Pleasure, Personified: The Endless Evolution of Beyoncé

How does lightning strike thrice? Renaissance is one of the most potent, purely pleasurable albums of this young century. The world is electrified by its sprawl. Its confines swarm the globe. The journey it sets forth is the journey of what makes music so transformative: an innate, immense desire to make one move and forget all troubles.

There is nothing like witnessing the power of a master before your very eyes. There is nothing like watching them shape and shift, contort and transform themselves into something glorious with each turn, tilt, or glance. It is a form of enchantment, magic—an all-consuming jolt to the senses one never knew they could feel nor need. In witnessing the impossible growth of another individual, we are somehow altered by their achievements as if they are our own, enveloping their incessant, endless possibilities as possibilities within ourselves. And perhaps no other Pop artist of our epoch exemplifies this source of divine nourishment greater than Beyoncé.

Has it only been six years since Lemonade, her groundbreaking, genre-busting Gesamkunstwerk invaded and changed the musical landscape forever? Never had there been a Pop album with such dominance and control, such dignity and grace, such savagery and scandal, accompanied by a gorgeous motion picture that existed as its own separate, revelatory entity. Even better: exposing her inner demons, familial fractures, and ethnic pride with such candor and aplomb against a backdrop of sunken police cars, Gothic weeping willows, and empty parking garages only accentuated the deep dive into her mythology commenced on her explosive 2013 self-titled visual album. Both albums shattered our expectations of what Beyoncé was capable of. Both albums shattered our expectations of what Pop was capable of. How could she possibly top those, we wondered foolishly, secretly desiring that the element of surprise we had ironically gotten used to would never wave.

And with Renaissance, her colossal seventh album and first non-visual in nearly a decade, that desire is more than fancied.

One must realize this is no fluke, this is no happenstance. Although even the greatest of Pop stars may concoct brilliance in enormous quantities, it is impossibly rare for anyone to obtain an album run so masterful, so ambitious, and so damn exciting. Quite often after tremendous bouts of freedom and experimentation, there is a fear of going too far and a sudden need to appeal to the greater masses once more. No longer will pushing boundaries be a mission, only the ability to fit in with the red-hot-current reigns supreme. However, as Beyoncé continues to drive herself even farther into an ocean of the avant-garde, it is quite apparent that that fear nor need exists within. She has crossed over to a point of sheer carelessness, a surrealist plane onto itself; with Renaissance, experimentation is the lingua franca.

This is immediately apparent upon the fuzzy, stuttering opener “I’m That Girl,” deliciously consumed by distortion and dissonance to the point of discomfort. As she oozes ridiculous confidence through a boughetto-tinged spoken word, there is a cool, startling embrace of Dionysian delight, epitomized by her own admission that she is “high all the time, out of my mind,” her voice delirious and syrupy, dripping with dew. But the moment we feel we have settled with this raptured cerebellum, Beyoncé casually confesses to living an “un-American life,” a bold, puzzling declaration from one of the nation’s greatest symbols and exports. It is then when we realize on Renaissance, all our expected unexpectations are only to be trifled with.

On the slick, slinky, slanky “Cozy,” the true manifesto of the album takes root—not only in tone, yet also in sound. In terms of tone, there has never been a Beyoncé release more aware of its courage, poise, and tenacity. We viewed these floodgates bursting open upon her last two solo works, but there has never been such a stream of sheer attitude as there is within these barriers. There is a sultry danger within her purrs and growls, slithering across the strolling production as if satisfied yet hungry, always, always hungry.

Which leads me to the sound: a stickler for innovation, where else would Beyoncé go but within the most innovative spheres of music that is dance? There, against the constant plow and lift of thumps, bumps, and drops, one experiences the most risks and experiments, the most challenges and chances, its only wish being to ignite the body into a state of absolute frenzy. And what of the nexus of cultures both sexual and ethnic? What of the clash of history and homage and memory? Kissing the noses of the pioneers of disco and house, Beyoncé lifts us from our humdrum, still-pestilent landscape, radicalizing the past with a sense of modernity that create odes devoid of parody and magnetized by futurism.

“Cozy,” wrapped in its tale of centuries-long survival tactics now twisted into badges of impenetrable certainty, flows majestically upon this mixture of total pleasure and total pride. The luxurious chill of “Might I suggest you don’t fuck with my sis, oh she’s comfortable” exemplifies this code of contentment, but the stirring passion behind Ts Madison’s “I’m dark brown, dark skin, light skin, bеige, fluorescent bеige, bitch, I’m black!” is what unleashes an additional punch of consideration. Along with the careful, clever play on colors (“Yellow diamonds/limoncello glisterin”), there is a sense of audacious ease that illuminates, and by nature commences, the carefree, club-drenched atmosphere.

Whereas “Cozy” ignites the nocturnal, it is “Alien Superstar” which sends it straight into orbit. Ensconced by an oppressive marching-band stomp, Beyoncé delivers the kind of clipped, rose-tinged monologue we greedily gobble from divas and queens throughout time and space. As clued by its title, an otherworldly arrogance effortlessly spills through, its cadence and verbiage gingerly evoking the steely, ice-cold glamour and grandeur of ballroom excellence. These theatrical stylings are some of the most common leitmotifs within Renaissance, and serve as constant reminders of the glittered-ball trappings she has been most inspired by.

Speaking of glittered balls, “Cuff It” is perhaps the most emblematic of the ultracontemporary Nu Disco that has infiltered the mainstream during these most perplexing of times. Serving as both a celebration and a pastiche of disco, enveloping its conventions and deconstructing them with sweet finesse, the buoyant throbs and bubbled swirls are the sonic equivalent of a drunk and destressed Saturday night. Cascading into the vibe-heavy “Energy,” the air has gotten tighter and hotter, yet somehow looser. Less than two minutes long, it morphs from smooth bump to chaotic clank to hypnotic horns, all stitched together by Beyoncé’s breathless outlaw snarl and the scrumptiously apathetic flow of BEAM.

And then we come to “Break My Soul,” the breezy, bouncy prototype of summer anthems, a sun-drenched festival of letting go of oneself. However, what merely appears to be a simple proclamation of renewal and self-preservation transforms into a blood-curdling mantra of survival, of the microaggressions and pains we constantly push aside, believing we are healing when we are really creating greater ruin. It is then a reflection of allowing yourself the grace and appreciation you truly deserve, giving you the lease to live as you wish, a sentiment that sounds so much easier to obtain than it ever is. Though a jovial piece of tropical sunshine, such deceptions block out the tear-stained desperation lurking within every utterance of its chorus, turning “I’m tellin everybody!” into a plea as much as a proclamation.

The exploration of the psyche turns pleasantly unique on “Church Girl.” Approaching the nice church girl stereotype with an almost Cubist intensity, Beyoncé provides a much-needed space for dispelling pressures and burdens placed upon those constantly tied between spirituality and secularity. Here the release from judgment comes in form of dance and music, driven deeply by the angelic coos of the Clark Sisters intertwining with the rough, clinched-teeth demands by Beyoncé to “drop it like a thotty, drop it like a thotty!” As Kraftwerkian twinkles abound, this homespun ambience becomes hazier and more dreamlike, mimicking the free-flowing spirit of a person wishing only to be free.

The groove-laden, orange-flavored 1970s swift madly through Renaissance’s parameters, but never do they reach greater heights than on “Plastic On The Sofa” and “Virgo’s Groove.” With the former, the vinyl-rich mellow saunters soothingly, a mesmeric mixture of afternoon delight and beachside bakeouts. Like a modern inverse of yacht-rock, it feels delicate and palatial without reaching ostentation, her voice so enchanting and intimate one feels as if she is whispering into their ear. The latter, all funky and futuristic, is an exercise in pure seduction. As she slithers and slurs her words with yearning and passion, she appears a turned-out space goddess wandering a holographic world of loneliness. Euphoric as it is decadent, her chanting of “The love of my life!” resembles an aural intoxication, what perhaps the great Odysseus must’ve been shielding his fellow soldiers from.

“Move” is one of those appetizing scramblers concocted first in fan-club fantasies and believed to never reach fruition. By combining the art-pop brilliance of Grace Jones with the Platonian ideal of Beyoncé, one feels the shaking of the ground beneath their feet, the feeling that there is too much majesty for one to contain. However, this inevitable, domineering union is nothing short of magnificence, serving as a raucous imperial coronation as it zigzags through its tense, anxious, and damn-near frightening depths.

We come up for air with “Heated,” all bouncy, chilled-out relentlessness. The most “conventional” of the tracks in terms of speed, pacing, and delicacy, its ease and calm is contrasted with its seemingly standard boast of designer-drenched wardrobes that morphs into an almost delirious appreciation of the self. Throughout the song, we keep hearing background, playground chants of “Uncle Johnny made my dress,” a reference to the late family member who introduced her to the house music spilling from the album’s every crevice. Though the finished couplet itself is filled with silly arrogance, the poignancy behind twists it into something incredibly gratifying.

Beyoncé may be the greatest Pop proponent of the ass as a signifier of strength and beauty. From the girl-group classicism of “Bootylicious” to the retro-tinged epic of “Rocket,” she has always recognized the curves and assets of fuller-figured women as cornerstones of absolute perfection. And on “Thique,” a crawling, sneaking, throb-upon-throb diamond, she returns back to one of her favorite subjects, her tone so smooth, laidback, and certain that she comes off like a pensive crime queen, listing the greatness of her thickness with thirst and terror. This terror is taken to more perilous degrees on “All Up In Your Mind.” Glitchy, mournful and melancholy in the strangest sense, it is the kind of torch standard one expects to hear on a faraway planet in the 31st century, taking the futuristic balladry of TLC’s latter oeuvre and morphing it into mechanical elegance. Alive and erratic, “All Up In Your Mind” is the synthesis of Renaissance’s experimentations, turning pain into the stuff of fatal obsessions.

Though curiously titled “America Has A Problem,” the track in question, possibly my favorite, is surprisingly a completely uncomplicated, practically depoliticized trap-inflected reflection of 1980s Miami Bass, aligning Beyoncé’s quick, casual flow with that of L’Trimm. As she compares her aura to addiction, she delivers, against an increasingly foreboding sinister backdrop, a cadence and confidence that seems to float wistfully, absolutely indestructible.

We return exclusively to the ballroom confines with “Pure/Honey,” the first part doused in couture regality, evoking the dramatic silhouettes of Escadan Amazons snapping to-and-fro Parisian runways. The second part, however, melts into a Prince-induced reverie of gorgeous sex-funk, reaching heavenly heights that feel both carnal as they do spiritual. It is that touch of spiritual awakening which makes the finality of “Summer Renaissance” so utterly amazing.

Over a heavily-sampled Summer/Moroder classic, Beyoncé references The Jungle Brothers within the first lines, setting off a four-minute perfect-ending ode to the genres that begat the album. Encapsulating and giving praise to those bygone eras and subcultures of which provided dance’s incubation and evolution, Beyoncé’s almost-freakish devotion to her lover is a marvelous siren swan song, giving the 21st century that same sense of urgency and faith. It is reaffirming, cathartic, and enriching, not unlike spiritual rapture, and fills your soul even after the beat has given its last thud.

When we commit ourselves to expectation, we are often led to the valley of disappointment. Yet, when our expectations are to be expectedly challenged, there arises something stranger and more curious: we are no longer slaves to predictability. That predictability, which seems to filter into our daily lives more and more, must be shaken. It must be dismantled, and it must be provoked. True great works of art are guilty of this crime; they force us to rethink the world around us, and even ourselves.

Renaissance is a glorious marker of an artist still desiring new things and new horizons, still wanting to learn and understand and grow. It is unabashed in its celebration of black beauty and diversity, of freedom both in spirit and sexuality, of truth and love. Yet, more than anything, it is a conscious glimmer of hope and joy in a time when gloom appears at every angle; a sensual, reckless reminder that when all feels lost, there is always the rhythm of the beat to warm your soul and melt your heart.

How does lightning strike thrice? Only the gods know.

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When The Mask Comes Off: Normani’s “Fair”

Nobody wishes to reveal their flaws. Though we may be aware of their existence, there is an innate desire to impress, to pretend, to create personas and characters in order to shield our truths from the world. In our minds, it is best to present the greatest version, devoid of blemishes and failures, concocted fully formed with immaculate design. Whether in friendships, romances, or even with strangers, we are often conning and contriving in order to receive the most prized reaction. Yet, amidst such supernatural fakery, there grows an exhaustion, when one must reject delusion and realize that they are, in fact, human. That things are, in fact, not okay. That heady, disturbing realization is brought potently to life in Normani’s latest single “Fair.”

Encased in a cavern of aquatic throbs and muted moans, “Fair” is a spellbinding reflection on the unwashed debris of a fallen love. Time may have passed between her break-up (“200 days and countin, I know”), yet Normani’s pain still permeates, summoning memories and casting doubts, unraveling the pose of false confidence that our dismissals from romances typically produce. Oftentimes, we like to believe we are better off and must suddenly embody a radical empowerment in order to gleefully move on. However, Normani rejects such synthetic sentiments by chiefly admitting that she has not only not moved on yet hasn’t even grown much in the process. Asking herself if it’s “fair” that she is still locked in madness while her ex runs wild and free (“You carry her/And all I carry are burdens”!) only cuts deeper, exacting the kind of foolish, poignant pondering we do to drive ourselves even further into delirium.

None of this would not be as compelling if not immensely conjured by Normani’s smooth, intimate delivery. Possessing a voice of light, air, and cool, we are submerged into her misery through waves of welps, whirls, and woozes, her astral pleas and professions resembling the throbbing production, spelunking like the sinking of a broken heart. Had she warbled her pain with a tougher, raspier, heavier growl, “Fair” would collapse under its own weight, too full of explosion and fire. Yet with Normani’s gentle, echoing rhapsodies, we are directly transposed to her lilting, perplexing mind, falling deeper into a web of regret and remembrance.

Unlike her previous, bubblier, saucier collection of singles, “Fair” feels like a passionate breakthrough, creating a hypnotic atmosphere of enclosure and melancholy. It is the peeling of layers, of wiping away the buoyant beauty-queen sheen that once seemed to dominate Normani’s entire expression, and in its place, allowing a startling vulnerability to be completely liberated. Although she had always contained the burgeoning aura of a Pop superstar, within the glacial agony of “Fair,” Normani appears to set her own path and journey. Here is when she begins to feel like herself; here is when she truly finds her voice.

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Dispatches from a Diva: Lady Gaga’s “Chromatica”

The most peculiar thing about life is how deeply it can imitate art. When art imitates life, we feel the mastery of the work’s creator achieving its ultimate goal, squeezing absolute truth into an object that previously did not exist. Yet when our own lives begin to resemble films or novels or television series, a level of strangeness and absurdity shines through.

Partly uneased and partly amused, we find ourselves acting out what we have seen prior, behaving as we believe others would and completing cliched storylines with certainty. If too deeply attached, we can get trapped in roles that never change or offer growth. But if wise, one can extract what we’ve learned and apply it to a different existence, one full of greater freedom, clarity, and love.

For quite some time, Lady Gaga had played the role of the ultimate millennial pop star. With her explosive debut and a string of darkly euphoric singles, she revitalized modern Pop music as a powerful, influential, and above all important art form. Unlike her glossier, more conventional predecessors, Gaga indulged in the macabre, the horrific, and the profane, stitching together surrealist fantasies with haute couture glam. She courted the press and publicity like an Old Hollywood veteran, dropping delicious anecdotes before smashing her piano keys with nine-inch stilettos. Single-handedly, she set a tone, a flavor, a mood for what the 21st century would become: unhinged, uncertain, and absolutely fascinating.

Yet by the midpoint of the decade, the megastar’s fatigue for the game revealed itself in fractures and spurts. At SXSW, she puked up multicolored paint and declared that the music industry was a joke. Shortly thereafter, she recorded and toured an elegant, sophisticated jazz standards album with the legendary Tony Bennett. Between acting gigs, she released Joanne, a normcore ode to Tin Pan Alley perfection and deserted landscapes, and then flipped the switch entirely by filming a contemporary update to A Star Is Born, the closest thing America has to a timeless tragedy.

It was on A Star Is Born where her goodwill and rejuvenation for Pop completely returned, as the metafiction of her character and her own career as a modern icon merged into a romantic fever dream. Anyone who witnessed her glow across the screen realized that Gaga had fallen back in love, and that whatever came next would be intense and incredible.

And thus, we have the mind-blowing epic that is Chromatica. Drenched in an endless haze of dance floor radiance, the album is perhaps what one might expect from one of the most successful Pop stars of our time. It is loud, electric, expensive, and flickers with slivers of nostalgia. Yet, at the same time, there exists something far more mesmerizing, unsettling, and expansive at work.

Here all of her previous elements are pushed to new limits and new boundaries. Here all of her previous components have been recharged and refreshed entirely. Many will call this a “return to form,” but in truth, it is more of a return to self. Because, within this new world Lady Gaga has concocted, regardless of how riotous or magical it unfolds, there is a breathtaking layer of realism that feels more natural and more organic than any of her previous, striking balladry.

However, in order to fully dissect this journey through Gaga’s new world, I feel I must leave a series of notes highlighting its splendor and scope. For there are too many wandering thoughts to waste within trivial, stifling paragraphs. Instead, it is best if we merely dive deep into the fray of this futuristic wonderland that feels as festive as it does frightening:

  1. As previously mentioned, Chromatica will more than likely be seen as a “return to form.” But has Gaga ever sounded this confident? Has Gaga ever sounded this immersive? Has Gaga ever sounded this free? Within her trademark sugared-funk vocals, there appears a startling, cataclysmic liberation not once heard prior, as if emerging from the colossal depths of her soul and thundering through the neon sky. Upon each and every track, she reigns dynamic, brilliant, and alive.
  2. Speaking of vocals, this album may be one of the greatest distillations of Diva Pop. As a self-proclaimed student of Whitney and Mariah, Gaga has often sprinkled traces of their pristine, earth-shattering majesty upon her own art. Yet, here, the precocious student transforms into their own polished entity, belting and bellowing with a sanctified ferocity that forces one to kneel down and pray to the Lord. On Chromatica, Gaga is preacher, choir, and sanctuary all at once.
  3. Part of this sparkling spiritual fervor is undoubtedly connected to the omnipresence of disco and its darling descendants. From the nightmarish, mirrored-ball dazzle breezing through “Replay” to the chilled-out, downtown house flash of “Alice,” the album is a greatest hits collection of dance music of the last 50 years. No crevice is spared or safe from the militaristic arrival of throbs, thuds, bumps, or stomps. One merely gives in to the war of noises, becoming a passive prisoner of its magnificence.
  4. Which bears a more important note: there are no traditional “ballads” whatsoever. There are no slow jams, no torch songs, and no cabaret flourishes. In fact, there is nothing resembling anything that could not be played on a willing dance floor. It is as if Gaga desired to conjure a work that could never force us to stop, sit, and settle. Instead, she desired for us to froth and fly, to simmer and soar, to wiggle and wobble. Even in her most revealing moments, we are faced with the beautiful chaos of a nocturnal anthem.
  5. In fact, her combination of confession and club beats is one of the greatest contributions to Chromatica. Though on the decadent darkness of The Fame Monster such a mixture proved incredibly natural, the usage of fame as a metaphor for her divergent emotions gave it a remarkable distance. And even upon Joanne, when she slipped off the costumes and makeup for a fresh-scrubbed family-girl aesthetic, the revelation was present yet somehow felt neat and perfected. Here, the honesty emerges through the mind-bending disco with tremendous sting and insight. Despite the colorful productions, there is a victorious level of maturity and growth within these reflections, displaying a megastar coming to grips with pain and suffering without hidden identity.
  6. Interestingly, Chromatica is built around a concept of tensions and rivalries spilling around the titular planet. However, amusingly enough, this is Gaga’s first concept album that feels as if it is less about the concept and actually more about her own real-life. As she rhapsodizes about her insecurities, depression, triumphs, and achievements, it is hard for us not to imagine her talking about herself, uncovering the figure who blazed upon the trails in 2008 and never once looked back. On her previous album, she dressed-down to be more relatable. Yet here, within her most extravagant concept, her relatability has never been more intact.
  7. That is not to say that the concept does not flow or gel at all. Amongst the rambunctious machinery, distorted vocals, and delirious rush, one feels the frozen, placid strangeness of this new world. It is a place of confusion, puzzlement, and alienation. Yet, it is also a place of immersion, sophistication, and hedonism. Are we “long ago, in a galaxy, far, far away” or are we staring into the next thousand years? Either would suffice and neither would take away the spectacularly claustrophobia that gives the album its atmosphere.
  8. And then there is the exploration of identity on Chromatica. Though a few tracks reimagine her studies on fame in excitedly eerie turns (take the way the tragic starfucking in “Fun Tonight” sounds like a joyous endeavor), many other tracks reveal Gaga’s long-standing irritation with being unfairly judged as a woman. On the coolly strident “Free Woman,” she reconciles her passionate desires with pervasive doubts while within the stuttering scape of “Plastic Doll,” she formulates Ibsen’s New Woman with an icy, miraculous chill. On previous albums, her feminism may have felt more daring and aggressive yet here, there is more nuance and ease.
  9. Perhaps, even more nuanced, is the spectacular “911.” With Gaga rattling in a robotic, expressionless tone about pill-popping and ridding herself of moodiness, we enter into the kind of ironic, cold-hearted artistry she initially touted and championed as her main objective. “My biggest enemy is me!” she coos with distress through a mainframe, before gingerly demanding, “Pop a 9-1-1.” There is something radically scary, uncomfortable, and yet absolutely irresistible amidst this milieu, turning one’s depression into a disco in one’s mind.
  10. Speaking of scary and uncomfortable, “Sour Candy” sticks out as a sumptuous, grotesque gem of attitude and style. Devised as an engrossing duet between Gaga and Korean girl group BLACKPINK, the track oozes with a globalized mania, oscillating between language, come-ons, and warnings all over a devilishly introspective coolness. Gaga’s “Come, come, unwrap me” may be one of her greatest and most discordant hooks.
  11. Yet Chromatica’s true centerpiece would have to be “Enigma,” her ultimate ode and encapsulation of Diva Pop. Here, she lifts her voice to the highest of heights, disrupting all order and structure, all calm and gentleness. This is her tearing down walls, breaking down bridges, erupting volcanoes, and annihilating civilizations. Just listen to that impossibly stunning pre-chorus, the way she shouts “We could be LOVERS, even just TONIGHT, we can be ANYTHING YOU WANT!” If your spine does not tingle, then you cannot be living.
  12. Ending with the riotous “Babylon” makes it feel absolutely complete. Sitting just under three minutes, the track’s sublime, confident bounce feels delightfully expansive, exploding into a refined runway romp that would not be out of place at any 1990s fashion show. At times, Gaga sounds as if she is channeling both RuPaul and Ramses, aligning historical glories with modern decadence in an ethos that feels entirely of her own. “Strut it out, walk a mile/Serve it, ancient-city style,” she directs with furrowed glamour, and we follow without question nor fear.
  13. Ultimately, Chromatica is an excellent and exceptional album. It is not so much a reinvention of what Pop can be, but rather a luminously faithful interpretation of its most prized, prosperous, and most passionate elements. By utilizing the delectable dignity of Diva Pop, Gaga transforms her futuristic fantasia into something of absolute depth and weight, bringing us to heightened degrees of euphoria and exaltation. Here she has delivered a love letter to the dancefloor accompanied with a slice of her heart. Here she has brought all of the madness, silliness, and dopeness we first in love with into one cohesive gulp. This is the sound of a Pop artist truly growing and exploring who they are. This is the sound of a Pop artist truly living as they wish.
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Cyborg Confessions: Charli XCX’s “How I’m Feeling Now”

In a time of a crisis, there are three ways an artist can go. The first way is to create a work of art that challenges the current ethos and energy of the era, something that inexplicably emits power and vitality through every crevice with its grand understanding of the pulse. The second way is to create a work of art that pacifies and relaxes the tensions of the period, establishing escape and frivolity in the midst of mass confusion. And then there is the third way, which is somewhere happily in between, serving as both a soundboard for contemporary life and an entertaining vacation from it all. At times, that third way can be a very tricky line to toe upon—too much commentary can be suffocating, and too little can seem trite—but on Charli XCX’s fourth studio album, How I’m Feeling Now, that combination is treated with a cool buoyancy that feels incredibly innate.

Completely concocted and recorded in isolation, the album bears the mark of its times. It is anxious and introspective, intimate and universal, a maddening, millennial revelation of bent-up emotions and thoughts now allowed to air out and run free. Through each consecutive track, we can grasp the hastiness and rush of it all, as if Charli was recording faster than she could process her own feelings. Such naked expression is remarkably alive and strident; she is letting down the curtains to reveal not merely the consummate party girl, but one whom has perhaps been lying to herself to keep others happy.

That is not to say How I’m Feeling Now is a moody treatise on the downfall of hedonism. In fact, the album’s overall tendencies are perfectly in step with the rabid decadence that Charli has been lauded for. It is, however, a glimpse into something greater and more fulfilling. Whereas most of her work has been focused on the flimsiness of romance, the futility of love, and the hunt for lust, her latest release formalizes those themes into existential discoveries. There is a fresh maturity when it comes to relationships here, as if she has found something more special than she believed possible and wants to explore the complexities which exist within. It is not a blissed-out portrait of afternoon picnics; it is a layered exploration of what love means in a time of madness.

Yet within that exploration of love, it must be noted that Charli’s emotions are made especially poignant through her vocoder. For half a decade, she has reinterpreted the voice-altering technological device as a tool for ultimate ambiance, allowing us to explode into her futurist atmospheres with clarity and immediacy. Through computerized wails and mechanized coos, her new odes to romance and pleasure radiate a cyborgian majesty lying somewhere between humanity and machine. It is a fantastic, visceral experience, as if reading the confessional diary of a robot, its jilted cries and ecstatic epiphanies shrouded with a clinical distortion.

That decidedly e-girl aesthetic is perhaps why Charli remains such an invigorating figure in Pop. Futurism has always been a subject rife for visual exploitation in the Pop sphere, especially since the turn of the century. But the way Charli bends, molds, and contorts that style constantly gives her an edge and air of prophetic proportions. There is no backwards nostalgia or cherry-picking from the past. Instead, Charli seems to be constantly in a forward direction, never once turning to see what may distract and anchor her on the side. She rules as an internet soothsayer, the pied piper of a future musical scene, placing her heel marks on the moon with ease and dexterity.

That is why How I’m Feeling Now sounds so forward. Not only is it a sign of progression for both Charli the artist and the Pop genre in general. But it is also the clearest example we have of what the kids on other planets in other galaxies will be popping ass to in a hundred years’ time (“C.20”). Oftentimes, music meant for the future feels obvious and particularly un-futuristic. But through each of the album’s eleven tracks, Charli conjures a playlist for proms on Pluto (“Party 4 U”) and malt shops on Mercury (“7 Years”), seamlessly bringing us to stratospheres that have not been discovered yet.

As such, it is not merely her alien vocals that set the mood, but also the explosive productions. Whereas some feel joyous, giddy, and lighter than air (“Detonate”), others feel decidedly bombastic and bulbous (“Anthems”), bludgeoning us in the most serene sense. This mixture provides a generous and satisfying display of the brilliance which Charli’s co-conspirators possess. Since most of them are vital creators from PC Music, How I’m Feeling Now is injected with spellbinding swirls, twirls, and whirls not unlike the joyous spree of midi and video game music. It is fast-paced, it is thrill-seeking, and it is ultimately fun, providing something to always keep your mind thinking or your body tweaking.

Though wrapped in chill cohesion, How I’m Feeling Now’s beautiful looseness may be its lasting impact. It does not feel, in essence, like an album that is designed for corporate reasons. There seems no obligation nor necessity for its existence. And divorced from such expectation, the album becomes the ultimate artistic expression for a time when everything appears to be falling apart. It is as if Charli could not hold it in any longer, as if she had to place the brush on the canvas. In that sense, the album feels patchworked and cut-up, pasted and stapled together; we are witnessing firsthand the artist sitting upon the floor covered in paint. But that is precisely what makes How I’m Feeling Now so unforgettable. It is beautifully imperfect, and yet, so are we.

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How To Remember A King: Notes on Little Richard

The king is dead. But there is no new king to wish long life. For years, in their ripened ages, Chuck Berry and Little Richard tossed the crown back and forth. But now that they have both perished, there are no more heirs or descendants to claim worth. We have lost something so monumental and so extraordinary that any distant, would-be relative could never match up. The breadth of power contained in these pioneers simply cannot be measured in what we have become accustomed to in our cynical age of data and numbers.

It is not about who sold more records or who had more hits; it is not about who had the closest sound or who had the most followers. It is about the insight, influence, and mastery of concocting and establishing the blueprint of an entire movement. It is about the bravado, the tenacity, the spirit, and the courage to destroy and dismantle all the rules and restrictions that held back a people for centuries. What has been done by these inventors of rock n’ roll is so earthshattering it may take ages for most to even realize.

But the truth is: how could one miss it? How could one miss the glittered, chaotic flamboyance that erupted from one single individual? How could one miss the spine-tingling, mind-bending energy that exuded from one single individual? One would have to be severely disturbed to be unaffected by the magnetism that exploded from Little Richard. As with all greats, he held that impervious ability to draw one in by merely stepping onto a stage or a set. All air and all attention floated his way and stuck within his grasp until he was ready and willing to let it go. He was a firecracker, he was an airplane, he was a volcano, he was a race car.

And it was that delightful realization he had of himself that radiated the brightest. From the moment he burst through the charts with a daring, coded ode to anal sex called “Tutti Frutti,” his specific brand of showmanship, style, and splendor ripped up all that had come before. No one could break his wily confidence and dignified arrogance; how careful he kept his hair and how beautiful he kept his face. The jazz and blues musicians of the previous generation had cultivated personas based on elegance, simplicity, and reservation. But Little Richard obliterated those conventions with a speed and sexuality that practically oozed through the jukebox.

It is no surprise that Elvis’s Brando-of-the-Bayou aesthetic is often credited as injecting sex into the rock n’ roll genre. And truthfully, the hunky hillbilly did bring a certain cinematic flavor that could melt any poodle skirt. However, it was Little Richard who first brought to rock a radical mix of glamour and raunch. If Elvis exuded Hollywood classicism then Richard in his earliest days held a similar torch; his was the black male face as regal and refined as the garish 1950s could desire. Although he shouted and hollered about late night romps in fast-moving vehicles, he looked the picture of cool sophistication.

That marvelous emphasis on beauty always attracted the greatest attention to his sexuality, which is something Little Richard both reveled in and reviled. One may believe this confliction was due to time and place; however, it is impossible to imagine his impact without acknowledging how incredibly radical his charisma and cultivation was. Because black men oftentimes did not see themselves as beautiful in any respectable sense, most entertainers did not trade on their looks. And since, black men had historically been used as sexual objects, there was often a sense of conservatism in how they publicly portrayed themselves. Yet, Little Richard, with his primped pompadour and made-up grill, not only allowed black men to see themselves as gorgeous, playful beings, but he also allowed them to reclaim their sexuality with pride and fluidity. To be open sexually was an affront to the repression that had existed under white patriarchy. It was a badge of honor to explore truthfully and unabashedly.

But, perhaps most potently, with that sexual independence came that wily, ferocious wail of a voice. Although often imitated and mimicked, it was not something one could merely achieve and accomplish. The way he screeched, the way he lifted and rose certain words, the way he shook and shimmered—none of that could have come from anyone else but Little Richard. It was the sound of rock n’ roll being birthed, kicking and screaming in a brave new world. It was the impeccable flourish of gospel hymns colliding with the grime of street corners. Whenever Little Richard opened his mouth, it was a call to arms for something cooler, sexier, wilder, and livelier. He seemed to be descending from the heavens at all times, giving new prayers and instructions to follow.

That is not to say that what he mostly sang about upended poetic masters. The root and the rhythm of rock n’ roll never lied in the kind of intricate storytelling that unfolded and became “the norm” a decade after its explosion. It was always about simplicity at its finest: love, death, sex, cars, and dancing, dancing, dancing. And the greatest rock n’ roll records are the ones that distill that formula into their own image, that bring those subjects and feelings to their absolute purest incarnations. And that was what Little Richard excelled at. With those almost incomprehensible bellows, he cut deep into our hearts and made us jump, move, electrify. He did not have to be a wordsmith supreme; he was a saint and guru. As much as Little Richard created the genre, he epitomized it just as seamlessly.

And that may be perhaps the most crushing blow to the death of Little Richard. Because what his death truly symbolizes is the end of an era of reparations, of reclaiming, of reappreciating a movement that had been within the black cultural sphere upon inception. For many, in his later years, he appeared to be more of a sideshow comedian conjuring truths about cultural appropriation and historical revisionism. But his words were never as absurd and outlandish as often portrayed. He was a man who had watched an entire genre explode and take over the world and had barely received credit as a vital and crucial component of its vibrancy. He was seeking respect and seemed to be treated like a gag.

That is not the fault of Little Richard, however. History is often unkind to the vanguards of a certain style or movement. In fact, by the time the British Invasion rattled the world, those black pioneers of rock n’ roll were already being regulated to backseat roles. Many, like Little Richard, were praised by their Transatlantic offspring, and often benefitted from this nod of influence. However, those benefits felt cheap and disgusting, as if a peasant passing a dirty handkerchief to a gilded monarch. Even though he drew attention to this unfairness, respectability was still fleeting to Little Richard and his co-conspirators, creating a growing erasure that saw to inch them out of rock n’ roll scrolls forever.

And that is why we must remember this great figure with the highest of importance. Many have forgotten just how integral rock n’ roll is to the black American cultural experience. Without rock, there would be no funk. There would be no soul. There would be no hip-hop. What has been retrofitted as a white artistic genre was and will always be the product of American blackness. Understandably, the plethora and dominance of white acts makes that reality seem increasingly fantastical. But the roots that have been sewn cannot be cut loose; we have enriched the soil so deeply we are embedded in the earth.

So, let us remember this venerable king. Let us remember his croon of mania. Let us remember his flash of class. Let us remember the way he played the piano with one foot slamming on the keys. Let us remember the way he radicalized male sexuality with his imperious fluidity. Let us remember the way he shook the entire world with a lethal combination of church and speakeasy. With Little Richard’s passing, we are losing a key element in the history of black American freedom, creativity, power, and might. It was he who kicked in the door and allowed the wild ones to roam through. And it is he who shall be remembered as such.

The king is dead, long live not another soul.

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The New Canon: Notes on Rina Sawayama’s “Sawayama”

Rina Sawayama Celebrates Her Queer 'Chosen Family' on Uplifting ...

What makes a brilliant Pop album? The variables change, depending on the person. For some, it is infectious ear candy capable of drowning our sorrows. For others, it is an explosion of experimentation taking us places we have never been before. And for even fewer, perhaps, it is the inclusion of lyricism that not only makes us move but also makes us think.

But what happens when all of these variables are combined into a work so rich and so enthralling, we are hard-pressed to find a suitable, competent supplement? What happens when we find ourselves in the presence of a brilliant Pop album that just so happens to be a phenomenal debut, or even better: that just so happens to be an absolute groundbreaker in the history of Western music? Well, we fall to our knees, of course, beholden that we are alive to witness such wonder in real-time.

There is no kidding here: Sawayama, Rina Sawayama’s debut studio album, is a complete and utter revelation. Building upon the mesmeric mixture of classicism and contemporary from her 2017 mini-album RINA, she has concocted a fresh, vital, and unmistakably original world of electricity and verve. It is akin to a rollercoaster giddily teetering off the tracks: there is excitement and energy at every twist and turn, barely allowing us to catch our breaths.

Although the album carefully and gingerly borrows from various styles and genres, as a whole, it is an ocean unto itself, establishing a core and order that is unique to only Rina. Whereas many debuts reveal themselves as glossy smorgasbords desiring to be everything to everyone, Sawayama’s shimmered diversity is an effortless, seamless reflection of an artist whose many lives in many environs has affected each fiber of her existence.

Sonically, Sawayama evokes a Proustian landscape of the past melding into the feverish present. This collision of epochs feels greatest through the prominent usage of nu-metal. Once a curiously potent yet now strikingly unpopular subgenre from the late 1990s, nu metal has been deliciously redressed and reinterpreted by Rina as a vehicle for catharsis, creating a perfect backdrop for 21st century chaos and volatility.

It first emerges on the imperiously monastic opener “Dynasty” in dank, foreboding flourishes, only to reach its fullest peak on “STFU,” an ode to microaggressions that mimics psychological aggravation with excellent ease. Yet, while its presence is remarkable, nu metal is not the only nostalgic left field that makes Sawayama so impeccable and alive.

Rina Sawayama Follows Up Album Announcement with Space-Age Video ...

On the blissed-out mania of “Paradisin’,” Rina details her torrid acts of teenage rebellion with the same slice of sublime, rollicking late 2000s indie pop that ruled the concerts she would often sneak off to. With the nu-New Jack Swing of “Love Me 4 Me,” her soul stretches even further back into the smooth, lush bounce of classic R&B that rose to prominence during her early 90’s infancy with a decidedly modern edge. And on the glitter-balled “Comme des Garçons,” we are transported into a fin-de-siècle clubland where hot-and-heavy house never took a hiatus.

But if the pinball ecstasy of Sawayama appears to be a mere reinvention of what has all come before, we are only fooling ourselves. For between the familiar soundscapes, we are, in fact, gifted incredibly profound nuggets of musical history that, once combined, create a carnival of innovation; on Sawayama, the previously recycled becomes brilliantly renewed.

In truth, the concept of renewal serves as a foundation for the album’s introspective lyricism. Whereas RINA focused primarily on the most universal themes of Pop, Sawayama is a deeply personalized exploration of memories, recollections, and even regrets. Within the chunky, dubbed-out atmosphere of “Akasaka Sad,” Rina delicately compares her consistent depression and disappointment with that of her own parents, realizing, in some way, that she is more like them than she perhaps ever desired.

On “Bad Friend,” she uses the fascinating frame of going buckwild in Tokyo with a former friend to painfully reveal that she has, in fact, not been keeping in touch and almost appears as if she does not even intend to. And on the devastatingly disarming chill of “Fuck This World (Interlude),” Rina imagines leaving the rampant decay of the world—perhaps by way of space shuttle or even suicide—in order to try again and start anew. “This is our mission impossible, but it’s worth trying,” she drawls in a rapturous mixture of defeat and hope, and we cannot help but feel the wave of sobriety crashing against our skulls.

Perhaps, more than anything, such psychological and philosophical soul-bearing is precisely why Sawayama feels so monumental. For, if we are being truly honest with ourselves, most of the biggest and well-known Pop stars have never looked nor sounded like Rina. Although other artists of color have had prominent and powerful positions within the genre, those of Asian descent have often been regulated to underground status or have had to play along with stereotypes or expectations in order to achieve a level of success.

Rina, however, feels like an entirely new individual, completely and wholly herself, unconcerned with what others want or desire from her. A child of the millennium, she is inherently influenced by the mainstream sounds that emerged within her formative years. But including her own culture and heritage into these commercialized spaces creates something that is so seamlessly and covertly groundbreaking that if one blinks, they may miss it.

Pop singer Rina Sawayama says 'STFU!' to stereotypes - CNN Style

It’s what makes the aforementioned “Paradisin” feel both relative and revelatory. Sneaking out of one’s house in the middle of the night is a rite of passage for many Western adolescents. Yet, Rina’s perilous perspective of wanting to escape the apartment she shares with her very Eastern-minded mother adds a deeper complexity, revealing a person who wants to belong in the world of which she is growing but feeling stunted by the culture from which she arises.

Such tensions are also prevalent on “Tokyo Takeover,” in which Rina partly-reflects in Japanese on the initial struggles she faced reconciling her heritage amidst a British landscape. Although its lithe, cheerleading yelps create an atmosphere that is strikingly triumphant, we are able to sense the amount of courage and effort it has taken to reach such a level of confidence and immense pride.

For most people of color, there exists a constant awareness of double consciousness, in which you are living between two worlds based on the norms of the dominant and of your own ethnic culture. On Sawayama, Rina introduces this concept into the Pop sphere in ways it has never been viewed before, giving a perspective on race that has, for the time, been primarily evoked by black and Latinx audiences.

In a world inundated with hyperbole, in which each and every critic—or citizen, as we now all hold such careers—trips over themselves to anoint the latest work of art as important and groundbreaking, it is perhaps hard for anyone to decipher the true concept of importance when it is before them. But Sawayama cannot simply be described or viewed as anything else. While it may play with typical concepts and beliefs within the Pop genre, it provides so much newness and freshness that it cannot be merely seen as another “release.”

Instead, especially amidst the current global landscape of abject terror and uncertainty, Sawayama introduces a sociocultural viewpoint that forces one to wonder why such a work of art had never been created before. It forces one to acknowledge the discrimination and tokenism of the music industry. It forces one to look upon those would-be-crossover artists of years’ past who may have generated greater followings had they been allowed the opportunity.

Unsurprisingly, Rina herself has been quite vocal about this widespread racism and her unique and crucial position in the world of Pop; she is incredibly keen of those who crawled so she could walk. And with Sawayama, she has created a brilliant, bountiful reflection of these epiphanies, giving us a spellbinding album that obliterates the boundaries that rose before and opens new paths for those inching to rise after.

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Love in the Time of Isolation: Charli XCX’s “Forever”

In our current era of social distancing, the confinement of our bodies has birthed the liberation of our thoughts. Forced to remain inside with little else to do, we are also forced to confront our emotions, feelings, and memories, reinterpreting relationships and reevaluating change. In the previous period of fast-paced normalcy, it was incredibly difficult to have a moment to breathe and analyze one’s life; there was simply too much to be done and in too short spans of time. Yet, now, as we spend hours scrolling through our phones and peeking at ourselves in passing mirrors, we are both introduced to unspoiled awakenings and haunted by ancient ghosts. And perhaps nowhere does this feel most accurate than on Charli XCX’s latest single “Forever.”

Drenched in magnificent, punk-like distortion, “Forever” is a robotic liebestod mourning the possible death of a long-distanced union. Amidst a circus of jagged glitches, gnarled hiccups, and bubbly bleeps, Charli emerges a tortured, lovesick angel trapped in a digitized purgatory, her twisted coos evoking a vulnerability so harsh and so palpable one can almost feel her tears spilling through their ears. Though this omnipresence of mutation may create an atmosphere bordering on confusion and decay, it is, in fact, that degree of detachment which best captures the track’s essence. By default, any possible pain from a long-distance relationship is only amplified by the impersonal glow of a screen. And upon the delicious, zero-gravity fatalism of “Forever,” it is that impersonal glow of a screen which feels realest, mimicking our cyber tombs of reflection with an authentic unease.

That tug-and-pull of truth and fantasy may be what lingers most. Though Charli appears prepared for the worst (“We won’t see each other”), there remains a sliver of hope inside, believing the end is not near (“Said ‘I’ll love you forever’”), that is perhaps merely an unfortunate cycle of breaking up and making up. As the track erupts into a climatic colossus of cacophony, that maze of mixed emotions reaches a startling fever pitch—the tangled, interlaced unraveling of her mind transforming into absolute incoherence. It is the sonic spirit of one’s own romantic madness and uncertainty, of not knowing where to go and what to do. It is the audible glimpse of living in a world where the slightest form of connection can seem an explosion of possibility. And in these most mysterious of times, that cold, honest reflection of isolation is precisely what we need.

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Always Look Back: Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia

Perhaps more than ever, we, as a society, appear to be absolutely drunk on nostalgia. We yearn for glory days, belle époques, “good times” of eras and periods we may have never once experienced yet view through majestic, rose-tinted glasses. We dream of stepping into the heels of flappers, the sandals of hippies, the combat boots of punks, evoking and embodying subcultures and lifestyles as if decorative costumes, achieving authentic recreations of a time without achieving authentic states of mind. In other words, it is more about the image and the vibe, rather than ethos and beliefs—when rifling through the past, one is striving for an experience rather than an actuality.

Truthfully, this is nothing new. Every era looks back fondly on what appears to be far more daring, intriguing, and breathtaking. Every era takes from what came before and repurposes it in ways that can be both flattering and destructive.  Yet, within the earliest parts of the 21st century, there seems an unabashedly joyous, almost obsessive desire to recapture any trace of magic and beauty that permeated throughout the previous century, as if what has been founded and established in these last two decades has been nothing short of unpretty. This inclination to look back has radical roots, and can often be detrimental in a world hellbent on sociocultural progression. However, within the scope of art, this gravitation toward nostalgia can actually educate and illuminate where we have come from, where we are now, and where we are going.

Such is the essence of Dua Lipa’s second studio album aptly titled Future Nostalgia. By veering into the sweat-soaked, hip-hobbling, mirrored-ball mania of the 1970s, Dua reimagines our current epoch as one of absolute hedonism and thrill, overflowing with a delectable dose of decadence that encompasses the body and soul almost without will. Within bulbous, barrels of slapping bass and cascading classical strings, we are transported to a bizarro, millennial Studio 54 where the disco queens shimmy in Supreme and platform heels are replaced by platform sneakers. Traces of the Bee Gees succumbing to Saturday night fevers merge with the enchanting, synthesized romanticism of Max Martin. The scorned howls of house divas play hopscotch with the giddy plasticine of streamlined starlets. Yet, most importantly, on Future Nostalgia, we are gifted one of the grooviest, funkiest pop albums of the modern age.

Without exaggeration, each one of the album’s eleven tracks bears the masterful mark of thick, crunchy funk. Whether from a luscious, spine-tingling backbeat or the snarling drawl of which Dua has made her signature, there is a pervasive flash of intoxication and liberation, of anger and intensity, of a tough sublimity that fills the mind with exaltation. Oftentimes, this euphoria feels as if it is collapsing under its weight, slamming through senses with such vigor and intensity one feels bludgeoned and pummeled in the most glorious ways. Perhaps in a certain light, this sparkling cohesion can be overlooked and misunderstood as repetition. Yet, it is that overarching funkiness which glues each piece together, formulating a work of art that reveals not only a willingness to explore sonically, but also to progress.

And it is progression which serves as Future Nostalgia’s most promising feature. Though the overall theme relies on romance and empowerment, it is Dua’s trademark moodiness that transforms these conventions inside-out. Take, for example, the lavish uncertainty floating through the “If you don’t wanna see ME, dancing with someBODY” pre-chorus hook on the dancefloor delicacy of “Don’t Start Now.” Or, perhaps, the somber optimism of “Baby, keep on dancing…” on the barreling arcade-drenched “Physical.” Or even the raw, rapturous epiphany of “Goddamn, you got me in love again!” on the taut, ABBA-coated “Love Again.” Each track may contain its own amount of glitter, glamour, and gauze.  However, with every slice of mirth there appears a slice of melancholy to size it up, generating a palatable unease throughout the album that keeps one from overdosing on froth and sentiment. In her earliest works, Dua emerged a master of mood, and upon Future Nostalgia that darkness finds an equaled brightness, igniting a completion and growth she has never experienced.

This growth is even more evident in “Pretty Please,” a bluesy, Stax Records evocation which finds Dua rising above the hypnotic, chilled-out production as if she is directly whispering through your ear canals. And in “Hallucinate,” a tantalizing rush of opulence and delirium, equating the call of one’s name to the sweeping, engulfing taste of fantasy. And especially on the closing track “Boys Will Be Boys,” a remarkable, confrontational hymn against toxic masculinity adorned with wintry, echoing choral chants. Within these three tracks alone, one is privy to the various directions Dua may take in the near-future, providing glimpses of an evolving Pop artist absolutely open for experimentation.

And it is that evolution which clings most to one’s mind once the album has ceased. Teeming with freshness and vitality, Future Nostalgia is a mesmerizing collection of the last 40 years of dance music distilled in the most scrumptious, accessible bites. With funk as her anchor, Dua Lipa finds herself navigating the rhythms of her heart and spirit amidst a glossy, groove-laden climate, using the visual splendor of retrofuturism to imagine a world where care is free, love is abundant, and self-fulfillment is foremost. Those are the hallmarks and touchstones for nostalgia—the desire to escape to a place that doesn’t possibly exist. Yet, in Dua’s hands, not only does this dreamlike place exist, it is incredibly tangible. Just press play and you’re there.

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Simple, Great Pop: Review of Lady Gaga’s “Stupid Love”

There is something quite mesmerizing about a simple, great Pop song. That is, of course, the kind born not out of necessity and calculation, yet of total respect and appreciation, of absolute love and adoration for the craft and the genre. Although most radio fare appears identical and interchangeable in its origins and inhabitants, simple, great Pop thrives on its recognizability and connection to the creator, feeling as if a direct extension of their soul in the midst of commonplace tropes and styles.

In truth, it is that kind of Pop which seems easiest to envision yet is perhaps hardest in execution, forcing whomever is at the helm of its ship to cut through monotony and sameness with genuine, remarkable spark. One cannot merely fade into the production and soundscape, expecting magic to occur on its own; truly simple, great Pop only works when the singer has enough charisma and individuality to make you feel as if they are speaking directly into your ear.

And it is “Stupid Love,” Lady Gaga’s Technicolored ode to irresponsible romance, which embodies all of these qualities in a delicious, celebratory rush. Coming off the sepia-toned uber-despair of her Oscar-winning torch-ballad “Shallow,” there seems almost a perverse deviance within this latest single’s sizzling, bludgeoning Moroder-flavored bass, as if one has stumbled out of black-and-white sobriety into a hedonistic hub of neon and pastel.

Such vibrancy is only enhanced by stuttering house-flavored cries and Gaga’s own lush, buoyant trademark coos of soul, bubblegum, and theater as she seamlessly switches from one tone to another, even melding them together with effortless dexterity. Whilst she pleads for her lover’s stupid love as if a triumph of the will, one senses an immense catharsis and release, allowing any remaining torture and madness to dissipate and disappear. It is not pain and suffering this starry-eyed romantic is immersed in, but that naïve yet daring notion that merely embarking on a relationship is battle in and of itself.

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Joy, desire, enchantment, release—these are the hallmarks of simple, great Pop. That is not to say that anger or sadness are excluded from achieving similar results; it is merely that that anger and sadness must be carefully coated in brighter, prettier, and sometimes even sillier hues. With “Stupid Love,” Lady Gaga has mixed these properties dutifully together, managing to hark back not only to her own discography of effortless dance gems, but also to the bedazzlement of Pop antiquity.

Amidst the marvelous chirps, dramatic shouts, and impossibly gorgeous harmony (“Look at me noww-owwww” may be what Pop is all about), one can grasp the torrid amour-volcanos of 1960’s girl groups colliding with the sensuality of disco’s tainted rapture; a ruthless, passionate pervasion of pure pleasure, reckless abandon, and good vibes. Here exists a lightness and delicacy, unconcerned by pursuits of complexity in a way that feels refreshing and defiant in the current musical landscape.

And that is not to say that “Stupid Love” is immaculate nor perfect. It could easily have been birthed from supermarkets and drugstores, shimmering with its elusive, commercial majesty as if fully aware of the potentially banal purpose of which its serves. However, it is that knowledge, along with the outer-space artifice of its video clip, which makes “Stupid Love” so entirely illuminating. It does not provoke nor challenge nor shatter like many of her revolutionary singles and deep-cuts; yet it marinates in its simple, great Pop magnificence, reminding us that sometimes the purest and most obvious statements about love can, in fact, be quite invigorating and electrifying, can cut to the core and soothe our senses.

In anyone else’s hands, this all might feel trite and trivial and completely lose its power. Though, in the shining, expert palms of Gaga, “Stupid Love” feels like a precursor to something more sprawling, more endearing, and, of course, more fun.

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Born Tomorrow: Rina Sawayama’s Radical Triple Play

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It is quite hard not to be marveled by Rina Sawayama. With a keen sense of Pop knowledge and an impenetrable insight on millennial madness, she has emerged as one of the most astute and exciting chroniclers of our new yet volcanic century, utilizing nostalgic productions to evoke contemporary dread. Through her careful, perceptive lens, modern life is a tapestry of digital ennui and anxious splendor—a cold, chaotic universe inundated with bright, beautiful illusions and distractions.

This first came to fore on her masterful mini-album, RINA, which seamlessly fused Max Martin melodies of the late 90s with taut lyricism about online avatars and cell phone co-dependency. Then came “Cherry,” a blissed-out paean to pansexuality and “Flicker,” a bouncy ballad in praise of heritage, a pair of delicious stop-gap gems reflecting the sundry backdrop of youth culture. Yet, since November of last year, she has been steadily releasing content for her debut album Sawayama, each further analyzing our most complex, sociopolitical structures in ways that no other Pop star seems capable.

With “STFU,” a rollicking, neck-breaking torpedo of rage, Rina confronts the persistent and inexplicable horror of racial intolerance against a sonic backdrop that is every bit Korn as it is Britney Spears. There is a cool innovation here, melding the sour and sweet so gently the union feels unlike anything heard before. Alternating between typhoon aggression within the verses and breezy tranquility within the chorus, one cannot help but feel the encroaching, pulsating disgust toward her ignorant lovers and acquaintances, reaching a mind-bending fever pitch as the two emotions collide with an intensity that is both cathartic and fearsome.

Off the heels of that nu-metal melancholia arrived “Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys),” a decidedly millennial recreation of lavish, libidinous fin-de-siècle club anthems. Here is where the academic invention and playfulness of Rina becomes most apparent: using delicious house beats over lampoons of patriarchy and its associated pomposity, she creates a brilliant alignment of social commentary and endless groove that rests comfortably between Blur’s sardonic satire “Girls and Boys” and Crystal Waters’ concrete-coated classic “Gypsy Woman.” As with those disparate tracks, “Like the Boys” is so irresistible and tantalizing that one nearly forgets they are dancing to depth, igniting senseless, carefree fun even as its profundity hangs over with a pernicious bite.

And then, barely twenty-four hours ago, we were gifted with “XS,” yet another effortless slice of pop perfection. As if buried in an enchanted tomb under Jive Records for the last 20 years, its Rodney Jerkins hues gleam marvelous as Rina jubilantly rhapsodizes on endless excess and conspicuous consumption. Yet what initially appears to be another celebration of shameless wealth is in fact a subtly-drawn study on climate control and capitalism’s tightening grip on the global populace. By focusing on the perplexing duality of peace and materialism—perhaps the two most prized of millennial values—Rina paints an environment too obsessed with artifice to forego the ugliness that keeps it glimmering, as if holding a mirror up to our vanity in hopes that we may learn to break the cycle.

With these three disparate, remarkable tracks alone, Rina Sawayama has already set the tone for what is shaping to be a truly incredible and breathtaking album. Although her previous work embodied the same expertise and craftsmanship, it is here where she seems to be fully growing into a truly impeccable Pop entity, smoothly injecting past and personal experiences with a touch that is undeniably alive and universal. That ability to be both introspective and wildly accessible is already a tremendous feat; yet, by celebrating both her history and her identity, Rina pushes the atmosphere further, forcing many to confront why her presence is so invaluable and why her perspective can never be erased.

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