The Week In Pop

Fall Pop Preview: Does 2016 Have Any Blockbusters Left In It?

In 2016, a new event album seems to materialize out of nowhere every few weeks, seizing the zeitgeist for a few precious weeks (or days!) until the next one comes along.

As we round the corner from summer into fall, 2016 has already seen major album releases from Rihanna, Kanye West, Beyoncé, and Drake — i.e. the only pop stars big enough to do anything memorable on last Sunday’s VMAs telecast — not to mention mainstream-adjacent cults of personality Chance The Rapper, Future, and Frank Ocean; legacy stars Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, Coldplay, and Sia; and popular young strivers including Zayn, Ariana Grande, Meghan Trainor, Fifth Harmony, and the 1975. Most of the rest of pop’s upper and upper-middle classes released big projects the year before: Adele, Justin Bieber, the Weeknd, Twenty One Pilots, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, 5 Seconds Of Summer, Fall Out Boy, Miley Cyrus, and (ugh) Charlie Puth.

That’s a lot of pop. There aren’t many acts left who could make an actual splash in the last four months of 2016. Which leads us to the first question of our fall pop preview:

1. Is the Lady Gaga comeback finally on?

The closest thing to a major pop album expected to see 2016 release is Lady Gaga’s much-anticipated comeback, and that doesn’t have an official release date yet. Lead single “Perfect Illusion” is due out this month, but that doesn’t necessarily denote that the album will drop before year’s end, especially if the single fizzles on impact.

Given that Mark Ronson, Kevin Parker, and Bloodpop all worked on the song, hopefully that won’t happen, but a flop single could result in a pushed-back album. Rihanna, for instance, spent much of 2015 releasing singles ostensibly building to an album release, but the project remained in limbo for months after that — and when Anti finally emerged in 2016, none of those songs were even on the tracklist. So I’ll believe Gaga’s album is ready when it has an official release date, or maybe only when it’s actually released.

That said, given the lack of competition, this would be a great time for her to triumphantly return. There are some other notable releases either on tap or in limbo, all of which we’ll get to momentarily, but aside from Usher’s forthcoming Hard II Love, none of them are surefire hits from A-list superstars. Usher doesn’t really do event albums anymore anyway; he’s more of a workmanlike singles generator whose projects debut at #1 without making a lasting cultural imprint. So Gaga might have the spotlight all to herself — unless someone above her on the pop food chain “pulls a Beyoncé.” Speaking of which:

2. Will Jay Z and Beyoncé release their long-rumored joint LP?

It’s all but inevitable that Jay Z and Beyoncé are making an album together. That was the buzz during their 2014 co-headlining tour, long before anyone knew about Lemonade, and it continued to be the buzz in Lemonade’s aftermath. A marital Watch The Throne would put a nice bow on that Lemonade storyline, wouldn’t it? Bonnie and Clyde back at it again?

Furthermore, Watch The Throne was one of the only post-retirement Jay Z albums that wasn’t trash, largely because Jay was feeding off Kanye’s creative energy; I imagine he’d enjoy a similar boost from working with his wife, who has been back at the top of her game for three solid years with no signs of slowing down. (Though the last time he hopped on a track with Bey he rapped, “Your breasteses are my breakfast,” so maybe not.) Furthermore, after watching Drake and Future maintain control of the spotlight with What A Time To Be Alive in late 2015, Beyoncé has to be considering how she can end 2016 as strongly as she began it. And with Tidal still lagging behind Spotify and Apple, another superstar exclusive sure wouldn’t hurt the bottom line right now.

So if I were a betting man, I’d bet the Jay/Bey LP finally comes out before 2017, and that it will be a surprise release, and that it will begin as a Tidal exclusive. That one would definitely dominate the conversation. I’d even consider subscribing to Tidal to hear it. But there’s another specter of a surprise album kicking around the fringes of possibility that’s even more interesting to me:

3. Would Taylor Swift dare release a surprise album?

Every other autumn since 2006, Taylor Swift has released a new album, right on schedule. It happens like clockwork every two years. If meaningful federal elections are going down, it’s Taylor’s time. But there hasn’t been any evidence of Swift working on new music since the interminable 1989 promotional cycle wound down — plenty of tabloid coverage of her personal life and her war of words with the Kardashian-Wests, but not a peep about new music.

That said, rumors have been circulating that she’ll release her sixth album this fall, right on schedule — rumors her label head Scott Borchetta emphatically denied last month. Well, technically he denied that Swift’s album would be out in October, so a November or December release is certainly on the table — and what about a September release? Or maybe he’s just lying, and it will arrive in October? Or maybe she’s really just been filling her days with Apple Music ad shoots and romantic getaways with Tom Hiddleston and jury duty?

One argument against a surprise release is that the traditional album rollout has always been extremely effective for Swift. 1989 is one of the two bestselling albums of the past two years, and the only one that sold better — Adele’s 25 — also sidestepped the surprise album trend. Why fix what’s not broken, Swift and her team might wonder, especially when hundreds of millions of dollars are hanging in the balance? On the other hand, Swift is in bed with Apple, and Apple has sponsored plenty of last-minute LP releases. Plus, a true surprise drop — as in, not one of those eternally delayed projects that finally comes out with one week’s notice — would probably be good for her narrative, and as we all know, Swift is very conscious of her narrative.

4. Would anyone else attempt a surprise drop?

Let’s just assume none of the stars I’ve already mentioned have anything coming this fall, except probably that Drake/Kanye collaboration. Pretend the inevitable Jay/Bey thing and the aforementioned Taylor Swift album of our collective imagination do not materialize. Is there anybody left who could pull off a surprise drop?

Swift’s buddies Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran are humongous worldwide superstars, and neither has released an album since summer 2014, but they, too, exist in that mom-beloved Adele zone that suggests they’d be better off releasing their albums the old-fashioned way. A Sheeran surprise is, I suppose, a longshot possibility, but there’s no way Smith’s sophomore album emerges with anything short of an inescapable PR campaign. Swift’s rival Katy Perry has gone even longer without an album — Prism arrived in autumn 2013 — and she even has a new single out, the Olympics ballad “Rise.” Circa Prism she was already nudging herself in that adult contemporary direction, so she may be in the same boat with Smith. Justin Timberlake also hasn’t released an album since sharing two 20/20 Experience volumes in 2013, but he has the Trolls soundtrack to promote this fall, and he didn’t really start working on his next album until after Trolls, so it seems highly unlikely that his next project will arrive ahead of 2017 — especially if he goes country.

There is at least one more intriguing possibility, though: What about Bruno Mars? Dude dropped Unorthodox Jukebox way back in 2012, and even “Uptown Funk” is about to turn two years old, so you know he’s been in the lab. Surely he’s got something ready to go. And unless a lot of these speculative albums happen, he’s facing a relative vacuum of competition. I’d imagine the only thing stopping him from unveiling an album by surprise is that he, too, could benefit from getting out the mom vote, so to speak, with an airwave-saturating advance single and a wave of TV appearances.

5. Will Shawn Mendes get on Justin Bieber’s level?

The dearth of star power this fall may clear the way for some of pop’s rising stars to ascend to new levels of prominence. One guy who stands to benefit is Shawn Mendes, the former Vine star who has become a pop radio mainstay. “Stitches,” from his 2015 debut Handwritten, lingered in heavy rotation forever, and he’s enjoying another success right now with newly minted top-10 hit “Treat You Better” from the forthcoming Illuminate, out 9/23. He seems to have ascended to that Jason Derulo zone where your songs are more of a public presence than you personally, even though the songs themselves lack personality.

Last year, Justin Bieber famously asked a radio DJ, “Who’s Shawn Mendes?” despite being on the same label as the guy. Bieber definitely knows him now. The question is whether enough other people have caught on to make Mendes a household name. He’s certainly not making singles as good as Bieber’s recent output, but we all know that’s not necessarily an obstacle to superstardom. Given his track record of mediocrity, let’s hope he doesn’t become one of those pop stars so big that you can’t ignore them.

6. Can Tove Lo live up to the mastery of her 2014 debut?

One of the few mainstream pop albums with a definite release date this fall is Tove Lo’s Lady Wood, out 10/28. It’s also my most anticipated pop album of the fall because her 2014 debut Queen Of The Clouds was my favorite pop album of that year. The Swedish singer matched trademark Scandinavian pop precision with a fearless persona equal parts vulnerable and raunchy, and the result was a string of absolute bangers including “Habits (Stay High),” “Not On Drugs,” “Moments,” “Timebomb,” and “Talking Body.”

“Cool Girl,” the lead single from Lady Wood, represents a new sound for Lo, her usual vibrant burst of colors replaced by something smooth and understated and monochrome. But the song is good, and its subject matter is right in her wheelhouse. It has me convinced she’ll avoid repeating herself on Lady Wood, a lesson any aspiring icon needs to learn early in her career.

7. Is JoJo back?

Last year I wrote that JoJo was “a pop star for the post-hits era,” noting that the former teen star had built up a fervent online audience without really sniffing the radio success of her adolescence. She even had a “tringle” (her fancy word for a three-song EP), and it was not bad!

Now she’s prepping Mad Love, due 10/14, an ostensible comeback album preceded by a single with Wiz Khalifa. On the other hand, that song is called “Fuck Apologies,” so she may not be aiming for a radio return. Plus “Fuck Apologies” hasn’t exactly been blowing up on YouTube, so it seems like maybe no, JoJo is not approaching any kind of “Leave (Get Out)” level of cultural permeation. But theoretically there will be other singles that don’t have “Fuck” in the title that Atlantic might be able to leverage onto the radio.

8. What the hell is going on with Tinashe?

The road to Tinashe’s second studio album has been extremely convoluted: Almost exactly a year ago she shared a trailer for an album called Joyride, and she announced a Joyride Tour for early 2016. But the tour ended up cancelled so that Tinashe could keep working on the album, and despite the fact that she’s released an EP’s worth of songs since then — “Party Favors,” “Player,” “Energy,” “Ride Of Your Life,” “They’re On,” and “Superlove” — we still have no idea when the the thing is coming out. What’s worse, last spring rumors were circulating that Joyride’s title track had been taken away from Tinashe and given to Rihanna instead.

Until someone releases a big-budget pop song called “Joyride,” there’s no way of knowing whether those Rihanna rumors are true. But for now it seems like we may never hear either artist’s take on the track. Tinashe’s Joyride album doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page yet, and none of her recent attempts at a buzz single have caught on at radio. About the only thing working in Tinashe’s favor is the tabloid buzz surrounding her alleged relationship with Calvin Harris, which is more than likely what landed her an interview on the VMAs pre-show last Sunday. That’s shitty, but if jumping into the celebrity gossip slipstream is what it takes to get an Aquarius follow-up into the world, so be it.

Let’s end with a couple quick ones:

9. Will anyone besides Tim Cook buy the new OneRepublic album?

Yes, unfortunately.

10. Will Pitbull ever go away?

No, and frankly, I’ve come to grips with Mr. Worldwide’s permanent place in American pop culture. Dale!

CHART WATCH

Congratulations to Frank Ocean! Blonde enters the Billboard 200 at #1, which might turn out to be very profitable or very costly for Ocean depending on whether his pre-release label hijinks get him sued by Universal.

As it stands, Def Jam gets the oblique visual album Endless, which is available only as a streaming video for Apple Music subscribers and is therefore ineligible for the chart, and Ocean gets to enjoy a much larger portion of self-released Blonde’s 276,000 equivalent units (including 232,000 in traditional sales). Only Drake’s Views (1.04 million units/852,000 sales) and Beyoncé’s Lemonade (653,000 units/485,000 sales) put up better first-week numbers this year.

Blonde’s numbers are Ocean’s career best by a wide margin; Billboard notes that 2012’s Channel Orange debuted at #2 with 131,000 in first-week sales. Per the report, Blonde also becomes the third independent album to go #1 this year following Blink-182’s California (BMG) and the Lumineers’ Cleopatra (Dualtone), which, combined with Blonde’s latent connection to Def Jam, seems like three not-that-independent independent releases. But technically, sure. More true to the spirit of the word independent, Ocean released Blonde himself without a traditional distributor, making it the first such album to go #1 since Garth Brooks’ Blame It All On My Roots: Five Decades Of Influences in 2013.

Other top-10 debuts this week include rapper Tory Lanez’s I Told You at #4 with 52,000 units/32,000 sales and violin virtuoso Lindsey Stirling’s Brave Enough at #5 with 49,000 units/45,000 sales.

Over on the Hot 100 singles chart, the Chainsmokers and Halsey’s “Closer” remains #1 despite a VMAs performance that hit like a wet fart. Major Lazer/Justin Bieber/MØ’s “Cold Water” is back at #2, and Sia and Sean Paul’s former #1 “Cheap Thrills” is down to #3. And then comes a pair of hits by Twenty One Pilots, “Heathens” at #4 and “Ride” at #5. Those songs also nabbed the duo an unusual accomplishment: Billboard reports that “Ride” is #1 on the Pop Songs chart and “Heathens” is #1 on the Alternative Songs chart and Twenty One Pilots are the first band to top those two charts at the same time with two different songs. (Others including Green Day, Sugar Ray, Goo Goo Dolls, Chumbawamba, and Alanis Morissette have done it with the same song.)

POP FIVE

Dua Lipa – “Blow Your Mind (Mwah)”
Hey everybody, just want to reaffirm that Dua Lipa is good! If you’re into Charli XCX and other artfully playful pop, it’s guaranteed “Mwah” can blow your mind.

Allie X – “All The Rage”
Like Dua Lipa, Allie X has piled up a number of solid pop singles in recent years without scoring an actual hit. “All The Rage” may not be the song to finally get her on the radio, but it also isn’t impossible to imagine that happening. If nothing else, it’s another masterclass in persona-building.

Charlotte OC – “Blackout”
Here’s yet another aspiring pop star with a decent single to their name. “Blackout” reminds me of Lana Del Rey if she ever threw herself fully into crossing over.

Florida Georgia Line – “May We All” (Feat. Tim McGraw)
I don’t know why I was expecting more than boilerplate country from a Florida Georgia Line x Tim McGraw song, but I really was. At least we get to see McGraw’s underrated acting chops in the video.

Blink 182 – “Bored To Death (Steve Aoki Remix)”
Well, here’s this.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Drake brought Rihanna onstage in Miami last night and they kissed for real. [Twitter]
  • In related news, a mysterious website — drakeandrihanna.com — briefly tantalized pop fans on Tuesday, but was soon revealed to be a prank from comedy site SuperDeluxe and social media star Joanne The Scammer. [NY Mag]
  • Also, Rihanna might not be able to wink according to a Buzzfeed writer’s exposé in GIFs. [Vulture]
  • More than 200 artists have filed an amicus brief with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in support of Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke, & T.I.’s appeal of the “Blurred Lines” ruling. [THR]
  • For some reason, Jewel will participate in the Comedy Central Roast of Rob Lowe on Labor Day. [Twitter]
  • Justin Bieber reactivated his Instagram, though he says he did so accidentally. [Instagram]
  • Bieber also set eight new Guinness World Records. Mostly for streaming and chart placement, not for the world’s longest fingernails or anything. [Twitter]
  • Jesse Helt, the homeless guy Miley Cyrus took to the VMAs two years ago, is selling his Moonman on eBay. [TMZ]
  • Is Katy Perry’s “Rise” a “flop” because Spotify’s in-house playlists blackball songs that premiered on Apple Music? [Music Business Worldwide]
  • Vanilla Ice, Babyface, and Amber Rose are among the contestants on the new season of Dancing With The Stars. [Deadline]
  • MTV is considering airing future VMAs live on both coasts since this year’s TV audience dropped to 6.5M people across 11 Viacom networks, down from last year’s 9.8M. [WaPo]
  • Selena Gomez is taking time off to deal with anxiety, panic attacks, and depression that can be a side-effect of her lupus diagnosis. [People]
  • Chris Stapleton, Maren Morris, and Eric Church lead this year’s CMA nominations. [The Tennesseean]
  • Rita Ora is performing for Pope Francis at the Vatican this weekend. [Hollywood Life]
  • Lily Allen responded to a “hatchet job” in UK tabloid The Sun that claimed she had a drinking problem. She also said she’s very close to finishing her fourth album. [BBC]

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