‘SAWAYAMA’ will go down as one of the best debuts of 2020

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Add to library: ‘Comme Des Garçons’, ‘XS’, ‘Paradisin’’

Score: 9/10

Rina Sawayama’s debut LP is a rich and articulate statement about family, friendship and identity. 

2017’s RINA mini-album gave the Japanese-English singer a reputation for fizzy, high-gloss noughties-pop that articulated complex themes of Asian representation in the media and loneliness in the internet age. 

Fittingly, these songs found a niche audience among woke digital natives – her fans call themselves ‘Pixels’ – who admire Rina’s political candour as much as her glittering bops. Released by Dirty Hit Records, the ultra-hip home of Wolf Alice and The 1975, SAWAYAMA arrives on the biggest platform her career has seen so far. 

Despite the welcome boost in profile, the record demonstrates zero interest in carving out a chart presence for itself. Instead Rina uses it as an opportunity to inflate the introspective bubble she and her fans already share. 

Rock opera opener ‘Dynasty’ sets the therapy-session tone, reflecting on her family’s intergenerational pain and searching for ways to reclaim her own life story: ‘Won’t you break the chain with me?SAWAYAMA excels at communicating the burdens of family, anxiety and racism through precise melodies and extravagant production.

Helmed primarily by Clarence Clarity, the music revels in the blunt contrast between heavy metal machismo and synthetic pop, often within the same song. That’s not to say it lacks levity – ‘Comme Des Garçons’ serves sleek ballroom-house; new jack swing jaunt ‘Love Me 4 Me’ paraphrases RuPaul‘s favourite adage; while ‘XS’ gleefully takes the piss out of materialism over Middle Eastern-flavoured R&B.

Yet the most exciting tracks explore the culture clash between Rina’s strict East Asian upbringing and the alluring excess of the West, and in doing so, break fresh lyrical ground.

Mimicking the sensory overload of being hungover at a Japanese video game arcade, ‘Paradisin’’ tells the story of a teenage Rina blanking her mother’s phone calls to go binge drinking with her mates in Trafalgar Square, driving the poor woman ‘cra-a-a-a-azy’. 8-bit chiptune synths and rapid drums capture the pair’s game of cat-and-mouse perfectly. 

Things get a little too earnest on ‘Chosen Family’, a ballad about outcasts and the plutonic support systems they form in adulthood that, while objectively lovely, comes off as treacly and Disneyfied next to 12 genre-bending tracks. But this is a minor blip – and certainly not enough to derail what will go down as one of the most impressive debuts of 2020. 

‘Fearless’ by Fleur East: X Factor star has a ‘Sax’ to grind

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Score: 7/10

Add to playlist: ‘Favourite Thing’, ‘Mine’, ‘Easy to Love’

Fleur East’s long-awaited second album channels earthy grooves and crisp R&B beats. 

Less than a minute into Fearless, Fleur East quips ‘I guess I’m easy to love’. If you were one of the eight million-plus people that tuned in to watch her flourish throughout The X Factor UK’s 11th series in 2014, you might still agree.

Every week, Fleur lit up living rooms across Britain with tight choreography and a unique soul-funk sensibility. Although she ultimately placed runner-up behind Ben Haenow – pronounced ‘who now?’ – her infamous ‘Uptown Funk’ performance became the stuff of pop music lore: a recording of Fleur’s cover instantly soared up the iTunes chart, forcing Mark Ronson to release his original five weeks earlier than planned. 

Debut album Love, Sax and Flashbacks cashed-in on this watercooler moment with an energetic, ballad-free set that cribbed shamelessly from the likes of James Brown – and was all the better for it. The record deserved to be huge, but by the time Simon Cowell’s Syco label bungled the release of second single ‘More & More’, all momentum was lost.

Smash cut to 2020. Sophomore album Fearless trades 80s maximalism for earthier grooves and crisp R&B beats, and therefore struggles to be as broadly entertaining as its predecessor. On the bright side, the music is less demanding on Fleur’s voice, which, while lovely, is too throaty for the belting diva antics of ‘Sax’. 

Across 13 tracks, Fleur is eager to prove there’s more to her than that novelty hit. There’s charming Afrobeat (‘Lucky’, ‘Who You Are’), steamy latin-pop (‘There She Go’), and a generous helping of velvety midtempos (‘Figured Out’, ‘Mine’). Vocally, she really finds her footing, and uses her natural husk to great effect on guitar ballad ‘Absence Speaks Louder Than Words’. 

But when you’re a popstar known for your fearless performances, you better be packing something to tear up the stage with. ‘Favourite Thing’ – with its Ghanaian gospel chants and stunning climax – is the only thing Cowell will kick himself for missing out on, but ‘Size’ is a successful callback to Fleur’s funky debut, while ‘Easy to Love’ is a breezy delight. 

After years of setbacks, the independently-released Fearless should make its creator very proud  – even if the music isn’t as adventurous as its title implies. 

Dua Lipa and the irrepressible spirit of ‘Future Nostalgia’

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Add to playlist: The first nine tracks​​​​​​​

Score: 9/10

Dua Lipa’s sophomore album is short, sweet and full of character. 

Pop nerds like myself have long been thirsty for the next Imperial Phase. Something akin to The Fame Monster or Teenage Dream – that elusive milestone in a popstar’s career when their relevance, radio/streaming support and artistic output peak at exactly the same time. 

Every single is a classic. The visuals are cohesive and iconic. And when the overexposure inevitably prompts a public backlash, that’s when you know you’ve made it. 

Dua Lipa has been promising a blockbuster era for sophomore album Future Nostalgia since last November, when she unveiled her fresh, noughties-infused look and sound with a neo-disco ditty called ‘Don’t Start Now’. Of course, just as the powers that be dangle a campaign with legend-making potential in front of us, they also drop a worldwide pandemic. 

Surprisingly, despite promo opportunities drying up, and the likes of Lady Gaga and Alicia Keys postponing their summer projects, Dua brought her April 3rd release date a week forward. An early leak may have forced Warner Records’ hand, but nonetheless, the campaign unfolded in a way that honours the album’s irrepressible spirit. Coronavirus be damned. 

This stubborn commitment also applies to Future Nostalgia as a body of work. As the evocative title suggests, a lot of effort has gone into deconstructing your favourite dance-pop guilty pleasures from 1998–2005 and splicing them together with slick, contemporary grooves. 

Think ‘Starlight’ by The Supermen Lovers. Or Moloko. Or anyone of Britain’s own doomed successors to Kylie’s throne (Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Rachel Stevens, Lisa Scott-Lee). If that sounds like a scrapheap to you, in Dua’s hands, it’s a goldmine of squelchy basslines, shuffling disco beats and jubilant melodies. 

My favourite thing about Future Nostalgia is how each song pursues a different extreme. ‘Cool’ is the most eighties. ‘Pretty Please’ is the most titillating. The title track is the most batshit insane. You might not always be in the mood for the most Lily Allen (‘Good In Bed’) or capital-F Feminist (‘Boys Will Be Boys’). But see how you feel in a decade. Nostalgia is a powerful thing.

Throwback: V V Brown’s cruelly underrated ‘Samson & Delilah’

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Score: 10/10

British singer Vanessa Brown has recently been teasing new music via Instagram. In anticipation, I’m revisiting 2013’s cruelly underrated Samson & Delilah

In 2008, V V Brown found herself signed to Island Records and attempting to straddle the post-Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse waves simultaneously with an upbeat retro-soul sound. This ready-made popstar had everything it took to go all the way: a buoyant voice; the catwalk swagger of Grace Jones; and quality singles. 

Songs like ‘Crying Blood’ and ‘Shark In the Water’ were promoted with a coveted Later… with Jools Holland slot and a tie-in with Canadian TV series Degrassi respectively, but nothing really stuck. Debut album Travelling Like the Light quickly faded out on the charts in 2010. A frustrated V V retooled its similarly 50s-inspired follow-up Lollipops & Politics beyond recognition.

Eventually released on V V’s own label three years later, Samson and Delilah remains one of the most drastic artistic resets in pop music history. Doo-wop quirk and crowd-pleasing melodies were jettisoned in favour of cold-blooded electronica, not unlike that of The Knife or late-90’s Madonna (the tracklist even shares two song titles with the seminal Ray of Light), and a concept loosely based on the eponymous biblical tale.

The 11 tracks here – pitched somewhere between ambient and aggressive – feel like the work of a completely different artist. That voice, once supple and engaging, is depressed into a bellowing contralto, a volte-face that unlocks a hidden intensity within the record’s themes of love, heartbreak and resilience. An inspired team of producers, including Pierre-Marie Maulini (M83) and The Invisible frontman Dave Okumu, do their best to obscure and distort it, but no amount of filters can eclipse V V’s hulking presence. 

In her own words, Samson and Delilah is about the ‘tension between strength and weakness’, and this emotional spectrum is explored with gusto. Over menacing bass burbles, ‘Igneous’ casts her as a mountainous, primordial beast desperate to protect her lover: ‘Solid and powerful / No, never be scared.’ By contrast, wilting emo ballad ‘Knife’ chronicles the death spasms of a wounded relationship: ‘I don’t really feel like trusting / It’s not worth it anymore‘.

Seven years on from its release, however, I’d argue that this is an album about the tension between independence and loneliness. The soundscape is a byproduct of true creative freedom. Edgy and trend-resistant, it could never have been achieved under the watchful eye of a major label. You would think this would imbue the record with a sense of triumph and liberation, but it’s the opposite: the songwriting is unrelentingly bleak in a way that reflects the uncertainty of life as an independent artist. 

‘I Can Give You More’ is an unlikely combination of head-spinning trance and Old Testament overtones. Set moments before the superhuman Samson brings down the Temple of Dagon, crushing himself and his enemies underneath, the song finds V V begging her lover to choose peace over violence. Except her vocal is so chopped’n’screwed, only the faintest of syllables emerge from her plea, leaving this Delilah proxy to watch on helplessly as her world is destroyed. Like that nightmare where you try to scream but you can’t.

Not everyone will see eye to eye with Samson and Delilah’s uncompromising vision. ‘Ghosts’ fudges a potentially great chorus with muddy mixing, and even ‘The Apple’ (a Grace Jones by way of Simian Mobile Disco showstopper) evades full anthemic status with a lonely-sounding chorus of oh-oh-oh-woah’s. But those that do will see right into V V Brown’s soul, and the wealth of potential that’s yet to be uncovered. 

‘Stupid Love’ by Lady Gaga is shiny but shallow

‘Stupid Love’ is a return to the Hi-NRG synthpop Lady Gaga spent the latter half of the 2010s distancing herself from. 

After executing one of the finest brand rehabilitations in Hollywood history – starting with a jazz album with Tony Bennett in 2014, culminating in A Star Is Born’s Oscar glory in 2019 – Steffani Germanotta seems to be slipping back into Leotarded Popstar Mode with ease. But is it all a bit too easy? 

Pros: ‘Stupid Love’ is catchy, warm and instantly familiar. Cons: It’s repetitive, even for a Lady Gaga song, while BloodPop®’s bubbling synths and sassy vocal samples can’t quite compensate for the barely-there chorus. 

Then again, like ‘Applause’ before it, the lyrics mirror the pop icon’s insatiable desire for mainstream approval and domination: ‘All I ever wanted was LOVE!‘.

This obsession is core to who she is an artist, so perhaps the decision to exploit her comeback hype with the musical equivalent of ‘A previously on Lady Gaga’s pop career…’ montage should come as no surprise. Let’s hope it pays off.

Watch Lady Gaga and her Kindness punks (me neither) fight for ‘Chromatica’ (who honestly knows) in the ‘Stupid Love’ video:

‘Miss Anthropocene’ by Grimes is a nihilistic space opera

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Rating: 10/10

Add to playlist: You’ll want to give the whole album a spin

Remember when Grimes took to the stage at Tesla’s Cybertruck event last November, cosplaying as a ‘Cybergirl’, and introduced boyfriend Elon Musk as ‘my creator’? 

At the time, this could have been interpreted as the moment Claire Boucher’s sci-fi fanaticism stumbled too far into self-parody. Fans who feel alienated by the Canadian’s newfound technocrat credentials as the nymph-like queen of Silicon Valley are in luck: new album Miss Anthropocene is too immersive to be outshone by her public image. 

Following 2015’s Art Angels, Grimes’ fifth LP is a darker, more subdued effort than that gonzo-pop feast. The titular character has been described by Grimes as the ‘goddess of climate change’, and was conceived during a period of world-weary cynicism. If there’s one thing herself and Musk have in common, it is an apocalyptic passion for artificial intelligence – and Miss Anthropocene frequently revels in mankind’s imminent obsolescence. 

‘Darkseid’ (a showcase for Taiwanese rapper 潘PAN) is an unnerving transmission from a dystopian future: ‘Unrest is in the soul / we don’t move our bodies anymore’. Deluxe track ‘We Appreciate Power’ pauses its heavy metal grind to seduce those still clinging to their human flesh: ‘Come on, you’re not even alive / If you’re not backed up on the drive’. 

These lofty themes impact some tracks more than others, but Miss Anthropocene’s more personal material only exacerbates the artist’s nihilistic state of mind. ‘My Name Is Dark’ is a grungy rock number about the allure of self-destructive escapism, with Grimes reporting live from the eye of the hurricane: ‘I don’t need sleep anymore / That’s what the drugs are for!

Made up of guitar samples and soft drums, ‘Delete Forever’ is a devastating reflection on America’s opioid epidemic, inspired by the passing of rapper Lil Peep in 2017. The movie trailer-esque ‘So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth’ and trance glitterbomb ‘Violence’ (featuring producer i_o) are vivid snapshots of a couple’s troubling sex life. 

For all of Miss Anthropocene’s volatile flirtations with sci-fi and space opera, closing track ‘IDORU’ returns the record to earth in the most graceful of ways. Beginning with the ambient jibber-jabber of wild birds and assorted fauna, and ending with a chorus of audibly human yelps, its sonic radiance comes as a welcome reminder that even a period of world-weary cynicism must come to its natural end.

‘React’ by The Pussycat Dolls wades knee-deep into the UK club scene


Y’all better show some respect, because the original Pussycat Dolls are back.

This is the very same history-making lineup of assorted singers and dancers that threw shapes alongside Busta Rhymes in the video for 2005’s still-omnipresent ‘Don’t Cha’. The only Doll MIA is Melody – and that’s a genuine blow to the comeback hype if, like me (and unlike Cheryl Tweedy), you stan her histrionic ad-libbing. 

That one quibble aside, new single ‘React’ is a shockingly strong return. It sounds exactly how PCD should sound in 2020. That is to say – in a word – British.

Drawing on elements of deep house and garage, and structured around a clubby pant-groan breakdown, the song is a savvy way to support a comeback campaign and tour that has so far been UK-centric.

Watch the ageless Pussycat Dolls take it back to the 00s in the ‘React’ video: