The Week In Pop

Blurred Line Dance: Pharrell’s Album With Country Stars Little Big Town Isn’t Good, But At Least It’s Weird

You’re Pharrell Williams. As one half of carbonated funk production duo the Neptunes, you spent the ’90s and ’00s changing hip-hop forever. You helped Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears become more grown-up (or at least sexed-up) versions of themselves. You weaseled your way into umpteen rap videos and carved out a nice little side gig as a falsetto hook-slinger audaciously crooning out of your league. Your rap-rock side band N*E*R*D accumulated a weirdly large amount of popular songs and basically invented Odd Future. You launched not one but two influential fashion brands (Ice Cream and Billionaire Boys Club) years before anyone ever uttered the word “Yeezy.” And just when it seemed like your best days were behind you, you oversaw stratospheric hits by Daft Punk and Robin Thicke, scored your own international mega-hit with the help of some Minions and the Arby’s hat, took a gig on the wildly popular TV series The Voice, and made yourself a household name the world over.

What do you do now? Apparently, you go country — or at least you find a willing country band and meet in the middle (country joke). Pharrell’s latest project is producing Wanderlust, a new album-length experiment from peaking Capitol Nashville hit-makers Little Big Town. It’s a good fit because the two-gal, two-guy country quartet inched toward their own pop crossover last year with “Girl Crush,” their ballad about obsessing over the woman who’s dating the man of your dreams: “I wanna taste her lips because they taste like you/ I wanna drown myself in a bottle of her perfume,” etc. They’ve previously associated with Pharrell’s The Voice co-worker Blake Shelton. Plus, their day-drinking anthem “Day Drinking” — the true standout from 2014’s Pain Killer, if you ask me — even had Beats product placement in the video.

Like any cross-genre alliance, this arrangement offers a lot of upside for both parties. For Little Big Town, teaming with Pharrell for one album allows them to venture outside country’s genre ghetto, exposing themselves to a galaxy of new fans without committing to a full Taylor Swift-style pop reinvention. Within country they’re about as big as they can get, but by aligning with Pharrell — who has ascended to a level of ubiquity that renders him beloved among grandparents and a large, taste-averse population that listens to “a little bit of everything” — they’re primed to rake in a couple million more casual fans who might otherwise never have heard of them.

As for Pharrell, he’s in a similar position to longtime collaborator Justin Timberlake, who’s allegedly been plotting his own country crossover after last year’s viral Chris Stapleton duet (and who contributes backing vocals to this new Little Big Town release). Having conquered most of the rest of the radio dial, what new demographic does he have left to dominate but country? Like Timberlake, Pharrell is now enough of a known quantity that everyone at the Grand Ole Opry probably knows who he is. Furthermore, country is a direction Pharrell can swing without alienating the large conservative fan base he almost certainly won himself through his role as a coach on The Voice, people he’d probably rather keep in the dark about, say, his rap verse on a song called “Move That Dope.” Besides a territorial expansion, this is a relatively safe way to feed his restless hunger for musical exploration.

Ever since Dolly Parton went disco on “9 To 5,” mainstream country has compiled a long, strange history of converging with genres befitting clubs where line dancing isn’t the norm. So it wouldn’t be that weird if Pharrell and Little Big Town were teaming up for some gaudy curio of the “Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy“/”Cruise“/”Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” variety. But that’s not what’s happening on Wanderlust. Little Big Town are attempting something more natural that, within modern country’s skewed musical values system, somehow feels weirder. They’re simply dabbling in different sounds, letting ideas unfurl whether or not they relate to anyone’s conception of country.

Although Wanderlust is out tomorrow, five of its eight songs are already publicly available, and together they paint this project as a failed experiment more entertaining for its ambition than its musical payoff. Some of the singles might win you over — like “One Dance,” not a Drake cover but rather a spare synth-funk burner that could have fit on Pharrell’s 2014 solo album G I R L, or “Work,” not a Rihanna cover but a reggae-tinged saloon disco curiosity that somehow successfully rolls up Johnny Cash, the Bee Gees, and Fleetwood Mac. (Yes, this album shares song titles with two of America’s last four #1 singles, and the guy who sang another one contributes backing vocals. No Desiigner cameo, unfortunately.)

For all their weirdo appeal, “Work” and “One Dance” are more interesting than good, and the other three advance tracks just make me queasy. “One Of Those Days” is shiny, sproingy, relentlessly joyous future-funk that sounds like some youth group leader’s effort to update gospel for the digital era. “Miracle” operates in a similar mode and is just as cheerily grotesque. And “C’mon,” which Little Big Town debuted this week with Pharrell at the Opry, is the kind of straightforward retro country that comes off quaint and corny rather than badass.

It never much mattered if Wanderlust was any good, though. The album accomplishes much of its cross-pollinating purpose by virtue of its mere existence, giving each musician a foothold in the other’s world and reaffirming that Pharrell and Little Big Town are musicians willing to take risks. And unlike so much music high enough up the corporate ladder to make it into that Voice universe, at least there’s something to say about Wanderlust beyond “it exists.”

JUSTIN BIEBER AND SELENA GOMEZ BOTH RELEASED VIDEOS THAT LOOK LIKE EXTREMELY FASHIONABLE YOUTUBE PREROLL THIS WEEK

FYI.

CHART WATCH

Drake continues his most dominant chart stretch ever this week, with Views atop the Billboard 200 for a fifth straight week and “One Dance” topping the Hot 100 for a fourth nonconsecutive frame. Billboard reports that Views tallied another 152,000 equivalent units — 92,000 of them via streaming equivalent albums, which amounts to nearly 138 million track streams.

The latest star to be stymied by Drake’s dominance is Dierks Bentley, whose Black enters at #2 with 101,000 units (88,000 via traditional sales), which is still a step up from Bentley’s previous career high of #3. Also achieving a career high is Fifth Harmony, whose 7/27 enters at #4 with 74,000 units/49,000 sales. And Australian producer Flume enjoys yet another peak with the #8 debut of Skin (31,000 units/18,000 sales).

“One Dance,” the WizKid/Kyla collab that became Drake’s first #1 single as a lead artist, continues its reign. Per Billboard, that makes Drake the first male artist to lead the Billboard 200 and Hot 100 simultaneously for three consecutive weeks since 2005, when 50 Cent spent six weeks on top with The Massacre and “Candy Shop.” Other top-10 movement: Rihanna’s “Needed Me” is up to a new high of #8, while her Calvin Harris collab “This Is What You Came For” returns to its #9 peak. And #10 “Just Like Fire” becomes P!nk’s fifteenth top-10 hit.

POP FIVE

Good Charlotte – “40 Oz. Dream”
So Good Charlotte are rebooting as the kind of late-’90s pop-rock band you’d hear on the radio between Smash Mouth and Sugar Ray?

Nick Jonas – “Bacon” (Feat. Ty Dolla $ign)
Every time Jonas sings, “The one thing I love more than being with you,” I keep expecting him to say, “and that’s bacon!” Even coming from a Nick Jonas apologist, it feels like Ty is slumming on this song.

Shawn Mendes – “Treat You Better”
This sounds like a hit, but it’s also some sub-MAGIC dreck that makes me wish we could go back to the “Who’s Shawn Mendes?” era.

Snoop Dogg – “Kush Ups” (Feat. Wiz Khalifa)
Nice of Wiz to gift Snoop this obvious Wiz song the way Drake gifts Lil Wayne obvious Drake songs.

DJ Snake – “Talk” (Feat. George Maple)
Here’s the latest from the talented Frenchman who brought you “Turn Down For What,” “Lean On,” and “Middle.” It’s on the wispy side, a sleek house track with a hip-hop undercurrent, and I like it a lot.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Whitney Houston’s wedding dress, driver’s license, and other personal items are going up for auction. [People]
  • In an emotional 20/20 interview Bobby Brown blamed the deaths of Houston and Bobbi Kristina on Bobbi’s husband Nick Gordon. [YouTube]
  • David LaChapelle directed Britney Spears’ new “Make Me (Oooh)” video, a collaboration with G-Eazy. It’s from her “very chill” new album due in the fall. [E!]
  • Taylor Swift crashed a fan’s wedding and played “Blank Space.” [People]
  • Beyoncé received the Fashion Icon Award at this year’s CFDA Fashion Awards held in NYC this week. Here’s her acceptance speech. [YouTube]
  • Madonna won a a copyright case concerning a tiny horn sample on “Vogue.” [BBC]
  • She’ll appear on Jimmy Fallon tonight, where President Obama is the lead guest. [Instagram]
  • 19 Entertainment, the American Idol production company that recently filed for bankruptcy, is suing Phillip Phillips for $6M for breaking a contract. [THR]
  • Having sued Jay Z’s Roc Nation for “orphaning” her career mid-contract, Rita Ora has now reportedly signed with Warner Music. [Billboard]
  • Nelly Furtado did an acoustic cover of Calvin Harris’ “Close To You.” [Fader]
  • Fifth Harmony, Pitbull, and Elle King were among the pop stars who invaded this year’s CMA Awards on Wednesday night. [Hollywood Life]

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