The Changing Mainstream
IN THIS PHOTO: Solange/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
in terms of album releases. There have been a lot of great albums released by men this year but, right now, it is female artists leading the charge. I will come to look at the mainstream and how the shape is altering but, today, we have treats from Solange, Self Esteem and Little Simz. There has been some cryptic talk and tease regarding Solange and whether she would be releasing an album soon. She is one of these artists who can put out little snippets and posts and get people whipped into a flurry. Now, with barely much time to take it in, she has put When I Get Home into the world. The fact that most American reviewers are still asleep and unable to give their thoughts provides a rare edge for the British press. There has not been a huge amount of feedback so far but, like 2016’s A Seat at the Table, it is another exceptional and personal album. Maybe it is a coincidence but the strongest albums of the year have arrived from female artists. With sexism in the industry still raging, the narrative is changing and reshaping what modern music is about. We still have a Pop core and sound but, more and more, artists like Solange are defining what constitutes real and important music.
She has provided energy in her latest album but, like the artists I will mention, the focus is more on personal revelation and deeper issues. I have noted this when it comes to modern music: how the traditional structures (looking at love in a very easy and accessible way) has been replaced by a broader and more challenging tone. Solange always provides spark and joy but her albums are more noted for other factors. The sophistication and depth one hears is astonishing; the songs tackle everything from race to gender identity and her latest is very much an album for the times. She does wear her heart on her sleeve but, rather than succumb to the ordinary and commercial, she has penned a record that has incredible weight and intelligence. With contributions from the likes of Tyler, the Creator and Sampha, When I Get Home is a rich and rewarding album but the central force is Solange. It is a bit early to get a feel from the critics but the fans love the album. Many have taken to Twitter to declare their affection. Maybe When I Get Home will surpass A Seat at the Table regarding reviews and fondness. There is strength and passion coming from the men but, in 2019, I am finding (already) the sharpest and most essential works are coming from women. Solange talks about a lot of challenging subjects but never in an angry or overly-complex way. One might expect a hugely rising star like her to produce something commercial and traditional but, like her strongest peers, the focus is very much on raising awareness and challenging perceptions – whilst sprinkling in a bit of heartache and personal confession.
A few more albums/artists I want to mention are doing a very similar thing regarding their sound and direction. Julia Jacklin’s new album, Crushing, is her second (the same as Solange) and is a step forward for her. Now, she has changed her lyrical perspective and looks more to herself. One can see Crushing as a very personal work that details relationship breakdown and her state of mind. Perhaps less jaunty and catchy as her debut, Don’t Let the Kids Win (2016), here is another case of a great artist taking a few years to take their music in a new direction. Solange and Julia Jacklin have different lives and experiences but both have produced potential album-of-the-year contenders! In an interview with The Guardian, Jacklin talked about the changes between albums:
“Lyrically, it’s quite a bit more basic than I used to write,” she says of her excellent new album, Crushing. “I always thought my second record would be really produced, like, ‘Watch out world, here I am!’ That’s how it always feels: that you’ve got to be a bigger, better version of yourself. But I was too tired to try to be anything more than I was.”
Who she was changed suddenly and without warning. As an intense touring cycle wrapped up, her long-term relationship ended and she returned home to Sydney to find a city that “didn’t really look the same”. Her gut reaction was to retreat into her new normal: more touring, a transient life she’d come to rely on and resent in equal measure. “With touring, I felt like I was just this thing that was getting from A to B,” Jacklin says, the powerlessness of that reality manifesting in a resigned shrug. “I felt totally disconnected from my own thoughts and my own wants and needs.”
Jacklin has spoken before of the early self-doubt that threatened to derail her potential, and how the process of performing her work on tour, to increasing crowds, reinforced the facts that she was deserving and legitimate. During the two years she spent on the road – “a really wonderful, turbo time of growth” – she also discovered that success in the music world was reliant on accepting its hazy parameters. “The social and business lines are just so murky,” she says. “Which I don’t love”.
One can hear a masterclass of narrative songwriting throughout Jacklin’s latest album and I think that is what defines the best records of this year. Whereas, in previous years, there has been a reliance on mainstream Pop and the disposable, common themes and sounds; this rich new seam of music is emerging that is much smarter, emotionally-complex and satisfying. The Independent gave their thoughts regarding Crushing:
“For my money, “Body” is the best thing on Crushing, a terrifically complicated breakup record that’s still got a hangar full of delights readied for takeoff. Those who fell for Jacklin’s 2016 excellent debut, Don’t Let the Kids Win, will find a continuity of alternative attitude and vintage influences. The video for new song “Pressure To Party” – Jacklin’s sneeringly ecstatic “three-minute scream” about what people expected of her after her relationship ended – is even shot in the same retro-fitted house as her first video, for “Pool Party”...
But there’s a deeper sense of personal connection to anchor Jacklin’s lyrical and melodic smarts. That snare drum keeps a relentless, nerve-snapping pulse throughout, with Jacklin sounding more confident in her contradictions: at once yearning to comfort a lover she’s dumped and then, on “Head Alone”, declaring: “I don’t wanna be touched all the time/ I raised my body up to be mine.” The rather glorious video for this one finds Jacklin running through the desolate streets of suburbia in a dress that looks like it’s been made out of 1980s curtain material for a sixth-form production of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet”.
The other two female artists who are changing the discussion and providing much deeper and interesting work in 2019 are Little Simz and Self Esteem. Let’s start with the latter. Before I go on, I am not suggesting previous years have lacked great songwriters and records but 2019 has begun with a real urgency and scent of change. Self Esteem is the moniker of Rebecca Taylor (Slow Club) and her debut solo album, Compliments Please, has received great reviews. Perhaps closer to Solange in terms of that mix of personal insight and addressing big themes in society, the album has that nice balance – this extends to the emotional palette. Complements Please can switch from funny and cutting to elegant and emotional. The compositions are stunning and Taylor, as a singer, has strengthened and brought more to her repertoire.
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
Taylor is, as she explained to DIY in this interview, more ambitious and free compared to her Slow Club days:
“Fuelled by a myriad of factors all contributing towards the strong, confident voice that defines her work now – from the relief of finally “being as myself as I possibly can be” to the broader impact of the #metoo movement and “realising my rights as a woman for the first time, because I grew up with this idea that you’ve got to be ladylike and I was always too loud” - hers is a slightly more experienced pop outlook that feels genuinely refreshing.
“I have massive ambitions – too big – and I know I’ll die unhappy, but I now at least know that I’ve given it a go in a way that ticks all [my] boxes and I couldn’t honestly have said that before, so it’s great,” she says. “And now, it’s so brilliant and so much fun to do and I’ve made a job that I like loads and that feels like success”.
I think, aside from the great female artists striking right now, the main flavour of 2019 music is a greater depth and sense of sophistication. Artists are still talking about their lives and woes but the ambition is increased and the sound is much bigger and rich. Taylor is able to combine seriousness and style with a genuine sense of the upbeat and hopeful. You get this accessible album that is able to cheer you but there is a lot to unpack and discover.
The Line of the Best Fit provided their review of Compliments Please:
“Her love of hip hop is imbued in the very core of Compliments Please, shirking much of the folkish arrangements of Slow Club for a sound far bolder, and at 16 tracks strong it is clear that Taylor is not short of ideas. Brewing a concoction of high octane, R&B infused pop, tracks such as "Monster" and "Actors" bring an essence of unrestrained glee in both their compositions and Taylor’s soaring and emotive vocal. That aforementioned love of hip hop - most specifically Kanyé West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and inflections of autotune - is entirely palpable on "In Time", pounding beats reinforcing a chanted mantra of assurance amidst gospel euphoria.
In her first outing as a solo artist, Taylor surmises an important lesson for us all: that of prioritising your own path and growth in spite of others trying to pull you astray. “Only now am I feeling like it's alright to be ambitious or have ideas. It's blowing my mind,” she stated recently. “I was so girly, so submissive. And it's time to just be true. No one's gonna fuck with me now”.
James Blake can sit alongside artists like Self Esteem and Julia Jacklin. His new album, Assume Form, is, perhaps, his most emotional and revealing album yet and one that has plenty of colour. The common link between all these artists/albums is a sense of openness but that desire to move forward and learn something – as though the recording process has been like shedding skin and a cathartic experience.
IN THIS PHOTO: James Blake/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Blake is part of this band of young songwriters who marries intelligent songwriting and production and is providing something more rewarding than the majority of the Pop mainstream. Little Simz is slightly different in terms of genres. Whereas you can sort of see a Pop common thread in Julia Jacklin (alongside Folk), Self Esteem and Solange (with R&B), Little Simz is in the Hip-Hop/Rap mould. Since 2017 – when Stillness in Wonderland (2016) bedded-in and resonated – Little Simz has grown and this has fed into her new album, GREY Area. In this article, it is revealing how the years have changed her perspective and outlook:
“Understandably, Simbi sees herself in a completely different space musically—which she partly attributes to having improved her own emotional well-being. “I don’t feel as down about things that happen in my life. I go through my emotions when I’m feeling them and I have my days, but maybe that’s because I’ve pulled it out.” It’s something that comes with experience, maturity and three albums under your belt. “Every time I do a project,” she adds, “it’s like I’ve collected a bunch of events that have happened to me, sat with it, and released all of it.” And you can see how she’s arrived at this point since the last album. In an interview with Noisey in 2017, Simz spoke of her desire to explore the world beyond London due to the lack of love she was receiving, telling the music writer Aniefiok Ekpoudom: “I need to be around people or in a place where I’m constantly getting better at my craft and becoming a better person, where I’m making progress. Being here can feel a little stationary, sometimes”.
If there is a common thread tying all these exceptional albums together it is a sense of growth and improvement. Maybe this is the new normal: musicians who are facing their pasts and channelling that need for hope into the music. There is a linked sense of hope and things improving combined with a very real and frank look at society at large. Already, many are talking about GREY Area in terms of being a benchmark this year; artists needing to follow it and this being a blueprint for the best of modern music. NME, in their review of GREY Area, made some interesting observations:
“On ‘Flowers’, the final track, Simz asks: “The ambition I have for myself – wanting to be legendary and iconic – does that come with darkness?”. Here, she reflects on her idols, like Amy Winehouse and Jimi Hendrix, and ruminates on their dizzying highs, but tragic endings. It’s a indication of the mindset she was in while writing ‘Grey Area’; the north London powerhouse was going through a dark time, which became pivotal in her creative process. You can hear this free-flowing energy – up and down– that runs through the album.
Across these 10 tracks, Simz utilises her most valuable commodity: honesty. Having stripped away the narrative cloak that shrouded the highlights of ‘Stillness In Wonderland’, she’s crafted a knockout record – and finally come true on her early promise. This is the best rap record of the year so far”.
IN THIS PHOTO: Sharon Van Etten/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
It is not completely female-dominated at the moment but I am seeing this wave come through that is very different to music made by the guys. I have not even mentioned Sharon Van Etten and her excellent album, Remind Me Tomorrow. It has also scored wonderful reviews and I think it is because of the sense of personal and inventive. The best songwriters of the moment are breaking from Pop tropes and bringing more personality, story and intelligence to the party. I think Van Etten has always been this way as a writer but she has experienced a lot of change over the past few years. Motherhood, a sense of fear and dislocation have affected her work and her spectrum is much broader and interesting then most of the mainstream. I have mentioned some great albums but there is a definite feeling that, along with a narrative change, there is a sonic shift. I feel the mainstream and bigger Pop artists hold less sway because their songs, largely, are not as original and deep as those I have mentioned. Ariana Grande’s thank u, next impressed critics and it is one of the strongest Pop albums that has been released recently. She is someone who avoids a lot of the worst traits of modern Pop and creates something with incredible eclecticism and flair. Her lyrics are stronger and less formulaic than a lot of her peers and she is setting an example. As much as I love the best albums of the year, I think there is a sense of lacking fun and catchiness.
It is hard to explain but I think, if you have catchy and fun Pop, it tends to lack new perspective and can seem quite shallow. A lot of the songs are over-produced and there is a real absence of soul. On the other hand, the more arresting artists around are producing great albums but they tend to be less explosive, joy-bringing and hooky than many Pop records. Perhaps it all comes down to that argument regarding popular music and whether it has become less fun and slower. I think there has been this shift from slightly bland and peppy Pop to music that holds great weight and emotion but is less youthful and fun. Is it possible, at a time when great music has personal insight and big themes nestling alongside one another, to make things fun and frivolous?! All of the records I have mentioned have their bigger and brighter moments but the focus is very much on the lyrics and a sense of serious. Are there any exceptions to this ‘rule’? Can we still find something interesting in mainstream Pop that is not BRIT Awards-lite, commercial and overly-proceeded? Years ago, the mainstream was full with fun, fantastic and broad Pop but things have become more homogenous and bland. Maybe Sigrid is the one exception to the rule, I think. Her album, Sucker Punch, is receiving a lot of love and she is one of the few artists who can produce proper bangers but make sure they are intelligent and not just thruway – like so many of her contemporaries’ records.
IN THIS PHOTO: Sigrid/PHOTO CREDIT: Francesca Allen for Billboard
A problem with Pop artists like Taylor Swift, Rita Ora and Shawn Mendes is a feeling that they are being manufactured and guided according to a flow chart and Spotify demands. They have their own style and some good songs but Pop struggles to break away from this rather plastic feel and sense that things are less about expression and innovation as they are music-by-numbers and commercialism. NME, when reviewing Sucker Punch, have stated how Sigrid is a bit different:
“While she’s technically playing by the rules, though, there’s a streak of defiance in Sigrid. The Norweigan’s major-label debut single, ‘Don’t Kill My Vibe’ was a gigantic FU to sexist gatekeepers, while ‘Savage In Our Blood’ – a live favourite, sadly not on this album – is a political anthem for a new generation of decision makers. Debut album ‘Sucker Punch’ shows the best of both of these sides of Sigrid, though thankfully it’s the edgier one that wins out.
Most of all, though, it’s reassuring that ‘Sucker Punch’ doesn’t feel like a meticulously choreographed and cunning plot to make Sigrid a International Pop Superstar. These songs may well do that all on its own, and its certainly a marvellous cap on a two-year campaign that did just about everything right – but it’s also more than that. ‘Sucker Punch’ is the story of a young adult whose tales of friendship, love and more aren’t just relatable because they’re supposed to be – they simply are”.
I do worry the best of modern music is less about fun and getting inside that warm place in your heart but, instead, we have a more stimulating and challenging group of artists who are taking music in new directions. We have the Pop mainstream and some fun artists but their music, in my view, is less memorable than the promising names that are defining this year so far. I think Pop has lost a lot of its promise and power through the years. There are endless reports regarding the changes and how the mainstream has become far more formulaic and repetitive. I have been listening to a lot of older Pop from the 1980s and 1990s and noticing how things have changed since. Maybe it is the production sound or the way artists wrote but the Pop was fresh and captivated the masses. There is more choice than there was now and I think Pop has not evolved enough to truly grab the imagination. There are too many artists sounding overly-processed and bland; big artists who sound the same as their genre peers and a chart that is full of same-sounding nonsense. Maybe newcomers like Dua Lipa are adding their own spice and promise; Lady Gaga and her more established peers are more interesting but fewer people are looking at traditional Pop for inspiration. Maybe some big Pop records this year will get great reviews – including Sigrid and the upcoming album from The 1975 – but the more commercial and chart-friendly artist is far less appealing at a time when many people are favouring music with more emotion and substance.
I am not sure whether the change is a bad thing but I do miss those fun and epic Pop records. Instead, we have artists like Sharon Van Etten, James Blake and Little Simz who are providing this alternative reality. I have only mentioned a few artists to illustrate my point but there is a definite gulf in terms of musicianship, maturity and nuance when you compare an album by, say, Sharon Van Etten and someone like Little Mix or Anne-Marie. Pop and the mainstream will never be overthrown and ignored – there are a lot of teens and pre-teens who love it – but the best of the Pop mainstream will struggle to match the best albums we have seen this year so far – maybe Ariana Grande and Sigrid are exceptions. I have been blown away by the new releases from Solange, Little Simz; Julia Jacklin and Self Esteem and, whilst there have been great male-led albums, it is the strong and sophisticated female voice that has more power, individuality and promise than the more staid, soulless and routine workouts from the Pop ‘elite’. Songs I remember from my childhood are in my brain because they were catchy and there was this easy charm. I feel music is changing now so that the music we will remember years from now (from this time) will be defined by different considerations.
Sure, there may be a few big choruses there but many of us will recall bold lyrics, eye-opening lines and fantastic albums. I think, whereas a lot of modern music is defined by singles and occasional moments, the best of the new releases are going to get people interested in albums as a whole. Because songwriters like Julia Jacklin are telling stories and portraying this expansive narrative, we need to listen to all the songs; albums of 2019 are very rich and every moments stands out. Less concerned with singles and creating an album with filler, I am discovering complete albums that keep me invested and keep my love of a full-length alive and burning. Maybe one must sacrifice a certain giddiness, chantable chorus and fun but, instead, we are getting something different that is not necessarily bad. This brings me back to the question as to whether traditional, mainstream Pop is as strong as it was and whether its popularity is based on considerations other than quality. I can see a change happening and there are far fewer standout mainstream Pop artists than there were a couple of decades or so ago. There is a distinct change and revolution happening; some titanic albums that have common links and will inspire generations to come. 2019 has started wonderfully and so many world-class albums have arrived over the past few weeks. Maybe it will take a while before everyone is converted away from the mainstream Pop artists and their sound to this alternative way but it will happen soon enough. Get behind this charge and these wonderful songwriters because this leap is...
PHOTO CREDIT: @wiesehofer/Unsplash
EXCITING to see.