Sunday, July 26, 2009

Don't Call It A Comeback

In essence, pop music never left. In principle, it's been on a 10-year vacation.

At this year's American Music Awards Rihanna was introduced as the artist with the most number one singles of the decade. While several of her chart-topping hits have certainly been R&B and hip-hop influenced, songs like "S.O.S," "Please Don't Stop The Music" and "Disturbia" have taken her career to new heights with their dance floor ready production, and disposable lyrics. In short,Rihanna's success is a testament to the resurrection of traditional pop music.

No, traditional pop isn't a Britney Spears song with a Neptunes beat, or an *Nsync single featuring Nelly. It's not even Janet Jackson auto-tuning her way through "Feedback," or Madonna trading verses with Justin Timberlake during "4 Minutes." Somewhere around the turn of the century pop artists gave up on pop music, and opted for beat heavy club productions in place of playful bells and whistles. In response, album linear notes have replaced names like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis with Timbaland and T-Pain, Max Martin with Danja, or Diane Warren with Ne-Yo. That's not to say that producers such as Timbaland haven't been successful for years, or that Jimmy & Terry haven't been successful since, but one would be careless in not having noticed the blurred lines between pop music and urban genres that have developed over the past decade.

But in 2009, pop music has experienced a return to form.

Lady Gaga shamelessly embraces dance floor disco in the pop hits that have catapulted her to stardom."Just Dance" is more Madonna than Madonna has been in years, while the production of "Poker Face" shimmers with the glossy thump of a Cyndi Lauper affair. Both singles have been huge hits in the U.S. in both pop and urban markets. Outside of her Akon owned label, there's nothing R&B about Lady Gaga, even as her singles are sampled in hip-hop remixes.

This year's "Womanizer" is the first number one single Britney Spears has had since 1998's "Baby One More Time." Comeback hype aside, "Womanizer's" appeal rests in the 1, 2 step of its clunky production, and lyrics that are so throw-away they're instantly worth remembering: "I got your crazy." The song is such a guilty pleasure it nearly rots the teeth, not like the Gothic sexiness of "Slave 4 U," or even the acid-washed "Gimmie More," both of which relied on a hip-hop sensibility to boosts Spears' club credibility. More than a decade after her introduction to the industry, Britney's return to relevancy coincides with a return to the Euro-pop sound that made her a star in the first place.

The ladies aren't the only ones going pop for pay. Ne-Yo's 2008 hit Closer was as Donna Summer as any male artist could (or should) get, with the pulsing echo of its intro, paired with the hushed verses and rushed chorus. Elsewhere, Kid Cudi's "Day 'n Nite" is as trippy as Janet's "Rock Wit U," while Chris Brown's chart-topping "Forever" just begs for a strobe light.

Even conventional R&B artists are finding more success in the pop lane. Ciara's Fantasy Ride suffered through three failed singles before the decidedly lighter and more commercial "Love, Sex and Magic" took flight. Likewise, Robin Thicke's similarly titled "Magic" blended his usual adult-contemporary sound with horn bursts and vibrant strings to create a sound as whimsical as the title suggests.

More recent is Beyonce's "Halo," and Jordin Sparks' stunningly desilent "Battlefied," both produced by One Republic's Ryan Tedder.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what is responsible for the resurgance of American pop music, other than the notion that it simply grew tired of its Europeon vacation. Acts like Craig David and Sugababes have been making waves in Europe for years, with only the occasional crossover success. And while the Spice Girls were huge in the 90's, not so much in the 00's. Still, the same sound that made the ladies huge in the States continutes to thrive in their native land. And, as popular radio grows increasingly predictable and lackluster in America, acts like Lady Gaga have managed to legatimize synthenszied dance music for a whole new audience thirsty for something different but familiar at the same time.

Today pop music is once again sustaining on it's own. Even as artists release simltanoues singles to cater to specfic markets, dance pop has been an undenibale force on Top 40 radio. Not Pop music produced by a hip-hop producer, and featuring a rapper, but shamelessly indulgent, synth-heavy, disco-tinged pop.

Like flared jeans, slim-fit tees or Whitney Houston, pop music is back. But how long will it last?

As always, drop-off a comment and let me know what you think.

Love Is A Battlefield

Jordin Sparks' post-Idol career hasn't been as bright as Kelly's or Carrie's, nor as fledgling as Fantasia's, mostly because the season six winner's self-titled debut was saved by the success of second single "No Air." It's fitting then that Sparks' follow-up, Battlefield, would go light on the R&B in favor of airy pop ballads, and light-rock uptempos, making it a traditional pop album at a time when pop music is anything but.

The album's title track is everything it needs to be. Taunting as it opens, ("Don't need to explain yourself, I know what's happened here"), pleading near the middle, ("If we can't surrender then we're both gonna lose what we have"), and aggressive toward the end ("Guess you better go and get your Armour"); all of which is delivered over a slick drum beat that turns the Ryan Tedder produced song into a pop-rock declaration. It sets the tone for an album that doesn't follow suit.

Where the title track is confident and engaging, the majority of Battlefield is naive and pleading. Second single, "S.O.S. (Let the Music Play)" begs you to dance, as Sparks mimicks Rihanna's pop disco swagger to less effect. Play it safe ballads "Let it Rain" and "Was I the Only One?" beg for clarity, while the cliched "Faith" asks you to feel inspired by its melodramatic writing set against an acoustic backdrop: "Cause when the sky is darkest you can see the stars." Throughout each song Sparks sounds capable, but restrained. She's an R&B singer trying to fit her husky vocals into a pop canon. They fit, but just barely.

It's when Sparks' voice is allowed room to breathe that Battlefield takes flight. The album's sole R&B affair "Don't Let it Go to Your Head," along with "It Takes More" have the relaxed urgency of Sparks' "Tattoo," with far more confidence. Piano driven ballad "No Parade," soars with remorse, in both lyrics and delivery. "Just another day like any other, nothing in the sky said run for cover...never thought it would end this way," she laments with all the sincerity lacking in the album's other ballads. Jordin does dance a bit better with the guitar strum of "Walking on Snow." Think Janet's "Someone to Call My Lover, " where pop flirts with country and a bit of disco then heads to the dance floor.

While Sparks never recreates the charm of the album's title track, Battlefield still manages to eclipse her debut in quality, and certainly suggests that she has a ton of potential for growth and longevity. Battlefield is a bit of a risk for Sparks, and that's at least refreshing if not always rewarding.

Listen to No Parade below, and drop-off a comment.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Two Songs I'm Loving, One More I'm Not

The Good:

Bad Habits

The thing is, Maxwell is brilliant and "Bad Habits" is everything it needs to be. The perfect follow up to "Pretty Wings," the song opens with Maxwell's signature falsetto pouring over a mellow intro before it builds toward a horn driven ode to infatuation. As always the lyrics are inspired, and Maxwell's vocals throughout are flawless. Really, Maxwell gets better with time, and BLACKSummer'sNight is arguably his strongest collection of songs to date. Or maybe everything else in music sucks right now, and I'm just THIRSTY for some quality.

Banging On The Walls

I fully realize that juxtaposing Cassie so close to Maxwell may bring my credibility into question, but I'm fine with that. One song doesn't reflect the other, and that's fine. I'm a fan of any artist that recognizes their lane, and stays there. Cassie can't sing, and "Banging On The Walls" acknowledges that. Autotune is this girl's friend, and it works really well on this song. "Walls" is easily a suitable dance song, and almost dips into exceptional at the 2:55 mark, which introduces a synth-heavy bridge that compliments the song's overall production perfectly. If "Banging On The Walls" were recorded by Britney, folks would be ON it. Alas, Cassie is a joke and unfortunately "Walls" will suffer in response.

The Bad:

Mariah Carey

I'm not late with this, I was just REALLY wanting this song to grow on me. It hasn't. Mariah Carey is a study in regression. If 2004's "Shake It Off" was urban Mariah at her reformed best, 2007's "Migrate" along with the rest of the tragic E=MC2 went beyond urban to hoodrat, and that's not cool. With "Obsessed," Mariah becomes too comfortable in that lane. This is a Keri Hilson song. No, this is post-"After the Storm" Monica. This is bad.

Too gimmicky: "I'm the press conference, you a conversation." Too 20-something: "I'm in the A. You so so lame, and nobody here even mentions your name." Too out of touch: "You on your job, you hatin hard."

When Mariah Carey is too smart for this, I can't help but to think that she's insulting me with this song. The woman who wrote "Always Be My Baby," and "Breakdown" now expects me to ghostride the whip to circa-2002 lyrical laziness? She's not dumb, so she must think I am.

The best part of this song: "And I was like, why are you so obsessed with me?" And THAT was lifted from Mean Girls.

Checkout all three songs below, and tell me what you guys think: