“Boy is a Liar Pt. 2” shows how the pulse of pop is changing

One of the most popular songs in the world right now poses a musical riddle: Should you dance or take a nap? Pink Pantheress “Boy’s a Liar Pt. 2” with the rapper Ice Spice sounds fast and sluggish, new and old at the same time. It’s undeniably catchy, yet feels as fleeting as a gentle dream. Another annoying fact: Liar is pronounced “lee-yah” in the chorus.

Really, the #3 song on the billboard Hot 100 is the culmination of a number of trends, driven by technology and linked to taste. In many enclaves, the music gets faster and more fidgety. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re becoming more energetic or extroverted. Welcome to the age of lo-fi beats that you can take stimulants to.

To understand the new vibe, you have to understand the old one. About a decade ago, popular music seemed to be getting heavier and slower thanks to the influence of trap, dubstep, and chillout playlists on streaming platforms. Ponderous basslines and military march hi-hats gave many songs a muddy weight, and electronic dance music became cafe-friendly mid-tempo wallpaper. These developments shaped all kinds of scenes for years – R&B and country alike.

Vibrant rebellions against the freeze of the 2010s have emerged in recent years, no doubt also responding to the desolation and isolation of COVID-19. The disco revival embodied by Beyoncé Renaissance is an example. The ever-growing influence of dembow, a vigorous variant of reggaeton, is another. Lightning fast drum and bass has returned in many dance clubs. The overdriven electronic sound known as hyperpop continues to trickle through. “Boy is a Liar Pt. 2” brings together some other heart-pounding phenomena: club rap, drill, and TikTok’s encouragement of couch-bound hyperactivity.

PinkPantheress, a 21-year-old British musician, made her debut in 2021 with a fresh musical formula. Their rhythms were sampled from vintage dance tracks that decades earlier had pounded ravers with intricate, explosive percussion. But their production made those wild beats feel razor-thin, smooth, and home-spun. She sang of heartbreak in the innocent tones of a helpful AI. She strings together short, simple phrases into elegant melodic movements. No song was longer than three minutes and most were under two. TikTok loved this for obvious reasons. Amid the platform’s endless distractions, “accelerated” remixes of songs do well because they’re efficient at being interesting. But Pink Pantheress’ songs didn’t need juicing. Each miniaturized an emotional world to match TikTok’s hummingbird heartbeat.

For “Boy’s a Liar” (both the original version of the song, which came out in November, and last month’s “Pt. 2”), PinkPantheress subsumed the rhythm of a dance-rap subgenre called “Jersey Club.” The style has a brisk tempo and a throbbing beat that creates the illusion of constant acceleration. Steady yet frenzied, Jersey Club is associated with complex footwork and choppy, hypnotic vocals (as well as the squeaky sound effect at the end of “Boy’s a Liar Pt. 2”). And although the Jersey Club originated in Newark more than 20 years ago, it’s hot right now. Attention-grabbing songs by Drake, Lil Uzi Vert and newcomers like Bandmanrill are fueling a wave of so-called club rap.

At the same time, the hip-hop style called “drill” is experiencing an associated boom. The signature drillbeat has snares stuttering with the irregularity of a fallen power cord and a synthesized bass that dives and plunges with drone-like smoothness. Each beat of the music feels minimal, defined by a few basic elements, but also action-packed as those elements move in swarms. Though it’s everywhere now, the drill has been refined in London, Chicago, and New York City: cold, crowded places for a cold, crowded sound.

Appropriately, one of Drill’s most prominent avatars of the moment goes by the frosty name of Ice Spice. Raised in the Bronx, the 23-year-old uses her raspy voice with methodical focus, delivering any diss or boast as if she were navigating through a checklist. With her talkative yet clear sound and distinctive red locks, she quickly became a social media celebrity after her song “Munch (Feelin’ U)” went viral last year. But Boy’s a Liar Pt. 2″ marks both her and PinkPantheress’ first appearances in the upper echelons of the Hot 100.

The collaboration between these two women is poignant in a way. Lyrically, “Boy’s a Liar Pt. 2” is a bit emo, which makes sense because PinkPantheress is a huge Paramore fan. In the song, she worries aloud if her love interest will find her “ugly,” a bluntly relatable fear in the facetuning era. In a verse put in some scumbag, Ice Spice drops her invulnerable stance in a revealing couplet: “But I don’t sleep enough without you / And I can’t eat enough without you.” That the track is struggling with artists like SZA to position itself at the top of the Hot 100 suggests that vulnerability — especially from women, especially black women — is as in demand as ever.

The most notable thing about the song, however, is simply its feathery feel. On paper, a club rap song about anger and inadequacy might seem intense and evocative. But PinkPantheress (and producer Mura Masa) wraps this cracker in felt. The track features cute keyboard sounds reminiscent of an early 2000’s DVD menu. The vocals are plush and quiet. The song’s popularity is reminiscent of other DIY hits like Steve Lacy’s “Bad Habit,” which (especially when sped up on TikTok) bury wistful emotions under distortion and tumult for a dissociative effect. If life feels fast-paced these days, it’s not like the sleek zooming of a sports car. Rather, it’s more swirling and surreal: the clock is ticking at the same pace as ever, but our minds are racing all over again.

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