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The Shape of Pop to Come

The DIY producers making pop weirder

From SOPHIE and Madonna to Metro Boomin and Nicki Minaj, the top 40 is awash with fringe sounds. Five essential voices on how the mainstream is evolving

Whether it’s Beyoncé enlisting BOOTS to infuse her R&B with a bit of atmospheric D&B, Arca and Evian Christ adding some biting electro to the anthemic production of Yeezus, or Top 40 acts joining forces with alt-pop faves like Dev Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid (recently including “Call Me Maybe” star Carly Rae Jepsen), pop’s most progressive thinkers are no strangers to linking up with producers and writers working on the fringe. A particularly stellar string of examples closed out 2014: Nicki teamed up with newcomer producers Metro Boomin and Nineteen85 on The Pinkprint, SOPHIE leant a rubbery sheen to Madonna’s raucous “Bitch I’m Madonna”, and pop’s current it-girl Charli XCX collaborated with Rostam Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend) for a pair of new tunes (and a Letterman performance). Familiar tropes are being knocked into unexpected new shapes, and pop's becoming a richer place.


UK producer SOPHIE emerged last Spring with the highly tactile and catchy “Bipp,” and produced for future-pop muse QT (alongside A.G. Cook). His crossover moment came last month, when Madonna released six tracks from her forthcoming 13th album Rebel Heart, one of which SOPHIE produced alongside Diplo.

On music getting weirder this year:

“(Music) always seems to end up in unexpected places. I've got my own ideas of what I would like to hear and what I think would be interesting… Weirdness depends on your vantage point. For a lot of people weirdness is almost a genre in itself… You can imagine how it sounds and how it looks – sometimes it looks and sounds exactly like it did 10 or 20 years ago. That means that it is not genuinely weird. The weirdest thing might actually be the most mainstream.”

On producing for mainstream acts vs. lesser-known acts:

“I try not to acknowledge this axis of independent versus mainstream. The musical challenge is the same. Any commonly-held concept of authenticity is based in nostalgia and sentimentality.”


In the past few years, Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij has emerged as a producer with a far-flung skill set. He takes a fan’s approach to curating, parlaying his own love for classic pop into working with artists including Best Coast, Das Racist, and most recently Charli XCX, on her Spector-ish “Need Ur Luv”. He even joined XCX onstage at her Letterman performance, further blurring the lines between pop star and pop producer.

On his signature style:

“Everything I do, I want the drums to be banging. What unites all of my productions is that you have to feel a visceral impact and I think that comes from the drums. When the drums hit, you feel the emotions of the music get heightened. That’s something I care about with Vampire Weekend and it’s something I care about with Charli too. Wanting to make music that you respond to with your body.”

On working with Charli XCX:

“When I started working with her for the first time, I realised how committed she was to the craft of songwriting. I guess I hadn’t met someone so young who cared about songwriting in the same way that I did.”


Metro Boomin still wants some more. After his busiest professional year – during which the St. Louis native crafted beats for Nicki Minaj, Young Thug and YG – the producer is embarking on a hyperactive 2015, with artists of all genres now putting in calls for his beats. Despite having a penchant for gritty, snarling anthems, he's showed his most singular talents when exploring softer territories, like on Future’s emotive “Honest” and Atlanta rap weirdo iLoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday,” which Metro produced with Sonny Digital.

On artists following trends:

“Last year, a lot of people were scared, didn’t know what to do, didn’t know what to put out… Really they’re just trying to catch up to what’s been going on on the internet. That’s why a lot of mainstream artists lost, because they don’t get it.”

On the current sounds of the mainstream:

“Instrumentals are way more intricate than they’ve ever been. A lot of shit from back in the day was hard and classic but the beat only had like two sounds and some drums. Real simple. Beats now are so complex and crazy.”

On iLoveMakonnens success:

“Now everybody’s trying to bite Makonnen’s swag. People don’t even think to be original. They’re just like, ‘Oh what’s out? What the kids like? That’s what I gotta do.’ Bring something fresh.”


At the close of 2014, New York radio DJ Funkmaster Flex gave his spotlight treatment – consisting of back-to-back-to-back-to-back replays – to Nicki Minaj’s “Truffle Butter”, the super turnt-up moment produced by Nineteen85 that closes out The Pinkprint. A Toronto native, the OVO Sound-signed producer worked on Drake’s “Hold On We’re Going Home” and his Sampha collab “Too Much”, but neither was as progressive or lighthearted as “Truffle Butter,” which reworks producer Maya Jane Coles’ “What They Say” with some killer, kinetic drums.

On the chances mainstream artists should take:

“To stay relevant, you have to be ready and willing to get out of your comfort zone. You're either following what is popular, or dictating what is popular. It’s more about the right collaborations these days rather than just doing what’s expected.”

On producing for mainstream acts vs. lesser-known acts:

“Working with Drake allows me to focus on creating moments without having to conform and worry about what others are doing… When working with a signed pop artist they normally have a clearer vision of what’s needed or where they are trying to go to create their ‘hit.’ Those needs are sometimes driven by their situation with their label, but I understand that world. Independent artists normally have more freedom to just create and worry about the details later.”


Until December 2013, Caroline Polachek was a relatively unknown force in the mainstream. That changed when her name popped up as a co-writer on Beyoncé’s beautiful, syrupy “No Angel,” on which the pop icon breathily told a bad-girls-like-bad-boys narrative. Polachek then dove into a laptop-based side project as her alter-ego Ramona Lisa and delivered an abstract, heady record that highlighted her eccentricity as a conceptual auteur.

On mainstream acts enlisting producers from outside their wheelhouse:

“Things are moving faster, things are changing faster than they ever have before, and working with the source formulas that worked for you in the past just don’t work anymore. Bigger artists like Beyoncé or like Kanye are in a place where they’re willing to take risks. ”

On the value of curation:

M.I.A. was one of the first artists to be a master curator, she was bringing on everything from the art to the production and it never at any point seemed like she wasn’t in charge. I think the precedent got set for these big artists to not just be visionaries in their songwriting and their dancing but also as executive producers. In the same way as having a really cool knowledge of old music or rare records, having a knowledge of underground producers you’re willing to take a risk on sort of became the new cool thing to do.”

On the ever-changing nature of songs:

“Song structures are getting looser, and that’s really exciting. You’re getting long intros, double bridges, only one chorus… It’s making major labels more open-minded as well. Given where music is right now, they don’t really know what to tell you to make a hit. They just say, ‘Try whatever you like, and if it feels energetic then let’s go with it.’ That’s pretty cool.”

On music getting weirder this year:

“I think the really thick, trancy EDM sound is going to get replaced by a more minimal, more abstract, more playful electronic sound. I think people really like tactile sounds, which you can hear and you can imagine the shape that it sounds like, as opposed to this big wall of rave synths.”