The Week In Pop

Bazzi, Tinashe, & Kali Uchis: Three Distinct Visions Of R&B As Pop

This is a big week for R&B. That’s true first of all in a statistical sense: The Weeknd’s new EP, My Dear Melancholy, just put up 169,000 equivalent album units in its first week — the biggest total for an R&B release since late 2016 (when, uh, the last Weeknd album came out). We also saw three impressive new singers crack the Hot 100 for the first time. YouTube personality Queen Naija’s “Medicine,” a tune that sounds like one of Noah “40” Shebib’s ’90s R&B samples nudged back toward the source material, arrives at #45. British talent Ella Mai is in at #78 with “Boo’d Up,” an immensely appealing track that reminds me of Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s “Part II (On The Run)” without all the overblown celebrity mythology. And at #100 is Bay Area singer H.E.R.’s smoldering dream sequence “Focus,” which sounds like heaven in more ways than one and which has been slowly building steam since way back in 2016.

H.E.R. may have another long-gestating hit on her hands soon in “Best Part,” her duet with ascendant Canadian singer Daniel Caesar. It’s an acoustic love song that bridges lovely ’90s touchstones like Donell Jones’ “Where I Wanna Be” and Boyz II Men’s “Water Runs Dry” with more recent ballads by Miguel and Frank Ocean, and its sound is in keeping with Caesar’s role as a leading light of R&B’s soft and classy resurgence. “Best Part,” which Caesar and H.E.R. performed on Kimmel this week, originates from Caesar’s Grammy-nominated 2017 debut Freudian, an album headlined by his signature hit “Get You.” A compositional and commercial slow-burn — it too debuted in 2016 and just cracked the Hot 100 two months ago — “Get You” finds Caesar backed by the Toronto hip-hop jazz instrumentalists BADBADNOTGOOD with a late-breaking assist from Colombian-born singer Kali Uchis, who shows up on the mic just in time to play the song out, like Frank Ocean on Kanye West’s “Wolves.”

So the most influential R&B star of the decade has another blockbuster to his name and a slew of fresh young figures are charging the singles chart. That’s undoubtedly big. But by invoking Uchis, Caesar’s “Get You” collaborator, we’re getting to the more subjective reason I say this is a big week for R&B: Within seven days we’re seeing the release of three noteworthy albums with competing points of view about what the genre could be in 2018 and how it might interact with pop music as a whole. Last Friday Uchis delivered her wildly impressive debut album, Isolation; today rising star Bazzi is unveiling his debut, Cosmic; and tomorrow brings Tinashe’s long-delayed sophomore release, Joyride. Probably none of the three will match the Weeknd’s sales or influence, but each is thought-provoking in its own way.

The best and most ambitious of them by far is Isolation. In the past I have made the mistake of ignoring Uchis, but this album establishes her as both a visionary and a born star. Uchis split her childhood between Colombia and Virginia. Her life story is messy, including abuse, homelessness, and criticism from some darker-skinned Latinxs over her handling of race. (It’s… complicated.) Her music reflects that eclecticism and tumult, but in a controlled and purposeful way. To call it R&B is reductive, though not inaccurate. She also indulges frequently in retro soul sounds that have earned her plenty Amy Winehouse comparisons, but that’s perhaps even more reductive. The number of styles and points of view in the mix here is impossible to pin down, but it all coheres into hers.

To list the names involved in Isolation is to understand how much support Uchis has culled within the music industry and what a vast musical world you’re stepping into. Steve Lacy, who worked with Uchis and Vince Staples on “Only Girl,” is on board for “Just A Stranger,” a bass-led funk vamp. Co-produced by Brockhampton’s Romil Hemnani and cut from the same cloth as To Pimp A Butterfly, it finds Uchis reveling in the gold digger archetype while flipping it sideways. On the dancehall-alluding “Tyrant,” she teams up with fellow rising star Jorja Smith (best known for “Get It Together” on Drake’s More Life) to conjure the aftermath of an explosive love connection. The most impressive aspect of the song may be the way Uchis bends unusual rhymes into evocative imagery:

All I hear is sirens
In a world so violent
Would you be a tyrant
If I gave you power
Would you take it out
Look me in my iris
I can read your silence
When everything is a riot
You’re my peace and quiet

Damon Albarn contributes his rich, wizened bleat to the frenetic synth jam “In My Dreams,” but the Blur and Gorillaz leader’s brief cameo is an afterthought compared to Uchis’ head-spun performance. “Tomorrow,” produced by Kevin Parker, is basically a Currents-era Tame Impala instrumental, and if you think Rihanna reclaimed “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” as her own, wait until you hear how Uchis possesses this song’s mirage-like curvature, cooing and rapping with the utmost confidence. Speaking of confidence, how about this statement of intent on the reggae-tinged “Miami,” featuring a rap verse from BIA and production by DJ Dahi, Om’Mas Keith, and TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek:

Ain’t here to be cute, I ain’t here to impress
You know why I’m calling, I’m here to collect
They look at me funny when I write a check
‘Cause they assumed I would be paying in sex
And I was looking for a job, and then I found one
He said he’d want me in his video like Bound 1
But why would I be Kim? I could be Kanye
In the land of opportunity and palm trees

“Miami” is one of many tracks on which Uchis delivers extremely confident lyrics — its refrain begins, “live fast and never die” — via vocal takes that back that confidence up. The verse quoted above follows a woozy, slow cadence so casual that I imagine her kicking her feet up and ashing a cigarette. She crafts a similarly defiant mantra on “After The Storm,” a humid funk track also featuring Bootsy Collins and longtime Uchis associate Tyler, The Creator: “If you need a hero, just look in the mirror/ No one’s gonna save you now, so you better save yourself.” It is hard to see Isolation as anything but Uchis fulfilling that call.

It’s harder to see Joyride that way. Tinashe’s official sophomore album is predestined to be overshadowed by its difficult backstory: intended for release in 2015, then 2016, then 2017, with numerous false-start singles and a cancelled tour along the way, it has morphed several times over behind closed doors and often seemed like it might never come out. You could build a whole album out of all the ostensible Joyride singles this website posted that aren’t actually on Joyride: “Party Favors,” “Player,” “Energy,” “Ride Of Your Life,” “They’re On,” “Superlove,” “Company,” “Flame,” “Light The Night Up.” Several of them ended up on Nightride, the 15-track mixtape Tinashe shared in 2016. Others merely persist in flopped-single purgatory.

After all that, it’s remarkable but maybe not surprising that the final Joyride tracklist contains no Tinashe songs released before 2018. It’s also not so surprising that despite several impressive highs, Joyride feels labored, disjointed, and overall less momentous than merited by three years of eager anticipation. It forgoes Tinashe’s signature breathy, intimate dream-state sound in favor of a grab-bag approach that could have worked if the songs were written better and hung together as a cohesive statement. She says there are three versions of the album culled from more than 200 songs, but she released this one because “it just feels right, complete, and urgent.” Unfortunately, it does not.

When Tinashe released her impeccable 2014 debut Aquarius, my colleague Tom Breihan marveled at how well the album maintained its mood and direction with so many cooks in the kitchen: “Listening to Aquarius, you can get a brief feeling that the system works, that this thrown-together mob of executives and professionals and outsiders have all gotten together to help a young woman realize her vision. History has proven the opposite time and again, but Aquarius makes the entire music business sound like an enterprise dedicated to helping people become great.” Joyride sounds more like the album you fear will result from all that interference. It lacks the sweeping sense of purpose that made Aquarius so compelling.

This being Tinashe, there is still a lot to love. The title track in particular is a stunner, a futuristic coronation ceremony with a dark grandeur befitting uncredited collaborator Travis Scott. A mix of digital programming and pounding tribal drums introduces a swirling array of Tinashe vocals, eventually giving way to shifting synthesized undercurrents and, finally, dramatic violins. This breathtaking introduction leads into lead single “No Drama,” Tinashe’s finest pure pop-R&B song since her signature hit “2 On.” It deserves the same R&B radio red carpet “2 On” received, but don’t count on that, even if Offset’s presence is working in her favor.

The other advance singles, “Faded Love” and “Me So Bad,” also turn out to be among Joyride’s best. The former is sleek and understated and right in Tinashe and Future’s comfort zone. And although I dismissed the latter as “generic tripe” in last week’s column, I’ve come around on it. Most of Joyride isn’t actually all that joyful, but Tinashe and Ty Dolla $ign cutting loose over a fizzy, Afrobeats-indebted summer jam definitely qualifies. I love when Tinashe sings “I want a better baseline” and then a bass line comes in.

So much of the rest, though, seems forced. “Oh La La” uses the same “Oh!” Roland preset from Nelly and Kelly Rowland’s “Dilemma” and relies on the overused gimmick of creaking bedsprings in service of an unremarkable sex jam. Album closer “Stay The Night” does little to distinguish itself from any other R&B piano ballad. When Tinashe tells us we’re stuck with her on “Stuck With Me,” it feels like a dare to turn the album off. And one lyric on the breakup song salt conveys the weariness that must have gone into so many album revisions: “I don’t know what the fuck I’m fighting for.” The girl really had 200 songs to choose from and these are the ones she picked?

It is disappointing to see an artist with a refined aesthetic and a history of stellar songcraft turn in a classic major-label mangle job, but I’ll still take an uneven Tinashe album over a unified Bazzi album. The Detroit singer, a Lebanese-American born Andrew Bazzi, has a genuine hit on his hands with “Mine,” which peaked at #11 on the Hot 100 and has been a mainstay of Spotify’s daily top 10 this year. The song smartly merges R&B verses that could almost pass for Jeremih with a big, goopy pop chorus that renders it both insufferable and extremely bankable. And judging by the sound of his debut album, Bazzi is definitely banking on it.

Cosmic, released just this afternoon, makes a meal of that “Mine” formula. In-house producers Rice ‘N’ Peas nudge Bazzi’s sound in a few different directions, but they never stop angling for that top-40 crossover. Opener “Dreams” in particular taps back into those Jeremih-goes-pop vibes. It’s followed by “Soarin,” a song that all but leaves R&B behind in favor of lighters-up MOR adult contemporary. “Why” imagines what Justin Bieber’s Purpose might have sounded like without positive influences Diplo, Skrillex, and Jesus. “Changed” and “Honest” offer PG-13 versions of the Weeknd. “Myself” is a streamlined callback to early Justin Timberlake. Most tracks seem designed to be a slow dance at senior prom.

Overall Cosmic presents an extremely polished, overtly sentimental, almost Hallmark interpretation of R&B — well, almost Hallmark. I don’t think too many greeting cards read “You look like you straight out a movie/ Naked in a jacuzzi/ Stuntin’ like you’re Madonna/ That beautiful persona.” Or “Nothing on you when you naked/ Except the Cartier bracelet/ Silhouette through the shower/ Fuck you 24 hours.” Or “All your friends tell you they hate me/ God I’m fuckin’ shady/ Couple weeks ago they were inside my sheets nakey/ Club so you can Snapchat/ Titties out to snap that/ I know that you do that shit just hopin’ for a snapback.”

Bazzi and his team are inarguably proficient at what they do. It’s just that what they do is fairly obnoxious: catchy, immaculately produced, fearlessly generic pop music that often poses as R&B. It’s not going to change the world — leave that to innovators like Uchis and, if she ever gets her bearings back, Tinashe — but in the short term, Bazzi’s Cosmic seems primed to linger near the top of the albums chart for quite a while. Fortunately, R&B is overflowing with talents who are becoming a big deal in other, less measurable ways. And as we’ve seen with the Weeknd, those artists may well eclipse the likes of Bazzi in the end.

CHART WATCH

The Weeknd’s My Dear Melancholy EP — or My Dear Melancholy, with a comma, if you must — debuts at #1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. According to Billboard, the project tallied 169,000 equivalent album units including 68,000 in traditional sales. It’s the Weeknd’s third straight #1 following 2016’s Beauty Behind The Madness and 2016’s Starboy. As mentioned above, it’s also the biggest week for an R&B album since Starboy did 348,000 in its first frame. It’s also the shortest release to hit #1 on the Billboard 200 since Glee: The Music, Journey To Regionals — also six tracks — did it in 2010.

Next up at #2 is Rich The Kid’s The World Is Yours, debuting with 59,000 units but only 6,000 in sales. After XXXTentacion’s ? at #3 comes the #4 debut of Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, an album you may have read something about. With 49,000 units and 39,000 in sales, it’s the highest-charting country album of 2018 so far. The rest of the top 10: The Greatest Showman at #5, Black Panther at #6, Migos at #7, Post Malone at #8, Ed Sheeran at #9, and Logic at #10.

Drake, meanwhile, continues to run the Hot 100. There is a lot to unpack about his week. Here goes…

“God’s Plan” spends an 11th straight week at #1 this week, passing “One Dance” to become Drake’s longest-tenured #1 hit. Drake also remains at #5 with his feature on BlocBoy JB’s “Look Alive,” and he’s in at #10 as a featured artist on Migos’ newly peaking “Walk It Talk It,” giving him three simultaneous top-10 hits for the first time. (He’s one of only 16 artists to achieve the feat.) Per Billboard, “Walk It Talk It” is also Drake’s 24th top-10 hit, surpassing Whitney Houston, solo Paul McCartney, and the Rolling Stones for 10th most all-time. (Madonna leads the list with 38.) And with Drake’s new single “Nice For What” expected to debut in the top 10 next week, he could end up with four simultaneous top-10 hits depending on how “Walk It Talk It” fares. Just when you think he’s lost a step, dude gets bigger.

(“Walk It Talk It,” by the way, is Migos’ fourth top-10 hit.)

Back up top: Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant To Be” at #2, while Post Malone and Ty Dolla $ign’s “Psycho” at #3. Entering at #4 is “Call Out My Name,” the opening track from the Weeknd’s My Dear Melancholy. It’s the Weeknd’s eighth top-10 hit and highest debut. As for the rest of the top 10: Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey’s “The Middle” is back to its #6 peak, Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” is at #7, Bruno Mars and Cardi B’s “Finesse” is at #8, and Lil Dicky and Chris Brown’s “Freaky Friday” is at #9.

POP FIVE

Zayn – “Let Me”
I get that Zayn felt like he had to escape the creative confines of One Direction and get the spotlight to himself — particularly as it pertains to noirish action-movie music videos like this one — but I continue to marvel at how well most of his singles lately would have worked as One Direction songs. “Let Me” is pretty enough, but its grown-and-sexy adult contemporary sound is not exactly out there on the bleeding edge.

Calvin Harris & Dua Lipa – “One Kiss”
Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa are royalty on the UK charts, where “One Kiss” is preordained to rule. What will be interesting is whether this brisk house cut can become a Stateside hit.

Poo Bear – “Hard 2 Face Reality” (Feat. Justin Bieber & Jay Electronica)
This song is… not great, but I’m glad it exists because it made me imagine a theological discussion between Justin Bieber and Jay Electronica.

John Legend – “A Good Night” (Feat. BloodPop®)
Speaking of theology: Look at BloodPop® out here working with Jesus Christ himself! Unfortunately, “Go” this is not, but it’s pretty good as John Legend songs go. “A Good Night” rides a contagious bass-powered lite-funk production to, if not the love at first sight described in the lyrics, appreciation at first sight at least. Which is all well and good because Twitter master Chrissy Teigen deserves all the tributes she can get.

Lil Xan & Charli XCX – “Moonlight” and Diplo – “Color Blind” (Feat. Lil Xan)
The majority of the YouTube comments on “Moonlight” are people shocked that Charli XCX would lower herself to working with Lil Xan, but fuck those comments. I don’t buy into the song’s mantra “Happiness is all that matters,” but where pop music is concerned, it counts for a lot — and man, “Moonlight” is some deeply effective mood music, thanks in no small part to somnambulant trunk-throttling sonic tapestry from Mike Will Made-It’s EarDrummmers crew. Ditto “Color Blind” — it mostly succeeds based on Diplo’s translucent reverberations, but Xan proves to be more of an asset than a liability. The conclusion I am drawing here is that Lil Xan may well have earned his garbage reputation, but pair his sleepy croak with first-rate production and magic may happen.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • A man in California robbed a bank to impress Taylor Swift. (No word yet if it worked.) [TMZ]
  • Speaking of Swift, her Reputation tour is selling “terribly,” one veteran promoter told Rolling Stone. [Rolling Stone]
  • Ariana Grande’s new single (out 4/27) will be titled “No Tears Left To Cry” according to her stans’ social media sleuthing. [Twitter]
  • Gwen Stefani announced a Vegas residency beginning in June at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino. [Ticketmaster]
  • The Weeknd shared “He Was Never There,” a behind-the-scenes video documenting the making of his new mini-album. [YouTube]
  • Mariah Carey stars in an elaborate commercial for Hostelworld. [Facebook]
  • Halsey shared a video for her Big Sean and Stefflon Don collab “Alone.” [YouTube]
  • Alice Merton, whose “No Roots” recently made its Hot 100 debut, released a new track “Lash Out.” [SoundCloud]
  • Maren Morris released a video for “Rich.” [YouTube]
  • 5 Seconds Of Summer’s new album Youngblood is coming 6/22, followed by a North American amphitheater tour. [5SOS]
  • Kesha released a video for “I Need A Woman,” her contribution to the Universal Love comp. [YouTube]
  • Jason Derulo shared a video for his Coca-Cola World Cup anthem “Colors.” [YouTube]
  • Toby Keith and Blake Shelton, Alan Jackson and Jon Pardi, and Reba McEntire and Kelly Clarkson will be among the collaborations at the Academy Of Country Music Awards on Sunday. [ACM]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME