The Week In Pop

Benny Blanco Has Written Hits For Everybody Else. Now He’s Doing It For Himself.

Benny Blanco’s “Eastside” reached #1 on Billboard’s Pop Songs chart this week, completing a 31-week voyage to the top. The chart tracks Top 40 radio airplay, which means “Eastside” — a brisk, twilit collaboration with newly cemented radio mainstays Halsey and Khalid — has been in steady rotation at pop stations since late July. According to Billboard, it’s the longest ever gap between entering the chart and topping it, surpassing Alessia Cara’s 26-week climb with “Here.”

If “Eastside” has been on the rise for a while, the artist behind it has been ascending far longer. Blanco, a Virginia native born Benjamin Joseph Levin, spent the past decade-plus racking up writing and producing credits on a staggering number of hit songs, at first under the tutelage of A-list hit-makers Dr. Luke and Max Martin and then on his own. He got plugged into the mainstream machine not long after graduating high school in 2006 by moving to Williamsburg, Brooklyn and teaming with blog-rapper Spank Rock on a raunchy EP called Bangers & Cash. This caught the attention of Dr. Luke, the one-time industry titan who Kesha accused of rape and other abuse in 2014. (Their court battle is still unresolved more than four years later.)

Regarding his former mentor, Blanco recently told NPR, “I don’t have any relationship to him any more. I haven’t had a relationship in many, many years. It’s a bad situation, and I feel terrible for what happened.” The stink from Luke’s alleged crimes certainly hasn’t carried over to Blanco. In the years since Luke became a pariah, Blanco has only seemingly become more beloved. Artists seem universally drawn to his laid-back vibe; Blanco himself chalks up most of his success to his social skills. Last year he told the New York Times, “What I can do is meet an artist, know what type of song I think we should make and be their therapist, make everyone feel comfortable.”

At this point it would be easier to list the big-name artists he hasn’t worked with and doesn’t consider a personal friend. Blanco’s had a hand in loads of #1 hits for the likes of Katy Perry, Kesha, Maroon 5, Ed Sheeran, Rihanna, and Justin Bieber. His credits range from Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” to Trey Songz’s “Heart Attack” to Major Lazer’s “Cold Water” to Julia Michaels’ “Issues” to Lana Del Rey’s “Love” to Lil Dicky and Chris Brown’s “Freaky Friday.” He’s worked with superstars like the Weeknd, Ariana Grande, Bruno Mars, Camila Cabello, Miguel, Ty Dolla $ign, Keith Urban, and Wiz Khalifa, as well as with indie-leaning pop acts like Jessie Ware, Francis And The Lights, Charli XCX, Passion Pit, and Ryn Weaver. He and Sia once spent a month living in the Hamptons with Beyoncé and Jay-Z while writing for Bey’s self-titled LP, and he was involved with a number of last year’s Kanye-produced albums out of Wyoming including Ye, Kids See Ghosts, and Nas’ NASIR.

As you can see from that résumé, Blanco will work (and has worked) with just about everybody — world-famous or semi-obscure, critically acclaimed or derided, woke or problematic. There aren’t a lot of through-lines in his wide range of collaborations, no signature style to identify. Instead, he’s proven himself adept at just about everything that could pass as pop, be it sparkling EDM, glossy hip-hop, or punchy pop-rock. Often, in true millennial fashion, it’s a genre-less blend of them all. As he told the Times, “I’ve produced every song I want to produce, I’ve done it every way I want to do it, and especially now with this Kanye stuff, my bucket-list dreams are pretty much checked off.”

So upon turning 30 last year, Blanco did what many other top producers have done in recent years: He became a lead artist. “Eastside,” his first single, perfectly embodied his ethos in that it matched him with Khalid and Halsey, two other figures whose music defies easy classification but always sounds like pop, “chill” enough to perform superbly on streaming platforms yet energized enough to enjoy frequent radio play. Despite a busy, skittering beat informed by dancehall and trap, the track has a nostalgic warmth, tinged by wistfulness about lost youth and the perils of adulthood. Basically, it’s the perfect millennial cocktail.

Besides hitting #1 on the Pop Songs chart, “Eastside” recently cracked the top 10 on the Hot 100, peaking at #9. It’s also the opening track on Friends Keep Secrets, the album Blanco released in December. Like “Eastside,” the LP is almost painfully emblematic of generational trends — stylistically, yes, but also commercially. At only seven tracks, it’s part of a wave of recent releases that blur the lines between album, EP, mixtape, and the ever-elusive “project.” Blanco is taking that fluidity a step further, though, by promising to add to the tracklist, The Life Of Pablo-style, when he’s ready to release new music. The idea is to turn his discography into one long playlist; he told the Times that by this summer he wanted it to be as long as 30 tracks.

At the moment, Friends Keep Secret remains seven songs long, but its contents still ably demonstrate Blanco’s range — including his qualitative range. “Eastside” is no masterpiece, but it’s a smooth and appealing vision of easy listening pop at the end of the ’10s. Whereas “Roses,” the album’s second song, is a reminder of how grating modern music can be, even from an artist whisperer like Benny Blanco. Any tune that features the self-pitying sing-rapper Juice WRLD and key influence Brendon Urie of Panic! At The Disco riffing on the old “roses are red, violets are blue” motif is gonna be a hard pass from me.

From there we progress to “Just For Us, Pt. 2,” a cavernous mood piece that finds Blanco doing his best Auto-Tuned Justin Vernon impression, and “I Found You,” a vibrant tropical house track that reminds me what a capable singer Calvin Harris can be; the latter has since gotten a gorgeous, minimal remix with Miguel taking over vocal duties and remind me he’s far more than capable. “Better To Lie” puts the Neighbourhood’s Jesse Rutherford and Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee over tense palm-muted guitar chords for a hip-hop-infused rock track like something the late Lil Peep or XXXTentacion might have recorded. “More / Diamond Ring” lets Ty Dolla $ign’s rich, husky voice float all over more Bon Iver Auto-Tune before abruptly switching to an R&B slow-creep casually crooned by 6LACK.

This initial version of Friends Keep Secrets ends with the Ryan Beatty collab “Break My Heart,” which blooms from a poppier iteration of Frank Ocean’s impressionistic Blonde tracks into something like one of Kanye’s digital breakdowns, then closes out with a monologue from a woman who regrets marrying for stability rather than waiting for true love. Perhaps the album will soon be expanded, though, because this morning Blanco released a new song. “I Can’t Get Enough” teams him with Selena Gomez, J Balvin, and Tainy. It’s yet another instance of Blanco’s monogenre expertise, nimbly merging Balvin and Tainy’s signature reggaeton stylings with the slinky, minimalist pop that made Gomez’s Revival so appealing. I wouldn’t say I can’t get enough, but I’m also not likely to switch the station when it comes on the radio.

That may turn out to be Blanco’s lasting legacy: not outright musical genius so much as an intuitive mastery of the modern pop landscape. Very few of the songs he has produced since parting with Dr. Luke have been instant classics, but they’re often designed to appeal to a wide swath of listeners and engaging enough to keep those listeners coming back. You can see why he’s tight bros with Sheeran, a fellow pop polyglot who studiously incorporates analytics into his creative process, and why, per Times reporter Joe Coscarelli, Blanco “lamented that he barely knows and has never recorded with Drake.” They’re all on the same musical wavelength, curatorial masterminds able to funnel a wide range of trends into zone-out comfort food.

These artists’ discographies this past half-decade strike me as the musical equivalent of all the good-not-great TV series that have flooded the market in the Netflix/Hulu/Amazon era — a seemingly bottomless well of output geared for easy consumption, aiming to transcend demographics but not necessarily for transcendent beauty. As with those shows, many of Blanco’s tunes are winsome, but experienced together as part of a larger whole, it’s hard not to resent obviously talented people prioritizing savvy optimization over creating something truly awesome. There are worse things to be than a lovable guy making likable music, but how long will Blanco be content with merely generating content?

CREDIT: Terence Patrick/CBS via Getty Images

CHART WATCH

It’s another week of Ariana Grande domination on the Billboard charts, where she continues to lay claim to the #1 album and song in America. (As you can see above, she also met Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the set of The Late Late Show With James Corden.)

Let’s talk albums first: thank u, next remains atop the Billboard 200 for a second week thanks to 151,000 album equivalent units and 20,000 in sales. Per Billboard, it’s the first album by a woman to spend multiple weeks at #1 since Taylor Swift’s Reputation, and its 168.6 million on-demand audio streams — which convert to 124,000 album units — rank as the third best streaming week for an album by a woman, behind thank u, next’s record-setting first week and the debut week of Cardi B’s Invasion Of Privacy.

Oscar season helped the soundtracks from Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star Is Born to clock in at #2 and #3 — since both films took home awards last weekend, the albums will probably continue to perform well next week. The week’s highest debut is Florida Georgia Line’s Can’t Say I Ain’t Country at #4 with 50,000 units/29,000 sales. The #5 album is also a “debut” of sorts: Drake’s 2009 breakthrough mixtape So Far Gone, available on official streaming platforms for the first time, tallied 45,000 units, including 7,000 in sales. The #5 ranking is one spot higher than the #6 peak of the So Far Gone EP Young Money gave official release in the wake of the mixtape’s success. Rounding out the top 10 are A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, Post Malone, Travis Scott, 21 Savage, and Meek Mill.

Over on the Hot 100, Grande’s “7 Rings” stays at #1 for a fifth straight week. Three more former #1s are at #2, #3, and #4: Halsey’s “Without Me,” Post Malone and Swae Lee’s “Sunflower,” and Grande’s own “thank u, next.” Debuting at #5 is Cardi B and Bruno Mars’ new duet “Please Me” — it’s Cardi’s seventh top 10 hit and the 16th for Mars. The artists previously hit the top 10 together with “Finesse,” which inspired this Billboard excerpt:

The pair joins other twosomes who aren’t official regular duos but who have also teamed up for multiple Hot 100 top 10s. Rihanna, for example, has shared three Hot 100 top 10s with Drake and a pair each with JAY-Z, Kanye West, Eminem and Calvin Harris. Drake, meanwhile, boasts five top 10s with Lil Wayne. Plus, Grande has combined for two top 10s with Nicki Minaj, while, going back to the 1980s, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney tallied two together, each of which peaked in 1983: “The Girl Is Mine” (#2) and “Say Say Say” (#1 for six weeks, into 1984).

At #6 is Marshmello and Bastille’s “Happier,” with Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” at #7 and Grande’s “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” at #8. Panic! At The Disco’s “High Hopes” slides to #9, and Post Malone’s “Wow.” rounds out the top 10.

POP FIVE

Carly Rae Jepsen – “Now That I Found You” & “No Drug Like Me”
Like E•MO•TION lead single “I Really Like You” before it, “Party Of One” has turned out to be not nearly indicative of Carly Rae Jepsen’s ceiling for this upcoming project. Both the headrush dance track “Now That I Found You” and the lush “No Drug Like Me” are just spectacular.

Adam Lambert – “Feel Something”
Between the maudlin vibes, the line “I don’t need to feel love/ I just wanna feel something,” the late-breaking gospel choir, and the way that melody goes arching upward in the middle of the chorus, I would totally have mistaken this for fellow gay pop star Sam Smith if I didn’t know it was the new Adam Lambert. For what it’s worth, it’s a real good Sam Smith song!

Maren Morris – “The Bones”
Now here’s a Maren Morris country song I could imagine following “The Middle” over to pop radio — a real good one, too, turning one of those metaphors beloved by country songwriters into a strong foundation.

Josie Dunn – “Mute”
Incidentally, this is what I thought a Maren Morris pop crossover would sound like. It’s as good as I imagined such a song would be, too.

James Bay – “Peer Pressure” (Feat. Julia Michaels)
Julia Michaels is one of the most talented songwriters in pop today, and her solo material is typically self-possessed and compulsively listenable. James Bay released a sneakily great pop-rock album last year that I compared to the 1975 if they pulled all their influences from old O.C. soundtracks. I like both artists quite a bit, so I am disappointed to report this song is straight garbage.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Madonna and Lady Gaga called a truce and embraced for a photo after the Oscars. [Instagram]
  • Madonna also hit the studio with Maluma. [Instagram]
  • The Jonas Brothers’ reunion single “Sucker” is out tomorrow. They’ll also appear on James Corden all next week. [People]
  • Billie Eilish teased a collaboration with Rosalía. [NME]
  • Drake dropped a new verse on Summer Walker’s “Girls Need Love” remix. [High Snobriety]
  • Taylor Swift wrote an essay about pop for and appears on the cover of Elle UK’s music issue. [Just Jared]
  • Swift also played a fan’s engagement party. [YouTube]
  • In other Swift news, an Instagram post with seven palm trees has fans speculating about her next album. [Billboard]
  • Julia Michaels shared a video for “Happy.” [YouTube]
  • Kacey Musgraves covered Selena’s “Como La Flor” at Rodeo Houston. [YouTube]
  • Jason Derulo, NCT 127, and EXO’s Lay shared a video for “Let’s Shut Up & Dance” from a new compilation paying tribute to Michael Jackson, which is maybe not the best timing. [Global News Wire]
  • Clean Bandit and Ellie Goulding shared a video for “Mama.” [YouTube]
  • Lil Pump did “Be Like Me” on Kimmel. [YouTube]
  • Lil Pump also announced a joint tour with Lil Skies. [Complex]
  • DJ Khaled will host the 2019 Kids’ Choice Awards. [The Wrap]

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