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First Impressions: Normani, Taylor Swift, Charli XCX And More

Written By the interns on 08/21/2019

First Impressions is our weekly chance to go head-to-head on the new tunes of the week. Each of the contributing writers reviews the track and then slaps a score out of 5 on it. This week Charli XCX, Normani, Taylor Swift and more are up.

Normani – Motivation

Jackson Langford: I’ve been waiting for this moment for a while. For pop to be fun, for pop you can dance to, and for Normani. Her slew of slow-burning R&B collaborations were good teasers of what she can do, but ‘Motivation’ sees her embrace the solo popstar status that Fifth Harmony never afforded her. No-one can dance like her. No-one has inspired all corners of the pop world like her. No-one can do what Normani has proven she’s capable of with ‘Motivation’. With the best of the best behind the song helping her – Max Martin, Ariana Grande, Savan Kotecha and Ilya Salmanzadeh – there’s no way this won’t be Normani’s, and 2019’s, defining pop moment.

Reece Hooker: The video is already iconic and the song isn’t too far behind. It’s brilliant to hear an unabashed pop song that manages to knock as hard as a rap song. Production this excellent would usually hijack the song, Normani exerts a stunning sense of command over the song. The influence of co-writer Ariana Grande is strong, but Normani is already packing personality and charisma that immediately makes ‘Motivation’ her star-making moment.

Sam Murphy: This has been the only thing I’ve talked about for the last few days so we may as well just keep going. This is exactly what happens when you wait until you’ve got everything in line. People have questioned why she’s been doing so many collaborations but she’s been building towards this. These kind of moments don’t just drop out of the sky. Everything needed to be perfect and it is. Motivation is a perky, horn-driven power play that slices R&B with Max Martin pop, perfectly reading the mainstream right now while also giving more. And that video…I’m still catching my breath. A star is born. 5

Taylor Swift – Lover

Jackson: It’s hard to tell if ‘Lover’ is actually great, or if it’s just great in comparison because ‘ME!’ is still stained into our memory, but I’m willing to bet the former. If ‘ME!’ was pre-school, ‘Lover’ is college graduation. It’s one of Taylor’s richest songs to date, and she’s showing vocal maturity that has previously only flashed sporadically across her discography. ‘Lover’ sounds like that last sip of rum in a dingy, smoke-filled bar with the irritating buzz of a cheap neon sign filling the lulls in conversation between you and your special someone. It sounds like that step outside of the bar into the pouring rain, and it sounds like you falling asleep on that special someone’s shoulder in the Uber home. This is Taylor Swift at her finest. 5

Reece: Look, it’s not bad. I respect this new era of Taylor seems to be bringing together an astounding array of styles she’s conquered over her career, but ‘Lover’ feels a little vanilla. I feel like these wallowy stripped back ballads live and die by the strength of the songwriting and while ‘Lover’ is a leap from, say, ‘ME!’, there’s nothing memorable, moving or profound that sticks with me past the first listen. Maybe I’m just lonely and jaded? Sound off in the comments. 3

Sam: I have to admit it’s a little bit snooze-inducing coming off Normani into this but I can’t hold that against here. Before we got ME! I actually expected this to be the vibe of the album and I was surprised to finally get it. It’s definitely a return to the sort of direct, personal songwriting that defined RED which I’m very open too. It feels sincere and intimate with some excellent songwriting. I guess the thing I can never get past with Swift is she presents this diary-like, fairytale narrative of love which I’ve never really connected too. It’s a personal thing but it always stops me really connecting to what she has to say. 3.5

Miley Cyrus – Slide Away

Jackson: It’s hard to tell if this song was written in the week or so between news of Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth’s break-up and the track’s release, but it doesn’t matter. For years, Miley’s music – while great – has always been accompanied with some sort of gimmick – whether that be the tongue, her ‘bad girl gone good’ phase or the unapologetic hyper-feminism of ‘Mother’s Daughter’. But ‘Slide Away’ gives us an uncensored, raw and vulnerable Miley. It’s a refreshing 90s-soaked tale of loss, and is the best thing Miley’s given us in years. 4.5

Reece: ‘Slide Away’ has some points which feel monumental – namely, the singeing delivery of “move on, we’re not seventeen” (ouch) – but the song feels a little disjointed and stagnant. I’ll happily lob most of the blame at the oddball pairing of Andrew Wyatt and Mike WiLL Made It, two excellent producers whose worst tendencies are on display in this mismash. It doesn’t accentuate Miley’s strengths and it leaves the atmosphere on ‘Slide Away’, a song which is timely, real and raw, feeling weirdly artificial. 3

Sam: The way she’s blended fuzzy rock and, hip-hop and pop on this is an interesting but choice move at points. The verses really benefit from the weight of the instrumental but it completely washes the chorus out. It almost goes for Wrecking Ball but instead it falls short at an album closer. 3

Charli XCX – Cross You Out (Feat. Sky Ferreira)

Jackson: Leave it to one of pop’s most prolific collaborators to bring one of pop’s most notorious recluses out of hiding. In a meeting of forces that I’m shocked hasn’t happened sooner, Charli XCX and Sky Ferreira feed off each other in the dark, brooding way only they can. It’s not bouncy like ‘Blame It On Your Love’ and it’s not as immediately powerful as ‘Gone’, but it slinks through the haunting industrial production like fog through streetlights – and gives us a look at the sombreness that rests within one of modern music’s biggest partiers. 5

Reece: I’m still giddy from the high of ‘Gone’ that ‘Cross You Out’ feels like a bit of a comedown, but it’s magnificent nonetheless. Charli XCX doesn’t have the voice that should work too well on a slower song, but she’s penned some beautiful words and composed the track in a way that it fits really well. I feel like Sky Ferreira is still finding her way in a pop landscape very removed from Night Time, My Time. This isn’t her landmark moment of return, but it’s very, very cool having a collaboration between two mythical titans of alt-pop actually out here in the world. 4

Sam: I thought I had Charli completely figured out but I was off the mark. Stylistically, she’s blending all of her projects and this one relates most heavily to True Romance. I love that she got Sky on this one. The crashing, ‘80s-percussion is such a perfect arena for her to flex her goth-pop stylings and it only elevates what Charli has to say. One of the most forthright, emotional songs of Charli’s career. 4.5

Jorja Smith – Be Honest (Feat. Burna Boy)

Jackson: Jorja Smith has always been an artist that radiates sensuality. With a voice like chocolate and a style that is so timeless, it’s hard for anyone to not be enamoured by her. But, like Normani, ‘Be Honest’ sees Jorja depart her crooning R&B sound and step into a sexually assertive pop banger that seems just as natural to her. Burna Boy’s restrained but instantly recognisable vocals give the song a comforting embrace, but Jorja’s confidence is what keeps the song bouncing from start to finish. 4.5

Reece: It never struck me until now how much of Jorja Smith’s music is downtrodden and sad, despite her personality always translating as vibrant and fun. ‘Be Honest’ makes good on that unmined potential with a fleet-footed jam that feels like an Afro-centric alt-R&B inspired by Jorja’s tourmate Kali Uchis. Burna Boy is a wonderful addition, tagging in to ride the beat with his smooth as silk delivery, helping make this one hell of an easy listen to start a promising new era for Jorja Smith. 4 

Sam: The first time I listened to this it washed straight over me but then I watched the video and it all started to click. This is the cheekiest and most confident Smith has ever been and I almost gasped when I heard her sing, “you see my thick thighs”. It’s not a side of her I’ve ever heard but it shows she’s growing as an artist and stepping into her own. By the time Burna Boy arrives Smith has already heated it up so much all he needs to do is keep it right in the pocket and he does. 4

Tkay Maidza – Awake (Feat. JPEGMAFIA)

Jackson: Tkay Maidza has deserved to have her big international break in hip-hop about five times over by now. She has worn many hats, but none seem to fit as well as ‘Awake’ does now. It is an ominous, in-your-face track – like some of Kanye West’s most popular deep cuts – and that sees neither Maidza or the erratic JPEGMAFIA hold anything back. The ferocity between the two rappers is infectious and powerful, and it’s not hard to imagine this shake the floor of any concert venue Tkay performs from here on in, as strobes beam across the – sure to be moshing – crowd. 4.5

Reece: We knew Tkay Maidza could handle club songs, she could make pop smashes and glide over funky licks, but now let’s just add another entry to her jaw-dropping range. ‘Awake’ is a skull-rattling bass overdose and it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s the perfect beat for the indomitable JPEGMAFIA to pounce on, giving his best feature in a red-hot year and yet Tkay is still the star. Oh, and that other song tacked onto the end of the film clip? So good that it gave me a concussion. 4.5

Sam: I’ve loved everything Tkay has done but it feels like she had to try everything to arrive at her true style. Her last EP and this is the most self-assured I’ve ever seen her. Her rapping has improved out of sight and it’s helping to give her bars weight. On Awake, she’s flexing hard over one of her most aggressive beats yet. Peggy, a rapper who is having a phenomenal year, goes toe-to-toe with Tkay in terms of intensity, slugging the song into home-run territory. 4.5

Tweet Jackson, Reece or Sam with your queries, complaints and comments. 

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