Historically, American Idol has had trouble producing American idols. The pioneering series was a ratings juggernaut and cultural phenomenon, but you can finish rattling off the number of superstar music careers launched by Ryan Seacrest and friends before you run out of fingers. There’s a case to be made that the show paved the way for the musically conservative Sam Smiths and Ed Sheerans of the world, but many of the actual contestants’ careers were DOA, even some of the champions. So the fact that Jordin Sparks has lingered around the fringes of the mainstream for so long is no small feat. And with Right Here, Right Now, the album she’ll release next week, Sparks looks ready to pull off something even more impressive: shaking off both the Idol stigma and her teeny-bopping past to become a legitimately exciting pop music force.
When Sparks won American Idol’s sixth season in 2007, she was basically a Disney princess, a teen pop singer of squeaky-clean Christian vintage. In fact, she even toured with Michael W. Smith, one of the biggest stars in Christian music, before appearing on Idol. She also appeared as a model in Seventeen the year before her big Idol run, so her career was already up and running before the Simon Cowell machine launched her to celebrity. But most Americans know her from Idol, where she won by being the kind of wholesome, traditionalist vocal powerhouse the show was built to reward. Her pre-existing ties to the annoyingly basic Christian culture machine compounded the sense that her music would be rote, soulless pop-by-numbers. Yet her first five singles landed in the top 20, including a Chris Brown duet called “No Air” that went to #3 in 2008. And if her professional-grade, factory-issued pop songs lacked personality, they were smartly executed and modern in a way that bucked Sparks’ pedigree. Nobody is going to cite “Tattoo” or “Battlefield” as genius pop songs, but as shiny products off the music industry assembly line, they were a lot less embarrassing than they could have been.
With her label restructuring and sessions for her third album stalling out, Sparks shifted her focus to acting circa 2011. She starred with the late Whitney Houston in the Supremes biopic Sparkle in 2012 and alongside Nicolas Cage(!) in the film adaptation of Left Behind, a popular Christian novel about the rapture, in 2014. I haven’t seen those movies, so I can’t comment on their quality, but the descriptions don’t lead me to believe Sparks was on track to transcend the palatable mediocrity of, say, her ex-boyfriend Jason Derulo upon her return to music. (Dating Derulo also was not an encouraging sign.) But late last year, little more than a month after the release of Left Behind, Sparks began making some really interesting musical decisions.
First, following in the footsteps of JoJo’s female-centric “Marvin’s Room” remake, Sparks released her own version of “How Bout Now,” Drake’s kiss-off to an unappreciative ex. The presumed Derulo diss track heralded the arrival of #ByeFelicia, a mixtape named for a meme about having no more time for bullshit. #ByeFelicia contained the most interesting music of Sparks’ career, embracing a more mature sound without a wholesale personality overhaul that would have left her fan base with whiplash. For instance, the Instagram jam “Double Tap,” a Jeberg-produced DJ Mustard ripoff featuring the salacious 2 Chainz of all people, played with the loaded phrase “double tap,” taking words that appeared to reference sexual stamina and making them about loyalty.
Sparks’ new material echoed the work of grown-ass titans like Beyoncé (“Work From Home”), Sade (“Right Here, Right Now”), and Janet Jackson (“They Don’t Give”) while still reflecting her own slightly corny, PG-13 personality. This was music that wouldn’t sound out of place coming from a forward-thinking R&B force like Tinashe. If you could stomach the occasional howler along the lines of “You’re not an OG, you’re an OMG” on the requisite DJ Mustard production “It Ain’t You,” you were bound to be impressed by the way she was steering her career.
Most of the #ByeFelicia tracklist appears on Right Here, Right Now, the album Sparks will release next week. They’re uniformly solid, often excellent songs, and the new ones that fill out the rest of the tracklist mostly follow suit. “Boyz In The Hood” is infectious urban piano-pop with a playful spirit; the smoldering, minimalist quiet storm “100 Years” sounds like it would fit in just fine on Jackson’s upcoming comeback record if its I-can’t-wait-to-marry-you message wasn’t so definitively Sparks; “1000 Main” is thunderous horn-blurt trap music that ups the ante on the whole “keep it 100″ meme in unintentionally(?) comical fashion. And if the thought of Sparks “keeping it 1000″ suggests she’s trying too hard for relevancy, most of the album suggests she’s trying just hard enough.
It’s been a few months since we had a decent #1 single, but the quality draught at the top of the Hot 100 is over. The Weeknd’s fiery “Can’t Feel My Face” has finally dethroned OMI’s lukewarm “Cheerleader,” giving Abel Tesfaye his first #1 hit and America our best chart-topper since “Uptown Funk!” (The only #1s since then have been “See You Again,” “Bad Blood,” and “Cheerleader,” which is seriously a bunch of blah.) Billboard also points out that “Can’t Feel My Face” is the 21st US chart-topper for Swedish superproducer Max Martin.
Big chart week for the Weeknd’s former benefactor Drake, too: Not only did If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late become the first album released in 2015 to sell a million copies, Drake debuted four songs in the Hot 100 this week, and none of them are even on If You’re Reading This. Rap Up points out that Meek Mill diss tracks “Back To Back” and “Charged Up” enter at #21 and #78 respectively, while the “Cha Cha”-flipping “Hotline Bling” enters at #66 and the Game’s Drake-featuring “100” starts, fittingly, at #100. With his Meek collab “R.I.C.O.” (the song that started the Drake/Meek feud) at #57 and his Future duet “Where Ya At?” at #89, Drizzy has six singles in the top 100 right now.
Back to the top 10: One Direction debut at #3 with “Drag Me Down.” Billboard notes that it’s the highest-debuting single of the year, which is surprising given that 1D aren’t surefire US hitmakers and “Drag Me Down” is one of their weakest singles ever. Silento’s “Watch Me” falls to #4, while Major Lazer/DJ Snake/MØ’s “Lean On” climbs to #5, becoming Major Lazer and MØ’s first top-5 hit and DJ Snake’s second (after “Turn Down For What,” of course). Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar’s “Bad Blood” is at #6, followed by Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” at #7, a new peak. Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” descends to #8, and Fetty Wap’s pair of hits “Trap Queen” (#9) and “My Way” (#10) round out the top 10.
Over on the Billboard 200, the Descendants soundtrack — a Disney Channel original, not the seminal punk band or the Hawaii-based George Clooney movie — debuts at #1 with a dubious distinction. Its 42,000 equivalent units mark the lowest total for a #1 album since Billboard adopted its new chart system last December. More importantly, only 30,000 of those units were pure sales, making the Descendants soundtrack the worst-selling #1 album since Nielsen Music started powering the chart rankings in 1991. Billboard predicts this dark time in chart history will end next week, with Dr. Dre and Luke Bryan battling for #1.
Future’s DS2 holds at #2 with 37,000, followed by Taylor Swift’s evergreen 1989 at #3 with 35,000. Ed Sheeran’s x clocks in at #4 with 30,000, while last week’s #1, Jill Scott’s Woman, falls to #5 with just over 27,000. Next up are Sam Hunt’s Montevallo at #6 with 27,000 and the debut of corny joke rapper Lil Dicky’s Professional Rapper at #7 with 26,000. Twenty One Pilots’ Blurryface shoots back up to #8 with 25,000 thanks to the album’s release on vinyl. Thanks to a reissue, Led Zeppelin’s In Through The Out Door climbs back to #9 with 24,000, and Drake’s aforementioned IYRTITL is at #10 with 23,000.
Pink – “Today’s The Day”
This is the new Ellen theme song, and all I have to say about it is that it sure sounds like the new Ellen theme song.
Rita Ora – “Body On Me” (Feat. Chris Brown)
Rita Ora x Chris Brown is better than I expected — at the very least, it’s better than Rita Ora x Iggy Azalea. Still, if the success of “Black Widow” and that whole A$AP Rocky ordeal weren’t enough to break Ora in America, I’m not sure a C+ Chris Brown duet will do the trick either.
Fall Out Boy – “Uma Thurman (Acoustic)”
Bad week for Fall Out Boy, but at least this song passes the acoustic-guitar test.
Bryan Adams – “You Belong To Me”
Can’t wait to hear the Ryan Adams version!
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Great news: JoJo is dropping three new singles next week. [Instagram]
- Charlie Puth apologized for sharing a picture of his butt. [Idolator]
- Puth’s partner in crime Meghan Trainor canceled her tour to have surgery on her vocal cords. [USA Today]
- PUNK’D is coming to BET with Chris Brown and others. [Complex]
- Justin Bieber’s album is rumored for a 11/13 release date. [Billboard]
- A Brazilian DJ took out a newspaper ad with the headline #ApproveMadonna in an attempt to get Madonna to sign off on his remix. [Billboard]
- A judge ruled that Sharika’s “Loca” was not plagiarized. [Reuters]
- Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles will star in NBC’s original movie Dolly Parton’s Coat Of Many Colors. [Deadline]
- Britney Spears will guest on the CW series Jane The Virgin. [Time]
- Zayn Malik died his hair gray. [NYMag]
- American Idol alum Constantine Maroulis was arrested for allegedly kicking the mother of his child in the groin. [TMZ]
- Kanye West’s mansion is a no-fly zone. [In Style]
- Snoop Dogg, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Deadmau5, Alice Cooper, Avril Lavigne, and Rick Astley are all involved in some kind of Family Guy app. [YouTube]
- Ed Sheeran got quite the chest tattoo… [Instagram]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
Check out this awesome duet with Luke Bryan and Jason Derulo! #WantToWantMe–> http://usat.ly/1L20ejL
Posted by Smule on Monday, August 10, 2015
HOLD ON, WE’RE STILL GOING HOME
HOLD ON, WE’RE REALLY GOING HOME THIS TIME
— david drake (@somanyshrimp) August 12, 2015
why do Klosterman and Taylor Swift look like they're about drop the most fire Woody Allen movie of all time
— SteadyBloggin (@steadybloggin) August 12, 2015