Add to playlist: ‘Never Really Over’, ‘Cry About It Later’, ‘Tucked’
Humbled bythe hostile reception to 2017’s mildly experimental Witness, Katy Perry plays to her strengths on fifth album Smile.
These twelve new songs chronicle the singer’s journey to finding her smile again, and address the clinical depression that followed her commercial wobbles with surprising candour, as illustrated by the ‘sad clown’ character Katy has adopted for the era.
While this is ripe material for more empowerment anthems à la ‘Firework’ and ‘Roar’, Smile doesn’t abandon the coquettish streak that launched her to superstardom with ‘I Kissed A Girl’. The result is a delightful pick’n’mix of sounds, guided by themes of resilience and gratitude.
‘Had a piece of humble pie / That ego check saved my life’, Katy half-raps on the title track, a strident, horn-driven salute to shifting priorities, built on an interpolation of ‘Jamboree’ by Naughty By Nature. Bizarrely, early vinyl pressings include a superior edit featuring Diddy.
Many factors played into Katy’s 2017 backlash. Some were petty (would it have even happened if she hadn’t dismantled her pin-up image?) but it didn’t help that Witness was severely lacking in the carefree uptempos that were once Katy’s speciality.
Almost by way of apology, the record opens with a one-two-three punch of pop perfection: last May’s ‘Never Really Over’, the melancholic 80s synthpop of ‘Cry About It Later’, and the European house of ‘Teary Eyes’.
Dance bops will woo the gays, but Katy needs the soccer moms back on side too, so Smile is obliged to lean into Adult Contemporary with mixed results.
‘Daisies’ is a dreamy folk-pop number about following your dreams. The sparse arrangement of ‘Resilient’ clashes with an intense vocal. On the beautiful, gospel-inspired ‘Only Love’, Katy shares how she would spend her last day on Earth: ‘I’d call my mother and tell her I’m sorry / I never call her back / I’d pour my heart and soul out into a letter / and send it to my dad.’
Smile might be a little too content to rehash the winning pop formula of Teenage Dream – which celebrates its 10th anniversary this week – but the fact that Katy Perry can pull it off without that record’s sonic architects Dr. Luke and Max Martin is certainly worth smiling about.
‘Say Something’ is a promising first taste of Kylie Minogue’s upcoming 15th studio album Disco, due early November.
Despite the album artwork serving retro 70s glamour, the single is more in line with the neo-disco sadbangers of Robyn and Carly Rae Jepsen. Minus the sadness.
In fact, ‘Say Something’ is as warm, plush and romantic as any Kylie fan could hope for.
Decked out with bubbly synths, cracking drums and an addictive guitar loop, the song’s first half chugs along nicely before two notable disruptions: (1) a chorus that lasts about a nanosecond, and (2) a third act devoted to a repeated refrain: ‘Love is love / It never ends / Can we all be as one again?’
These bold choices give ‘Say Something’ room to develop a more layered and expansive groove than its 3:32 runtime would suggest. Anchored by a spirited vocal performance, it’s yet another dose of dance floor decadence from pop’s perennial princess.
Out 31st July, the new double A-side single from emerging Welsh electronic duo Roughion launches their sound into the stratosphere.
‘Target the Moon’ and ‘Acid Test’ are squelchy acid house experiments and 100% club-ready – even if, at the time of writing, the world at large isn’t. Yet the production is so rich and animated that it also thrives in a domestic dance floor situation.
‘Target the Moon’ begins with an overture of strings, burbling synths, and a transmission from Cape Canaveral, during which an earnest voice outlines the imminent launch of a space probe. It’s a captivating two-minute build-up, and even when the beat drops and goes into hyperdrive, the track never loses its sophisticated sheen.
‘Acid Test’ is a playful bit of techno house, discharging dubstep-adjacent wubs in rapid succession. It’s an ideal tonic to the cerebral ‘Target the Moon’, culminating in a silly, spliced-together message from Donald Trump – although it wouldn’t be the most outrageous thing POTUS has said in 2020.
Add to playlist: ‘Cooler Back Then’, ‘Henny Harmon’, ‘On the Shore’, ‘Out Ahda’
Newcomer Jacqua Cooper has an ear for lo-fi techno beats with a stimulating hip-hop twist.
On his second LP, Confessions Without Words., the New York-born DJ/musician reveals his secrets across 21 doses of hard-hitting and (almost entirely) vocal-free dance music.
From trance and vaporwave, to industrial and future bass, the record leaves no electro subgenre behind – and at its finest moments, captures the raw, spontaneous energy of a clandestine rave.
Be warned: Cooper’s production style is rough and ready. The copious stock sound effects don’t always add to the experience, and even at their most pummelling, his instrumentals have a tendency to meander.
But when he hones in on a particular concept – such as the slinky trap of ‘Out Ahda’, or the corrupted tropical house of ‘Cycle’ – the results are hypnotic in a Kaytranada-meets-Ryan Hemsworth kind of way.
Despite the record’s sonic disarray, Cooper isn’t above nailing more commercial sounds: ‘Cooler Back Then’ dials up the sugary 90s trance nostalgia, while ‘On the Shore’ is picturesque balearic house. If you listen to anything from Confessions Without Words., make sure it’s the final four tracks, which make a particularly good case for Cooper’s melodic prowess.
Hey, after 21 tracks, ending on a high is no mean feat.
Add to playlist: ‘911’, ‘Rain On Me’, ‘Sour Candy’, ‘Babylon’
Chromatica, Lady Gaga’s seventh LP, is touted as a return to the fantastical synthpop she made her stage name with.
Club-focused and ballad-free, the record will only bolster Ms Steffani Germonotta’s status as a veteran hitmaker. After all, who among her generation of popstars is still securing Top 5 singles (‘Stupid Love’) and #1s (the french-house spectacular ‘Rain On Me’ featuring Ariana Grande)?
Yet on a musical level, Gaga and main collaborator Bloodpop rarely lean into the chaotic impulses that made her early work so disruptive. The album’s title and artwork promise a glimpse into the Academy Award winner’s steampunk-tinted view of the world – a place that’s neither dystopian or utopian, where ‘no one thing is greater than the other’.
It’s an antidote to the politically extremist reality we find ourselves living in, but what’s jarring is how this spirit of egalitarianism has bled into the production choices. In place of the sonic curveballs fans have come to expect (think: Born This Way’s industrial sleaze, Joanne’s lived-in country feel), Chromatica wears its neutrality as a badge of honour.
There is something resembling a narrative, divided into three acts, that may or may not be a play on Alice In Wonderland (then again, why else would the first lyric on your record be ‘My name isn’t Alice / But I’ll keep looking for Wonderland’?)Each act is preceded by a string arrangement – a portentous and oh-so-Gaga way to set the scene for 13 lightweight dance bops.
Gaga co-produced these segues, but elsewhere, she sticks solely to songwriting. Without her distinctively bonkers flourishes, too many of the tracks here feel flat, and undermine their otherwise towering toplines. ‘Free Woman’ and ‘Fun Tonight’ come with booming choruses that are disappointingly rendered as build-ups for a dated drop.
To its credit, Chromatica pulls off what many albums cannot – a superior second half. ‘911’ is a candid ode to Gaga’s antipsychotic medication (‘My biggest enemy is me / pop a 911’) backed by a filthy techno beat that leaves its theme of pill-poppin’ open to interpretation.
‘Sour Candy’ is instantly addictive, elevated by an appearance from K-pop girl group Blackpink and a Maya Jane Coles sample. ‘Babylon’ is essentially ‘Vogue’ with added saxophones and Gaga gives zero fucks about it: ‘Money don’t talk / Rip that song’
Elton John collaboration ‘Sine From Above’ explores the theory that our universe originated from a feminine soundwave (hence the ‘sine’) through intelligent imagery: ‘Then the signal split in two / the sound created stars like me and you / Before there was love / There was silence’. At just over four minutes in length, it somehow feels like an epic in the context of Chromatica – which only highlights how clipped and truncated some of these songs are by comparison.
10 years on from its release, Kelis’s EDM experiment is still an uplifting celebration of club culture and motherhood.
I wouldn’t normally consider will.i.am a staunch defender of arty and sophisticated dance-pop. This is a man who once thought it appropriate to rap ‘this beat is the shit / faeces!’ on a harrowing collaboration with J-Lo and Mick Jagger. Will is flawed, but I can’t begrudge anyone who helped bring one of my all-time favourite records to fruition.
In 2010, things were looking a bit rocky for Kelis. Her fourth album, 2006’s sprawling Kelis Was Here, failed to produce a single as inescapable as 2003’s career-defining ‘Milkshake’. Jive Records issued a bargain bin hits collection and parted ways with an R&B maverick caught between two extremes: too alt for the pop crowd and too pop for the alt crowd.
Kelis peaced out of the music industry, qualified as a saucier at Le Cordon Bleu, and fell pregnant towards the end of a fraught marriage with rapper Nas. She was pregnant with son Knight when she started recording what would become Flesh Tone in her garage. The indie dance project was originally developed with Cee-Lo Green, until a wise man named will.i.am persuaded Kelis to get back in the major label game with a deal on his own imprint via Interscope Records.
“The cool people know Kelis”
That’s right. He who once wrote a song about The Pussycat Dolls giving him sass for masturbating in public had the foresight to understand that Kelis’s disco reinvention would deserve the world’s attention. He even offered fan-girly soundbites like “the cool people know Kelis” (correct) and “The Black Eyed Peas are big; I think Kelis can be that big” (hmm).
Will’s PR bluster might have proved too optimistic, but his support helped secure an elite transatlantic team of DJs and producers, including David Guetta, Benny Banassi, Boys Noize, Free School and DJ Ammo.
Kelis’s brief was simple: make ‘em sweat. The idea conveniently aligned with the late 00s/early 10s EDM boom, when the likes of Guetta and Lady Gaga were beginning to normalise watered-down eurodance beats on US airwaves. Yet the execution was characteristically original – culminating in an uplifting celebration of club culture and motherhood.
Kelis and her nocturnal collective came equipped with decades of club expertise between them, and Flesh Tone doesn’t waste a drop.
It’s actually designed to play like a perfect 38-minute DJ set, offering nine straight-up bangers in a row, stitched together by intriguing segues. Only ‘Emancipate’’s bludgeoning chorus threatens to disrupt the flow, but even that kicks off with a brilliant opening line: ‘Let me tell you what love is / It’s when you meet each other halfway / I’m en route.’
From the sour computerised groans that power ‘Intro’, to the warm, flugelhorn-assisted disco finale of ‘Song for the Baby’, the album transports you to the foggiest, most hedonistic underground Berlin night club you can imagine.
The omnipresent four-on-the-floor beat rattles through your eardrums and your heart. Swathes of shapeshifting synths evoke a charged, almost claustrophobic night club atmosphere. On ‘Scream’, Kelis even tells us to ‘push back’. Ostensibly she’s referring to pushing back on the people who bring us down in day-to-day life, but the line could just as easily be her expert survival tip for not drowning in a sea of sweaty ravers.
After a decade of sporadicdancecollabs, Kelis relished the chance to become a fully-fledged dance floor dominatrix. Her voice is made for the genre – from husky belts and angelic harmonies, to icy spoken sections (‘22nd Century’ is prefaced by a reminder that ‘We… control… the dance… floor’).
A secret weapon
It’s rather beautiful to imagine Kelis adopting her new persona in the recording booth, pregnant with her first child, because that’s who she is singing to for the most part. Her songs encounter a medley of personal hurdles, most notably her toxic relationship with Nas, but almost every tale is punctuated with a triumph over adversity.
The solemn ‘Brave’ reflects on both the music industry and Kelis’s marriage (‘I had to give it up’), but it’s also blessed with a big, dumb Benny Benassi synth riff á la ‘Satisfaction’ that makes it impossible to take too seriously. Flesh Tone is optimistic out of pure necessity – that’s how Kelis wanted her baby to feel when they eventually listen to it.
The euphoria arguably peaks with ‘Acapella’, a thumping Guetta-produced smash that is still rivalled only by Madonna’s ‘Ray of Light’ as the most transcendent ode to maternal love to ever hit the dance floor.
But it’s just one of the many anthems that Knight can boast about inspiring as a zygote when he’s a little older. ‘Home’ sprays out trance synths that cut through like laser beams, and although ‘4th of July (Fireworks)’ has a storied history (an interpolation of a remix of a Canadian indie-rock number called ‘You’re My Heart’) you’d never be able to tell by its smooth beachside piano-house.
Few pop albums can match Flesh Tone’s synthesis of nosebleed electronica and raw vulnerability. It’s ironic that this 10th anniversary should arrive at a time when no one knows when we’ll next be in a position to socialise on a dance floor. But until mankind can safely share that connection again, this palpably human record will have to suffice.
Add to library: ‘Comme Des Garçons’, ‘XS’, ‘Paradisin’’
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-glossnoughties-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.
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’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.