The Week In Pop

The 2019 State Of Pop Address

Pop is dead; meet the new pop.

This is the thesis of Jon Caramanica’s recent synopsis of current mainstream music trends, titled “How A New Kind Of Pop Star Stormed 2018.” The New York Times critic was not alone in suggesting we were on the other side of a sea change. The Music Club — Slate’s essential, annual, conversational year-in-review essay series assembling some of the smartest people doing this job — began with a Carl Wilson piece declaring, “This was the year everything had already changed,” followed by Ann Powers quoting A Star Is Born: “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” From legacy print mags to modern blogging platforms, everyone seems to agree that a new era is upon us.

Change, of course, is a mainstay of life on this planet — a fact I returned to at the dawn of 2018 (and 2017 and 2016) when attempting to assess the status of this phenomenon we call pop music for a project I call the State Of Pop Address. Now that the calendar has turned, I must again acknowledge this constant state of flux. Music never stops evolving. Measure the distance between two moments in time and you’ll always notice transformation in progress. And yet I have to agree with the critical hive mind: The changes really do feel more pronounced and permanent this year.

As ever, it’s also important to note that the concept of pop music is slippery and subjective. Everyone has their own ideas about what pop means. Does it connote popularity? Catchiness? Centrism? A lack of substance? A carefully controlled radio format designed to appeal to white people? Can the same umbrella term reasonably include semi-underground dance-club darling Robyn and chart-topping prog-rap curator Travis Scott? Both Grimes and Carly Rae Jepsen, who were fucking up any easy understanding of “pop” when I wrote the first of these essays three years ago, continue to do so now as we approach long-awaited follow-ups to their 2015 masterworks — the former by taking her Tumblr synth jams into full-on nu-metal territory, the latter by continuing to watch her media buzz increase and her chart standing decrease as if connected by a mathematical function.

This column’s definition of pop errs on the side of chart domination, cultural saturation, and unavoidable hugeness in general. Every week I examine figures who inhabit that spotlight, who are striving to enter it, who once ruled it but have since been phased out. So this will be the guiding principle as I once again attempt a big-picture overview of the musical mainstream — or, more accurately, the various musical mainstreams that coexist at the forefront of pop culture, sometimes quite awkwardly. I won’t cover everything, but I’ll present a bird’s-eye view of what’s popping as we enter 2019. Let’s begin.

The simplest way to understand the paradigm shift that has taken place is this: Top 40 radio has been supplanted by streaming as pop’s baseline. This has been a long time coming. With album sales reaching historic lows, paid streaming subscriptions doubled between 2016 and 2018. Led by Spotify and Apple Music, these services have now surpassed 50 million across all platforms in the US, accounting for three quarters of industry revenue. Meanwhile iHeartRadio, the behemoth corporation that dictates Top 40 radio playlists nationwide, filed for bankruptcy and is $20 billion in debt.

Radio is still a powerful force on the pop charts — it played a pivotal role in keeping Maroon 5 and Cardi B’s “Girls Like You” at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks this past fall — but as life on Earth becomes synonymous with life online, the old terrestrial modes of distribution don’t wield the influence they once did. The internet is where people discover music, and it’s where they listen — particularly people aged 25 and younger. As we saw with Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” YouTube alone can be enough to propel a song to #1.

Radio’s displacement from the center of pop in favor of on-demand streaming does not mean we’ve entered some utopian era free of industry gatekeepers. Streaming platforms are just as capable of foisting a given artist, album, or song upon the public and could just as easily be influenced by payola or other forms of manipulation. The same executives who strongarm singles onto radio playlists are surely out there strongarming singles onto Spotify playlists. What the changed landscape does mean is the balance of power has shifted in terms of how we understand the biggest music in the world. Simply put, artists who thrive on streaming platforms are now de facto pop royalty.

Top 40 radio has long presented one particular version of pop, one that many of us most readily associate with the term “pop star” — an array of singers working in the shadow of Michael Jackson and Madonna, making sparkling big-budget music that largely appeals to the sensibilities of suburban white people. In recent years many of the most successful figures in that mold have been reduced to legacy acts: Their albums debut at #1 and their tours make money (often these factors are tied together via copies of a new album bundled with ticket sales), but they no longer generate hits, the currency that keeps a pop star current.

Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, and Lady Gaga have all watched album rollouts flop in recent years, propped by their sizable fan bases but leaving barely any indent in the cultural memory. Gaga bounced back in a big way with A Star Is Born and its soundtrack, but she also just launched a Vegas residency last week, the last frontier of aging legacy stars. Maybe this is just the natural end of the life cycle for a pop star, but the names who’ve supplanted these celebrities at Top 40 radio — Halsey, Camila Cabello, Shawn Mendes, Dua Lipa, Alessia Cara, Charlie Puth — are popular in the US on a level that stretches the definition of “A-list.” I don’t expect trend-averse, Grammy-friendly entertainers like Bruno Mars and Adele to faceplant next album cycle, but it will be interesting to see whether they can maintain their unstoppable commercial track records as we proceed into a new era.

Even Taylor Swift, whose late 2017 offering Reputation was the most-consumed album of 2018 and who headlined 2018’s second most profitable tour, does not make much noise on the Hot 100 these days. Last year’s State Of Pop Address mentioned how quickly Swift’s early Reputation singles plummeted after the initial interest wore off; “Look What You Made Me Do,” a multi-week #1 hit, is mostly remembered for its GIF-rich video. “Delicate,” her big 2018 radio hit, only made it to #12 on the Hot 100. Even “End Game,” her pointed attempt to expand into hip-hop with guest verses from Future and Ed Sheeran, didn’t really pop off. Swift is still an undeniable powerhouse, yet in a sense she is operating in the industry’s largest silo.

Meanwhile artists who have been largely boxed out of the Top 40 airwaves — especially hip-hop artists — have ascended to a position of cultural centrality that was previously impossible. Almost as soon as Billboard began incorporating streaming figures into its formulas, rap became the most prominent genre on both the Hot 100 and the Billboard 200 albums chart. It was a noticeable phenomenon two years ago. Now, with hip-hop albums consistently comprising most of the Billboard 200 top 10 and rap songs topping the Hot 100 for 35 out of 52 weeks last year — almost entirely thanks to streaming — it’s even more evident that rap is, if not the new pop, at least pop’s most dominant force.

This almost had to happen given how long Drake has been the biggest thing going. Aubrey Graham has been hip-hop’s gravitational center for close to a decade now, shaping rap and R&B in his image and expanding his influence well beyond those genres. Every time you think he’s going to fall off, he gets bigger. This trajectory continued apace last year: A full nine years after his breakthrough mixtape, he had the biggest album released in 2018 with Scorpion, landed a record 12 singles in the Hot 100 top 10 (really 13 if you count Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode,” which you should), and set a new record for most weeks at #1 in a calendar year with three behemoth chart-topping hits (again, four if you count “Sicko Mode”). He had arguably the most successful year ever for a musical artist.

Drake has been riding high for years, though, and the Top 40 format has only occasionally made room for him. The same stations who’ll play just about any white rapper are extremely selective about which Drake songs they let into rotation; usually it’s only the ones that err on the side of singing and not rapping. I’ve often written about the dissonance of a platform that purports to represent catchy, approachable, popular music walling off so much of the catchiest, most approachable, most popular music in America. At some point, if the container we use to define pop stardom kept refusing to contain this stuff, we’d have to change the container.

It’s not just Drake, though. It’s Cardi B, another irrepressible supernova of charisma and celebrity. It’s Post Malone, who perhaps even more than Drake understands how to make a pop song exist outside genre boundaries. Beyond Drake and Cardi and Post, all of whom do enjoy some degree of Top 40 support (albeit disproportionate to their actual popularity), it’s Kendrick Lamar and Migos and Travis Scott and Juice WRLD and Lil Baby and Gunna and Sheck Wes and Kodak Black and Jay Rock and BlocBoy JB and the late XXXTentacion. Figures like these are consistently releasing the biggest songs in America.

“Sicko Mode,” “Drip Too Hard,” “ZEZE,” “Look Alive,” “Mo Bamba,” “King’s Dead,” “Yes Indeed,” “Stir Fry,” “Lucid Dreams,” “Sad!” — most of them don’t make sense within the established parameters of pop radio, but they’re all pop hits by virtue of sheer popularity. Same with “I Love It” and “FEFE,” tunes on which fading rap titans Kanye West and Nicki Minaj clung to Hot 100 relevance with the help of rising SoundCloud rappers Lil Pump and 6ix9ine. You’ll notice most of these figures are men, who continue to claim an outsized percentage of upper chart real estate, and that many of them are hawking toxic masculinity and/or succeeding in spite of misconduct allegations. It’s clear that the #MeToo movement has yet to make a significant impact on mainstream pop.

All those aforementioned hits would and do largely make sense on rap and R&B radio, which has long functioned as a black analog to Top 40 radio’s predominantly white mainstream. The streaming revolution has helped to normalize those sounds and that culture, redefining them as something other than “other.” Maybe soon we should start talking about old-guard Top 40 artists trying to cross over to the hip-hop audience and not vice versa; it’s already happening to an extent, with Bruno Mars tossing a Gucci Mane verse on his retro R&B track “That’s What I Like” to get it played on rap stations, then hopping on Gucci’s “Wake Up In The Sky” with Kodak Black.

Streaming has reached beyond the confines of African American culture as well, bringing Latin American and Asian mainstreams into the wider conversation. And it’s been a boon for overtly queer pop from artists including Troye Sivan and Hayley Kiyoko, who might have existed much farther from the mainstream in some other era — though it’s worth noting that even Top 40 radio is opening up to same-sex pronouns on hits like Halsey’s “Bad At Love.” We’re a long way from a fully multicultural pop chart, but we’re getting there.

In particular, we’re seeing an organic groundswell of the genres collectively known as urbano begin to spill over into a much wider audience. On the Hot 100 that trend has manifested in multiple top 10 singles for Colombian reggaeton star J Balvin and Puerto Rican Latin trap upstart Bad Bunny. Granted, their biggest US hits have featured English-speaking superstars like Drake, Cardi, and Beyoncé, but it was significant to hear, for instance, Drake delivering his entire vocal on Bad Bunny’s “Mía” in Spanish. And on YouTube, Balvin and Bunny’s peers dominate; eight of the top 10 videos globally last year were by Latin artists, led by Puerto Rican reggaeton hero Ozuna.

Similarly, Korean boy band BTS — who set a YouTube record for most views in 24 hours with “Idol” and won the Time readers’ poll for Person Of The Year — have begun to see their global success replicated in tangible ways in America. They’ve now secured multiple top 10 singles and #1 albums in the US, bum-rushed TV from Ellen to Fallon, and just played their first stateside stadium show at New York’s Citi Field — none of which would have happened without the domestic foothold provided by streaming. Whether other stars from that part of the world can replicate that success remains to be seen, but there are no shortage of contenders vying to be the next big K-pop or J-pop breakthrough act in the US. Based on the new Coachella poster, perhaps BLACKPINK and Perfume are up next, and maybe their US-based counterparts from the 88rising collective are not far behind.

As Caramanica pointed out, BTS’ seven-man lineup includes both rappers and singers, but all of them blur the line between singing and rapping. Their records fling genres together as if tossing a salad, paying little mind to staying within established lanes. Ditto most of the reigning urbano artists of our time. Ditto the majority of today’s leading rap stars. This fluidity can be partially attributed to Drake’s pervasive influence; he did more than anyone to erase the boundary between rapping and singing in the mainstream, and his tendency to gobble up musical trends and reshape them in his own image has become gospel in a generation that seems allergic to binaries of all kinds. Drake is hardly the only artist who’s spent the past decade flouting genre norms, but when history looks back for an exemplar of today’s sounds, he’ll be the obvious choice.

We can also see Drake’s legacy in modern pop’s largely muted and depressive tone. Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene recently summed up “pop’s morose new normal,” in which both lyrics and music have strayed from the jubilance that used to define mainstream pop in favor of resigned numbness and “submerged, cloudy, groggy, pained, dour” sounds. Much has been written through the years about how Drake’s success reflects a populace defined by insularity, dissatisfaction, and self-obsession; now those traits define the majority of mainstream pop. As Greene pointed out, even inspirational ballads like Logic’s “1-800-273-8255″ are about resisting the urge to die.

Some of pop’s muted tone can also be traced back to — you guessed it — the influence of streaming. Back in 2016, around the time Views was spending its 10th week at #1, I speculated that it was so popular in part because its 82-minute sprawl was ideal for zoning out online. These days the internet is crawling with outlets designed expressly for that purpose. As Liz Pelly writes at The Baffler, artists with zero name recognition have racked up millions of streams gunning for placement on mood-based Spotify playlists, many of them explicitly “chill” in nature.

Pelly neatly outlines the sound of “Spotify-core,” a term coined by New York Times critics — minimal, emotive music sometimes marked by vocal samples and drops on the chorus, a new kind of easy listening built from the template established by Lana Del Rey. An unnamed producer tells her, “When we think of pioneers of a sound, there’s almost no one else I can think of more than Lana Del Rey… Her singing style and that bleakness, and the hip-hop influenced production, paved the way for all of this.” Meanwhile, over on YouTube, listeners have their choice of channels offering “Lofi Hip Hop Radio To Relax/Study To,” each of them curated by enterprising online DJs who make a good living serving up Big Moods. These millennial versions of muzak represent another aspect of the new pop landscape, in which artists can become massively successful through streaming without ever approaching actual fame.

Perhaps we shouldn’t assume the lesser-known streaming champions are no-names just because they haven’t yet penetrated the upper reaches of the Hot 100; Spotify-core might have joined all those terrestrial radio formats as one more circle in the Venn Diagram that is mainstream pop, largely percolating just outside the spotlight but capable of launching a song to ubiquity under the right circumstances. Certainly someone like Billie Eilish, who is basically Spotify-core incarnate, is a star even if she hasn’t surpassed #52 on the Hot 100. Same with her “Lovely” duet partner Khalid; he’s found a foothold at Top 40 through maudlin ballads like “Love Lies” and “1-800-273-8255,” but his moody, ecumenical stylings make him a mainstay of the Spotify chart.

On the other hand, we also shouldn’t automatically conclude a household name has disappeared into obscurity just because their fans haven’t switched to streaming. Quite frequently a country or rock act will sell the most records in a given week but won’t claim #1 on the Billboard 200 because some new rap record sold fewer than 10,000 copies while piling up millions upon millions of streams. A song can thrive on country or rock radio but linger outside the Hot 100 top 10. Just ask Kane Brown (“Heaven,” #15), Dan + Shay (“Tequila,” #21), Foster The People (“Sit Next To Me,” #42), or Twenty One Pilots (“Jumpsuit,” #50). These days even a Top 40 hit might meet the same fate. The latest from someone like Hailee Steinfeld might be spinning hourly on the airwaves and unmissable at your local grocery store yet topping out at, say, #40 on the Hot 100. Whereas artists outside the Top 40 bubble were once underrepresented on the charts, now it’s the artists without a strong streaming presence whose popularity may be undersold.

That said, most of the Top 40 natives who continue to thrive are the ones who’ve adapted to the new environment. The likes of Maroon 5 (your 2019 Super Bowl halftime show performers) and Imagine Dragons (who, incidentally, are playing halftime at college football’s national championship game this Monday) have kept making Top 40 hits by developing into pop acts with rock-band skins, continually morphing their aesthetic to keep up with reigning trends. Pop chameleon Bebe Rexha and bro-country duo Florida Georgia Line fell just short of #1 with “Meant To Be,” a song that seamlessly bridged their respective formats and kept up a strong chart showing via streaming long after radio phased it out. EDM survivor Zedd, who has nimbly adapted his production style to a post-EDM world, struck gold in 2018 with “The Middle,” a pop-rock song fronted by country singer Maren Morris.

Then there’s Ed Sheeran, who — despite appearances — has more than a little in common with Drake. The English singer-songwriter has woven bits of pop, hip-hop, and even Irish folk into his guy-with-guitar stylings en route to wild success across all metrics (and let me tell you, Ed Sheeran pays attention to metrics). Sales, streaming, airplay, touring: All Sheeran does is win. Notably, his was the only tour that out-earned Swift’s in 2018, and he began the year duetting with Beyoncé on America’s #1 song. He’s a great example of how it’s possible to updated an old, seemingly outmoded archetype for today — in this case, the sort of acoustic open-mic night balladeer who always has a place in Top 40 rotation.

As for the most central of Top 40 archetypes, there is no better model of a traditional pop star growing into this moment than Ariana Grande. Grande has always existed adjacent to hip-hop, just like her predecessor Mariah Carey, and her 2018 blockbuster Sweetener leaned harder into rap production than ever thanks to Pharrell’s signature experiments and Max Martin’s clever trap adaptations. Like so much big-budget pop nowadays, the album heavily alluded to Grande’s life in the headlines: the bombing at her 2017 Manchester concert, her breakup with the late Mac Miller, her fledging engagement to SNL comedian Pete Davidson. At a time when narrative threatens to drown out the actual music, the album leveraged Grande’s story into truly glorious songs.

After going through a traditional rollout for Sweetener, Grande leapt right back into another album cycle, dropping a personal (and tabloid-baiting) single out of nowhere on a Saturday night at an opportune moment — like a rapper would — and soaring instantly to #1. The song, “thank u, next,” was something of a passive-aggressive dis track aimed at the now-estranged Davidson — again, like a rapper would release, albeit kinder and gentler and more restorative. It amounted to pop music moving at social media speed. Grande then extended her reign at #1 with a music video built to be memed, not unlike the ones Drake has specialized in ever since “Hotline Bling.” Grande recently told Billboard she’s approaching her career with a hip-hop ethos in mind:

My dream has always been to be — obviously not a rapper, but, like, to put out music in the way that a rapper does. I feel like there are certain standards that pop women are held to that men aren’t. We have to do the teaser before the single, then do the single, and wait to do the preorder, and radio has to impact before the video, and we have to do the discount on this day, and all this shit. It’s just like, “Bruh, I just want to fucking talk to my fans and sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do. Why do they get to make records like that and I don’t?” So I do and I did and I am, and I will continue to.

Grande understands how the music industry works in this day and age, and it’s working for her big time, even at a time when almost all the biggest songs and albums are by men. With a Coachella headlining slot sealed up, another surefire #1 album seemingly ready to drop any day, and an abundance of public goodwill at her disposal, she looks ready to keep killing it in 2019. It will be intriguing to see who joins her: Fellow Coachella headliner/prodigious SNL host/first-time chart-topper Childish Gambino, whose final LP is allegedly on the way? Cardi B, who is also promising a new album for 2019? Post Malone, whose “Sunflower” may challenge “thank u, next” for #1 next week? Halsey, who is also in the race for next week’s #1 and has been edging her way toward the A-list through sheer force of will? Drake, who’ll surely look to maintain his hegemony over the music industry? Rihanna, who’s been prepping new music forever? The Weeknd, who seems due for a full-length project? Someone we haven’t even heard of yet?

One fascinating candidate: Justin Bieber, Grande’s fellow Scooter Braun protege. Bieber hasn’t released an album since 2015’s world-conquering Purpose, which spun off three #1 hits and anointed him as unquestionable pop royalty. He’s made regular appearances in the top 10 since then via collaborations with DJ Snake, Major Lazer, DJ Khaled, and Luis Fonsi, but he was quiet on the career front throughout most of 2018. If I had to bet, I’d guess Bieber — who has topped the charts with a sing-songy hip-hop posse cut (“I’m The One”), an EDM-infused R&B song (“What Do You Mean”), a dancehall-inflected bop (“Sorry”), a folk-pop dis track penned by Sheeran (“Love Yourself”), and a smash reggaeton crossover (“Despacito”) — will emerge unscathed from pop’s regime change. Astronomical sales and streaming figures, a direct pipeline to radio play, stylistic flexibility, stadium-sized touring, voracious tabloid interest, a face tattoo (lol) — if he chooses to come back in 2019, he has all the tools to succeed in pop’s brave new world.

CREDIT: Epic Records

CHART WATCH

The Week In Pop has been on hiatus since counting down the best pop songs of 2018 in mid-December. Before we get to this week’s charts, here’s a quick rundown of what’s happened in the interim.

First, XXXTentacion’s Skins debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 with 132,000 equivalent album units and 52,000 in sales, becoming his second #1 album following ? and the first posthumous album to go #1 since The Very Best Of Prince shot to the top in the wake of his death in 2016. That same week, John Mellencamp had his best-charting album in 10 years with a #7 debut for covers collection Other People’s Stuff on 44,000 units, almost all of them via sales. Meanwhile Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” held onto #1 on the Hot 100 for a fifth nonconsecutive week, while Halsey’s “Without Me” rose to a new #2 peak and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” reached a new #6 high, becoming the highest-charting holiday song in 60 years (since “The Chipmunk Song” hit #1 in 1958). Post Malone and Swae Lee’s “Sunflower (Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse)” climbed to a new #7 high point as well, powered by Into The Spider-Verse’s theatrical debut.

The following week saw Kodak Black’s Dying To Live enter at #1, becoming his first #1 album via 89,000 units but only 5,000 in sales. At the same time, the Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse soundtrack nabbed a #5 debut with 52,000 units/14,000 sales. On the Hot 100, “thank u, next” had its sixth week on top, “Sunflower (Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse)” climbed to a #4 peak, and another holiday classic reached a new chart peak in the streaming era. This time it was Andy Williams’ “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” rising to #10, becoming the late singer’s first top 10 hit since 1971. Per Billboard, that 47-year gap sets a new record, besting the previous 30-year mark set by Dobie Gray between 1973’s “Drift Away” and Uncle Kracker’s Gray-featuring remake in 2003.

So now here we are in 2019, and the charts keep rolling. Atop the Billboard 200 is 21 Savage with 131,000 units/18,000 sales of I Am > I Was. It’s his first #1 album, besting predecessor Issa Album’s #2 peak. Debuting at #2 this week is A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie thanks to 90,000 units/6,000 sales for Hoodie SZN. And thanks to streaming, strewn across the top 10 are various holiday efforts from across the ages, such as Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song at #7 with just over 52,000 units (his first top 10 album since 1965) and Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas at #8 (back in the top 10 for the first time since 1995).

Much of the boost for Carey’s album derives from an insane amount of streaming activity for “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” On the current Hot 100 — where “thank u, next” reigns for a seventh week, followed again by “Without Me” — Carey’s Christmas classic reaches a new peak of #3. That’s right: The #3 song in the country came out in 1994. And the #8 song dates all the way back to 1957 — that’d be Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock,” which becomes the late singer’s first top 10 hit. And at #9 is Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” from 1958, also hitting the top 10 for the first time. (Lee previously had 12 other top 10 hits, but none since 1963.) And at #10 is Burl Ives’ “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” also a new peak. According to Billboard, Ives breaks that Andy Williams record mentioned above for longest break between top 10 hits, smashing Williams’ 47-year interim with a span of 56 years, seven months and two weeks.

As Billboard notes, only nine holiday songs have ever reached the top 10:

No. 1, four weeks, beginning Dec. 22, 1958, “The Chipmunk Song,” by David Seville & The Chipmunks
No. 3, Jan. 5, 2019, “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” Mariah Carey
No. 7, Jan. 8, 2000, “Auld Lang Syne,” Kenny G
No. 7, Jan. 6, 1990, “This One’s for the Children,” New Kids on the Block
No. 8, Jan. 5, 2019, “Jingle Bell Rock,” Bobby Helms
No. 9, Jan. 5, 2019, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” Brenda Lee
No. 9, Feb. 21, 1981, “Same Old Lang Syne,” Dan Fogelberg
No. 10, Jan. 5, 2019, “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” Burl Ives
No. 10, Dec. 29, 2018, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” Andy Williams

What a time!

POP FIVE

Ariana Grande – “Imagine”
With all due respect to Alicia Keys, this girl is on fire.

Post Malone – “Wow.”
The sound of an upbeat and fully alert Post Malone is surprisingly working for me big-time.

Bad Bunny – “200 MPH” (Feat. Diplo)
X 100PRE proves Bad Bunny sounds great over all sorts of production, but he sounds especially good over Diplo’s slinking, shining, shapeless trap beat.

Sam Smith – “Fire On Fire”
Sometimes musical artists use soundtrack placements as an opportunity to share a powerhouse single between album cycles, and sometimes those placements feel more like a clearinghouse for songs that didn’t make the cut last time around. This contribution to the new Watership Down miniseries feels like it’s aiming for the former, and with the right push it may in fact bring Sam Smith back into the spotlight while he works on his The Thrill Of It All follow-up, but a song really has to kill to stand out among all the maudlin Sam Smith ballads these days. Sometimes I forget that this is the same guy who so electrified me with “Latch” all those years ago.

5 Seconds Of Summer – “Lie To Me” (Feat. Julia Michaels)
When my favorite pop-punk boy band turned sleek corporate soft-rockers link up with my favorite elite pop songwriter turned B-list iHeartRadio hit-maker, I am inclined to enjoy even extremely average results such as these.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Kanye West and Kim Kardashian have a fourth child on the way via surrogate. [Us]
  • Pete Davidson says children have taunted his mother, a school nurse, by singing “thank u, next.” [The A.V. Club]
  • Taylor Swift’s The Swift Life app is shutting down. Swifties have until 2/1 to use any virtual currency they’ve accumulated on it. [Twitter]
  • Justin Bieber apologized to 15-year-old YouTuber JoJo Siwa for joking she should set her car on fire. [CNN]
  • Cardi B says she’ll have a new album out this year. [Billboard]
  • Sia says she’s releasing an album and a feature-length musical in 2019. [Twitter]
  • Here’s the trailer for Lady Gaga’s Vegas residency, Enigma, which began last week with a Bowie cover and the live debut of “Shallow.” [YouTube]
  • Madonna gave a surprise performance at the historic Stonewall Inn on New Year’s Eve. [Variety]
  • Ariana Grande cancelled her New Year’s Eve concert in Las Vegas due to illness. [The Fader]
  • Drake (jokingly?) said his son Adonis is a better artist than Picasso. [Vulture]
  • Drake also signed Popcaan to his OVO label. [Billboard]
  • Nicki Minaj joined the voice cast of Angry Birds Movie 2. [Variety]
  • Miley Cyrus appears to have gotten married. [People]
  • Meghan Trainor definitely got married. [Page Six]
  • Twenty One Pilots drummer Josh Dun got engaged. [USA Today]
  • Aaaaaand Robin Thicke got engaged too. (Paula seems like such a long time ago, doesn’t it?) [USA Today]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME