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.
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.
Are those the macho revs of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle you hear? Or the enthused purrs of KatyCats the world over?
‘Harleys In Hawaii’, the latest single from Katy Perry’s yet-to-be-announced fifth studio album, promises both.
Produced by Charlie Puth and Johann Carlsson, it’s a tantalising midtempo built on guitar plucks and woozy synths. Giving her sexiest performance in years, Katy invites her lover – who may or may not hold a Hells Angels membership card – to join her on a tropical escapade. According to the fanciful lyrics, she apparently makes this suggestion on a rather humdrum Sunday, because that’s what being a millionaire is like.
‘Harleys’ bridges the optimism of summer with the cool resistance of autumn, lying somewhere between Lana Del Rey’s ‘Doin’ Time’ and Camila Cabello’s ‘Havana’. Like the latter’s now-iconic ‘Havana-na-na-na’ hook, the titular island state is immortalised with its own equivalent: a breathy ‘Hawaii-aii-aii’. At least it should be a hit somewhere.
Watch Katy burn rubber in the ‘Harleys In Hawaii’ video below:
2019 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.
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 everyotherpopstar 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.
Katy Perry’s latest single takes the tastiest morsels of her signature Big Mac pop, rustles up a fresh salad of Scandi influences, and serves up a surprisingly nourishing meal.
As the pop icon’s tentative return to the charts after enduring the bloodthirsty backlash sparked by 2017’s Witness, ‘Never Really Over’ obviously has some commercial boxes to tick. Produced by Zedd and Dreamlab, the verses are standard tropipop and tailor-made for Spotify playlists, as Katy meekly describes a relationship she can’t shake. But then something magical happens…
00:29 Katy starts belting. It sounds like ‘Roar’ but less embarrassing.
00:36 Katy belts the name of the song. This definitely isn’t ‘Roar’. You’re listening to THE NEW KATY PERRY. She flopped hard and now the quality control is on lock!
A lot of the song’s beauty can be attributed to its sampling of ‘Love You Like That’ by Norwegian singer Dagny. Katy somehow adds more words to that 2017 blog hit’s tongue-twisting chorus, unleashing a barrage of crisp, stuttering synths and addictive iterations of the word ‘over’ (there are 12 in this part alone).
This momentum is taken to further heights as the song shifts into a sublime middle eight that clobbers you with memories of ‘Teenage Dream’, particularly the potent Americana of its ‘Let you put your hands on me in my skin-tight jeans’ hook. Yeah, Katy went there.
Crucially, ‘Never Really Over’ comes packaged with a strong media narrative, a weapon Katy has not had in her holster for some time. Do lyrics such as ‘We were such a mess, but wasn’t it the best?’ refer to her once-tumultuous romance with fiancé Orlando Bloom? Or are they a plea to the casual single-buying fans who used to keep her record sales afloat via album-equivalent units?
“It doesn’t matter where you were from,” Katy Perry told fans as she wound down her four-day Witness World Wide live-stream, “It matters what you grow into”. Considering she was born to Pentecostal pastors, Perry’s metamorphosis into the pin-up poster girl for the centre-left is one of pop’s most fascinating.
Perry won’t get the props she deserves for “Chained to the Rhythm” – whipping up woke-politics and rainbow reggae-disco to create a hit with a solid message. Lyrically, it’s a frown at individualism and a wink at social consciousness. Musically, it’s a fresh update of her sound.
Many will decry her album campaign’s narrative as divisive, but this being Katy Perry, Witness isn’t that complex. On “Chained…”, she spends half her time asking questions (“Are we tone-deaf?” – Katy, you in danger girl) and rhyming “bubble” with “trouble”.
Perry’s always been style-over-substance, and when you’ve got industry heavyweights (Max Martin, Mike Will Made It) and budding virtuosos (Jack Garrett, Purity Ring) on speed dial, that’s not a bad thing.
“Hey Hey Hey” is a feminist sandstorm with ropy lyrics delivered in a drunk-cheerleader drawl. It’s elevated by a grinding dubstep bassline and an up-yours appeal. Synthpop whizz-kids Purity Ring carve trance ballad “Bigger Than Me” – written after Hillary Clinton’s election defeat – like an ice sculpture.
From a distance, “Bigger Than Me”, “Swish Swish” featuring Nicki Minaj, and the unironically repetitive “Déjà Vu” echo the UK’s 2013 house revival. Of all the trends to draw from, it’s a durable one, but it does narrow the album’s commercial prospects.
Naturally, it’s when Perry does away with the flashy production that Witness really stumbles. The three ballads suffer from clunky phrasing (“I struggle / I juggle”), even when the choruses soar. That said, “Mind Maze” is a pristine take on The Knife circa Silent Shout, yet an utter bore melodically.
Witness occasionally excels inrethinking Perry’s creamy-tits brand of pop for 2017’s more subdued airwaves. “Tsunami” is a spongy bump-and-grind, making for a great one-two punch with the cherry-sweet banger “Bon Appétit”. “Roulette” spins the Tinder/Grindr experience (“I drop a pin to my location”) into an 80s-pop headrush.
Perry owes a debt to her guest stars, but the solo title track is a revelation. It’s the ideal intersection between her pop and ‘conscious’ selves – topping bubbling electronica and graceful piano with a hook of “Can I get a witness?” that begs for a response. As messy as Witness can be, songs like this show how Perry could conceivably earn one’s attention.
Forget fresh – Katy Perry’s “Bon Appétit” is practically antiseptic. That kitsch title comes with her signature lowbrow wink, but this electropop parfait has a cold, tart centre. Hackneyed ‘food-as-vagina’ puns are deadpanned in an alluring whisper. Eurodance synths stabs come thin and quick, and prick like a needle.
One of the song’s bigger risks may be the inclusion of hip-hop trio Migos. Following the streaming monster “Bad and Boujee”, Quavo, Takeoff and Offset are hot property, but their off-colour remarks about gay rapper iLoveMakonnen should raise brows – particularly as Katy’s own supposed brushes with bigotry have recently emerged.
The good news is that Perry and Migos seem to be on the same prog-pop wavelength. She certainly makes them feel at home, with the house beat dropping into chill trap for a mercurial four-part verse. Speaking of drops, producer Max Martin lands a doozy for Katy’s base but velcro-like chorus: “Got me spread like a buffet / Bon appétit, baby!”
“Chained to the Rhythm” is the closest Katy Perry has come to a political statement. Over an italo-disco groove reminiscent of Carly Simon’s “Why”, the singer both condones and condemns a generation adept at blocking out the world’s woes.
Producer Max Martin doesn’t budge from his power-pop formula, swaddling Perry’s epiphanies in pastel synths and slippery bass. At times it even works as a snarky endorsement of cheap escapism (“Put your rose-coloured glasses on, and party on”).
The chorus is wordy and elastic, ending on a clunky hook that betrays Sia’s co-writing credit. Perry’s moral awakening is perhaps best summed up by Skip Marley (grandson of Bob) in a rousing and hopeful verse: “We’re about to riot / they woke up the lions!”
Like grief, the build-up to the National Football League’s crowning point yields a series of emotional stages to wade through. As a relative NFL neophyte, each year I am cyclically forced to come to terms with the fact that America’s ever-increasingly popular television event has very little to do with bowling – the one sport we can actually understand – and it is annually left to the promise of a glittery Halftime extravaganza to extinguish the disappointment that always seems to follow.
Instead of adhering to tradition by sourcing a dodgy stream of the musical centrepiece after being tipped off about a popstar’s imminent appearance through Twitter, on Sunday we treated ourselves to the full four-hour Super Bowl experience. Maybe it was down to the fact that our coverage came courtesy of Britain’s Channel 4, but the presentation felt devoid of the garish Americana we had been anticipating. The inherently stop-start nature of American Football – ten-minute bursts of ball-chasing sandwiched between pointlessly speculative studio-based commentary – doesn’t exactly lend itself to a thrilling viewing experience, so I had accepted that some tedium was a given, but the overall atmosphere within Phoenix Stadium seemed oddly non-existent.
That was of course before Katy Perry took to the stage. With its notorious aversion to live instrumentation and vocals, the Halftime show may seem tailor made for a star as gloriously unpretentious as Perry, allowing the thirty year-old hit-maker to play to her strengths, which coincidently do not include live singing and strenuous choreography. But what most people do not realise is that Perry has shown herself to be a very competent performer in more intimate settings on more than one occasion, so the best a fan could hope for as the singer’s big moment loomed closer was for her to not to be swallowed up in the spectacle that would inevitably ensue. Her entrance via a silver polygonally sculpted lion amidst a sea of luminous balloons to the tune of “Roar” set the tone of wacky opulence, with Jeremy Scott’s chintzy girl-on-fire dress well matched to the opening number’s call-to-arms vigour.
Perry followed it up with “Dark Horse”, that other megahit from her 2013 album PRISM, strutting atop a giant screen displaying a see-sawing chessboard with some humanoid chess-piece friends. Lenny Kravitz’s dropped in for an unexpectedly electrifying cameo on “I Kissed A Girl”, his thick guitar thrashes adding some welcome meat to the track’s bones. Next up was “Teenage Dream” – the least gimmicky and subsequently best single to be lifted from its behemoth of a parent album – which Perry took to a self-consciously weird, Yo Gabba Gabba!-esque beach set-up to deliver. The soon-to-be-timeless pop-rock anthem deserved its own staging as opposed to being reduced to a glorified preamble to “California Gurls”, but it was hard to not to raise a smile at the sight of Perry, complete with beach umbrella breasts, interact with plush sharks and beach paraphernalia when miming along to her dumbest single. The attention to detail throughout the production was impressive, right down to the microphones that were styled to match each individual outfit.
It is perhaps just as well that Perry had no intention of launching a new single off the back of the performance, as when Missy Elliot emerged looking like Janet Jackson circa Rhythm Nation 1814 to perform a stupefyingly brilliant “Get Your Freak On” / “Work It” / “Lose Control” medley, it suddenly became all-too easy to forget just whose show this was supposed to be. Past performers have been burned in unexpected ways by their guests before, but if Perry was jealous of Missy’s attention-grabbing turn, it certainly didn’t show as she bopped and hooted along like only a true fan could. Some may call their reluctance to segue into the Missy remix of “Last Friday Night” a missed opportunity, but that collaboration was just one of the rapper’s many creative low points since her halcyon days ended with 2006’s singles compilation Respect M.E. and was wise to leave undisturbed.
If the thought of Katy Perry drawing her Super Bowl Halftime concert to a close by ‘belting’ out “Firework” while riding around in mid-air on a – you guessed it! – firework emoji come to life seems a bit too predictable, then perhaps you’re forgetting that the catalyst for her mammoth success so far has been an enthusiastic adherence to formula. Perry has seen what happened to Lady Gaga – whose self-alienation from the public pretty much ran parallel to Katy’s own ascendance to pop’s upper echelons – and has since shown herself to be one of the few popstars who rarely fails to give the people what they want. What those behind the Super Bowl Halftime Show want is predictability, and as an event that must cater to such a humbling array of demographics, it is one of the few events where what the public wants and needs align perfectly. Perry’s somewhat bland reliability may have made her a frontrunner for the competitive slot, but it was the professionalism she demonstrated on Sunday night that proved her to be a worthy choice. RG
Review: There was a delightfully abrasive moment during Nicki Minaj’s guest turn on Ciara’s 2014 single “I’m Out” where talk of “big fat titties when they’re hangin’ out my tank-top” unexpectedly scanned as an ideological move that only the Trinidadian rapper could make. There was nothing smart about the image the lyric created, while the slippery zaniness with which it was delivered rendered it deliberately unsexy. But with Minaj’s name now synonymous with the current hip-hop landscape, it seemed she had shrewdly adopted the cartoonish arrogance of buddies Lil Wayne, Kanye et al in a manner that was apathetic to their male gaze, with indecorous terms such as “fat” and “hanging” instead holding up a positive reflection of the wordsmith’s perceptible body image.
This crass and brazen expression of sexuality was somewhat built upon on “Anaconda”, the inescapable, Sir Mix-A-Lot-sampling summer hit that served as the The Pinkprint‘s second single. The difference this time was that everything about “Anaconda” – from its meme-magnet artwork to its risibly gratuitous video demanded both our attention and our approval. The track’s reliance on creeping guitar plucks and culturally-embedded lyrics derived from “Baby Got Back” was disappointing given the manic energy Minaj poured into verses that stand toe-to-toe with similarly globe-trotting accounts of sexual conquests in Afroman’s “Crazy Rap” and Lil Kim’s “How Many Licks”. The Pinkprint’s clever sequencing follows it up with the EDM headache “The Night Is Still Young”, allowing for an immediate comparison that narrowly spares “Anaconda” from being labeled the collection’s most reductive effort.
This conspicuous pair of chart-friendly contingency plans are undoubtedly the album’s nadir, as even despite additional smatterings of on-trend radio fodder – such as the “Dark Horse”-aping Dr. Luke production “Get On Your Knees”, boosted by a sensual vocal from hook girl Ariana Grande – The Pinkprint primarily divides its attention between introspective mid-tempo R&B and tough, focused exercises in trap-inflected hip-hop. It’s an occasionally jarring dichotomy, but the overarching quality of the music allows such sins to be forgiven. Giving credence to her alleged Enya inspiration, “All Things Go” and “I Lied” get things off to a slow, ethereal start, but the lack of posturing within Minaj’s sensitive verses is refreshing. The similarly styled “The Crying Game” has prickly rock undertones that help further animate Jessie Ware’s bizarrely uncredited turn on the song’s chorus.
On the ballsier half of the album, “Trini Dem Girls” proposes exoticism (“Jamaica dem girls gonna park the pum pum”) over a laudably colourless, handclap-heavy beat, “Four Door Aventador” casts a spell with its mumbled chorus and smoky atmosphere, while the pondering trap beat of third single “Only”, featuring Drake, Lil Wayne and Chris Brown, oscillates between mild interest and tedium depending on who’s on the mic. (Note: Both Drake and Lil Wayne are better utilised on the twerk-ready iTunes bonus track “Truffle Butter”.)
On The Pinkprint, Minaj has refined almost every branch of her musical output, with the notable exception of her adventures in EDM, which really should have been left to fester on 2010’s Roman Reloaded. Its quieter moments surpass the aural mush she peddled on her debut, while the lion’s share of the more overtly hip-hop tracks show a sense of conviction unseen since “Roman’s Revenge”. Our only gripe is with a title that stands as nothing more than a tip of the hat to Jay-Z‘s The Blueprint. Sure, every fingerprint may be unique, but shouldn’t a woman as talented as Minaj be looking to leave a bigger mark on the world?