Conan Gray Still Has Some Growing To Do

Rich Fury/Getty Images

Conan Gray Still Has Some Growing To Do

Rich Fury/Getty Images

When you’re young — say, under 18 — you have this idea that you’ll eventually cross a threshold and every family-related issue will fade into the background, like the soft hum of white noise. And you won’t have to pay much attention to it, because you’ll be busy doing your own grown-up thing. You’ll be out of the house, all occupied and moved away. But, as Conan Gray lays out on his sophomore album Superache, the arduous stuff you grew up with never goes away; it just shape-shifts as your perspective evolves.

The fulcrum of Superache comes pretty far down the tracklist: “Family Line” illustrates in unsparing detail the source of Gray’s pain: “My father never talked a lot/ He just took a walk around the block/ Till all his anger took a hold of him/ And then he’d hit,” Gray recalls. “My mother never cried a lot/ She took the punches, but she never fought,” he continues. “Till she said ‘I’m leaving and I’ll take the kids’/ So she did.”

Problem solved, right? Not exactly. Gray illustrates a young person’s hyper-individualistic way of separating themselves from their parents, singing: “I say ‘they’re just the ones who gave me life.'” But the past has a really annoying way of circling back and affecting adult relationships: “How could you hurt a little kid?” Gray asks his father in song. “I can’t forget, I can’t forgive you/ ‘Cause now I’m scared/ That everyone I love will leave me.”

Separate the art from the artist, and you’ll find that Gray — a 23-year-old pop singer from Georgetown, Texas — does have a unique backstory to fuel a lifetime of lyrics.

Born in Lemon Grove, California, Gray moved around a lot early in life. His father was in the military, and his mother was originally from Hiroshima, Japan. As an infant, Gray briefly lived in Hiroshima with his family before moving back to California and later Texas. His parents divorced when he was only three, and he’s described being relentlessly bullied as a kid for his biracial background, particularly in a place like Texas, where most of his classmates were white.

Like so many kids who grew up with laptops and a WiFi connection, Gray found solace on the Internet, posting videos of himself to YouTube. Sometimes his videos would be hand-drawn and autobiographical (see: his 2016 “Draw My Life” clip), other times they’d be streams-of-consciousness or songs strummed on a ukulele.

Eventually, Gray decamped to Los Angeles (UCLA, specifically) for undergrad, but left about a quarter of the way through his first semester after getting signed to Republic Records. He released his debut EP Sunset Season in 2018 and followed that up with his first studio album, Kid Krow, in March 2020 — shitty timing, considering the pandemic of it all.

Maybe it’s because Gray’s first album was subsumed by COVID lockdowns and global panic, but I have to admit that he barely registered on my radar prior to this year. I was aware of the name, and after I started writing this column, I’ve blurbed singles like “Memories,” which is a good song to get depression-swallowed by your couch to.

Gray wears his influences out loud: He’s described himself as a die-hard Swiftie (naturally) and is BFFs with Olivia Rodrigo. On Superache, Gray works with Julia Michaels, who is both a solo artist and wrote Selena Gomez’s “Lose You To Love Me” and Dua Lipa’s “Pretty Please,” among other hits. Gray also reunited with Kid Krow producer Dan Nigro, who worked on Rodrigo’s Sour.

I’m warning you now, Rodrigo’s name is going to come up a lot in this column, as Gray’s label seems to have positioned him to be kind of the male equivalent to the “Driver’s License” singer, peddling his diary-entry lyrics about doomed romance, best friendships (there is literally a song on Superache called “Best Friend”), and family/generational trauma. When Gray lets himself be vulnerable enough to explore that last subject, he’s at his best on “Family Line,” which fights back against the inevitable DNA connection and leans back in all at once. “Might share a face/ And share a last name,” he says before concluding: “But we are not the same.”

It’s the family content that really differentiates Gray from his pop peers, the majority of whom (I’m primarily thinking of Rodrigo, Swift, and Billie Eilish) had — on paper, at least — relatively stable upbringings. Gray’s grappling with generational trauma is reminiscent of Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner, who mined the complicated depths of hers on Japanese Breakfast’s debut album Psychopomp and her bestselling memoir, Crying In H Mart.

It’s the fact that Gray clearly does have something to say about his experience that gives me hope for his future as a pop singer. The rest of Superache is ultimately hit or miss. Opening track “Movies” yearns for a screen-worthy romance, but the acoustic-led composition ultimately sounds like if you mashed the balladry of “Drivers License” with Harry Styles’ harmonizing “Boyfriends.”

So much of Superache sounds like a copy-paste of Sour, from the piano-based compositions to the echoing vocal crescendos to Gray’s own singing. The one major divergence is that Superache doesn’t lean into pop-punk or grunge territory, instead opting to employ more dance-pop, synth, and indie-pop tones. This strategy comes together really well on “Disaster” (one of three Julia Michaels co-writes) which is bolstered by a propulsive drum machine and sounds like one of Years & Years’ better songs — “King,” perhaps.

Gray reverts back to Rodrigo-core territory on the ride-or-die anthem “Best Friend,” which seems to want to sound edgy with a lightly skittering hip-hop beat and protective lyrics about still loving a bestie even when they date narcissists and throw up from alcohol. “Made a promise that I’m gonna marry you/ If we’re both still single by like…32,” Gray tells this person, while in the background all of my teeth have fallen out one by one and I have to gum all of my meals now. Hey fellow kids! Sorry to be the one to tell you this, but 32 comes a whole hell of a lot faster than you think. Now please excuse me — my back isn’t gonna foam roll itself.

I’ve been trying to figure out why Superache isn’t hitting for me, and I think I’ve just figured it out. Unlike Sour or anything Swift or Eilish has done, Gray, about 75% of the time, sounds like he’s only singing to the youngest among us. (The irony is, he’s actually about four years older than both Rodrigo and Eilish!) Gray’s songs primarily reference high-school and college activities like getting drunk at parties, futzing your way through a relationship that’s barely taken off, comparing traumas, identifying narcissists, etc. Not that these are unworthy activities — far from it. But Gray is less adept at taking a specific experience and broadening it so that it becomes universal, a lyrical feat that singers like Rodrigo and Swift make look easy.

By the same token, Gray has already shown that he’s much more than a very online sad boi — the rawness and relatability of “Family Line” proves it. Clearly, Superache is intended to reflect growing pain, and I’m sure a lot of younger listeners will both love and see themselves in it. I just hope Gray evolves into the artist he wants to be; achieving the level of visibility he seeks means forging authentic connections with multiple age groups, even when singing about what you know. Can he get there? Sure, anything’s possible, and I’m nothing if not an optimist. But I’m not sure Gray as he currently presents on Superache will register beyond a Gen Z audience.

Republic Records

CHART WATCH

Chris DeVille here to tell you about Drake adding to his illustrious career chart statistics this week via the arrival of his surprise house album Honestly, Nevermind. Per Billboard, the album debuts at #1 on the Billboard 200 with 204,000 equivalent album units — almost all of it via 250.23 million on-demand track streams, though he did manage to squeak out 11,000 in sales. Honestly, Nevermind earned the fourth largest streaming week of the year behind debuts from Bad Bunny, Kendrick Lamar, and Future, though each of those albums is longer than the Drake project’s relatively concise 14 tracks.

Drake becomes one of only five artists with at least 11 #1 albums on the Billboard 200 alongside Bruce Springsteen (11), Barbra Streisand (11), Jay-Z (14), and the Beatles (19). Drake is also the only artist to release a top-10 album in every year since 2015. He breaks a tie with four artists that each have 10 #1 albums: Taylor Swift, Eminem, Elvis Presley, and Kanye West.

Bad Bunny is in at #2, followed by Harry Styles at #3, BTS at #4, Morgan Wallen at #5, Future at #6, and Post Malone at #7. Kevin Gates debuts at #8 with 38,000 units including 3,000 in sales for Khaza — his fifth top-10 album. Kendrick Lamar and Olivia Rodrigo close out the top 10.

Drake also nabs his 11th #1 single on the Hot 100 with “Jimmy Cooks,” the 21 Savage collab that closes out Honestly, Nevermind. (Notably, it’s the song that most resoundingly breaks from the album’s lite dance music vibe in favor of rap.) As Billboard reports, Drake breaks a tie with Janet Jackson and Stevie Wonder and moves into a tie with Whitney Houston for seventh most all-time behind the Supremes (12), Madonna (12), Michael Jackson (13), Rihanna (14), Mariah Carey (19), and the Beatles (20).

“Jimmy Cooks” is also Drake’s record-extending seventh song to debut at #1. It marks the second time he has debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 and Hot 100 simultaneously — a feat that has only occurred eight times overall. (Taylor Swift has pulled it off thrice.) The track is 21 Savage’s second #1 hit following his feature on Post Malone’s “rockstar.” Drake’s album lands two more singles in the top 10 — “Sticky” at #6, “Falling Back” at #7 — bringing his total to 58 career top-10 hits.

As for the rest of the top 10: Harry Styles’ “As It Was” falls to #2, followed by Jack Harlow’s “First Class” at #3, the Future/Drake/Tems track “Wait For U” at #4, and Lizzo’s “About Damn Time” at #5. After those aforementioned Drake songs at #6 and #7, Joji’s “Glimpse Of Us” climbs to a new #8 peak, followed by Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” at #9. (Guess it won’t be reaching #1 here in the US.) Glass Animals’ “Heat Waves” closes out the top 10. And with that, I’ll hand the keyboard back over to Rachel.

POP FIVE

Charlie Puth – “Left And Right” (Feat. BTS’ Jungkook)
Pop’s resident oversharer teams up with BTS’ Jungkook for a kicky lil tune about feeling haunted by memories of an ex. Real *NSYNC “Drive Myself Crazy” vibes.

WILLOW – “maybe it’s my fault”
This song caused my husband — who is notoriously anti-dance — to break into a hip-swiveling groove, followed by some spirited head-banging. It takes a real catchy song to make this happen, so, thank you, WILLOW. 5/5 stars.

Meghan Trainor – “Bad For Me” (Feat. Teddy Swims)
Pop’s OTHER oversharer is back with a gospel-inspired single about a toxic relationship with a family member. I will just say that the way Tom feels about Barenaked Ladies is the way I feel about Meghan Trainor, who I find cringe and cloying on just about every level. And the fact that she’s calling this her “Adele moment”?? No. NO. No.

Sam Hunt – “Water Under The Bridge”
This has some “Old Time Rock & Roll” piano-pounding energy, and I gotta say, I’m here for it.

Lil Nas X – “Late To Da Party” (Feat. YoungBoy Never Broke Again)
This shit comes out SWINGING. In response to receiving zero nominations at the BET awards, Lil Nas X tells the network exactly what they can do with their trophies. “I’m at Met Gala in Versace in the city,” he brags before adding, “Farted on these n****s, oops, I think I shitted.” Montero will not be ignored, and I want to cheer him on like the Meryl Streep shouting meme.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Cardi B’s new song “Hot Shit” is out Friday. [Twitter]
  • H.E.R. sued her label and asked to be let out of her contract. [Variety]
  • FKA twigs said she’s discovered Jorja Smith is her cousin. [GQ]
  • Bad Bunny shared a video for the Chencho Corleone collab “Me Porto Bonito.” [YouTube]
  • Harry Styles helped a fan come out at Wembley: “When this sign goes over the head you’re officially gay, my boy.” [Twitter]
  • Kid Cudi announced a world tour. [Kid Cudi]
  • Mumford & Sons’ Marcus Mumford is reportedly going solo. [Page Six]
  • Police shut down an overcrowded Yungblud video shoot in London. [Readdork]
  • The Stranger Things season four volume two trailer features Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” mashed with Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s theme for the show. [YouTube]
  • Lorde released a video for “The Path.” [YouTube]
  • Here’s Shawn Mendes voicing the titular crocodile in the Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile trailer. [YouTube]
  • Ed Sheeran and his co-writers were awarded $1.1M in legal costs following their victory in the copyright case against “Shape Of You.” [The Guardian]
  • Tove Lo was announced as a guest for the upcoming Swedish Drag Race. [Out]
  • Meghan Trainor’s new album Takin’ It Back is out 10/21. [Rolling Stone]
  • Social House has shared a new song, “Bentley Coupe.” [YouTube]
  • Robin S. thanked Beyoncé for sampling her on “Break My Soul”: “Thank you so much for giving me my flowers while I’m still alive. I’m honored and excited to see what else can happen.” [People]
  • Dua Lipa was sued for posting paparazzi photos of herself on Instagram, again. [Billboard]
  • Billie Eilish announced six tour dates in Asia. [Twitter]
  • Here’s the trailer for Jennifer Hudson’s new daytime talk show. [YouTube]
  • Tove Lo shared a new video for “True Romance.” [YouTube]
  • James Corden’s Late Late Show heads to the UK this week with appearances from Billie Eilish, Ed Sheeran, and Lizzo (doing a Carpool Karaoke). [Deadline]
  • Roddy Ricch released a three-song EP, The Big 3. [Spotify]
  • Jessie Reyez is back with a new song, “Fraud,” which also got a video. [YouTube]
  • Conan Gray did “Disaster” on Fallon. [YouTube]
  • Tinashe released a video for her track “HMU For A Good Time” featuring Channel Tres. [YouTube]
  • Lizzo and Live Nation are donating $1M to Planned Parenthood in response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. [Instagram]
  • Lizzo then opened last night’s BET Awards with “About Damn Time.” [YouTube]
  • Jack In The Box, a new solo album from BTS’ J-Hope, is coming 7/15. [Variety]
  • Meghan Trainor and Teddy Swims did their new song “Bad For Me” on Kimmel. [YouTube]

CLOSING TIME

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