The Week In Pop

Mark Ronson’s New Breakup Album Is Really Good

Where do you go after “Uptown Funk”? The only option is down — in Mark Ronson’s case, down in the dumps.

Ronson and Bruno Mars’ ebullient mega-hit spent 14 weeks at #1, two weeks shy of the all-time record. It was everywhere in 2015, and years later it remains guaranteed to get the wedding dance floor hopping. Even Mars, whose discography includes a wealth of massive singles that appeal to people of all ages, has never surpassed the song’s success and probably never will. Returning to those heights is an even less likely scenario for Ronson, the British-American DJ and producer who, among those who know him at all, is known for his work behind the scenes.

Ronson has been involved in several huge songs, from the late Amy Winehouse’s signature hit “Rehab” to Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s Oscar-winning A Star Is Born anthem “Shallow.” Silk City, his duo with Diplo, teamed with Dua Lipa for last summer’s hit “Electricity,” one of the most magnificent pop singles in recent memory. His long list of collaborators includes Lily Allen, Q-Tip, Vampire Weekend, Mystikal, Ghostface Killah, and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker. He was once credited on an A$AP Rocky song alongside Rod Stewart and Miguel. Ronson is one of those figures who’s famous among those paying attention — famous enough, even, to sit for a late-night talk show interview about being a 12-year-old Rolling Stone intern (his stepdad is Foreigner’s Mick Jones) — but to call him a superstar seems like a stretch.

A former DJ in New York hip-hop clubs, Ronson spent the past couple decades hawking a modernized mix of old-fashioned genres: funk, soul, disco, hip-hop, and whatever else might soundtrack a hip retro dance party. Like Mars, he’s exceptionally good at making fun pop songs with an eclectic retro flair. Yet it seems impossible that another song with the name Mark Ronson out front of it will ever burn as brightly as “Uptown Funk.” Even getting back to #1 as a writer or producer is difficult in this economy, with streaming allowing hits to park themselves atop the chart and remain for much longer stints than before (see: current 11-week chart champion “Old Town Road,” whose Lil Nas X also must now grapple with what to do in the aftermath of unrepeatable success), though Ronson commendably pulled it off as part of team “Shallow.”

Instead of attempting to make another “Uptown Funk” — something Mars already pulled off to slightly lesser returns on 2016’s popular and enjoyable (and Grammy-winning) 24K Magic — Ronson is pivoting away from his signature party vibes and, if not exactly plunging into darkness, at least skirting its edges. He’s been calling Late Night Feelings, out tomorrow, an album of “sad bangers.” A breakup record inspired by his divorce from French actress, singer, director, and model Joséphine de La Baume, it’s the foggiest and most depressive album in his discography. It’s also the most cohesive and almost certainly the best. As he told the New York Times last week, “This is the first time, probably, people should be excited to hear the entire album, as opposed to like: ‘I can’t wait to hear that song at a party.'”

Late Night Feelings pairs Ronson’s production with an all-female lineup of singers entrusted with conveying his divorce-inspired despair. (“There’s no better way to channel pain than through women,” collaborator Lykke Li tells the Times, while also describing Ronson as, in reporter Joe Coscarelli’s words, “a daddy figure — but not a controlling one.”) It’s sad stuff, but it’s still a Mark Ronson record. The beats slap. The hooks are catchy. You end up with your body moving and a song stuck in your head. They’re just mistier and more downcast songs than usual, and they hang together much better than the tracklist from 2015’s Uptown Special. That one combined its jubilant funk workouts with synthetic blue-eyed soul and detours down psychedelic rabbit holes, all of it awkwardly tied together by conceptual lyrics from novelist Michael Chabon.

No such whiplash here. Late Night Feelings strikes and maintains a mood, that of post-midnight living room dance parties with an intimate circle of friends or hours huddled at the barstool bogarting the jukebox with a confidant or two. It’s a more restrained alternative to clubbing your pain away, a salve for moments when you’d otherwise be staring into the abyss. It also works wonders as pop music. Ronson, who has always been a bit hit-or-miss, is seemingly incapable of writing a bad song these days, and the impressive array of singers articulate his blues with such vulnerability that you can’t help but step into his headspace.

The album features its share of major stars. With her usual gritty bravado, Miley Cyrus practically wills country-disco lead single “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart” to greatness. Alicia Keys appears alongside Portland underground star the Last Artful, Dodgr on the space-age boom-bap soul track “Truth,” a tune that could’ve easily fit on prior Ronson albums. Camila Cabello shines on “Find U Again,” the album’s best song and purest pop moment. Those names should satiate label reps hoping for another “Uptown Funk” — for what it’s worth, “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart” was a UK smash but didn’t really take off here in America — but most of Late Night Feelings relies on a squadron of lesser-known leading ladies, all of whom hold their own with the A-list celebs.

Swedish indie-pop veteran Lykke Li shows up twice, first for the resplendent low-key disco title track and then near the end for a crushing ballad called “2 AM.” Indie rock old soul Angel Olsen belts out another gem with the synth-funk roller rink ballad “True Blue.” King Princess, a 20-year-old genderqueer industry sensation signed to Ronson’s Columbia imprint Zelig Records, glides effortlessly across the bass-popping groove on “Pieces Of Us.” Beyoncé’s Lemonade cowriter Diana Gordon emotes breathily all over retro soul piano slow jam “Why Hide,” a song cowritten by the xx’s Romy Madely Croft. Ilsey, another songwriter with hits on her resume, dives into vocoder melancholia on the shimmering closer “Spinning.” And the Arkansas gospel singer YEBBA gets an uninterrupted three-song suite to strut her stuff.

All of this plays out as a crystalline unified whole. The only way he knows how — with help from his friends — Ronson has constructed a mirage-like monument to his own sadness. The best thing about Late Night Feelings, though, is that you don’t have to be sad to enjoy it. Maybe that’s a function of the album’s communal nature. This isn’t one of those breakup records depicting one person’s private misery or even one person’s journey to redemption. It feels like a group of very talented people tapping into a more universal despair, overcoming it together through the power of music. Maybe that’s just a showbiz illusion, but it’s an extremely appealing one. In a world where everyone is going through something tough, going through it together can be restorative.

CHART WATCH

Jonas Brothers have the biggest album debut of 2019 with Happiness Begins. The reunion effort racked up 414,000 equivalent album units and 357,000 in sales, the largest one-week total of the year in both categories and, per Billboard, the biggest pure sales week since Taylor Swift’s Reputation dropped in late 2017. Many of those sales stem from album/ticket bundles tied to the JoBros’ upcoming arena tour, but that’s the game these days. You can be sure Swift’s own Lover will enjoy a similar inflation upon its arrival in August.

Billie Eilish remains at #2, followed by the #3 debut of Santana’s Africa Speaks with 57,000 units, almost all from sales. Country star Luke Combs debuts at #4 with 48,000 units/22,000 sales for his new EP The Prequel. Another EP, Future’s Save Me, enters at #5 with 42,000 units/5,000 sales. And Polo G’s Die A Legend debuts at #6 with 38,000 units and just under 1,000 in sales. The rest of the top 10: Khalid, DJ Khaled, DaBaby, and Elton John’s greatest hits collection Diamonds.

On the Hot 100, Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Old Town Road” holds on to #1 for an 11th straight week. According to Billboard, that’s the longest streak since Drake’s “God’s Plan” last year and the longest run at #1 by a debut Hot 100 entry since Los Del Rio’s “Macarena (Bayside Boys Remix)” in 1996. It has blocked more than one pop idol from topping the chart, and it continues to hold off #2 “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish (the biggest song on the year’s biggest album) and #3 “Talk” by Khalid (the most inescapable song on pop radio right now). Not only has the horse refused to keel over, it keeps on galloping strong as ever.

Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker” is back up to #4 as Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s “I Don’t Care” falls to #5. Steady at #6, #7, and #8 are Post Malone’s “Wow.,” Post and Swae Lee’s “Sunflower,” and DaBaby’s “Suge.” Debuting at #9 is Chris Brown and Drake’s “No Guidance,” which matches Brown’s best debut with 2008’s “Forever” and becoming his 15th top 10 hit. It’s Drake’s 34th top 10, tying the Beatles for second most ever trailing Madonna’s 38. (Seems like he’ll probably break that record eventually? He may even get two more next week with “Omertá” and “Money In The Grave.”) Sam Smith and Normani’s “Dancing With A Stranger” rounds out the top 10.

POP FIVE

Taylor Swift – “You Need To Calm Down”
A pretty good song, but a lot more notable for the statements it’s making and the spectacle of its video than for living up to the standard that inspired my colleague Tom Breihan to coin the indelible phrase Respect Motherfucking Craft™.

BTS – “A Brand New Day” (Feat. Zara Larsson)
I enjoy BTS when they are going way over the top, but a reined-in sound is only mildly entertaining coming from them. “A Brand New Day” is fine, but mostly I appreciate it for the way it continues to add texture to their discography.

Kim Petras – “Another One”
DJ Khaled has so poisoned my brain that I was surprised to find Petras not aggressively shouting the song title and proclaiming, “We the best music!” Thankfully this is much better than that.

Marshmello – “Rescue Me” (Feat. A Day To Remember)
Oh no, Marshmello had a hit with Bastille and now he’s gone and made another song with a rock band that makes “Happier” look like a masterpiece. Rescue me from this song.

Social House – “Haunt You”
Pittsburgh pop duo Social House have been opening for Ariana Grande, whose breathy background vocals can be heard on this track. It’s not the kind of song she usually sings on, more of a moody acoustic ballad with a digital beat. I can imagine it doing well on pop radio even if I don’t care to ever hear it again.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Lil Nas X’s 7 EP is out tomorrow. [Twitter]
  • Nicki Minaj’s “MEGATRON” is apparently out tomorrow too. [Instagram]
  • Also out tomorrow: Marshmello’s “One Thing Right” featuring Kane Brown. [Your EDM]
  • Lorde shared a note to celebrate Melodrama’s two year anniversary and added, “Third one in the oven.” [Instagram]
  • Sam Hunt says his next album errs on the side of traditionalist country. [Taste Of Country]
  • Garth Brooks and Blake Shelton have a surprise new duet, “Dive Bar.” [Taste Of Country]
  • Jess Glynn has reportedly been banned from future Isle Of Wight fests after cancelling her set last minute to recover from a Spice Girls afterparty. [The Guardian]
  • YouTube and Universal Music Group teamed up to upgrade 1,000 classic music videos to HD. [NYT]
  • The 1975’s Matty Healy is the drummer in No Rome’s new “5 Ways To Bleach Your Hair” video. [YouTube]
  • Carly Rae Jepsen will perform on the Bud Light Float at Pride Toronto on Sunday. [Blog TO]
  • Pink shared a video for her Wrabel collab “90 Days.” [YouTube]
  • Uniqlo introduced a range of BTS shirts. [Uniqlo]
  • On Tuesday John Legend joined his wife Chrissy Teigen onstage at Cannes Lions to apologize after “fighting all day.” [Billboard]

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