Hits And Misses: Marshmello, Frank Ocean, Selena Gomez, And More
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, Tirhakah Love, Molly Lambert, Hazel Cills, Ira Madison III, Sasha Geffen, Meredith Graves, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Charles Aaron, Simon Vozick-Levinson, and Alex Pappademas.
Calvin Harris feat. Frank Ocean and Migos, "Slide"
Vozick-Levinson: I love the way this song works as a glimpse into the alternate universe where Frank went full pop on album two. "Slide" keeps some of the reflective ambiguity and chipmunk-squeak backing vocals from Blonde, but reframes them in a perfect wash of sunny summer synths and drums, courtesy of Calvin. It's delightful in the way any good vacation from reality is. The tumble of sparkling syllables that opens Offset's verse — "Good gracious / Staring at my diamonds while I'm hopping out a spaceship" — is the ice in the cocktail.
Love: I haven’t stopped listening to this song since it dropped. To me, its premise shouldn’t really work — but it does. Maybe it's because Uncle Frank fancies himself an avid connoisseur of fly whips, so drumming up a twinkly jam fit for bright joyrides is right up his alley. We’ve never needed an epic Migos summer more than we do now, and if their sly, flashy verses on “Slide” are any indication, we’re in for quite a treat. Offset continues his run of effortlessly cool, technically adept rhymery here, but his charm — “I know you got a past, I got a past, that’s in the back of us” — rings cute, rather than superstar-confident. It’s a welcome departure and another reason, among many, to be excited whenever the homies announce his name.
Garvey: Unpopular opinion perhaps, but if I may: does this song even need Frank Ocean? I might take a full four minutes of Offset floating over Calvin’s return to bloghouse form. (Though this sounds, delightfully, more like an homage to Classixx — masters of the chiller side of bloghouse. OK, I’ll stop saying "bloghouse" now.) Regardless, if “Slide” is a harbinger of the sounds of summer 2017, I gladly accept.
Geffen: Calvin Harris is a star player when it comes to assists. Last year’s “My Way” was charming but didn’t floor me; “Slide,” like “This Is What You Came For,” is even better because it boosts the vocals instead of trailing behind them or overwhelming them like a less restrained producer (or pair of producers) might do. Harris knows restraint. He knows how to do just enough, how to clear enough space for Frank Ocean and Migos to do their thing. And Ocean’s thing here is still world-weary, skeptical jubilation, like he’ll go to the party if you ask him enough times but he won’t smile, not even once. That’s a look that suits 2017 more than any technicolor escapism.
Aaron: This is wonderfully pleasant and possibly a harbinger of epic summery bliss, as Garvey says, but I’m waiting for the remix. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Frank could be scrubbed entirely, though maybe somebody could edit out at least half of everybody’s verses to clear a little more floor space for the beat to dazzle. Offset’s voice offers the most sparkle, but does such effusive dance-pop really need so much jibber-jabber? To be honestly superficial, I’d rather mindlessly mouth some cleverly chopped hook between kalimotxos than actually pay attention to Frank playing the chatty wallflower.
Cills: I have nothing to add to everyone's glorious takes of this insanely good song other than THANK GOD THE *REAL* CALVIN HARRIS HATH RETURNED. And I love that description of Ocean, Sasha.
Lambert: I’m not ready for summer yet! Too soon! Ask me in a few more months!
Kygo feat. Selena Gomez, "It Ain't Me"
Cills: “It Ain’t Me” is a great, catchy song, just like a lot of Gomez’s material, but I’m not really sure what she brings to her music. Selena Gomez’s voice is fascinating to me because it doesn't have a distinctive personality. Her music has an identity crisis all its own. “Hands to Myself,” while a banger, had a new kind of Selena vocal that sounded just like songwriter Julia Michaels, all breathy and high. Every time I hear “Same Old Love,” I can’t believe how accurately Selena mirrors the voice of Charli XCX, who wrote that song for her. Which is to say, I don’t know if I even know what Selena Gomez’s voice sounds like. She seems like she’s always mimicking what was probably given to her on the original demo. And, sure, being an easily coachable and malleable pop star can have its benefits (including instant radio success). But compared to her peers — Demi Lovato, Justin Bieber, Nick Jonas — I think Selena Gomez still needs to set herself apart, somehow.
Vozick-Levinson: I know what you mean, Hazel, but after a certain point isn't a track record of great, catchy songs more than enough? For me, Selena crossed that threshold with 2015's Revival, which was better sequenced and more fun than many a greatest-hits set. The pop star who came to mind most often when I listened to that album was Britney Spears — like her, Selena is courteous and/or savvy enough to lose herself completely in the song, and that infinite pliability is paradoxically what makes her stand out. "It Ain't Me" works so well because she gets out of the hook's way instead of overselling it, so there's room for Kygo's filtered piano chords to float up to the sky. I'm not sure Justin or Demi could have done the same.
Lambert: I feel like Selena’s strength as a pop star is that she can be whoever you want her to be. That’s what makes her an heir to Britney and Madonna, although certainly her voice is less distinctly recognizable than either of theirs. But she shares Britney’s talent for blending fully into the machines, becoming a perfect pop cyborg. That’s why my favorite Gomez single to date is “Good for You,” where her Auto-Tuned affectlessness made lines like “let me show you how proud I am to be yours” into something creepy, and turned her fantasy-pleasing paper-doll image into something more three-dimensional. She played an obsessive stalker who invades her prey’s house in the video for follow-up single “Hands to Myself.” As for “It Ain’t Me,” I can’t tell if this is the very end of the folk-house era brought in by Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” or the beginning of the very early revival. Personally? It ain’t me, babe.
Aaron: God bless Selena as a poptrepreneur/Instagram legend, and respect to Simon, but to seriously compare her, at this point, to Britney Spears seems kind of bonkers. Whatever you think of Brit, she always makes sure her tracks reflect an essential Britney-ness (for better or worse), but there’s virtually no Selena-ness to reflect, here or otherwise. As Hazel says, she sounds like whoever recorded the demo (in this case, Ali Tamposi, who, coincidentally, cowrote “Let Me Love You” for DJ Snake and Justin Bieber). By the way, congrats to Kygo on his Las Vegas pool-party residency — trop-house has paid off well, and now I’m bored and old.
Marshmello and Ookay feat. Noah Cyrus, "Chasing Colors"
Graves: Last year at Lollapalooza, I followed 5 feet behind Marshmello for as long as I could manage in hopes that his hazmat suit would ride up enough around the wrists or ankles to hint at his identity. If I remember correctly, he was pale and hairy and had some sort of tattoo on one of his arms. Thing is, whoever he is under the costume, his true identity is that of some guy who has likely already made an unbelievable amount of money off fairly anonymous jud-jud EDM, all with a bucket on his head. This is the fast food of music: Its selling point is its consistency, and there’s an attempt to disguise the flavorless bulk of the thing under salty, sour, corn-syrupy distractions. This sounds like 14 Noah Cyruses were all forced to track directly into GarageBand. When there are this many effects layered over someone’s vocals for the entire duration of a song, it’s safe to assume that it’s a colossal sleight of hand employed to hide the fact that said person cannot actually sing. Marshmello is just the toy that comes with the meal.
Vozick-Levinson: Wow, harsh! I don't love this song or anything, but I enjoyed listening to it two or three times before it gave me a headache and I had to stop (which is pretty much how I feel about eating marshmallows IRL, too). The hyperprocessed vagueness of the vocals doesn't necessarily strike me as a bad thing. As Meaghan wrote in December, there's an appealing simplicity in the dumbness of Marshmello's music. Say what you will about "Chasing Colors," but at least it's not less dumb than his other songs.
Garvey: MarshmelloHive Secretary, reporting for duty. I can’t say this is my favorite of Mello’s, but actually — work with me here — I’m gonna say it’s the relative straightforwardness of Noah Cyrus’s vocals here that falls a bit flat. I have come to crave that sugar-rush kitsch from a Marshmello track, along the maximalist lines of what the best Rustie or HudMo tracks used to do. It’s weird, but everything-happens-so-much EDM songs like this feel paradoxically reassuring in dumb, scary times — I think because they take up so much space that there’s no room for wandering thoughts. Speaking of which, I am ready for a Mello-soundtracked Spring Breakers 2, universe.
Cills: It's not the point, I KNOW, but I kind of wanted a stronger vocal on this — sorry, Noah! It seems like her singing is purposefully fogged or under-produced in a way that doesn't line up with the rest of the song. Bangers like this make me crave someone with a Daya-type voice who can compete with the material, not disappear into it (which is an easy thing to do given the hierarchy of male producers and fleeting female vocalists in EDM).
Aaron: I agree with Meredith that the sound of this is trash, like EDM goo squeezed out of a condiment bottle. But still, its squeaky, sickly juvenilia is pretty hypnotic. I can imagine feeling a slight tingle and jolt in the right setting.
Kanye West, The-Dream, and DJDS, "Bed Yeezy Season 5"
Geffen: The-Dream originally wrote “Bed” for J. Holiday way back in 2007, which might explain the datedness of the lyrics. The production on the original also sounds, well, very 2007, which is why I’m fascinated by Kanye’s doomy update. It’s background music for a fashion show, sure, but divorced from that context, the Yeezy Season 5 remix of “Bed” unravels at a pace that makes me think of William Basinski or The Caretaker. The lyrics and their discordance with that deep synth bass highlight the fragility of intimacy, how even the most blissful moments we share with other people can evaporate without warning, how holding that in mind can make them even more blissful. I could listen to Kanye deconstruct a whole album of R&B sex jams.
Graves: If you wrote these lyrics down — at least the two and a half minutes of lyrics I made it through before I started laughing at how uncomfortable it made me feel — they would read as if written by a conservative politician who only has sex for procreative purposes. A Victoria’s Secret reference on a 'Ye song? Putting perfume … there? Admiring your girlfriend because she works hard and she’s so … cute? It’s so chaste it practically churns butter, and that’s saying something from a guy who rang in his last album by rhyming "asshole" with "asshole." The only organs swelling as a result of lyrics like “My angel, this is wonderful” are the ones you find in church, but I’m not at all opposed to hip-hop, or runway fashion, going in a direction that’s more John Donne than Galliano.
Garvey: To me this is perfection, as is most anything channeled through the mind of Terius Nash. Love/Hate is easily my favorite R&B album this side of Y2K, but some of the most gorgeous songs he’s ever done exist on a rare 2010 collection of demos and loosies called Love Sessions. It was never officially released, but if you’re good at the internet and have never heard it — find that shit. (And try to reassemble yourself after melting into an Alex Mack goo puddle after hearing “Cry.”) Dream’s demo of “Bed” first appeared on that collection, and though J. Holiday’s voice is technically stronger, Dream’s tenderness turns it from your basic mid-’00s Trey Songz wannabe to something poignant and sweet. Sasha, I love where your head went with The Caretaker. My first thought hearing the extended version (reconstructed by DJ Dodger Stadium, who I still can’t believe are tight with Kanye?!) was that phase in the early 2010s when everyone seemed to be jumping on the “night bus” — in other words, making vaguely Burial-inspired remixes and originals which sounded, well, like stuff you’d listen to on a bus at night. I recall glum, screwed edits of, like, Oneohtrix Point Never and Aaliyah. Anyway, I’m gonna roll around in my bed for 17 minutes now.
Vozick-Levinson: OK, first, Love/Hate is a great album, but Love vs. Money will always be my favorite Terius long-player, if only for its Abbey Road–esque side two. Second: I remember thinking of "Bed" as a B+ songwriting effort in 2007 — even its hook sounded like a weaker echo of the inescapable "eh, eh, eh" he'd written for Rihanna that same spring. This rework is a revelation, partly because almost any song sounds better if Terius sings it, but mostly because of DJDS's gorgeous production flip, which transforms that chorus from a clumsy proposition into something kinder and less tangible. But the most interesting thing about this track might be Kanye's choice to use it as the musical centerpiece of his latest fashion show, rather than premiering brand-new material as he's done at the last few. It makes me wonder if, like many people right now, he's feeling nostalgic about the 2000s, remembering everything about that decade as a little softer and prettier than it was. Can you blame him?
Lambert: It’s called “Bed” because it put me to sleeeeeeeeeeep.
Aaron: Wait, what were we talking about? What day is this?
The 1975, "By Your Side" (Sade cover)
Willis-Abdurraqib: I often wish that The 1975 could be as interesting as the writing about them. I always think they’re so close to being cool, but they also seem to be very invested in their own coolness, which makes them uncool. I say all of that to say that this cover is a crime. Not one of the big crimes, but definitely a crime nonetheless. I want no one singing Sade except for Sade and that’s maybe it. “By Your Side” is such a tender and vulnerable song, and I think making it robotic in the way it is here really strips away a lot of that vulnerability. You can’t enjoy a romantic candlelit dinner to this 1975 version, with Matt Healy going extra wild with the Auto-Tune all over the track. The original “By Your Side” is the song you put in one of the first three spots on the slow-jam mix, to set any mood you’re going for. This version is the joint you slide at the very end, hoping that the mood has expired and you just need some noise to fill the room when you don’t want to get up and turn off the stereo.
Pappademas: My thought is an eye roll and this link.
Aaron: Alex, stop, you’re making it worse.
Vozick-Levinson: I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I actually like this cover. As someone who defended Adam Levine's paper-thin vocals in this space a week ago, I can't very well dismiss Matt Healy's. The Auto-Tune reads to me as a reasonable acknowledgement that he can't match Sade's vocal subtlety — so instead of trying for heartfelt, he goes for dreamy and dissolved. I don't know if I would put it on a mixtape for anyone I cared about, but I would totally send it to Kanye and hope he sampled it on his next album, if I knew Kanye.
Madison III: Keep it.
Lambert: Go Flying Burrito Brothers–style country rock or go home.
Aaron: Beachwood! Scott Pilgrim!! Yes!!!
Sneaks, "Hair Slick Back"
Vozick-Levinson: Sometimes artists change when they get picked up by bigger labels — and sometimes that's a good thing — but right now I'm pleased by just how little Eva Moolchan has updated her sound since signing to Merge Records last year. Like her previous release, Gymnastics, this sounds like it was recorded alone in a closet-size studio in the middle of the night for a budget of $5. It's a cool, creepy incantation in a private language; she sings about feeling stressed, but sounds like she's in her element. I hope she never releases a song with more than 20 words in it.