid and under pressure, under fear of getting shot / And the murder rate higher than Dr. J's socks!”

Vozick-Levinson: I hear some "Dipset Anthem" in those loud-and-proud horns (not to mention the verbal nods to Killa Cam), and a little Big L versus Jay in the almost-out-of-breath intensity of the verses Vic and Joey trade. Have I dated myself enough yet? My point is, this rules.

Tuskana, "Champions"

Turner: I offer this to the group because I want others to follow me down the rabbit hole that is progressive house and trance. Tuskana is currently an unknown alias — which, great, more of the usual EDM nonsense! But this “Champions” is my favorite song of the year by that name. The song lives up to its title with an underlying pulsating beat that only gives way on the bridge to the eventual climax. Though released on Above & Below’s Anjunadeep label, part of me can’t help but think of Eric Prydz’s most recent album Opus as “Champions” reaches its full majestic heights.

Aaron: I walk into an already-at-peak Ibiza pool party and this song is playing. It has always been playing. No other song will ever be playing. It is, in reality, every trance-dance song of the past 15 to 20 years, except more entrancing, because that fluttering rumble just becomes more and more refined until it’s like you’re floating in a cloud of constantly spinning cotton candy. As a result, this feels like it needs to be at least ten minutes longer – the climax never quite ascends to the heavens, and even if it did, I’d want it to dip and dive and rise up again at least two or three more times. It’s so insulting when people say that songs like this – which are all intricate syncopation and subtle synth melodies that lightly knead your muscles – have to be heard under the influence of drugs. I mean, a pool party in Ibiza, sure, but drugs? This is classy, tried-and-true, professional party-circuit stuff. Dubstep and bass house never happened here. And Aoki knows to leave his inflatable raft back at the bungalow.

Cills: I’m so used to David throwing in jarring EDM cuts in this column, ones that make me feel somehow immediately over-heated even if I’m sitting stagnant in my office chair, that I was surprised to click this and find that it’s…gorgeous? It’s got such a good, house-y pace, but I grab hints of ’80s dream-pop nostalgia bands like College and FM Attack. I agree with Charles that it sounds instantly classic, but without feeling so familiar that it’s boring. Love it.