Dispatches From The Mainstream: 5/28/2013

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Florida Georgia Line – Cruise [Remix] (feat. Nelly)

Call it a “remix” all you want, but I know a hastily-produced “pop” version of a country song when I hear it. To the best of my knowledge, Taylor Swift originated this practice when some backwards-thinking suits at the label got uncomfortable because “Love Story” had the barest hint of a steel guitar in it. Swift would later become the living embodiment of this phenomenon.

Anyway, the original version of “Cruise” was more already more rock than country, but it was a pleasant addition to charts and it fell more on the side of “simple” than “braindead,” which is a rarity in a lot of modern country. It was catchy and it didn’t get caught up in the “Countrier Than Thou” nonsense that started when Waylon Jennings made “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” and has just snowballed ever since.

The new version of “Cruise” is dispiriting in some ways: do record execs still think we won’t listen to something that doesn’t sound exactly like everything else? The original didn’t have a lot of rough edges to smooth over, but damned it they didn’t find some. The distinctive guitar line is gone—hell, the entire instrument has been buffed out. If you really dig for it, you can still hear the rumor of an electric six-tring underneath the stuttering drum-machine beat and healthy drizzling of auto-tune, but don’t strain yourself.

But the inclusion of Nelly is a happy surprise. He’s always identified as a “country boy,” and his last foray in to the genre was “Over and Over” with Tim McGraw–which, in case you’ve forgotten, is just great. It’s been nearly a decade since Nelly went to that well, which says to me that this isn’t some crass cross-promotion gimmick: I think Nelly just likes hopping on a country song every now and then. His talk-sing croon fits nicely into any genre, and even if his actually rapping is pretty uninspired, “I can see you got a thing for the fast life/so come on, shorty, let me show you what the fast like” is so bizarrely lazy that I can’t help but like it.

Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines (feat. T.I. & Pharrell)

Does anyone know where Chad Hugo is? Should we send out a search party? Do you think Pharrell has him trapped in a well somewhere beneath the house?

Hugo was most recently spotted forming a DJ duo with someone that I’ve never, ever heard of, so I guess he’s not dead, but a quick scan of Wikipedia reveals an abundance of Pharrell-produced tracks in the past year and a lack of proper Neptunes beats. Nothing against Pharrell: he’s talented, and more than that, he’s fascinating—side bar: do you think I could write an entire 33 1/3 book about his terrible solo album? Bet you I could—but The Neptunes put together some of the best songs of the last decade, and while they’ve had a few missteps, I’d rather hear them in their synthed-out latter-day mode than listen to another empty-headed Pharrell beat.

The music behind “Blurred Lines” isn’t bad, but Pharrell must not have known it was for a pop song, because it sounds like a hip-hop beat. Actually, it’s too repetitive to even be a good rap song: there’s nothing there for a hook. Robin Thicke does the best he can (the way he drops he voice on that second “I know you want it” is the best part of the whole song) and Pharrell throws in some nice harmonies, but it’s a lost cause. The vocals go nowhere because that endless clanging gives them nowhere to go.

Also, T.I. stops by to do his slick-talking thing and drop a few come-ons that feel more like threats of sexual abuse.

J. Cole – Power Trip (feat. Miguel)

A strong showing from Jermaine Cole! I don’t know why I’m surprised that I like this song so much. I guess I’m still a little confused about Cole’s first album: I mean, what happened? Sideline Story debuted at number one on Billboard and got some love from critics, but it came and went without making much of an impression. J. Cole was way hyped up at that point, so anything less than the second coming of Yeezus would have been a let-down, but were those singles really the best you could do, J? That Trey Songz number was weak, and that dubstep-light mess you slathered all over “Mr. Nice Watch” wasn’t gonna win anyone over. “Work Out” was the most fun song on the album and it was about 15% J. Cole.

But “fun” isn’t really Cole’s thing. The other standout track from Cole World was “Lost Ones,” a devastating story-rap about abortion. “Power Trip” strikes a good balance between the two extremes: it’s loaded with real emotion, but Cole doesn’t succumb to his often-terminal self-seriousness. He’s honest and self-aware, like when he chastises himself for sending anonymous flowers (“coward shit”) and the way he flip-fops between boasting and admitting that he’s still stuck on the same girl, damn, Cole, really? The girl from “Dreams?” You need to get over that. “Homie, pull it together.”

Miguel doesn’t get enough to do, but he and Cole both make the most of his vocals. Cole drops out most of the beat and Miguel belts out his two lines with pure romanticism. Cole says that this song has a double meaning—that it addresses a real girl and a metaphorical girl, the latter being hip-hop. It’s a stretch, but with this hook, there’s no doubt that the song is sincere, no matter who or what it’s addressed to.

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