First off, whatever Lily Allen might tweet at you, “Hard Out Here” is not rubbish. “Air Balloon” and “L8 CMMR,” sure, if “pleasantly inconsequential” passes for rubbish these days. “Our Time,” maybe, in that it lacks Allen’s usual punch. But “Hard Out Here,” the first song Allen released from the album we later learned would be called Sheezus, the one that spawned one of those racism controversies that have become all too common lately, is a delight. Lyrics-wise, it hits a bunch of your basic feminist talking points cleverly enough to remind you that, yes, sexism still exists and yes, so does Lily Allen. It was exactly the sort of sassy, self-aware pop song Allen made her name on, infused with flashes of hip-hop and dance-pop and buoyed by whispery melodies that stick with you longer than the punchlines. Allen is the most hyperliteral pop star of her generation, always one to project her opinions brazenly and playfully. Even when she’s being sardonic, as on 2009’s “The Fear,” there’s no mistaking her intentions. On “Hard Out Here,” she even spelled that much out: “And if you can’t detect the sarcasm, you’ve misunderstood.”
But Allen has been misunderstood a lot lately, mostly for reasons she could have prevented. She drew lots of fire for “Hard Out Here,” which she should have anticipated as a white woman surrounding herself with exclusively black dancers in the post-Miley era. Then she caught shit for agreeing with a Twitter commenter that her recent run of singles was “rubbish” and suggesting that her label was forcing her to release weaker material, which, again, was a reasonable cause for ridicule; why would she admit she didn’t like her own songs? I even understand why some people responded negatively to “Sheezus,” her new album’s fascinating DJ Dahi-produced title track and opening number. In the video Allen, looking not unlike Rebecca Romijn as Mystique thanks to digital effects, carries on at length about the menstrual cycle and names off all the pop stars she’d like to rule over. It’s the Kendrick Lamar “Control” verse of insecure aspirational pop star anthems. I enjoy the song, but I also sympathize when Grantland’s Emily Yoshida laments, “Why does she ‘wanna’ be Sheezus? Shouldn’t she already be declaring herself Sheezus? C’mon, Lily, own it, dammit!”
All of that criticism at least seemed fair, if a little overblown. Allen has fumbled her way through the promotion for Sheezus — promotion that, if you believe the lyrics on album tracks such as “Insincerely Yours” and “Take My Place,” she doesn’t really want to do. Allen seems to be saying she’d be happier at home with her husband and the two kids they’ve had since Allen’s last album, 2009’s It’s Not Me, It’s You. For whatever reason, she put herself out there again after several years of private life, so now she has to deal with the scrutiny that comes with being a celebrity — particularly a big-mouthed celebrity. That’s fair game. It’s what she signed up for. But when the internet made an uproar about Allen dressing up like Beyoncé and doing a killer impression during a lip-synced performance of “Drunk In Love,” it became clear that mocking Allen has become a sport and people will take any opportunity to pile on. Call me
crazy Patrick Stickles if you must, but I think Allen’s getting more shit than she deserves, and I suspect it’s about to continue when the reviews for Sheezus start rolling in next week.
I say that because Sheezus is a puzzling piece of work, but also because I think it’s brilliant in its own way. Allen spends extensive portions of the run time singing about surfing the internet. On “URL Badman,” she names off numerous media outlets and wages war on online commenters over zany dubstep drops, while “Life For Me” is basically just about watching TV and checking Facebook after caring for her kids. The aforementioned “Insincerely Yours” and “Take My Place” are all about how Allen wishes she could be at home away from this pop-star business. “L8 CMMR” is about her husband’s prowess in bed; yet another ode to her spouse is the crude, country-inflected Miley-Cyrus-style monogenre rave-up called “As Long As I’ve Got You.” That’s followed by “Close Your Eyes,” an R&B pop song that takes me back to Brandy and Monica’s heyday, on which Allen tells her lover, “Tonight you’re my Hova.”
The resulting composite is a strikingly realistic portrayal of the modern life’s mundanity and its simple pleasures. Parts of it come off as banal, but that’s reality for many people in 2014: a pleasant but unremarkable home life spiced up by online drama, celebrity worship, constant connection to technology, and maybe a girls’ or boys’ night here and there. Call her a basic bitch if you must, but Allen has essentially delivered her own contribution to the domestic pop genre that’s been flourishing since The 20/20 Experience and carried on through BEYONCÉ. Like Real Estate’s, Allen’s version of married life is far less glamorous than what Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé presented, and more so than any of them, hers admits that occasionally some confusion creeps in amongst the contentment. Despite her claim that she wants to be pop’s top diva, everything about the album suggests that she’d rather be at home commenting on the likes of RiRi, Gaga and Lorde than out here competing with them. (It’s hard out here, after all.) Whether she meant to or not, Allen has assembled a meaningful portrait of modern life. In that case, come to think of it, of course it seems like rubbish.
The latest winner of the Finishing Second To Frozen sweepstakes is Future, whose Honest beat out Iggy Azalea’s The New Classic by the narrowest of margins — less than 1,000 copies! — for the #2 spot on the Billboard 200 this week. Future moved about 53,000 copies of that dope compared to about 52,000 in sales for Azalea. (As Billboard notes, Future handily outsold Azalea in terms of physical CDs, whereas .) They make an intriguing pair, don’t they? How long until they inevitably duet? Other top 10 debuts include Neon Trees’ Pop Psychology (#6, 19,000 copies) and two live albums: the Nashville cast’s Nashville: On The Record (#8, 18,000) and Christian worship band Bethel Music’s You Make Me Brave: Live At The Civic (#10, 14,000). Pharrell (#4), August Alsina (#5), Luke Bryan (#7), and Lorde (#9) are in there too.
The Frozen soundtrack, meanwhile, continues cruising unchallenged at #1 with 115,000 copies sold — more than double what any other album sold last week. It’s now topped the charts for 12 nonconsecutive weeks — only the eighth album to stay #1 that long since the SoundScan era began in 1991. It ascends to 2.5 million in total sales and is the first album to sell 2 million copies in 2014; no other release has even made it to 1 million yet.
Azalea is also making a strong showing on the Hot 100 singles chart with her Charli XCX duet “Fancy.” The song rises to #7 this week, which Billboard tells us marks the first time a female rapper made it to the top 10 with her first Hot 100 single since M.I.A. went to #4 with “Paper Planes” in 2008. “Fancy” is also the first time a lady MC has been in the top 10 at all since Nicki Minaj’s Justin Bieber duet “Beauty And A Beat” went to #5 in January 2013. Azalea will likely have a second song in the top 10 next week when “Problem,” her song with Ariana Grande, enters the chart.
The top of the singles chart, though, remains in Pharrell’s stranglehold. “Happy” finishes at #1 for the tenth straight week, followed by John Legend’s “All Of Me” and a trio of tunes featuring Atlanta rappers: Katy Perry and Juicy J’s “Dark Horse,” Jason Derulo and 2 Chainz’s “Talk Dirty,” and DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What.” Idina Menzel’s Frozen stunner “Let It Go” is at #6, and the rest of the top 10 includes Bastille, Justin Timberlake, and Chris Brown.
Ariana Grande – “Problem” (Feat. Iggy Azalea)
Saucy sax hooks coming back in a big way post “Thrift Shop”! First it was Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty,” then the digital equivalent in “Turn Down For What.” Now this new Ariana Grande/Iggy Azalea single has adopted the freewheeling brass blast as its weapon of choice. Also: This song will be huge. If anybody in the current landscape is going to unseat Pharrell’s “Happy” atop the singles chart, it’s this.
DJ Snake & Lil Jon – “Turn Down For What (Remix)” (Feat. Juicy J, 2 Chainz, & French Montana)
Speaking of “Turn Down For What,” this all-star remix was inevitable, but these other guys can’t match the intensity that made this such a great comeback vehicle for Lil Jon in the first place. Still always fun to pile a bunch of A-list rappers onto a popular beat, though.
MKTO – “American Dream”
Musically, “American Dream” is cloying post-Fray emotive piano pop crossed with faceless post-Flo Rida pop-rap — so, not that appealing. Conceptually, though, I like the idea of these fresh-faced kids bemoaning the hollowness of the American myths they learned from all these classic songs, from “Born To Run” to “Jack & Diane” to (yes!) Phantom Planet’s “California.”
Christina Grimmie – “Hold On, We’re Going Home”
Grimmie is a contestant on The Voice this season, and her cover of Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” which sounds every bit like a reality singing competition cover but also (pleasingly) a little like Paramore, went to #3 on the iTunes singles chart.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- The Beyoncé-like release strategy Mariah Carey hinted at for her next album is not happening. (And frankly, if you tell people about it beforehand, it’s not a Beyoncé-like release strategy.) [Billboard]
- Ed Sheeran is working on a collaborative double-album with… the Game? [MTV]
- The Today show released the schedule for its summer concert series. [Popjustice]
- Is Adam Lambert really worthy of a greatest hits collection? [PopCrush]
- A former bodyguard is suing Rihanna for defamation. [TMZ]
- Robbie Williams won’t take part in the Take That reunion. (Take that, Take That!) [The Mirror]
- LeAnn Rimes underwent surgery for a “seriously painful hangnail.” [Just Jared]