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 Janet Jackson, Carly Rae Jepsen, Peaches, The Chemical Brothers and St. Vincent, Jidenna and Kendrick Lamar.
Song of the Week: Janet Jackson, “No Sleeep”
Sam Catlin: Over a perfectly loping drum track, Janet sings about her chosen themes – sex, sleeplessness, separation – as being, at heart, issues of not having enough time. And she does it while sounding like she has all the time in the world. And really, she kinda does – we haven’t heard from her in seven years, and now she turns up out of nowhere, totally in step with the current pop landscape, neither missing a beat nor running to catch up. Everyone else making R&B in 2015 better be paying attention, ‘cause this is how it’s done. A-
Ali M Latifi: In 1993 Janet Jackson shocked her label -- who just doled out $40 million for her -- by releasing a sexy, slow-burning ballad, "That's The Way Love Goes", over the throbbing club jam, "If”, as the first single from her fifth album. As her eight-week run at number one proved, Miss Jackson had made the right choice.
Now 12 years later, Janet seems to be once again employing many of the same tactics. Again, there is a brief teaser promising new music where she is heard, but not seen. And once again, she bucked industry conventions by releasing a slow jam in lieu of a club anthem. “No Sleeep”, a slinky, minimalist ballad about long distance love triumphs in its simplicity. In an age where the biggest female stars of the '90s are accused of releasing music that is inappropriate both for their age and status, Janet’s minimalism feels so right. A-
Austin Reed: I can’t really tell if this is considered morbid or not, but I derive much satisfaction in picking out those elements of Janet Jackson’s craft that estimate what Michael’s music could be if it was still being made. This is no knock on her ability as an originator—without question, she sits comfortably inside the upper echelon of R&B tastemakers. But “No Sleeep,” is brilliant because of Janet’s faultless commitment to the spirit of the track. She ingrains herself into even the tiniest crevices of “No Sleeep,” going where the production goes without a single second thought. Calling it one of Janet’s more iconic songs of the past four years is fitting. But then again, this was the commitment Michael gave to every track he ever recorded. Pay close attention to the inflections and minor sweeps that come off every word. It’s the kind of similarity only two siblings could share—one that serves as an establishment of authenticity and a reminder of past brilliance in a single breath. B
Nathan Wisnicki: Ha, this is some real mid-‘90s chillout nostalgia right here. I kinda dig it. Trip-hoppy organ, shifting synth ambience, street-foggy Janet herself; all of it adds up to a late-night cosmopolis vibe with just the right amount of class among the titillation. As a nighthawk myself, this appeals to me personally. But objectively, it’s generic by Janet’s early standards and probably not even particularly good in the first place. B-
Stephanie Moise: Janet Jackson: Oh, thank god. This is sexy as fuck. I'm so happy to not understand a third of another Janet song. This one is so smooth. Her teasing, whispery voice and that steady beat practically vibrates anticipation. Warm, sensual, timeless. Very much yes. B
Carly Rae Jepsen, “Emotion”
Austin Reed: I realize I went way over the word count, but hear me out. It’s not Carly Rae Jepsen’s fault that the entire First World tends to rebuke the notion that Carly Rae Jepsen is an actual pop star. Even though its formula was practically written on a YouTube bar napkin, “Call Me Maybe,” wasn’t created in a laboratory. It was co-written and recorded by a woman who understands how pop music works from a technical standpoint. 2012 belonged to “Call Me Maybe,” and no one can contend the impact it had on her brand name. But Carly Rae Jepsen is totally capable of usurping the stigma attached to “having that one song a few years ago.” Musically, she’s better than she’s ever been, and it’s only a matter of time until the rest of her portfolio speaks louder than “Call Me Maybe,” ever could.
“Emotion,” for example, is a powder keg of polished production, vocal nuance and shamelessly twee songwriting. The subject matter is nothing new: Post-breakup, Carly Rae is resting comfortably between the second and third stage of grief, boasting a “see if I care” disposition. Between a brazenly issued dare to get drunk off her memory and a heightened interest in skipping the formalities, Jepsen weaves her way through “Emotion,” with the confidence and poise of someone who has gone through this process one time too many.
Calling “Emotion,” a fluke would be much easier if Jepsen’s music was even just a little bit more dismissive. But the sad, irrefutable truth of the matter is this: We’re halfway through 2015. If you haven’t begun taking Carly Rae Jepsen seriously as an artist, there’s no time like the present. B+
Sam Catlin: It’s really hard to figure out the intensity of the stakes in “Emotion.” That’s not a bad thing! It’s a big part of why it so great. It dilates into this huge, clobbering dancefloor cut and then contracts into an understated, intimate pop song and then back again. It makes personal feelings seem all-encompassing and towering obstacles seem petty. It’s also got hooks like whoa. B
Nathan Wisnicki: “Call Me Maybe” gave the “post-irony” (post-post-irony?) people — recent “cloud rap”, the quickly passing “PC Music” fad — plenty of material, what with the dotty synth programming and girlish voice that just coos the thought “pigtails,” and Carly Rae is…well, not quite running with it, but definitely acknowledging it. The jitter in the bass is boosted, the synth tones are wobbled-up, the “eee” notes in the choruses are blared almost to the point of self-reflexiveness. That said, I like this a lot more than the first single from her new record. I wish the melody was catchier, and Carly Rae’s twee-heeing can be downright oppressive, plus her coyness attracts some really creepy fans…but hey, the pre-chorus hook (“I am growing ten feet, ten feet tall…”) is lovely and the smile in her voice itself is a pleasant experience. Issokay. B-
Stephanie Moise: I mean...I hate to say it but, it's kind of just a less catchy "Call Me Maybe". I'm more excited to get to the new Chemical Bros; it features St. Vincent! OK: I dig the pre chorus, the bridge is meh. The production is just not strong enough to be an ear worm. Wait, there's a new Janet Jackson?!? Bye. D+
The Chemical Brothers, “Under Neon Lights” featuring St. Vincent
Nathan Wisnicki: There’s a high flute-like snatch of synth that runs through the intro of this one that gave me a a big early-‘70s vibe, yet even though that’s quickly ditched in favor of something more tense, it works quite nicely. This evokes a druggy push through a crowded dancefloor: every “ha” ricocheted, every bass flicked in service of the big beat. As for Ms. Clark, her voice sounds nice and she collaborates tastefully in her longstanding quest to encapsulate the Eno-Byrne circa 1979. I keep wishing she’d let other people compose the actual music. A-
Stephanie Moise: OK! Strong elements of St Vincent, strong elements of classic Chemical Brothers with a little something new thrown in. I was sitting with my head cocked until that last minute; I'm on board. It's so funny to think of these guys as on trend when really, people have been following their lead for decades. If this is the official return of dark, dank, club beats then I couldn't be happier, seriously. Second and third plays have me nodding my head so, let's do this. B+
Jean-Luc Marsh: The Chemical Brothers aim for the hypnotic with their latest offering, “Under Neon Lights,” by way of a looping, mutating melody and trippy accompanying video. It succeeds with flying colors. The addition of Annie Clark, who sounds more otherworldly than ever, to the mix, is just the icing on top. Think alien abduction dance party on ayahuasca. Sign me up for more of this. A-
Benji Taylor: Alongside their peers The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers once bestrode the electro-landscape like some unfathomable shape-shifting colossus, and everything they touched turned to gold. They lost their alchemic touch around the time of Further, and their work has been on a downward spiral since.
Sadly, with its stale beats and lackluster synth backdrop, Under Neon Lights doesn't buck the trend. Once masters of the indie guest spot, it’s illustrative how far these guys have fallen when they can’t even utilize the inimitable St Vincent effectively. C
Brendan Frank: Again, we have Chemical Brothers using a well-calibrated musical backdrop to get the most out of their guest vocalist. Annie Clark’s ethereal performance is almost just another synthesizer in the mix, a ghost in the machine nudging your frame of mind in a particular direction. In the case of "Under Neon Lights", towards anxiety and dread. The Brothers seems as determined to creep you out as they are to give your feet a workout. For its first three quarters it maintains that balance. It loses a little steam at the end, but you'll still have goosebumps along your arms. B
Austin Reed: No, Tabakis. THIS is how you take out the trash.
I don’t dislike a single thing about this track. Annie Clark is as weird as ever, and her contribution is an apt centerpiece. Meanwhile, the Chemical Brothers are showing off in big ways, here. Drag-and-drop syncopation evokes the fast-and-loose speed cycle of Aphex Twin and the bass tone barrage of MSTRKRFT. Keen work on all sides; if this at all predicts their future, I’m going all in on the Chemical Brothers. B+
Sam Catlin: All I have to say about this is that I AM READY for the house diva incarnation of Annie Clark. B-
Adam Offitzer: This is indeed trippy and groovy, but also scary to the point where it gets me more afraid than excited. C
Jidenna, “Classic Man (Remix)” featuring Kendrick Lamar
Benji Taylor: Kendrick has lyrical tactics and vocal gymnastics in abundance, so it’s a shame he spends his time on “Classic Man” giving it the Donald Trump treatment: banging on about how ridiculously rich and technically untouchable he is. Yawn, fucking yawn. The latter point is arguably true, but it does not make the thematic content (“I eat the pussy for my nourishment”?) any less deplorable. Jidenna’s chorus remains as catchy as the common cold on this remix, and about as mentally debilitating. The “you can be mean if you look this clean” refrain sums up much of what’s wrong in contemporary hip-hop. The production might be as slick as a waterfall of crude oil, but ultimately this is crass hip-hop gunk masquerading as a rap-pop masterpiece. D
Brendan Frank: You can catch shades of “Fancy” all over “Classic Man”. Depending on your current saturation level, Jidenna’s latest could play out a few different ways. I never could stand “Fancy”, so to me this is just more of a dull idea that was DOA to begin with. The timbre of the rubberized synth line that drives the track is pretty much a wholesale rip – with a handful of extra notes thrown in. Kendrick is his usual dexterous self, but his brief appearance at the beginning and average (for him) verse aren’t enough to salvage this one. C
Sam Catlin: The DJ Mustard hangover is here, it’s real and it’s bad enough to ruin perfectly decent vocal hooks and an above-average guest spot from Kendrick. I propose a moratorium on this producer for, like, ever. D+
Nathan Wisnicki: In which the “Fancy” riff is given the pleasure of Kendrick’s presence. Sounds fine in theory for a half-second, but then you might remember that the “Fancy” hook wasn’t anything special in the first place. And I’m almost hesitant to say it, but…am I the only one who thinks lately Kendrick’s been, if not exactly “overexposed,” then definitely “guesting on way too many songs?” Not that his rapping isn’t the best part here by far, particularly nearing the end of a second verse that thankfully makes up a big chunk of the song; Jidenna’s generic bro-Autotune doesn’t actually carry a hook as well as Iggy Azalea, let alone Kendrick. C+
Adam Offitzer: After the intricate, arty jazz-rap of To Pimp A Butterfly, it's cool to see that King Kendrick can still go hard on a pop radio-ready beat. The chorus here is a bit lacking, but solid enough to last all summer. B-
Jean-Luc Marsh: I was ambivalent about Jidenna back when I first heard his verse in “Yoga” a few months ago. Anyone who utters the word “boner” in the vicinity of the perfection that is Janelle Monáe raises a red flag in my book. Nevertheless, I trust Monáe’s taste, and since Jidenna is her chosen protégé, I decided to give him a second chance, and, boy, am I glad I did. With a beat that sounds like “Fancy” Part II and hooks that hit with laser precision, the remixed take of “Classic Man” finds a sweet spot of familiarity and instant catchiness. Kendrick Lamar is a footnote here; that’s how good this is. B+
Peaches, "Light in Places”
Sam Catlin: Peaches remains a case study in how refusing to take oneself anything less than 100% seriously can make one’s work so ridiculous that it actually circles back and becomes kind of good again. It’s the power of positive thinking: Peaches thinks “Light In Places” is the baddest bit of badass electroclash ever to exist, and it sort of becomes half-true in the process. This should be horrendous, but it tries so damn hard to be great that it manages to achieve a glorious ingenuity. And, I mean, that video. B-
Nathan Wisnicki: This actually has a pretty good pulse goin’ on; the throb’s very deep and teems fast and close to the ear. Of course, naturally you also have to deal with Merrill Nisker’s lyrics, here referencing a “stargasm” and making use of a well-intentioned chorus about class-conscious upheaval that’s…well, it’s dimmed a little. See if you can spot where: “Shake this system, then surpass/Liberate, en masse/Eliminate the class/All humans free at last/So much beauty coming out of my ass.” Back in the day, I guess this passed as a beat-around-the-bullshit approach (that also got a free pass for being willfully dumb, not that that’s necessarily a bad thing). Now it just sounds kinda…forced and goofy, I guess. I like the “Debbie Harry in ethereal mode” tone of her singing here, though. And the pulse. Issokay. B
Austin Reed: I don’t know why I even bother demonstrating frustration when unsuspecting audiences assume dance music is a much more one-dimensional endeavor than it actually is. Myriad artists exist that buck that assumption before it even makes it to their corner, but I’ll occasionally find myself amid truly terrific dance music that evokes serious disdain for anyone who doesn’t give the genre a fair shot.
But then I hear tracks like “Light In Places,” and I’m reminded why those stereotypes exist. I don’t really know what this is, but it’s boring and sad and the lyrics belong on a LMFAO album. You’re better than this, Peaches. Do less. D
Stephanie Moise: Peaches is back too? What a great week. This one is a little more polished than her usual but, she's still as irreverent as ever. On the surface, this song seems to be about assholes. No, no, the actual body part. Are the same lyrics repeated over and over lazy or pointed? You know what? Who cares. I like it. B-