Welcome to The Hot Take, a feature where a selection of writers discuss some of the noteworthy single releases of the last couple weeks. This time we take a look at the new singles from M83, Anohni, Ariana Grande, and Kendrick Lamar.
M83, “Do It, Try It”
Austin Reed: The condition afflicting “Do It, Try It” has less to do with the track itself and more to do with the context behind which Anthony Gonzalez released it. “Anything we create today is going to end up being space junk at one point anyway,” Gonzalez said in a press release for upcoming LP Junk.
I have no idea how long Gonzalez has felt this nihilistic, but it’s safe to assume that this was not his focus on previous M83 albums like Saturdays = Youth and Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. These were dreamy, uplifting records—ones that skirted the line between synth-pop and shoegaze with surplus tenacity. Tracks like “Kim & Jessie”, “Midnight City”, and “Steve McQueen” clearly outline the on-wax identity M83 audiences have grown to love. No one makes dance music as uplifting as Gonzalez. So what’s going on?
The short answer? No idea. But despite its departure, “Do It, Try It” would have likely stood out as that one kooky M83 track that everyone would still love. Context, however, can be a real bitch. C
Elena Bagd: After their magnificent double album, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, and after more than a decade of embodying pop eclecticism, M83 are back. Even though the direction of the dramatic turnaround they have taken with this new single took us all by surprise (and polarized opinions), the turnaround itself is no surprise from Anthony Gonzalez, the mastermind behind the constantly reinvented band. I find the track explosively good, with funky house piano-led rhythms, and dense in synths. B+
Brooklyn Russell: Terence McKenna, the “intellectual voice of rave culture,” had once theorized that novelty in the universe is an inherent quality of time. It would be easy to dismiss M83 as a novelty act—especially given Anthony Gonzalez’ reputation of creating “very, very, very epic” music—but if you look a little closer you'll find an act that thrives on unconventionality: colorful bursts of optimism, brief encounters with an altered state of consciousness; and with little or no emphasis strained on traditional “musicianship.” Gonzalez' latest excursion, “Do It, Try It”, starts off as novelty. Within the first thirty seconds of the song starting, you”re already laughing. You're laughing partly out of humor, partly out of “What on God's green Earth am I listening to?” But what you're listening to here is not only unpredictable, it's altogether reveling in the complexity of life. By the time “Do It, Try It” is over, you’re not just laughing but you're discovered that this helium-voiced creature you were listening to is the personification of Bibi the Dog, a tiny Maltese-shitzu cross that survived a near-death experience after it had been blown off a Brighton pier. The laugh-factor of the voice quickly subsides, but there's still a lot of unusual elements on “Do It, Try It” to go with the ever-present slippages of novelty. B+
Peter Tabakis: All hail the arpeggiator! M83 returns with a single that bubbles with frivolity and bursts with joy. The new album's called Junk but, if “Do It, Try It” is any sign, its title seems like insurance against scolds. When executed with such verve, fun for fun's sake can be just as vital as the grandest of gestures. And why shouldn't a delirious dance track match a miserable ballad? We're all poptimists now, right? B+
Anohni, “Drone Bomb Me”
Peter: Anohni has been a reliable master of slow-paced devastation. Her work with Hercules and Love Affair also revealed a ferocious dance diva who wanted to break free. Her latest songs split the difference. Their grave topics (climate change, mechanized warfare) arrive with some long overdue sonic oomph. “Drone Bomb Me” is as self-explanatory as a title gets. Anohni puts the target straight on her head, though she sings of bloodshed abroad. Her woeful delivery, a trademark, keeps the song from veering into college campus activism. By making the geopolitical personal, she protects her art from the 24-hour news cycle. “Drone Bomb Me” turns the condemnation inward, transforms it into a universal human plea. Roiling beats and ostinato synth melodies tether it, maybe not to the dance floor, but to Earth at least. A
Elena: As beautiful and powerful as “4 Degrees”, but perhaps in a less immediate way, “Drone Bomb Me” shows that the immense emotional power behind Anohni’s music is threefold, with each trait amplifying the impact of the rest. First, we have the heart-wrenching, prodigious vocals she’d already given us with Antony and the Johnsons. Second, the sonic strength provided by producers Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke’s avant-garde electronic arrangements. And finally, the crude and socially-aware lyrical content, where “4 Degrees” dramatically reminds us of our share of the blame in climate change. But “Drone Bomb Me” is even brutal. “Why bomb them? Let it be me”, she seems to tell to those up above. A+
Austin: I don’t know which to focus my attention on more: Anohni’s commitment to spreading the word about some of the world’s stickier global issues via her music or her commitment to making that music epic as fuck in the process. On “Drone Bomb Me”, Anohni relates the concept of leveling landscapes with unmanned aerial systems to the prospect of being on the receiving end of an explosively passionate relationship. Regardless of where you stand, Anohni appears to be settling into a songwriter of certain clout—these tracks are as defined in their political intent as they are sonically gorgeous. And no one capitalizes on the formula quite like Anohni. B
Ariana Grande, "Dangerous Woman"
Austin Reed: Ariana Grande might be one of the more confusing pop artists on the planet right now. She’s a 22-year-old 16 year old, she almost always has her hair half-up, half-down, she likes playing dress-up and she works pretty hard at cultivating this girlish persona, both on-stage and off. She works hard, but at times it appears as though she only wants to cater to the 8-18 demographic.
Which is obviously where the confusion sets in. Grande has a tremendous voice, and she works with some of the most prolific producers in the business. Her technical prowess is only rivaled by the natural dynamics her voice demonstrates. However, no one over the age of 30 takes any of this seriously because of tracks like “Dangerous Woman”. We get it: Ariana’s experiencing new feels for the first time, and she’s ready to let her bad girl out. But that’s been the story for almost two years now. How many tracks is it going to take before the bad girl actually comes out, instead of just threatening to? C–
Peter: Some say there's a standard template for pop perfection. If so, Sweden would be a global economic superpower. The truth is, bubblegum excellence often results from a confluence of unconventional decisions. And Ariana Grande's fabulous new single, a kitchen sink’s worth of ideas, is Exhibit A. On “Dangerous Woman” she coos atop thudding 6/8 beats, menacing synths, and trap trappings. A cheeseball guitar solo threatens to steal the show. That is until Grande responds in kind with glass shattering notes. Throw in some mechanized vocals and these disparate jigsaw pieces snap into miraculous place. “Dangerous Woman” draws a sharp line between a smoldering anthem and an oddball mess. A–
Luis Tovar: “Dangerous Woman”, even with the S&M-bunny posturing on the single sleeve, is a safe move for Grande,—who, as always, hits her marks without a flaw. Like her apparently tossed away late-2015 single “Focus”, “Dangerous Woman” finds Grande emboldened by her romantic entanglements. Cue Ariana’s magnificent voice ever-so-briefly dueling with a guitar solo like she’s Robert fucking Plant. Unfortunately, that off-hand, almost whimsical moment is only interesting bit on here. “Focus” took its energy to weird, colorful places I hadn’t heard since Amerie’s, or maybe even Solange’s, heyday. “Dangerous Woman” veers closer to “Irreplaceable”, manufactured empowerment curated for Tampax commercials. But hey, that topped that song topped the charts for 10 weeks, so what do I know? C+
Elena: Apart from her awesome voice (which is no news), I really don’t find anything remarkable about this song. Capitalizing in all the genuine women-empowerment narrative brought about in pop music by Beyoncé and Rihanna this year, Grande just sings about how much of an independent and strong woman her partner is capable of making her feel (spot a contradiction already?). C–
Kendrick Lamar, "Untitled 02"
Russell: Kendrick Lamar's latest release, a collection of demos called Untitled Unmastered, acts as an extension to the universe he traversed on last year’s To Pimp a Butterfly. The only difference here, however, is we’re getting intimate glimpses into Lamar's conflicted, murky headspace during the recording of his sophomore opus. And although much of the music on this here Butterfly demo reel fits in neatly into the existing Lamar aesthetic at that time, it serves a purpose as a standalone piece in his catalog as well. One of the standouts on this release is “Untitled 02”, a bombastic marriage of Lamar's forward-thinking songwriting sensibilities—à la Section.80 and 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city—with Butterfly’s uncompromising politics and disorienting personal musings. “I did a lot of dumb shit in my past/ Lord forgive me, hoping I don’t relapse,” he raps while practically losing himself in the jagged, capricious and sonically dense production courtesy of Cardo and Yung Exclusive. What we’re essentially getting with “Untitled 02” is a song that finds the 28-year-old rapper confidently reassuring hip-hop heads of his progressive ideals in the face of adversity. Indeed, “Untitled 02” is a strange affair from Kendrick Lamar, but a strangely affecting one as well. A
Elena: When Untitled Unmastered came out and I saw its second tracks’ name, I was hyped, immediately remembering Untitled 2 from his mind blowing performance at Jimmy Fallon. It turned out they weren’t the same at all, except for the second verse, which is way better in the Jimmy Fallon version. But Kendrick’s genius is too big, capable of more than compensating this in the amazing first half of the song. There, he experiments with his voice, sometimes in ways that remind me of David Bowie in “Girl Loves Me”. A–
Austin: One of the more affable-yet-unexamined components of Kendrick Lamar’s craft is his voice. All things considered, it’s likely one of the most recognizable voices in hip-hop. Lamar’s popularity spike can be attributed to his evocative lyrics, his minimalist production and his in-spite-of-it-all charisma. But his voice is the crux, because no one could replicate it if they tried. “Untitled 02”, showcases range in crazy new ways. From frequent, deliberate rap-to-falsetto conversions (“Stuck inside the belly of the beast/ Can you please pray for me?”) to instantly anthemic, repeatable lyrics, (“Get God on the phone!/ Said it won’t be long/ I see jiggaboos/ I see styrofoams.”) Lamar is making a habit out of creating something new while retaining the trademark ferocity of old. Make no mistake: The bars on “Untitled 02”, are great. But when it comes to rappers who make everything sound easy, vocal dynamics go a long way. B+
Kendrick Lamar, "Untitled 07"
Russell: Clocking in at over eight minutes, “Untitled 07” is the runaway longest track on Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered. So much so that even a good-humored Lamar jokes—in a fuzzy clip closing the track—that “Untitled 07” is “a fifteen minute song” before suddenly admitting that they're “just jammin' out” in the recording studio. True enough, the track does feels like an extended jam session, with multiple movements that have seemingly been sewn together in post-production to make up the project’s crowning achievement in violate self-expression. “Untitled 07” is indeed a no holds barred affair for Lamar, but it’s perhaps the second portion of the track that has the refreshing splendor of his “Control” verse—that sense of being timeless and utterly natural. It seems as though the rapper breathes ingenuity into his music like his hip-hop contemporaries breathe oxygen. Of course, Kendrick Lamar has always possessed near-superhuman rap abilities and on “Untitled 07” he reminds us of this by the careful repetition of one very simple word: “levitate, levitate, levitate, levitate”. A–
Elena: By far the roughest track in the record, consisting of three very different parts written (as the title suggests) between 2014 and 2016, and then assembled together. The gloriously rapped first part is, by a wide margin, the best one. But listening to the raw, spontaneous jazz and voices throughout the recording sessions evokes the good vibes happening between the musicians involved in TPAB, even if it covers way too much of the track’s 8 minutes. B–
Austin: Clocking in at an appetizing 8:16, “Untitled 07”, is effectively one four-minute track followed immediately by four additional minutes of in-studio banter between Lamar and his producers. By all accounts, the track is just fine—give me any reason whatsoever to run around my office screaming, “LEVITATE. LEVITATE. LEVITATE. LEVITATE.” and I’ll make it happen—but if I wanted to listen to a rap song followed by four minutes of inside jokes, I’d queue up The Life of Pablo. C+
Kendrick Lamar, "Untitled 08"
Austin: Maybe the coolest aspect of Kendrick’s craft is how dissimilar it appears when compared to previous rap formats. One could argue that audiences have never understood hip-hop’s intent so viscerally, especially if those audiences are mainstream-focused. But Kendrick Lamar is an altogether more disciplined artist, and his product resonates because even the most complex track is still wildly relatable. “Untitled 08”, could be the poster child for that appeal. Pairing funky hooks with crisp, jazz-centric production and Lamar’s syrupy flow, “08” is the best track Kendrick has dropped to-date. I said it back in January, and I stand by it today. A
Elena: The most polished track in the record, it could well be a finished studio version. Like TPAB’s “How Much a Dollar Cost”, the song discusses the real financial struggles faced by many African Americans, but also introspectively puts it into context:“I'm living to keep warm, you living to pay rent”, he seems to be told in a dialogue with someone who’s a lot worse than him, outside America. B+
Russell: Unofficially labeled as “Blue Faces”, “Untitled 08” serves as the proverbial curtain call to Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered. Here he teams up with the Los Angeles producer DJ Khalil for a synthesizer-laden retro-funk ditty about the pitfalls of money. Over a steady, unbroken groove that flirts with progressive, psychedelic funk music Lamar laces the track with three excellent verses, each one seemingly more caustic than the last, while also retaining the song's theme of social awareness. “Untitled 08,” like the very best of To Pimp a Butterfly, looks to inform the current hip-hop landscape of its roots; looking back fondly on Parliament's groundbreaking records, Prince’s early eclectic experiments in funk and pop, the gritty, confrontational edge of 70s era James Brown, and the naked soul of Curtis Mayfield. Pimp-pimp... B+