On new album “Witness”, Katy Perry works hard to earn attention

Katy Perry – Witness

It doesn’t matter where you were from,” Katy Perry told fans as she wound down her four-day Witness World Wide live-stream, “It matters what you grow into”. Considering she was born to Pentecostal pastors, Perry’s metamorphosis into the pin-up poster girl for the centre-left is one of pop’s most fascinating.

Perry won’t get the props she deserves for “Chained to the Rhythm” – whipping up woke-politics and rainbow reggae-disco to create a hit with a solid message. Lyrically, it’s a frown at individualism and a wink at social consciousness. Musically, it’s a fresh update of her sound.

Many will decry her album campaign’s narrative as divisive, but this being Katy Perry, Witness isn’t that complex. On “Chained…”, she spends half her time asking questions (“Are we tone-deaf?” – Katy, you in danger girl) and rhyming “bubble” with “trouble”.

Perry’s always been style-over-substance, and when you’ve got industry heavyweights (Max Martin, Mike Will Made It) and budding virtuosos (Jack Garrett, Purity Ring) on speed dial, that’s not a bad thing.

“Hey Hey Hey” is a feminist sandstorm with ropy lyrics delivered in a drunk-cheerleader drawl. It’s elevated by a grinding dubstep bassline and an up-yours appeal. Synthpop whizz-kids Purity Ring carve trance ballad “Bigger Than Me” – written after Hillary Clinton’s election defeat – like an ice sculpture.

From a distance, “Bigger Than Me”, “Swish Swish” featuring Nicki Minaj, and the unironically repetitive “Déjà Vu” echo the UK’s 2013 house revival. Of all the trends to draw from, it’s a durable one, but it does narrow the album’s commercial prospects.

Naturally, it’s when Perry does away with the flashy production that Witness really stumbles. The three ballads suffer from clunky phrasing (“I struggle / I juggle”), even when the choruses soar. That said, “Mind Maze” is a pristine take on The Knife circa Silent Shout, yet an utter bore melodically.

Witness occasionally excels in rethinking Perry’s creamy-tits brand of pop for 2017’s more subdued airwaves. “Tsunami” is a spongy bump-and-grind, making for a great one-two punch with the cherry-sweet banger “Bon Appétit”. “Roulette” spins the Tinder/Grindr experience (“I drop a pin to my location”) into an 80s-pop headrush.

Perry owes a debt to her guest stars, but the solo title track is a revelation. It’s the ideal intersection between her pop and ‘conscious’ selves – topping bubbling electronica and graceful piano with a hook of “Can I get a witness?” that begs for a response. As messy as Witness can be, songs like this show how Perry could conceivably earn one’s attention.

6.5/10

cupcakKe’s “Queen Elizabitch” delivers the sex-positive pop we deserve

cupcakKeSince last year’s minor viral hit “Vagina”, cupcakKe’s been cornering the sex-positive alt-hip-pop market. The Chicago-born rapper leaves little to the imagination – not only with graphic, spit-take one-liners (“I save dick by giving it CPR”), but by also committing to her fully-rounded persona for each and every song. 

cupcakKe dropped three mixtapes in 2016, and Queen Elizabitch is her first album proper. The bought-in beats are tighter, but the execution is scattered – pushing listeners off the dance floor and into a hard-faced confessional a little too often.

The split between Queen Elizabitch’s teeth-bearing hip-hop and X-rated dalliances with the mainstream works because neither style tries to diminish the virtues of the other. The cupcakKe eloquently recounting her impoverished childhood on “Scraps” is no more complex or worthy than the one asking to be creampied throughout “Cumshot”.

Vulgarity is the common thread – whether she’s marking her territory over menacing trap (“Bitch you ain’t hard / Probably run from the sound of a fart”), or giving life-saving blowjobs on the irresistible “Cpr”, which reworks “La Macarena” for 2017, and may be more quotable than Mean Girls.

The album continues the “Reality” saga from cupcakKe’s mixtapes. Part 4 charts the rapper’s torrid journey, and accepts her growing fame with grace. But as a dose of reality, it falls flat, simply because the character never feels like a fantasy. In fact, the body-positive “Biggie Smalls” overflows with humanity.

Furnished with tropical house synths and arpeggio squalls, it’s as commercial as Queen Elizabitch gets. What makes it special are actionable tips in lieu of dull platitudes, including “Fuck a dude if he don’t like small boobs”. There’s a gap in the market for such candour, and something tells us cupcakKe will have a great time filling it. 

8/10

Katy Perry’s “Bon Appétit” – “House-pop parfait with a cold, tart centre”

bon appetitForget fresh – Katy Perry’s “Bon Appétit” is practically antiseptic. That kitsch title comes with her signature lowbrow wink, but this electropop parfait has a cold, tart centre. Hackneyed ‘food-as-vagina’ puns are deadpanned in an alluring whisper. Eurodance synths stabs come thin and quick, and prick like a needle.

One of the song’s bigger risks may be the inclusion of hip-hop trio Migos. Following the streaming monster “Bad and Boujee”, Quavo, Takeoff and Offset are hot property, but their off-colour remarks about gay rapper iLoveMakonnen should raise brows – particularly as Katy’s own supposed brushes with bigotry have recently emerged.  

The good news is that Perry and Migos seem to be on the same prog-pop wavelength. She certainly makes them feel at home, with the house beat dropping into chill trap for a mercurial four-part verse. Speaking of drops, producer Max Martin lands a doozy for Katy’s base but velcro-like chorus: “Got me spread like a buffet / Bon appétit, baby!

Harry Styles’ “Sign of the Times” is a shaky six-minute pose

harry styles

For millennials, the past two years have been a crash course in uncertainty. Will the EU crumble? Should we ready our outfits for #nuclearholocaust? Go vox popping and you’ll find there’s only one thing the youth know for sure: Harry Styles will be a superstar.

Flanked by millions of fans and fêted by the media, Styles’ success is a rare inevitability. The One Direction heartthrob could afford to tear up the rulebook, but debut single “Sign of the Times” doesn’t even dog-ear a page for fear of creasing a holy text.

‘Sources’ were keen to cite David Bowie’s influence, apparent in the sense that he too had a Y chromosome and was known to sing over piano. At best, the song recalls Robbie Williams’ chest-puffing balladry – at worst, it’s a shaky six-minute pose.

Styles’ falsetto cuts through the neutered guitars and crashing drums, but strains to add meaning. Only a truly privileged artist can scream “We’ve got to get away!” while digging their heels into the safest sound imaginable. Now that’s a sign of the times.

Zara Larsson’s So Good: “Promising newcomer falls at the final hurdle”

zara larsson copy

Zara Larsson and Rihanna share more than a cadence that’s catnip for radio.

Just like the Barbadian superstar circa 2006, Larsson holds immense promise, yet her international debut is at best a benign vessel for a half-dozen plastic-wrapped hits.

Last summer’s “Lush Life” is still a sticky party-starter with more choruses than sense. It’s also the best thing on So Good by far, and prefacing it with the feeble “What They Say”, a #motivational Instagram post set to music, is a telling cop-out.

A flexible singer, Larsson slings hooks like a sailor aboard everything from moody electro (MNEK duet “Never Forget You”), to schoolyard hip hop (“Ain’t My Fault”), to vogueing dance-pop (“I Would Like”). Aside from some killer singles, only “TG4M”’s dreamy tropical lilt really adds to her CV.

There’s never been a bigger gulf between title and song than on “Make That Money Girl”. That sassy name, along with the teenager’s unabashed feminism, suggests a banger for the ages, but its funereal beat is more befitting a documentary about sweatshop slavery.

Larsson has everything it takes to go A-list, but too often, So Good overlooks the spunky musicality that put her on the map. Drippy ballads like “Only You” and “One Mississippi” actively drain her charisma, and could be fronted by any Rihanna-lite ingenue.

Thank goodness then for Clean Bandit’s “Symphony” – a feel-good smash and vocal showcase that’s bought Team Larsson time to plan a crucial next move.

5.5/10

Grab some tissues and watch Clean Bandit’s self-directed “Symphony” clip below.

 

Charli XCX’s “Number 1 Angel” mixtape – “Trashy, but never throwaway”

charli xcx number 1 angel

Click here to listen to Number 1 Angel 

In another life, Charli XCX is the sixth Spice Girl. Hits like “I Love It” and “Fancy” prove her knack for bolshy ear candy, but on her new mixtape, Charli carries the torch for girl power into pop’s underbelly, and she wants you to follow.

A stopgap between 2016’s Vroom Vroom EP and a third LP due later this year, Number 1 Angel continues Charli’s work with electro avant gardists PC Music. The London label hybridise squeaky-clean IDM and 90s eurodance silliness, sharing serious chemistry with the singer’s stereo-booming hooks.

The music is almost rebellious for its glitchy hyperpop, oft-filtered vocals, and all-female features, but there are some piquant crossovers.

“3AM (Pull Up)” is cheerleader dancehall with a heartbroken twist, and prime single material. A guesting bolsters the mixtape’s feminist credentials with an affirming middle-8, prompting the song’s glorious you-go-girl attitude to snowball in the final chorus: “It’s 3AM and you are calling / Go fuck yourself, don’t say you’re sorry!”.

“Emotional” harks back to “Boom Clap” with a big, windswept topline – although producer A. G. Cook does add chop suey backing vocals in the name of experimentation.

Charli’s cohorts are a diverse lot. Up-and-comers Starrah and RAYE bring feel-good aspiration to the stonking future bass of “Dreamer”, while MySpace relic Uffie spits a bouncy MIA impression over plastic-reggae joint “Baby Girl”. CupcakKe’s ribald raps ensure “Lipgloss” is an appropriately lip-smacking tribute to cunnilingus.

The most vital union has undoubtedly been between Charli and PC Music, yet she’s inclusive, even stuttering “Do you wanna roll with me?” during one ecstatic, Aqua-on-crack assault. Across Number 1 Angel’s 35 minutes, Charli emerges as an auteur and ultimate gal pal – and really, no true 90s bitch would turn her down.

9.5/10

The PC Music movement stalls with Cashmere Cat’s “Love Incredible”

camila-cabello
“Love Incredible” isn’t just a drum roll for Fifth Harmony dropout Camila Cabello’s solo launch. It’s a big moment too for co-producer SOPHIE of PC Music – the London record label and EDM subgenre hoping to turn hipster hype into mainstream success.

Were an algorithm set to merge popular vocal tics into one bankable voice, Cabello’s soprano might be the end result. Even live, she sounds reedy, processed, and very 2017, making her a canny match for SOPHIE’s wry, bug-eyed hyperpop.

Adrift in Cashmere Cat’s monochrome alt-R&B, Cabello unravels the swooning hooks and big-ish chorus with ease. A strange, yawning outro hints at PC Music’s novel aesthetic, but it’s a fleeting concession to the blogosphere on an otherwise trendy single.