The Hot Take #3: Rihanna, Florence, Tame Impala, St. Vincent, and more

This week's new singles, reviewed.
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This week's new singles, reviewed.
Rihanna American Oxygen

Welcome to The Hot Take, a new feature where a selection of writers discuss some of the noteworthy single releases of the closing week. This week we take a look at the new singles from Rihanna, Florence and the Machine, Tame Impala, St. Vincent, Carly Rae Jepsen, Passion Pit, Speedy Ortiz, ASAP Rocky, Chromatics, Samantha UrbaniFreddie Gibbs, MS MR, and Tunde Adebimpe. (Check out the Score Review at the end of the post.) If you dig it, stick around every Friday for more.

Rihanna

"American Oxygen"

Peter Tabakis < @ptabakis >: Rihanna's third release from her unnamed eighth album (R8?) is another roundabout turn in tone and style. The mid-tempo sweep of "American Oxygen" strives for heft, but it stumbles the landing. The song’s message, which appears grand, is clear as mud. Rihanna's lyric is a weird mix of Horatio Alger, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Cornel West. The video offers even less coherence. Images of 9/11 and the Ferguson riots flash alongside soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima and the Beatles arriving at JFK. News of Martin Luther King Jr's murder plays as an audio clip above reverberated piano chords. These pivotal moments in U.S. history, and the many others the video trots out, refuse to lend gravity to this vague pop anthem. If anything, they make "American Oxygen" seem smaller, toothless even. The song aims for something — patriotism, protest, maybe both. But "American Oxygen" misfires in all directions. D-

Luis Tovar < @pmablog >: "American Oxygen" is by no means top-tier Rihanna, not by a long-shot, but it's atmospheric in a way Rihanna songs usually aren't. Musically, it's Kanye West once again asserting himself as the producer of R8. Like Peter, I'm convinced that Yeezy using this opportunity — that is, producing the year's most anticipated non-Beyoncé pop album — to rewrite Billboard history and give us a glimpse of what the pop landscape might sound like if Yeezus and Dark Twisted Fantasy, and not EDM, steered the conversation. Lyrically, it's repetitive, but celebratory; an alleluia to the American Dream ("You can be anything at all/ in America"). In the end, "American Oxygen" isn't merely a pleasant, if unremarkable, Rihanna single: It's a rare example of a music video ruining a song. The accompanying clip, which exclusively hit TIDAL a mere hours after the single, inexplicably marries the song's relatively inspirational content with some of the more harrowing images in recent American history. At best, the video accomplishes to completely confuse me. At worst, it uses its evocation of very real pain not to offer catharsis or commentary, but to only appear to do so.  C+

Zach Bernstein < @znbernstein >: Now this is more like it. I didn't love "BBHMM" and I still haven't decided how I feel about "FourFiveSeconds," but here's a new Rihanna song I can get behind. Just over a decade ago, Rihanna was that girl listening across the ocean; now she's our generation's Madonna - it really is the American Dream. "American Oxygen" doesn't really have much arc or development - it simply coasts on a triumphant Yeezy piano and handclapping loop that perfectly marries the anthemic quality of Rihanna's clubbier work with the ride-or-die mentality of her hip-hop inflected tracks. It's pretty damn exhilarating. "We are the new America," chants Rihanna over the closing moments - time to get with the program, people. B+

Samuel Tolzmann < @scatlint >: In general I’m creeped out by any song that uses the word “America” this much, but even if I weren’t: plodding, repetitive, with a message so vague it could scan as praise or criticism – this is easily the worst of the three tracks we’ve heard so far from Rihanna’s upcoming eighth LP. D+

Nathan Wisnicki < @limedibagels >: The video’s a truly grotesque piece of pain-pandering, but never mind that. Ostensibly a Very Serious view of the “new” American malaise and fittingly released for the bad joke that is Jay Z's Tidal streaming service, this is the kind of drearily self-serious (and ultimately self-serving) kind of middlebrow pity-party I just fucking despise. The pity it evokes, despite all the (again, ostensibly) noble evocations of a “we,” is self-pity, and self-pity always makes for boring music; most people who actually breathe in the “oxygen” of oppression are angrier than this. After cranking out album after album at an increasingly suffocating clip for a good eight years, Rihanna’s now returned from her break with the wonderful “FourFiveSeconds”, then a fairly clueless attempt at trap, and now this. Any possibility that she’s re-assessed her quality control is flagging weekly. F

Brendan Frank: Listening to “American Oxygen” for the first time last weekend, it struck me as solemn but with notes of optimism, both a normative statement and an ode to the frontier spirit. Watching the music video, it’s portentous and sobering. There are some interesting production choices here, particularly the war drum pulse. This is certainly a better look on Rihanna than “Bitch Better Have My Money”. $100 says this shows up in a montage sequence in season 2 of EmpireB-

Jean-Luc Marsh:It is almost painful how big the plans Rihanna has for this track are. Whenever someone invokes “America” in the title of their song, you know they are hoping to spark some kind of a ~phenomenon~. The problem is that “American Oxygen” is not quite fun enough to make a lasting claim on the national identity. It’s certainly no “Party in the USA” or “American Saturday Night,” and despite Yeezy’s position at the helm, it lacks the kind of compelling pulse of “Lost In the World” and “Blood on the Leaves.” There’s nothing wrong with the song per se (and Lord knows, Rihanna can turn downtempo into something magical i.e. “Stay”),but if “this is the new America” as the track claims, maybe we need a healthy dose of Vitamin D before condemning the country to this dour direction. B

Matthew Malone: Not too fond of Rihanna’s “political” statements, but very glad to hear her hitting the strong choruses time and again on this mysterious upcoming album. I see where she’s going with this whole “timeless” aspect to her tracks, but still consider her standouts the shameless club bangerz. Hopefully they’ll come back somewhere. B

Average:C

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Florence and the Machine

"Ship To Sink"

Genevieve Oliver < @vittorioe >: I generally like Florence, but this track feels like a Neko Case song sped up and with the heart cut out of it. I wish people in general would stop making songs for the radio – Florence’s lyrical content here deserves gravity, and the poppy backbeat sounds like cognitive dissonance. C

Nathan Wisnicki: Strong holds in the vocals as usual, and not a dirge — so that's something. Musically, '90s U2 chord changes meets '90s Cure guitar beds. Again. Meaning, depressingly generic. D

Jean-Luc Marsh:All the hallmarks of a classic Flo song are present on “Ship To Wreck”: extended metaphor, upbeat melody, and those classic yelps. In spite of that, Flo’s latest track in anticipation of How Big How Blue How Beautiful feels a bit stale, probably because it lacks the cataclysmic sparkle of her previous oeuvre. There is no apocalyptic edge here, no hinting at the macabre, no tinge of the supernatural. Instead, it all just feels so standard. Drums and guitars are cool but where did the harps go? When I turn to Florence and the Machine, it is because I am in search of the closest thing I can find to a religious experience in music. I want to be overcome, flattened by an orchestral tsunami of angst and pining. Instead, “Ship To Wreck” leaves me fully, and disappointingly intact. I want you to break me, Flo. C

Benji Taylor: < @benjitaylormade >: A lot of maritime themed puns spring to mind when listening to the lyrics but I won’t be so boorish to detail them. This is the best track from the new LP so far for me. It’s quintessential Florence: subtly dark, accomplished orchestral pop infused with a big dose of theatricality and intelligence. There’s a fantastic Fleetwood Mac vibe going on too. B

Zach Bernstein: Unquestionably, the most distinctive and important part of any Florence + the Machine song is Florence Welch's matterhorn voice, which is out in full force on this one. So why then do I feel like this isn't actually a FATM song? Where are the histrionic strings and towering reverb? Where are the dense lyrical allusions to pagan rituals and godly lovers? Even the metaphor on "Ship to Wreck" seems tired. It sounds like Florence trolled on some adult-contemporary pop artist's recording session, but not with particularly good results. Every great FATM song has left me with some kind of visceral, unexplainable sensation. I feel nothing here. C-

Average:C-

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Tame Impala

"'Cause I'm A Man"

Brendan Frank: Slick, slick, slick. This is definitely the poppiest thing Tame Impala have ever done, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like they’re distancing themselves from Lonerism. The hooks and melodies are so clearly Kevin Parker’s. I have a hunch this will be the “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” of Currents: an easily digestible single sandwiched between some weird shit. B+

Zach Bernstein: Sounds like Tame Impala is trading 60s psychedelia for 70s soft-rock - I feel like I should break out my lava lamp for this one. Make no mistake though - the characteristic heaviness of the band is still here - just listen to those fuzzed out guitars on the chorus. Kevin Parker's falsetto has never sounded better. Even if the song sounds like it should be wearing bellbottoms, though, its sentiment is unmistakably contemporary. Parker winkingly takes a chauvinistic sentiment of yesteryear - "'Cause I'm a man, woman" - and flips it into a self-deprecatingly endearing come-on. It's sly, subtle, and subversive - much like the best of Tame Impala's work. B+

Luis Tovar: I'm pretty sure that the only instance of the word "fuck" in Tame Impala's discography appears on this song. It's great the way Kevin Parker almost chokes on it, mid-syllable; a pathetic, little outburst he allows himself 'cause, y'know, he's a man, woman. Around that line, the song plays hypnotically, often brushing shoulders with euphoria. After this one and "Let It Happen", I'm really looking forward to CurrentsA-

Samuel Tolzmann: Full disclosure: I am not a Tame Impala fan. I’ve tried, but I’ve just never understood the appeal, like, at all. “’Cause I’m A Man” sounds nice, I guess, and it’s impressive that one guy wrote, recorded, produced, and mixed it all himself, but I wish the end result had been more compelling so I could actually care. Also, the lyrics are really icky. D+

Peter Tabakis: A thin line separates masterful pastiche and a total ownership of past sounds. "'Cause I'm a Man" not only falls into the latter category, it further sharpens the divide. This slice of jukebox rhythm and blues straightened my spine and made me catch a breath the first time I heard it. Kevin Parker's reverberated, silky smooth vocal astonishes more and more on repeat. Philly soul returns from the grave for four minutes on "'Cause I'm a Man." The resurrection may be too brief, but how can I complain? This is the closest to a new, classic Delfonics song that we'll ever get. A+

Nathan Wisnicki: I’ve never been anything more than completely indifferent to this band, and remain bemused by the critical attention they receive. This new one sounds like “chillwave,” and though I’d have a hard time picking any of these indie-friendly falsetto whines out of a lineup, its chilled-out intentions are stated without pretension and I have to admit the bass line is pretty solid. B-

Average:B

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St. Vincent

"Teenage Talk"

Genevieve Oliver: I can appreciate Annie Clark’s singular songwriting sans her unreal guitar chops, but all that brain-shredding noise really adds something for me. “Teenage Talk” is a lovely, nostalgia-summoning listen that has me remembering getting stick and pokes as a teen, but it feels like it’s missing another layer. B

Peter Tabakis: It's the rare adult songwriter who can recall the teenage experience and make it feel real for other adults. At his height, Brian Wilson was a master of the form. Billy Corgan once nailed it, with stuttering aplomb, on "1979." Annie Clark takes a page from Corgan and highlights the little moments of wayward adolescence. Great escapes in a parent's car, barfs in the garden, pinky pacts on drunken nights, they're are all represented here. Clark flashes forward to adulthood and asks an unknown interlocutor the key question: "How do you see me now?" We don't get an answer, but it's implicit. The past is always prologue. So the albatross of youth remains, a charred carcass dangling from the neck no matter how hard we try to rid ourselves of it. B+

Katie Steen: Calm, airy, and easy on the electronics—a notably mellow song for St. Vinny.  Listen as Annie Clark reminisces on adolescence and you might just feel phantom nostalgia of throwing up in her friend’s mother’s azaleas.  And the picture of a young Annie on the Youtube video for “Teenage Talk” is super cute.  Ahh, such a simple but delightful track. B+

Benji Taylor: Astounding! A-

Brendan Frank: “Teenage Talk” wouldn’t quite fit in on Annie Clark’s scintillating breakthrough – it’s far too languid for that – but it is delivered with the same panache as St. Vincent. Bulging guitar chords and spiky rhythms are swapped out for droplets of synth and a drum kit that sounds like it’s being played underwater, and Clark’s surreal lyrical imagery is more grounded. This one really speaks to me; I’d have no problem if this is the direction Clark takes next. Yes, it was written for Girls, but Clark’s childhood memories are too sweet for those brats.A-

Average:B+

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Carly Rae Jepsen

"All That"

Luis Tovar: The pitch-perfect Prince slow-burner. So that was what was missing from Taylor Swift's still-terrific 1989. A

Samuel Tolzmann: Final moment of silence for the indie-mainstream divide. R.I.P. Moving on, I’m conflicted: on the one hand, “All That” is a fairly adventurous Carly Rae Jepsen song, a big ‘80s-style slow jam that allows her to flaunt her emotional and vocal range. On the other hand, though, it’s just standard fare from co-writer Dev Hynes, whose schtick has gone stale rather quickly; at this point, I’m way more interested in hearing a new album from Jepsen, who’s repeatedly demonstrated her willingness to challenge the “Call Me Maybe” brand, than I am a new record from Blood Orange, whose songs are really starting to sound identical no matter who sings them. For me, the takeaway is not that “All That” is much good, but that Jepsen’s upcoming record could be amazing if she takes other risks like this. C

Peter Tabakis: 1989 is already trickling down the ranks. Exhibit A is Carly Rae Jepsen's "All That," a new entry from the bubblegum renaissance of the late-80s. Teenybopper ballads have a long and storied lineage. They first sprang from the collective diary of early-60s girl groups. Even the Beatles, not exactly slouches, once found their footing by taking a page from that thick, curlicued tome. "All That" pales beside such comparisons. And yet, its nostalgic synth flourishes are good enough to keep Jepson in the conversation. A breakout star from Canadian television, "All That" proves she is cannier than all but two or three of our American Idols. Taylor Swift may be the trailblazer. But every Debbie Gibson can make room for her own, lesser, Tiffany. B+

Zach Bernstein: Wait. Guys. Is Carly Rae Jepsen cool now? I mean, she's collaborating with Blood Orange, so she must be. It worked for Solange. Anyways, I never understood why after Jepsen produced arguably the decade's single best pop song thus far, the entire world slept on her subsequent album. The Unbreakable Carly Rae still seems to be treating her next album's rollout as if it were a real event, but you know what? Both songs that she's released so far, including this one, have been great. "All That" goes right for the 90s kid jugular - smooth synths, breathy vocals, and shameless pledges of undying love. It's a total featherweight - I really, really, really, really, really, really like it. B+

Matthew Malone: With a less-than-impressive voice, overused lyrics, and a blasé personality, CRJ relies really heavily on the production value of her tracks. For “I Really Like You,” which I (really) liked and “Call Me Maybe,” which I (really really) liked, the songwriting kept Jepsen both afloat on the radio and stuck in everyone’s ear canals. But now that she’s brought in the big guns (Dev Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid), she lands surprisingly flat with her smooth 80s allusion! “All That” is a mellow RnB ballad that will go unnoticed in the public eye, but maybe sparkle in Jepsen’s sparse repertoire. B-

Nathan Wisnicki: ‘80s nostalgia now feels like it’s lasted longer than the actual ‘80s. Leaving aside the fact that the ‘80s were a horrendous era in just about every possible way (a point worth re-stating), if you’ve ever looked through what was actually popular on the charts in that decade you’ll know that the campy bouncy fun we choose to remember its music by isn’t actually as representative as you’d think. Most of the actual hits of the time were flat ballads that sounded like the dentist’s office. Jepsen still has a charming voice, and her dentist’s office isn’t on the level of Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man, but…well, points for accuracy, I guess; the vaporous feeling is in full eff-izz-ect, as we’ll all be saying in another 5-10 years when ‘90s nostalgia takes over. D+

Average:C+

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Speedy Ortiz

"Puffer"

Genevieve Oliver: I grew up in Western Massachusetts and listen to Pavement for at least an hour every day, so I’m basically legally required to be a Speedy Ortiz evangelist. This band are capable of so much, and they do it so well – it’s awesome (and, somehow, not at all unexpected) to hear them tap into a creepy vibe that’s deeply New England gothic. It’s their “Cream of Gold,” maybe. A

Samuel Tolzmann: Helllll yes. Lurching, threatening “Puffer” is top-form Speedy Ortiz, lacing perfectly good ‘90s alt-rock comfort food with a sizeable dose of arsenic. It sounds like a Garbage song from that post-grunge moment when trip-hop managed to infiltrate the Modern Rock chart, only the tape’s been cut to pieces and collaged back together all wrong. Oh, and Sadie Dupuis’s vocal hook is a total winner; I’ve been shower-singing it for days. All in all, “Puffer” is rather spooky, really sexy, and razor sharp. It scares me but I can’t get enough of it. B+

Katie Steen: I know this song is aiming for the dark and grungy sound, but it feels super clean.  Even the screechy, haphazard guitar bit in the middle feels very calculated.  And, my god, if I hear one more song with “yeah yeah yeah” in the chorus…I don’t know what I’m gonna do!  Probably not listen to it!  Yeah!  (yeah yeah) D

Jean-Luc Marsh:“Puffer” starts out slinkier than anything I have heard before from Speedy Ortiz. Dupuis sounds downright sinister throughout much of the track, coating herself with mud as she coils in preparation to spit the venom she’s been saving all along. “So I’m the god of the liars,” she hisses, teeth clenched, but still nonchalant. It’s hard not to recoil in fear and awe, but in terms of Speedy Ortiz, this is just another good new track. After “Raising The Skate,” I know exactly what Dupuis and company are capable of, and “Puffer” is nowhere close to stealing the crown. But if Speedy Ortiz’s biggest problem is being dependably good (and occasionally amazing), then they are still light-years ahead of the game. If only dependability were more sexy. B

Average:B-

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Lightning Round!

Chromatics, "In Films"
Brendan Frank:
Chromatics latest
“Midnight City” inspired
Glimmering night jam B

Ike: Do you remember that song playing outside of the diner that Ryan Gosling creepily peered through (full on Burger King character mask) in Drive? This is that song, just a tad more cheerful along the lines of Jonze's Her. Either way this warmer punk-disco could be the band’s best sound yet. Strip the colder, lingering moments of Kill for Love and we’re left with a confident, upbeat display of positivity. And it still sounds great driving through the city at night. A-

Luis Tovar: That this band still manages to surprise while hardly deviating from their consciously limited sonic palette will never cease to amaze me. B+

ASAP Rocky, "M's"
Brendan Frank:
Catchphrase: get shaded
M should stand for meek or mild
Try harder next time C-

Ike: “M’s” talks money, millions, moola and you can’t help but flex a little. And who better to guide you than the Pretty Motherfucker himself? B+

Luis Tovar: "Goldie"-lite. B-

Samantha Urbani, "1 2 3 4"
Brendan Frank:
Percussion thunders
Massive eighties new wave beats
Overlong but fun C+

Ike: Whatever Dev and his people are doing, keep it up. A+

Luis Tovar: Urbani ditched her Friends to start a new movement being led by the drums. I'm so okay with that. B

Matthew Malone: Yet to be impressed by Urbani, but haven’t lost total faith. C-

Passion Pit, "Until We Can't (Let's Go)"
Genevieve Oliver: I’ve never been able to drum up much to say about the extremely bland objective alrightness of Passion Pit. C-

Katie Steen: Aw, Passion Pit.  There’s a time and place for Passion Pit, and for me that was summer, by the lake, age 17. But ughhhhh I’m too tired for this.  Or old.  Whatever.  Shhh. D

Luis Tovar: Can't. Summon. The. Fucks. D

Benji Taylor: The dark, twisted, cynical part of me that generally takes over to write my reviews wants to grade this track badly, but when a song makes me feel this good to be alive, how can I? I hate and love this track, as I hate and love myself. B

Freddie Gibbs, "My Dope House (featuring Kaytranada)"
Brendan Frank:
Visit the “Dope House”
Freddie’s forceful phrasing kills
Just don’t sing next time B-

Ike: Real G’s stand up! We could go on and on about Gibb’s quarter key worths and Porsche stains, but the real winner here is Kaytranada. One of the cleanest kicks I’ve heard in awhile, I’m more excited for Kaytra’s album here. Stay in your lane! A-

Luis Tovar: Bottom-bin Freddie is still stupid good. But, this is barrel-scraping Freddie. B-

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MS MR

"Painted"

Peter Tabakis: "Painted" starts at a gallop and only gets better from there. Sonic layers stack atop each other like Tetris tiles falling and locking at a rapid clip. Brass blasts, whizbang electronics, and incessant keyboard notes snap into a heart-quickening whole. Vocalist Lizzy Plapinger isn't just another puzzle piece here. She rides the lightening with full diva command. If "Painted" were emblematic of today’s gay dance floors, I'd probably get out more. B

Jean-Luc Marsh: I’m not a huge fan of excessive repetition, so “Painted” was not my cup of tea from the get-go. MS MR’s comeback track is a little stagnant, very predictable, and never quite amounts to anything extraordinary. It essentially plays all of its cards in the first thirty seconds, and in the rare respite from the incessant chatter, the lack of lyrical depth really begins to show. The pounding house piano is a nice touch, but the band seems stuck in 2013 (“Painted” would be right at home on Secondhand Rapture), with Lizzy Plapinger showing off very little in terms of new vocal developments and Max Hershenow proving that he can still construct the same beats he made two years prior. At least I liked pop in 2013, though. C-

Matthew Malone: Channeling Florence and other soulstars, Lizzy Plapinger of MS MR takes this new single to serious vocal heights. Though not nearly as captivating as the duo’s excellent single “Hurricane,” “Painted” is a solid EDM-driven jam that will shine brightly but burn out quickly. B-

Average:C+

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Tunde Adebimpe, Sinkane, & Sal P

"Speedline Miracle Masterpiece"

Genevieve Oliver: Perfect for a video game, a song that feels like being in a video game, or a somewhat more personalized Drive, or captaining an interstellar spaceship. Still though, it’s hard for me to take anything on the Grand Theft Auto V album, Welcome to Los Santos, at all seriously given the franchise’s notorious violent misogyny (in this iteration of the game, for example, players can buy a prostitute and are then encouraged to kill her). I can’t rate this highly on principle – sure, my toe’s tapping, but the whole thing leaves a really, really bad taste in my mouth. D

Brendan Frank: As much as I like “Careful You” and as easy as it is to turn off my brain to “Happy Idiot”, I was severely disappointed in TV on the Radio’s Seeds. Tunde Adebimpe’s typically viscous lyrics, watered down to homeopathic levels, were the biggest let down of all. But damn if “Speedline Miracle Masterpiece” isn’t just everything I was hoping he could have brought to Seeds. Aside from being the perfect driving tune, Tunde shows off the range, reach and adventurousness that made him and his band so exciting to begin with. Play this. Loudly. B+

Katie Steen:  This song, to quote its lyrics, thinks it’s hot shit (“ow!”).  I bet it makes good video game music (fuck Grand Theft Auto though). C

Average:C

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Score Review

Rihanna, "American Oxygen" C
Florence and the Machine, "Ship To Wreck" C-
Tame Impala, "'Cause I'm A Man" B
St. Vincent, "Teenage Talk" B+ || Song of the Week
Carly Rae Jepsen, "All That" C+
Speedy Ortiz, "Puffer" B-
Chromatics, "In Films" B+
ASAP Rocky, "M's" B-
Samantha Urbani, "1 2 3 4" B-
Passion Pit, "Until We Can't (Let's Go)" D+
Freddie Gibbs, "The Dope House" B
MS MR, "Painted" C+
Tunde Adebimpe, "Speedline Miracle Masterpiece" C

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