Drake – “Teenage Fever”


“Teenage Fever” by Drake (OVO Sound/Cash Money/Young Money/Republic, 2017)

Drake’s music is all about bringing back what he once presumed dead. And if his own writings to exhume a tomb was not enough, the beats which he rides have consistently made up for his shortcomings. By now, the Drake sound is clearly defined: overseen by Noah “40” Shebib, the bummer of a production all focuses on emptiness. The ghastly theme music haunts like a grudge, just like its author.

“Teenage Fever,” from More Life, sounds no different than the typical Drake laments. Produced by Hagler, the bumpy beat tumbles upon itself with its house sounds so oddly shaped. The singer is no less sloppy, hungover from his feelings in a room empty like Marvin’s. But of course, there’s that chilly sample rising from underneath, a voice heard on no other Drake record: “If you had my love and if you had my trust, would you comfort me?” sings the pitched-down ghost of Jennifer Lopez, brought from her 1999 single, “If You Had My Love.”

Drake has tried to communicate with the dead a lot since So Far Gone, his breakthrough mixtape that defined his whole sound. While many women of his past go unnamed, he addressed the literal dead by their first and last whenever he sought credence. “Uptown” wished for the blessing of Houston’s DJ Screw as he paid homage by turning the speed real slow. “The Motto” did the same but through the bass of Bay Area hyphy to hopefully get a word from the deceased Mac Dre. His music at times felt like a Ouija board, with his scene-specific sounds and samples as the medium. But he never achieved his ultimate goal to talk to Aaliyah, whose whole aesthetic crafted with Timbaland and Missy Elliott is the blueprint to Drake and 40’s.

His closest to a breakthrough was “Take Care,” a single lifting Jamie xx’s remix of Gil-Scott Heron’s “I’ll Take Care of U” wholesale. The song was not originally supposed to be a dialog between the living and the deceased, but Heron’s voice floats like a specter around the piano-led hymn in retrospect of his passing not long after the song was released.

This introduces, then, Rihanna as the medium with her singing the late legend’s words in place of him. She plays a special case as she’s also Drake’s former flame off the record. She’s not the only woman entangled in his love life invited to duet with him; if Nicki Minaj’s “Moment 4 Life” cannot be a contender, she still has “Make Me Proud.” But Rihanna’s definitely the only one who has been both Drake’s real-life lover and sample — a true medium between the dead and alive in Drake’s world.

Until “Teenage Fever,” of course. Though, this is the other way around: a sample from a piece of music by Drake’s past love. (Let’s not worry about the legitimacy of their relationship for a second here.) Drake converses with the past like he’s talking to a vision. The woman isn’t really there, neither the unnamed ex or J. Lo herself, but it’s real enough for him to spew his issues at the ghost. In this way, “Teenage Fever” might be the purest Drake song thus far: a record that captures a ghost of his past love, on and off the record, in an eternal loop.

Frank Ocean – “Chanel”


“Chanel” by Frank Ocean (no label, 2017)

So many names get dropped in “Chanel”: Cam’ron, the city of Shibuya, Gaspard Noe, 21 Savage (or at least a very clever reference to him), Dennis Rodman, Delta airlines, and of course, the designer brand where the song gets its name. But one name remains untold, and it’s one I’m most curious about.

Who knows who Frank Ocean means when he briefly sings about “my guy,” pretty like a girl with fight stories to tell. That’s all he tells you. Genius writes a good one in relation to Frank’s ambiguous sense of sexuality, though the annotations are dubious. For all he sings, “he” could be his ride. Because he sure loves to talk about cars more than people: from what I read in interviews, he spends more energy investing in where his cars reside than his own self. All these car metaphors start to sound less and less like innuendo.

The car talk is important, though. Frank Ocean’s world is built upon items and brands; they’re what gives it life. CD-Rs and Walkmans tell how he experiences music while they tells how his universe has no future nor past. Details and slang come with their own hyperlink, so he’s sort of a punchline rapper. But he’s not one by choice: without a reference to celebrity or item of clout, his world crumbles.

All his brand talk, then, is how he hides. His public display of interests is there to distract you from more private matters. It’s why he has to his tattoos in Shibuya. Though he worries it might paint a wrong impression of him as some kind of member of the city’s underworld, he fears more about being asked about the personal meaning behind the ink. His stacks of $1,000 Delta gift cards sound like a flex, and sure, it might be intended as one. But I worry about what made Frank accumulates such a big amount of airline certificates. Is he running away from something? Someone? And why?

Frank’s music is intimate but on his own terms. I love “Nike” because he similarly obscures what he wants to say: I remember more the name drops of Pimp C, ASAP Yams and Trayvon Martin than any specific details he might have revealed in that song. Except for the last part about not being the one but at least being good. The bit that cuts through in “Chanel” isn’t the designer-brand double entendre but the most direct and tender sentence that follows: “It’s really you on my mind.” There, another name kept in secret. Though Frank may never share it, he has already told enough.


April – ‘Prelude’


Prelude EP by April (DSP Media, 2017)

My response for April’s music video for “April Story” was overall positive but it also made me wonder that, well, I might be too old for this shit. The clip sells a starry-eyed brand of young-girl innocence with the members literally playing porcelain dolls,  and the string-led pop backing the group personifies their white lace dresses to a T.

The pop innocence of April is preserved through a borrowing of nostalgia, drawing from more classic pop with soft guitar strums, string embellishments and boogie bass lines. Sure, buzzing synths lights the stage of “Muah!,” but take the kits away, and the kick and bass line makes it a decent disco pastiche.  The accents of strings and bells in “April Story” or “Stop the Time” wink back further to the age of classic girl groups, who set the standard of age-appropriate playground romance in pop music.

The pop template followed by April may be a safe route to more easily reap rewards, though it’s far from a statement. And I’m not too confident to say prudence is a major sell this day and age in pop music. That said, their softer approach to youth is a welcome alternative from other girl groups who double down on a bubbly, girly persona or even the older units who work tirelessly to define adult-rated edginess to convey maturity.


S.E.S. – ‘Remember’


Remember by S.E.S. (SM Entertainment/KT Music, 2017)

With nostalgia in pop reaching the late ’90s, the return of S.E.S. feels appropriate. The Korean pop trio of Sea, Eugene and Shoo celebrates the 20th anniversary of its debut this year, first appearing with I’m Your Girl in 1997. By Love, their peak success of album from 1999, they rode the coattails of the decade’s trend in R&B; “Twilight Zone” from the album echoes the mellow jams of, say, Mariah Carey from a few years prior. And the three brought the era back with a throwback to New Jack Swing in the single “Paradise” last December.

“Paradise,” though, is a little more than a simple copy of their prime decade. The stocky yet slinky percussion nods heavily to the source, and the keys glow like the yesteryear, but the liveliness of it all whites out any vintage fade. It’s instead a rightful 2017 take on the ’90s: a revamp of the sounds of yesterday with the savvy of today. Their reunion album, Remember, shares that feeling as a whole as it posits S.E.S. as not just veterans of K-pop but still competent to fit with the pop climate of the present.

Other parts of Remember stick to nostalgia at its core. The balmy synth whine, the pillowy bed of keys, and especially that girl-group chorus stamp “Love [story]” as a piece of the times. “Birthday” bring in a sticky bass line as well as retro-house pianos to live up a party. Yet present-day production quirks slip in between the cracks. The former’s percussion briefly crinkles as if the flashback wrinkles with the fabrics of the present for a second. The latter’s filtered intro flirts with the dance-pop of today, swaying in the warmth of the tropics.

No major-label player of pop isn’t free from balladry, so Remember isn’t without a few. But their context of a throwback puts an advantage to fit the ballads as less of an obligation, the booming EDM drums notwithstanding. And for this reunion album, especially for a record trying to playing with today’s stars, it suggests an interesting point that some things in pop hasn’t changed. The title track could’ve been released any time during the group’s 20-year career. The title also adds a wink with a call to reminisce on not just a love that got away but also a certain decade in pop as well as S.E.S. themselves. This added layer can only come with time, the very quality S.E.S. has above everyone else.


Toyomu – ‘Insho VII: Maboroshi no Kehai’


Insho VII: Maboroshi no Kehai by Toyomu (no label, 2016)

*Listen/Purchase via Bandcamp

Thanks to Apple Music and Tidal being inaccessible in Japan, Toyomu had to create his own The Life of Pablo at the time of its event release in February. Given only sources available online like Who Sampled and Genius, he cobbled together less a remix project than a simply surreal, creative listening experience of the newest Kanye album.

The Kyoto producer’s latest for his Insho series his re-imagined Pablo was his third installment — works somewhat in reverse for American listeners. His seventh release, Maboroshi no Kehai, remixes J-pop icon Utada Hikaru’s Fantome in its entirety. The source record created as big of a buzz in Japan as Kanye’s did in the U.S.: Fantome marked a return of arguably the biggest J-pop star of the 21st century after her six-year absence. But again, Japan’s music-industry politics with streaming services gets in the way for anyone in the U.S. to listen to the much-talked-about album digitally.

So true to the title, Toyomu’s project stands as an impression of Fantome for American listeners. And as far as resemblance goes, the body of work is a fun-house mirror reflection Utada’s work. For one, the hip-hop influence of the album gets amplified. “Ore no Kanojo” is beefed up with punchier drums in “Watashi wa Taiyou.” “Kouya no Ookami” hilariously transforms into a drum-machine-heavy electro beat in “Sunaoka no Gunman.” And “Tomodachi” gets groovier through funky sample chops and skittering drums in “Kakawari.”

A more sensitive exploration is the original album’s experience of grief. More than a few of Utada’s songs shoulder a deep sense of loss, inspired perhaps by her mother’s death during the writing of the album. Though the original piano take of “Manatsu no Tooriame” rules superior, Toyomu offers an intriguing alternative with a more flat melody and wonky sounds in “Emmert no Housoku.” His takes of “Sakuranagashi” and “Hanataba wo Kimini” suggest the experience much after the initial loss as both “C#” and “Hanataba Ne-chan” float like specters.

Toyomu’s treatment of the original source in the latter hits a deep note. Utada’s voice echoes infinitely distant, detached from the physical world. And the phantom of a chorus disappears far too soon like a fading of a memory. The original song deals with messages the singer wishes she can share but no longer can, with the titular bouquet of flowers as her compromise. While Toyomu’s “Hanataba Ne-chan” gets at her desire to communicate, a lack of resolution adds a much more heartbreaking note to end on.

And like “Hanataba Ne-chan,” Maboroshi no Kehai works best when Toyomu interacts with the source samples. Following the maudlin song comes “Kamomesama ga Miteru,” a take on “Nijikan dake no Vacance,” Utada’s collaboration with Ringo Shiina. The two daydream about an innocent escape in the original, and Toyomu takes it one step further by adding a larger sense of distance. Seagulls and ocean waves, a crackle of radio waves crackling, an intermission of an older Ringo Shiina record the whole thing sounds like ambient music at Utada and Shiina’s fantastical vacation.


Red Velvet – ‘Rookie’


Rookie by Red Velvet (SM Entertainment, 2017)

Red Velvet somewhat fumbled their previous, much anticipated follow-up of a project. The Velvet mini album from last spring muted the group’s bright ebullience of The Red, their debut full-length, from 2015, for the sake of showing more earnest seriousness. The Korean group took their edgy (red) and soft (velvet) dichotomy to heart with these two releases. Though the latter’s sincerity might be a quality good for the obligatory ballad or two, it stalled when stretched for a five-song project.

The group’s latest Rookie mini album similarly had a success to live up to. A return of color in last fall’s Russian Roulette mini album brought back the momentum from The Red and then some. They doubled down on their dumb-dumb silliness, but they took on traditional showmanship as well as a slick posing of pop cool. Rather than focusing upon one possible element of a pop unit, they put their stack of chips in a diverse pool.

The moves paid off, and Rookie carefully reaps the profits to a bring a more wrangled product. The harp-led stroll of “Little Little” glow genuinely as their shtick as much as their usual high-energy skitter of “Happily Ever After.” And “Talk to Me” is what lies in the middle of the sweeter and edgier ends of the two. This strategy to create a cohesive whole, rather than a range of exercises, yields less immediate fireworks, admittedly. But the result gets that much closer to defining the singular Red Velvet sound.

A new, very welcome exploration for Red Velvet from Rookie is “Body Talk.” Similar to the tropical house bop of “Some Love” in Russian Roulette, they’re granted a stage to flex more of their cool. But the stakes feel higher with one serious, low-lit club production to grace a RV project. They hinted at a want to bend the rules a bit to show off their personalities in “Rookie.” Here, they have to oblige to no sugary hooks. Instead, they go with a stylish, more grown flair to further reveal a new side. A few more songs in this vein, would be killer, perhaps for an imminent sophomore full-length, but for now it’ll be a tease.


Kehlani – ‘SweetSexySavage’


SweetSexySavage by Kehlani (Atlantic/TSNMI, 2017)

The bad-bitch persona Kehlani proudly flaunts gets the attention, though I’m more intrigued with what she decides not to share on SweetSexySavage. “I know that you hear this, and you gon’ just know I’m speaking to you,” she subtweets on “Personal.” She offers no more than a “they” as a clue, and no song from the album yields much more specifics, but it doesn’t stop me from wondering who exactly inspired her many songs.

The debut shows tender moments, too, fulfilling the first two of the three parts of the title. “They don’t want us together, but it don’t matter, no,” Kehlani sings in “Undercover,” swiping a chorus of a throwback Akon single, out of all sources. And again, that “they.” While it certainly can stand in for just about any person you desire, other addresses such as “Personal” frame it through more of a, uh, personal lens than a mere blanket pronoun. She’s thinking about someone, or at least a faint suggestion of it, as she sings these songs. Throughout, her debut doubles as a dedication to those who matter in her life, good or bad. “The real ones, they know” that’s the most you’re gonna get out of her about this “they,” and it’s for the better.