The Week In Pop

The Week In Pop: Tori Kelly Is Evidence That Sometimes The Machine Gets It Right

Every once in a while the entire music industry seemingly conspires to turn an aspiring pop star into an overnight sensation. Sometimes that consensus is regrettable, as you already kno-ow. But occasionally the monolithic promotional machine gets it right, and we end up seeing Tori Kelly’s name and face all over the place. Victoria Loren Kelly shares a last name with Iggy Iggs (born Amethyst Amelia Kelly), yet whereas Australia’s most famous rapper felt shoehorned into many of her own songs and still hasn’t carried a hit all by herself, the other Kelly, a young singer-songwriter currently benefitting from a promotional full-court press, shines so brightly that it’s hard to imagine her sharing a spotlight with anybody.

Kelly provided one of the only memorable moments between the “Bad Blood” video and the Kanye West censorship debacle at Sunday’s Billboard Music Awards, effortlessly nailing a solo acoustic performance of her state-of-the-art pop single “Nobody Love” and inspiring a rave review from John Legend in the process. One of last year’s superstar elect, Sam Smith, has previously expressed his adoration for Kelly, saying her voice elicited a physical reaction from him. Her manager is Scooter Braun, the guy who guided Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, and Carly Rae Jepsen to stardom. Kelly worked with Max Martin, the greatest pop producer in the world, on her debut album Unbreakable Smile, due out 6/23. And Billboard just pegged her as an early frontrunner for the 2016 Grammys. Consider her anointed.

Like most performers who come out of nowhere, Kelly’s sudden rise comes after years on the grind. The multi-racial 22-year-old has been kicking around the entertainment business for more than a decade, chalking up childhood appearances on Star Search, America’s Most Talented Kids (where she beat an embryonic Hunter Hayes), and American Idol and signing a short-lived record contract with Geffen when she was 12. And like so many new-millennial breakout stars, she turned to social media when official channels didn’t work out for her. Her beatbox-assisted performance of Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You” (a song Ocean originally wrote for yet another Kelly, incidentally) is one of the few lo-fi YouTube covers that felt like more than a coffee-shop curiosity. It wasn’t cloying or gimmicky — just one brilliant voice reinterpreting another. A string of similar videos plus 2012’s Handmade Songs By Tori Kelly helped her link up with Braun and Capitol Records the following year, and the promising Foreword EP quickly followed, but she’s spent almost two years since then getting ready for her big moment. Now that moment is here, and she’s doing wonderful things with it.

Kelly’s voice is her trump card. She sounds angelic and approachable all at once. It’s what caused vocal masters Legend and Smith to rhapsodize about her, a supernaturally sweet yet somehow down-to-earth songbird call that moves like a liquid and hits like a solid. Though she easily could, Kelly rarely indulges in Mariah Carey theatrics. Like Ocean, she simply glides across the beat with grace, confidence, and personality. That much was clear even back in her YouTube days. Yet Kelly’s appeal extends beyond her powerful singing ability. Her videos reveal a magnetic performer, particularly the clip for “Unbreakable Smile,” nothing more than a beaming Kelly and her unforgettable mane grooving against a black background. She’s a gifted songwriter, too, as her pair of self-penned EPs attests. Songs like “Dear No One” prove she’s got lyrical prowess, but the music is the real draw. Boiling down R&B, folk-pop, hip-hop, and more, it’s the outpouring of a voracious 21st century fan: Kelly doesn’t fit neatly into any genre archetype, but the combination never feels forced. She deals in seamless hybrids, not garish Frankenstein’s monsters.

Fortunately, it doesn’t seem like working with Martin has wiped away Kelly’s winsome personal touch. Everything she’s released from Unbreakable Smile so far has been golden. “Nobody Love” is a powerhouse, infusing classic elements (an exultant verse that crossbreeds Christina Aguilera and The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill) with traces of the now (a snapping, bass-booming chorus that rides the line between pop and rap radio). But so is “Unbreakable Smile,” a blast of sunshine translated into buoyant boom-bap. And while the sleek minor-key pop track “Should’ve Been Us” doesn’t immediately scan as a Kelly production, she breathes life into the thing. None of these songs qualifies as a hit yet — “Nobody Love” peaked at #60, the rest haven’t charted — but with so many powerful people rooting for her, it’s only a matter of time. For once, that’s a good thing.

CHART WATCH

The soundtrack resurgence continues! This week it’s Pitch Perfect 2’s official soundtrack album topping the charts, its 107,000 equivalent units good for a #1 debut. Billboard notes that this is the third soundtrack to go #1 this year after Empire and Furious 7, the most since Glee landed three soundtrack albums on top in 2010. And we’re not even halfway through 2015 yet.

Last week’s #1, Mumford & Sons’ Wilder Mind, falls to #2 with 58,000 units, followed by the Fifty Shades Of Grey soundtrack at #3 with 48,000. David Guetta’s Listen shoots up from #30 to #4, tallying 43,000 units largely because the Google Play store was selling it for 99 cents last week. Then it’s the Furious 7 soundtrack at #5 with 41,000. Three soundtracks in the top 5 is the most since September 2007, when High School Musical 2, Hannah Montana 2/Meet Miley Cyrus, and Hairspray were all in the top 4. Incubus’ comeback EP Trust Fall (Side A) enters at #6 with 40,000. Zac Brown Band’s Jekyll + Hyde is at #7 with 39,000, followed by Josh Groban’s Stages at #8 with 38,000. Taylor Swift’s 1989 holds at #9 with 37,000, while Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour is at #10 with 36,000. It continues to amaze me that this many people are still buying Swift and Smith’s records week after week while so many other artists are barely scraping those numbers for their lifetime total.

As long as we’re discussing things that mystify me, I’m also amazed that Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” continues to rule the Hot 100 for a sixth straight week. But it does, so Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” gets the “Thinking Out Loud” treatment, stuck at #2 yet again, while the Weeknd’s “Earned It” remains at #3. Walk The Moon’s “Shut Up And Dance” climbs to a new peak at #4, swapping places with now-#5 “Uptown Funk!” Jason Derulo’s “Want To Want Me” rises to #6, then it’s Maroon 5’s “Sugar” at #7 and Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” at #8. T-Wayne’s “Nasty Freestyle” is back up to #9, while Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” drops to #10. The real action is right outside the top 10, though, with hits by Tove Lo, Andy Grammer, and David Guetta/Nicki Minaj/Afrojack inching toward elite status.

TRACK CITY

Jason Derulo – “Broke” (Feat. Stevie Wonder & Keith Urban)
I TOLD YOU THE MONOGENRE WAS REAL!

Monica – “Just Right For Me” (Feat. Lil Wayne)
I actually like Wayne’s verse on this a lot. It reminds me of the guest parts he used to do on R&B hits during his artistic prime — corny and commercial, sure, but still obviously the same stream-of-consciousness savant responsible for “I’m so motherfucking high I could eat a star.” The song itself is not the triumphal return I hoped Monica would get.

Sage The Gemini – “Good Thing” (Feat. Nick Jonas)
Both of these dudes make truly enjoyable singles when they follow their muse (see: “Gas Pedal,” “Jealous”), but they can be extremely grating when they’re generating standard-issue pop-rap like this. Unfortunately, it seems Flo Rida is really rubbing off on Sage.

Trey Songz – “About You”
In which Songz interpolates Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” completely undermining the genius of the original, but ends up with a dope R&B song anyway.

Tourist – “Holding On” (Feat. Josef Salvat & Niia)
“Holding On” is gorgeous dance-pop from the UK that matches a richly melodic verse with a bombastic, jittery chorus then flips the formula the second time around. I’d say it sounds like the future if it didn’t sound so much like the present.

Luke Bryan – “Kick The Dust Up”
I am somewhat of a Luke Bryan apologist, but I prefer him doing sentimental schlock like “Play It Again” or even the spring-break beach party bullshit that has admittedly poisoned country radio. Hearing him spouting Down South clichés about dirt roads and such does nothing for me.

Christina Aguilera – “Anywhere But Here”
I thought Xtina was going country? Give me more of that and less of this sub-Disney balladry.

Hailee Steinfeld – “Flashlight” (Jessie J Cover)
Steinfield, a teenager who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in True Grit five years ago, is part of the cast of Pitch Perfect 2, and now she’s signed a record deal with Republic. Here she does a serviceable but unmemorable cover of Jessie J’s “Flashlight,” a tune whose writers include Sia and Sam Smith. I haven’t seen Pitch Perfect 2 yet, but I have a feeling that will color my opinion of this one way or the other. Until then, all I can say is that it exists.

Rita Ora – “Poison”
Best Rita Ora song ever, and only because it’s a second-rate redux of Tove Lo’s frantic masterpiece “Timebomb.”

The Chainsmokers – “Good Intentions” (Feat. BullySongs)
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: When these guys make songs instead of memes, they’re OK with me.

Malcolm White – “This Feeling”
White is a 14-year-old YouTube star who has become Big Boi’s protegé. “This Feeling” does a decent job approximating the uncontrollable joy of a Motown love song, but it mostly just makes me wonder what Andre 3000 is doing post-Outkast reunion.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Robin Thicke should probably stop letting his dog eat his marijuana. [TMZ]
  • Liam Payne says Zayn Malik left One Direction to spend more time with his fianceé. [The Daily Mail]
  • Lil Wayne will DJ your party for $60,000, but don’t worry, you can get Wiz Khalifa for only $25K. [TMZ]
  • Hilary Duff announced that she’s changing the name of her album via balloons mailed to her fans. [Popjustice]

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