Weekend ballads: Carly Rae Jepsen, Tame Impala, Beyonce and Rihanna get slow

Pop music critic Randall Roberts tips new ballads by Beyonce, Tame Impala, Rihanna and Carly Rae Jepsen

For reasons unexplained, four excellent ballads were released this weekend. One arrived first via a televised sporting event and a marketing campaign, another via that same campaign and a third arrived in a late-night network TV debut. The fourth? Delivered on the psychedelic wings of Tame Impala.  

Rihanna, “American Oxygen”: During the moments before the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four tournament in Indianapolis, Rihanna unveiled a new song from her forthcoming album, and followed that with an exclusive preview via the new Tidal music streaming service (of which she is a stakeholder).

During the performance, she sang in front of the image of the U.S. flag while singing about the titular national element, but her lyrics were unconvincing. Featuring bootstrap-pulling lines about hard-earned success, the track aims for thematic depth but lands with a flat neutrality. Still, “American Oxygen” prevails with her beguiling, emotive voice and a wobbly Alex Da Kid-produced backing track.  

The video is more frustrating than the lyrics though, mixing images of strife, heartbreak, rioting and injustice with shots of a pop star looking sexily into the camera, flirting with the lens. We see images of Martin Luther King Jr. in his casket, Ferguson unrest, Oklahoma tornado wreckage, homelessness, Roman candles and atomic blasts edited with footage of Rihanna grooving. “Breathe in, breath out American oxygen,” she sings. She doesn’t say why, or to what end, or even suggest a meaning for her command. We're left to infer. 

Carly Rae Jepsen, "All That": One of the most insidiously catchy pop songs of the last few years arrived courtesy of Carly Rae Jepsen’s smash “Call Me Maybe.” The exuberant track and its creator tore through 2012, but then Jepsen seemed to vanish. She didn’t cameo on any breakout hip-hop hooks, didn’t strike with a follow-up worthy of that “Maybe” sugar rush.

Earlier this year, she tried with the upbeat “I Really Like You,” which she performed on "Saturday Night Live" this weekend. A catchy song as simply rendered as its title, it’s hardly earth-shaking. That's OK though, because with her second song on "SNL" Jepsen unveiled “All That,” a mesmerizing ballad co-produced by Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) and nonstop hitmaker Ariel Rechtshaid.

A quiet-storm jam remiscent of Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit,” “All That” as Jepsen performed it on Saturday moved with a lubed viscosity. She was joined by Hynes, Rechsthaid and a sturdy band that mixed tones both old and new, and offered a hint at Jepsen’s skills amid less bombastic, more nuanced tones.

Tame Impala, "'Cause I'm a Man": Equally viscous is Tame Impala’s new song, “’Cause I’m a Man.” The teaser track by Australian musician Kevin Parker’s trip-rock project merges down-tempo textures and a humble beat in service of a crawling ode to wanton masculinity. While synth tones introduce a subtle rhythm, Parker trades barbs and apologies to an ex. The song is taken from the band’s anticipated forthcoming album, called “Currents.” The record doesn't have a release date yet, but presumably they’ll play tracks from it at Coachella.

Beyonce, "Die with You": Beyonce's undeniably striking video performance of a new song arrived through Tidal, which is owned by her husband, Jay Z. It was delivered on shaky, handheld camera, and shows our heroine sitting at a grand piano and singing "Die with You." Beyonce presents this lovely ode to romantic devotion while staring lovingly into the camera. Only at the end do we see that the man behind the lens is Jay Z, which adds a level of intimacy one wouldn't necessarily expect from a much decried new high-end streaming service. Maybe that's the point?  

Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit

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