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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“Radio Say Speed It Up”: Top 25 Songs of the Teens (2010-2019)

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It is never easy to define a decade. Our personal experiences and individual perspectives shape which events matter, which stories deserve to be told, which memories deserve to be preserved. They shape our faith in society and culture, in the people we know and encounter. They shape our trust in beauty, they shape our belief in art. Yet perhaps, in truth, art is and will always be the most polarizing of subjects when recalling the last 10 years, as we all have our own beliefs of what truly revealed a particular, spectacular importance.

The songs we heard at parties, in the car. The songs we heard on dates, or during breakups. The songs we heard during the harsh winter or the blazing summer. The songs we heard in the privacy of our bedroom or walking down crowded streets. They are all personal, they are all individual, they are all our own.

So, as this most mesmerizing and terrifying decade draws to its inevitable close, I would like to look back, in no particular order, at the 25 songs that changed my life. Some may be popular, some may be obscure, and some may even be missing.  But each of these encapsulate what it felt like from 2010-2019, what it felt like to live within a time when everything changed and nothing was the same.

  1. Government Hooker by Lady Gaga (2011)

Erstwhile the club-kid darling brandishing disco sticks and brooding in bubbles, Lady Gaga dove headfirst into the steel-plated political sphere with this cold, nightmarish vision of late-capitalist ideals. Amidst an assembly of operatic trills and mechanized grunts, our ambitious Dada-flavored narrator carefully announces their ability to be whatever one desires “as long as you pay me,” a sentiment that appeared playfully provocative and incredibly audacious during the cheery, go-go optimism of the Obama Age yet now epitomizes the lush vulgarities of decade’s end with unyielding potency.

2. The Less I Know the Better (2015)

Shimmying somberly under a cracked glittered ball, Tame Impala drag us into their intricate web of surprise and self-delusion eternally vulnerable and anchorless. As the peyote-laden groove sweetly clouds any remaining senses, we fall prey to the troubadours’ freakishly accurate recall of that startling moment of witnessing a former lover with another and realizing all past memories and emotions are not as dead as once imagined. “I was doing fine without you,” that every-voice drawls with the pain of a thousand thorns, and we wince. “Is this what you want? Is this who you are?” that every-voice snaps with the chill of a thousand winters, and we cry.

3. Diet Coke Head (2018)

Cloaked in radiance, bombast, and a coolness entirely free of effort, Miss World’s rollicking sonic mixture of Phil Spector’s malt-shop blues and the vampish ferocity of post-riot grrl is both delightfully familiar and astonishingly refreshing, concocting an ode to indecision and uncertainty that perfectly encapsulates the brazenly superficial woes of a generation raised by popular culture and chronically stuck within adolescence and adulthood.

4. Video Games (2011)

Although Lana Del Rey has undoubtedly made more fascinating and enrapturing puzzles for us to solve, this glittering, siren-soaked slice of millennial melancholy undoubtedly remains one of the foremost Classical texts of our young century. So delicate it feels it may break upon your ears and so romantic it feels it may break your heart, there is an Olympian otherworldliness about this rhapsody on tech-hungry boytoys, mourning our mundane modern existence as if already covered in dust and gauze.

5. Pyramids (2012)

Frank Ocean’s wondrously sensuous sense of storytelling reaches epic heights amidst this spellbinding two-part suite of radical experimentation. As he takes the perspective of a motel-boarding pimp with Dickensian wit, we cruise on a manic magic carpet ride from the miraculous, sumptuous life of Queen Cleopatra to the outrageous deglamorization of strip club culture, the former exemplified by frightening futurism whilst the latter barrels through a sizzling haze of downbeat, hangover-induced rhythm & blues. Wait for that shocking second when both bleed into each other; see if you don’t melt.

6. Same Ol Mistakes (2016)

Rihanna may not have written or even originally recorded this mesmeric dewdrop of psychedelia, yet within her signature drawl, it carefully morphs into a bone-chilling, blood-curdling explosion of intoxicating love. Surpassing its predecessor with bittersweet diva opulence, it reimagines one of the most powerful and independent pop stars of our time as a colossally doe-eyed romantic, foolishly crafting a cozy nest for her new partner even if disaster and danger may be lurking right around the corner – a concept so absurd it feels intensely alive.

7. Space Bootz (2015)

Perhaps one of the greatest and most disturbing ruminations on lost love, this stream-of-conscious intergalactic hymn spirals through one’s freshly bruised and broken-up psyche with groundbreaking, earth-shattering accuracy. Startling and miserable in its candor (“I get so high because you’re not here smoking my weed/and I get so bored”), poignant and glorious in its faith (“We’re both vegan/It makes it easy to think you’d never hurt anything/Living intentionally”), there is no room to catch one’s breath within this beautiful maze of hurt and distress; it is the sonic embodiment of balling one’s eyes out in the fetal position and we are so much better for it.

8. The Light is Coming (2018)

The aberrant screams of a political official. Nicki Minaj rapping in zero-gravity excess. Ariana Grande crooning like a mutated cartoon. This is what happens when one of the most contemporary creators of music drifts down a rabbit hole of Surrealist fantasies sans parachute: amidst a bevy of bounces and bleeps and fragments of Frankensteinian glam, a luxurious, shapeshifting netherworld emerges, looking toward a perplexing future in which nothing makes sense and everything is permissible.

9. Ima Read (2012)

As if created for the mere, extraordinary purpose of voguing behind the gates of Hell, Zebra Katz lords imperious over thudding, thumping drones of thunderous bass, casting incantations of vengeance and disgust with satanic glee. Joined by the equally vicious and delicious Njena Reddd Foxxx, there is a demonic convergence of malice, venom, and evil as the two conspire to expire yet it is so serenely drenched in humor and intellect one welcomes their encroaching, unflinching madness with open arms and legs.

10. Truth (2016)

A masterful display of metamorphosis, this sun-drenched, spot-lit summertime tone poem reincarnates teenybopper extraordinaire Zayn Malik into a seasoned crooner, allowing him to lusciously pout, sneer, and throw shade with a dosage of sensuality and soul not too dissimilar to what one may find within a relative’s yellowed vinyl collection.

11. Backseat Freestyle (2012)

Never has the sound of youth been so massive. Never has the sound of arrogance been so intoxicating. But, more than anything, never has the sound of the black male teenager been so urgent and so evocative, so free and so detached, igniting that breezy, single-minded aimlessness of adolescence amidst bass so heavy and colossal it sounds as if it will collapse at your feet.

12. Take Care (2011)

Between the many, multiple musical duets of Rihanna and Drake, none have been as majestic, sophisticated, and downright tragic as this slow-burning slice of harrowing house. Though entranced by its own dancefloor modernity, it has the calming, meditative atmosphere of a noirish, smoke-filled café, exacting the wounded, gauzelike fears and torments of 21st century dating culture (“I’ve loved and I’ve lost”!!!) with a sharpness and severity that cuts straight to the bone, and then some.

13. Warm Blood (2015)

Awash in aquatic, ethereal vocals suggesting a curfew-skipping Disney princess and a pummeling, barreling production reminiscent to a discordant heartbeat, Carly Rae Jepsen’s tantalizing ode to the swollen raptures of new romance delights in its cat-eyed claustrophobia, building a thick, echoing wall of sound that envelopes every fiber of our being in comfort and care beyond recognition.

14. Kerosene (2012)

Forget that you can’t understand a word Alice Glass is saying. Forget that the production sounds as if it’s being played in reverse. Instead, bask in the madness. Instead, bathe in the oddity. Instead, marinate in the machines. This is what would happen if Luigi Russolo grew up with a computer and a hip-hop compilation: a glittering, glossy, yet ultimately anarchic mess, a clue of what will be when humans are no longer making music.

15. Freak Hoe (2014)

Though easily read as an abhorring celebration of the ill-gotten riches and rule-makings of pimp culture, there lies within this rapid ricochet something of greater depth and quality, analyzing and dissecting the primordial necessity of control and shame with rewarding illustration (“My Cuban link bigger than a Wu-Tang’s/Lil nigga take your head off for a new chain”) that seamlessly veers from pure popcorn into pure poetry.

16. Venus Fly (2015)

Rambunctious in nature and epic in scale, Grimes and Janelle Monae’s outrageous 31st century fever dream transports us in the midst of an intergalactic space battle, backed with bass too divine for its own good and vocals too supreme for their own mania. A crystalline vision of matriarchal domination and postmodern pop, it is the finest, most complete synthesis of the heady years of now and those of latteryear, as if one is twerking on Neptune, popping on Pluto, dipping it low on Saturn’s rings.

17. Nada (2018)

This is where hip-hop culture has led. This is the natural extension of forty years of crossing the vast globe, latching onto unsuspecting eardrums, and engulfing eager brains. This: a succulent and breathtaking wonder fueled by Lexie Liu’s prodigious pendulum-rapping from English to Mandarin, taking the typical trope of flexing and flaunting one’s wealth and turning it upon its head, bridging countries and coastlines, ideals and ideologies, culture and conflict without once even trying.

18. Everything Is Embarrassing (2012)

There was perhaps no producer more prolific and diverse in the Teens than Dev Hynes and it was his brief, endearing encounter with dream-punk priestess Sky Ferreira which birthed one of his most dazzling, mind-altering works. “I believe in everything, everything that could’ve been,” Sky coldly recalls a failed relationship with bubblegum remorse, the tinkering, foreboding echoes of the production somewhere between Debbie Gibson and The Cure. There is an innate sweetness within this dignified sorrow, and the deeper we fall for its emptied, music-box serenity, the harsher and darker it feels.

19. Heaven Or Las Vegas (2011)

Sounding as if a codeine-fueled Frank Sinatra crooning atop a supersonic train, this remains the consummate exhibit of the Weeknd’s alluring, impossible mixture of beauty and damnation. He is never quiet and calm within this hurried, pressured milieu – only in mystical shouts, cries, and howls does he communicate, coming off like a saint seeking redemption or a sinner seeking validation, he appears to reach neither, forever stuck in a purgatorial nightmare.

20. Truffle Butter (2015)

The appeal was irresistible: over a narcotic, neck-breaking house sample, three of hip-hop’s most creative, colorful, and charismatic artists wax poetic about their undeniable power, lavish sensibilities, and carnal perversions without a moment to breathe or reflect. Yet, what truly elevates this marvelous monster to unmatchable heights is the sheer excess and luxury dripping from every single crevice, effortlessly emitting an aura of gild and glamour that feels our own.

21. 212 (2011)

What remains so incredibly stunning is the simplicity: the tinny Belgian backbeat; Azealia’s ruthless, relentless schoolyard chants and come-ons (“I’ma ruin you cunt”); the vague yet careful recalls of Caribbean Patois; the playful vulgarity coddled by attitude and confidence. Though it remains decidedly prophetic in its doom-laden lyricism, one is pressed to imagine a more vital, charming, and immediate representation of the halcyon, genre-busting days of the early 2010s.

22. Betty Rubble (2012)

“I wouldn’t try to do the things that I do,” the incomparable Mykki Blanco snarls through a ten-foot bullhorn against macabre Hitchcockian swirls and whirls, happily holding court with a dangerous, exhilarating mixture of bile and sincerity, “You should pray to God and not play with false idols.” This is a raw, rugged entity emerging fully-realized, enlarged and amplified before our very eyes, unleashed without restriction, unbothered with convention, unfazed by order, and unchallenged by time.

23. 10-20-40 (2017)

Has depression ever sounded so euphoric? Has loneliness ever seemed so intoxicating? Has ennui ever seemed so inviting? As Rina Sawayama scales through her tormented, damaged psyche in the way a climber scales vast mountainous peaks, comparing her own degree of madness to the speed of a car, she reveals a cold-hearted, synthesized world of strange hyperrealism, a world where it is much easier to numb one’s suffering in silence than it is to reveal one’s truth.

24. Who Will Survive in America? (2010)

As the finale on Kanye West’s immaculate paean to the cult of celebrity, there exists within these unstoppable barriers a radical, apocalyptic flair, transforming Gil Scott-Heron’s Black Power bars on the injustices of a nation drunk on its own glory into the stuff of total fact and foundation. Have things really changed in 40 years? In 10? Will we still be asking “Who will survive in America?” come 2030? Will we already know the answer? That is the magnificence here, that is the power.

25. Partition (2013)

Nothing is more compelling than a superstar letting themselves loose and upon this bewitching two-part masterpiece, one could not imagine witnessing a more ecstatic liberation. First, against a minimalist bounce with more elasticity than a pack of rubber bands, the once-perfect Beyoncé extols her artistic and financial might through a ravenous hip-hop growl only to rapidly switch gears over a pulsating, heart-stopping throb as she details demigod decadence in lavish limousines. In anyone else’s hands, this may have turned into a puzzling footnote, yet with Beyoncé, we are treated to a groundbreaking, mystifying mosaic of sonic innovation and classical mythos.

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Poptrospective: Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814

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Picture this: Michigan 1994, my older sister and I, eleven and five respectively, sitting in our family room, watching a videotape.  It is called Rhythm Nation 1814 and tells the tale of two impressionable inner-city youth caught between a life of music and a life of crime.  Although perfectly packaged as a new jack fable for children of the video age, my attention lingers not on the storyline of the two boys but on their apparent guardian angel—a cool, confident woman, clad in all black, billowed hair high to the heavens.  She is surrounded by a carass of chic friends, cackling at cartoons, utterly attractive in her bliss.  Yet, suddenly, she halts: she senses something is happening far from her safety, and with rapid-fire speed, we watch in shock as one of the boys is gunned down whilst shining shoes, his once-cherished harmonica soaking in the pouring rain.

Before I can muster up enough courage to scream or cry from witnessing such brutality, the film flashes to a rough rooftop.  “The knowledge,” a cold, mechanized voice drones, and then appears that cool, confident woman once more, strutting with severity.  She breaks for a second, her smoothly toughened voice asking, “Prejudice?” only to be met by a corral of disembodied spirits answering back, “NO!”  She smashes a window with her foot!  Putting a finger to her head, gun-like, she then asks, “Ignorance?” and when another “NO!” strikes, this groove-laden giant throws her body in a tired fit, frustration and anger abound.  As she wonders “Bigotry?” she punches down an overstuffed jug—its contents spilling across the grubby ground—and then, after contemplating, “Illiteracy?” she settles into a meditative pose, as if wishing or praying, allowing the final “NO!” to soothe her restless soul, bring her to a sudden peace.

For what it’s worth, I’d no idea what any of these words yet meant, but what I did know was that I’d never seen anything so marvelous, magnificent, and miraculous.  This cool, confident woman—a woman whose name I’d learned to be Janet Jackson in the same tone and reverence one learns the names of Christian disciples—appeared heroic, otherworldly, superhuman.  Not of my galaxy or universe, yet somehow existing within all the same, somehow tangible and real, somehow there.  The more she writhed, the more glowed my eyes; my mind racing with desires and wishes previously unknown – I want to be there, I want to smash things, I want to dance!  A light seemed to brighten, blaze within; I felt transcendent.  And from that day forward, as often as possible, I’d feel transcendent, jamming that venerated videotape into our RCA VCR and disappearing into that gritty and glorious world, as if believing that one day I’d be granted actual access into this nation of rhythm.

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In truth, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 is not your typical follow-up to a blockbuster breakthrough album.  While any other Pop starlet blessed with the success of a funk-laden, floor-filling tour de force like Control would rush to replicate anything brimming in its vein, Janet chose a path of dutiful defiance, imagining a way to manipulate her rising powers as a tool for discovery and change.  At 23 years of age, this princess of musical royalty saw the world on fire and knew she could not continue to create club classics without acknowledging her political epiphanies first, setting forth with a journalistic eye to capture the terrors and injustices occurring in her wake.  Surely, there were major risks with embarking on such a project at the beginning of one’s career; yet Janet knew that if she captured her anguish carefully, it would be easily understood.  And the only way she knew she would be easily understood was through her most prized possession: the gift of groove.

With Control, Janet established herself as a leading proponent, popularizer, and prophet of New Jack Swing.  Though the genre is often credited as the sole invention of Harlem wunderkind Teddy Riley, it was on her first commercial masterwork where Minnesotan impresarios Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis originally concocted that incredibly lush, lethal combination of R&B, funk, rap, and jazz and wrapped it in masterful, digestible bites.  The industrial heaviness which erupted from these experiments gave the starlet bullet-proof aggression and, on the towering, monolithic Rhythm Nation, she and her chief co-conspirators found themselves doubling down on attitude and anger, creating, amidst the socially-conscious lyricism and cinematic interludes, a wider, clearer soundscape at once frightening and frivolous, startling and serene, audacious and airy, terrifying and triumphant.

Consider the monstrous titular track: a colossal call-to-arms barricaded by a bassline so bombastic it pummels us into majestic submission.  Accompanied by mirages of music-box tinkers and a series of samples which range the scope of Pop music including Janet’s own previous hits, this treaty-as-jam-session comes off less as a contemporary wonder and more like the earth-shattering template for a frenzied future in which all sounds and vibes converge into something loud yet sublime.  This progressive pull extends cheerfully on “State of the World,” a harsh, manic barrage of police sirens, barking dogs, and haunting, distorted doo-wop vocals evoking an unsettling atmosphere of inner-city strife that is as noxious as it is neck-breaking.  In its most spine-tingling seconds, the concrete hymn reaches an explosive climax by lamenting the starving homeless masses, melting merrily into a freakish, cathartic conjuring of disturbed spirits, as if a séance on a street corner.

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The nightmarish noir only ignites further against the slinky, cyclical hip-hop slither of “The Knowledge.”  Coming off both as the sonic and poetic conclusion of the first three tracks, this ode to information feels more urgent, more dangerous, and more demanding than its predecessors, winding and swirling in marvelous glee as smashed glass and thundering slaps trade quips with jaunty bass and ethereal chants, the latter eroding with fierce sultriness like an acid-dropping church choir.  It is also on “The Knowledge” where Janet’s politicized tension finds a boiling point, escaping that dark urgency to a suite of shiny romanticism.  “Get the point?” she asks, stone-faced, as the last bass drops, welcoming us into this new rhythmic, Technicolor’d Oz, “Good.  Let’s dance!”

And thus, as we follow Janet through her wiggly wonderland, we are gifted with some of the sweetest, snappiest, and most spectacular sounds within Rhythm Nation’s tremendous confines.  “Miss You Much,” a passionate paean to the giddy mania of long-lost love, recklessly dazzles with flourishes of candied harps and frenetic shakes of walloping funk, as if birthed from a club-hopping Cupid.  A descendant of early Motown bedroom froth, “Miss You Much” revels in its teenaged playfulness (“I’ll tell ya ma-ma-ma-ma!”), bringing us to euphoric, ebullient heights that turn entirely monumental on the following “Love Will Never Do (Without You).”  Though surrounded by similar spellbinding snares, its shameless appreciation for everlasting love and its spacious, oceanic lulls—rising and falling as if an imposing breath or decomposing death—create a tantalizing, volcanic blast of sheer rapture.  From the sensuality of Janet’s juxtaposed androgynous registers to the wondrous choral praise of inner revelation (“If you believe in love – SAY!”), “Love Will Never Do” wallows on its own island of elemental beauty, unaware and unfazed by tumult, tragedy, nor trauma.

But, of course, even in the nation of rhythm, there remain moments of clarity.  And upon the precociously somber “Livin’ In A World (They Didn’t Make),” we ponder the near-perennial concern of childhood safety and security awash a mosaic of bright-eyed balladry and piano-driven pity.  With its theatrical trimmings and maudlin sloganeering, such a piece could appear synthetic and unreal; however, in its crucial final moments, the poignant singing is snuffed out by the ringing of gunshots and screams of schoolchildren, epitomizing a stark, delicate realism and coating us with a despair that will need another dance to drive it away.

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The impeccably impossible, unstoppable “Alright” then arrives by our side precisely on schedule.  All Lyn Collins sample and seesaw slink, the relentless ball of fire moves solid, swift, and lucid, expertly dodging any distractions or detours, coasting with a smooth confidence only belied by Janet’s mellowed, almost melancholy murmurs of a boundless friendship bordering on finality (“True self you have shown/you’re alright with me”).  As we saunter into a surrealist funhouse of chopped-and-screwed samples as demented and dizzying as a fresh crush, however, the cool-hearted “Alright” graciously gives way to the emblem of effervescence that is “Escapade.”  Beginning with symphonic, fairy-dust flair and a hypnotic whirl mimicking an airplane idling an eternal runway, this buoyant bubble bulges and bounces with irresistible ease, as if freed from shackles and primed for celebration.  It is a seamless, carefree exercise in ebullience and exaltation—of good and greater times—reaching an awe-inspiring apex when Janet shouts “Minneapolis!” as if a radical realization, the bubble bouncing stronger and evermore.

However, the sudden roaring of a panther signals something sinister on the horizon, replacing that glittering sunshine with grim darkness as “Black Cat” takes us on a desolate downward spiral of drug addiction.  So inundated with dive-bar underpinnings one can feel the leather and hear the chains, its metallic armor is cosigned by Janet’s incredible outrage and displeasure toward masochistic lifestyles, creating a hotbed of madness and tension that boils over with absolute wrath.  What else, then, could wash away this furious ruin than the arrival of rainfall?  Yet, within those burnt ashes come also the arrival of memories, and on the reflective, reflexive quiet-storm suite of “Lonely,” “Come Back to Me,” and “Someday Is Tonight,” Janet leaves behind her world-weary animosity for soul-bearing introspection.

Oozing with an almost radiant melancholy, “Lonely” encapsulates the cut-throat chill of solitude against a seductive, luxurious edge, promising endless love and support to companions at every turn.  Yet, one cannot help but sense that Janet is extending a helping hand even as she is tediously attempting to mine and navigate through her own travails, making the thunder-encrusted plunge to “Come Back to Me” even more devastating.  Unbelievably naked and exposed, a tear-stained Janet yearns tortuously for a romance no longer in reach, grasping with blind desperation made even more palpable by a marvelous, dreamlike haze of orchestral sublimity.  Toward the liebestod’s end, overwhelmed by her own nocturnal delusions, Janet first allows the serene strings to do the talking, only to suddenly interject and admit: “I dunno what else to say . . .”  It is perhaps the most enchanting, exhilarating, and unexpected moment on Rhythm Nation: the amazing, startling honesty of a forlorn lover unfolding before our very eyes.

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Yet if “Come Back to Me” embodies the epitome of romantic pain, then “Someday Is Tonight,” embodies the epitome of romantic pleasure.  Ensconced by velvetine voices, Isley-inspired trappings, and a parade of tempered chimes delighting in their encroaching carnality, we are transported into a bodice-ripping boudoir, where all wonders, wishes, and wills are exacted in mesmeric excess.  Upon this final sonic excursion, there is a refusal of repression, an opening of infinity, and a discovery of desire, closing the past mind-blowing 60 minutes with a sense of hope and renewal—a sense of masterful liberation.  Such themes would ignite heavily upon subsequent releases, yet here, on the divine Rhythm Nation, Janet establishes that daring drive to be absolute, to be herself, to release.

Since Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 arrived eight months after my birth, its existence appeared, in my eyes, immortal and omnipresent.  It was the first album, Pop or otherwise, that held any real meaning—a spectacular soundtrack constantly and consistently played upon a car stereo or nearby boombox.  In that sense, you can say that Rhythm Nation and I grew up together—that, as we aged, our bones and muscles stretched and evolved in real-time, that we experienced the rapid, torrential movement and alteration of the world side-by-side.  And in theory, that experience over 30 years should have resulted into something extraordinary, a more perfect, globalized union embodied by principles of trust, faith, and acceptance.  But unfortunately, in truth, that experience over 30 years has resulted into something far more divisive than in those final days of the Cold War.

Rhythm Nation was released just two months shy of the Berlin Wall’s destruction but in 2019, we are watching as a President builds walls on our borders.  Rhythm Nation challenged the remnants of racial lines, but in 2019, we are witnessing a new uprising of widespread bigotry.  Rhythm Nation winced at the notion of playground shootings, but in 2019, we are experiencing nearly more public shootings than there are days within the year.  As the 21st century rears its ugly head, we watch as the world—and specifically America—seems constantly in jeopardy, out of control, or on the brink of disaster.  There is a sense of chaos, catastrophe, and confusion at every turn.

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Thus, in our current era, Rhythm Nation does not radiate as the oft-perceived totem of utopia, yet as a breathtaking vision of post-industrial capitalism—of living, in fact, within a functional dystopia.  Amidst its jaw-dropping flurry of thumps, bumps, squeaks, cranks, cracks, and swirls, the modern metropolitan landscape of endless speed and anxious technology collides against the increasing erosion of complacency and disgust.  It is a protest album for those who cannot protest any longer, who would rather dance their dissatisfaction away, knowing their rump-shaking kinesis has the power to destroy intolerance and injustice just as mightily as any rally.  Though she merely wished to shed light on harsh matters in order to ignite eradication, Janet also unwittingly created a hell-raising Orwellian soundtrack for an apocalyptic paradise too in love with its nihilism to make much change at all.

Yet, even within this sense of alluring and impending doom, the phenomenal Rhythm Nation did brilliantly predict a vast breakdown and melding of genres, mediums, and styles.  It did brilliantly predict the massive growth of youthful, multicultural love.  It did brilliantly predict the ascendance of understanding, inclusiveness, dignity, and respect.  It did brilliantly predict the contemporary, post-hippie ideology that the world can be changed and can be restored, if we merely believe and put forth the steps.  You can see it in the climate activists and social justice warriors; you can see it in the kids fighting against gun violence and planning revolutions on their cell phones.  Even if we are slouching toward defeat, there is still a hum, a buzz for innovation and relief and as we attempt to rise from our own current dystopian dwellings, it may be Rhythm Nation that truly provides the blueprint to keep us alive.

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