Q.U.E.E.N – Janelle Monáe

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It’s not even the most perfect pop song Janelle Monáe has made, but it’s still one of the fiercest out there.

Q.U.E.E.N

In Janelle’s Metropolis suite (possibly the best set of concept albums ever made), queerness, blackness and robotness are wrapped around each other and permeate every work in a fiery web of resistance and empathy. Those letters stand for Queer community, Untouchables, Emigrants, Excommunicated and  ‘for those labelled as Negroid‘. An intentional anthem for the marginalised, we have this insatiable bassline wrapped around a conversation about queerness and judgement that sets me on fire every time.

Simultaneously inclusive and confrontational, Janelle rides this particular tightrope presenting questions about societal unacceptability that throw them into relief and act as calls to unity, a cry of solidarity. Yes, it’s okay to dance late at night, twerk in the mirror and throw bones on the ground. The questions are reconstructed as defiance, rejecting assumed answers and declaring solid independence.

Am I a freak for dancing around?
Am I a freak for getting down?
I’m cutting up, don’t cut me down
Yeah I wanna be, wanna be QUEEN

She does that subtle thing of never quite making it clear what she’s talking about, whilst building bonds with those in the know. The sly references to queerness, blackness and other marginalised identities could be missed by someone just seeing a song about taking to the dancefloor with a bit of extra sass, but here the dance is political, rejecting religious resistance.

The whole thing almost sounds borderline footloose, until the song tilts. Erykah Badu takes us to one side, promises a melody that can show us another way, and then Janelle brings down the fire.

Janelle’s rap at the end of this track is one of those utterly excoriating calls to arms that deserve to change the world.

Are we a lost generation of our people?
Add us to equations but they’ll never make us equal
She who writes the movie owns the script and the sequel
So why ain’t the stealing of my rights made illegal?

An explicit case is made, dancing might bring us together, but we need to take that unity to the streets, with solidarity and purpose, we need to mark our difference, celebrate it, and set the world on fire.

When Janelle says she doesn’t think they understand what she’s trying to say, and then burns the world with her words (in a voice so distinctly different I always thought it was Badu), it’s just incredible.

And it’s matched in the music. Everything has toned down to a quietness, and then as Janelle’s fire catches, the music opens up into this world spanning mass of strings. The textural shift from this voice and violin is legitimately one of the most perfect storms in all of music. This section of this song literally takes my breath away. I feel more alive when I listen to it, even though occasionally it fills me with all the urgent emotion of a panic attack. It pulls down on my insides and fills me with hope and, yes, fire.

Great pop can burn with a light bright and hot, and this does. It’s bright enough to bring us together, and hot enough to melt shackles. A song about fighting for freedom, resisting the world, and making it change.

Will you be electric sheep? Electric ladies, will you sleep?
Or will you preach?

Janelle’s dark future dystopia is no worse than the world today. That’s what she’s singing about. It’s real, it’s here, and we need to fight the fuck out of it.

Music and sci-fi can both be escapist, but they can also wake us up.

And this song is the funkiest, most furious alarm call you will find.

Listen close.

I couldn’t say it to your face – Arthur Russell

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It’s odd that my first Arthur Russell pick should be a dose of countrified sad pop that might be too bleak to be pop.

But, well, it’s perfect and small and sharp and heartfelt. So it’s here.

I couldn’t say it to your face.

It’s actually pretty banal at this point to say that silences can make these glorious and empty holes in a track that punctuate perfectly. But it’s also true. And this song features some of the most heartbreaking pauses you’ll ever hear. Encased in blasts of horn, they feel like regret made solid. You can hear Arthur’s heart break in those silences. You can hear every ounce of forgiveness that isn’t forthcoming.

Country music is probably the genre I’m least engaged with. But I know it’s famous for it’s sadness, regret and relentless moving on. This song captures all of that, and wraps it in horn, drum, piano and voice.

The brass is fantastic, quiet, high and intensely forlorn. It skirts around the edges, and just scores those emotions with these occasional bursts of brashness. The depth of sadness as it kicks in after each pause is heart fracturing, even just that horn would do it.

Then the steady and ever so slightly out of tune organ that underpins everything.

The whole song sounds half finished and worn out. Arthur’s voice and the drums are the most insistent and solid thing here (ironic for a song about not being able to talk), everything else pulls back, holds us down, underlines the sadness.

But it’s certain. Confident. It know it’s the right thing, despite all the doubt in those silences. It’s defiant.

It’s my world
It’s my song
Didn’t ask you to sing along;
In my arms, you girl, you won’t be here to say I’m wrong

Maybe it isn’t even sad. Maybe it’s about freedom. Maybe it’s not doubt in those silences. Maybe it’s certainty. Solidity. Movement.

Whatever it is, it’s so sharp and pointed and powerful that I can’t put it down. It’s a perfect statement in a short space of time. It’s got moments that pull you in. It pounds and slams you forward. It’s powerful pop. It’s the right sort of heartbreak.

Arthur’s better known for his experimental cello and weird-as-hell disco. It’s kind of strange that this record of country and folk songs exists, but they show a passion for pop even deeper and simpler than his passion for odd noises and squawking, lolloping disco.

Here Arthur masters an emotion in just a few minutes, with just a few tools. It’s a perfect arrangement, simple and solid and oh so gripping.

And every pause drowns me. Every return lifts me up.

Sad pop isn’t about feeling sad, it’s about feeling intensely. It’s about feeling as much as you can.

This song begs you to feel. It beckons you into a quilt of sadness and hope. It wraps you in horn and piano and Arthur’s oh so hearted voice.

I wish I could have said it to his face, but he’ll always have my heart.

The Rhythm Changes – Kamasi Washington

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It’s definitely way too early to start my pitch for jazz standards as archetypal pop and The Rhythm Changes as a new jazz standard candidate, but the opening keys of this track have already got their hooks in me, and I’ve no power to resist.

It’s not that big a leap to call the jazz standards the pop of their era, and you’d need a brighter and more informed mind than me to actually dig into the meaning of the word pop at a time when people still gathered round the piano with scores bought for pennies or went to stage shows purely because they knew a new banger would be promised. I’ll simplify it though: as short, hooky songs which begged listeners and performers to get involved and put their own stamp on them, those jazz classics absolutely fit any criteria I’m willing to throw at a song to call it pop.

And frankly, if you don’t see some Gershwin and Porter on these pages before I finish, it means I’ve given up shockingly early.

But this isn’t yet a standard, it’s a seven minute jam, heaped with solos, from a three hour long maximalist jazz record. It doesn’t matter that Kamasi is as trad as fuck, trying to reinvigorate the big band scene with a huge swell of great music and great musicians. The fact is that jazz isn’t pop these days.

Except maybe to nerds like me, digging away to find gems like this.

That opening fuzz of organ and keys is exhilarating beyond belief, slowly coming from nowhere and ripping you in it. The drums lollop in and the piano fills out the theme and before you know it you’ve got a swing in your step.

Patrice Quinn owns the moment wholly. Her voice punctuates and proposes. It doesn’t need the choir and brass that eventually start padding her out, but my god does it feel deservedly decadent and lustrous when it does.

The rises endlessly, always building and lifting and pulling you up. Always more open, always stronger, always more fascinating. The solos are often simple and straightforward, and they don’t outstay their welcome, just provide one or other viewpoint on the way up this glorious hill of a song. Somehow begging you to pound your feet ever upwards, filled with promise and change.

The rhythm never changes, ironically, it’s such a steady, solid roll. But it’s perfect, because everything else changes around it. It’s this perfectly smooth grounding layer to keep everything else recognisably whole, no matter how off course the performers want to take it.

It’s probably why I think of it as a standard actually. The core of the track is so simple and ubiquitous that it provides that bed of expectation you kind of need for good jazz to really get its hooks in.

For me the benefit of the standard is that you know what it’s supposed to do, so when a particular performer plays fast and loose with it, you know where it’s coming from, even if you don’t know where it’s being taken. The deconstruction feels familiar, knowable. It’s why jazz covers are so common, because you know what’s being done to a song you’ve heard a million times before, you get to hear it afresh, with new ears. Just like the first time.

Here the same effect is created by just creating that simple, irresistible progression, defining it with a perfect vocal, then letting a sequence of instrumentalists pull it apart, ever so gently. Once it’s handed back to Patrice, you should already be firmly ensconced in the world of the song, and that finale will just leave you begging for more.

It’s one of the subtler, simpler and least resistible tracks on Kamasi’s Epic, but it’s also one of the best examples of a pop delicacy I’ve heard from jazz in many years.

If you have a chance, see it live, I guarantee you it will thicken, swell and burst your heart before you’re even halfway through. What happens after that I can’t make promises about. I felt like I was on fire, in love and lifted to heaven all at once.

Just like all the best pop. For sure.

Let the rhythm change you.

Pharoahs – SBTRKT

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Sometimes pop is a landscape you move through.

Sometimes pop is a bottle you fill up, like a liquid, with your self.

Pharoahs, by SBTRKT is both of these things, and so much more.

It’s a simple framework, on the surface. Every element is tiny, clear and sharp (until the filters take over and blur it all into a mass of noise, but even that is done with a precision that very, very carefully overwhelms). Everything has space to breathe and stand alone. It deconstructs itself with it’s simplicity.

I need me a golden crown

Roses Gabor smoothly slides a layer of silken vocal over the top, providing punctuation and process to the song, but at its heart, this is a (sweetly) mechanical machine for making you move.

The drum beat is almost the simplest possible assembly of beats. Kick Snare Kick Snare Kick Snare Kick Snare. The most immaculate maraca in the business emphasising every in between.

It’s almost child’s play. You couldn’t come up with something simpler if you tried, but it is made so pointed and sharp by the simple clipping of every sound. Each element is separated from each other by the barest thread, enough of a gap to squeeze yourself into. It practically begs you to fill that space, to find a body part to wedge into every motion. It’s a ‘learn to shake ass’ kind of rhythm, making everything as simple as possible.

You can see how integral that cleanness is to everything by hearing what happens to the rest of the music every time the drum beat isn’t there. The drum keeps things in check, restrains it and purifies it. When those filters start blurring the lines between voice, melody and bass, the drums drop out, and everything gets lost in a kind of ecstatic tumult.

Again, it perfectly lets you ooze out of shape, it’s an invitation to let your dance get a little bit looser, more fluid, higher, more elastic.

And the drums kick back, and everything tightens, and so do you – having been relaxed into something more physical, more free.

This song wants to teach you how to love dancing. With every ounce of its self, it wants you moving with it.

The synth elements, a sassy strutting bass with accompanying organ harmonics provide a wash of nightclub neon. They glow, sometimes through smoke, to make room for Roses. Together they seduce. For all its danceability, the scene is much closer to a night drive through bright lights than the club itself.

But it’s definitely dancing that you’re being driven to.

All I see is you,

Stars,

Open arms,

Roses makes you the centre of the universe, even as she calls for her crown. But it’s because her kingdom is the gift she’s giving you, and in this case, the gift is movement, freedom and an irresistible desire to purse your lips and shake your hips.

Sass is one of my favourite things in music, a kind of sharpened femme aggression that can be expressed simply through a perfect harmonising of hips, bass and kick drums. It’s hard to capture, but a lot of my favourite pop bottles it, and then pours it back over me. It’s music that makes me feel like I’m moving more like myself than I could be without the music.

It’s music that fills me up, shakes me and then pours me back into it’s rhythm.

Liquid, perfect, and inescapably danceable.

 

How to explodeypops

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This is a sequel, of sorts.

Queen: an exploded diagram (aka Exploded Queen) was a big messy and glorious celebration of everything Queen. Literally everything. Every track from every Queen studio album. Even the ones I didn’t like (or at least, didn’t think I liked).

But this isn’t about Queen, because I already did that.

This is about pop.

Now, I’m going to hit a block almost immediately, in that I think I define pop differently to most people, so really, just about anything could end up in here. For me, pop is music that invites you in and asks you to take part in it. Music that wants you to sing, dance, clap or bounce along.

I guess you could argue that’s most music, and you might be right. So yeah, I could take this anywhere.

So maybe it’s not about pop, maybe it’s just about celebrating the way I engage with music, and the way I hope other people do.

It’s a simple set up, really, I’m going to pick a song, and rant about it. I might look at its dynamics, its history, its politics, its lyrics, places I’ve heard it, things I’ve felt about it. It could be anything. All you’re guaranteed is a set of thoughts about a thing I like.

It’s going to be amazing though. Because I’m going to pick songs I love, and I’m hopefully going to make you love them too.

Music to me is a really physical experience. Songs don’t often make me cry, but they always do something to my body. I’ve had ‘good panic attacks’ listening to a song, where it felt like my heart was going to actually jump out of my throat, and my body might melt into the ground. A song as triggered a burst of love for an old friend that started in my nose and radiated through my body like the sun jumping out from a cloud. Songs have made me dance, fall over, shiver and stare at ceilings.

The right music, at the right time, is the most blissful and inexplicable experience.

And to be clear, I’m not ever going to try and explain why something is so blissful. Life isn’t actually about whys.

I’m just going to give you impressions, thoughts, and enthusiasm.

At the very least, it might remind you to find some music and turn it up loud.

And maybe it’ll be the song that’ll make your heart explode.