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 Keyspostponing 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.
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’ 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:
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.
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:
What’s the opposite of the ‘sophomore slump’? Dua Lipa’s upcoming LP Future Nostalgia is shaping up to be the perfect example.
Following the techno-disco throwback ‘Don’t Start Now’ – which only broke the Top 10 in America this week – new single ‘Physical’ is a barnstorming full-body workout.
Whereas that first single made an asset of Dua’s cool ‘resting bitch face’ of a vocal, here the singer registers as cool because she utterly lacks composure.
‘Physical’ is pure 80s-diva cheese, shoulder-padded for the gods. The bellowing chorus riffs on Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Holding Out For A Hero’, while an ABBA-esque synth arpeggio effortlessly drills itself in your skull.
It’s rare and refreshing to hear a modern popstar surrender their heart and/or dignity to something as unabashedly Camp™ as this. But if fortune favours the bold, then ‘Physical’ should only continue Dua’s winning streak.
Watch Dua Lipa dance like she ain’t got a choice in the ‘Physical’ video:
It’s impossible for me to discuss Poppy’s third album I Disagree without acknowledging the sensational controversies that I presume she does not agree with.
Moriah Pereira rose to Youtube fame midway through the 2010s as a soft-spoken, platinum-blonde cyborg-doll known as That Poppy. Conceived alongside director and then-boyfriend Titanic Sinclair, the character drew over ten million views with deliberately abstract sketches that parodied human concerns and behaviours, such as eating cotton candy and applying makeup.
Pereira wisely exploited her online infamy to make a dent in the real world as a musician, delivering an unexpectedly credible electro-pop album with 2018’s Am I A Girl?.
There was only one problem: Sinclair had co-hosted a cult Youtube series with another soft-spoken, blonde romantic/creative partner just a few years before. On Computer Show,singer-actress Mars Argo spoke in a distinctly child-like tone that – like Pereira – elevated the script’s surreal humour. In November 2014, less than a year after Argo and Mixter split, Poppy made her world debut. In 2018, Argo filed a lawsuit against Poppy and Mixter, accusing them of replicating a ‘Mars Argo knockoff’.
Flash forward to 2020: the Argo-Pereira-Mixter triangle have just settled their case out of court, and are seemingly ready to move on and never speak to one another ever again. Perhaps most notably, both women now accuse Mixter of emotional and psychological abuse and manipulation.
‘You shouldn’t be anything like me!’
This legal saga has long been a thorn in Poppy’s side. Although she distanced herself from Sinclair prior to the album’s release, you only need to notice his name in the writing credits to understand how fresh all this pain still is. If you can imagine Poppy sucking the poison out of her wound, I Disagree is where she’s spitting it back out.
Picking up where the tail end of Am I…? left off, this ten-track set is a head-on collision of heavy metal and candied vocals. The only reprieve is ‘Nothing I Need’, a synthwave palette cleanser that casually makes light of Argo’s accusations of plagiarism: ‘Someone else will always do it, they’ll do it better / Here’s your prize for competition’.
‘Anything Like Me’ is even more damning in its attempt to exorcise Mixter and Argo: ‘I’m everything she never was / Now everyone’s out for my blood’. As juicy as all this drama is, I’m not thrilled about getting kicks over a female fued in 2020. Luckily, every cry of ‘You shouldn’t be anything like me!’ doubles as both a swipe at Argo, as well as a warning to fans about the perils of being a public figure. This specious argument means my feminist ass can bop guilt-free, wahey!
Thundering guitars and throat-shredding screams are suitable metaphors for Poppy’s hostile rage – but it’s the album’s sudden lurches into chirpy, sing-song refrains that will give you whiplash. ‘Concrete’ is a song about being ‘buried six feet deep’ and ‘covered in concrete’ that also feels the need to burst into a Beach Boys-aping bridge.
But wait, there’s more! In its final lap, the song inexplicably slows down into corny 90s soft rock, transforming Poppy’s grisly request to be turned into a street into something that sounds hilariously wholesome.
Such an anarchic approach to songwriting and life in general is to be expected from an artist in Poppy’s position. I Disagree allows her to start a new decade unburdened by a troubling storyline that has stained her reputation. And yet, to an extent, it’s one that has defined some of her finest work.
Considering the singer is now a brunette (her natural colour) and currently conducting tour meet-and-greets with fans from an upright casket, it’s clear that some kind of strategic rebirth is in the works. Whether or not Pereira would openly agree, Poppy 1.0 still has inextricable ties to the visions of both Sinclair and Argo. If the character must die, this gruesome, cathartic, mini-masterpiece is a fitting eulogy.
And who knows? Perhaps the best is yet to come. As Poppy says, ‘We’ll be safe and sound when it all burns down’.
Add to library: Rare, People You Know, Lose You to Love Me, Look At Her Now
What’s to be done with this Selena Gomez? At best, she’s an impossibly gorgeous singer-actress-TV producer with impeccable taste in A&R teams.
At worst, the 27-year-old validates the views of every pop snob by living up to stale preconceptions of the modern popstar.
The voice? Paper thin! The songs? Calorie-free! Performance ability? Apathetic to the point of contempt for the institution of music as a whole!!!
Rare is Selena’s first album since the cool, wispy melodies of 2015’s Revival accidentally thrust her ahead of the electropop curve. Rather than grow and course-correct the most embarrassing aspects of her artistry, the campaign has so far been about Selena digging in her heels – which might explain her infamously stiff ‘dancing’ at the American Music Awards last November (a rare bit of promo that Team Gomez has all but scrubbed from the web).
As much as it pains me to admit, the impact Revival continues to have is difficult to overstate, inspiring everyone from Britney Spears to Camila Cabello (whose worldwide #1 ‘Havana’ pilfered from ‘Same Old Love’), and helped turn songwriter Julia Michaels into a Grammy-nommed star in her own right. I’d go as far as to argue that Selena’s ASMR tease ‘Hands to Myself’ helped pave the way for Billie Eilish’s claustrophobic hellscapes on the charts.
That Rare should stick largely to the same formula makes sense, both commercially and creatively. Once again, a crack team of songwriters and producers – including Ian ‘New Rules’ Kirkpatrick,Finneas ‘Brother of Billie Eilish’ O’Connell, and Revival masterminds Mattman & Robin – never let the airy, faintly tropical soundscapes overpower Selena’s pipes. There are even moments that appear to make light of their muse’s limited range, such as when shimmery glitchfest ‘Look At Her Now’ preps you for an emphatic chorus… only to drop a laughably basic ‘uhm-uhm-uhm’ refrain. It’s pop trolling at its catchiest.
When you’re as famous as Selena Gomez, ‘pleasant’ is all your music needs to be in order to gain traction. From echoey ballads (‘Lose You to Love Me’) and lavender-scented midtempos (‘Vulnerable’), right down to the occasional syncopated dance beat (‘Dance Again’, ‘Let Me Get Me’), Rare is blandly pleasant in its execution. ‘Kinda Crazy’ takes the piss with nauseating crazy/baby/shady/lately rhymes, but for the most part, no song on Rare has the audacity to be offensive. That may change come the day Selena must wheeze them out in a live setting.
An embittered electro rampage from the American country singer. The beat is so urgent, you won’t notice you’re dancing on scorched earth.
18. Chaka Khan – Hello Happiness
This feel-good floorfiller is no ‘I’m Every Woman’ or ‘I Feel For You’ – yet if all three songs showed up at the same party, they’d get along swimmingly.
17. Ariana Grande – NASA
Singing what might be the cleverest lyric of the year, Ariana offers the universe to a suffocatingly needy lover. Her price? Just a little space.
16. Mark Ronson (feat. Lykke Li) – Late Night Feelings
For camp melodrama, look no further than this gorgeous 70s-disco expedition. It basically stomps around swigging a glass of wine with mascara running down its face.
15. Charli XCX (feat. Big Freedia, CupcakKe, Brooke Candy & Pabllo Vittar) – Shake It
In this four-way battle royale between esteemed rappers, Charli plays the part of referee, regularly stepping into the ring to remind you to shake it.
14. Rina Sawayama – STFU!
‘STFU!’ bites back at casual racism with a fiery nü-metal-inspired assault.
13. Post Malone – Circles
The singer-rapper’s softboi mumbles are a perfect fit for Tame Impala-lite dream-pop.
12. Theophilus London – Cuba
A self-described ‘angry lovesong’, spewed out over a warped disco groove steeped in hip-hop fuzz.
11. Grimes & io – Violence
This trance-pop glitterbomb is relatively generic for Grimes. Yet her erotically-charged account of abuse – sung in eerie, bird-like trills – is something you’re unlikely to hear from any mainstream popstar.
10. Miley Cyrus, Swae Lee & Mike Will Made It – Party Up the Street
Low-key and hypnotic tropipop laced with Timbaland-esque BVs.
9. Lana Del Rey – hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but i have it
Dressing up existential dread in oldHollywood glamour is Lana Del Rey’s hallmark, but this superbly stark piano ballad doesn’t overindulge. Life sucks – yet hope persists.
Oh, and here’s a fantastic cover by my friend Shay Khan.
8. Stormzy – Vossi Bop
Does any lyric sum up 2019 better than ‘Fuck the government and fuck Boris’? Um, NOPE.
7. Tame Impala – It Might Be Time
Kevin Parker reinvents his rock-pop project’s neo-psychedelia, adding harsh industrial overtones to highlight the protagonist’s paranoid internal monologue.
6. Billie Eilish – bad guy
The opening beat thumps like some poor bastard who woke up in a coffin and is trying to bang his way out. The spooky post-chorus riff will go down as one of the decade’s most recognisable.
5. Tami T – Single Right Now
Over a churning bassline and synths that grow evermore anxious and chaotic, Swedish singer/producer and queer femme icon Tami T gives a brutal analysis of the quinntessential young person’s relationship trajectory (‘You wanna be single right now, but then you meet someone…’). The refrain is repeated but Tami swaps in the appropriate pronoun each round, making this song a safe space for everyone to cuss out their ex.
4. Sir Babygirl – Pink Lite
Sir Babygirl’s music harks back to 90s femme-fronted pop-rock, a magical era when riot-grrrl edge (think: Veruca Salt, Republica) was still commercially viable.
3. Fontaines D.C. – Boys In the Better Land
The Dublin rockers write a sneering post-punk postcard from the big smoke. Depictions of an Anglophobic taxi driver aren’t just colourfully written – they’re politically timely too.
2. Katy Perry – Never Really Over
Classic high-impact pop with a tongue-twisting chorus. I can confirm that it is very satisfying to memorise.
1. Lizzo – Truth Hurts
Yes, ‘Truth Hurts’ is technically a 2017 song. Yet watching this once-niche banger not only ascend to the summit of the US Hot 100, but also go on to become the longest-running #1 by a leading female rapper (tying at seven weeks with Iggy Azalea’s ‘Fancy’) was a massive win for the millions of music fans worldwidewho sees themselves in Lizzo.
The 31-year-old Detroit-born singer/rapper/flautist had been plugging away for years before hitting the big time in 2019, and she did so on a platform of love and compassion, both for ourselves and the people around us.
‘Truth Hurts’ might look like a sassy breakup anthem on paper – ‘Why all men be great ‘til they gotta be great?’ is a question the male race is yet to find a collective answer for – but it plays like a transcendent church sermon.
Lizzo isn’t the first popstar to evangelise emotional independence and preach self-help quips, but as a black, plus-size female rapper, the breadth of prejudices she has unfairly had to defy to get where she is today means that, for many people, she might be the first popstar they deem qualified enough to inspire them.
‘I absolutely wanna be the biggest in the world.’ This is the confessionAbel Tesfaye made to an A&R bigwig at Republic Records.
At the time, the singer, better known as The Weeknd, was reconciling with the relatively subdued response to his much-hyped debut, 2013’s Kiss Land. His switch from mercurial mixtape icon to major-label investment didn’t exactly go unnoticed, but Abel had a crystal-clear vision of where he wanted to be. In a word: everywhere.
And for a number of years, that’s exactly where The Weeknd could be found. Subsequent full-lengths 2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness and 2016’s Starboy became veritable blockbusters – the former nimbly juggling avant-R&B and Max Martin-honed pop confections, and the latter doing the same but enlisting a revitalised Daft Punk for a futuristic twist. Both spawned multiple smashes, and by the time Starboy scooped a Grammy for Best Urban Contemporary Album in 2018, The Weeknd did indeed seem like the biggest popstar in the world.
Yet as we know, pop music moves at a ferocious pace. With the dual single release of ‘Heartless’ and ‘Blinding Lights’, Abel isn’t defending his title, but rather using a calculated two-pronged strategy in order to reclaim it – one song for rhythmic radio, one for pop.
‘Heartless’ is classic Weeknd: Low-slung trap groove? Check. Depressing bass line? Check. Nasally, unapologetic trilling about pussy, money and generally being a bad boy? Cheque please! And it’s already Abel’s fourth US #1.
‘Blinding Lights’ is much better: a kaleidoscopic traipse through metropolitan nightlife, possessing a twinkling synth riff not at all dissimilar to A-ha’s ‘Take On Me’. It’s hard to imagine any of Abel’s male peers – or successors like Post Malone – resorting to such a reckless pop monster. That’s the thing about Abel: he just wants it more.
Listen to ‘Heartless’ and ‘Blinding Lights’ below: