Max Martin. You might not have heard the name, but you most certainly know his production credits. From Britney Spears’ ‘…Baby One More Time’ through to Taylor Swift’s ‘Blank Space’, Martin has dominated mainstream popular music since the end of the last millennia and alongside his frequent collaborator Karl Johan Schuster, known as Shellback, Martin has almost come to define modern pop. In other genres, certain producers can be equally as significant, forcing their way into the public eye (or ear). Metroboomin is one such figure, and has even worked the line “If Young Metro don’t trust you they gon’ shoot you,” into songs by Future, Drake and Kanye West. The 24-year-old Atlantan-native is as close to fame as producers get without being on the mic themselves and his style has pushed several rappers into stardom. Most notably, Metro worked on Migos’ smash hit ‘Bad and Boujee’, culminating in weeks at number one and a shoutout from Donald Glover. Not too bad for someone yet to have their 25th birthday.
But it’s not just these figures that stand out. No one can have missed the phenomenon that is Kendrick Lamar and commentators frequently exalt the roles of collaborators like Kamasi Washington and Thundercat on Lamar’s albums. But rarely do they give credit to Sounwave, whose production runs through all four of Kendrick’s diverse studio albums. Producing key tracks on such varied and challenging albums should be enough to earn Sounwave praise, yet the man doesn’t even possess a Wikipedia page!
A listen to ‘King Kunta’, one of the most popular songs on To Pimp a Butterfly, will reveal why this is a travesty. The drum kit fades in, and within seconds you are throw into a vicious track that addresses the state of rap music, fame and the plight of black people in America. Lamar’s delivery and content is at its most boisterous here, but the cut is one that has instant appeal and never feels too heavy. It is testament to the production that this song manages to remain both eminently danceable (if that’s not a word it should be), and keep the listener slightly on edge. Combining a groove that could have been plucked straight out of any Funkadelic track with some ethereal synths and a haunting guitar lick, Sounwave makes a track perfect for Lamar’s meditations. The increasingly complexity of subject matter mirrors the music too as further elements are added, concluding in an almost overwhelming final 30 seconds.
These songs reward close and multiple listenings
Another producer known for their construction of densely layered songs is Jack Antonoff, who some might know better from his roles in Bleachers and fun. After being thrust forward into the limelight by producing the wildly popular and divisive Taylor Swift single ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, Antonoff’s work deserves some appraisal (and indeed praise). Perhaps the trademarks of his work are the driving, glistening and slightly nostalgic synths that propel tracks forward; these can be heard in his recent collaborations with Lorde, Taylor Swift and St Vincent on their new albums. Working with these artists, Antonoff creates complex soundscapes, often packed with surprising elements, but does so in a way that is suitable for mainstream pop. These songs, like ‘New York’ and ‘The Louvre’, reward close and multiple listenings to deconstruct and discover the layers he and the artists build on a track.
Arguably the work that demonstrates the producer’s aforementioned talents most acutely is Melodrama, the long-awaited sophomore record from Lorde, released this year to widespread critical acclaim. In the podcast Song Exploder (go check it out, it’s great), Lorde describes how naturally and quickly Antonoff was able to interpret her ideas, whilst also leaving his distinct and indelible marks on the album by including extra details. In the lively and frenetic ‘Sober’, this unique touch takes the form of feedback that provides a backdrop to stimulate rising tension in the pre-chorus. Similarly, St Vincent explains how Antonoff kept adding layers to the ballad ‘New York’ until it formed a coherent, yet complex whole. The diversity of these tracks also goes to show that Antonoff is capable of crafting interesting music whatever the tone of the piece.
As for the surprises I mentioned earlier; here’s a little game. Put some headphones on, have a listen to Lorde’s ‘Sober’, and see whether you can spot the tiger’s roar. Good luck.