Kygo, Mike Posner, And EDM’s Soft-Rock Phase
R.I.P. to the drop; long live the trop. The EDM explosion of this decade’s early years is over, but electronic dance music continues to permeate the pop music landscape. It’s just morphed into something softer, trading the jagged laser sounds and militarized thump of dubstep, electro-house, and trap-rave for the squealing neon curlicues and understated fluidity of tropical house. Although dance festivals are shutting down nationwide and superstar DJs are no longer ruling Vegas (a downfall summarized in this strong Pitchfork piece), EDM itself hasn’t died off. It’s just entered its soft-rock phase.
When a fearlessly loud, aggressive musical revolution takes hold, its energy always dissipates eventually, usually followed by a more placid evolution of the sound. Consider the sunshine-drenched California pop-rock that sprung up in the early ’70s after the late-’60s rock ‘n’ roll explosion, or the brainy post-punk and new wave that emerged at the dawn of the ’80s once punk rock’s initial energy burst petered out. Of course, some musicians respond to these tonal shifts by doubling down on the aggression — see: the metal pioneers of the ’70s and the hardcore zealots of the ’80s — but those are genres for the roughnecks, freaks, and geeks. After periods of violent sonic upheaval, the pop mainstream tends to smooth out.
That’s what we’re seeing right now in the world of electronic pop. The indulgent untz-untz party scene reached the point of self-parody about two years ago, right around the time of SNL’s “When Will The Bass Drop?” short. DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What?” pushed the genre to new heights of aggression, inspiring Rolling Stone to declare the rise of EDM’s punk-rock phase. The DJ/producers of the world seemed to be in an arms race to see whose tracks could soar the highest, plummet the hardest, and overload listeners’ senses the most.
But eventually, we all turn down. Enter Kygo, whose debut studio album Cloud Nine is out next week. As explained in his Billboard cover story, the Norwegian DJ born Kyrre Gørvell-Dahll is the biggest name in tropical house, the subgenre that has rounded out EDM’s sharp edges and relaxed its racing pulse. Last year Gawker’s Jordan Sargent described tropical house as the convergence of dunderheaded mainstream EDM and Disclosure’s understated house alternative, a movement of “tasteful-sounding house music that rolls around in kitsch like a pig in shit.”
In Kygo’s career-launching remixes and star-sealing original tracks, this involves fleecing Ed Sheeran-type MOR pop tracks with steel drums, island percussion, and abundant pan flute. His songs were a warmer, breezier answer to the rootsy EDM hybrids Avicii attempted on “Wake Me Up” and “Hey Brother,” and like those hits, the pool-party dance-party aesthetic clicked for millions of listeners. Peers such as Norway’s Matoma, Australia’s Thomas Jack, and France’s Klingande built up massive audiences on SoundCloud and YouTube using a similar blend of deep house, dancehall, and balearic pop. By the time Kygo filled in for Avicii at TomorrowWorld 2014, trop-house was becoming a thing.
This sound started to make an impact on American pop radio as early as spring 2014, at the peak of “Turn Down For What?” saturation, when a remix of Mr. Probz’s melancholy UK hit “Waves” by German producer Robin Schulz rippled across the Atlantic. But tropical house really caught on in the mainstream because of Skrillex — ironic not just because the former bro-step prince also spearheaded the movement that tropical house is reacting against, but also because most of the subgenre’s guiding lights hail from Europe. Skrillex linked up with EDM’s leading culture vulture Diplo under the Jack Ü guise and learned how to roll with the trends, and their combined efforts on the squiggly Justin Bieber collab “Where Are Ü Now?” established a template that currently prevails.
Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” and “Sorry” (another Skrillex co-production) further solidified tropical house’s influence on pop, as did German Felix Jaehn’s remix of OMI’s “Cheerleader,” which enjoyed a lengthy #1 reign last summer, and Major Lazer, DJ Snake, and MØ’s “Lean On,” the most-streamed song in the history of Spotify. And now, after finding unprecedented success as part of Rihanna’s dancehall-inflected “Work,” the always trend-conscious Drake has padded out Views with a handful of tropically inclined tracks including “One Dance,” “Controlla,” and another RiRi duet called “Too Good.”
Suddenly the same airwaves that were once ruled by digital bass and air-raid synths are instead dominated by chill ocean vibes and chirpy vocal samples like the streams of light that trail behind a sparkler. Even DJ Snake, the architect of “Turn Down For What?”, climbed back into heavy rotation by chopping up vocal melodies first on “Lean On” and then on the tropically inclined “Middle.” Or consider the difference between Calvin Harris and Rihanna’s 2010 smash “We Found Love,” arguably the defining song of pop’s EDM explosion, and the pair’s new single “This Is What You Came For.” The former builds to a climax of thumping bombast; the latter levels off into a sleek, understated groove and a manipulated vocal. The monster drop has definitely gone out of style. These days it’s all about vibes.
Speaking of Rihanna, trop-house has become so trendy that when Rihanna debuted “Work” earlier this year, she was wrongfully accused of hopping on the tropical house wave, never mind that she’s from Barbados and has been bringing dancehall to the pop charts since Bieber was 11. The controversy raised all the usual questions about appropriation: How unfair is it that a bunch of white European dudes are the ones popularizing (and profiting off of) the sounds of the Caribbean?
Perhaps no song embodies the shift toward softness like Mike Posner’s “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” — more specifically the Seeb remix that turns Posner’s country-inflected acoustic ballad into a low-key trop-house banger. In its original incarnation, Posner’s song only references electronic music by name: “I took a pill in Ibiza/ To show Avicii I was cool.” From there he moves on to other descriptions of hedonistic life embossed in a dorm-room sing-along. But Seeb — the team of Kygo’s Norwegian countrymen Simen Eriksrud and Espen Berg — speed it up ever so slightly and transform it from a lighters-up stadium anthem into something more befitting of glowsticks.
Posner, a Detroit native based in LA, has always existed around electronic music. His 2010 single “Cooler Than You,” his biggest hit prior to “Ibiza,” was awash in uptempo rippling synth sounds, and he’s guested on songs by Avicii and Diplo. But his stock-in-trade is sappy, guitar-driven pop songs with some of the worst lyrics on planet earth, which makes his songs an ideal template for tropical house, a genre that was built on flipping whitebread slop like Sheeran into summery club tracks.
Posner’s album At Night, Alone, out tomorrow, kicks off with the original non-remixed version of “Ibiza” and follows suit from there with more soupy open-mic fare that depicts the dark side of fame in abominably corny couplets like “When you smiled at me on that dancefloor/ It was the prettiest mask you ever wore.” He even makes an unfortunate attempt at a traditional Irish folk a cappella (key lyric: “The day that Norman died, I found out through an email/ The irony of that I will not discuss in detail”). But thanks to Posner’s sudden trop-house success, the album closes out with a handful of bonus tracks headlined by the “Ibiza” remix. These songs are so airy, toothless, and base that they make me long for the days of “Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites.” They feel like a sorry nadir for this sound, a creative dead end. Yet history suggests that if we wait around another year or two, some punishing new sound will swoop in to jack up the adrenaline again. With all due respect to DJ Snake and Lil Jon, EDM’s punk phase may still be yet to come.
Beyoncé’s Lemonade gives her a couple impressive records this week. The album itself moved 653,000 equivalent units (including 485,000 in pure sales) to debut at #1, making her the first artist to reach #1 with their first six albums (as well as the first to debut at #1 with their first six albums). Meanwhile, all 12 of the album’s songs have charted on the Hot 100 singles chart; Billboard reports that it’s the first time a female artist has landed 12 or more singles on the Hot 100 simultaneously, surpassing Taylor Swift’s record of 11. The highest of those are #10 “Formation,” #11 “Sorry,” and #13 “Hold Up.”
But back to the Billboard 200 albums chart for a moment. After Lemonade, Prince has a whopping five albums in the top 10 including The Very Best Of Prince (#2), Purple Rain (#3), The Hits/The B-Sides (#4), Ultimate (#6), and 1999 (#7). And from the Purple One we move to Mr. “Purple on my mustache.” A$AP Ferg’s Always Strive And Prosper enters the chart at #8 with 35,000 units/22,000 sales.
Prince remains a major presence on the Hot 100 this week as well, with “Purple Rain” at #4, “When Doves Cry” at #8, and five other singles elsewhere on the chart. And up top, Desiigner’s “Panda” holds onto #1 for a second straight week, though Drake’s “One Dance” looms closely behind at #2. The Kyla and WizKid collab matches “Hotline Bling” and “Best I Ever Had” as Drake’s highest-charting single as a lead artist.
Calvin Harris – “This Is What You Came For” (Feat. Rihanna)
It’s almost unfair that these two have to live up to “We Found Love.” That’s what we came for. “This Is What You Came For” doesn’t live up, of course, but it’s good anyway. And it matches “We Found Love” in one important way: This feels like a completely new direction for Rihanna, whose voice is manipulated into digital dancefloor neon on the surprisingly low-key chorus.
Alicia Keys – “In Common”
After the bland but catchy “Girl On Fire,” I was not expecting Alicia Keys to release something so sleek and stylish. As our own Tom Breihan pointed out, “In Common” almost sounds like the work of Jamie xx.
Zedd & Kesha – “True Colors”
It’s exciting to hear Kesha back on a big-budget pop track. I wish we could go back to the Kesha of “Tik Tok” and “Blow,” but I understand why she went in a more serious direction here. As an anthem for women who’ve been put in Kesha’s unenviable position, “True Colors” absolutely does its job.
Amy Grant – “Baby Baby” (Feat. Tori Kelly)
I have no idea if Tori Kelly shares Amy Grant’s Christian pop bona fides, but she is totally the new Amy Grant. I can’t believe some studio exec thought of it before I did.
Meghan Trainor – “Mom”
Meghan Trainor definitely seems like someone who really loves her mother. And just in time for Mothers’ Day, she’s shared this doo-wop tribute to the lady who taught her to love herself. It is, like most Trainor singles, hella corny: “You might have a mom/ She might be the bomb/ But ain’t nobody got a mom like mine.”
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Dixie Chicks covered Beyoncé’s Lemonade country song “Daddy Lessons.” [Facebook]
- And speaking of Lemonade, Katy Perry and Rita Ora wore “Not Becky” pins to the Met Gala. [Vulture]
- Britney Spears will receive the Millennium Award at this year’s Billboard Music Awards and perform a medley of her hits. [USA Today]
- Why’d Woody Allen cast Miley Cyrus in his new Amazon series? “I noticed years ago that my kids would be watching Hannah Montana. And I would say: ‘Who is that girl? She’s got such a good delivery.'” [THR]
- It’s not easy being in Fifth Harmony. [Billboard]
- Iggy Azalea explored the world of teenage slang with Seth Meyers. [YouTube]
- Neon Trees’ openly gay frontman Tyler Glenn denounces his Mormon faith in the band’s new music video. [ABC]
- Kesha has replaced celebrity lawyer Mark Geragos in her ongoing legal battle with Dr. Luke. [Billboard]
- P!NK previewed her “Just Like Fire” video, which features her impressive acrobatic skills, on Ellen. [Instagram]
- Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton will sing a song they wrote together on The Voice next week. [Twitter]
- A Houston clubgoer is suing Justin Bieber for $100k because the pop star allegedly spilled a beer bong on the guy’s phone, causing him to lose photos of his grandma’s 100th birthday party. [TMZ]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
"My cats are dressing as Ibeyi for Halloween this year. You should follow me on Instagram." pic.twitter.com/cisP883hTk
— DJ Kullid (@komkuierdashian) May 3, 2016