When Calvin Harris released the first Funk Wav Bounces in 2017, that album felt groundbreaking. By attaching ostensibly hardcore rappers such as Schoolboy Q and Young Thug to glittering, post-disco dance-pop, the producer threw both sides of the equation into stark relief, accentuating the best qualities of each. The rappers were able to display new sides of their personalities; the groovy beats felt more urgent and immediate. Songs like “Slide” and “Feels” made bodies want to move.
Now, Harris is on the second volume of the Funk Wav Bounces experiment, his first full-length release since 2017. He’s expanded the scope of his feature pool with rappers like 21 Savage, Busta Rhymes, and Pusha T lending their blunt-edged rhymes to his production. However, that production has seemingly contracted in equivalent measure, resulting in something more constrained and abrasive. Instead of the breezy listen the first offered, this one provides something that goes a step too far and ends up feeling just disposable.
I don’t think it’s a result of just the music choices Harris makes here. Sure, the monotonous drone with which Savage usually raps is ill-suited to the post-funk two-step of “New Money.” And yes, the Dua Lipa and Young Thug-featuring “Potion” is more of a retread of what has gone before. But when you zoom out a bit and take in the whole of the context into which Funk Wav Vol. 2 was released, the picture becomes much clearer. Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 2 seems less essential because honestly, it just might be.
I wrote earlier this year about what appears to be a concerted effort by ostensible hip-hop and R&B artists to reclaim dance music as a Black artform. This is a huge part of the reason that Calvin Harris’ efforts might feel less welcome. The landscape has shifted. More Black artists than ever are delving (back) into genres that their forebears pioneered in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and there’s more interest in doing so in a way that feels authentic to the roots of the dance scene. Back then, folks had not only a reason to dance, they had a desperate need to, as well.
Those early records, spun by Black DJs in warehouses packed with Black and queer people, were often raw, constructed under the weight of systems designed to oppress their audience, and created with the specific intent of pushing back against them, both subtly and loudly. By contrast, pairing punchline punishers like Busta and Pusha T with inoffensive, polished grooves and neatly packaged pop stars like Charlie Puth and Justin Timberlake seems to work counter to the transgressive vibes dance music used to give.
Now, look around. You see rights under attack, open racism, viral epidemics and pandemics seemingly targeted at the most vulnerable communities, police brutality, a mental health crisis, a tidal wave of evictions, and growing economic inequality across nearly every quarter of society. People aren’t just anxious; they’re angry, they’re depressed, they’re hurting, and they’re desperate for a release. There’s just too much pressure and it needs to be released. Dance music has always offered that, but it can’t be watered down.
When you look around, you see that artists like Doechii, Kaytranada, and Leikeli47 are making exactly the sort of raw, defiant dance music that people need to hear. When Doechii performs her songs “Persuasive” and “Crazy,” she doesn’t do so with a coquettish smile – she snarls. Leikeli’s collection of ski masks and face-covering bandanas aren’t just meant to hide her identity and focus attention on her music – they also evoke the menace of an armed robbery, the rebellion of an uprising. Beyonce’s new album Renaissance is a dance history lesson, yes. But it’s also a sermon, with Bey calling on ancestors, highlighting their struggles, and likening them to the struggles we face today.
Calvin Harris isn’t wrong to try to capitalize on the growing interest in Black dance; it’s his job, and for the most part, he’s good at it. But this is day party music, when what the world and the audience need is warehouse, Stonewall uprising, Paris Is Burning music. There’s a lot of talk about how the modern dance wave offers audiences escapism. I’ll argue with that; Calvin Harris’ dance-pop is escapist, fantastic stuff. In another time, it’d be perfect to put on and drift away on its hazy, frictionless groove. But what people want, what people need now is defiance. When the world is doing its damndest to crush you, there is nothing more powerful than to stand up and dance.
Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 2 is out now via Columbia. Get it here.