Calvin Harris’s ‘Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 2’ is music for malls

The collection of retro pop is a long escalator ride to mediocrity.

Calvin Harris's side profile with an orange red and blue background
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The only Instagram accounts I really enjoy collect tableaus of North American malls from the 1980s and early ‘90s. Some of these pictures center novelty attractions—indoor palm trees shooting two stories up in suburban Florida, lazy rivers snaking past clothing boutiques somewhere in Edmonton—but most make the banality of retail seem sublime: polished marble that shimmers like a still lake; racks of Italian jackets whose military rigidity is at odds with the sheer aimlessness of their arrangement on a leather-brown sales floor; glass bricks shot through with cool pastels; unplayable white baby grands tucked behind gold-plated stanchions.

The images are colorful, and busy, an obvious rejection of the sterile corporate minimalism that dominates our culture today. Even though a cursory glance confirms the presence of photo filters that soften and standardize, it doesn’t take much imagination to remember these malls as more inviting than their successors—more inviting even than the present day’s coffee shops or spas. But every time I catch myself wishing for a revival of those departed mall aesthetics, I remember that style ceases to be style when it’s merely traced from the original; I remember that the revived spaces would be soundtracked by the thinnest, hollowest echoes of that era’s music, records that retain the base signifiers of gloss and funk and delirious excess, with none of the genuine verve to animate it—records, in other words, like Calvin Harris’ Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 2.

The album’s predecessor, released five years ago this summer, is no masterpiece, but it is not nearly this flimsy or gestural. It understands that Frank Ocean, riffing and a little annoyed over lush lite-funk, or Schoolboy Q rapping about things he saw on Miami Vice — the present complicating the past — is more interesting than obsequious recreation. Vol. 2, by contrast, fails as retro pastiche and as modern update, sounding instead like royalty-free music commissioned for a chain of fast casual restaurants. It’s lazily conceived and dully executed, the inevitable endpoint of passive algorithmic listening and favor-for-favor celebrity alliances.

Around the time of Vol. 2’s release, a joke circulated on Twitter:

Calvin Harris tracks will be like: ‘Match My Vibe’ ft. Cèline Dion, Lil Baby & Harry Potter.”

The lineups the Scottish producer (born Adam Wiles; he chose his stage name so that people might be tricked into thinking he was Black) assembles are nearly this absurd, but yield little of the chaos or incongruity that would seem to promise. For example, “Potions,” an impossibly rote paean to “late night conversations,” finds Dua Lipa and Young Thug — two of pop’s most engaging and adaptive stylists — so muted as to be nearly anonymized.

This effect persists throughout Vol. 2, due in part to the simple fact that Harris’ collaborators, especially the most famous among them, are consistently giving him their B-grade material. But there’s a more tangible factor at play as well: the vocal mixing. Virtually all of the rappers and singers on Vol. 2, save for the conspicuously Autotuned, like Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee on the treacly “Lean On Me,” have their hooks and verses processed in the same way, flat and dry with suffocating dubs. This makes it difficult for the infrequent bright spots, like the Jamaican singer Shenseea’s lewd turn on “Obsessed,” to distinguish themselves from the morass; it makes Busta Rhymes, whose voice is one of the most distinctive in hip-hop history, sound like someone doing Busta Rhymes karaoke on “Ready Or Not”; it is nearly disastrous, on album closer “Day One,” for Pusha-T, whose own records are richly, crisply, obsessively mixed, and who is left here to sound as if he texted Harris voice memos.

Vol. 2’s most naked radio play, “Stay With Me,” collects Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, and Halsey, and makes Trolls World Tour sound like Purple Rain. To hear an album’s worth of stars and aspiring ones reduced to blank placeholders is dispiriting at best. Aside from the frustratingly neutered Shenseea verse — which, even if it were finished more appropriately by Harris and his engineers, would be dragged down to earth by an excruciating Charlie Puth — the clearest instance of a guest acquitting himself comes on “Live My Best Life,” where Snoop Dogg slinks his way through a halting turn that makes expert use of the natural tension in his voice and the vocal layering that is unavoidable here.

Where the Long Beach legend finds the crevices in Harris’s utterly drab block of inoffensiveness and fills them with personality, Vol. 2’s opening cut is the diametric opposite. “New Money” belongs entirely to Atlantan 21 Savage, who has made a career building dynamics into his seemingly monotone voice, tucking whole emotional arcs into little sighs and deadpan jokes that an inattentive listener might pass right over. Here, both producer and rapper are at their least expressive — a static, one-note performance over the chintziest mall funk one could imagine. If nothing else, it effectively sets the tone for what’s to come: a long escalator ride to the middle.