Each year, the average pop hit seems to get slower. Encouraged toward spare, shiny vacuity by modes of background listening that have developed with the popularity of streaming, pop radio sounds exhausted.
Yet recently some of this music has perked up, developing a sharper sense of rhythm even within the strictures of chill. The albums reviewed below are examples from around the globe of what one might call Spotifycore mutating back into dance music.
Bad Bunny: YHLQMDLG (Rimas)
Bad Bunny became Puerto Rican reggaeton’s reigning star because he’s a fabulous character, yelping romantic declarations over beats as colorful as his sunglasses. Here, he reaches a new level of streamlined pop melodicism, although his cadence wears out over an album’s length.
Bunny’s most distinctive feature is his voice: gruff, masculine, cheerfully goofy, he sings in a drawl that assumes a stately power when lightly daubed with Auto-Tune, as he gargles syllables electronically and ad-libs between lines (“Oy!”). The relaxed beats cascade gently, arranging many layers of seemingly bottomless keyboard polish over blocky, syncopated drumrolls.
While remaining sonically unified, this expansive 20-song album, a tribute to the early-‘00s reggaeton styles he heard at garage parties growing up, sprinkles in a wide range of glittering sound effects: the pixelated “Girl From Ipanema” chords on “Si Veo a Tu Mama,” the serrated vacuum keyboards constantly changing tempo on “Safaera,” the metallic drums that abrade throughout “Yo Perreo Sola” (“I twerk alone,” a statement of defiance delivered by guest singer Nesi). Sharp and soothing, the product of a deep bodily confidence, the formula in itself is irresistible — Bunny just exhausts it over 20 consecutive songs.
The hypnotic nature of both reggaeton’s loping beats and Bad Bunny’s repetitive singsong means the tracks blur into each other after a while, settling into a muted daze, especially toward the end. Last year’s Oasis, an informal collaborative album between Bunny and J Balvin, caught him in a brighter, bubblier mood.
As is often the case with dance styles spruced up for pop consumption, this music has been so polished and flattened that it fits neither mode. But intermittently, the empty musical space makes room for warm summer breezes.
Dua Lipa: Future Nostalgia (Warner)
Dua Lipa synthesizes dance music styles: here a splash of disco, here a funk rhythm guitar, here a techno breakdown. On this album, the English singer weaves bubblegum tropes into a sustained burst of energy.
Riding the staccato bounce that results when disco’s liquid flow is broken up into song-sized pieces, this album is both modern and classicist. Structurally, the songs follow EDM conventions, abounding with builds, pre-choruses, drops, and other rigidly demarcated sections, but they’re not clunky in the usual way; they glide.
Lipa has hollowed out the bombast inherent in EDM’s predictable mechanics, and instead filled the empty space with softer touches — disco strings, rhythm guitar confetti, and other devices that in another context would code as retro — to create a kinetic pop music in perpetual motion. This dynamic’s mild suppression of excitement creates a tension between control and release. Her deep, impassive voice is crucial: she’s trying to stay unruffled, but can’t resist dancing to the music.
This album’s main banger is “Levitating,” in which a tightly coiled assortment of handclaps, bass thwacks, electric strings, and sugary keyboards burst skyward, with two or three different choruses and a bridge that performs the function of a dance break, heightening the energy while also providing relief (“My love is like a rocket, watch it blast off!/and I’m feeling so electric, dance my ass off!”)
The main softcore ballad is “Cool,” whose vibrant snare drums and gushing guitar riff conjure a warm glow; when she sings “In control of what I do,” she sounds like she’s losing control, and when, in the blissful post-chorus, she announces “I guess we’re ready for the summer,” the anticipatory delight startles — the song is already burning up, what more is there to get ready for?
Dancing in place while the hooks accelerate, she realizes an ideal of disco. By mastering the groove, she masters her emotions; by letting the groove take over, she lets herself feel.
Carly Rae Jepsen: Dedicated Side B (604/Schoolboy/Interscope)
Carly Rae Jepsen has made a habit of releasing “B-side” collections alongside official albums: just companion releases, not actual B-sides, but the allusion to vinyl suits her characteristic pop escapism. This sequel to last year’s Dedicated is faster and bouncier than its parent album, but similarly constricted by genre lines.
Since pivoting from pop stardom and becoming a semipop cult figure, Jepsen has cultivated restraint and introspection, presenting her nominally upbeat synthpop as a healing balm. Lyrically, these are the heartfelt confessions of someone shy, embracing pop’s emotional immediacy while avoiding its excitement and flash; musically, her reticence is reflected in a formalism so cautious it confines her.
It’s as if she loves the pumping hooks and glistening textures of contemporary electronic dance-pop but can’t stand the excess — triumphalist drops, guest singers, extraneous acoustic ballads — and has purged those things from her own music for the benefit of other aesthetes and future music historians seeking representative period pieces.
Thanks to the B-side concept, this album has a playful spontaneity missing from the breathy wisp that was Dedicated. It’s filled with weird, informal touches, like the juxtaposition of “Feel This Way” and “Stay Away,” slow and fast versions of the same song.
“Summer Love” glides over a buzzy guitar riff draped in electronic gleam, and the forward propulsion matches the erotic daydream conjured lyrically; similarly, the vintage synthesizer squelch in “This Is What They Say” captures the dizziness of a swoon. When the beat slows, the songs vanish into a puddle of blush and vapor. She could use more excess, if only to inspire new feelings.
Emotion in itself is too general a theme for any one artist to claim as her own; to do so suggests either sweeping ambition or total banality. Making ever subtler, increasingly invisible refinements to what was already a precise, slight sound, she loses herself in craft.
Amber Liu: X (Steel Wool)
Having become a star as part of the excellent Korean pop group f(x), Amber Liu has now switched to singing in English and pursuing the American market, in what may be an increasingly common move for Korean idol singers. This quiet, elegant EP, her first since leaving the group, is catchier for its ethereality.
Far from f(x)’s edgy pop-funk or Liu’s previous, more conventionally ballad-heavy Rogue Rouge EP (2018), these songs deploy the soft-edged dancebeats that have caught on in alternative pop circles, and recently chart pop as well. Marked by ghostly synthesizers and candy-coated rhythm guitar, the style indicates commitment to a theoretical ideal of pop as music that expresses and depicts desire, but that, in reality, often recedes into a tasteful void.
For Liu, this stylistic shift represents taking control of her career and going, autonomously, in an artier direction; at the same time, perhaps by habit, she writes concrete pop hooks. The keyboard figures unfurl with deliberate simplicity; the drums land with propulsive vibrancy. Expressed acutely, the album’s oceanic surface shimmers, achieving its intended delicacy.
Less than Carly Rae Jepsen, who has become synonymous with this particular style, she reminds me of Shura, who has a similar talent for exhaling pristine electronic mists. In this context, the stiff talkiness of her singing is expressive — she sounds slightly awkward voicing her feelings, and the lyrics include similar disjunctions. The album peaks with “Other People,” whose rubbery sequencers bounce with delight, but the contradictions inherent in the chorus, “I’m replacing you with other people” — between singular and plural, specific and general — won’t resolve, and the breathy echo effects applied to her voice highlight her yearning to break free.
Liu’s landed on a signature pop paradox, in which dreaminess is realized through crisp definition — or maybe in which communication succeeds despite dreaminess. There’s a deep pleasure in the balance.