Justin Bieber’s awful new song with Major Lazer says what we were all thinking: tropical house is So 2014-2015, its European-based practitioners mainly repeating the same four cliches (how about a lil’ saxophone?) and showing an increasingly frigid understanding of ‘tropical.’ “I Took A Pill in Ibiza” almost sounds like a farewell anthem. At least we’ll always have the Bieber triumvirate, “Lean On,” and a score of underrated Matoma remixes.
Tropical Urban Format (lol) is the new wave, sparked by the success of dancehall-influenced “Work” (certainly a contender for song of the year) and democratized for your pleasure by Drake on “Controlla.” (“One Dance,” with its complex diasporic DNA, is inimitable—whatever its other faults.) Drake even felt obligated to address these imitators at a concert, or so says a headline that passed by on the timeline without a click.
As trends go, Controllawave is a fresh splash of musical texture at a time when sounds tend to bounce between dour faceless R&B, 808 mafia churn, and novelty/meme one-offs. Yet not all records are created equal, so here are our post-“Work” ranking of the fauxribbean pastiche singles of 2016 thus far, from worst to best:
- Tory Lanez – Luv
Shy Glizzy twin Tory Lanez has beef with Drake, or so I’ve gleaned despite not trying to know anything about it. Thanks social media! He’s from Toronto and his career thus far seems incoherent. After trying to break out as a rapper, he had a massive R&B hit thanks to Pop & Oak’s pretty brilliant ’90s sample courtesy Brownstone. He followed it up with what sounded like a Miguel record. And now he’s got ’90s reggae remake, which only coincidentally happens to resemble “Controlla.” It’s almost a note-for-note remake of Tanto Metro and Devonte’s “Everybody Falls In Love Sometimes,” to the extent that half the YouTube commenters are writing things like “this riddim brings back so many memories.”
Regardless, it is a hit, so if you were cheering for Tory Lanez, congratulations. I find it difficult to find much of value here that didn’t exist in the original. It should also be noted that Tory Lanez has also covered “Controlla” already.
- Tyga – One of One
The guilty pleasure epitomized. Anyone whose family was obligated to shop at JC Penny in their pre-teen years—say, because their single mother had store credit—will understand the simultaneous embarrassment/enjoyment which comes from Tyga’s “One of One.” The most blatant knockoff of Drake’s original “Controlla,” it’s been kicked around via memes in social media (and by Drake himself) as blatant unoriginal wave-riding. It’s “Controlla” for those dealing with conflicting feelings: poverty-induced shame coupled with the empowering awareness that you’ve intuited the trend of the moment. It’s not your fault you can’t have the real deal, but at least you’re socially adapted enough to recognize its evident appeal. The class-conscious among us will ultimately take a perverse pride in our knockoff apparel, seeing it as a uniform of solidarity rather than an aspirational symbol. At least until we’re mocked at school, or the material falls apart from poor stitching.
Grade: 🌴 🌴
- Drake – Controlla
This song deserves some credit, for embodying the zeitgeist and setting off a wave of imitators. I don’t really buy the criticism that his flag-planting over a pastiche is ironic, despite the song’s musical debts: this sound is a creative lodestar of some kind. That said, I couldn’t share Justin Davis’ totalizing enthusiasm (although I admire it; game recognize game). It’s a hot tub of a song, inviting and comfortable, but not one in which I feel capable of investing my full energy. It’s difficult to find your footing, to brace yourself against it. There’s something wispy and temporal about it, as if turning sideways would cause it to vanish from view. I’ve found Drake’s star can carry records which would not succeed without him; I have trouble imagining “Headlines” as a hit in anyone else’s hands. There are exceptions—”Started From the Bottom,” “I’m On One,” and “Hotline Bling” are so large as if to make Drake visible from space. But “Controlla” is not one.
Grade: 🌴 🌴 🌴
- Alicia Keys – In Common
A stretch for inclusion in this list? Perhaps. Despite the presence of Drake collaborator Illangelo, “In Common” shares few obvious characteristics with “Controlla” aside from the meta-narrative of tropical pastiche. (Wikipedia’s amusing entry for this song points to a few different reference points: “a departure from her R&B sound, having a tropical music and dancehall sound, with Latin beat, Afrobeat instrumental, collage of electronic beats, tropicalia-infused [sic] rhythms and icy drum patterns as its main instrumentation.” Oh.) That said, it’s a great record: that more intricate rhythm, rather than copying dancehall, suggests the West African production styles of Afropop/Afrobeats. If Controllawave is a trendlet, “In Common” is the song that suggests it might be expanding into something greater. If this song has a drawback, it’s that it reminds me of a trendier version of an unfairly-ignored classic: Sevyn Streeter’s “Consistent”.
Grade: 🌴 🌴 🌴 🌴
- Kid Ink feat. Jeremih and Spice – Nasty
An argument on behalf of industry plants everywhere, Kid Ink’s “Nasty” is deceptively sweet, a refined, seductive future smash. It incorporates celebrated dancehall artist Spice—the song’s only shortcoming is that she doesn’t have more of a presence. And Jeremih is at his best here, semi-anonymous, boosting other artists by taking care of the heavy lifting: the catchy melody, the prettiness of his vocals, its clean, smooth, no-aftertaste spritz-of-lime effervescence.
The difficulty of making a song memorable and replayable is that catching in the brain quickly becomes onerous—some of the world’s biggest songs burn their goodwill fast, becoming that hit that hangs around like an unwanted friend. “Nasty” never insists upon itself; it’s undemanding, resting in your mind as a memory, offering the possibility of escape at any time. The song’s sentiment—unlike “Controlla”—is near-universal, relatable, quickly on the tip of your tongue. It demands nothing. It understands that escapism should be easy, that vacations can be more work than they’re worth, and pleasure comes from a good undersell.
Grade: 🌴 🌴 🌴 🌴 🌴