The Hot Take #15: Kendrick Lamar, Beach House, Pharrell and More

This week's singles, reviewed
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This week's singles, reviewed

Welcome to The Hot Take, a feature where a selection of writers discuss some of the noteworthy single releases of the closing week. This time we take a look at the new singles from Kendrick Lamar, Beach House, Pharrell, Santigold, and Owen Pallett.

Song of the Week: Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”

Zach Bernstein: This song has been available for three months since To Pimp A Butterfly's release — so why discuss it now? The reasons are twofold: 1) This song, as well as its performance during the BET Awards this past Sunday, was the subject of one of the most tone-deaf discussions about race and hip-hop in America recently entertained on mainstream media. 2) More importantly, the accompanying video released this week for the song is pure audiovisual poetry — a mesmerizing short film that starkly brings to life one of the most electrifying numbers on Kendrick's already superlative TPAB. I have watched this video at least half a dozen times already, and there are still so many moments to unpack in its seamless integration of contemporary police politics, hip-hop culture, and eerily striking imagery. As for the song, it epitomizes the marvelous blend of contradictions and Confucianisms that have characterized Kendrick’s 2015 output. Masterfully done, as only a master could do. A

Peter Tabakis: The final shot of Colin Tilley's powerful “Alright” clip finds a felled Kendrick Lamar flashing a Cheshire Cat grin. And so, a track that's been somewhat inscrutable to me — is it hopeful? is it fatalistic? — at last reveals itself. There's no use in enumerating the many ripped-from-the-headlines elements that compose “Alright”. They're laid bare, both in its lyric and with the ink spilled on daily newsprint. Instead, the video, like the song itself, focuses on transcendence. On repeated sequences of Kendrick gliding, with triumph, through the frame. On him balanced, light as air, atop a streetlight. On flashes of the dancing human form, expressing resistance through joyous, rhythmic motion. Like shards of sunlight bursting through thunder clouds, these images bring grace to the madness. They lust for life amidst the constant threat of death. Time will tell whether Pharrell's hook is a promise or a salve, whether this song's title is true or mistaken. “Alright” may be prophetic. But it’s also immediate, a snapshot in, and of, black and white. A

Nathan Wisnicki: One of the less knotty songs from To Pimp a Butterfly, this comes with a striking video that exemplifies some of the album’s spirit: an addled, sometimes convoluted party under apocalyptically grey skies. The snapped-and-looped vocal emphasizes disorientation even while the sax and stoned piano keep up said groove. Kendrick hasn’t found many new things to do with his voice, which is one of the most imaginative things about him, and his BET Awards performance was more visceral than this studio version. But he’s a fount of rapid-fire street philosophizing and the music gives the lie to the sentiment that “we gonna be alright” without dispensing of that sentiment’s temporary respite. I’m not gonna make the embarrassing hyperbole of a lot of white people by claiming Kendrick “speaks for black male America” or something. But he provides an anxious yet groovewise vision of it that might only get more feverish as the weeks roll on. A-

Stephanie Moise: This one is my favorite off of To Pimp a Butterfly. Kendrick's work blows me away normally but when he is wry and earnest, I feel transformed; I don't say that lightly. I admittedly don't always agree with his POV and think it can be distracting when the masses look to him for opinions/answers. Regardless, I respect his experiences mightily and his storytelling skills are gorgeous. I love this kid. This video is beautiful and depressing. I'm not looking forward to flinching as certain members of his audience chant these lyrics and miss the point, but I digress. A+

Benji Taylor: Pharrell's repeated refrain of “we gon' be alright” is more mantra than chorus here. It cements this song’s status as a dark, lurching anthem — to perseverance in the face of adversity. Kendrick somehow manages to sound simultaneously world-weary and empowered. Perhaps I'll forgive him for that appearance on Jidenna's horrendous “Classic Man”. B

Jean-Luc Marsh: Kendrick Lamar is everywhere these days. From his ubiquitous guest spots (looking at you, “Bad Blood”) to his presence on the news and award circuits, the Compton MC has been borderline overexposed in 2015. It was for that reason that I let out a subconscious groan upon seeing his latest single in my docket this week. Oh look, Kendrick…again. But fortunately, “Alright,” cut from the sublime To Pimp A Butterfly, has a substantial heft to it in contrast to his most recent musical dalliances. Offering a note of hope to the African-American community, Lamar takes a raging flow and marries it to looped harmonies and smooth jazz, extracting power from the startling juxtapositions. It is an unlikely combination, one that often times comes into tension with itself, but one which works against all odds—a metaphor if there ever was one. A-

Sam Catlin: Since this song isn’t actually new and everyone who’s anyone has already become obsessed with To Pimp A Butterfly, I assume there’s no need for me to defend my opinion that “Alright” is flawless. Instead, I will only add that the video is the best of the year and you need to watch it ASAP. A

Average: A

Beach House, “Sparks” 

Sam Catlin: I didn’t hate Bloom — who could? — but I stand my opinion that each Beach House record has been worse than the last. As I hear it, their charm was most fully formed on their first two LPs, where their rich, graceful, ominous pop songs flickered to life by means of junky, possessed technology rather than the clear, expansive hi-fi of later albums. With that in mind, “Sparks” makes me more excited for Depression Cherry than I’ve ever been for a Beach House album. It marries their later, more anthemic impulses (Alex Scally gets the guitar riff of his life here) with the raw immediacy of Beach House and Devotion. The sound’s still big enough to fill a room, but the room itself is a lot smaller. And you’re probably locked in it with a ghost. Victoria Legrand’s gorgeous, multitracked close-harmonies sound like they’re being whispered in your ear. A

Peter Tabakis: Awash in fuzzy guitars, echoing vocal loops, ethereal synths, and a steady backbeat, Victoria Legrand sings of ... what exactly? Love? Heartache? Who knows? Who gives a fuck? Beach House’s latest borrows from My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins more and more, and for the better. The result is sublime — a swirling, euphonious, cubist marvel. “Sparks” is the sound of pure sensation, and that sensation is wonder, wide-eyed and credulous. Pop doesn’t get dreamier than this. A

Nathan Wisnicki: I was actually ready to like this, I swear. Being someone who’s been downright offended by the level of Serious Critical Attention this band continues to get for what’s basically a more lethargic and much sonically thinner version of the Cocteau Twins with organ and arpeggios (thus not earning the claims of deep atmosphere), I was finally partly-converted by their last album, Bloom, which was just plain pretty and tuneful in an engaging, wintry way. But this song seems to suggest I might be able to go back to my previous annoyance. The squealing guitar-and-warped-vocal-loop parts that bookend the song are actually sort of moving, but pretty soon the “wrong”-sounding organ is groaning on to the point where I have to wonder if its “wrongness” was even intentional. Victoria Legrand’s singing does the Bilinda-Butcher-by-way-of-Georgia-Hubley thing and everything’s inert. D+

Zach Bernstein: Oh my, what beautiful noise this is. There will be a number of token descriptive phrases thrown around with this song — "shoegaze," "reverb" — so all I'll say is that this is a near perfect piece of noise-pop. The way Victoria Legrand's voice is balanced and elevated perfectly to the contours of the feedback, the way that jagged guitar riff nosedives perfectly into the soundscape, the way those bizarre chord changes prevent any listener's attempt at complacency - it's all spectacular. After such pristine work on Teen Dream and Bloom, it's a bit of a left turn for Beach House to clutter their horizons with scuzz and fuzz, but somehow, they're as dreamy as ever. I just want to sink into this song's ether and stay there forever. Here's hoping the rest of Depression Cherry sounds something like this. A

Brendan Frank: “Squall” isn’t a term I would have used to describe any of Alex Scally’s guitar tones prior to Depression Cherry, but here we are. As far as lead singles go, “Sparks” is no “Myth” or “Norway”, but it’s alluring in its own right and an intriguing departure for the duo. This is Beach House at their most abstract, and it takes a few listens to attune to the changes. Once you have, you’ll be hard pressed to remember why “Sparks” needed a gestation period in the first place. A-

Natalie Dorbandt: This Beach House song sounds like Beach House...but with some rad distorted guitar. I think it’s going to really grow on me. B+

Stephanie Moise: Check out Beach House, sounding almost upbeat! How very M83. It's different. I like it. B

Jean-Luc Marsh: The second awesome comeback of the week comes in the form of “Sparks,” the first taste of new music from dream-pop heavyweights Beach House, who hadn’t released new music for three (!) years. “Sparks” is a little denser than anything off 2012’s Bloom, hearkening back to their earlier works, but it’s immensely rewarding and certainly worth the challenge. Half submerged, sprinkled with distortion, and carried by the ethereal undertones of a large organ, the track is a religious experience that delivers a slow-motion gut-punch with surprisingly simple components. If you’re not stuck in a reverie by the end, you probably did it wrong. A-

Average: B+

Santigold, “Radio”

Nathan Wisnicki: This song’s okay and the taunt in her voice still somehow manages to sound friendly in its blaring (and sometimes just plain annoying) way. It’s not as tuneful as I know she has a talent for, though, and when she says “I’mma run up on the radio” I’m left wishing she’d made a better case in the music. More interesting to me is the little two-tone synth slide, which is sampled from something I know and it’s driving me crazy trying to figure out what it is. Gaahhh!!! Please message me by smoke signal if you know; one puff means “Paul Anka,” two puffs means “not Paul Anka.” B-

Sam Catlin: Santigold is and has always been an aggressively egotistical emperor sans clothes. Her success baffles and frustrates me, as her entire discography consists of deeply boring dub-pop filled with lyrical boasts of originality, artistry, and authenticity which she repeatedly fails to make good on in any way. The terrible, terrible “Radio” carries this legacy on so proudly that I can only assume the strategy’s flaws have yet to occur to the singer-songwriter. If anything, “Radio” makes her music sound more like Imagine Dragons than it already did (please do no mistake this for a compliment). How long can this weak charade carry on? D-

Natalie Dorbandt: Please let “Radio” actually be played on the radio. It’s not as obvious a Top 40 song but has the potential to be this year’s “Boom Clap,” and I love it so much that I wouldn’t mind if it were just as overplayed. For me this Santigold track is a strong contender for my song of the summer, even though I thought Jamie xx had it on lock. And by the way, no, I’m not embarrassed to like the Paper Towns song this much. A-

Jean-Luc Marsh: The return of Santigold. Now this I can get behind. As lovely as it is to be graced by Santi White’s presence again (girl has a penchant for dropping off the face of the earth), her comeback track, “Radio,” is standard summer fare. That’s not to say it’s bad by any means or that White has lost any of her ability. On the contrary, I expect this track to “run up on the radio” because it’s so easy, breezy, and earwormy (not to mention will probably be fueled by a tween/early teen fanbase who go to see Paper Towns in theaters). Good to have you back Santigold. B

Benji Taylor: Ah summer**, the ideal time for uplifting power-pop. What a great track, the perfect meld of feel-good beats to soundtrack your impending boozy weekend. This almost makes me want to watch Paper Towns. ALMOST. I can't wait to hear her new LP after this. B

**please keep in mind that WINTER IS COMING.

Stepanie Moise: My first thought was "Oh no, I don't like this." After further listening it's ok, I guess. It's definitely not great. I like the chorus, mostly because she's singing, but I'm not into the "Music Production for Dummies" drum loop. Perhaps I'm still too partial to her first album, but this feels a bit forced. C

Zach Bernstein: Meh, it's inoffensive enough - nothing too novel about it, but nothing particularly abhorrent either. Wow, we really just forgot about Santigold, didn't we? She was heavily hyped in the late Aughts, and then, nothing. Maybe I would have been more positively predisposed to this song if it weren't a part of the promotional campaign for that obnoxious Manic Pixie-by-numbers movie that keeps advertising itself on my TV. C+

Average: B-

Owen Pallett, “The Phone Call”

Brendan Frank: I was a huge fan of last year’s In Conflict, but “The Phone Call” isn’t even worthy as a B-side. Pallett’s bizarre melodic choices notwithstanding, there just isn’t much to work with here. Digital and analog synthesizers loop endlessly, while Pallett stretches his powerful voice to its limits, trying a touch too hard to sound pretty. Underwhelming. C

Sam Catlin: Owen Pallett song as high school prom slowdance in a John Hughes movie? I’ll take it. The melody doesn’t really gel for me, which is unfortunate, but the celestial vibe is strong. C+

Zach Bernstein: It's times like these when I realize I don't understand modern music half as much as I'd like to think I do. C+

Average: C+

Pharrell, “Freedom”

Peter Tabakis: Pharrell Williams sings of “man’s red flower,” which is “in every living thing.” This is, of course, a direct reference to Kipling’s, and more so Disney’s, The Jungle Book. In a sequence from the 1967 animated film, King Louie (with the voice of Louis Prima) seeks the secret for taming fire. The immortal “I Wan'na Be Like You”, a Dixieland showstopper, crackles throughout “Freedom”. But here, flames represent liberty, a different sort of burning force. Sure it’s a bit cheesy, but that doesn’t make the concept any less effective. Pharrell squeaks out the title word, with some reverb, above a loping piano phrase and plenty of la-la-las. On the single's cover art, his body stands bolt upright as its exclamation point. In other words, he really means it. My snapping fingers concur with all this poignant silliness. I am, after all, only human. B+

Nathan Wisnicki: The most interesting part is that he seems to be imitating Nina Simone at the beginning over a broken piano line, and the shrieking toward the end. But this is pretty underdeveloped. Tossed-off, even. It’s got more or less the same snappy Motown rhythm as “Happy” did, but…err, there’s nothing else there. I like Pharrell a lot, but consistent he ain’t. C

Zach Bernstein: Here’s the problem with this song - it lacks a clear purpose. It's far too featherweight to be believable as a real protest song (if that's what Pharrell is going for), but it seems too leaden to rise to the idiotic enjoyability of "Happy." Also, Pharrell is fairly untouchable in melodymaking, but someone needs to write his lyrics for him. "First name free/last name dom" - that's just, well, dumb. C 

Sam Catlin: The production on “Freedom” is a cut above the repulsive mediocrity of his mind-numbingly awful album G I R L, but it still sounds like warmed-over Janelle Monáe circa 2010. In other news, Pharrell remains the worst lyricist on a six-figure salary in the world: “Your first name is Free, your last name is Dom” is stupid enough that I considered just stopping there. Unfortunately, I listened to the whole thing. D

Stephanie Moise: Pharrell broke my heart and basically ended a 14 year infatuation when he embarrassed himself on Oprah and "Happy" started to torture me, dancing around in my head like it's video. Blurred Lines. No more to be said. But, I am somewhat willing to let bygones be bygones and give this track a shot. The beat is sick, but his beats are always sick. It's a decent enough albeit toothless anthem. It's just not going to be mine. B-

Jean-Luc Marsh: I’m also kind of Pharrell-ed out (“Happy is still engraved in my auditory cortex in spite of several attempts to overwrite it), so that does not bode well for this hot take. “Freedom” is a short little ditty with a pleasant melody, but aside from that, it doesn’t do much for me. I’m not a huge fan of Pharrell’s little screams interspersed throughout the latter half, and the timing of the song’s release (right around the 4 of July) smacks more of economic opportunism than genuine artistic sentiment, especially when the track doesn’t even reach the three-minute mark. Play this in the background for your backyard barbeque, but don’t expect anyone to listen too closely. C-

Average: C