Wednesday, December 21, 2016

billboard BREAKDOWN - hot 100 - december 31, 2016

So do you want to know what can lead to real weirdness on the Hot 100? Not just one big debut - it'll have a ripple effect, but if you want to cause absolute havoc, drop two, and keep them within a few weeks of each other. And you might call me crazy for saying 'well, that rarely ever happens'... and this is the week where J. Cole followed in The Weeknd's wake with every single songs from 4 Your Eyez Only hitting the Hot 100 - I swear, why do I even bother to review the albums when this nonsense happens? This was the equivalent of a knockout punch for a lot of music, leading to what I think might be the most number of losses I've ever seen on the Hot 100 and sixteen new songs - because no, the stream of new arrivals wasn't really stopping either. And note that when I say impact, I'm not saying any of this was good - folks who saw that J. Cole review remember I wasn't fond of it... but then again, it's also featuring songs from The Voice and Post Malone, so we'll see what we get in contrast?


And here's the thing a lot of people won't realize: while The Weeknd's big debut hit the middle of the Hot 100, J. Cole's went higher - I'm talking about nine entries in the top 30 and one impacting the top ten - and it wasn't even the biggest new arrival! Of course, they didn't quite disrupt the top five - 'Black Beatles' by Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane still have #1 thanks to some airplay traction and still ruling streaming, although it did get elbowed off the top in sales. Then there's 'Starboy' by The Weeknd, which did not seem to catch a break again as it was stranded at #2 and got pushed back in pretty much every category except YouTube, dashing any hopes I had that this would hit #1. Then there's 'Closer' by The Chainsmokers and Halsey, which also spent the week losing in all categories, although not fast enough for my liking. In contrast, we've got '24k Magic' by Bruno Mars holding #4 - yeah, it got creamed on streaming like everyone who wasn't J. Cole and it didn't have a great week on airplay, but thanks to Carpool Karaoke with James Corden, its YouTube rebounded along with its sales - not sustainable, but promising. Then there's 'Side to Side' by Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj at #5 - it looks like it peaked in airplay this week, and if it wasn't for consistent YouTube it would have lost much harder. And yet this takes us to our big debut this week: 'I Don't Wanna Live Forever' by Zayn and Taylor Swift, from Fifty Shades Darker. I'll be getting into this track a lot more much later in this video, but apparently the long-awaited return of Taylor Swift was enough to shove this to the top of the sales charts and launch a major radio push... that has nothing in streaming. Contrast this with our second top ten debut at #7, 'Deja Vu' by J. Cole - absolutely massive streaming, topping on-demand... and yet his sales are not strong and his airplay is non-existent, so I really don't see this getting much higher. What it did do is disrupt: 'Juju On Dat Beat' by Zayion McCall and Zay Hilfigerrr got shoved back #8 as its streaming can't hold up, 'Let Me Love You' by DJ Snake and Justin Bieber gets muscled back to #9, even despite a minor sales and YouTube revival it got killed on streaming and its airplay is wavering, and finally at #10 we have 'Don't Wanna Know' by Maroon 5 and Kendrick Lamar, forced back hard despite the top spot in airplay, it had a complete collapse everywhere else - good.

And on the note of complete collapses, losers and dropouts, and if you want to look to where J. Cole's high number of debuts did damage, it's here. And the dropouts are no small potatoes here: sure, you get songs like 'Middle Of A Memory' which were shrinking anyway, but when you force off 'Tiimmy Turner' by Desiigner, 'This is What You Came For' by Rihanna and Calvin Harris, 'Needed Me' by Rihanna, 'Ride' by twenty one pilots, and 'One Dance' by Drake ft. Kyla and Wizkid, that's alarming to say the least. And that's before we get to the losses... and let's start with the easy ones, The Weeknd leftovers. 'Die For You' dropped to 93, 'Sidewalks' with Kendrick slipped to 82, 'Six Feet Under' with Future fell to 81, 'Reminder' went to 78, and 'Party Monster' dropped hard to 53. And then there were all the returning entries last week that got hit hard, like 'Million Reasons' by Lady Gaga to 62 and 'Play That Song' by Train to 87 and 'Redbone' by Childish Gambino to 75. Not even Christmas songs were spared here, as 'Jingle Bell Rock' by Bobby Helms fell to 46 and 'Rockin Around The Christmas Tree' was chopped down to 48. And from there the carnage spreads, especially to some of the leftover hits of 2016 - 'Cheap Thrills' by Sia and Sean Paul falls to 41, 'Unsteady' by X Ambassadors skids to 42, 'Treat You Better' by Shawn Mendes drops to 32, 'The Greatest' by Sia and Kendrick Lamar hits 28, 'In The name Of Love' by Martin Garrix and Bebe Rexha falls to 35, 'Cold Water' by Major Lazer, Justin Bieber and M0 is doused at 40, and 'Don't Let Me Down' by The Chainsmokers ft. Daya is hit at 43. Then there's country, which yes, with losses to 'May We All' by Florida Georgia Line and Tim McGraw dropped to 56 and 'Song For Another Time' by Old Dominion dropping to 69 and 'Sleep Without You' by Brett Young continuing down to 86, but country was insulated from larger impact simply because it doesn't have the same visibility in streaming. Where things were a lot worse was in hip-hop: 'OOOUUU' by Young M.A. falling to 47, 'Chill Bill' by Rob $tone, J. Davi$ and Spooks to 49, 'Do You Mind' by DJ Khaled and his posse denied a bonafide hit at 60, 'Used To This' by Future and Drake at 64, 'Too Much Sauce' by DJ ESCO, Future, and Lil Uzi Vert dripping to 74, and 'Pick Up The Phone' by Young Thug, Travis Scott and Quavo hit hard to 76. And we're still not done, because that leaves the slightly newer songs that saw whatever momentum they had left kneecapped, like 'Love Me Now' by John Legend off a big gain slashed back to 37, or 'Fresh Eyes' by Andy Grammer, which might have had traction if it wasn't pushed down to 88.

So okay, what survived all of that, what still maintained any momentum? The short answer is very little, with the two returning entries getting artificial boosts - 'How Far I'll Go' by Alessia Cara at 94 thanks to Moana and 'Deja Vu' by Post Malone and Justin Bieber back at 77 thanks to his album dropping to the indifference of everyone with working brain stems - and the two gains? One was for 'Rockabye' by Clean Bandit with Sean Paul and Anne-Marie up to 90 - a European smash that I don't really expect will get a ton of traction - and 'False Prophets' by J. Cole up to 54.... we'll come back to him in a bit.

Because let's make this abundantly clear, folks - while J. Cole's tidal wave may have caused the most havoc on the Hot 100 and is easily the biggest story, he's one of five notable stories on the Hot 100 this week, and that means I've got my work cut out for me, starting with...



89. 'At Last' by Sundance Head - I should have known this was coming. Not just that Blake Shelton's team would win The Voice, he's been one of the few consistent things about that dying show, but that we'd get an artist like Sundance Head coming off of it. Now if that name rings a quiet bell, he's the son of the mostly forgotten blue-eyed soul and later country artist Roy Head and you'd probably recognize that he was once on American Idol way back in Season 6, where Jordin Sparks went on to win and he got eliminated in the Top 16. But this year he got to the top under the country umbrella by following in his father's footsteps - hell, on the finale the one song that didn't chart was his cover of Roy Head's biggest hit 'Treat Her Right' - and here is his cover of Etta James' soul classic 'At Last'. Okay, let's make this clear, 'At Last' is one of those songs you just shouldn't do - it's James' signature song, it holds up ridiculously well, and while some would note that even though Etta James' version is a cover, it's widely eclipsed the mostly forgotten soundtrack ballad from the 40s, which can happen with songs from that era. So why does Sundance Head's version sound somehow even more dated, with a full addition of doowop vocals with twinkling effects and melodies in the guitar and pedal steel that never properly resolves? It's a mismash of modern country tones and production, doo-wop, and Head trying to give the song as much soul as he can - and nope, I don't buy it for a second. Chris Stapleton this guy is not, and I can't be the only one who finds this version sterile, soulless, and painfully whitebread. Neither modern country or soul needs this, skip it.



83. 'Congratulations' by Post Malone ft. Quavo - and speaking of something nobody needed, did we really need Post Malone to release his long-delayed debut album that I don't even think the people who liked 'White Iverson' wanted? And coming from someone who loathed that song - believe me, stay tuned for a week or so, I've got my piece ready to go for that one - now we get this, reportedly the best song from Stoney... and no, this is mediocre at best. A huge part of this is Post Malone himself - his autotuned drone has no intensity or potency, and you'd think you'd want that on a song all about running a victory lap for yourself! And so we get lines like 'how could I make sense when I have millions on my mind' - yes, I get the pun, but you do realize you just played yourself, right? He brags about working so hard he forgot about vacations and sounding dramatic and doesn't sound anything close - although he's got no help from this production, which goes for those blocky warbles of synth cribbed from Travis Scott that tries to build to this empty soundscape off a sparse trap beat - and then Quavo drops an interchangeable triplet flow verse and I'm left wondering who the hell wants this. Look, if this is your go-to chill music, it's a less offensive atrocity than 'White Iverson', but this song has the feel of an annoying gust of wind full of dust and sand that hits you in the face when you don't expect it - irritating in the moment, but ultimately forgotten in the long run - next!



67. 'Darlin' Don't Go' by Sundance Head - okay, so round two with Sundance Head, with this being his big original song... and even that's misleading, because it's originally a cut from his album Soul Country he dropped last year with other album cuts like 'Ex's Hall Of Fame', 'Fat Guy', and 'Coon Ass' - wow. Granted, this song actually has a budget now and can afford richer instrumentation... that of course feels utterly sanitized because this is The Voice and actual grit and texture seem to be banned, even despite trying to smuggle some fuzzier guitar into the background, which sounds flat and awful. And look, I'm not especially fond of Sundance Head's voice - he's got pipes but I'm not buying any of his stabs at soul, mostly because of a complete lack of subtlety - and you could make the same argument for this composition too. Multiple key changes, a jittery guitar solo that doesn't pay off, gospel vocals competing with the guitar, pedal steel, organ, it's a tonal mess, and it's not helped by lyrics that alternate between bland histrionics and lines that make no sense like 'my heart is on the floor when I walk in circles over you'. I don't know what emotion he's trying to extract, but it does nothing to help this mess - I like country, I like soul, I really don't like this - skip it.



57. 'Everybody Dies' by J. Cole - okay, you're going to have to follow me on this one, because we're starting this whole endeavor with a J. Cole song that wasn't actually on 4 Your Eyez Only. This was actually packaged along with 'False Prophets' as a more direct assault on anyone that J. Cole thinks he can take apart in the mainstream scene. And sure, I kind of dig the production with the thicker beat and layered guitar tones in the background, but at this point I'm heartily sick of J. Cole thinking that he's at the top of the game when a.) he's not actually saying names, b.) his version of a diss is effectively a list of types of rappers and c.) I'd easily dump in one of his categories as the 'fake deep rappers', especially after having listened to 4 Your Eyez Only! You want to have issues with Pitchfork, I've got a screed a mile and a half long of my issues with that site, but you being bitter because they've seen through your charade, that's one of the few things they've gotten right, especially when if we look at their top ten list this year you can see Chance The Rapper and A Tribe Called Quest. Yeah, of course Kanye's there - it's still Pitchfork - but the accusation of being anointed by race gets a hell of a lot thinner when the top three entries are Beyonce, Frank Ocean, and Solange at #1! And if you're going to claim you're on top of the game, maybe try not to rhyme rapper with itself twelve times in a row - screw this!



52. 'Just Hold On' by Steve Aoki and Louis Tomlinson - so here's the thing about solo entries from One Direction - when I've reviewed their albums, I've read through the liner notes, and I took note of the members who actually had writing credits. And by far the member with the most was Louis Tomlinson, who teamed up with producer Steve Aoki to push this as his first solo hit, getting an added boost from The X Factor to land on the Hot 100. Now Aoki's brand of EDM tends to be a little brighter and sharper than most, but I've always tended to find his mix balance a little shallow - and yeah, that's definitely true here, from the synth tones to the compressed layers around Louis' vocals, which are already higher and thinner than most of the rest of the group. Yeah, there's a decent lower groove in the synths and percussion, but that whirring squeal on the drop isn't doing much for me, and I can't exactly say that this flatters the subject matter either. Reportedly he wrote this about his mother's struggles with leukemia... and then she sadly passed away, which can't help but render this song a little bittersweet... even if I do think that tonally it's a bit of a jarring fit and it can't help but feel unspecific. Still, for EDM in this mold it's not bad, I guess, I can take it.


(no video because J. Cole)

34. 'She's Mine Pt. 2' by J. Cole - and now we're into the J. Cole album properly, and starting with one of the better songs, a bass-touched piano and organ ballad with ragged strings where J. Cole - or his friend, it's intentionally not entirely clear - face their newborn children who squeal throughout the entire song and their fatalism shifts, now having a very real reason to live going forward. Of course, surrounding it are very low-key bars that feature J. Cole changing a diaper and musing on the commercialism of Christmas and Black Friday, an out-of-nowhere aside that doesn't work in context of the album... but putting that aside and J. Cole's mumbled singing which has never impressed me, there's a fragile emotional core to this song that I can actually appreciate. In other words... yeah, I don't mind this, it's a good song.

(no video because J. Cole)

30. 'Folding Clothes' by J. Cole - we move from one of the better songs to one of the worst, where against this blocky compressed bass, choppy guitar, and thicker backer vocals, J. Cole brings all of his intensity... to a song about folding clothes, watching Netflix, and drinking almond milk with his girl. And look, I get the intention here, with J. Cole trying to capture a moment of euphoria when the hood doesn't allow men in his position to openly express this sort of happiness - the last verse gets close to capturing how weird it can feel - but between the bad singing on the bridge and the misplaced energy and how the hook resolves on minor chords and how unbelievably corny some of these bars are, I just can't get behind this - next!


(no video because J. Cole)

29. '4 Your Eyez Only' by J. Cole - we now come to another legitimately solid song on this record, featuring some of J. Cole's most consistent rapping and verses against a firm bass, jazz-inspired horns, piano on the hook, and a guitar and strings that ebb in and out. But again, this is the thesis statement of the album, where for the first three verses J. Cole speaks from his drug dealer friend's perspective as a final message to his daughter before his impending death and the final and longest from J. Cole's perspective giving his point of view. And honestly, his verse isn't needed here to drive home the point, especially coming off the rest of the album which makes the themes clear - especially coming off that ridiculous sneezing pun on the third verse - but I do appreciate J. Cole stating that his friend's legacy is secure, not because he was hard but because he loved his daughter. The song definitely runs long, but again, I don't mind this - solid song.


(no video because J. Cole)

24. Ville Mentality' by J. Cole - and now we're back to J. Cole crooning over a wiry bassline, sparse piano, strings and J. Cole's complaining in the 'more money, more problems' and musing about a retirement that's never going to happen, and interjecting it with snippets of a child running away when her mom scolds her as she thinks about her dad. So is the parallel he draws ironic to castigate running from one's problems as childish, or sincere like everything else on this album? Really, it's impossible to tell, because the song is so painfully underwritten that I really can't get behind it. Next!


(no video because J. Cole)

23. 'For Whom The Bell Tolls' by J. Cole - okay, I'll give this song some credit for the ominous vibe. The sleigh bells, the clicking beat, the squealing horns... and then we have J. Cole singing in a voice that sounds completely fried about seeing something dark coming, probably his death. Okay, not a bad way to set the mood and highlight the suicidal themes that'll run through the record, but between the atmosphere not quite getting there for me and J. Cole's vocals... eh, it's not bad, but not great either.


(no video because J. Cole)

22. 'She's Mine Pt. 1' by J. Cole - I'm a little conflicted about this song. On the one hand, it's got the same drippy delivery and instrumental that I wasn't really fond of on 'Pt.2', but I thought the bars were a tad more cohesive in expressing his vulnerability... so why in the Nine Hells is the second line on his one verse describing his girl is 'plus the head game is stronger than a few Excedrin'? You all see what I mean about how self-serving this can be, even when it's trying to be vulnerable and honest? Other than that, I still think 'Pt. 2' is a more developed song, so it gets the plus here, not this.


(no video because J. Cole)

21. 'Change' by J. Cole - and here we have one of the most controversial songs on this record, one that I was initially on to like courtesy of the glitchy tones forming the scratchy melody and the rougher beat and Ari Lennox's welcome backing support... but then we have to get into J. Cole's content and I'm left frustrated yet again. I can appreciate making peace with death, as J. Cole drops another huge clue surrounding the album's narrative arc and showing how toxic the violence in the hood can be, especially when it's glamorized and called 'real', especially when he discovers that he can use his bars and content to get free... but then we have that first verse, where he asserts that God understands the plight of these men and should give them consolation, whether they shoot someone out of ignorance or because they're bitter or in pain they beat their wives. No mention of asking for forgiveness or showing genuine remorse, just J. Cole's version of a plenary indulgence to excuse spousal abuse. Disgusting, and a toxic line in an otherwise good song - next!


(no video because J. Cole)

13. 'Neighbors' by J. Cole - now here we actually get a good song, probably one of the best off of 4 Your Eyez Only. It takes the same fragmented, choppy melody against a rougher beat and a stronger hook as J. Cole tells the true story of the police raid on his house in North Carolina because his rich white neighbors thought he was dealing out of it. Potent story, it ties the narrative together and gives weight to J. Cole's real frustration with a prejudiced system, showing how it can still impact his life even despite his fame and success. There's honestly not a lot to complain about here - I don't love the punchline of the hook, where he's not selling dope but dope rhymes - ugh - and that line how he'd screw the fame but not the fortune, which kind of puts a lie to that anti-capitalist rant he goes on 'You're Mine Pt. 2', but eh, that's minor. As it is, despite how much I've gone off on J. Cole, this is a good song, I'll take it.


(no video because J. Cole)

11. 'Immortal' by J. Cole - you know, it's very telling that the highest J. Cole debuts came from the songs that sound most like Drake, with the off-tune warbling of the melody and sparse trap beat driving the sharper flow that leads into the hook. And look, there are elements I like about this - the fatalism and depression, the unease that comes when there's a drought in the trap with limited-to-no drugs to sell, the commentary in the outro that comes in the few ways black men are told to get out of the trap, either through the NBA, dealing, or rapping - and yet it's very telling that J. Cole actually did the latter to do it. Sure, I get this song is supposed to be from his friend's perspective, and the fatalism that comes from dying young to have a legend or living long but unfulfilled, and that J. Cole is trying to satirize this... but why do I get the feeling that with this tone and delivery that message isn't going to come through properly, especially given his bragging on the second verse? Eh, look, this is not bad, but again, J. Cole is capable of better.


(no video because J. Cole)

7. 'Deja Vu' by J. Cole - I shouldn't even be surprised this is the big J. Cole song that took him to the top, no matter how awful it is. Let me start by saying that I don't care about the producer feud surrounding who stole the beat from who, which is why Bryson Tiller had this same sample to market first with 'Exchange' - I'm not so fond of the sample or production here that I care all that much. Once again, my larger issue is the content, where J. Cole steps into the shoes and flows of Drake, with the first verse playing his love at first sight for this girl with complete sincerity, despite the fact she's got a boyfriend, and the second verse, after the DJ shouts driving the hook for guys to hook up at the end of the night. And by the second verse, J. Cole is wondering how this guy could let her go out at night and for her to put her number in his phone regardless - and yet on the final bridge he says that despite this girl being 'made for him', he doesn't want her to wait around and he can't make any promises. So is this love at first sight or what, J. Cole, or are you just being the disingenuous liar that's been hiding beneath the surface your entire damn career? At least Bryson Tiller can admit when he's an asshole, but J. Cole is too much of a coward to honestly frame his douchebaggery, because he's such a nice guy. Again, screw this - next!


(no video because Zayn and Taylor Swift haven't shot one... yet)

6. 'I Don't Wanna Live Forever' by Zayn & Taylor Swift - you know it's been a rough week if I'm stuck hoping that a collaboration between an underperforming boy band member and a dangerously overexposed celebrity with a tarnished reputation teaming for a Fifty Shades Darker theme song might actually bring some quality. And yet to be fair here I had hopes this could work - if Taylor Swift wanted to pivot towards darker, more sexual material this would be the way to do it, and both artists desperately need some teeth to their material. So this... I don't know what I was expecting, but I can't say I'm impressed by this. If you were expecting any sort of kinkiness to it, you're definitely going to be disappointed, because if anything it's a song where Zayn and Taylor Swift pine over each other in the aftermath of a relationship that Taylor ended. Okay, first things first, if this song is trying to equate Ana with Taylor Swift, who has been comfortable in the role of dominant for years now... well, it doesn't line up, not helped by Zayn spending the majority of the track in his admittedly strong falsetto. Lyrically... again, they're working off of the seriously messed up understanding of BDSM from the Fifty Shades series, but really, you could easily view this as just another love/hate relationship whether neither side was giving the other what they needed, it's that lacking in distinct detail. And just like so much of the rest of the music associated with this series, the production just isn't all that sexy or sensual - a rattling lo-fi beat, fuzzy scratches, gurgling synths, and a burst into a faint twinkle of piano against trap snares. The groove of it all is painfully underweight and lacking any sense of subtlety - I like Jack Antonoff's production work, but this seems out of his wheelhouse. Overall, the leads aren't bad here, but it doesn't really add up to much, less than the sum of its parts and overall kind of forgettable - sorry.

But that was this week... and wow, a lot of this sucked. For the best... as much as I don't want to give this to J. Cole, '4 Your Eyez Only' really is the best song here, with 'Neighbors' clinching the Honourable Mention. But he's also getting the worst with 'Deja Vu', with the Dishonourable Mention here going to the epic butchering of Etta James' classic by Sundance Head. Let's pray that all of this takes a considerable loss in the next week, the last thing I want here is for J. Cole's mediocrity to stick around.

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