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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Pop music in review: leftfield chart-toppers and the growth of grime

Just when you think you have it pinned down, pop finds a way to zigzag in another direction

Luis Fonsi with one of four Latin Grammy awards for 'Despacito'. Kevin Winter / Getty Images
Luis Fonsi with one of four Latin Grammy awards for 'Despacito'. Kevin Winter / Getty Images

For pop-watchers, one of the most fascinating tensions in chart music emerges when attempts by the major-label industry to steer it towards a precision-tooled predictability collide with the slipperiness of the zeitgeist. Just when you think you have it pinned down, pop finds a way to zigzag in another direction – which is an other way to explain why two of this year’s defining hits were by artists barely on the mainstream radar at the start of it: a Spanish-language summer jam by two reggaeton veterans and a street-rap anthem by a former Instagram celebrity.

Both Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s Despacito, which topped the charts in up to 50 countries this year, and Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow illustrate that 2017 was a year of the return of the slow-burning hit, a song that can start small but then snowballs into ubiquity over a period of weeks and even months.

Despacito was released in January, and if it stood out on Latin radio it was because of being a well-crafted song rather than being any stylistic twist on reggaeton: laden with hooks, its central earworm chorus spiralled first into Fonsi’s crooned verse, then into Daddy Yankee’s tougher rap, and finally into an anthemic bridge that paid homage to Fonsi’s home country, Puerto Rico. It had already topped the Latin American charts by the time Justin Bieber got his grubby paws on the song – having heard it in a Bogota club – added an extraneous verse, and a crossover smash was born.

Bodak Yellow hadn’t even been engineered as a hit within its own niche. A couple of months previously, Cardi B had signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Atlantic Records off the back of a couple of mixtapes on which her brash humour translated even better than in social-media video clips – but the song that was meant to pave the way to a crossover was Lick. Featuring her now-fiancé Offset, one-third of Atlanta rap trio Migos, it was entirely in line with the consensus that cosigns from bigger artists were necessary leg-ups for new faces.

Cardi, it turned out, needed no such thing. Bodak Yellow, her spin on Florida rapper Kodak Black’s No Flockin, was an implacable statement of intent that made concessions to neither a catchy sung hook nor, indeed, any other featured artists: it was just Cardi, razing her way through the menacing beat like a Game of Thrones queen transported to the Bronx: During her social-media days, Cardi had already tapped into a fan base that delighted in her impish antics and loose lips – and Bodak Yellow both leveraged this popularity and carved out a space for it in the mainstream, deposing Taylor Swift from No 1 in the United States in October.

Talking of whom: the counterpoint to new, diverse faces dominating pop in 2017 was the inability of established megastars to make as much of an impact as they had hoped. At the end of last year, it seemed as though the gap between pop’s 1 per cent and the rest had widened and ossified. To be fair, several key figures in the upper echelon took 2017 off: Beyoncé for maternity leave, Kanye West and Rihanna between albums (but still finding time for a handful of scene-stealing guest verses), Adele for, presumably, another four-year retreat before an album of piano ballads titled 29.

We did see the return of Lana Del Rey, whose further explorations of her sad-girl persona are quietly making for one of the most compelling longitudinal character studies in pop right now. Lust for Life demonstrated that Del Rey’s meditations on her particularly American romanticism were as effective delivered with a campy, self-aware wink as when as darkly serious on previous album Honeymoon (2015) – at this point, Del Rey operates in albums rather than smash hits.

This should have left the stage clear for Katy Perry and Swift, but both singers found themselves hoist on the petard of a rapidly changing political climate. In 2017, pop couldn’t escape global politics – not even as escapism, as illustrated by the tragedy of the bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in May, at which 22 of the singer’s fans were killed.

Being politically woke was on-trend – but the line between an artist using their platform to speak out on a cause they cared about and trying to position themselves to enhance their career was a fine one. Perry pivoted too soon; Swift mistakenly thought she could get away without pivoting. Perry’s fifth album, Witness, tried to cast her in the vanguard of a pop protest movement – but for all the vague talk of “break[ing] down the walls to connect, inspire” on lead single Chained to the Rhythm, she clumsily undercut her own message with a promotional campaign that involved mocking Britney Spears’s mental health in interviews.

Swift’s Reputation arrived with all the hallmarks of a classic “event” album roll-out – and aside from the quality of the product, this immediately dated. In 2017, organic growth and memeability took precedence over the tightly controlled bids for attention of the big-budget campaign; the steps from teaser snake videos (Swift) to underwhelming lead single to OTT video to, finally, damp squib of an album, were spread over two-and-a-half months, and each one added to the laboriousness rather than heightening anticipation.

Those were the old rules – but the heart of pop in 2017 was New Rules, an elegantly constructed kiss-off by London singer Dua Lipa. No 1 in eight countries this summer – and a breakthrough first top 20 hit in the US – its basic tropical house sound is the lingua franca of pop today. Paradoxically, a year that has thrown up some of the most surprising chart successes has also been notable for a certain narrowing of the sonic palette for artists aiming for breakthroughs – and the dominance of streaming platforms such as Spotify is at the root of both.

On the one hand, streaming encourages the slow burn, allowing time for a song’s popularity to grow organically rather than being artificially pegged to opening week sales. On the other, the algorithm-based nature of Spotify playlists encourages pop production to default to the middle: mid-tempo, slightly nodding to dance culture and slightly to Latin, Caribbean or African rhythms in a superficial, kind of bland-holiday vibe.

This can pay off, as in the case of New Rules – but the lack of surprise was cumulatively wearying, specifically so when it came in the form of relentless dullard Ed Sheeran, whose dominance of the first-half of the year hung over 2017 like a bad smell. Sheeran’s most ubiquitous hit, Shape of You, marked the British singer-songwriter as the male Meghan Trainor: a bland white artist offering a pinched, uncharismatic take on a sound that cribbed unashamedly from superior songs (midway through Shape Of You’s No 1 reign, Sheeran admitted that he had borrowed from the melody of TLC’s No Scrubs to the extent that they were added to the song’s official credits.)

Sheeran is no stranger to riding stylistic potpourris to success: his initial breakthrough at home came through positioning his standard acoustic singer-songwriterisms within the grime scene, sprinkling his student bedsit laments with the occasional bad hip-hop cadence. But it was grime itself that truly came back with a banger in 2017. Stormzy’s Big for Your Boots was, in the United Kingdom at least, one of the most inescapable songs of the year; a rapid-fire demonstration of the London MC’s supremacy in the game.

A few months later, the scene that London’s police had almost managed to kill off in the late 2000s with dubious legislation proved itself not just as a musical force but a political one. The #Grime4Corbyn movement was an organic expression of support for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his left-wing platform – and in June’s general election, it played a role in swinging votes. That grime would play a key role in a UK election would have seemed inconceivable at the start of the year – but in an era characterised by surprises at every turn, it is an example of the promise of unpredictability.

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Read more:

Travel year in review: our writers' highlights of 2017

2017 in Review: a year of progress and creativity in the arts

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