The Week In Pop

Alec Benjamin Is A Fascinating Voice In Modern Pop, Literally And Figuratively

When Alec Benjamin sings, people listen. This isn’t necessarily because he has something meaningful to say, though I’d argue that Benjamin is a more substantial lyricist than your average lite-pop singer-songwriter. No, the initial reason folks stop what they’re doing and pay attention when this guy opens his mouth is because his voice is kind of weird!

Truthfully, I can only speak from my own experience. The first time I heard an Alec Benjamin song, I wondered if he was microdosing helium. Or maybe this was one of those prepubescent success stories, like Walmart yodel boy-turned-Lil Nas X collaborator Mason Ramsey. In fact, Benjamin turned 26 last week, the day before he released his major-label debut album These Two Windows. His tenor just happens to be particularly high-pitched, which lends a fragile innocence to his thoughtful words about mental health, romance, existential crises, and other subjects you might expect a borderline millennial/Gen Z to fixate on. Whether gently cooing or locking into rap-like cadences, both his voice and his perspective stand out, even at a time when seemingly every white singer-songwriter dude is flexing a hip-hop influence.

Benjamin has come a long way. He got his start as a Phoenix teenager attempting to merge his love for guitar-slinging folk-pop types like John Mayer and every suburban white hip-hop dilettante’s favorite rappers, Eminem and Dr. Dre. In an old promotional bio, he offered the following summary of his approach: “Intrinsically, I’m a singer-songwriter, but I’m into lo-fi beats. I want to bridge those styles in my music. It’s me, my BoomBox, and a guitar. I keep it simple. That’s my vision.” He signed with Columbia as an 18-year-old undergrad at USC, but as a more recent officially sanctioned origin story goes, the label dropped him the day after he turned in what would have been his debut album. Instead he self-released his best-forgotten EP-length America mixtape in 2013 and set about independently building an audience.

By 2016 Benjamin was playing self-booked shows across Europe, holding strategic parking-lot performances outside concerts by likeminded artists Shawn Mendes and Troye Sivan, and hitting the studio with Jon Bellion, who soon took him on tour. The following year, he enjoyed some YouTube and Spotify success with “I Built A Friend” — a treacly ballad about constructing a robot pal with a surprising, Grandaddy-esque twist — accelerated by an annoyingly precocious 12-year-old’s dance routine set to the song on America’s Got Talent. By the next year he’d signed with Atlantic and released Narrated For You, a full-length album billed as a mixtape because these words mean nothing anymore. By the next year, he cracked the Hot 100 for the first time when Alessia Cara jumped on that project’s “Let Me Down Slowly,” a far more stylish offering that showed how fast Benjamin was developing as a writer.

And now here we are in the present, with an album that suggests Benjamin has only continued evolving. Skeptics may still perceive These Two Windows as hokey and overly soft, charges I’m not prepared to shoot down. And yet few artists are bringing such a deft touch to the realm of whispery warm-blanket singer-songwriter fare. Benjamin has not always been immune to the vapid sentimentality that so often reduces his chosen genre to mush, but on this taut 10-song set he shows off an impressive maturity and restraint. Working with producer Alex Hope — whose prior clients include Troye Sivan, Selena Gomez, and Tegan And Sara — Benjamin has zeroed in on a minimal signature sound. Even at its liveliest, everything on These Two Windows feels moody, muted, streamlined into a streaming-friendly calm. It’s a smart aesthetic choice that highlights Benjamin’s greatest strengths, his unique voice and well-crafted lyrics.

Benjamin is clever, but not painfully extra sheepish-grin clever like his most obvious forebear, Ed Sheeran. Usually you can count on him for one or two memorable, deceptively simple lines per song, stuff like “Oh my god, I can’t remember/ Who I was just last December” or “I’m not a cynic, my glass just has no water in it today.” Usually these are attached to sweet, lightly quavering high-register melodies that dart across the beat with grace and agility. Such rhythmic sophistication drives home hooks like “Guess my mind is a prison and I’m never gonna get out” and “And it’s a crying shame you came all this way/ ‘Cause you won’t find Jesus in LA.” He ends up sounding like a chilled-out Tyler Joseph from Twenty One Pilots or an even smoother Charlie Puth.

What he thankfully doesn’t sound like is a folk-pop balladeer cosplaying as a rapper. Whereas TikTok success story Powfu tries to pass off vacuous open-mic-night acoustic fare as rap by tossing a drum machine behind it, Benjamin is not pretending to be anything but a coffeeshop troubadour who has inevitably absorbed some hip-hop influence by virtue of growing up in 21st century America. It comes through in subtle, artful ways, like the quasi-spoken breakdown in “Alamo” and the rapid-fire sing-song syllables in the verses of “Oh My God.” I never get the sense that he’s reaching; he seems to be well aware of how ridiculous he’d sound if he veered into outright rapping.

A couple months ago, between finishing his album and putting it out, Benjamin released a quarantine-themed one-off single called “Six Feet Apart.” It’s the kind of cutesy conceit you’d expect from an artist of Benjamin’s ilk, one obvious enough that superstar country everyman Luke Combs released a song with the same title a few weeks later. I would not blame anyone for scoffing at the notion of a teary-eyed lament about the pains of social distancing, but to these ears, Benjamin nailed it. “Oh I miss you most at six feet apart,” he sings, “When you’re right outside my window but can’t ride inside my car/ And it hurts to know just how lovely you are/ And be too far away to hold but close enough to break my heart.” As the chorus rounds the corner to completion, the lines grow shorter and simpler, as if Benjamin is whittling each phrase down to a sharp point: “I miss your smile/ Feels like miles/ Six feet apart.” It’s the sound of an uncommon voice giving voice to a universal struggle.

CHART WATCH

Gunna earned his first #1 album this week with Wunna, which debuted at the top of the Billboard 200. Billboard reports that it had 111,000 equivalent album units, nearly all of them from streaming.

Coming in at #2 is Lil Baby’s latest My Turn — the former chart-topper rose one spot on the new chart with 65,000 equivalent units, beating out last week’s #1, Future’s High Off Life, which drops to #3 with 61,000 units. Debuting at #4 is the 1975’s Notes On A Conditional Form, which earned 54,000 units — 39,000 of those were from album sales. It’s the group’s third top 10 album — they made it to #1 with 2016’s I Like It When You Sleep…; 2018’s A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships debuted at #4. After them, Polo G slipped to #5, followed by Drake, DaBaby, the Weeknd, Lil Uzi Vert, and Post Malone, whose Hollywood’s Bleeding rounds out the top 10.

Over on the Hot 100, Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s “Rain On Me” debuted at #1. The Chromatica single was released a week before the album itself came out. It’s Gaga’s fifth #1 and Grande’s fourth — the latter’s latest came just a couple weeks ago with her Justin Bieber collab “Stuck With U.” It notched 72,000 downloads throughout the week ending on 5/28 thanks to digital downloads that accompanied physical cassettes, CD, and vinyl singles. It drew 31.4 million US streams and 11.1 million audience impressions.

“Rain On Me” is the 39th song ever to debut at the top of the chart, and the fourth to do so this year. That ties 1995 and 2018 for the record for most Hot 100 #1 debuts in a given year. Gaga also becomes the third solo act to have topped the Hot 100 in the ’00s, ’10s, and ’20s, following Mariah Carey (who achieved the feat with “All I Want For Christmas Is You” in January) and Beyoncé, who matched that after her and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” went #1 last week.

Said “Savage” drops to #2 on the Hot 100, followed by DaBaby’s “Rockstar,” the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” Doja Cat’s “Say So,” Drake’s “Toosie Slide,” Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” (which rose from #8 to #7), Roddy Ricch’s “The Box,” and Justin Bieber’s “Intentions.” The top 10 is rounded out by Future and Drake’s “Life Is Good.”

POP FIVE

Rosalía & Travis Scott – “TKN”
Two natural superstars just dripping with charisma, and yet the tectonic beat and the prodigious dancing kids in the video outshine them. This is the full package.

Ne-Yo & Jeremih – “U 2 Luv”
Two consistently great R&B singers coming together over a midtempo synth-funk loop that leaves them plenty of space to flex their considerable powers: What’s not to love?

Kygo – “Broken Glass” (Feat. Kim Petras)
This is neither Kygo’s nor Kim’s best work, but that hook really burrows itself into your head, and “Let’s keep dancing on the broken glass” is a vivid, original metaphor.

Tayla Parx – “Dance Alone”
The funky bass groove, the sassy-then-smooth vocal, the hard-snapping kickdrum: It all hits.

Tones And I – “UR SO F**KING COOL”
Team “Dance Monkey” is not going away quietly.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Lady Gaga postponed her Chromatica listening party on Friday, given the civil unrest over George Floyd’s murder. “Take this time to register to vote and raise your voice,” she wrote. [Twitter]
  • Here’s the trailer for Darren Criss’ new Amy Heckerling-directed Quibi comedy Royalties, about a fictional pop songwriting duo. [YouTube]
  • Fans think a new BTS single, “Still With You,” is dropping 6/5. [Teen Vogue]
  • Britney Spears formally released “Mood Ring,” a DJ Mustard-produced track previously only available on the Japanese deluxe edition Glory. [LA Times]
  • Billie Eilish shared NOT MY RESPONSIBILITY, the short film about body shaming she produced for her recent tour. [YouTube]
  • Ellie Goulding’s new album Brightest Blue is out 7/17. [Ellie Goulding]
  • James Corden discussed the post-COVID future of Carpool Karaoke on Ellen. [YouTube]
  • Katy Perry did a live set from Los Angeles’ Hotel Cafe to benefit Meals On Wheels. [YouTube]

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