The Week In Pop

We Are Entering A Golden Age Of Pop Posse Cuts

Who knew the Moulin Rouge-era “Lady Marmalade,” which pointed to the past in so many ways, would become such a prescient harbinger of the future? The year was 2001, and to promote his long-awaited followup to Romeo + Juliet, Baz Luhrmann rounded up a pop-star Avengers of sorts to sing a 27-year-old disco hit that had already been recorded several times over. Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, and Pink assembled to wail away over Missy Elliott’s hip-hop-infused production, donning cabaret lingerie and prancing through a video at least as memorable as any scene from the film, and it was enough to send the new “Lady Marmalade” to #1 for five weeks on the strength of radio airplay alone. The song wasn’t released as a standalone single for purchase, and neither the iTunes store nor commercial streaming services were in the picture yet, but if streaming had been available back then, people would have streamed “Lady Marmalade” so much — which brings us to our present situation.

That “Lady Marmalade” remake is the earliest pop posse cut I can think of and the only notable one I can remember until the last few years. (Before we go any further, let’s define “posse cut” as song with at least three featured vocalists.) In the rap world, posse cuts are a storied tradition, with a stable of MCs often piling onto a single track and passing the mic for a show of solidarity and/or some friendly competition. The practice hasn’t traditionally translated to the pop sphere aside from massive charity singles such as “We Are The World,” “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” and “Sun City.” There have always been pop groups, of course, and blockbuster duets are a longtime staple of the industry, but rarely have we seen a small army of pop stars ganging up for one song the way rappers do.

I don’t claim to understand all the reasons for that, but I have some ideas. One of them involves the way hip-hop evolved compared to pop. Rap began as a freewheeling, spontaneous exercise with MCs passing the mic at house parties and park jams, and it quickly evolved into a competitive art form playing out on street corners and in recording booths. Thus, it’s completely natural to throw a bunch of rappers on a track; even after decades of corporatization, it’s baked into the genre’s DNA. By comparison, mainstream pop has always been a hyper-controlled form of show business; even the pop stars who seize agency over their careers usually do so with a meticulous eye for detail, and even the boy bands and girl groups who trade verses on pop tunes usually do so with scripted coordination. Whereas every vocalist on, say, A$AP Rocky’s “1 Train” was racking his brain trying to out-rap the competition, every Backstreet Boy was just trying to hit his cue.

With those contexts in mind, it’s no surprise pop acts have not historically participated in large-scale collaborations. Even a duet involves the cooperation of two empires, so forging a coalition of three or more artists could theoretically become extremely messy business from a creative or brand-management standpoint, even before you consider contractual obligations. Speaking of contracts, at a time when album sales were an extremely important revenue generator, the question of whose album got the big hit song would probably have been extremely sticky. And even though there’s obvious promotional value to cramming a bunch of famous people onto a song together, why would a pop superstar want to split royalties or attention so many ways when they can do just as well releasing songs on their own?

Times have changed, though, and the changes have led us to the dawn of the pop posse cut era. They’ve been popping up more and more in recent years: Think Robin Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I. teaming up for “Blurred Lines” in 2013 or Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj aligning for “Bang Bang” in 2015. Lately we’ve seen an explosion of such collaborations, including the current #1 song in America, a remix of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” featuring Justin Bieber. The previous #1 single — DJ Khaled’s “I’m The One,” which also features Bieber plus Quavo, Chance The Rapper, and Lil Wayne — is a rap posse cut in form but a pop song in function, with each rapper delivering his verse in singsong and Bieber cooing a typically translucent hey-girl hook. And tomorrow Scottish hipster DJ-turned-EDM overlord Calvin Harris will unleash a whole album of all-star pop posse cuts called Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1, which, if advance singles are to be trusted, might go down as an early pinnacle for the form.

More on Harris momentarily, but first: How did we get here? For one thing, we must consider hip-hop’s resurgent influence on pop thanks to streaming and stylistic evolution, a subject I wrote about at length earlier this year. You may notice that all of these pop posse cuts, even “Lady Marmalade,” feature at least one rapper. Rap was overlapping with pop in a big way at the turn of the millennium when Moulin Rouge came out, and now that it’s happening again, we shouldn’t be surprised to see some of its tropes trickling into the pop mainstream. Nor should we be surprised that posse cuts in particular are becoming more common in pop — not with Khaled, the reigning king of funneling umpteen MCs onto one beat in search of a hit, enjoying an ever broader profile outside the rap world and wrangling pop monoliths like Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Bieber for his new album.

In addition to its role in blurring the boundaries between rap and pop, streaming’s financial impact probably has something to do with pop stars’ sudden willingness to team up Ocean’s 11-style. This New Yorker feature on royalties is complicated, but long story short, songwriters used to make decent money off album sales and radio spins, but now make a paltry fraction of that from streaming royalties. Thus, it’s no longer as much of a financial hit to add extra artists — who’ll almost always expect a songwriting credit for their contribution — to your big pop single. If you’re a producer-as-lead-artist looking to pad out your aspiring chart-topper with one more household name for insurance purposes, the potential gained exposure from added star power probably outweighs the potential financial cost. And if you’re a bunch of industry-backed B-listers like Nick Jonas, Anne-Marie, and Mike Posner, you might as well merge your powers like so:

Meanwhile, if you’re Calvin Harris, you apparently decide the time is right to deliver the lite-funk beach party version of a DJ Khaled album. Whereas Harris singles have historically featured one vocalist only, almost every song on Funk Wav Bounces includes two or three guests. Many of his A-list DJ-producer peers have been moving this direction — one prime example is Major Lazer’s propulsive new “Know No Better” with Travis Scott, Camila Cabello, and Quavo — but Harris is taking it further than any of them. At a time when the biggest names of the EDM explosion have adapted to softer, smoother, easy listening sounds without losing the electronic pulse at the heart of their music, Harris has undergone a full-scale reinvention, completely abandoning the aesthetic that made him famous in favor of classic party music fit for tropical vacations and backyard barbecues. (I can also report from experience that they sound fantastic while inflating a kiddie pool for a two-year-old’s birthday party.)

Part of the reason these new Harris songs feel so festive is the presence of so many vocalists. It’s as if you’ve stumbled into an invite-only celebrity bash — an effect straight out of the Khaled playbook. Admittedly, Khaled’s tracks often feature a more conventional number of performers. The exquisite new “Wild Thoughts,” for instance, is more like a Rihanna single with a Bryson Tiller feature. Similarly, no one would would describe “Rollin,” a sun-baked chillwave-funk groove on which Harris matches Future with ascendent R&B crooner Khalid, as a posse cut; it’s merely a better-than-average boilerplate rapper-singer collab. But the other three singles from Funk Wav Bounces have been master classes in melding disparate talents.

“Slide” paired Frank Ocean with Migos rappers Quavo and Offset with such weightless transcendence that I haven’t been able to stop listening to it (nor writing about it) since the it dropped back in February. “Heatstroke” was another stroke of genius, casting Young Thug as a howling ATLien James Brown and letting him run wild through an ebullient Motown-disco excursion that plays to the strengths of costars Pharrell and Ariana Grande. Pharrell returned for “Feels,” a contagious reggae-inflected bop accented by Katy Perry’s effective Gwen Stefani impression and Big Sean rapping his usual corny one-liners with such poise and conviction that they almost begin to sound clever.

None of the Funk Wav Bounces singles have come anywhere near the top 10, which is baffling to me given their high-wattage star power and brilliant execution. Thus far Harris has pieced together seemingly incongruent parts so skillfully that I cannot wait to hear what the rest of the album has in store. This time last year I would not have believed that a Calvin Harris album featuring 21 guest vocalists would have the potential to go down as one of 2017’s most compelling creative statements, partially because Harris has long been a singles artist and partially because Khaled’s star-studded albums are always so painfully bloated. Yet all evidence suggests Funk Wav Bounces will be a blast, and its 10-song tracklist promises that it won’t wear out its welcome. And if it really is that good, we may look back on it as a significant landmark in the trajectory of modern pop: The first great album of the pop posse cut era.

CHART WATCH

Lorde’s Melodrama is quite possibly the best album of 2017 so far, so I’m happy to report that it debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart this week. Per Billboard, the set became Lorde’s first chart-topping album thanks to 109,000 equivalent units and 82,000 in traditional album sales. Her 2013 debut Pure Heroine solid 129,000 copies in its opening frame (this was before streaming impacted the chart) but entered at #3 behind Justin Timberlake and Drake. Melodrama’s #1 bow marks three straight weeks with women debuting atop the chart following Halsey and Katy Perry, the first time that’s happened since Taylor Swift, Alicia Keys, and Rihanna did it in late 2012.

After a long period of stagnancy near the top of the albums chart, Melodrama is one of six debuts in the top 10 this week. The next is 2 Chainz’s Pretty Girls Like Trap Music at #2; it just barely missed the top spot with 106,000 units, though its 57,000 in pure sales is well below Lorde. After Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. at #3 comes Jason Isbell with a career-best #4 debut for The Nashville Sound on the strength of 54,000 units/51,000 sales. Nickelback follow at #5 with 47,000 units and 43,000 sales for Feed The Machine, surely bolstered by their beef-heavy promo campaign.

Drake and Ed Sheeran are hanging in there at #6 and #7 respectively, and then comes Young Thug’s Beautiful Thugger Girls with a #8 debut via 37,000 units but only 7,000 in sales. The final top-10 debut is Fleet Foxes’ Crack-Up, tallying 34,000 units and 32,000 in sales for a #9 entry. Bruno Mars’ ever-persistent 24K Magic rounds out the top 10.

Over on the Hot 100 singles chart, as alluded to above, “Despacito” reigns for a seventh straight week. Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber continue to hold off Bieber’s other current all-star convergence, DJ Khaled’s “I’m The One,” which features the Biebs plus Chance The Rapper, Quavo, and Lil Wayne and which “Despacito” originally replaced at #1.

After Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” at #3 comes a #4 debut for Khaled’s Rihanna/Bryson Tiller summit “Wild Thoughts,” which gives Khaled two simultaneous top-5 hits for the first time and becomes his third top-10 hit overall (he also went to #10 with the Drake/Rick Ross/Lil Wayne classic “I’m On One”). Per Billboard, “Wild Thoughts” also becomes Rihanna’s 31st career top-10 hit, third all-time behind Madonna (38) and the Beatles (34), and is her third-highest-debuting song ever. It’s also Tiller’s first top-10 hit (he rose to #13 last year with “Don’t”) to go along with his #1 debut for True To Self earlier this month.

After Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” at #5, Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” at #6, and Future’s “Mask Off” at #7, Post Malone and Quavo’s “Congratulations” hits a new #8 peak. The Chainsmokers and Coldplay’s “Something Just Like This” slides to #9 but extends the Chainsmokers’ streak of consecutive weeks in the top 10 to 60, just nine weeks short of Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream-era record. And the Zedd/Alessia Cara collab “Stay” logs in at #10.

POP FIVE

Bruno Mars vs. David Guetta – “Versace On The Floor”
In its original form as a Boyz II Men-worthy R&B slow jam, “Versace On The Floor” seemed like a surefire hit, but it didn’t really connect — maybe because Mars didn’t give it a proper promo push. Now that Guetta has punched it up with some Daft Punk talkbox and a lite-funk groove closer to ’70s AM than ’90s FM, I have to believe it will follow “That’s What I Like” to the top of the charts.

The Chainsmokers – “Young”
The next single from Memories… Do Not Open does away with almost all vestiges of electronic music in favor of sentimental pop-rock befitting a teen soap opera, but it hits the same nostalgic beats that made “Closer” and “Paris” such massive hits. I don’t hate it, but I also don’t hate white bread. The big question here is whether “Young” can make it into the top 10 before “Something Just Like This” drops out, keeping alive the Chainsmokers’ chance of catching Katy Perry’s record (see Chart Watch above).

Clean Bandit & Marina – “Disconnect”
I really thought Clean Bandit would be a one-hit wonder after the incompable “Rather Be,” but the orchestral dance-pop band surged back into the top 10 with “Rockabye” last year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this Marina Diamandis team-up succeeds at US radio, too. It’s less dynamic than Clean Bandit at their best, but there’s some appeal in dance music that rushes along like a raging river.

JoJo – “Wonder Woman”
Topical!

Ansel Elgort – “All I Think About Is You”
Yes, the lead actor from Baby Driver is trying to pull a Hailee Steinfeld. And no, this is not a bad start.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Iggy Azalea is looking to reconcile with fellow “creative Gemini woman” Azealia Banks, who responded to the olive branch via a statement: “I think a true reconciliation can happen once there is some acknowledgment of what hip-hop has been trying to tell her.” [XXL]
  • Snoop Dogg, Carrie Underwood, RuPaul, and “Weird Al” Yankovic will receive stars on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. [ABC]
  • Camila Cabello debuted three songs at Chicago’s B96 SummerBash. [Direct Lyrics]
  • Shade alert: Bebe Rexha was performing “The Monster,” the hit she co-wrote for Eminem and Rihanna, in Augusta when she revealed she had sung the “ooh ooh” parts on the recording, not RiRi. “[Rihanna] can’t hit those high notes.” [Twitter]
  • Hailee Steinfeld, Anna Kendrick, and the rest of the Barden Bellas are back in the Pitch Perfect 3 trailer. [YouTube]
  • Meanwhile Steinfeld will join Brad Paisley and Lady Antebellum in headlining Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks Spectacular. [TV Guide]
  • While promoting a skincare line in Tel Aviv this week, Mariah Carey found herself awkwardly fielding questions about her former fiancée’s link to a corruption investigation involving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. [THR]
  • Drake announced the 8th Annual OVO Fest with PARTYNEXTDOOR, Majid Jordan, Roy Wood$, and dvsn. [Instagram]
  • Ellen Page did an acoustic cover of Britney Spears’ “Lucky.” [YouTube]
  • Migos’ next album Culture 2 is apparently planned for October. [Hypebeast]
  • Earlier this month Lady Gaga surprised students at Hollywood’s Walter Reed Middle School when she was introduced as their substitute teacher. It was filmed for a PSA to raise money for her Born This Way Foundation and DonorsChoose.org. [AdWeek]
  • In a raw interview with The Guardian, Louis Tomlinson admitted he saw himself as the “forgettable” one compared to his One Direction bandmates. (Which one is Louis Tomlinson again?) [The Guardian]

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