Singles Club: Lady Gaga brings the epic key change and Travis Scott is the hole in the donut

Each week on the FACT Singles Club, a selection of our writers work their way through the new music of the week gone by.

This week, Lady Gaga rolls up to the club like 2009 never ended, Young La Fraud recycles his way to success and critic’s faves Grandaddy take us back to our schooldays.

Meanwhile, RATM’s Zack de la Rocha teams up with RTJ’s El-P for some fiery political invective, Sia opts for dancehall-lite just like everybody else, and Post Malone and Justin Bieber do their own version of a cute little hit you might remember from five minutes ago. Chocks away!

Lady Gaga – ‘Perfect Illusion’

Chris Kelly: Gaga’s fall from turn-of-the-decade pop ubiquity to doing jazz covers and slumming on basic cable was actually a little sad. Maybe it was one meat-dress too many, or maybe Artpop really was that bad. Either way, ‘Perfect Illusion’ finds Gaga going Stevie Nicks-as-disco diva in the type of anthem that she used to churn out with ease (and that key change, goddamn). Side note: between this and the Rihanna cover, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker is having quite the pop moment. (8)

Son Raw: Things that have vanished since peak Gaga: brostep, T-Pain’s dominance of commercial radio, shutter shades, the jerkin’ movement. It’s easy for this to sound straight out of 2009, as her sound already felt beamed out of a weird retromania glam shadow-realm that neither explicitly mimicked past musical eras nor tried to present any sort of future. This lands much closer to Heart’s ‘Barracuda’ than, say, Madonna – a significant dip in cool-factor that hints at her spot as a Middle American pop-placeholder. It DOES have a great chord change at 1:50 though, and pop could use more of those. (5)

Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy: It’s not that Stefani Germanotta’s music is unemotional per se, but as a singles artist she concerns herself with grandiose statements of intent – what originally appealed to the masses was the way she took a macro view on pop while her peers took a micro view. It would be naive to act like ‘Perfect Illusion’ is not an aesthetic announcement, seeing how it strips down her vocals and focuses on a retro groove, but it is more revealing than the standard Lady Gaga single. She sounds rawer than usual, perhaps too throaty to truly diva-glide across the disco-fied beat, but it’s good to hear her at her most emotionally engaged and mixing the macro and micro in a way she hasn’t before. (8)

Zoe Camp: I don’t laaahv the phrasing on this track. Besides stirring up uncomfortable flashbacks of my “Broadway-bound” peers from theatre school, it distracts from the track’s otherwise brilliant arrangements: the multi-tracked, claustrophobic pre-choruses; the propulsive glam-rock refrains somewhere between Queen and Like A Prayer-era Madge; and those verses, plucked from Springsteen without shame and made to dance the Uptown Funk. The ahloooshun isn’t perfect, but I’m entranced nonetheless. (6)

Tayyab Amin: This song is hideous. It’s not just the awful textures of the instrumental, that crippling key change, or even Gaga barking throughout the whole song – it’s also the fact that Gaga, while she’s never made particularly challenging pop music, has traditionally made tunes much more adventurous than this. It’s the blandest announcement in a time that welcomes astronomically more ambitious pop. (3)


Post Malone and Justin Bieber – ‘Deja Vu’

Chris Kelly: The only déjà vu I’m getting from this song is the part of Vanilla Ice’s Behind The Music where he explains the dun-dun-dun-da-da-dun-duns in ‘Ice Ice Baby’. A ‘Hotline Bling’ soundalike from the most reprehensible white boy rip-off artist in the game. And also Justin Bieber is on it. (2)

Haley Potiker: So, who’s going to be the one to tell Biebs and Post what the actual definition of déjà vu is? “Hey bro… uh, I don’t want to be a dick, but like, ‘Déjà vu’ is supposed to describe the strong sensation that an event or experience currently being experienced has already been experienced in the past. So it’s not the same as when you do so many drugs and sleep with so many women that everything blurs all together. Hey bro, what are you doing to that tiger?” (5)

Tayyab Amin: Have they just turned the ‘Hotline Bling’ intro into a whole track? Ultimately I’m still Team D.R.A.M. so this is like a lie that’s gotten bigger and bigger. I love Post Malone’s vocals on ‘Fade’ but damn, he ain’t got the juice man. It’s like he’s caught between trying to be the most charmless Drake and the most vanilla Travis Scott. Regardless, at this point Justin can do his lil Bieber-croon over anything and I’m down. (5)

Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy: Somewhere, Nineteen85 is rightly furious at the drastic biting of his own drum programming. The song is fine, with the very un-trill Malone’s voice trilling and trembling in an appealing fashion, but the knockoff stench is strong with this one. (5)

Son Raw: Biebs continues to swing perilously between knocking out guilty pleasures and sporting the rattiest dreads since Vanilla Ice. Still, did the world really need a ‘Hotline Bling’ rip-off for people who find Drake too threatening? Hell is being serenaded by these two while stuck on an all-inclusive Caribbean cruise. (4)


Zack de la Rocha – ‘Digging for Windows’

Haley Potiker: Zack de la Rocha is now closer to 50 than he is to 40, but he’s enjoying a quiet sort of renaissance. Part of it is persistence: he could have given up on the solo album long ago and been a hero to a whole generation of would-be revolutionaries, but he’s apparently pressed on, slating the record for an early 2017 release. Part of it is being in the right place at the right time – his guest turn on ‘Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)’ from the second Run the Jewels album put his ethos in a thoroughly modern context. So ‘Digging For Windows’ sounds like it’s en vogue, but it could just as easily have been a one-off from Def Jux during the early W. Bush years. And that’s probably just what he needs. (7)

Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy: Reviewing Prophets of Rage’s self-titled dud in July, I wrote how that act’s estranged collaborator Zack de la Rocha was most likely off somewhere in the world having fun. Wrong! Zack doesn’t do fun. And here’s the exciting thing – as a solo artist, we don’t really know what de la Rocha does. It’s interesting to hear him wax elliptical on ‘Windows’, even if he can’t quite escape the shadow that producer El-P casts over him, while that firebrand voice appears in a manner reminiscent of his former collaborator Saul Williams. A good song, but more fascinating for the fact that 24 years after he dictated American dreams, he is – relatively speaking – a blank canvas. (6)

Chris Kelly: Who knew that in 2016 we’d have two Rage Against the Machine revivals: not just Prophets of Rage (aka Age Against The Machine) but the Run The Jewels-presaged return of Zack de la Rocha. As he did on RTJ2, de la Rocha’s ratatat rap is perfectly suited to the industrial brutality of El-P’s beats. Plus, this one doesn’t have El-P rapping on it – the indulgence that usually ruins Run The Jewels for me. Still, I can’t get over the My First Chomsky politics that he’s still peddling, the type of unsubtle crap that turned “rage against the machine” into a sarcastic put-down. (5)

Tayyab Amin: It’s really cool that El-P’s picked up this one but I really wanna hear de la Rocha do some Death Grips. This tune doesn’t pack a punch so much as it gradually drills a hole into concrete, and you can feel the spraying debris between vocal sputters and instrumental grit. As a former RATM fanatic I do wish it was more impressive, but I appreciate how deliberate and incisive it is. (6)

Son Raw: De La Rocha wasn’t the be all and end all of Rage’s success – Tom Morello’s guitar textures were as icy as anything cooked up in RZA’s SP1200. Yet in 2016, when Rage are covering themselves for aging metal heads, it’s a relief to hear him return on an El-P beat that captures everything that made Rage so great while minimizing the butt rock that’s caused the band’s music to age so poorly. Look, he ain’t D’Angelo, but I’m pretty excited to hear him come back. (7)

Zoe Camp: Finally, a party-friendly anthem for all the Jill Stein supporters on your Facebook feed. “No trust in the dust of a promise / Won’t mark the name on a ballot / So they can be free to devour our options.” How big is this guy’s house again? (3)


Sia – ‘The Greatest’

Haley Potiker: I will always be excited about a new Sia-backed interpretive dance video, and this one does not disappoint. A girl in a leotard and a wig awakens dozens of blue-faced people and frees them from captivity, at least for enough time for choreography. By the end of the video, though, the extras once again look pained — happiness is fleeting. But honestly, Yeezy Season 4 looks great here. (8)

Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy: ‘Cheap Thrills’ was bunk, but the summer jam was noticeable for being the first Sia Furler song on the radio to not immediately read as a Sia Furler product – in that case, the homogeneity/lack of auteurist stamp (delete as applicable) was notable. It didn’t exist in the world of metaphorical power ballads that she’s cultivated as her brand, and ‘The Greatest’ continues in the vein of ‘Cheap Thrills’ by being remarkably literal. She’s as strong a vocalist as ever, her prowess unchallenged by her endless content-creating, and the 2016 Tropical Pop Elements that filter in from ‘Cheap Thrills’ are more successful here. Kendrick is an afterthought. (6)

Chris Kelly: On this one, the experience and meaning of the song and the video are very different. As recorded, ‘The Greatest’ is pure Sia-core: a gently lilting beat, her unmistakeable vocal tone, vague lyrics and an empowering chorus, plus a phoned-in Kendrick verse. The video (which excises Kendrick, for some reason) is another excellent collaboration between Sia, Daniel Askill and Maddie Ziegler that elevates a fairly benign song into a powerful tribute to the victims of the Pulse shooting. Song is a (6) but the video makes it an (8).

Son Raw: Well, at least the video’s drone bits were original. Otherwise, it’s more pop dancehall that actual Jamaican artists won’t benefit from. I’m no paragon of wokeness – hell, part of the reason I like actual bashment that it’s unabashed raunchiness is a giant middle finger to delicate sensitivities – but there’s no way to listen to this without a dollop of guilt. At least Kendrick will get paid off the album version, but listen to Up Move riddim instead. (4)

Tayyab Amin: The Olympics that just happened were preordained for so many years and Sia couldn’t turn this one in before the marketing deadline? I don’t believe the “I got stamina” mantra – it almost feels dead, as if the challenge itself is joyless. Still, Sia uses her voice so well that she can punch above her weight and truly explode at times. The beat is exceptional too; similar to something Dressin Red might have put out on Donky Pitch. (7)


Grandaddy – ‘Way We Won’t’

Zoe Camp: In a recent interview with NPR, Jason Lytle revealed that this song came about by smell—namely, that whiff of air you get whenever you walk into a Target, or a Best Buy, or some other big box store, somewhere between artificial vanilla and week-old sweat. Every home has a perfume to it, so from that Proustian memory, Lytle stages a broader inquiry: what would it be like to live in a Target or a Best Buy? The peppy instrumentation implies happiness, but the doomed romance detailed in the song suggests otherwise: a compelling contrast. (7)

Haley Potiker: This song sounds made-to-order for The O.C. soundtrack. It’s been a decade since The Bait Shop launched Rooney into an unlikely pop phenomenon, but it’s been less than a year since I watched all four seasons in their entirety. The mid-naughts are my favorite era for nostalgia, and I am definitely here for the Grandaddy reunion. (7)

Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy: It’s been years since ‘The Crystal Lake’ charmed me over the many times it rolled out on MTV2’s mid-afternoon programming, and a comfortable after-school lightness has always stuck in my head with Grandaddy. And like a lot of those blissfully formless afternoons, Grandaddy’s brand of fuzzy critic-core songs generally melt into one another. ‘Way We Won’t’ does the same, with a palm-muted verse slumping (pun intended!) its shaggy way to a rough-at-the-edges doodle of a melody. It’s fine. It’s comfortable listening. I have forgotten it already. (5)

Son Raw: This feels completely honest: it’s not trying to be much of anything beyond a shuffly, mid-tempo, Elephant 6-esque marriage of classic pop and grungy distortion, and it succeeds at this modest goal. (5)


Travis Scott – ‘Goosebumps’

Tayyab Amin: I listened to this song maybe four or five times before scrolling down to the comments to see that it had been slowed down to circumvent YouTube removal, and that listening at 1.25x would be closer to the original. But I don’t think it changes the mood of the track that much at all – it’s still very much something a mixtape-era Weeknd would have dabbled in, swirling in its own murky concoction of paranoid love. (7)

Chris Kelly: Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight seems to acknowledge the fact that Travis Scott is the hole in the donut, surrounding him with producers and rappers that offer something more than his whatever-is-popular mimicry. When ‘Goosebumps’ works, it’s in spite of Young La Fraud: Cardo, Yung Exclusive and Cubeatz deliver a queasy beat that invokes the type of lovesick uneasiness the song is about, and – as always – Kendrick steals the spotlight. He’s the best rapper alive and he has a D’Angelo falsetto!? (4)

Haley Potiker: For this song, Travis Scott was “influenced” by Future and some teens in the R.L. Stine forum on Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight – for which Scott swiped the title from a recycled Quavo verse, the single from Young Thug’s hard drive, and everything else from Che Pope’s Spotify account – is almost impossibly unoriginal. The guests aren’t on the album’s tracklist, which is probably supposed to build drama and cast Scott as the auteur, but ends up being a comment on how everything he’s ever done is propped up by a half-dozen more talented people. When he says “We gon’ do some things – some things you can’t escape,” you’re supposed to assume he’s talking about skirting copyright laws. Kendrick acquits himself nicely though, making for an impressive trifecta with his guest verses on the new albums from Isaiah Rashad and Danny Brown. (4)

Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy: A few years ago, upon the leak of Rick Ross’s God Forgives I Don’t album, a fan-made version of the album circulated around the internet that wiped away Ross’s contributions in lieu of the grade-A guest appearances he had assembled. As harsh as this appeared, the edit highlighted Rozay’s skills as an rapper-cum-A&R, assembling quite a cast to donate their creative heights to his products. Travis Scott does something like this, pulling a juttering, bluesy performance from Kendrick Lamar in a way that, for example, Sia could not. However, talent or charisma-wise, Scott is no Rick Ross – if there was a rapper worthy of the fan edit, it’s Scott, as fake-deep an edgelord as ever. Fire me your Travis-less edits if you have ’em, people. (4)

Zoe Camp: A grower, for sure. Production-wise, this is some of Scott’s best work as of late — the queasy surf guitar and hollow-sounding synths are a nice mirror of the song’s paranoid feel, helping to redeem an otherwise plodding hook mercifully abated by a solid, sex-positive Kendrick verse. (6)

Son Raw: It takes a special kind of mediocre to rate the worst song of the week when Sia and Biebs are Ja’fakin, but here we are. (3)


Final scores:

Sia – ‘The Greatest’ (6.6)
Grandaddy – ‘Way We Won’t’ (6)
Lady Gaga – ‘Perfect Illusion’ (6)
Zack de la Rocha – ‘Digging for Windows’ (5.7)
Travis Scott – ‘Goosebumps’ (4.7)
Post Malone and Justin Bieber – ‘Deja Vu’ (4.2)



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