The Week In Pop

The Week In Pop: JoJo, A Pop Star For The Post-Hits Era

“Remember JoJo?” To most of the Western world, that’s a reasonable question. Those who do recall Joanna Noëlle Blagden Levesque probably envision her as an adolescent, delivering the sleek acoustic R&B kiss-off “Leave (Get Out)” with poise and authority beyond her 13 years. That was 2004, and she followed it up two years later with the prophetic “Too Little, Too Late.” Peaking at #3, it was her biggest hit but also her last (unless the #87 chart performance of her also-unfortunately-titled 2011 track “Disaster” qualifies). Judging by her imprint on the pop music mainstream — radio airplay, chart placement, awards show performances and the like — she is a relic fit for VH1’s next installment of I Love The New Millennium. But anyone who’s been paying attention knows JoJo is as current as can be: She’s the poster girl for an era when you don’t need hits to be a pop star.

Ever since the advent of the MP3, we’ve been hearing about the death of the album and the resurgence of singles as music’s dominant medium. Album sales have certainly dropped since the height of TRL, and our listening habits have undoubtedly become more fragmented, especially at a time when YouTube is music’s most popular delivery system. But another trend has been manifesting this year, particularly in rap: Major artists are selling boatloads of albums with nary a tentpole single. Our own Tom Breihan explained it in his Migos review: “most of the genre’s biggest stars — Drake, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Future, Meek Mill to some extent — aren’t making songs for the radio. Instead, they’re making albums that find their mood and stick to it, never really leaving that comfort zone.” Since last December, when J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive dropped, every single one of those artists put up huge numbers (by current standards) en route to #1 debuts. Other than Future, they all topped 200K in their first week. Triumphant festival headliner Chance The Rapper might’ve joined them atop the charts if he hadn’t given away Surf for free.

That trend doesn’t directly translate to the pop sphere, but it exists there in different forms. The pop stars who’ve been selling seemingly infinite quantities of albums over the past year — Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Ariana Grande — do tend to be the ones who’ve scored several radio hits, per the traditional pattern. Newly minted pop commodity the Weeknd seems likely to join them soon. But there are a handful of stars following the rap model of putting up impressive sales figures without an undeniable hit song. Beyoncé went platinum before “Drunk In Love” took off. Lana Del Rey got Ultraviolence to #1 even though #17 “West Coast” was its best-performing track by a long shot. Kelly Clarkson’s Piece By Piece entered on top without a proper hit single to show for itself (“Heartbeat Song” topped out at #21). I have to believe Frank Ocean will join them if he doesn’t withdraw his album and retire to the Philippines.

Even beyond the acts with a big enough fan base to keep releasing #1 records, many more artists are flourishing with neither radio hits nor blockbuster album sales, carving out a space too prominent to be underground but too obscure to qualify as universal. The reasons for this are obvious enough. The internet’s ability to catalyze a fan base is well-documented — and I’m not just talking about the online press echo chamber, which has become a new mainstream to itself, with its own taboos and biases. (Hi, Carly.) I’m talking message boards, social media, Kickstarter, and anything else that allows artists to stay afloat with or without industry support.

My point: Even at the top levels, you don’t need a hit song to be a pop star anymore. You don’t even really need to go viral. You just have to become a brand unto yourself. This Grantland essay seems relevant: Pop stars now are more like nations populated by their citizens, the stans. Songs serve the base, yeah, but more than ever before they feel like vehicles for a cult of personality. It’s true of music’s most bankable names, but you can scale it down to a long-tail situation too. Stan culture has allowed any artist with even an ounce of name recognition to do what Radiohead did after “Creep,” reclaiming their career from the one-hit wonder pile and turning themselves into cult-beloved career musicians.

In the realm of once-and-future pop stars, no one is more primed for reclamation than JoJo. Plagued by DOA singles and record company woes, she’s been stuck in limbo for years. She hasn’t released an official album since 2006. But ever since 2011, when she rewrote Drake’s “Marvins Room” from a woman’s perspective — “And when you’re in her, I know I’m in your head,” still an all-time lyrical psych-out — she’s been quietly building a reputation as one of pop’s smartest, most talented would-be superstars. Late 2012’s Agáp? mixtape and 2014’s Valentine’s Day EP #LoveJo further established her cred, evolving her sound into more grownup songwriting and experimenting with different production styles. In 2013 she successfully sued to get out of her contract with Blackground Records and signed a new deal with Atlantic. And last week, at the ripe old age of 24, she released III, a three-song EP she’s taken to calling “the tringle.”

On first listen, none of the three songs barreled me over like “Marvins Room,” but as I’ve explored them this past week, each one has revealed unique charms. “Say Love” is the showstopper, a midtempo torch song with a chorus for the rooftops. “Save My Soul” spurns that sort of longing, communicating hopelessness with a wistful thump. And then there’s “When Love Hurts,” a disco-house burner that proclaims “When love hurts, that’s how you know it’s real.” These songs aren’t wowing me with advanced production or even stellar songwriting, though they’re passable in both categories. Their realest strength is communicating JoJo’s personality — wounded but still forging ahead, with a capable voice and even better taste. And what quality is more likely to carry a music career in 2015 than personality?

LET’S TALK ABOUT THE NEW MACKLEMORE VIDEO


Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – “Downtown” (Feat. Grandmaster Caz, Kool Moe Dee, Melle Mel, & Foxy Shazam’s Eric Nally)
“Downtown” is a mess of a song, but it’s a much more interesting mess than Macklemore’s paean to fatherhood. So much is going on here, and that’s not even factoring in the corny, joyously over-the-top music video.

The involvement of old-school hip-hop legends feels like a direct response to the allegations of appropriation that dogged Macklemore’s last album; does it get any more authentically hip-hop than Kool Moe Dee? The clinking percussion and funky bassline also recall rap’s bygone days, though as Vulture points out, Macklemore and Lewis put these East Coast OGs to work in service of something like West Coast G-funk. There are definitely some “King Kunta” vibes in there, which is more than a little ironic.

Meanwhile, Mr. Haggerty is keeping the isn’t-simple-living-cute ethos of “Thrift Shop” alive by rapping about riding a moped while everybody else buys a Bugatti (taking a page from Mr. Bugatti himself, Future, and his Andre 3000 collab “Benz Friendz“). And, of course, it eventually explodes into a proper Ryan Lewis pop chorus with all the requisite emotional window dressing plus the dude from Foxy Shazam writing his best Freddie Mercury fanfic. (“Have you ever felt the warm embrace of a leather seat between your legs?” is hard to sing with a straight face, but this is a guy whose entire public life is hard to pull off with a straight face And I thought Macklemore was newly self-aware — why is he making a song with the guy who caught shit for singing “That’s the biggest black ass I’ve ever seen / And I like it”?)

So, yeah, “Downtown” is all over the place, and it wears its many competing intentions on its sleeve. I can’t bring myself to call it a success, but as musical splatters go, it’s more like a maniacal paintball game full of hits and misses than Humpty Dumpty’s great fall.

Competing Stereogum opinion:

CHART WATCH

The biggest news on the charts this week stems from music released 27 years ago. As previously reported, N.W.A.’s 1988 debut album Straight Outta Compton rockets back to #4 on the Billboard 200 this week, a new peak, thanks to the blockbuster movie of the same name. Meanwhile, the album’s title track hits #38 on the Hot 100, becoming N.W.A.’s first-ever top 40 single. Eazy E’s “Boyz-N-The-Hood” also makes its Hot 100 debut this week at #50.

As for current releases, there’s a whole lot of stasis this week. Luke Bryan’s Kill The Lights spends another week at #1 with 99,000 equivalent units. It’s followed closely by Ed Sheeran’s x, hopping all the way back up to #2 with 97,000 units thanks to the NBC special Ed Sheeran — Live At Wembley Stadium. Not bad for an album released more than a year ago! Dr. Dre’s Compton is at #3 with 51,000, followed by Straight Outta Compton at 44,000 and Now 55 at 40,000. Former The Voice contestant Melanie Martinez debuts at #6 with 40,000 units for Cry Baby. After Taylor Swift’s 1989 at #7 with 32,000 comes Bullet For My Valentine’s Venom, moving 28,000 units for a #8 debut. Future’s DS2 (#9) and Sam Hunt’s Montevallo (#10) also tallied about 28,000 units.

OMI’s “Cheerleader” wins the Hot 100 for a sixth nonconsecutive week, which is just insane. Billboard reports, “Notably, ‘Cheerleader’ tops the Hot 100 despite not being the most heard song on radio, the most streamed or the most sold for the third time in the last four weeks.” It’s just strong enough in all three of those areas to come out on top. The actual top seller and airplay winner is the Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” which remains at #2 somehow. Then comes Silento’s “Watch Me” at #3, Major Lazer/DJ Snake/MØ’s “Lean On” at #4, and the Weeknd’s “The Hills” at #5, giving Abel Tesfaye two simultaneous top-5 hits for the second straight week.

Selena Gomez and A$AP Rocky’s “Good For You” reaches a new peak at #6, which matches Gomez’s best chart performance to date (“Come And Get It” and “The Heart Wants What It Wants” also hit #6). Then comes Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” at #7 and Fetty Wap’s “679” at #8, marking Fetty’s third top-10 hit of the year. As Billboard notes, he’s the first rapper to land his first three singles in the top 10 since Chingy. (According to a press release, he’s also the first rapper to land four simultaneous songs in the Hot Rap Songs top 10.) Fetty’s “Trap Queen” falls to #9, and Walk The Moon’s “Shut Up And Dance” closes out the top 10.

TRACK CITY

One Direction – “Drag Me Down” Video
This is a pretty good pop video — almost good enough to salvage this shite Maroon 5 knockoff, but not quite. I wonder how much it cost to use NASA’s facilities, or did they get to intrude for free on the condition of a meet-and-greet with the engineers’ children?

Nick Jonas – “Levels”
That’s more like it, Nick Jonas. I’m not ready to exalt “Levels” as his FutureSex/LoveSounds move — it’s way too normal for that; remember how raw and just plain bizarre “SexyBack” sounded when it first came out? Here’s hoping his work with Purity Ring’s Corin Roddick actually represents a FutureSex-style leap. Either way, after a run of shoddy non-album singles and guest appearances, it’s nice to have Jonas’ career renaissance back on track.

Charlie Puth – “One Call Away”
Puth already has the hat trick, so if “One Call Away” takes off, what do you call it when someone releases the four worst pop hits of the year? A quality-deficit quadfecta? I’m reaching here, but so is Puth when he compares himself to Superman: “I’m only one call away/ I’ll be there to save the day.”

Carrie Underwood – “Smoke Break”
“Smoke Break” is a perfectly fine assembly line country-rock anthem, but the whole premise is gross. It’s so hyper-targeted to Underwood’s conservative fan base, the type of people who would consider smoking and drinking very edgy, tee-hee-hee. Even Jesus Christ drank wine, people!

Demi Lovato – “Confident”
Talk about music that embodies its subject matter. “Confident” sounds big, brash, and badass.

John Newman – “Tiring Game” (Feat. Charlie Wilson)
This is the best John Newman song I’ve ever heard, but that’s for reasons almost entirely unrelated to Newman. Charlie Wilson is a champ, and the disco-funk production here is out of this world. The sight of Wilson at the piano with that gospel choir is awesome, too. I’m still meh on Newman, but “Tiring Game” is a total jam.

The Neighbourhood – “R.I.P. 2 My Youth”
Is it crazy to wonder if the Neighbourhood have been listening to a lot of Miguel lately?

Third Eye Blind – “Get Me Out Of Here”
Stephan Jenkins’ angst ain’t what it used to be.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • One Direction are going on hiatus next year after the release of their fifth LP. [NY Times]
  • Drake and Serena Williams were seen making out over dinner at a Cincinnati restaurant during a recent ATP tennis tournament. (What will Common think?) [TMZ]
  • Ellie Goulding has shared some info about her next album. [Direct Lyrics]
  • Avril Lavigne has stepped into the Taylor Swift/Calvin Harris/Zayn Malik social media spat. [Metro]
  • Missy Elliott is joining The Voice. [E!]
  • Nick Jonas is the “music curator” for the 2016 Miss America pageant. [Yahoo]
  • Nick Carter, Paula Deen, and Chaka Khan are coming to Dancing With The Stars. [TV Guide]
  • Ricky Martin wrote an op-ed about Donald Trump (in Spanish). [Univision]
  • Chris Brown got a tattoo on the back of his head. [Miss Info]
  • Speaking of tattoos, Ed Sheeran says his ridiculous lion chest piece was fake. [NME]
  • Sheeran is also appearin’ as himself on an Australian soap opera, and they seem very excited to have him. [YouTube]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME