Halsey Doesn’t Want To Be A Pop Star, But She Made A Pretty Good Pop Album
Do you think Halsey will perform “Closer” on tour this year? Technically, the artist born Ashley Frangipane already had a signature song, 2015’s “New Americana,” a tune that unabashedly strived to become an anthem for millennials of the “high on legal marijuana, raised on Biggie and Nirvana” variety and at least mildly succeeded. But whatever success Halsey achieved with “New Americana” — which was heavily promoted by Apple Music, accrued nearly 40 million YouTube views, and helped her debut album Badlands debut at #2 with more than 100,000 copies sold in its first week — was dwarfed by her collaboration with pop’s reigning MOR-EDM doofuses the Chainsmokers. “Closer” ruled the second half of 2016, spending 12 weeks at #1. It is more of a generational touchstone than “New Americana” will ever be, barring some kind of late-breaking placement in an iconic movie scene. “Closer” will almost certainly be Halsey’s most famous song for the rest of her life, and it’s the albatross she carries into Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, her second album, out tomorrow.
Halsey is troubled by the persistent notion that she is a pop artist and not an alternative artiste, a reputation she recently chalked up to gender bias: “Kendrick [Lamar] has done a Maroon 5 feature, a Taylor Swift feature, and a Sia feature — which is more pop features than I’ve done. No one’s calling him a pop star… The lengths that Lady Gaga has to go to to maintain her cred as an artist of the counterculture are insane.” Halsey’s right that women usually have to work harder to be taken seriously as musicians of substance, which is deeply shitty and completely unfair. But her comments did not entirely make sense, partially because at this point in history many listeners take ambitious pop artists at least as seriously as “alternative” artists (see: Lemonade), and partially because Halsey largely does operate within the pop sphere, alt-modified though her music may be.
Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, for instance, finds her co-producing every song alongside a fleet of decidedly pop-oriented figures including Ricky Reed, Greg Kurstin, Lido, and Benny Blanco. These are people whose combined production history includes Adele, Meghan Trainor, Maroon 5, Twenty One Pilots, Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran, Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, Sia, Fifth Harmony, Ellie Goulding, Jason Derulo, Kelly Clarkson… you get the idea. Thanks to Halsey’s involvement across the board, the lot of them landed on a remarkably consistent sound, dark and sleek and electronic in a way that hearkens to the various underground-borne bands who’ve toyed with pop tropes this decade. Purity Ring in particular stand out as a reference point, what with all the lurching 808 beats and sweeping waves of melodic noise and eerie tweaked vocal melodies, which is ironic because on Purity Ring’s latest album they seemed to be striving pretty hard to establish the kind of mainstream platform Halsey now enjoys (or, rather, doesn’t seem to enjoy that much).
Why she’d prefer to be considered a peer of, like, BANKS and Phantogram instead of a pop A-lister is beyond me, but considering the alt-pop scene’s cultural associations, it’s not surprising Halsey has a business arrangement with Urban Outfitters. Nor is it shocking, given the basic ’90s nostalgia conferred by “New Americana,” that Hopeless Fountain Kingdom boasts a mostly illegible Romeo And Juliet motif: The album begins with the Shakespeare play’s opening monologue, the video for lead single “Now Or Never” heavily alludes to Baz Luhrmann’s modernized 1996 movie version, and the promo campaign involves an elaborate network of Twitter accounts for star-crossed lovers Luna and White Nite (from the House of Aureum and House of Angelus, respectively). What may surprise you is how rewarding Hopeless Fountain Kingdom turns out to be whether or not you’re invested in all that baggage. It may not be the masterpiece Halsey imagines it to be, but it’s a major leap from Badlands.
Stylistically, the leap is not so major. There are still traces of Lorde’s youthful goth and Lana Del Rey’s modernized high-drama classicism and, on occasion, Taylor Swift’s brightly bursting melodic instincts. The Weeknd co-wrote advance single “Eyes Closed,” and it definitely reflects his nihilistic cutting-edge R&B impulses. Cashmere Cat had a hand in closing track “Hopeless,” a colorful computerized dirge of the Imogen Heap variety that would have fit in just fine on his own new album. (It actually reminds me quite a bit of his own Weeknd collab, “Wild Love.”) Despite the dense conceptual framework, the songs are mostly character portraits about falling in and (mostly) out of love, our narrator vacillating between defiant confidence and paralyzing self-doubt. In other words, she’s using the same palette as ever, she’s just using it better.
Nowhere does this function more effectively than on the album’s first proper song, “100 Letters.” It’s warmer than your average Halsey track, a glimmering neon sunrise detailing her sigh of relief after sidestepping a toxic relationship, delivered with such poise that even lines like “I find myself alone at night unless I’m having sex” don’t brick. The chorus is spectacular, like Swift and Perry mended fences and melded “Blank Space” with “Teenage Dream.” Also excellent is “Strangers,” the duet with Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui, on which the two proud bisexuals strike a lamenting-lost-love pose against a backdrop of rippling Drive soundtrack ’80s revivalism. Like “Closer,” these are songs about the wreckage of a bad romance, but they’re both way more stylish than any Chainsmokers song, and they reveal dimensions beyond that song’s fuck-you-but-also-please-fuck-me M.O.
Elsewhere we get a straightforward go-for-broke piano ballad (“Sorry”), a contagious retro soul sample-flip (“Alone”), some Evanescence-worthy bluster that goes full Kanye when the suddenly omnipresent Quavo shows up (“Lie”), one track that mercifully stops sounding like Elle King and turns back into a Halsey song (“Heaven In Hiding”), a Destiny’s Child-inspired interlude inflected with classical strings (“Walls Could Talk”), another interlude that sounds like a spooky Disney song (“Good Mourning”), and a monumentally sick windchime-laden electronic quicksand pit built around the phrase, “Motherfucker don’t play with me” (“Don’t Play”). It’s a lot, and we haven’t even gotten to the lyrics, which are either Halsey’s Achilles heel or her greatest strength.
She deals in melodramatic proclamations such as “I’m standing in the ashes of who I used to be” and “You and all your friends all hate me” and “Everywhere I go I’ve got a million different people trying to kick it, but I’m still alone in my mind.” If such lines scan as self-loathing Tumblr poetry, that also means they’ll probably connect more directly with the fervent audience of emo pop heads Halsey was already cultivating before “Closer” came along. She’s at least self-aware enough to laugh at her own folly sometimes: On “Bad At Love,” all that personal dysfunction manifests in an entertaining laundry list of relationships gone awry — the guy whose kisses taste too much like whiskey, the guy who wants to put her in a domestic prison, the girl who got too into drugs. And on “Lie” she submits, uh, “I gave you the messiest head/ You give me the messiest head,” which I’m pretty sure is supposed to be a double entendre.
So, yeah: Hopeless Fountain Kingdom is less than profound yet better than average. The lyrics are too shallow to tweet with a straight face, the concept is too convoluted to comprehend, and the aesthetic does not advance current trends so much as it reshapes them in Halsey’s image. But that image is distinct — a personality strong enough to, along with her gift for hooks and taste for widescreen grandeur, hold this project together. The longer I analyze it, the less it holds up to scrutiny, but when I press play I am caught up in this album’s adolescent reverie. Perhaps in spite of her own pretentious intentions, Halsey came away with a really strong, self-assured pop album, and that’s an accomplishment worth taking seriously.
Linkin Park fans are apparently getting the message (namely, “move the fuck on“) and are on board with the band’s poppy new sound (or at least afraid of Chester Bennington’s violent threats) because One More Light has become their sixth #1 album, debuting atop the Billboard 200 with 111,000 equivalent units and 100,000 in traditional album sales. LP have the only top-10 debut of the week. The rest of the titles will be extremely familiar to those who follow the charts. Here they are from #2 to #10: Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., Harry Styles’ self-titled debut, Drake’s More Life, Chris Stapleton’s From A Room: Volume 1, Ed Sheeran’s ÷, Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Awesome Mix Vol. 2, the Epic AF compilation, and Migos’ Culture.
Over on the Hot 100 singles chart, Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber’s “Despacito” reigns for a third straight week, followed once again by Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” at #2 and DJ Khaled’s “I’m The One” (starring Bieber, Quavo, Chance The Rapper, and Lil Wayne) at #3. Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” hops back to #4, bumping Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” down to #5, though Billboard points out “Shape Of You” is the first song to ever spend its first 20 weeks in the top 5 (besting Bieber’s “Sorry,” which previously held the record by beginning with 19 straight weeks in the top 5).
Future’s “Mask Off” is at #6 and Zedd and Alessia Cara’s “Stay” at #7, followed by the Chainsmokers and Coldplay’s “Something Just Like This” at #8 (which extends the Chainsmokers’ run of consecutive weeks with a single in the top 10 to 56, second only to Katy Perry’s 69-week run in 2010-11). Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO TOUR Llif3″ and Kygo and Selena Gomez’s “It Ain’t Me” round out the top 10, and Week In Pop fave Julia Michaels’ “Issues” is knocking on the door at #11.
Nowhere to be found in the Hot 100 is “Perfect Pint,” Mike Will Made-It’s collaboration with Kendrick Lamar, Gucci Mane, and Rae Sremmurd. It’s not particularly poppy, but I wonder if it won’t chart soon thanks to its wild new music video. Kendrick, Gucci, and the brothers Sremm each went to #1 this recently with Mike Will-produced singles (Rae Sremmurd and Gucci’s “Black Beatles” and Kendrick’s “HUMBLE.”), so it seems like “Perfect Pint” is primed for some kind of chart run, right?
Lorde – “Perfect Places”
I loved the ambitious “Green Light” and was indifferent toward the piano ballad “Liability,” and I am still sorting out what to think of this song, which strikes me as a retread of Pure Heroine’s “Team.” My first reaction is positive in that I’m happy she didn’t completely abandon the sound that made her famous.
Major Lazer – “Know No Better” (Feat. Travis Scott, Camila Cabello, & Quavo)
“Know No Better” certainly isn’t going to derail these three vocalists’ current trajectory toward superstardom. We can scoff at Diplo’s move toward conservatism, and perhaps we should. We can sigh about how long pop’s EDM easy-listening phase is lasting, and yeah, it’s starting to get pretty old. But I’m mostly just impressed at how good the guy has gotten at crafting surefire hits.
Nick Jonas, Anne-Marie, & Mike Posner – “Remember I Told You”
More pop artists should release rap-style posse cuts like this lightweight house banger. It’s no masterpiece, but it makes me like everyone involved more.
Martin Garrix & Troye Sivan – “There For You”
Queer heartthrob Sivan is already a bona fide underground pop star, and this collab with ascendant hitmaker Garrix might be enough to subtract the word “underground” from that title. It pretty much nails the Chainsmokers formula, which is funny coming from a producer who was once pegged as part of EDM’s punk-rock movement.
Rita Ora – “Your Song”
An Elton John cover would have been better, but Rita Ora can tell everybody she made a decent pop single for once.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Camilla Cabello joined Major Lazer in Miami for their first joint performance of “Know No Better,” the above collab with Quavo and Travis Scott. [Twitter]
- Meanwhile, Fifth Harmony’s new Gucci Mane-featuring single “Down,” their first release without Cabello, is out tomorrow. [Twitter]
- Back to Cabello: She’s the new face of Guess. [Billboard]
- Ellie Goulding and Kygo covered Harry Styles’ “Sign Of The Times” on the BBC Live Lounge. [Twitter]
- Black Eyed Peas will play the UEFA Champions League final on Saturday, and have promised new music is coming this summer. [Josep]
- Also, Black Eyed Peas’ Taboo appeared to tease an Oasis reunion at Sunday’s big benefit show in Manchester, but then said it was just a mistake. [Metro]
- Nicki Minaj will perform at the inaugural NBA Awards, hosted by Drake, airing 6/26 on TNT. [NBA]
- Hailee Steinfeld is the new face of celebrity-owned activewear company Mission. [WWD]
- Steinfeld is also in talks to star in the Transformers spinoff Bumblebee. [THR]
- Ariana Grande’s mother shared a message on Twitter honoring the victims of the terrorist attack at her daughter’s Manchester concert. [Twitter]
- Taylor Swift’s label Big Machine is launching a premuim vodka. [Billboard]
- Apple Music’s Carpool Karaoke series has a new premiere date: 8/8. [THR]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
LIL YACHTY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/CtVSG8VpaT
— mark glick the brand (@anxietymachine) May 29, 2017