Surface Buzz with Lizzo, Ariana Grande, Twice, and GFriend – Hyperallergic
The language of trap-pop has become so internationally pervasive it’s often hard to recognize — snare drums and synth loops are everywhere, hiding in corners, behind bushes, inside computers. The albums reviewed below represent a rather mixed bag of artists who’ve adapted R&B tropes to their own uses, whether sonic, conceptual, or out of sheer delight with themselves and the world. What they share is an understanding of surface.
Lizzo: Cuz I Love You (Nice Life/Atlantic)
After tweaking her old-school R&B style to fit a sleek pop template and announcing her intention to become “Aretha Franklin for the 2018 generation,” Lizzo switched from rapping to singing and earned her commercial breakthrough after five years as an underground rapper. The Minneapolis performer’s third album projects a boisterous enthusiasm intensified, and made more simplistic, by pop compression.
Lizzo’s loud, rousing party songs about self-love and body positivity have been treated as a new phenomenon, musical pep talks informed by social media and the self-help industry. This music represents the resurfacing of a tradition I thought had dissolved when Obama left office: the relentlessly upbeat campaign speeches of Glee, Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” RuPaul ballads.
Roaring over bouncy basslines and harsh keyboard blares, Lizzo’s songs share the same resounding triumphalism, the same insistence on uplift, although the focus has shifted: she’s describing and enacting confidence rather than aiming to write universal motivational anthems.
“Like a Girl,” about femininity as a mark of empowerment, or “Soulmate,” which declares she doesn’t need a relationship to be happy because she’s endlessly delighted by her own fabulosity — these are admirable sentiments performed didactically. While the summery, funk-lite rhythm guitars and exaggerated blues chords suit Lizzo’s excitement and zeal, Cuz I Love You presents corny retro-soul as an abstract token of fun so often that its celebratory force feels one-dimensional.
Still, her booming voice animates the album — stretching every which way, soaring up and down the scale, expanding notes into groans, strategically cracking at key emotional moments — and she particularly enjoys the slow jams, which are immersed in genre conventions and play as homages. My favorite moments are when she plays the flute, providing “Tempo” and “Heaven Help Me” with unexpected codas that exist in a weirder, more vulnerable emotional space.
This album whomps and exults, but Lizzo’s displays of resilience obscure emotion. When she has less to prove, she’ll let the music breathe.
Ariana Grande: Thank U, Next (Republic)
Ariana Grande’s Sweetener was a beautiful portrayal of first love’s glow, a warm, sunny collection of electronic thwocks and splashes that played like a single breathless swoon. The sequel is shorter and tighter, an equally playful embrace of independence and the joys of being alone. Together, these albums add up to contemporary pop’s most complex, empathetic, frivolous, perceptive exploration of adult romance.
The Ariana Grande Philosophy of Dating, as defined on the title song, “Thank U, Next,” views love as a lifelong self-improvement session: being single or coupled makes you no more or less alone; it’s okay for love to be utilitarian as long as you specify what you’re using it for; and each relationship should teach you a valuable new lesson about yourself, preferably one that can be encapsulated in a pithy maxim and tied off with a bow.
Whether you find this wise, cold, or silly doesn’t matter; by singing such marvelous therapeutic blather in the context of romantic pop, she opens a world of masks and mirroring that tests the contradictions inherent in public introspection, embracing persona refinement as its own thrill. The beats, whose soft keyboards and electronic strings swoop and intersect at odd angles, match her soprano, more feathery than ever, now that she’s accentuating her breathy lower register. The resulting bedroom sound is sharp and cozy, delicately shaded but driven by an elastic energy.
Compared to Sweetener, Thank U, Next at first seems slight, blithely tossed off in Grande’s particular insouciant way, but pretty soon the hooks start to click — the arpeggiated rhythm guitar on “Bad Idea” or the theatrically symphonic build that closes “Imagine,” — and invade her every sigh and melodic elongation. Behold an album whose apparent lightness deepens its emotional reach. Her masterstroke is to close with “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” in which she shrugs, forgets all the lessons she’s learned in the past 40 minutes, and winks at the audience.
Collapsing pop’s dual function as a distorted mirror and a lens to view desire, these songs resonate not for their maturity but for their willingness to dramatize confusion. Grande’s gift is to treat moods as poses while still respecting the chaos of an inner emotional life. Or, as she puts it: “I like when you’re mad/it’s a mood, it’s a vibe, it’s a look, it’s a match.”
Twice: Fancy You (JYP)
The current bestselling Korean girl group ever, Twice has achieved manufactured, unstoppable pop rushes before, but usually on isolated singles (especially the desperate, blushing “Likely”). This six-song EP overflows with hooks, noise, eccentricity, and juvenile defiance.
Although there is plenty of Korean pop that avoids the jam-packed density of its most internationally successful practitioners, those groups that attempt to scale down often end up with mildly pro forma pop-rock if not weepy piano balladry. Over their past few EPs, Twice has gradually arrived at a style that removes the core instruments, but keeps all the extra little sound effects that bubble and pop over skeletal, metallic drum machines.
This music is indeed spare, lacking centered keyboards or rhythm guitars; in their place is an echo chamber filled with pingponging plinks, bleeps, squiggles, honks, vocal loops, symphonic airhorns, simulated a cappella singers going doo-doo and dum-dum, and any number of abrasive electronic scratches; even the token ballad soars and aches over incongruously syncopated squeals.
Responding to each other in rapidly traded lines in unpredictable but precisely timed patterns, the girls of Twice replicate these musical dynamics at a higher level of human comprehensibility. Paradoxically, the relentless pep of other Korean girl groups, so eager to please, can strip songs of tension, and everything i becomes overly smooth; here, the same enthusiasm turns delightfully weird, almost an irritant, the source of cognitive dissonance, for if nine singers can hear such a racket and still confess their longings with a smile, something surreal must be going on.
“Stuck In My Head” pounds forth with a thundering electronic blare aligned with the drums, as the girls deliver a playground taunt, trying to sound needling (the chorus: “Stuck in my head like la la la la”). “Fancy You” plays like an upbeat crush song on paper, but the garbled sighs that provide the hook keep the singers distracted, refracted into a synthesized giggle, gleeful in its ache.
They extract not just joy from dissonance, which is easy, but seamless pop coherence, which is impossible. Over 18 minutes, they generate irrepressible cumulative momentum. The last song can only end abruptly.
GFriend: Time for Us (Source Music/kakao M)
In the past, GFriend has conjured disco-fueled magic, crafting lightly sugared confections that mesmerized with perfectly streamlined athletic motion. On this album, the fluffiness tips into pastiche.
Not much distinguishes Time for Us from the band’s previous full-length record, the fizzy, glittering LOL (2016): both albums share a flowery pastoral aesthetic that’s common in Korean pop, gliding with expertly manicured lightness as liquid keyboards and silky strings contain the songs in gilded, lace-plaited boxes. Both albums aim for the graceful, mechanical efficiency of pop-formalist exercises, for the thrill of mastering a received set of gestures, and both albums dissipate solemn piano, soothing strings, chiming acoustic riffs, and resounding electronic bells into a diaphanous mesh.
The one difference is melodic, as the chords have shifted from ecstatic major-key sunshine to plaintive major-key nostalgia, hinting ever so slightly at an underlying melancholy. Every song is a ballad; the fast songs are just fast ballads. It’s a small difference, but it’s enough; especially when the bells ring, the mood rings of kitsch.
Why certain chord progressions and not others sound intrinsically sentimental is an abiding mystery, but whether due to mere pattern recognition or underlying properties of music and human cognition, the phenomenon is real. Intricacy may be a factor — the pedantic, almost Broadwayesque melodic transitions shift often and with precision, as if announcing their intention to manipulate moods. So may texture — the soft, crisp surface provides comfort, at a distance. The exception is the yearning, delighted “Our Secret,” whose lustrous synthesizer hook spins them round.
By focusing compulsively on craft, GFriend stumbles into the saccharine. In the construction of lightness, subtle changes can snowball.
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