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.

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

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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:

‘STFU!’ by Rina Sawayama unites racial politics with nü-metal

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: