The Week In Pop: Aloe Blacc’s Spirit-Dampening Star Turn
“Don’t chase the money,” Aloe Blacc intones, in a Sam Cooke croon over a Stevie Wonder romp, about halfway through his new album Lift Your Spirit. “You can’t chase the money,” he pleads. What exactly has Blacc been doing these past few years, then? This is a guy who broke through to TV sync ubiquity on the strength of a workingman’s lament called “I Need A Dollar” and then spent the interim pursuing it at all costs. He is living proof that you can chase the money.
Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III, a Panamanian American from Orange County, used to be a genuine weirdo on wax. He came up as the rapping half of the late-’90s/early aughts underground rap duo Emanon, taking the name Aloe Blacc and spinning competent conscious bars over jazz samples. That was standard fare for the era; not until he refashioned himself as a genre-flouting soul singer and signed with grimy leftfield hip-hop hub Stones Throw for solo debut Shine Through did Aloe Blacc fly his freak flag. Critic Sean Fennessey called him “a new sort of soul artist — one unafraid to pierce an otherwise rigid genre’s decaying convention.” The description was apt. Shine Through was bursting with ideas and dismissive of stylistic parameters — experimental, but not at the expense of songwriting. Blacc was Pharrell on a Broken Social Scene bender, a scrapbook soul man with boundless creative potential.
But the Aloe Blacc of Shine Through also had limited commercial prospects. Rather than languish as your favorite psychedelic soul man’s favorite psychedelic soul man, he streamlined his sound on 2010’s Good Things, taking a page from CeeLo Green’s 21st century Motown without becoming a human cartoon. The record was a lot more reverent, but Blacc remained a performer with personality, trading Shine Through’s hazy, deconstructed “A Change Is Gonna Come” for a groovy Sly Stone take on “Femme Fatale.” Good Things proved Aloe Blacc could do smooth as well as he could do eccentric. More importantly, it proved he could write hits. Lead track “I Need A Dollar” was undeniable, the kind of instantly memorable toe-tapper that transforms careers. It became the theme music for HBO’s How To Make It In America and appeared in a Boost Mobile commercial. It made Blacc bankable.
He invested that industry cred in “Wake Me Up,” a collaboration with the superstar Swedish dance producer Avicii that showed Blacc could merge his visionary tendencies with his populist powers. “Wake Me Up” was the gaudiest thing Blacc’s ever recorded, a mashup of post-Mumford folk-pop and festival-crushing EDM that made no secret of its intentions to rule the world. The song was Frankenstein’s monogenre, shamelessly combining the young decade’s two most dominant strains of pop music without regard for taste. Like all the most potent pioneering pop music, it felt so gauche until it felt so good. “Wake Me Up” went to #2 and became an inescapable part of 2013’s fabric. By teaming with one of the world’s richest DJs, the “I Need A Dollar” singer made a fortune.
That’s totally fine. I don’t begrudge Blacc for going pop, especially in such ballsy fashion. In its own way, “Wake Me Up” was as unrepentantly weird as anything he’d ever released. He and Avicii came up with something that had never been done before, and in doing so Blacc demonstrated that he could master any genre he chooses. That’s why Lift Your Spirit — out last fall in Europe and next week in the US — is so depressing: It finds one of modern music’s most prodigious risk-takers playing it utterly, unconscionably safe.
Consider “The Man,” Lift Your Spirit’s victory lap of a lead single. “The Man” flips Elton John’s heartrending tribute “Your Song” into a celebration of self. It is a national anthem of empty nostalgia and craven narcissism, a post-Lupe fiasco of bloat and meaninglessness, the righteous justification for a fuck-millennials thinkpiece waiting to be written. Musically and lyrically, it is the sound of Blacc embracing his inner will.i.am. “The Man” is notable mainly for crossbreeding clichés as audaciously as “Wake Me Up” crossbred genres. It’s an orchard of platitudes for the picking. “I played my cards, and I didn’t fold/ Well it ain’t that hard when you’ve got soul.” Tell ‘em, Aloe! “There’s a thin line between love and hate/ Is you really real, or is you really fake?” Preach!
Compared to the rest of Lift Your Spirit, though, “The Man” is a masterpiece. That song at least sounds state-of-the-art, whereas most of this album is built from a brand of smoothed-over retro revivalism even Ne-Yo wouldn’t touch. “The Answer Is Love” is lite-funk refuse. “Red Velvet Seat” is pure Bublé. The surf guitar/gospel choir mash “Can You Do This” is Gnarls Barkley a decade too late, and “Owe It All” is gospel Muzak. Blacc fares slightly better with the theatrical “The Hand Is Quicker” and “Timebomb,” but those too are basically toothless facsimiles of decades-old sounds designed for the lowest common denominator. Perversely, the former rapper is at his best here when returning to his Phillip Phillips pose from “Wake Me Up.” That song appears minus Avicii’s untz-untz sheen and holds its own, followed by “Here Today,” a passable run at the same style. It’s indicative of Blacc’s peculiar skill set that he’s doing his best work these days in the sonic territory farthest from where he started. Unfortunately, the title track is more characteristic of this project in that it lacks character. It’s soul music with precious little soul.
Blacc has proven repeatedly that he’s capable of entrancing anyone in earshot when he pushes the limits of pop, and with “I Need A Dollar,” he showed he can toe the traditionalist line without compromising his voice. That’s why it’s so tragic that Lift Your Spirit could pass for the work of any industry hack, especially considering what his kindred spirit Pharrell accomplished with G I R L. The guy with the hats curbed his outré instincts to make his star turn, but he did it while still sounding like nobody else. He’s shaping the sound of this moment, even if he had to concede some of his quirks to do it. The unapologetically retro reference points of his wedding jams are still run through an unmistakable Pharrell filter; his vapid utopian blather at least tells you something about who he is and where he stands. He pulled off the remarkable feat of inching toward the middle of the road without giving up his point of view. Unfortunately for Blacc, the most remarkable truth about Lift Your Spirit is that an artist with so much personality would be content serving up something so faceless.
Can’t say I saw this one coming. Schoolboy Q is popular enough to have crossed over to omnivorous music sites like this one, and the whole TDE crew has had the attention of hip-hop zealots for a few years now. But Q’s never scored a proper radio hit (“Hands On The Wheel,” sure, if you live in L.A. or New York, but let me assure you that’s never been on my notoriously laggy local hip-hop station), and he definitely doesn’t pass the household name test — although I guess he is on the Macklemore album, which means millions of clueless white kids probably do recognize his name. Still, who knew his Oxymoron had a shot at debuting at #1? Well, that’s exactly what last week’s Album Of The Week pulled off, topping the Billboard 200 with 139,000 in sales. Billboard points out that with just one week in sales Q has already outsold his last two albums combined.
Other top debuts include Beck’s very pretty Morning Phase at #3 and Kid Cudi’s very ugly Satellite Flight: The Journey To Mother Moon close behind at #4; both moved around 87,000 copies. Bachata king Romeo Santos, the guy who got Drake to rap in Spanish on a track, debuts at #5 with 85,000 in sales for Formula: Vol. 2, and country dude Dierks Bentley enters the chart at #6 with Riser’s 63,000 units. The week’s final top 10 debut is the Fray’s Helios, which clocks in with 37,000 copies, good for #8.
So it’s a big debuts week, but it’s worth noting that the one album not vanquished by all these newcomers is the Frozen soundtrack, which affirms its resilience with a #2 finish. I actually figured it would hold strong at #1 after all that Oscar love, but the chart period ended Sunday at midnight, so those ripples will be felt in next week’s chart. Former #1s round out the rest of the top 10: Eric Church’s The Outsiders at #7, NOW 49 at #9, and Beyoncé’s BEYONCÉ at #10.
One person who will likely join Frozen as an Oscar buzz beneficiary next week despite not winning a thing is Pharrell Williams. Even before he performed it on the Academy Awards telecast Sunday night, his “Happy” had locked up the #1 spot on the Hot 100 for the second consecutive week, and as Billboard notes, more than half its points came from sales. (The sales, airplay, and streaming charts inform the Hot 100’s formula.) It’s the first song since Robin Thicke’s Pharrell-assisted “Blurred Lines” to sell 400,000 copies two weeks in a row. The rest of the Hot 100’s upper region is similarly stagnant, with Katy Perry and Juicy J’s “Dark Horse” at #2, Jason DeRulo’s 2 Chainz-assisted “Talk Dirty” at #3, and John Legend’s “All Of Me” at #4. What else we got? “Pompeii,” “Timber,” “Drunk In Love”? It’s time to shake this chart up a bit, don’t you think? Who’ll come crashing in to save us from the monotony?
Christina Perri – “Human (Passion Pit Remix)” (Week In Pop Premiere)
First up among this week’s singles is our first Week In Pop premiere, a track from Christina Perri’s “Human” remix EP. The remixers in this case are Passion Pit, whose touch becomes readily apparent when the dazzling manipulated vocal samples pop up around 1:26. I’m waffling over whether I prefer this to the more straight-laced original emotional piano ballad, but both versions of “Human” have their charms. The remix will be available on Beatport 3/17 and at all online retailers 3/18.
Iggy Azalea – “Fancy” (Feat. Charli XCX)
Charli XCX has been making straight-up rock songs lately, and here she returns to dominate an entirely different arena, the hip-hop hook. She absolutely owns “Fancy” in a way she didn’t quite on Danny Brown’s “Float On” or the Brooke Candy collab “Cloud Aura.” Producers the Invisible Men deliver a passable DJ Mustard impression, and I appreciate the video’s Clueless homage. As for Iggy, her rapping is respectable, but her whole deal seems irredeemably goofy. The switch from doubt to delight when her verses give way to Charli’s chorus is steep and violently rapid.
Kiesza – “Hideaway”
Close your eyes and pretend it’s the new Disclosure single. Or open your eyes and enjoy some fully committed dancing.
Panic! At The Disco – “Nicotine”
It’s been fascinating to watch all the mid-aughts Fueled By Ramen mall punk bands fully embrace dance-pop this decade. I’d rank Panic’s attempts well below Paramore (love ‘em) and Fall Out Boy (they’ve done some good stuff post pop conversion), but four-on-the-floor kick drum and syncopated funky bass is still an intriguing sound for them considering where they came from. I’m not sure I’m into it, but I am glad they’re not trying to jam so many words into their choruses anymore.
Fall Out Boy – “Rat A Tat” (Feat. Courtney Love Cobain)
See what I mean? Dem Fall Out Boyz have become so adept at making digi-rock jock jams. Even “It’s Courtney, bitch” can’t keep the frenetic “Rat A Tat” from pleasurably ramming its way into your consciousness.
The Chainsmokers – “#SELFIE”
This is not pop culture’s nadir, but it’s close.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- R. Kelly’s follow-up to Black Panties will be called… White Panties. [V Magazine]
- Nikki Minaj’s mom is recording an EDM-tinged gospel single. [Vibe]
- Minaj, meanwhile, has commented on a copyright suit against her single “Starships.” [Radar]
- Squeaky-clean pop star Ariana Grande is releasing a duet with Chris Brown, the antithesis of squeaky-clean. [Idolator]
- Thanks to his Oscar win for Frozen’s “Let It Go,” Robert Lopez is now the fourteenth EGOT, meaning he’s won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. [Los Angeles Times]
- Pharrell is trying to convince Usher to do something ridiculous involving horses. [GQ]
- Paloma Faith’s new album, the one with the Pharrell collab that got Franz Ferdinand’s feathers all ruffled, is streaming in full. [Nylon]
- One more Pharrell bit: His hat sold for $44,100 to Arby’s, who had been admiring it for a while. [BBC]