In January 2017, Calvin Harris declared that he was collaborating with the greatest artists of this generation while working on his new album Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1. The resulting album is thoroughly composed and very safe pop music that happens to feature some of the biggest artists in pop (Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, Pharrell) alongside some of its most innovative (Nicki Minaj, Frank Ocean, Future), and some that are currently breaking through to larger success (Lil Yachty, Khalid, Kehlani). Like any aggrandizing statement that aims to capitalize on the zeitgeist, there is some success and fallacy to what he said—there are at least three or four names above that could hang among the greatest. But the ambition Harris implies with that kind of statement is belied the album’s easy charms.
Like Mark Ronson’s big-ticket collaborative albums, there isn’t much here that’s particularly innovative, but Harris has a special ability with vocalists that allows them to assert authorship over the songs while also sounding completely of a piece with his post-Random Access Memories disco-pop. At its best, it adds a significant track to the artists’ discography, like lead single “Slide” which shows Frank Ocean’s hit-making ability and Migos’ ever-broadening pop appeal. It can also offer a star-making turn, like Jessie Reyez’s uniquely sung “Hard to Love”, which is easily the album’s most beautiful piece.
At worst, Harris’s palette reveals some featured artists for who they really are, like “Prayers Up”, a collaboration with Travis Scott and A-Trak, Scott comes off like a xeroxed copy of better tracks on this album—and for a record whose retro fetishism is so decidedly safe and saccharine, this song is peak simulacrum. Similarly, “Feels”, which features Pharrell, Katy Perry, and Big Sean, it ultimately forgettable, offering little that’s distinct or charming from three artists who exude that very trait throughout their discographies.
Another criticism that could easily be leveled at Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 is that the album sounds a bit too consistent throughout. The structures on a few of the songs are almost exact mirrors of each other. The album’s catchy and completely inoffensive sound is perfect for commutes to work, parties, barbecues, and working out and doesn’t necessarily reward any deeper attention. And it certainly doesn’t offer anything that truly bangs. While the production here is sometimes similar to Jamie xx’s recent work, Harris does little to challenge our conception of pop music or the individual sounds that make up his technicolor tapestry in the way that Jamie xx’s best music does.
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But, this, is the point: Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 is not only a product of the prevailing trend of optimistic (nearly twee) pop music but also a high-water mark for it. In a year stuffed with collaboration-heavy hits and albums, it features a remarkably focused sound and streamlined approach running only 10 tracks across 38 minutes. It illustrates attention to quality control on Harris’s part that runs against the indulgent spirit of recent albums like DJ Khaled’s Grateful and Drake’s 2016 album Views and 2017 ‘playlist’ More Life. Rather than offer a glut of material, Harris aims at giving the audience ten bangers designed to play on repeat. The best surprise of the album is that he mostly succeeds.
In a culture that’s currently oversaturated with songs that feature a bloated number of collaborators and social media presences that imply that all famous musicians get along together, there is a true sense of levity here that doesn’t feel strained. The album feels oddly natural, and the looseness of the performances (especially Frank Ocean and Young Thug’s) underscore what feels like a real collaboration, versus the slight drop-ins like Kendrick Lamar’s features on recent Maroon 5 or Taylor Swift singles. Funk Wav Bounces manages to avoid the stench of corporate contrivances and instead offers a laid-back experience that evokes hanging out with your friends.