Island-Inspired Top 40 Hits Have Become the Yacht Rock of Our Time
"Turn Down for What" producer DJ Snake released his long-awaited debut LP, Encore, on August 5. Nearly every track on the French artist's album boasts special guests including Skrillex and Jeremih, but it's Justin Bieber collab "Let Me Love You" that's getting the lion's share of attention. It's an easy song to like, breezy and seemingly tailored for mid-summer, its verses' beat a descendant of all the Diwali Riddim-driven hits of the early 2000s from artists like Wayne Wonder and Lumidee. Given the chart success of previous island-influenced Bieber tracks "Sorry" and "Cold Water" with Major Lazer and MØ, "Let Me Love You" should be another slam dunk. But with it, we've hit peak saturation on Bieber fronted dancehall-lite bops that sound like a TGI Friday's piña colada for the ears.
Bieber, of course, is far from the only artist who's burned up the Hot 100 with island-inspired sound this year: Sia's "Cheap Thrills," featuring actual Jamaican recording artist Sean Paul, sits at No. 1 as of August 5. Just underneath it at No. 2 is the similarly sun-sand-and-surfesque "Cold Water," and sitting at No. 3 is Drake's monster hit "One Dance" featuring Afrobeat artist WizKid, one of several Views tracks that reflect the Canadian artist's love affair with dancehall. With Rihanna, he scored another tropical hit with "Work," though RiRi herself is hardly jumping on a bandwagon here given that she's from the Caribbean and has been giving us reggae-pop gold since Music of the Sun. There's probably never been a better time for her to re-release "If It's Lovin' That You Want," to be honest.
Even Twenty One Pilots, a wallet chain in the form of a band, is "Ride"-ing the reggae wave with a track currently sitting at No. 7. Regrettably, they have never sounded more like a slightly-harder 311; amber is the color of their energy, and "vaguely tropical" has officially become a formula.
In a July Rolling Stone interview about "Cold Water," Diplo said the trend is a positive direction for Top 40, though to be fair, he's one of the artists who brought it to the mainstream with Major Lazer summer '15 anthem "Lean On" featuring DJ Snake (full circle!) and MØ (who took a stab at a tropical house hit with the catchy, MNEK-produced "Final Song" in May).
Diplo says that Major Lazer songs like "Cold Water," full of diverse acoustic and Eastern flourishes, are embraced because pop is in a time of experimentation. "On the radio, we went through a bland period for a while, but now there is just some awesome music," Diplo says, citing Drake's "One Dance" and Rihanna's "Work" as two songs that are pushing commercial limits.
But doesn't it stop being experimental and outside of commercial limits once it's become the Top 40 norm, and the (mostly white, aside from the above examples) artists who pushed those boundaries are attempting to recreate their own magic? The hits of today draw inspiration from dancehall and other reggae subgenres, but they're like dancehall's pale, indoor-kid cousin that lives in the suburbs.
"Lean On" was an unimpeachable jam. German producer Felix Jaehn turned up the jubilance of OMI's "Cheerleader" with his tropical-house rework, to commercial success. And given that we're living a news cycle that's an unending cavalcade of horrors, it's no surprise that new audiences have gained a thirst for music that makes them feel like they're on a beach vacation. Just as long as we're all honest with ourselves — Justin Bieber's delivering the future soft hits, the Lite FM fodder for future generations co-written by the likes Ed Sheeran, mild music that is currently fun to listen to while sailing and will one day replace Christopher Cross's "Saaaailing" as dentist office music.
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