Tracking Our Favorite Songs of 2014 #16

New favorites from Nicki Minaj, QT, Caribou, iLoveMakonnen/Drake, Ariana Grande & Run the Jewels.
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New favorites from Nicki Minaj, QT, Caribou, iLoveMakonnen/Drake, Ariana Grande & Run the Jewels.
Tracking

This time on Tracking we discuss our favorite new songs from Nicki Minaj, QT, Caribou, iLoveMakonnen/Drake, Ariana Grande & Run the Jewels.

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Nicki Minaj, "Anaconda"

Nicki Minaj’s phoned-in contribution to recent hit “Bang Bang” was disappointingly dull, but that’s probably because she knows she’s got more personality and deft, honed skill in one completely exposed, masterfully controlled buttock than anything collaborators Jessie J or Ariana Grande could ever hope to bring to the table. Plus, she had to conserve her energy for things like the “***Flawless” remix and, especially, “Anaconda” – and I’m not just saying that because of the, uh, workout of a music video (but that seems like hard work, too!). “Anaconda” accomplishes the seemingly impossible feat of being so audacious, it rendered the controversy over the single’s racy Lil’ Kim-aping cover art instantaneously irrelevant. A wicked repurposing of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s immortally nasty “Baby Got Back,” a witty and frank journey through Minaj’s sexual history, an awe-inspiring avalanche of ice-cold shade, and a rallying cry for the “fat-assed big bitches in the club” that makes a similarly-themed Top 10 hit like Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” seem downright cowardly by comparison? It seems like way too much for one song to bear, but it’s all in three minutes’ work for Minaj, who’s back to her old tricks, flipping voices and personalities rapidly enough to keep the overstuffed track feeling nimble. If The Pink Print has more tricks like “Anaconda” and “Lookin’ Ass” (and fewer like the unlistenable “Pills ‘N’ Potions”) up its sleeve, we may get the Minaj LP we’ve all been waiting for ever since she hollered, “I’m a motherfuckin’ monstah!” and the world believed her.


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QT, "Hey QT"

That anonymous Scottish DJ Sophie and PC Music head honcho A. G. Cook would eventually collaborate seemed like a foregone conclusion, so foregone that I’m not sure anyone paused to think about what it would actually sound like. Sure, the two musicians share a sensibility – a berserk brand of hot pink electropop turned all moist and sticky by an understated but unmistakable lewdness – but they’re also very different in some key ways. Cook’s ultimately a crowd-pleaser who doesn’t let his acerbic wit and postmodernist hijinks (fake corporate sponsorship, natch) get in the way of a good time; Sophie’s a mercurial trickster who deceives listeners into thinking they’re having a good time in order to take the piss in all sorts of ways, whether it’s cutting off a dance track to blast minutes on end of earsplitting noise during a live set or deconstructing a beat until it’s entirely impossible to move to. One of them makes cheesy dance music with tongue firmly in cheek; the other does it because it makes us into easy targets for practical jokes laced with a real and frightening emptiness. From this perspective, a track that united the DJs’ aesthetic M.O.s seems unlikely, and indeed, their first joint effort “Hey QT” is more up the PC Music alley than it is Sophie’s. It’s disappointing, mostly because the more Sophie music in the world, the better; it makes sense, though, that Sophie’d play chameleon with A. G. Cook’s style rather than the other way around. Anyway, when the song’s playing, you won’t think about how it could have been different. It’s a sugar-rush so strong, you won’t be thinking about anything at all. [Samuel Tolzmann]


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Caribou, "Our Love"

I’m dancing with my girlfriend’s dog, Kismet. Kismet is a five-year-old Bichon Frise who possesses about as much aptitude for fluid rhythm as I do for eating my dinner out of a bowl on the floor. But no matter; we’re dancing. I’m holding his paws up collar-height with my hands, swaying his white, puffy body back and forth.

I owe this super-precious, semi-pathetic moment to Dan Snaith—more specifically, “Our Love,” one of the two (or three, depending on your willingness to label an extended version of a song as altogether different from its original) tracks he dropped to signal the arrival of Caribou’s sixth full-length album, Our Love.

You’ve really gotta hand it to Snaith: Over the course of his fourteen-year stint as one of pop music’s most erratic figures, his unwillingness to plant his feet firmly into any genre’s soil has, ironically, become one of his more prevalent motifs. Save for a few scant rhythmic elements here and there, Caribou has spent pretty much its entire career jumping from ship to ship. And on “Our Love,” that commitment to being uncommitted has never been stronger, nor has it paid out so generously.

At its core, “Our Love,” sounds like a Detroit house track produced by Todd Terje. It’s a dance tune that covers a lot of historical ground, because we’re dealing with a seasoned professional who watched this stuff thrive in its heyday. Low-flying bass rumbles and syncopated break beats might not possess much credence in the creativity department anymore, but Snaith has cultivated an acute sense of why they were important in the first place. So, when he employs a series of monotonous bass wobbles to operate less like rhythmic accouterments and more like melodic waypoints, you know it’s a harbinger for much, much more intricate things to come.

And you’d be right. To wit: Caribou has never feared the vocal sample, and on “Our Love,” Snaith spins his voice backward and forward and from side to side, like the track was recorded on a loom. In fact, “Our love,” are really the only two intelligible lyrics in the entire song.

But understanding the message is hardly the point. Snaith lives for any opportunity to transmute our comfortable ideas into completely more uncomfortable versions that are somehow just as digestible. “Our Love,” uses jazzy violin fills to convey a truly haunting experience, and not five seconds later, Snaith’s voice clamors in and pacifies like a parent answering the terrified cry of a child afflicted by the Boogeyman.

“Our Love,” succeeds on about two-dozen levels, the most important of which being its versatility as a storytelling dance track. It’s a sonic chronicle that illustrates both the lush evolution dance music has made over the past 20 years and the giant leaps Snaith has made as a producer and songwriter. Our Love is due out at the end of the month, and if its title track is any indication, it’ll perfectly utilize the best of Caribou’s past to construct Caribou’s future. [Austin Reed]


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iLoveMakonnen, "Club Goin Up on a Tuesday" (featuring Drake)

“Got the club goin’ up on a Tuesday, / Got your girl in the cut and she choosy.” “Tuesday” commences with those two lines, which end up being its refrain, so you already know what to expect – or do you? On first impression, “Tuesday” looks like it’s going to be five really stupid minutes, but an even greater pleasure than that absurdly catchy refrain is that the song actually isn’t playing by the rules. As remixed by Drake – who contributes a verse of “Hold On, We’re Going Home”-style sing-rap that segues fluidly into Atlanta-based artist iLoveMakonnen’s own AutoTuned yelp – “Tuesday” isn’t the weeknight battle cry it seems to be at first listen; rather, it’s a declaration of personal pride with more staying power than the Wednesday morning hangover. “Ain’t got no motherfucking time / To party on the weekend,” scoffs Drake; “I made it on my own, / I made my own style,” follows up Makonnen. Over a minimal beat and the kind of wistful greyscale synths typical of an OVO production, both men work together to portray a lifestyle far away from the refrain’s initial suggestion of hedonism, a lifestyle founded on the idea that today’s sacrifices will pan out tomorrow. It’s not an anthem for the irresponsible, it’s an ode to the hard workers. Of course, as it turns out, that chorus is really, really catchy – catchy enough to take on a life of its own this autumn, with a very different message attached. But that’s on purpose, too – you don’t write a chorus like that without expecting the world to love it. That the song is destined to Trojan-horse gravity, focus, and self-respect into Tuesday night club sets everywhere just makes its unexpected subtlety and deft irony all the more delightful. [Samuel Tolzmann]


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Ariana Grande, "Why Try"

A quick glance at the track titles of Ariana Grande’s My Everything reveals the record’s hand rather quickly: songs about romance abound, as expected. Listen to the record all the way through, and this assumption quickly solidifies into fact. Thematically, Grande’s sophomore album isn’t exactly surprising stuff. Not that it needs to be. Grande already has the market cornered on upbeat songs about love (and escaping from it), and any tinkering with the formula at this point would be taking coals to Newcastle.

Yet, through multiple guest spots, and even more listens, there are some love songs that shine brighter than the rest. Among these, “Why Try” is the clear standout, even when held up against the stiff competition in the first half of the album. The reason is clear: Grande’s performance is a pure knockout, punching craters in the soundscape with featherweight melisma and coquettish charm. Through some lyrics about angels, devils, and “screaming just to see who’s louder,” Grande carries an overwrought story of toxic love to its ecstatic pinnacle.

Amazingly, she manages to outdo herself with each subsequent verse, continuously climbing up the registers, stopping only to deliver an ethereal set of “na na na’s” that glide effortlessly though the sprawling space the track lays claim to. However, it is when she exclaims “I’m loving the pain” for the final time, piercing through churning layers of percussion and reverb, it’s much more than the song’s obvious climax. This is Grande triumphant, having finally surmounted the obstacle, seeing clearly, acknowledging her faults in continuing to love someone so challenging. The moment is akin to the bright rays of the lighthouse slicing through the dense marine fog in the dead of night. That’s why the impression “Why Try” makes is such an enduring one. From a dizzying sugar high emerges an angelic moment of clarity. Realization never sounded so damn sweet. [Jean-Luc Marsh]


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Run the Jewels, "Blockbuster Night, Pt. 1"

Every great hip-hop duo reflects something true about the times they live in. Clipse communicated the drug dealer’s hustle, ‘Kast mixed coasts and genres to rep the mixing pot of ATL and Ye and Jay’s Watch The Throne’s gold-plated decadence ruminated on what it means to be a black man at the top of the world. Run The Jewels is the same. After last year’s jaw-dropping, jaw-breaking self-titled LP, El and Mike are picking up where they left off—reflecting the nature of the chaotic, aggressive and fucked up world they live in, or, as Mike says, “this Run The Jewels is, murder, mayhem, melodic music.”

One of the only small bright spots of the tragedies in Ferguson was seeing Killer Mike’s level-headed analysis of the situation promoted to a national audience that might otherwise not hear his perspectives, with interviews on CNN and Fox News and an op-ed on Billboard.com. As always, Mike was respectful, and insightful. You might be wondering where that attitude can be found in Run the Jewels.

The answer is that every yin needs a yang. There's the side of Killer Mike and El-P that’s intelligent and understanding, and there’s the side that needs to vent red hot frustration at the state of the world. Run the Jewels is that second part, seemingly insane, but on second consideration, just a mirror of the insanity of the modern world, or as El says, “I guess I'm just insane as you explain it/ Or maybe sanctifying the sadistic is deranged.”

On “Blockbuster Night Part. 1,” the lead single from RTJ2, out Oct. 28 on Mass Appeal, the guys reassert themselves as kings of the fucked up world, each bar bigger and more brutal than the last, over a punishing battle rap beat. As El says, “we run our brand where destruction's the number one commitment/ It’s all a joke between mom contractions and coffin fittings.” Life’s all a joke. So get the fuck out of RTJ's way if you don’t like the punchline. [Charlie Dulik]

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