The Week In Pop

The Justin Bieber-One Direction Race Is Too Close To Call

Before we get into the looming sales showdown between Justin Bieber and One Direction, let’s flash back to 50 Cent’s final moment of musical relevance. It was the summer of 2007, and 50 was dropping his new album, Curtis, on 9/11. Kanye West — whose omnivorous, game-changing The College Dropout and Late Registration had seized the zeitgeist but not the charts from 50’s hardheaded New York street rap — was readying his own album, and in a classic case of Kanye bravado, he pushed back his August release date so that Graduation would drop the same day as 50’s project. After winning a number of feuds and basically ending Ja Rule’s career, 50 was feeling equally confident, so he upped the ante: If Graduation outsold Curtis, 50 claimed he would never release another solo album. This stunt was accompanied by media fanfare worthy of a high-profile boxing match (the rappers appeared together at the VMAs and faced off on the cover of Rolling Stone). From TV to print to the pre-Twitter music internet, it was a thing.

As this excellent Complex retrospective reminds me, Kanye seemed like a critically acclaimed underdog taking on a commercial behemoth. But Graduation ended up winning the sales battle by a significant margin and went on to become one of the most influential albums of the past decade, whereas I actually needed Google to remember 50’s project was called Curtis. Though 50 actually did release several more solo albums after that, he might as well not have given their negligible impact on culture at large. Kanye became rap’s center of gravity; 50 Cent became a Vitaminwater/fitness mogul on his way to bankruptcy.

The Kanye/50 affair came to mind when I heard Bieber and One Direction, two of the defining pop acts of this generation, were releasing new albums on the same day — especially after Bieber accused 1D of mirroring his release date as a publicity stunt, drafting off his comeback to drum up attention for their final bow. Whereas Kanye and 50 Cent both understood the value of the fanfare and played along accordingly, Bieber seems legitimately pissed that One Direction might ruin his shot at #1. And they really might: Billboard’s sources say the race will be very close, with each album expected to sell just upwards of 300,000 copies.

Before actually hearing the finished products, I had a narrative all worked out in my head. Bieber was Kanye West, a polarizing figure on the rise. His album Purpose — executive-produced by Kanye, not incidentally — was preceded by futuristic, tasteful, exciting singles “What Do You Mean?” and “Sorry” and in a sense by “Where Are Ü Now,” the tremendous Diplo/Skrillex collab that put Bieber back on pop’s A-list and became the template for his new sound. The former teeny bopper punchline who only a year ago appeared to be pissing his career away (into a mop bucket, of course) now seemed like pop’s vanguard. The makeover was such that we joked about putting “redemption-era Bieber” on our Best New Bands list.

Whereas One Direction was 50 Cent, the once mighty traditionalists who seemed to have lost a step. In the interim since last year’s strong Four, they suffered the loss of Zayn Malik and along with him, their swagger. After announcing a planned hiatus, they shared, “Drag Me Down,” the lead single from for-now final LP Made In The A.M. Like something by Maroon 5 or the oft-1D-confused OneRepublic, it was unshakably catchy but also corny as hell. Even though “Drag Me Down” was one of their biggest hits ever, it suggested One Direction had curdled and that their hiatus was well-timed. Ensuing advance tracks “Infinity” and “Perfect” were better but less than inspiring.

I thought for sure I’d be raving about Bieber’s album and shitting on 1D today, but no: Purpose is not quite as great as I hoped it would be, and Made In The A.M. is not nearly as bad as I feared. The basic archetypes still hold true, with Bieber stepping fully into cutting-edge pop stardom of FutureSex/LoveSounds vintage and One Direction doubling down on their conservatism, even embracing certain boy band tropes they’ve usually avoided. But the albums actually have a lot in common. Both maintain a melancholy fixation on the trifles of fame. Both are ridiculously, unnecessarily long (20 tracks for Bieber, 17 for 1D). And both suffer from that length, padding what could have been bulletproof LPs with slightly too much momentum-killing filler.

Purpose excels when it sets Bieber loose on the sort of sleek, minimal, faintly glowing production that made his opening run of singles so stellar, which thankfully is often. All those tracks including “Where Are Ü Now” are here, and the aesthetic rears its head again on the Daft Punk-influenced “Been You,” the breathy synth-R&B slow jam “Company,” and especially the bouncy “Hit The Ground.” Other shades of contemporary pop, house, and R&B sneak in there too — “I’ll Show You” and “All In It” remind me of Drake’s Take Care, while “Get Used To Me” could have easily been an outtake from the Weeknd’s Beauty Behind The Madness, and “Trust” sounds like lush midtempo ’90s R&B from the Janet Jackson/Mariah Carey playbook filtered through Disclosure’s sonic palette.

That’s a lot of good songs — more than enough for an album. But Purpose’s endless run time means Bieber leaves himself a lot of room to stumble, and he does so in two ways. The first is when he welcomes guests into the frame. The Ed Sheeran co-write “Love Yourself” is basically a Sheeran song, an acoustic kiss-off colored by lots of his trademark smarmy shade. The Halsey duet “The Feeling” is a generic pop ballad in the vein of Timbaland and OneRepublic’s “Apologize,” i.e. you might find yourself singing along with it but you’ll hate yourself for it. (That seems to be Halsey’s thing.) Kanye’s pals Big Sean and Travi$ Scott show up to sink “No Pressure” and “No Sense,” already two of the more mediocre selections. And the Nas collab “We Are” sounds like something Drake might have recorded in the So Far Gone/Thank Me Later era, before he really found his footing.

And then there’s the mushy, sentimental tracks. Purpose is Bieber’s first album since linking up with Hillsong megachurch and embracing Christianity, and piano ballads like the title track and “Life Is Worth Living” resemble contemporary Christian pop at its blandest, a faux-inspirational sound that always rubs me the wrong way. “Children,” meanwhile, finds Bieber spinning questions including “What about the children?” and “Do you believe enough to die for it?” and “Whose heart is the biggest” over a surging EDM thump. I don’t have to tell you how lame it is.

Made In The A.M. doesn’t have any singles as killer as Purpose’s highlights, but it also never wavers in quality quite so dramatically. The album buries deeper into the ’80s pop-rock stylings that made 1D’s last couple releases so intriguing — room-shaking beats, soaring choruses, towering guitar chords, massive gang vocals — but it sprays them with slightly more hair product, resulting in something akin to Mr. Big’s “To Be With You” or Extreme’s “More Than Words” or UK boy band forebears Take That’s “Back For Good,” or even fellow UK-based ’80s pop-rock revivalists the 1975.

As with Bieber’s album, sometimes that involves delving into utter slop. “End Of The Day,” for instance, is the kind of anthem for which you should get your damn hands up, but it also features this lyric: “The priest thinks it’s the devil/ My mom thinks it’s the flu/ But girl, it’s only you.” That’s followed by “If I Could Fly,” a gooey piano ballad that could have been a Backstreet Boys deep cut. (I know it’s not always clear in these instances, but that’s an insult.) And I’ve already expressed my disdain for “Drag Me Down,” with its gross white reggae inflections and rock-band approximation of a dubstep drop.

But man, so many of these power ballads are powerful. Opener “Hey Angel” splits the difference between Jesus Jones and “Bitter Sweet Symphony”; “Never Enough” blooms from finger snaps and a cappella goofiness into a funky, horn-laden monster jam; “History” and pseudo-title track “A.M.” do that Mr. Big thing extremely well; the strummy “Walking In The Wind” is exactly the kind of blustery echo-chamber singalong these guys have always specialized in. And when they try their hand at even older forms, such as the rolling groove “Wolves” or the Beatlesy ballads “Olivia” and “I Want To Write You A Song,” it always comes across as extremely natural. As ever, these guys make huge, open-hearted “Hey, girl” music feel like something anybody can embrace.

So Made In The A.M. is just as winsome as the last couple One Direction albums and not really an equivalent to 50 Cent’s Curtis. It might even prevail over Purpose in the short term because 1D’s fan base remains younger than the new class of grownup Beliebers; as Billboard notes, younger fans are more likely to buy an album on the first week. But ironically Made In The A.M. might represent the end of One Direction’s reign anyway, just as Curtis marked the crumbling of 50’s empire. With 1D’s hiatus looming early next year, it’s unclear whether they’ll actually reconvene to make another album, especially if Harry Styles manages to get a lucrative solo career off the ground. Even if they do, their place in pop culture will have probably be supplanted by then.

Meanwhile, Bieber may still have a shot at becoming the Kanye in this equation. He’s certainly got the mouth for it, as well as the self-confidence of a man who believes he’s been touched by God. And for all its flaws, Purpose definitely stands to become one of the most influential pop albums of the next few years. Who knows, maybe Bieber will even marry a Kardashian! The Lord works in mysterious ways.

CHART WATCH

I already reported on Chris Stapleton’s stunning, six-months-late jump to #1 on the albums chart, but let’s recap:

Nashville veteran Chris Stapleton released Traveller, an immensely solid collection of traditionalist country songs, way back in May. It debuted at #14, moving 27,000 units in its first week, and quickly descended the Billboard 200 as non-blockbuster albums are wont to do. But last Wednesday the CMAs went out of their way to anoint Stapleton, giving him Album Of The Year, Best New Artist, and Male Vocalist Of The Year and matching him with Justin Timberlake for a star-making duet.

The country listeners of America responded in kind: Billboard reports that Traveller tallied a whopping 177,000 equivalent units last week (153,000 in pure album sales) and will re-enter the chart at #1 six months after its initial release. Traveller thus becomes the first country debut album to hit #1 since American Idol winner Scotty McCreery entered on top in 2011… With Carrie Underwood’s Storyteller holding at #2 and Eric Church’s surprise-released Mr. Misunderstood beginning at #3, country artists account for the top three albums in America. The CMAs are a powerful institution.

Not everyone is happy about Stapleton’s ascent, though. Relatedly, in the wake of burning down the CMAs, Justin Timberlake has submitted “Drink You Away” to country radio and may be plotting a crossover into the genre. But before we pull our own crossover into the singles section, there are a few more top-10 debuts on the albums chart: Now 56 at #4 with 58,000, the limp We Love Disney comp at #8 with 31,000, and Def Leppard’s Def Leppard at #10 with 30,000.

Adele’s “Hello” is #1 on the Hot 100 singles chart thanks in part to another blockbuster sales week. Billboard reports that Adele sold 635,000 downloads last week — the third-best total ever — even after selling a record 1.1 million downloads the week before. So even though Drake’s “Hotline Bling” bounces back up to #2, it’s not likely to surpass “Hello” anytime soon. Ariana Grande’s “Focus” debuts at #7, making her the first artist to land the lead single from each of her first three albums in the top 10. And two names that used to appear in this chart section every week, Meghan Trainor and John Legend, are up to #10 with their duet “Like I’m Gonna Lose You.” It’s the third top-10 hit for Trainor and the second for Legend.

POP FIVE

Hailee Steinfeld – “Hell Nos And Headphones”
Thematically, “Hell Nos And Headphones” is similar to Alessia Cara’s “Here,” and indeed, Pitch Perfect 2 star Steinfeld tells Elle she was inspired by Cara. But “Hell Nos And Headphones” is sleeker and more muted, like “Here” filtered through the sonic palette of Selena Gomez’s great new Revival. Between this and masturbation anthem “Love Myself,” Steinfeld is positioning herself as the queen of introversion, and both songs are worthy of a hearty “YAS!”

Rachel Platten – “Stand By You”
Will we ever be hearing from “Fight Song” lady again after 2015? I was about to say no, but then the chorus hit. She may well have a long career ahead of her in that Sara Bareilles lane.

Classix – “Whatever I Want” (Feat. T-Pain)
The T-Pain renaissance continues! And with it comes the Classixx renaissance, maybe.

Allie X – “Never Enough”
Allie X’s synthpop was suffering from diminishing returns syndrome, but “Never Enough” is her best single since “Catch,” the song that won her the approval of Katy Perry and others.

Rozes – “Fragile”
It’s still no “Roses,” but the ethereal synth ballad “Fragile” marks a step up from the last time Rozes released a song without the Chainsmokers.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Kesha’s mom has some harsh words for Sony. [Popcrush]
  • 5SOS’ Michael Clifford fell offstage at the Radio 1 Teen Awards. [Twitter]
  • Miley Cyrus licked a piano and auctioned it for charity. [ET]
  • Hayley Williams performed with her boyfriend’s band New Found Glory dressed as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. [Alt Press]
  • Avicii started answering Avicii-related questions on Quora. [LA Weekly]
  • Mariah Carey has joined the cast of the LEGO Batman movie. [Deadline]
  • One Direction are mentioned in a new JK Rowling book. [Twitter]
  • 1D also covered “Four Five Seconds” and Natalia Imbruglia on the BBC. [YouTube]
  • J. Cole remixed A Tribe Called Quest. [The Fader]
  • Tamar Braxton had a pulmonary embolism and dropped out of Dancing With The Stars. [Instagram]
  • Speaking of Dancing With The Stars, they nixed two guys dancing together for a performance of Who Is Fancy/Ariana Grande/Meghan Trainor’s new collaborative single. [TMZ]
  • Seth Rogen told Ellen DeGeneres that he made up with Justin Bieber. [YouTube]
  • In other Biebz news, he partnered with Lyft to promote his album for some reason. [Lyft]
  • Rihanna is launching a beauty & stylist agency. [Harpers Bazaar]
  • Apparently iCloud revealed Gavin Rossdale’s cheating, which inspired Gwen Stefani’s new single. [Vanity Fair]
  • Ed Sheeran is a fratboy now. [TMZ]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME

Fetty Wap charted new territory tonight @baronblades

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