Kelis, as ever, was the harbinger. Trends pioneered by the deliciously attitudinal singer six years ago are still being jacked by pop starlets today, so when she ditched her signature inter-galactic R&B for an Ibiza-ready cabana trance album in early 2010, we should have known a sea change was coming. Partly co-written by dance-music magician Guetta (we’re just calling him Guetta now), Flesh Tone was an unexpected left-turn into fancy-fromage rave territory. Her alto cracks liberated from the antigravity chamber of her previous records, she soared free over borderline-commercial house beats. Strobes pulsed. Neon glistened. It was, in many ways, a logical direction for her — after working with the Neptunes, most moves within the rap/R&B arena probably feel pretty lateral. But it also foreshadowed the next twelve months of rap, R&B and pop, when we saw what happens when musicians stopped popping bottles… and started popping glowsticks. When T-Pain’s on his coffee break, what else are you gonna do?
In a mainstream America that’s generally been inhospitable to big-room dance music of a European genesis (underground pockets notwithstanding), this was a curious development, so some of the subtler touchstones were easier to grasp. Kanye West sampled Aphex Twin on “Blame Game” — a YouTuber’s shout-out to his Daft Punk/French touch phase of yore. His sister in platinum album sales, Nicki Minaj, had two (almost three!) thrilling drum n bass beats on Pink Friday, which were joyously celebrated by the fealtiest of proto-junglists and revivalist heads. Honorable mention goes to Rihanna’s awesome, dubstep-inflected Rated R, which was released in late 2009 to a relative chorus of indifference — it set a template that Britney’s about to follow, two years later, with low-end wobble on her forthcoming album produced by the likes of fopple-headed Brit superstar Rusko.
Diddy was game, too (obviously). New York’s favorite over-tweeting CEO’s still the kind of fellow who shows up to a party with a 40-person entourage and a bottle of Ciroc (nee Moet) in hand, so sonically, an R&B album with rave undertones isn’t off brand. Last Train to Paris, released under the egalitarian moniker Diddy Dirty Money — a syntax win, if awkward — was one of the best of the crop, traversing a loose romance concept with even looser oonce-oonce undertones. “Yesterday” had subtle allusions to trance; “I Hate That You Love Me” is punctuated with late-’80s house piano. Though some were cynical about his making-the-bandmates Dawn Richard and Kalenna, Last Train to Paris sounded like an outlier in a Bad Boy’s empire, the least self-conscious music he’s released since the shiny-suit era. Glitter, it seems, suits him.
Parsing the whys and wherefores, though, was a little trickier. Pop music is a type of artificial intelligence; its first instinct is self-preservation. Dance music of the Euro persuasion has indeed spilled majorly into the mainstream (thanks a million Pauly D, ha). Since global big-room DJs like Guetta, Tiesto and Deadmau5 now make $980-11 trajillion a gig, hopping on that train is a pretty cushy way to play out major label food chain alphaness. The yen to dance seemed to be a statement of a new type of decadence. Although most rappers’ lyrical obsession with ecstasy and other club drugs piqued somewhere in the early-mid oughties, the beat resurrection felt like the germinations of a value shift. At the very least, something about celebrating blacklights and rave juice seemed less gauche in this economy than waiting for your waitron to deliver your $350 champagne with a sparkler in her cleavage. Or maybe it’s just that sweat is back, people!
At any rate, last week a mixtape emerged that brought it all back home. Kid Sister, the ebullient, hyper rapper from Chicago, released the extremely enjoyable Kiss Kiss Kiss and did what she’s always done: rapped over club-oriented dance beats. It signaled that the new crop of raving pop icons has reached the end of the möbius strip: Kid Sis helped to kick off the current dance-rap epoch with 2007’s “Pro Nails,” which hit 21 on the ’08 singles charts with a little assist from Yeezy. On Kiss Kiss Kiss, Kid Sister bests everybody, agile on varying dance styles of from mostly newer tracks. She assumes the role of an upbeat diva on a Paradise Garage-invoking pop song, is serious and instructive on a Chicago-style footwork track, and becomes a drawling rap boss on a boomeranging track with Texas rappers Paul Wall and Bun B. Her diction is glossy and pucked, as though she’s perpetually smacking bubblegum, and her personality matches the burbling electricity of the jacked-up synths. She’s a dancefloor lightning rod, and embodies why more and more artists are being drawn towards club production — it’s the kinetic nature of the synths, the heartbeat thump, the propulsive energy. For dancefloor fans, even cheesy club music can evoke a corporeal response (witness otherwise rational people involuntarily fistpumping in Jersey Shore solidarity — it happens). Whether the radio will acquire the taste for rave sticks is anyone’s guess, but for now, let us commence getting loose together.