Today saw the release of “Bed,” the first of two planned collaborations between Nicki Minaj and Ariana Grande, which comes on the heels of a pair of no-nonsense rap singles from the former and a breathtaking pop smash from the latter. It would have been safe to assume that their the new joint venture would go for that same kind of bombast. Instead, “Bed” is charming and l0w-key—much like the other Ariana Grande feature released this week, “Dance to This,” by Troye Sivan, “Bed” is about escaping to be intimate with a lover. The song is somewhat raunchy, with a third verse pretty clearly about oral sex, but you’d never know it from the cloudy but decidedly pretty instrumental.
That unassuming airiness goes for pretty much any recent song to appear on the Hot 100 that isn’t by Drake or Childish Gambino; it can be a love song like Bazzi’s “Mine”, or hateful like XXXTentacion’s “Sad!,” but either way it doesn’t really matter. Above all else, these songs are about creating a vibe, maybe with a couple of evocative one-liners every so often to hold a listeners’ attention/provide social media captions.
Currently, any sort of traditional pop form feels old-fashioned it’s why pop stars like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, while still ubiquitous as celebrities, are losing their grip on the public. (The corollary: this is also why Swift’s flighty “Delicate” has remained on the Hot 100, hanging in there on the Top 40, where theoretically surefire singles like the Ed Sheeran-featuring “End Game” have faltered.) The muted lo-fi anger of newly minted Top 10 hit “Lucid Dreams” by Juice WRLD is just another example, as is newly minted #1 “Psycho,” from Post Malone featuring Ty Dolla $ign. Looking at the Summer Hits playlist on Spotify, the list is dominated by artists like Malone and Khalid, whose seemingly endless streak of murmuring, downtempo features has proved to be a major influence on the current pop landscape. This micro-evolution in pop is mirroring what was a full-on revolution in rap, with Lil Uzi Vert and other SoundCloud rappers remaking that genre in the image of bedroom confessions. Malone, to his credit and our pain, blended it with adult contemporary pop balladry.
This is how we wind up with the normally forceful Minaj and Grande—who previously teamed up on the swaggering “Side To Side”—duetting on a downtempo lovelorn ballad. Maximalism in pop music is out, a fact that Minaj—who once challenged her rap fanbase with frequent excursions into brightly colored bubblegum pop—has seemed to internalize. Even her “Chun-Li,” which has held its own on the Hot 100, is an exercise in trap-influenced minimalism, a trend that’s even carried over to country and “rock.”
Of the two Ariana features, “Dance To This” is actually danceable; “Bed,” meanwhile, buries its groove in pure atmosphere. Yet they both sound similar and have nearly identical, hyper-contemporary, Instagram-influenced, faded album art. A lot of the songs mentioned here are very good, and some of them will stick around long after this trend of foggy pop music has been stamped out by whatever is coming next. But for now, foggy pop is the lingua franca of streaming services, and it’s up to everyone else to adjust and adapt.