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 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?’ will forever be a question the male race must 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:
Rina Sawayama is a queer Japanese-English woman living in the public eye, so it’s depressingly easy to imagine her absorbing microaggressions from clueless whites every other day.
‘STFU!’ – the first single from her upcoming debut – bites back at the ignorami and the irresponsible political rhetoric deployed to embolden them with a fiery nü-metal-inspired assault.
If, like me, you’re watching the UK general election unfold through your fingers, then this is the anthem you need in your life. There are juicy injections of bubblegum, but this is a decisively heavy track, in sound and in spirit.
The music video uses a cringey first date skit to illustrate the cruel, casual bigotry that POC regularly endure. Actor and comedian Ben Ashenden mines laughs as a tragic Asian fetishist reeling off all the weeaboo hallmarks: Kill Bill, Wagamamas, a work-in-progress script about ‘a little Japanese woman’. Needless to say, Rina’s unlikely marriage of racial politics with nü-metal shuts him the fuck up.
Watch Rina Sawayama go full-on Samara-from-The Grudge in the ‘STFU!’ music video below:
2019 belonged to Billie Eilish. If you don’t agree, then you haven’t been paying attention.
Debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? expertly elevated the singer’s dark whisper-pop to mainstream palatability without compromising an ounce of its distinctive, trap-adjacent gloom. At just 17 years of age, Billie has racked up over 15 million streams worldwide, played acclaimed sets at Coachella and Glastonbury, scored a US #1 with ‘Bad Guy’, and embedded herself in the public consciousness as a Gen Z icon – thanks in part to a relaxed, highly attainable fashion sense.
The title of her new single ‘Everything I Wanted’ likely refers to this rapid rise to fame, and lo and behold, it has come at a cost to her mental health. Over the gentlest of beats – a notable departure from When We…’s bass-heavy menace – Billie acknowledges the pressures and vitriol she faces as a young woman in the public eye. She recounts suicidal dreams, and lambastes the dehumanising language used to discuss her on social media: ‘They called me weak, like I’m not somebody’s daughter’.
At its heart, ‘Everything I Wanted’ is a love song dedicated to the person you wake up next to after a bad dream. But a pessimistic message lingers long after it’s over: when Billie falls asleep, she goes somewhere very dark indeed.