‘Rare’ by Selena Gomez couldn’t sound more commonplace

Stream on Spotify

Rating: 5/10

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.

The 19 niftiest pop numbers of 2019

19. Sturgill Simpson – Sing Along

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 old Hollywood 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 worldwide who 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. 

The Weeknd’s new singles reveal his shrewd ambitions

I absolutely wanna be the biggest in the world.’ This is the confession Abel 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:

Billie Eilish’s ‘Everything I Wanted’ is gauzy and chilling

Image: Frazer Harrison / Getty for Coachella

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. 


Listen to ‘Everything I Wanted’ below:

Charli XCX’s outstanding new album is business as unusual

charli-xcx-charli-album

Stream on Spotify

Score: 9.0/10

Add to library: Pretty much everything hun

Featuring collaborations with Christine and the Queens, Troye Sivan, Lizzo, HAIM, and Sky Ferreira.

Booking festival stages and Taylor Swift support slots might be a breeze with a couple of transatlantic smashes in your back pocket. But Charli XCX is a popstar who evolves so quickly, and challenges her creative limits so regularly, that her most accessible work – think the punchy, shout-along hooks of ‘I Love It’ or ‘Boom Clap’ – is simply trite compared to her post-2014 pivot to PC Music’s hyper-futuristic robo-pop.

The conflict between these two opposing creative avenues has defined the last four years of Charli’s career: an agonising yet fruitful chapter of label interference, one scrapped third album, two critically-acclaimed mixtapes and an EP, plus an endless stream of singles.

After seven attempts at landing a hit, one of those singles, the Troye Sivan duet ‘1999’, miraculously climbed to #13 in the UK charts last year. Songs like that fluffy bit of Y2K-nostalgia porn aren’t what make long-gestating third album Charli a triumph. If you look at the popstar’s recent body of work as a hedonistic, orgy-fuelled beach resort – housed within an alien dimension where it rains champagne and snows cocaine – ‘1999’ conveys as much of that fun as an official website. But it’s probably the reason Charli has been released at all.

Because here’s the genius of Charli XCX. So deeply ingrained is her pop know-how that, alongside years of reckless experimentation, she has continued to write enough chart hits – for herself and others, see: song of the summer ‘Señorita’ by Shawn Mendes & Camila Cabello – and rack up enough industry goodwill to sneak the abstruse synth gimmickry of hipster darlings A.G. Cook, SOPHIE and Danny L Harle into the mainstream.

Take ‘Click’, for example. As soon as the aforementioned single’s gentrified house-pop makes its tidy exit, a protracted blast of feverish synth confirms we’re in business-as-unusual mode. Co-starring Kim Petras and eccentric Estonian rapper Tommy Cash, it’s a godless hymn honouring the whips, the gold, and the instant gratification that comes with being a rockstar: ‘Get what I want like “click” / They want a pic like “click”’. The cocky rhymes are propped up by simple, evocative percussion – until Cash starts rapping about Sudoku and hashtags, and the production becomes openly hostile around him. The final 30 seconds is a collection of twisted, nightmarish sounds typically associated with demonic possession, seemingly added for no other reason than for the amusement of scaring the shit out of any Taylor Swift fans picked up from the Reputation Tour. Bewildering moments like these are what make Charli a triumph.

Thankfully, there are plenty of them. The belligerent ‘Cross You Out’ slow-dances to 80s-prom drums and extraterrestrial rumblings. On ‘2099’, Charli backs up her self-anointed avant-garde status with high-tech, and highly-textured, production. Best of the lot is the Missy Elliot-recalling ‘Shake It’ – a four-way battle royale between Big Freedia, CupcakKe, Brooke Candy, and Pabllo Vittar. Charli plays the part of referee, regularly stepping into the ring to remind you to shake it. Each of these iterations comes flavoured in a new vocal effect, with the singer mutating into everything from a malfunctioning android to sentient liquid.

Whatever creative lane Charli XCX has navigated over the years, she has never stopped writing inherently catchy hooks. Charli is a world where aggressive futurism coexists with comparatively meek but charming single options like ‘White Mercedes’ and ‘Official’. That alone makes it one of the most important pop records of the 2010s, and – if I may be so bold – the next decade to come.

 

Katy Perry’s ‘Small Talk’ is an awkward single befitting an awkward career

kt-flawless2019 has been a solid showing for Katy Perry so far. Although we’re a while away from her own A Star Is Born moment, the pop icon has been steadily reestablishing her musical relevance.

First came the charmingly subtle Zedd collaboration ‘365’ on Valentine’s Day, followed by the breaktaking Top 20 hit ‘Never Really Over‘ in May, again produced by Zedd. No album has been confirmed, but there’s clearly some interest in the ‘Firework’ singer. 

Katy being Katy, however, there’s always a backlash lurking around the corner. Whatever blood magick she performed to clinch those nine #1s has lain dormant since 2014, making only a brief appearance last year to destroy the 81-year-old Catholic nun who died in court challenging the sale of a lush Los Angeles convent to Ms. Perry. RIP Sister Holzman!

The gaffe-prone star has spent the last few years harvesting karmic retributions for her expedient ascent to pop’s echelons in the late noughties, beginning with the floppage of 2017’s Witness.

This week, Josh Kloss – who turned heads as Katy’s rippled love interest in the video for ‘Teenage Dream’ nine years ago – accused her of multiple transgressions that took place during production, the most damning of which is an incident at a party where the star allegedly pulled down the model’s sweatpants to expose his penis to a crowd of people. 

The act Josh describes is an irrefutable violation, and his account of events demands an immediate and thought-out response from Katy, either publicly or in private. Yet even if this crisis is handled with the utmost sensitivity and care, there’s still the small matter of her new single being a bit shit.

Small Talk

Sexual harassment scandal pending, new single ‘Small Talk’ has a bit of momentum and goodwill to play with. The logical next step in cementing Katy’s radio renaissance would be unleashing another high-impact bop before summer fizzles out. 

Someone should probably check there isn’t a gas leak over at Capitol Records HQ, as only that could explain why they believe decidedly low-impact plinky-plonk scandipop is the horse to bet on. Admittedly, this is a new sound for Katy, but only because she was busy paddleboarding with a naked Orlando Bloom while every other popstar was driving it into the ground. 

Her attempt is interesting enough. The track wryly mocks the stilted dynamics between ex-lovers, using compact verses brimming with goofy observations to underline the singer’s nonchalance: ‘Isn’t it wild that I know your weakness? / And everybody at the party thinks that you’re the best since sliced bread’.

Assuming the bread in question is plain ol’ white, this analogy sums up the track’s flavour nicely. Co-writer and producer Charlie Puth adds pleasant touches to the sparse production (and beat boxes throughout the entire track, bless), but after 20+ plays, I can confirm that’s all ‘Small Talk’ is: pleasant.

At best, it’s a befittingly awkward single for an awkward chapter in Katy Perry’s career.

[Music] MNEK – Small Talk EP (review)

mnek

Available to buy on iTunes

Review: There is a common thrust to the most lucrative tier of singer-producer MNEK’s output. From the guest turn on Gorgon City’s “Ready For Your Love” early last year that marked his chart debut, to his soulful groans on Madonna’s recent single “Living For Love”, to his latest release “The Rhythm” – which enters the UK Top 40 this week at #38, becoming his most successful solo cut to date – the notion that stints as a reliable prop for diluted, radio-friendly house tracks conjured up in a record label boardroom are MNEK’s (née Uzo Emenike) bread-and-butter is a difficult one to resist.

Each of the aforementioned tracks are immensely enjoyable on their own terms, and had the Small Talk EP arrived bereft of its most eccentric, laterally-thinking moments, MNEK’s flair for sprightly melodies and pinning down potentially saccharine turns of phrase with puppy-eyed sincerity would still ensure his addition to the British music scene to be a more than welcome one.

But for those accustomed to hearing Uzo’s rich baritone over splashes of cotton-padded synth and a 4/4 beat, the nü-electroclash crush of opening track “Every Little Word” will scan as a startlingly left-field curio. Somewhere amidst a clunky fever dream of pounding drum machines, wobbly synth and gooey basslines lies an unshakably cute love song, and although not the most graceful example of MNEK’s pop prowess, the track contains a far more tangible sense of personality than “The Rhythm”. As serviceable as that finger-clicking single is, an over-reliance on the deep bass burble of its garage-flavoured breakdown in lieu of an actual chorus backs its headliner into the undesirable role of a slightly anonymous guest vocalist.

It should therefore come as no surprise that this EP’s sharpest moments begin to crystallise when his own idiosyncrasies converge with cut-glass songwriting. The criminally underrated 2014 single “Wrote a Song About You” is a disarmingly sweet highlight, retaining its emotionally-charged thump even when the tempo shifts up a gear and Uzo goes full-on diva for the final chorus. “In Your Clouds” brews its luxurious electro-R&B groove into a fluffy gust of pitched-up chants (“Take me to that place / Aaa-aah…”) and a whistling wind instrument, while “More Than A Miracle” sidesteps the generically clean dance leanings implied by its preamble in favour of a fractured bubblegum chorus melody relayed over a grime-echoing beat.

One certainly can’t fault the efficiency of this six-tracker. As the final notes of the sole ballad “Suddenly” are scaled to cap off this breathless overview of MNEK’s potential, the listener has a healthy knowledge of what exactly makes him special as an artist, and, perhaps just as importantly, how he could possibly blend into the mainstream should the duty call.

9.5/10