The Week In Pop: The Unstoppable Competent Mediocrity Of Jason Derulo
“Broke,” the last song teased from Jason Derulo’s new Everything Is 4 before the album’s release this week, both encapsulates and subverts the approach that has made Derulo one of pop radio’s most unavoidable sub-superstars. Ever since the former industry songwriter broke through as a solo artist with 2009’s Imogen Heap-sampling #1 smash “Whatcha Say,” he’s been staying on the radio by trying on different sounds of the moment. That’s a typical pop-star maneuver, one that dates back to Madonna and Michael Jackson and arguably to David Bowie if he counts as a pop star. Lots of musicians morph with the times, adjusting their aesthetic as frequently as their haircut. But whereas some stars incorporate trailblazing underground sounds into their music in a way that makes them feel fresh and vital, Derulo leans on a rotation of styles that could pass for the appetizers menu at TGI Fridays. He is a more chameleonic version of Maroon 5, Flo Rida, or boom-era Black Eyed Peas, the kind of artist who always manages to score a hit by serving up songs for people who use “I like everything” as shorthand for “I know nothing.”
Perplexingly, Derulo often manages to be more likable than the artists I just lumped him in with. The erstwhile Jason Desrouleaux has become pop’s most begrudgingly acceptable hitmaker, the high priest of faint praise. He makes soundtracking a Bar Mitzvah feel like a noble pursuit. When Grantland’s Steven Hyden ran down the 20 least embarrassing male pop stars earlier this year, Derulo snuck onto the list’s bottom spot with a shrug for lack of viable alternate candidates. That seemed about right: We deserve better, but in the absence of better, he’ll do.
Derulo is eager to please; like his latest top-10 hit proclaims, he wants you to want him. No, it doesn’t involve a Cheap Trick sample, but that doesn’t seem outside Derulo’s range of possibilities, presuming he can find some way to shoehorn it into the dominant sound of the moment. He’s done Auto-Tuned R&B with “Whatcha Say,” flipped Harry Belafonte into uptempo EDM on 2011’s “Don’t Wanna Go Home,” and jumped on pop-rap’s sassy brass bandwagon for 2013’s “Talk Dirty” and 2014’s “Wiggle.” Some of those songs are more winsome than others, but if I’m surfing the radio dial, I’ll take any of them over whatever Pitbull’s pushing.
Where I draw the line is “Broke,” which whisks both Keith Urban and Stevie Wonder into a weird world of trap bass drops, syncopated “Heys!” out of a DJ Mustard production, and Chris Brown-style crooning juxtaposed with Ed Sheeran acoustic strums, frisky banjo, and honky-tonk harmonica. It comes as no surprise that this monogenre monstrosity was co-authored by Charlie Puth, 2015 pop’s most shamelessly craven doofus-genius. What’s surprising is that Derulo, who has proven adept at mastering one genre at a time, would so artlessly try to cram so many of them into one track.
The deeper recesses of Everything Is 4 include some other questionable turns, particularly “Painkiller,” which channels Flo Rida and ends with Meghan Trainor blurting out, “Oooh, freestylin’ shit, ungh!” Slightly more appealing is the Jennifer Lopez duet “Try Me,” a chirping, reggae-flavored hit-in-waiting built from the core essence of “Sexual Healing”; I was sure the Gaye family was going to destroy Derulo and Lopez in court, but it turns out Marvin already has a songwriting credit on this one. “Love Me Down” and the Julia Michaels duet “Trade Hearts” are similarly saccharine. It all ends with the sleek, Prince-inspired “X2CU,” which avoids the expected love-as-drugs cliché but lands somewhere even less desirable in service of stilted wordplay and petty sentiment. (Chorus: “I just want my ex to see you.”)
The first half of the record, though, contains five tracks strong enough to outweigh the second half’s indiscretions. Derulo’s current #6 hit and Everything Is 4 opener “Want To Want Me” is synthetic ’80s beach party music that arrives hot on the heels of 1989 and “Shut Up And Dance” — yet another timely stylistic switch-up. Its inevitable follow-up and track 2 on the album is “Cheyenne,” which puts those same darkly rippling Drive synths from Taylor Swift’s “Style” in service of the midnight Michael Jackson throwback we’ve all been craving from Justin Timberlake. The Wallpaper-produced “Get Ugly” further amps up that Timberlake vibe with gnarly bass, groovy falsetto, and even some faux-Timbaland mouth gibberish. “Pull-Up” is egregiously overstuffed but far more stimulating/less repellent than “Broke.” And on “Love Like That,” he sweeps K Michelle into a brooding futuristic R&B love lament worthy of Toronto’s Drake/Weeknd/PARTYNEXTDOOR axis. It’s an extremely solid run of songs, and it makes me wonder what Derulo’s discography would sound like if top-40 radio programmers didn’t encourage mediocrity with their ultra-conservative gatekeeping. But they do, so this is what we get.
A$AP Rocky recently became the latest rapper to abruptly release his album, and now he’s also the latest to land at #1 without anything resembling an obvious single. At.Long.Last.A$AP becomes Rocky’s second album to debut on top following 2013’s Long.Live.A$AP, racking up 146,000 equivalent units, only 117,000 of which were album sales. Billboard notes that it’s the sixth rap album to hit #1 so far this year (including the Furious 7 soundtrack), which is four more than last year at this time. Another fun stat: At.Long.Last.A$AP’s pure sales total is less than Long.Live.A$AP’s 139,000, but its equivalent units (factoring in streaming) are higher.
Taylor Swift’s 1989 holds strong at #2 with 70,000, then it’s another big rap debut, as Boosie BadAzz enters at #3 with Touch Down 2 Cause Hell on the strength of 64,000 units. No doubt this was mostly because the project was our Album Of The Week last week. More than 59,000 people bought the record outright, the erstwhile Lil Boosie’s biggest sales week ever. After that comes the Pitch Perfect 2 soundtrack at #4 with 51,000, then it’s another debut. Hillsong United’s latest Christian worship album Empires enters at #5 with 50,000. The 47,000 purchases represents a yet another career high sales week, besting Hillsong’s last top-10 album, 2013’s Zion. Last week’s #1, Twenty One Pilots’ Blurryface, is at #6 with 38,000. Ed Sheeran’s x is at #7 with 35,000, followed by Meghan Trainor’s Title at #8 with 34,000. Two more soundtracks round out the top 10: Fifty Shades Of Grey (#9, 30,000) and Furious 7 (#10, just under 30,000).
Over on the Hot 100, Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” has reclaimed the #1 spot from Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar’s “Bad Blood” remix, which falls to #2. Poor Fetty Wap remains at #3 with “Trap Queen,” though here’s hoping it can surpass those other juggernauts as summer sets in and finally make it to #1. Walk The Moon’s “Shut Up And Dance” stays at #4, followed by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk!” at #5. Next up are the Weeknd’s “Earned It” (#6), Jason Derulo’s “Want To Want Me” (#7), and David Guetta’s Nick Minaj/Afrojack/Bebe Rexha collab “Hey Mama” (#8). Maroon 5’s “Sugar” (#9) and T-Wayne’s “Nasty Freestyle” (#10) close out the top 10, but Andy Grammer’s “Honey I’m Good” is lurking just outside at #11.
Waka Flocka Flame – “Game On” (Feat. Good Charlotte)
Here’s the plot of Pixels: A time capsule blasted into space in 1982 reached alien life forms, who responded by attacking earth with monster-sized retro video game characters including Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and the Space Invaders, forcing US military recruits former video game champions Adam Sandler and Josh Gad to fight off these creatures and save the world. Even that is less absurd than this song.
Natalie La Rose – “Around The World” (Feat. Fetty Wap)
La Rose combined with Jeremih on the Whitney Houston-interpolating “Somebody,” and Fetty Wap gave us the ubiquitous “Trap Queen.” Both songs repelled me at first for different reasons, but each proved irresistibly charming in the long run. “Around The World” brings the two rising stars together, and though the resulting track is less effervescent than I was hoping from the voices behind two of the year’s most smile-inducing hits, it’s the sort of Max Martin production that wills its way into your life.
Foxes – “Body Talk”
I haven’t listened to every single Foxes song since her smash Zedd collab “Clarity,” but based on the ones I have heard, I’m ready to declare “Body Talk” the best. Consider it an exceedingly winsome blend of Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface” and Tove Lo’s “Talking Body,” but with a personality of its own.
Vance Joy – “All I Ever Wanted”
Joy is this year’s recipient of the Ed Sheeran Memorial Taylor Swift Opening Act Award. His “Riptide” is the kind of obnoxious but infectious folk-pop song that I both actively despise and find myself humming all the time. “All I Ever Wanted” is less offensive but also less memorable.
Nick Jonas – “Believe”
Wherein Jonas moves on from Miguel and Weeknd worship in favor of neutered Beatles knockoffs. Not a fan of his current throwing-shit-at-the-wall approach.
Jake Owen – “Real Life”
A 2015 country single that sounds like a 1998 alt-rock single. Or: A new flavor of Cake!
John Newman – “Come And Get It”
This is basically the Sam Smith version of Kongos’ in-your-face “Come With Me Now,” which is to say it’s both infectious and obnoxious.
Karmin – “Didn’t Know You”
Massive tribal drums, big Florence chorus, rippling Johnny Jewel synths, and a brief, watery bridge — I think I like a Karmin song?
Chef’Special – “On Shoulders” + “Still Don’t Know”
These Dutchmen with a terrible band name just signed to Fueled By Ramen, home of Fall Out Boy, Paramore, Fun., and Twenty One Pilots. “On Shoulders” merges fingerstyle guitar and gentrified indie-folk into something somewhere between the Tallest Man On Earth and Passenger. Prepare to hear it movie trailers and the YouTube pre-roll that precedes them. “Still Don’t Know,” meanwhile, does the Ed Sheeran rap-folk thing way better than Ed Sheeran, but it still might strike you as a little bit too post-Sublime for good taste. It’s all pleasant enough, but I get the feeling that most of you will despise it.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- The story behind Ed Sheeran’s wounded fuck-you “Don’t” has always been that fellow British pop star Ellie Goulding cheated on him, but when asked if she ever dated Sheeran, Goulding’s response was approximately, “Ew, no.” [Elle UK]
- A mysterious comic strip and deleted social media accounts had fans wondering if the 1975 broke up — which would suck because they were one of the best unapologetic pop bands around — but it turns out they have a new album in the works. [NME]
- Iggy Azalea penned a statement about why she cancelled her tour. [Seventeen]
- Also, Azalea and the inimitable Swaggy P are officially engaged. [People]
- Rihanna visited Cuba to film a new music video. [AP]
- Mariah Carey says working on American Idol was the worst experience of her life. [THR]
- Is Taylor Swift performing “Radioactive” with the dude from Imagine Dragons enough to redeem it? Nah? [YouTube]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
— LW (@lindseyweber) June 1, 2015
HOLD ON, WE’RE STILL GOING HOME
I’d fuck me.
— James Blunt (@JamesBlunt) June 1, 2015