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Carly Rae Jepsen Delivers Teen Pop Wisdom

Meet Lauv, Pop’s Up-and-Coming Heartbreak King

Album Review: Zayn - Icarus Falls

Album Review: Taylor Swift - reputation

Album Review: Camila Cabello - Camila

JepsenCarly Rae Jepsen Delivers Teen Pop Wisdom

One of the funniest lines in Amy Poehler’s new movie Wine Country is when Paula Pell tells Rachel Dratch that her soul’s age is around 18-and-a-half. “Probably old enough to drink and bone … almost out of the house.” It’s a sentiment Carly Rae Jepsen can certainly relate to. The 33 year-old pop star specializes in dragging our souls back to that special, post-pubescent place. And her fourth LP keeps on doing it with the precision we’ve come to expect from her.

The album begins with “Julien” – a watered-down version of ABBA’s “Waterloo” – but revs up with some good, old chaste titillation. “Automatically in Love” packs a whole CW season of romantic cliches, from rollercoasters to getaway cars into an Eighties-Madonna track. Jepsen tries out a breathy purr on “Too Much.” Then really goes for it on “Everything He Needs.” “Like pressure points/ My love can ease him in my hand,” she sings. The lyrics were actually inspired by cartoon couple Popeye and Olive, which, for a Carly Rae Jepsen album, sounds about right.

Four albums in, the notion of Jepsen coming out with a “mature” album would be anathema to all that is Carly Rae. And she seems more than happy holding the mantle of cheerful, mid-tempo pop-rock for her generation – a great American tradition passed down from the Monkees to Wilson Phillips to Hanson. The downside is that when your fans expect you to bring the hooks, you better bring them. Jepsen doesn’t appear constrained by those expectations, maybe because pop’s two main ingredients – melody and melodrama – come to her naturally. But with all its polish and production, Dedicated can sound less like an artistic benchmark and more like throwing gum drops at the ceiling to see which ones stick.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. And if that’s the case, “Want You In My Room” and “Now That I Found You,” are up there for good. They’re both joyous gallops in the vein of her previous slam-dunk, “Cut to the Feeling.” The album-closing “Party For One” is another easy success. Like her apocalyptic hit “Call Me Maybe,” it rides a sparse, peppy melody, but takes a subtle turn when Jepsen proclaims that she’s better off alone than with someone who won’t return her calls. “If you don’t care about me/I’ll just dance for myself,” she sings. Jepsen may have the soul of a teen queen, but she’s also got the wisdom of a 33-year-old woman.

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LauvMeet Lauv, Pop’s Up-and-Coming Heartbreak King

The romantic, EDM-fueled songs of Lauv, the 23-year-old singer-songwriter born Ari Leff, are more than just an Internet sensation. Though he didn’t have single chart on the Hot 100 until last month – “I Like Me Better,” 75 million YouTube streams and counting – he’s already met fans tattooed with his lyrics. Just a few nights before he spoke to Rolling Stone, he spotted a girl in the front row sobbing during “Breathe,” his song about deciding to let go of a relationship.

“I kneeled down for an entire chorus, hugging her as hard as I could and singing,” Lauv recalls. “Those kinds of moments are my favorite thing. They feel it so much that they can’t hold back what they’re feeling. I just want to hug them and be there with them.”

Though his music is deeply emotional, Lauv hits the Troubadour in West Hollywood with an understated ease, arriving in a cloud of smoke and stepping through the fog with some subtle dance moves. Tall and dressed playfully in a fuzzy blue coat, he’s beginning another night on the road singing tender, evocative pop tunes about his first meaningful romance. To a silky, modern R&B heartbeat, Lauv picks up an umbrella with the words “I met you when I was 18” painted across the inside and nearly swoons as he sings: “Anywhere with you feels like Paris in the rain.”

Lauv’s set features more than a dozen fervent songs dedicated to the arc of that same relationship, from its hopeful beginning to its closing heartbreak.

“I sort of feel that I have to constantly be really, really honest with the way I feel, and I have to get that out,” Lauv explains over coffee the next morning. “All the best art and music feels like some type of truth – even if it’s really simple – that you just can’t deny. A listener can feel that.”

Preparing for his second sold-out night at the Troubadour, Lauv is relaxed on the back patio of a nearby coffeehouse. His auburn hair is cut short and swept rightward, and around his neck is a medallion shaped like the hand of God from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, as a constant reminder about his “struggle with letting go of control.” On his left arm is a pair of tattoos, including the words “Free yourself.” Lower down is a row of numbers marking the coordinates of a random alleyway next to a Philadelphia 7-11 where he and a friend found themselves one night.

Fittingly for this romantic, his name sounds a bit like “love,” but the word actually means “lion” in Latvian, the family heritage of his mother, a medical vaccine researcher. He was born in San Francisco, before his family moved to Atlanta and then bounced to a small town just outside Philadelphia. At 18, he left for NYU, where he began writing the love songs that have transformed him into a busy live performer with a massive online following. Lauv cut his teeth as a co-writer and co-producer of songs like Cheat Codes and Demi Lovato’s “No Promises,” Charli XCX’s “Boys” and “Because of Me” by The Voice runner-up Billy Gilman. DJ Snake recruited him to sing on last fall’s “A Different Way,” co-written by Ed Sheeran. Last fall, Lauv’s songs took him to Asia as opening act for Sheeran on his Divide World Tour, where he performed his first arena shows.

His journey as a songwriter and fan has led in him in diverse directions, including teenage years in Pennsylvania obsessed with emo and hardcore, spending time in the mosh pits of bands like Taking Back Sunday and Underoath. He was a straight-edge kid in high school, refusing the drink and drugs of his peers.

“I didn’t really love high school to be honest because most kids were going through their first time getting drunk, going to parties, smoking weed, all this stuff – and I was just in my room being a music nerd, playing music and writing songs, and kind of shutting out the world a little bit,” Lauv recalls.

He did get out to shows at the Harmony Grange, a venue just across the state border in Wilmington, Delaware, where he and his friends dreamed of playing gigs of their own. He was in a rock band and also posted solo songs on MySpace. “I wrote a song when I was 14 or 15 for one of my old projects about how my career wasn’t going anywhere,” he says now with a smile. “I was very cynical because I thought I had to go somewhere immediately through MySpace or something, or else I was a failure. But I also hadn’t lived through anything. I was a kid in a town in high school.”

Lauv sees no disconnect between his early hardcore obsessions with the pop he writes today. “People like super-digestible, one-sided identities. Everything is a brand, including artists nowadays. You can’t just be a person,” says Lauv, who now lives in Los Angeles. “I’ve been through so many different phases, partly because I moved around so much. I never found my identity based on where I was from. It was always pick up and explore something else.”

By the time he got to New York University, he shifted his ambitions from stardom to a role behind the scenes as a songwriter and producer. He majored in music technology and began studying the charts for clues on hit songwriting. Lauv shaped his writing to the pop flavor of the moment and tried to interest artists, producers and publishers, and got nowhere.

“I tried to write for what I thought people wanted to hear – that I’d think Katy Perry or whoever would want to sing. It was kind of soul-sucking,” he says. “It was fun, because I studied the craft of songwriting and what makes a song something that anybody on the planet can hear and all unanimously agree, ‘This is a powerful song.’ Why does that happen? How does that happen?”

His perspective began to change when he wrote and recorded “The Other” in his apartment in the East Village at the end of 2014. He didn’t release the track online until he was studying abroad in Prague the following summer, in between his sophomore and junior years in college. The song was personal in a way his attempts to be commercial weren’t, inspired more by his admiration for Paul Simon and John Mayer than the contemporary pop around him.

“I decided I’m going to try and be an artist again just for fun,” he says of creating “The Other,” which tapped into “that eccentric side of myself.” The result was a song of understated R&B singer-songwriter pop, as Lauv sang: “Who wrote the book on goodbye?/There’s never been a way to make this easy/When there’s nothing quite wrong but it don’t feel right”

Co-written with friend Michael Matosic, “The Other” connected with listeners in a big way, though it was two years before it fully exploded on Spotify, jumping to 100 million streams last summer. Suddenly, producers and publishers were reaching out, and he soon had a publishing deal with Prescription Songs. “Once I stopped trying to go about in a way that was forced,” he says, “it naturally started to work.”

The songs continued to flow. “Paris in the Rain” has its roots in a childhood trip to the French capital with his parents, and knowing he’d one day write a romantic song about the city. “I’m super-into sappy movies like La La Land and Midnight in Paris. I’ve always been this kid that’s really into nostalgia and longing for the past,” he says. “It’s also why I’ve got a taste for sad music and Coldplay, because there’s this feeling of beautiful tragedy and unrequited something.”

The success that has followed has been satisfying – and somehow embarrassing. “I always felt kind of weird, because my mom works in HIV vaccine research. And I’m over here in L.A. in this fucking bubble with all these things that matter to me so much – sales, and radio, and touring – and she’s out there trying to cure HIV-AIDS,” he says. “At least I’m doing it in a way where I can at least feel like, OK, emotionally, I’m helping people get through something. So I can sleep a little bit better.”

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ZaynAlbum Review: Zayn - Icarus Falls

Zayn’s reputation as a skillful interpreter of pop is tested on his second solo album, a to me of love songs with a concept that hinges on excess and its trickery.

ayn—fka Zayn Malik, fka one-fifth of the British boy-band supernova One Direction—named his second album after the myth of Icarus, the seraphic optimist who flew too close to the sun and snuffed himself out as a result. It’s in keeping with Zayn’s status as a reluctant pop star: He was the first member to depart from his Simon Cowell-sutured group (four months before the other four went on indefinite hiatus), his social-media presence is mostly low-key, and the promotion around his new releases are comparatively low-key affairs. Too much excess chatter, after all, results in the music, the reason Zayn became Zayn in the first place, receding to the background.

Mind of Mine, Zayn’s 2016 solo debut, was steeped in the dry-ice chills of modern R&B, Zayn’s still-lithe tenor guiding the listener through tremulous, sexually charged tracks. Icarus Falls, its followup, treads more of the same ground—a lot more, actually—while also serving up a few surprisingly sublime pop moments.

On first glance, the 27-track length of Icarus Falls indicates a data dump, those streaming-age behemoths made to be played on repeat by stat-happy fans while they sleep. And it’s partly that; Zayn told British Vogue that some of its tracks were rescued from the sessions for Mind of Mine, which resulted in some “60-something” completed songs. But Icarus Falls is actually a double album, cleaved in two by “Icarus Interlude,” which features Zayn hammering home the concept over spindly guitars. “I guess I flew too close to the sun/Myth’ll call me legend, that might be why,” he muses before label-dropping Yves Saint Laurent.

Icarus Falls opens with Zayn in love, or at least something like it: “Sweet baby, our sex has meaning,” he murmurs over the percolating guitars and plush synths of the album’s first track, the bedheaded devotional “Let Me.” (His ability to just barely pull off that bodice-ripper-worthy line is a sign of his skillful interpretative sense.) It’s a gorgeous opening, straddling the space between the breezy acousti-R&B that dominated the late ’00s and the snare-heavy rhythms of modern trap-pop while also flaunting Zayn’s falsetto. It’s followed by a slew of love songs, some of which leap from speakers a bit more readily: The sparse, snap-assisted “Back to Life” turns a lover into a lifesaver; “Stand Still” places Zayn, pleading in chorus with himself, within chilly synths and a rubbery guitar solo; the sumptuous “I Don’t Mind” rides a laconic groove with hope and swagger. Zayn’s belief in the power of love utterly blinds him on that last one—“You can tell me all your lies/I don’t mind,” he declares.

Then come the aforementioned interlude and the back half of the album, the new mood signaled by a sample of the tremolo guitars that open Nancy Sinatra’s torchy version of “Bang Bang.” Zayn’s wail zooms in, and we’re off to the races, plunging into love’s dark side on “Good Guy,” being emotionally withholding on “You Wish You Knew,” and writing a poison-pen letter to an ex on “Entertainer.” The more volatile lyrical content of the back half seems to feed into its more exciting, varied music—“Sour Diesel” reforms the “I Wanna Be Your Dog” bassline into a tether for blissed-out funk-pop, “Scripted” smashes and glues back together the string-laden ballad ideal, and the tense “Fresh Air” pairs fuzzy yet insistent drum-machine hits with a drowsy loop, underscoring the pressure-cooker lyrics that outline a relationship on the rocks. (There’s also “Good Years,” a jaundiced look back at One Direction past that, possibly ironically, echoes the sort of Ryan Tedder-style balladry that might have padded one of the group’s earlier albums.)

Icarus Falls, as a high-concept pop album, is fine. It shows off Zayn’s reluctant charisma and love-song-ready voice amid R&B ideas that are fully immersed in the present, for the most part for the better. True, it’s long, but given that its whole concept hinges on the idea of excess and its trickery, maybe that’s yet another sly wink from one of teen idoldom’s most enigmatic artists.

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Taylor SwiftAlbum Review: Taylor Swift - reputation

"Delicate" exemplifies the duality of tone present on reputation. While songs like "Look What You Made Me Do" and "...Ready For It?" display a boastful personality and brash sound, "Delicate" joins the likes of the album's more vulnerable cuts ("Gorgeous" and "Call It What You Want"). "Delicate" features some tropical house vibes, stemming from its increased popularity in pop music of late (the actual level of tropical elements in some songs, though, is limited). The use of the vocoder (a recurring feature on reputation) adds an unusual and unexpected aspect to the song both different from Swift's previous sonics, even of the pop variety. The vocoder also injects a certain tinge of sadness in the song's soundscape, acting as a cool contrast to the general warmth of the overall track.

Lyrically, the song tackles the standard Taylor Swift subject: love. However, the song has an added thematic complexity as Swift explores a relationship budding under a cloud of her tarnished reputation. As a recording, the song ties together in a nice thematic bow with its production, Swift's vocal performance, and the lyrical content all working together to make "Delicate"... delicate. It's a refreshing change of pace to see a pop song composed, arranged, and produced in a way where every element is relevant to each other creating a work that is aesthetically cohesive.

It's pretty easy to pinpoint the exact moment Taylor Swift became a pop star, full stop.

On August 18, 2014, Swift premiered "Shake It Off," the indelible, hater-taunting smash hit that would launch her album 1989 and sweep aside the acoustic guitars and pop-country ballads that had made her millions. There was a flashy music video, too, in which Swift shifts effortlessly between groups of hip-hop, jazz, ballet and cheerleader-style dancers.

With one song and its accompanying video, Swift declared her eagerness to embrace the Max Martin-style pop production techniques she'd need to compete with the Katy Perrys and Lady Gagas of the world. And—most crucially—she translated her angst at being a media punching bag into a playful, irresistible, self-empowering hit song.

Reputation, Swift's sixth album, has been teased as the death of "old Taylor." But it's more like the completion of the transformation. Reputation is a dark, dizzying monument to the madness of modern celebrity—and an unabashed kiss-off to Swift's various enemies and feuds (particularly Kanye West). With assistance from producers and co-writers Martin and Jack Antonoff (among others), Reputation is the sort of maddeningly messy album that thrives on big drama and bigger hooks, even as it threatens to collapse under the weight of its own diamond-encrusted self-absorption.

Yet for all its flaws (there are some irredeemably bad songs on here), this album does everything we were promised it would. It addresses that Kim-and-Kanye drama. It takes petty shots at high-profile foes. It grapples with Swift's reputational debris and obsesses over the media's obsession with Taylor Swift. It represents the pop star's inevitable embrace of hip-hop, trap and electronica production styles. It has a guest rapper. It even contains a (gasp) swear word sung by the family-friendly entertainer.

“Delicate” is a love story set against the wreckage of Swift's public image: "My reputation's never been worse," Swift tells a new lover (presumably boyfriend Joe Alwyn), "so you must like me for me." Despite the vocoder effect on the star's vocals—she sounds a bit distant and alien—"Delicate" is the album's first real moment of vulnerability, and it succeeds by peeling back all the bravado and EDM aggression of the opening tracks.

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CamilaAlbum Review: Camila Cabello - Camila

The former Fifth Harmony member’s debut solo album is largely successful at capturing her charismatic flair. Anchored by the wonderful “Havana,” it shines especially when it's light and breezy.

When an enterprising member of a pop group dares to dream about solo success, they have to reintroduce themselves to the world. If they have the vision, chops, and nerve to survive beyond their hit-making machine, they can blaze a new trail for themselves on their own terms; if they come up short, they’re relegated to history’s dustbin. Camila Cabello’s sultry, salsa-inflected “Havana” is a keystone for a superstar origin story: Striking out on her own after a bitter split with her bandmates in Fifth Harmony, Cabello realized her creative ambitions with a smash that celebrated her Cuban heritage and helped define a year in which Latin music was ascendant.

Of course, pop careers rarely come into being with that kind of elegance, and Cabello’s own rise to the top of the charts was a little more complicated. “Havana” began its run as a humble summer promotional single, one lacking the support of label execs and radio personnel alike. It was tossed onto streaming services a few months after her first attempt at a grand debut, “Crying in the Club,” fizzled out just inside the Top 50. And “Crying in the Club” failed to meet expectations because it sounded like Cabello was tracking, note-for-note, a demo pulled from between Sia’s couch cushions. It lacked the qualities that gush out of “Havana” like steam: history, personality, charisma. The tension between Cabello’s two potential futures—a spot in pop’s upper echelon or a decade spent churning out anonymous EDM collaborations and thankless soundtrack work—is what animates Camila, her debut solo album.

Cabello’s flair for the dramatic has always been her greatest strength. It was never difficult to pick her out within Fifth Harmony and when given the chance, she chewed scenery like an overeager character actor. (Listen to her rip through the bridge of weightless trop-house ditty “Write on Me.”) Her performances on the duets that first flagged her as a breakout candidate—the Shawn Mendes sleeper “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and Machine Gun Kelly’s soggy “Bad Things”—verge on histrionic, and that isn’t a bad thing; the emotional intensity of her singing makes up for the volume and density her voice lacks.

Camila shines when it’s light and breezy, giving Cabello the space she needs to cook. “All These Years” and “Real Friends” are gentle and largely acoustic with a hint of Jai Paul’s liquid zip, and Cabello sings with real delicacy about lost love and loneliness. (The fluttering vocal runs she unspools midway through “All These Years” are stunning.) “She Loves Control” is an apt mission statement for a star who soured on girl group life because she couldn’t “explore [her] individuality,” and it shows Cabello can navigate a reggaeton rhythm with the same ease that characterized “Havana.” She effortlessly toggles between English and Spanish on the sun-kissed, steel drum-flecked “Inside Out.” It’s on these songs that Camila makes its strongest argument for Cabello as a unique force, one who can churn out pop hybrids that perfectly suit a shifting pop climate and a changing country.

When the album falters, it’s because it loses sight of this compelling identity. She growls and hiccups her way through new single “Never Be the Same,” but its reliance on a love-drug conceit suggests a novice writer who has room to expand her range. (Cabello worked with a production team led by veteran Frank Dukes, but her writing credit on every song suggests a fertile Notes app.) The overwrought one-two punch of “Consequences”—which sounds a little like her attempt at something like Rihanna’s “Stay”—and “Something’s Gotta Give” slow the album to a crawl. And when Camila interfaces with trends in the larger world of pop, the results are varied. The frothy, flirty “Into It” finds a delightful sweet spot within a Lorde-Carly Rae Jepsen-Ariana Grande Venn diagram, but “In the Dark” is the kind of generic trap-pop you’d expect from any number of B- and C-grade stars. It’s a Bebe Rexha deep cut.

None of these songs are abject failures; a half-decade in a group like Fifth Harmony is an extended pop boot camp, one that can’t help but equip you with basic proficiency. If they’re frustrating, it’s because they’re juxtaposed with tantalizing glimpses of a next-generation star, the kind of artist with the presence and charm to carry pop forward into a new decade. Perhaps that’s the greatest compliment you can pay Camila: It throws off enough sparks to justify expecting more.

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