Say something… anything: Timberlake and Swift’s Trumpian trap

Justin_Timberlake_ManOfTheWoods

‘Sometimes the greatest way to say something, is to say nothing at all…’

This is the major takeaway from Justin Timberlake‘s latest single. Not only does it cop a line from Ronan Keating, it also plays right into Trumpian rhetoric – the steadfast belief that you, as a public figure, have been misinterpreted, not misinformed.

The spectre of Taylor Swift’s ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, looms over Timberlake’s upcoming release Man of the Woods. Attacking the same free press that covered such PR hiccups as her infamous Grammys speech, and Kim K’s Snapchat exposé, the lyrics were embraced and tweeted by far right rag Breitbart.

In the context of their feed – and maybe Swift’s album, since she’s yet to denounce white supremacists – these words push the narrative that hardcore conservatives form America’s righteous oppressed, who’ve been shut out for the sake of political correctness and butthurt snowflakes.

Even if this wasn’t Swift’s intention, she made sure we’d never really know by imposing a media blackout throughout her reputation campaign. No interviews. No justifications. As she wrote in a letter to fans –‘There will be no further explanation. There will be just reputation.’

The difference between Swift and Timberlake is that he is engaging with wokeness. He just sucks at it. Earlier this month, he tweeted support for #TimesUp – despite recently working with Woody Allen. He also preceded the hashtag with ‘My wife is hot!’. Yes, really.

His post-apocalyptic video for ‘Supplies’, meanwhile, gave nondescript nods to Trump, Kim Jong-un et al, and appropriated protest culture with a glibness that would make Kylie Jenner’s Pepsi commercial jealous. Needless to say…

After enjoying a career full of privileged behaviour – letting Janet Jackson take the blame for Nipplegate, an ‘All Lives Matter’-flavoured response to BLM – Timberlake’s finally being challenged by voices with a newly-found platform. The advent of Black Twitter in particular has made him answerable to a community he’s so often pilfered from.

Rather than seize the opportunity to understand the nuances of these discussions and strengthen his participation, Timberlake has hung a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on his conscience for all to see. In his own words, he doesn’t want get to ‘caught up in the rhythm of it’ – because, by virtue of his skin colour, he can afford not to.

Perhaps my analysis is an overreaction, one wrought from an attempt to pin meaning to inexpressive songwriting. Throughout, Timberlake and guesting country star Chris Stapleton trade vague inanities that could literally be about anything – but it’s important to look at the line Timberlake is towing in his promotion for Man of the Woods.

While a politically-engaged Katy Perry returned with ‘purposeful pop’ last year, Timberlake is being purposefully inoffensive. Festooning his music with whisky-warm guitars and donning masc rust-belt chic, he’s not actively excluding listeners with conservative tastes – which is fine, music is for everyone – but coupled with his radio silence on key issues, the project sends a worrying and cynical message.

On February 4th, Timberlake will headline the Super Bowl LII halftime show. The odds of a statement that’s a tenth as compelling as Beyonce’s Black Panther tribute are low, but I’m open to surprises. Whatever happens on the night, Timberlake is right about one thing – if he continues to say nothing at all, it will speak volumes about who he really is.

 

Vince Staples’ “Big Fish Theory” makes a convincing case for his intrepid nature

vince staples

Collecting work from considerable talent, Vince Staples’ fantastic sophomore LP Big Fish Theory is a puzzle of rich, disparate dance influences – and no one’s in a hurry to put the pieces together.

Opener “Crabs In a Bucket” takes a minute to morph into witchy UK garage. The rapper’s eventual appearance scans as fleeting, though he ably fires back at white supremacy: “They don’t ever want to see the black man eat / Nails in the black man’s hands and feet.” In its final lap, the track goes for broke with a come-hither verse from Kilo Kish.

Even the swaggering crunk of “Big Fish” (“Counting up the hundreds by the thousands”) gives way to a rug-pulling soundbite from the late Amy Winehouse. Carried by pitter-patter percussion, “Alyssa Interlude” tastefully ties the beloved singer’s death to a loss that’s closer to home for Staples: “Sometimes, people disappear.

Swerving from ex-svengali No I.D (producer of 2015’s Summer ’06, and this year’s 4:44 by Jay-Z) and his stark experimental hip-hop was a gallant move by Staples.

There’s myriad collaborators and guest artists – fellow Comptonite Kendrick Lamar, Damon Albarn, ASAP Rocky  on board, but with just five credits, it’s Staples’ longtime friend / first-time creative partner Jack Sekoff who sets a clubby template for the 12-track set. Under his guidance, Big Fish Theory oozes like a Class A.

The clacking hip-house arrangements of “Love Can Be…” and “Party People” leave ample room for Staples’ smartass flow. He piledrives the political elite with quips like “Propaganda / Press pan the camera”, and on “BagBak”, incites a social revolt the youth could really get behind: “Tell the president to suck a dick / because ‘we own ya!’

Marrying SOPHIE’s unnerving cacophonies with Flume’s frosty future bass, “Yeah Right” is a veritable haunted house of a song. Rusty tin can drums, earthquaking bass and Kendrick Lamar await Staples in the shadows, but still he barges through. That he comes out fighting on the other side is testament to his intrepid nature.  

9/10

On new album “Witness”, Katy Perry works hard to earn attention

Katy Perry – Witness

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 in rethinking 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.

6.5/10