When the world met Alessia Caracciolo three years ago, she was the awkward teenager enduring a house party where she did not belong: “Somewhere in the corner under clouds of marijuana/ With this boy who’s hollering, I can hardly hear/ Over this music I don’t listen to.” Over the same Bond-worthy Isaac Hayes sample a generation of listeners recognized from Portishead’s “Glory Box,” the Ontario native unpacked her social anxiety and alienation with a rapper’s rhythmic presence on the mic and an R&B singer’s melodic finesse. “Excuse me if I seem a little unimpressed with this,” she sang. “An antisocial pessimist, and usually I don’t mess with this.”
I was impressed, though. I messed with this. So did enough other people to get the song up to #5 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Maybe the outsider posturing was a little much coming from a Def Jam signee whose debut single was premiering on The Fader, but “Here” was a promising introduction to the artist known as Alessia Cara. It’s a richly conceived, infinitely replayable pop song that established a clear identity for listeners to latch on to. “Every Introvert Needs To Hear This Song” read the Fader headline, which felt about right. As someone who enjoys Portishead, is a sucker for pop-R&B, and is intimately familiar with that sense of creeping isolation in a room full of revelers, “Here” clicked for me.
So why, when the Grammys crowned her Best New Artist earlier this year, was I disappointed? Some of it had to do with the quality of Cara’s competition: game-changers SZA and Lil Uzi Vert, the endlessly winsome Julia Michaels, and Cara’s high-potential peer Khalid (who, admittedly, has not thus far lived up to that potential). But the distaste also stemmed from the music Cara had been releasing since “Here” dropped, which seemed to betray the distinct ethos she first introduced us to in favor of a more generic flavor of pop stardom.
Her 2015 debut album Know-It-All fared well enough, but its version of teenage lonerism veered a little too close to coming-of-age Disney Channel territory. Speaking of Disney, she also recorded an alternate version of “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana that sucked the life out of Auli’i Cravalho’s original. She returned to the top 10 three times: first with the diet-Lorde self-empowerment anthem “Scars To Your Beautiful,” then with the Zedd collab “Stay” — a bit of vibrant if boilerplate tropical EDM — and finally with the maudlin but meaningful anti-suicide ballad “1-800-273-8255″ alongside Logic and Khalid. None of those songs were bad, exactly. They just marked Cara as someone far less compelling than the iconoclast we first met. She had seemingly been swallowed up by the machine and sweetly rewarded for it, as if the girl from “Here” had assimilated into the environment she claimed to resent.
The Pains Of Growing — Cara’s second album, out tomorrow — finds a workable middle ground, more effectively merging the rawness of her breakthrough hit with the gloss of her career since then. As with Ariana Grande’s exquisite Sweetener, it’s a collection of snapshots from a young pop star’s life, but whereas Sweetener emphasized the giddy parts of an existence that has often been tumultuous lately, The Pains Of Growing lives up to its title by spending more time on Cara’s daily struggles. Many of the songs face the 21-year-old’s battle with mental health head-on, while others find her fixating on the past as she falls in and out of love, mourning her mistakes or dreamily wishing she could have known a new crush when they were younger. It’s no masterpiece, but more often than not, it works.
Up front, we’re greeted by grandiose film music that seems to be melting and a bit of sampled dialogue: “You’re on your own, kid.” From there Cara launches into “Growing Pains,” the album’s thesis statement and quasi-title track, co-produced with her trustiest sidekicks Pop & Oak. She cops to numbly going through the motions as she progresses through the showbiz wringer and wonders aloud, “Don’t know why I can’t see the sun when young should be fun.” Later she admits, “Phoning it in ain’t any fun.” Flickering synthesizers, a booming electro-influenced beat, and background harmonies by an army of Caras buoy the song upward. It’s a strong reintroduction.
Even stronger is “Not Today,” a look at deep sadness that finds light at the end of a very dark tunnel. It’s a breakup song that doubles as a psychiatric self-diagnosis: “Someday I won’t be afraid of my head/ Someday I will not be chained to my bed/ Someday I’ll forget the day he left/ But surely not today.” The image of Cara sprawled on the bathroom floor recalls a similar divulgement from Shawn Mendes on “In My Blood,” but she trades the desperation that charged that track for a cautious optimism that this too shall pass. A finger-snapping retro-futuristic beat contributes to the song’s redemptive vibe. It’s easily her best song since “Here.” And although the rest of The Pains Of Growing never soars that high again, it’s also a positive step, the sound of Cara working out the kinks and gearing up for the long haul.
The album is best when digging into its heaviest subject matter. The syncopated “7 Days” joins the long lineage of songs accosting God for His apparent indifference: “If there’s a God, do you think he’s looking down, curled up on his couch right now? As we fail to figure it out, does he turn down the sound? Is he proud? Are we proud?” She sardonically concludes that at least our plight makes for some good TV. The crisp and melancholy “All We Know” explores similarly big questions about what to believe in a world strewn with fake news and fantasy, ending up on the well-worn koan “All we know is that we don’t know.” The string-laden low-key epic “Out Of Love” poses a far more personal but equally profound question: “Won’t ask you to stay, but boy let me ask you one thing/ When did you fall out of love?”
Some of the simpler, lighter moments are just as charming. The computerized reggae track “Trust My Lonely” flirts with annoyance but ultimately turns out winsome. Cara scolds her love interest, “Don’t you know you’re no good for me? I gotta trust my lonely.” “Comfortable,” which Cara co-produced with hip-hop legend No I.D., is an old-school soul slow dance for lovers who’ve aged beyond the prom: “I used to be sad that the honeymoon’s behind us/ ‘Til I realized that we made it through.” The grinning trap-pop flirtation “My Kind,” co-produced with Ricky Reed, is another casual delight. Like Camila Cabello’s solo debut at the top of this year, Cara’s album is dotted with spare, acoustic ballads — the vulnerable “I Don’t Want To,” the independently minded “Wherever I Live,” the sentimental “A Little More.” All of them work; more importantly, they all feel like a natural expression of Cara’s personality.
Not that brand consistency is the standard by which an Alessia Cara song rises or falls. The album ends on a glut of extremely Alessia Cara songs that lack the vibrancy of the singles and thus feel a little on-the-nose. “Girl Next Door,” on which she explains, “I don’t really like to get dressed up,” is not actively bad, but it’s buried near the back of the album for a reason. Ditto “Easier,” on which she parodies so many misguided conversations about depression. “Hey girl with the empty eyes, open up/ You know you look prettier when you smile/ Look around, it’s a decent life/ You feel too much/ Pick up your feet and make use of your time” — I’m sure this sequence makes someone out there feel seen, but 14 songs deep into an album of similar sentiments, the execution feels stale. And it’s hard not to wince at all the clunky video game references on “Nintendo Game,” with its mantra, “We treat love like it’s a Nintendo game where nobody wins.”
Cara had a hand in writing and producing this whole album, which was also true of Know-It-All. The difference is this time her personal stamp on the material is unmistakable. It exists fully within the fabric of the pop mainstream and never really attempts to break new ground sonically. There’s not even any hipster-baiting on the level of that “Here” sample. But these songs also never sound like they came off the assembly line. In the end, that admittedly subjective factor is what elevates The Pains Of Growing over most of Cara’s output so far. Sometimes the difference between a blip and a bop is the sense that there’s a real person behind the microphone, giving it to you straight.
First, since there was no Week In Pop last week due to Thanksgiving, a quick update on what we missed before moving on to this week’s chart action: Country singer Kane Brown’s Experiment debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 with 124,000 equivalent album units and 105,000 in sales. It’s Brown’s first #1 album and the third country album to go #1 this year following Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood. Also debuting in the top 10 were Imagine Dragons’ Origins at #2, Trippie Redd’s A Love Letter To You 3 at #3, and Lil Peep’s Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2 at #4. Meanwhile Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” held on to #1 on the Hot 100 for a second straight week and Panic! At The Disco’s “High Hopes” rose to a new #8 peak — their second trip to the top 10 and first since 2006 breakout “I Write Sins Not Tragedies.”
Now that we’re caught up, I can tell you Mumford & Sons have their third #1 album. Delta racked up 230,000 equivalent album units and 214,000 in pure sales to enter the Billboard 200 on top. It’s followed by the #2 debut of Michel Bublé’s Love with 111,000 units/105,000 sales. Entering at #3 is The Greatest Showman: Reimagined — a collection of pop musicians covering songs from The Greatest Showman — which tallied 89,000 units/70,000 sales.
After A Star Is Born at #4 comes Mariah Carey’s Caution, debuting at #5 with 51,000 units/43,000 sales. Rounding out the top 10 are the Bohemian Rhapsody soundtrack, Travis Scott’s Astroworld, Drake’s Scorpion, Trippie Redd’s A Love Letter To You 3, and Metro Boomin’s Not All Heroes Wear Capes.
Grande’s “thank u, next” stays at #1 on the Hot 100 for a third straight week, with Travis Scott and Drake’s “Sicko Mode” back up to its #2 peak and gaining ground. Will the release of a new Skrillex remix be enough to nudge Scott to his first #1? At #3 is Marshmello and Bastille’s “Happier,” followed by the week’s bestselling track, Halsey’s “Without Me,” at #4.
After Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams” at #5 comes Panic! At The Disco’s “High Hopes” at #6, surpassing “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” to become the act’s highest-charting hit; it’s also #1 on the Radio Songs chart this week. The rest of the top 10 comprises Sheck Wes’ “Mo Bamba,” Maroon 5 and Cardi B’s “Girls Like You,” Lil Baby and Gunna’s “Drip Too Hard,” and Kodak Black/Travis Scott/Offset’s “ZEZE.”
The Chainsmokers – “Beach House”
Unlike some listeners, I am not philosophically opposed to the Chainsmokers name-checking Beach House in a cornball MOR pop song. However, I’d prefer it be a song where the vocals didn’t sound so much like Owl City.
Kelly Rowland – “Kelly”
This half-rapped trap-pop sound is extremely on-trend… maybe a little too on-trend for a singer of Rowland’s stature. It’s going to sound nastier than I intend, but the song feels like something Beyoncé rejected.
Clean Bandit – “Playboy Style” (Feat. Charli XCX & Bhad Bhabie)
I continue to enjoy the Mad Libs game that is mainstream pop music.
Kris Kross Amsterdam, Ally Brooke, & Messiah – “Vámonos”
The latest entry in the post-Fifth Harmony sweepstakes is this Spanish-language EDM-reggaeton banger from Ally Brooke, 50 Cent’s Latin trap protege Messiah, and the Dutch DJ duo Kris Kross Amsterdam. Like almost any loud song with a reggaeton beat, this one will move your hips; it also benefits from hooks on hooks, including some exquisite whistling and what sounds like digital trumpet. Look at her gunning for Camila’s lane!
Billie Eilish – “Come Out And Play”
Not an Offspring cover, sadly.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Among the many tidbits in this much-discussed Lena Dunham profile: She hasn’t spoken to Lorde since she broke up with Jack Antonoff. [The Cut]
- Diplo received a baby goat for his 40th birthday and posted a photo of it with the news that he has a John Mayer collab on the way. [Instagram]
- Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson both covered up their couple tattoos with black hearts. [Spin]
- Also, Grande appears to have cut her hair. [Instagram]
- In one of the first awards handed out this season Lady Gaga was named Best Actress for A Star Is Born by the National Board of Review. [AP]
- Mandy Moore got married to Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith. [E!]
- Hugh Jackman is going on tour to sing material from The Greatest Showman and Les Misérables. [The Guardian]
- Twenty One Pilots answered questions from kids at Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Seacrest Studio. [YouTube]
- Rita Ora covered Charlie Puth in the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge. [YouTube]
- Ellie Goulding covered her Fifty Shades Of Grey soundtrack peer the Weeknd’s “Call Out My Name,” also in the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge. [YouTube]
- Aaaaaand Billie Eilish covered “Telegraph Ave” by Childish Gambino for SiriusXM. [YouTube]
- Eilish also revealed she has Tourette Syndrome after a compilation of her tics spead online. [Nylon]
- Finally, Kendall Jenner has instructed us all to stan Boygenius. Way ahead of you, Kendall! [Twitter]