The Week In Pop

I Regret To Inform You That My Nemesis Charlie Puth Is Getting His Shit Together

Charlie Puth is ridiculous, but more importantly, he is meticulous. His music is toothless, but his commitment to that music and its spoils is ruthless.

The same Billboard cover story that depicted the 26-year-old pop singer-songwriter directing his driver to lunch by declaring “I’m hungies!” also revealed his singleminded devotion to becoming as impossibly rich and comfortable as two of the whitebread icons his music exists in continuum with: Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, who shares Puth’s affinity for the finer things in life — “You know, freshly cut fruits and toilets that greet you when you walk into the bathroom, and Porsches” — and OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, whose situation Puth openly covets. “I just want a studio house like Ryan Tedder,” Puth said, clarifying, “He has another house for his studio.” Also: “He has candles, so now I have candles. I like candles.”

Hailing from the rich white suburb of Rumson, New Jersey, Charles Otto Puth Jr. is brazen in his desire for such lavish living. His easy-listening tunes seem carefully calculated to attain that degree of success, and his pursuit of it has been cutthroat. In another Billboard interview — the one where he gushed about being awed by the Lamborghinis upon his first visit to Beverly Hills and claimed to be “way too bougie” for the “crappy hotel” Atlantic put him up in when his fame was still confined to YouTube — Puth said he threatened to withhold his breakthrough hit “See You Again” from the Furious 7 soundtrack unless he was allowed to be a featured artist on the track and appear in the video alongside lead artist Wiz Khalifa.

That game of hardball was reasonable — why shouldn’t a songwriter with a voice as bright and agile as Puth’s get first dibs at his own surefire hit? It also turned out to be wise, both for Puth and everyone else invested in “See You Again.” The song spent 12 weeks at #1 on the Hot 100, becoming the longest reigning rap song since Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” the biggest hit of Khalifa’s career, and the most-viewed YouTube video of all time. (It was later surpassed by “Despacito.”) “See You Again,” with its heart-prodding chorus and titanic “Whoa-oh!” bridge, also served as a launchpad for Puth, validating him as not just a rising industry songwriter but a bankable radio powerhouse. It made him a star.

This was great news for everyone except those of us with an iota of good taste, who had to put up with the saccharine drivel that was “See You Again” all spring and summer. But at least that cloying tribute to the dead probably offered some catharsis for people in mourning; lord knows I’m not immune to Hallmark sentimentality when it meets me where I’m at. I still hate that song, but I have to at least give it credit for its role in giving millions of people a good cry.

Still, in its wake came the even more objectionable “Marvin Gaye,” a Motown-inspired duet with Meghan Trainor built on the face-palm hook, “Let’s Marvin Gaye and get it on.” Even before Puth got around to releasing a whole album on that tip — 2016’s Nine Track Mind, best known for the Selena Gomez duet “We Don’t Talk Anymore” — I had called him “2015’s most egregious rising star” and declared him my sworn enemy. This low-calorie cheeseball was so much fun to chew up and spit out. For someone interested in engaging with mainstream pop from a critical remove, there was no better whipping boy. He was the GOAT scapegoat.

Sadly, our one-sided feud may be coming to an end thanks to Puth’s new album Voicenotes, out tomorrow after a protracted rollout that carried on for more than a year. It’s not that he’s suddenly evolved into a beacon of artful expression; his music remains triangulated for maximum exposure and minimum offense, ready to dominate dentist’s offices and elevators everywhere. Nor has he toned down his shameless douchebag tendencies; if anything, success has only ramped up that aspect of his personality. (I’m never letting that “hungies” thing go.) He still often comes off like a child attempting to project grownup gravitas; bounding his way through an empty building in the “How Long” video, sexy-dancing in an open-collared suit, he could easily be mistaken for an escapee from senior prom.

But if hanging out with these kings of modern adult-contemporary has inspired Puth to embrace his destiny as a Hollywood cliché, it also seems to have initiated a move toward more palatable flavor of vanilla. On Voicenotes, he’s updated his approach to retro pop-R&B, trading out the cartoonish Motown pastiche of his first LP for sleek, ’80s- and ’90s-inspired synth jams with a soft-rock disposition. His musicality is sharper than ever. Most of the most obnoxious elements of his previous music have been toned down significantly. When I find myself singing along with his new songs, rather than cringe, I shrug.

Puth now exists on a plane similar to his pal Jason Derulo, who I once dubbed “pop’s most begrudgingly acceptable hitmaker, the high priest of faint praise.” His music is impeccably produced and catchy as the clap, too bland to be great but too competent to be atrocious. It elicits muted bursts of pleasure but never elation, caught in some numb nether region between the mediocre and the genuinely exciting. It’s exceedingly, resoundingly, monumentally fine.

Derulo, Levine, Tedder: These guys are chameleons, always adapting to the sound of the times. Puth is chameleonic, too, and he proves it on Voicenotes by leaning all the way into finger-snapping ballads with Boyz II Men (the a cappella “If You Leave Me Now”) and James Taylor (the acoustic lounge-folk ditty “Change”), serving up each act a song that would fit right in alongside their greatest hits. Mostly, though, he’s sticking to one sound on Voicenotes, this crystalline lite-funk mode that gives him plenty of room to flex his falsetto powers and amplify them with every ounce of gloss and sparkle a state-of-the-art recording studio can muster. It worked for him on the bass-powered “Attention” and the fizzy disco hip-swinger “How Long” — tales of being toyed with and copping to infidelity, respectively — and it works throughout most of Voicenotes.

It may never work better than on “Boy,” a song Puth wrote about getting rejected by older women. Given his youthful appearance, it’s pretty funny to hear him singing, “You won’t wake up beside me/ ‘Cause I was born in the ’90s/ Baby, how dare you treat me just like a boy?” But musically the song is stellar, a deeply melodious pop tune with a glassy LCD surface, a rippling synth-bass undercurrent, and a virtuosic keyboard solo to top it off. The Kehlani collab “Done For Me,” the crisp and moody “Slow It Down,” and the frenetic “Somebody Told Me” also fare well. And on opener “The Way I Am,” slicing electric guitars and military-precise drum programming propel Puth’s confident statement of intent: “I’ma tell ‘em all that you can either hate me or love me, but that’s just the way I am.”

I still don’t love Puth, but I can’t say I hate him anymore either. His talent, ego, and extreme averageness are beginning to remind me of another piano-playing diva from the Eastern seaboard too banal to worship but too gifted to dismiss, Billy Joel. There’s a scene from that New Yorker profile on Joel from a few years ago that specifically reminds me of Puth: After a day of luxuriating at Oyster Bay, during a 16-minute helicopter ride from his Long Island home to his monthly arena gig in Midtown Manhattan, Joel remarks, “You know, if you type ‘Billy Joel’s house’ into Google Maps, you get Madison Square Garden.” The hubris is spectacular, but presumably, so was the show. Puth is hungies for that kind of fame and fortune, and as much as it pains me to admit, he may have what it takes to achieve it.

CHART WATCH

Post Malone’s Beerbongs & Bentleys enjoys the biggest debut week of the year so far and sets the single-week streaming record in the process, entering the Billboard 200 at #1 with 461,000 equivalent album units and 153,000 in traditional sales, topping the 397,000 units that launched J. Cole’s KOD last week. Per Billboard, 288,000 of those units derive from 431.3 million on-demand track streams, besting the 384.8 million Drake got for the first week of More Life. Perhaps craziest of all, Post has two albums in the top 10 simultaneously; his 2016 debut album Stoney is back up to #9 this week and has never left the top 25 in its 73 weeks since release (though notably it also never rose above #4).

Keith Urban is in at #2 with 145,000 units/137,000 sales for Graffiti U, his seventh top-10 album. Like Post Malone’s LP, Urban’s benefitted from a promotion pairing a copy of the album with concert ticket sales, which helps to account for the uptick in sales from Urban’s 2016 release Ripcord. Prior #1 blockbusters J. Cole’s KOD, Cardi B’s Invasion Of Privacy, and The Greatest Showman soundtrack are at #3, #4, and #5 respectively.

Debuting at #6 is Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer via 54,000 units/41,000 sales. It’s her second top-10 album following 2013’s #3-debuting The Electric Lady. It’s followed at #7 by the debut of YoungBoy Never Broke Again’s Until Death Call My Name courtesy of 43,000 units/8,000 sales. At #8 is yet another debut, Godsmack’s When Legends Rise, earning 40,000 units/36,000 sales to become the band’s seventh top-10 album. And after Post Malone’s aforementioned Stoney at #9 comes Jason Aldean’s Rearview Town at #10.

Post’s album success translates to a big week on the Hot 100 singles chart as well. Although Drake’s “Nice For What” is at #1 for a fourth straight week — giving him 15 straight weeks at #1 following his 11-week run with “God’s Plan” — Post becomes the 18th artist in the chart’s six-decade history to land three simultaneous singles in the top 10. “Psycho” with Ty Dolla $ign returns to its #2 peak, “Better Now” debuts at #7, and former #1 “Rockstar” featuring 21 Savage rebounds from #32 back up to #8. Notably, Drake also continues to have three songs in the top 10: “Nice For What” at #1, “God’s Plan” at #3, and his appearance on BlocBoy JB’s “Look Alive” at #9.

Is there room for anybody else besides Drake and Post Malone in the top 10? Well, Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant To Be” is in there at #4, followed by Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey’s “The Middle” at #5. Camila Cabello gets her third top-10 hit as a solo artist as “Never Be The Same” climbs to #6 — I guess that remix with country star Kane Brown did its job. And rounding out the top 10 at #10 is Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left To Cry,” down from its #3 debut last week.

POP FIVE

Selena Gomez – “Back To You”
Like Gomez’s Marshmello collaboration “Wolves,” this acoustic ballad from the new season of 13 Reasons Why boasts a humongous chorus and EDM elements subtle enough not to get in the way. It’s not an elite Selena Gomez track, but like “Wolves,” I can imagine besmirching myself by returning to it often.

Zayn – “She Don’t Love Me”
Aesthetically, “She Don’t Love Me” may go down as the moment where Zayn Malik found the ideal balance between his adult-contemporary impulses and his desire to be a sexy cutting-edge R&B singer. But where are the hooks?

Meghan Trainor – “Let You Be Right” & “Can’t Dance”
I am a little ashamed to admit that I have room in my life for half-decent Meghan Trainor singles, but these flimsy things ain’t that.

Julia Michaels – “Jump” (Feat. Trippie Redd)
In which an emotively breathy top-40 artisan from the major-label machine and a feral SoundCloud-rap people’s champ sound perfectly at home alongside each other. Must be that Midwest connection!

Jessie Reyez – “Body Count”
The rising Toronto R&B singer applies her smoky rasp to some deconstructed acoustic hip-hop and preaches a gospel of personal freedom and self-love, from “We don’t care what they say/ We gon’ love who we gonna love” to “I dodge dick on the daily/ I know it’s funny but it’s true/ And I bought this Mercedes all by myself/ Got the papers to prove” with a “Hallelujah!” or two for good measure.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Ariana Grande and Mac Miller broke up. [TMZ]
  • Rita Ora teams up with Cardi B, Bebe Rexha, and Charli XCX on “Girls,” out tomorrow. [Twitter]
  • Christina Aguilera announced her first tour in over a decade. [E!]
  • The Rhode Island town where Taylor Swift owns a house is considering allowing parking on her street. [Boston Herald]
  • Speaking of Swift, she visited an 8-year-old fan who had been badly burned in an accident in March. [AZ Central]
  • Pitbull has scored his first movie — Gotti, the indie biopic starring John Travolta. [THR]
  • Adele had a Titanic-themed 30th birthday bash. [Billboard]
  • Liam Payne shared a video for his J Balvin collab “Familiar.” [YouTube]
  • Payne also did a piano-led, string-laden cover of Zedd ‘s “The Middle,” but dude is no Maren Morris. [YouTube]
  • Kygo and Miguel released a video for “Remind Me To Forget.” [YouTube]
  • J. Cole announced a North American KOD Tour with Young Thug. [PR Newswire]
  • John Legend’s voice will be available as an option for Google Assistant. [Engagdet]
  • Panic! At The Disco did their new single “Say Amen (Saturday Night)” on Ellen. [YouTube]
  • Sam Smith and Logic released their “Pray” video. [YouTube]
  • Clean Bandit and Demi Lovato have a single out next week. [Twitter]
  • Spice Boys. [Instagram]

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