Calvin Harris first came onto the scene at the height of the indie electronica wave of the late ‘00s, when Steve Aoki and Crookers reigned festivals and clubs. But during the current decade, he quickly catapulted into the mainstream and is now one of the most prolific producers on the charts. Whether working with stars like Rihanna on “This Is What You Came For” or lesser-known artists like Disciples for “How Deep Is Your Love,” he can make EDM-pop gold with just about any vocalist. Fast forward to 2017, and he’s reached the level of ubiquity Dr. Luke had 10 years ago.
But like Dr. Luke, Harris’ hits — prior to the release of his new album, Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 — have been undeniably catchy but often lacked soul and personality, sticking to a formula of clean, straight-forward (dare I say generic?) pop vocals and house beats. Things changed, however, with the release of Funk Wav’s lead single, “Slide” featuring Frank Ocean and Quavo, a perfect summer soundtrack if there ever was one. Its funky, retro two step, Ocean’s smooth singing and Quavo’s autotuned vocals are a potent mixture of current sensibilities and nostalgia. “Slide” works just as well at a family barbecue as it does in a club, and it’s one of the year’s best feel-good tunes.
As “Slide” and “Rollin,” Harris’ other single with Future and Khalid, suggested, Funk Wav is a sun-soaked, chilled-out record steeped in funk and disco. And like DJ Khaled’s Grateful, which came out a week before Harris’ project, it features what feels like every pop and rap star of our time. This tendency — where a producer puts several totally unrelated celebrity artists on a track together — is commercial pop on steroids. And it can sometimes feel a little cheesy, like when every celebrity ever got together to cover “What’s Going On” in 2001.
Many of the collaborations sound organic, but some of the tracks betray Harris’ attempt to draw on the featured artists’ fanbases to maximize streams. For every magical moment — like the odd, brilliant alchemy of Young Thug, Pharrell Williams and Ariana Grande on “Heatstroke” — there are experiments that don’t quite land. “Prayers Up” makes Travis Scott sound like Travis Scott Lite, trading his usual darkness and tension for a happier, friendlier version of his style. It’s not a bad song: It just doesn’t really make sense for Travis Scott. To Harris’ credit, though, he does pull off most of his star-studded pairings: “Feels” with Pharrell, Katy Perry and Big Sean is another delightfully breezy jam in the vein of “Slide.” And the high-energy dancehall track “Skrt On Me,” in which Nicki Minaj unleashes her Caribbean side, is also one of the album’s high points.
Although the commercial motives behind Funk Wav are somewhat transparent, it’s hard to go wrong with those funky beats. Even if the tracks sometimes come off as a parade of pop stars whose music has little to do with one another, Harris still manages to create a cohesive fusion that transcends genre. After all, at the end of the day, pop isn’t supposed to be that deep.