meta-script5 Arab American Artists To Know In 2024: Lana Lubany, Felukah & More | GRAMMY.com
Saint Levant performs at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2023
Saint Levant performs at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2023

Photo: Lionel FLUSIN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

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5 Arab American Artists To Know In 2024: Lana Lubany, Felukah & More

To celebrate Arab American Heritage Month, GRAMMY.com highlights five thrilling artists whose cathartic art should make them household names.

GRAMMYs/Apr 30, 2024 - 02:16 pm

With each passing year, American audiences are expanding their musical horizons. The star turns of many Latinx artists made splashy headlines in the last 12 months, with 2023 seeing a new record set for most Spanish-language songs reaching the Billboard Hot 100. Afrobeats and amapiano also dominated 2023, culminating in the first-ever award for Best African Music Performance at the 2024 GRAMMYs.

But the increasing popularity of those international sounds are just a few pieces of a larger trend, where artists' a global influences are making a mark on the American listener. When Palestinian-Chilean pop star Elyanna performed "Asabk eshq" on Coachella’s main stage last year, she became the first Arab artist to sing in Arabic at the festival. The set was yet another signal of the ascension of a new wave of music in American pop consciousness.

But if you think Elyanna’s take on pop is the end-all be-all of art from Arab artists, you’re mistaken — but also in luck. Artists from throughout the Arab world are making their mark in pop music and, according to Rolling Stone, the center of the Arab music industry have shifted from Egypt and Lebanon to include artists from North Africa and the Persian Gulf. Arab artists in the American diaspora are similarly broad in their roots and sound, providing listeners with a wealth of aural treasures.

To celebrate Arab American Heritage Month, GRAMMY.com has put together a spotlight on five incredible Arab American acts from a range of styles that deserve your attention year-round. Get to know Lana Lubany, Felukah, Saint Levant, Bayou, and Sahera.

Lana Lubany

Though she’s now based in London after moving there to study music, Lana Lubany’s visceral pop experiments honor and upend her Palestinian American roots. Many songs on her latest project, 2023’s THE HOLY LAND, alternate between English and Arabic at the drop of a hat, and similarly incorporate musical traditions from both cultures (though Lubany is also as likely to pull inspiration from Rosalía and Billie Eilish). The EP’s coming-of-age exploration is a fascinating look at multiculturalism, refusing to be defined by any one facet of her identity.

To top that achievement, Lubany’s most recent single is the sublime "STANNA", a track which carries shades of Timbaland, but also revels in Moroccan-esque vocal dives and choppy synth trills. Crowds in Europe got a chance to revel in that mercurial blend when Lubany opened for eminently buzzy indie act The Last Dinner Party. And while the UK may be catching on first, there’s no doubt that her addictive pop will continue growing a fanbase stateside as well. 

Felukah

Egyptian-born, New York-based Felukah’s latest cements her in the rich tradition of her scene: "Wavy in Brooklyn" is a groovy slice of the city’s storied rap tradition. Sara Elmessiry moved to the Big Apple to study creative writing, and her clever wordplay and lithe flow demonstrate that approach — not to mention the fluidity of the movement of the traditional Egyptian ship she takes her rap moniker from.

"Real Egyptian royalty/ Brown girl divine/ New York in the spring, Egypt in the summertime," she glows on last year’s "Egyptian Lover." Felukah’s work is full of nods to her heritage, but that song’s interpolation of Beyoncé’s "Baby Boy" shows how she stands with feet in both worlds — as many first and second generation people do. And by proudly uplifting women of color, Felukah speaks even more powerfully. 

Saint Levant

When Saint Levant debuted last year with From Gaza With Love, the hip-hop world gained a fascinating, trilingual budding star. Born Marwan Abdelhamid, Levant’s family relocated to Jordan from Palestine, before he recently made his way to California for college. 

Songs like the new "5am in Paris" demonstrate his chameleonic ability, pulling in elements from his journeys while also remaining focused on his home. "My body in Paris/ My heart in Gaza/ My soul in Algiers/ My ex in Casa/ My girl in L.A./ holds me in her arms/ I don't feel at home anywhere," he delivers in a steely melancholy. The track seamlessly blends French (from his mother’s Algerian side), English, and Arabic — both lyrically and musically. There’s an aspect of Drake to Levant’s endless cool, but the intensity of his conflicted identity and political history rings deeply.

Bayou

Like a blend of The Weeknd and Egyptian legend Amr Diab, Bayou taps into that late-night lothario vibe — his lush runs in Arabic the perfect counterpart to his more staccato English lyrics. R&B fans in need of a jolt should look no further than his latest single, "Bansa 7aly," which pulls from South African amapiano and finds Bayou maligning his tendency to "overthink when I’m high and alone." 

The Egypt-born, L.A.-based vocalist explained his clever blend of perspectives in an interview with The New Arab: "Arabic is a language filled with so much emotion and so much depth. So, whenever I look to add that kind of depth I feel like Arabic always trumps English," he explained. And with Bayou just announcing a single with fellow highlighted artist Saint Levant coming around the corner, there couldn’t be a better time to catch the hype.

Sahera

Singer/songwriter Sahera styles herself as the "first Qatari pop singer." The Los Angeles-based artist has spent the last year trickling out singles that showcase her ability to swiftly infuse touches of traditional music into her glittering pop energy. The video for "Khaleeji" is a must-see, with Sahera decked out in full-length black and gold on a skateboard through the palm-lined streets of L.A. 

As if that weren’t enough to sell you on Sahera, the track itself shines just as bright, a Shakira-esque headrush. Following singles "Habibti" and "Mirage" leaned a bit into R&B and aching balladry respectively, Sahera showcasing the depth needed to take this indie artist on a major pop star turn.

Inside Elyanna's World: How Creating 'Woledto' Allowed The Singer/Songwriter To Find A New Layer Of Herself

Elyanna
Elyanna

Photo: Courtesy of Elyanna

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Inside Elyanna's World: How Creating 'Woledto' Allowed The Singer/Songwriter To Find A New Layer Of Herself

Elyanna's distinctive new album, 'Woledto,' combines the sounds of her Palestinian and Chilean heritage with an appetite for powerful pop songstresses.

GRAMMYs/Apr 11, 2024 - 01:34 pm

Elyanna is every bit an artist of our specific moment. The 22-year-old Los Angeles-based singer weaves together global influences, merging sounds from her personal history with a wider pop sensibility. 

With hints of Rihanna’s sultriness and Astrud Gilberto's effortless cool, Elyanna's music is often accompanied by a pulsating beat and traditional Middle Eastern instruments. 

By uniting musical traditions from the Palestinian and Chilean sides of her family, she creates songs that are at once sweetly enticing and bracing. "Al Sham," for example, opens with ethereal, floating vocals before morphing to incorporate aggressive synths and drums. The result is a growing, idiosyncratic body of work made for both crying on the dancefloor and rump-shaking. 

Paradoxical? Sure, but there are no contradictions in Elyanna’s art, only unexpected connections that make sense as soon as she starts talking about how they fit together. Of her forthcoming album, Woledto (in English, I Am Born), Elyanna explains that she and her brother/co-composer/producer Feras wanted to create music with unusual depth. "I want people to find these clues, because that’s the kind of art I like, when it’s deep and not always on the surface," she tells GRAMMY.com.

She knows Woledto is a big swing, and relishes the feeling of freedom and self-determination that comes with that kind of risk. "I really put my heart and all my emotions, everything I feel in it, and what I love about it is that I think that it's ahead of its time."  

In 2023, Elyanna notched a unique milestone as the first Arab artist to perform in Arabic at Coachella. Her subsequent debut tour sold out every date, and her next performance in the U.S. is set for April 27 at Los Angeles’ storied Wiltern Theater. The singer/songwriter takes it all in stride, with a natural self-possession; Elyanna is an energetic, curious young woman who’s as at ease on the road as she is in the living room studio she maintains at her parents’ home. 

With Woledto out April 12, Elyanna sat down with GRAMMY.com to chat about writing authentic bangers, repping every facet of her identities at Coachella and beyond, and her seamless approach to sound and vision. 

This conversation has been condensed and edited.

Woledto is out this week – congratulations! How are you feeling about it?

I'm excited – it feels so cool! I really took my time with this one, because I was able to figure out this new layer of myself and was able to connect with my roots more than ever. 

I know that not everyone's gonna get it right away, and I believe that when you want to create art that feels timeless, you have to make sure that you don't rush it. It's fine if it takes its time. I just wanted to create something that felt outside of the world, and had its own feeling and world. 

Can you expand a bit about pouring your whole self into this album? You mentioned your feelings, your identity, and you have such an interesting, multinational identity as a Palestinian-Chilean woman who now lives in Los Angeles. How did you incorporate all of that – and other aspects of yourself – into Woledto?

I come from two different backgrounds, and it's always very natural for me to put those together; I was born and raised in Nazareth, Palestine, and I am also part Chilean, so this is my world. I love to dig deeper into culture, and find more inspirations — there's so many hidden gems in my cultures, and I feel like it's time for the world to see it and to hear about it. 

I took inspiration from my grandfather — he’s the only featured performer on this album. I saw this video of him singing in a wedding; he was a singer and a poet, and he was doing a freestyle in Arabic. I sampled that video in a song called "Sad in Pali" — me and my brother were in Palestine for a visit after a few years away, and we felt very disconnected from everything there. This album has a lot of intentional inspirations that I want people to find.

Your music videos feed into that goal, too — they’re very arty, the imagery is so distinctive. The song that leaps to mind first is "Gheneni", which opens with a male vocal — I thought maybe it was a call to worship — and then channels Rihanna in your vocal, while the visuals are a hybrid of belly dance and you and your girls all hanging out in the desert. How do you weave all of those things together into a song that means "Drive Me Crazy"?

So my studio is at home in the living room, super humble, and it’s always full of friends and family sitting around while me and my brother [Feras] are working there. 

One day my dad was watching a very dramatic Arabic show, and my brother heard this music in the back that felt so powerful, so spiritual. So my brother took that and sampled it, and that’s the vocal that opens the song. Then he made a beat that feels like tribal fusion to follow. I always say "Gheneni" is spiritual, and also reminds me of "Gasolina" by Daddy Yankee, because it’s got so much swag. I’m rapping and just doing my thing on it, it’s a rollercoaster of emotions and very sassy. I love it. 

You look so free in that video, and I noticed that in most of your videos, there’s at least a few big moments of you being surrounded by other women. It’s really memorable in "Mama Eh," too. Tell me a little bit about the aesthetic and approach you use when you’re making these videos?

I really love to collab with people — I try my best, always, to be open to ideas. Usually how it starts is with my brother, we make the music and take care of the visual creativity of it. He’s my creative director, so we always keep sharing ideas together, brainstorming, and we save it all in this little folder to use whenever the time’s right. I love to always come in ready for my videos, live performances, but I never want to forget to be natural, and I don't want to be too ready, sometimes I want to be free. Sometimes all you need is just to be you, singing on camera, and that's enough. 

I love having a lot of female empowerment around me, too. I was raised that way — my mom is a very strong woman, my grandma is a very strong woman, my sister is a very strong woman, and I find so much power, if I'm feeling down, to talk to my sister and to talk to my girlfriends. So especially as an Arab woman, I want to make sure that I lift this female energy up for all the girls out there, and all the girls in the Middle East to feel that they can dream big, and they don't have to be always so soft. 

That’s really who I am, sometimes aggressive, very passionate and on fire. I feel like every human, we have a little bit of both, and I don't want to hide any of them. I want to be real and honest.

It seems like another throughline in your music is its cinematic quality. Woledto’s title track is also the album opener, and it sounds like it could as easily have been something you wrote for a film. If you could pick any film scene for your music to play over, what would it be?

I'm such a movie nerd! Right now, the film that felt so much like the world that I create in my music is Dune, Part Two or The Black Swan. There's so many scenes that I love, but it makes so much sense from what we were just talking about the different, changing parts of our personalities that I feel like the last performance where Natalie Portman had to perform as both the white swan and the black swan would be perfect for the outros of "Kon Nafsak" or "Sad in Pali." 

I understand you had a really special experience meeting Lana del Rey on one of your music videos. It makes sense that you’d love her, her work is so cinematic and she has such a recognizable style. 

Yes! Lana’s sister Chuck is an amazing director, and she shot one of my videos, for "La Vie en Rose." It’s a cover of the Edith Piaf song, and Chuck has such a beautiful vision. 

So Lana was there for the whole shoot, and she picked my dresses, and gifted them to me! She was an angel, just the coolest, and she did not disappoint. I've been listening to Lana since I was 10, and was obsessed with her. She was literally on my phone case. Meeting her and working with her and fully trusting what she says — I cried at the end, it was amazing

How great to have an experience that disproves the advice never to meet your heroes. In your cover, do you sing in French, English, or Arabic? 

It’s in Arabic, the title for my version is "Al Kawn Janni Maak." I actually co-wrote that translation with my mom and my brother; I’d always wanted to hear it in Arabic. 

That's really cool. It sounds like your work is very rooted in your family, not just having them with you at home or on tour, but they’re a big part of your music itself, too. 

It was always this way, even when I was little — I was 7 years old, 10 years old, and just dreaming of being an artist. My brother is the one who discovered my talent — he’s a pianist, and he would sit next to me for hours while I'm singing with a big mic, saying "Yo, you can do this note better." 

My mom writes my music with me, and it’s very powerful and so interesting. My sister Tali is part of it, too; she’s always been very good with fashion and is my stylist. We’d always be doing fashion shoots in our backyard, where my sister would dress me and my brother would take the pictures. I don't think anything’s changed since then, it’s just on another level, a bigger scale. We complete each other. 

Let’s talk about your influences and how you find your way to them. You’ve got this great playlist on Spotify that includes such a diverse group of artists, including ones that were delightful surprises: Pink Floyd, Nancy Sinatra, Chris Isaac, and Sadé. How do you discover artists who have a long history but are new to you?

I grew up listening to and singing jazz, I used to be obsessed with it. And it was very rare in Nazareth, but I must have found videos on YouTube. Etta James’ songs feel so real and timeless. There’s a lot of live instruments, it’s very detailed and very raw. It’s so beautiful! The lyrics, the production, even the fashion —it’s a world that I just really, really love.

I am very open when it comes to music. The best thing is to have conversations with people and meet new people, they bring you so much knowledge that you can bring into your own world. 

Speaking of sharing worlds, you did that on a massive scale by playing at Coachella last year. You’re the first Arab artist to perform in Arabic at that festival, and it’s kind of shocking that it took so long for that milestone to happen. What does that experience mean to you?

I like to look at the bigger picture; you know, it was very exciting, and it's not only for me, it's for our culture, for our people. It was an honor singing at an iconic festival, and I do not want to be the last person that performs there in Arabic. 

It was a moment that I feel like we needed for our culture, and I was surprised by how many people saw that performance — I didn’t expect it, so many people were there from completely different cultures, probably not knowing what I was saying, but they still loved it. 

That mirrors your interest in and embrace of always experiencing and looking for something new, giving that to the audience, too. 

Exactly. It was new to me, too, because Coachella was really my first real performance. I'm there thinking that's a lot of responsibility on me now, so I have to make it work, to make it the best I can. I was able to bring the belly dancing, the tribal fusion dancing, all these elements that we have in our culture, like the coins on my hips — it means a lot to me that people took it in like that. 

Empress Of Is Here 'For Your Consideration': How Heartbreak, Horniness & Self-Acceptance Led To An Actualized Album

Ryan Tedder Press Photo 2024
Ryan Tedder

Photo: Jeremy Cowart

interview

Behind Ryan Tedder's Hits: Stories From The Studio With OneRepublic, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift & More

As OneRepublic releases their latest album, the group's frontman and pop maverick gives an inside look into some of the biggest songs he's written — from how Beyoncé operates to Tom Cruise's prediction for their 'Top Gun' smash.

GRAMMYs/Jul 15, 2024 - 03:46 pm

Three months after OneRepublic began promoting their sixth album, Artificial Paradise, in February 2022, the band unexpectedly had their biggest release in nearly a decade. The pop-rock band's carefree jam, "I Ain't Worried," soundtracked Top Gun: Maverick's most memeable scene and quickly became a global smash — ultimately delaying album plans in favor of promoting their latest hit.

Two years later, "I Ain't Worried" is one of 16 tracks on Artificial Paradise, which arrived July 12. It's a seamless blend of songs that will resonate with longtime and newer fans alike. From the layered production of "Hurt," to the feel-good vibes of "Serotonin," to the evocative lyrics of "Last Holiday," Artificial Paradise shows that OneRepublic's sound is as dialed-in as it is ever-evolving.

The album also marks the end of an era for OneRepublic, as it's the last in their contract with Interscope Records. But for the group's singer, Ryan Tedder, that means the future is even more exciting than it's been in their entire 15-year career.

"I've never been more motivated to write the best material of my life than this very moment," he asserts. "I'm taking it as a challenge. We've had a lot of fun, and a lot of uplifting records for the last seven or eight years, but I also want to tap back into some deeper material with the band."

As he's been prepping Artificial Paradise with his OneRepublic cohorts, Tedder has also been as busy as he's ever been working with other artists. His career as a songwriter/producer took off almost simultaneously with OneRepublic's 2007 breakthrough, "Apologize" (his first major behind-the-board hit was Leona Lewis' "Bleeding Love"); to this day he's one of the go-to guys for pop's biggest names, from BLACKPINK to Tate McRae.

Tedder sat down with GRAMMY.com to share some of his most prominent memories of OneRepublic's biggest songs, as well as some of the hits he's written with Beyoncé, Adele, Taylor Swift and more.

OneRepublic — "Apologize," 'Dreaming Out Loud' (2007)

I was producing and writing other songs for different artists on Epic and Atlantic — I was just cutting my teeth as a songwriter in L.A. This is like 2004. I was at my lowest mentally and financially. I was completely broke. Creditors chasing me, literally dodging the taxman and getting my car repoed, everything.

I had that song in my back pocket for four years. A buddy of mine just reminded me last month, a songwriter from Nashville — Ashley Gorley, actually. We had a session last month, me, him and Amy Allen, and he brought it up. He was like, "Is it true, the story about 'Apologize'? You were completely broke living in L.A. and Epic Records offered you like 100 grand or something just for the right to record the song on one of their artists?"

And that is true. It was, like, 20 [grand], then 50, then 100. And I was salivating. I was, like, I need this money so bad. And I give so many songs to other people, but with that song, I drew a line in the sand and said, "No one will sing this song but me. I will die with this song." 

It was my story, and I just didn't want anyone else to sing it. It was really that simple. It was a song about my past relationships, it was deeply personal. And it was also the song that — I spent two years trying to figure out what my sound was gonna be. I was a solo artist… and I wasn't landing on anything compelling. Then I landed on "Apologize" and a couple of other songs, and I was like, These songs make me think of a band, not solo artist material. So it was the song that led me to the sound of OneRepublic, and it also led me to the idea that I should start a band and not be a solo artist.

We do it every night. I'll never not do it. I've never gotten sick of it once. Every night that we do it, whether I'm in Houston or Hong Kong, I look out at the crowd and look at the band, and I'm like, Wow. This is the song that got us here.

Beyoncé — "Halo," 'I Am…Sacha Fierce' (2008)

We were halfway through promoting Dreaming Out Loud, our first album. I played basketball every day on tour, and I snapped my Achilles. The tour got canceled. The doctor told me not to even write. And I had this one sliver of an afternoon where my wife had to run an errand. And because I'm sadistic and crazy, I texted [songwriter] Evan Bogart, "I got a three-hour window, race over here. Beyoncé called me and asked me to write her a song. I want to do it with you." He had just come off his huge Rihanna No. 1, and we had an Ashley Tisdale single together.

When you write enough songs, not every day do the clouds part and God looks down on you and goes, "Here." But that's what happened on that day. I turn on the keyboard, the first sound that I play is the opening sound of the song. Sounds like angels singing. And we wrote the song pretty quick, as I recall. 

I didn't get a response [from Beyoncé after sending "Halo" over], which I've now learned is very, very typical of her. I did Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé "II MOST WANTED" [from COWBOY CARTER] — I didn't know that was coming out 'til five days before it came out. And when I did "XO" [from 2013's Beyoncé], I found out that "XO" was coming out 12 hours before it came out. That's how she operates.

OneRepublic — "Good Life," 'Waking Up' (2009)

["Good Life"] was kind of a Hail Mary. We already knew that "All the Right Moves" would be the first single [from Waking Up]. We knew that "Secrets" was the second single. And in the 11th hour, our engineer at the time — who I ended up signing as a songwriter, Noel Zancanella — had this drum loop that he had made, and he played it for Brent [Kutzle] in our band. Brent said, "You gotta hear this drum loop that Noel made. It's incredible."

He played it for me the next morning, and I was like, "Yo throw some chords to this. I'm writing to this today." They threw some chords down, and the first thing out of my mouth was, [sings] "Oh, this has gotta be the good life." 

It's the perfect example of, oftentimes, the chord I've tried to strike with this band with some of our bigger records, [which] is happy sad. Where you feel nostalgic and kind of melancholic, but at the same time, euphoric. That's what those chords and that melody did for me.

I was like, "Hey guys, would it be weird if I made the hook a whistle?" And everyone was like, "No! Do not whistle!" They're like, "Name the last hit song that had a whistle." And the only one I could think of was, like, Scorpion from like, 1988. [Laughs.] So I thought, To hell with it, man, it's been long enough, who cares? Let's try it. And the whistle kind of made the record. It became such a signature thing.

Adele — "Rumour Has It," '21' (2011)

"Rumour Has It" was the first song I did in probably a four year period, with any artist, that wasn't a ballad. All any artist ever wanted me to write with them or for them, was ballads, because of "Halo," and "Apologize" and "Bleeding Love."

I begged [Adele] to do a [song with] tempo, because we did "Turning Tables," another ballad. She was in a feisty mood [that day], so I was like, "Okay, we're doing a tempo today!"

Rick Rubin was originally producing the whole album. I was determined to produce Adele, not just write — because I wanted a shot to show her that I could, and to show myself. I stayed later after she left, and I remember thinking, What can I do in this record in this song that could be so difficult to reproduce that it might land me the gig?

So I intentionally muted the click track, changed the tempo, and [created that] whole piano bridge. I was making it up as I went. When she got in that morning. I said, "I have a crazy idea for a bridge. It's a movie." She listens and she says, "This is really different, I like this! How do we write to this?" 

I mean, it was very difficult. [But] we finished the song. She recorded the entire song that day. She recorded the whole song in one take. I've never seen anyone do that in my life — before or since.

Then I didn't hear from her for six months. Because I handed over the files, and Rick Rubin's doing it, so I don't need to check on it. I randomly check on the status of the song — and at this point, if you're a songwriter or producer, you're assuming that they're not keeping the songs. Her manager emails my manager, "Hey, good news — she's keeping both songs they did, and she wants Ryan to finish 'Rumour Has It' production and mix it." 

When I finally asked her, months later — probably at the GRAMMYs — I said, "Why didn't [Rick] do it?" She said, "Oh he did. It's that damn bridge! Nobody could figure out what the hell you were doing…It was so problematic that we just gave up on it."

OneRepublic — "Counting Stars," 'Native' (2013)

I was in a Beyoncé camp in the Hamptons writing for the self-titled album. [There were] a bunch of people in the house — me, Greg Kurstin, Sia — it was a fun group of people. I had four days there, and every morning I'd get up an hour and a half before I had to leave, make a coffee, and start prepping for the day. On the third day, I got up, I'm in the basement of this house at like 7 in the morning, and I'm coming up with ideas. I stumble across that chord progression, the guitar and the melody. It was instant shivers up my spine. 

"Lately I've been losing sleep, dreaming about the things that we could be" is the only line that I had. [My] first thought was, I should play this for Beyoncé, and then I'm listening to it and going, This is not Beyoncé, not even remotely. It'd be a waste. So I tabled it, and I texted the guys in my band, "Hey, I think I have a potentially really big record. I'm going to finish it when I get back to Denver."

I got back the next week, started recording it, did four or five versions of the chorus, bouncing all the versions off my wife, and then eventually landed it. And when I played it for the band, they were like, "This is our favorite song."

Taylor Swift — "Welcome to New York," '1989' (2014)

It was my second session with Taylor. The first one was [1989's] "I Know Places," and she sent me a voice memo. I was looking for a house in Venice [California], because we were spending so much time in L.A. So that whole memory is attached to me migrating back to Los Angeles. 

But I knew what she was talking about, because I lived in New York, and I remember the feeling — endless possibilities, all the different people and races and sexes and loves. That was her New York chapter. She was so excited to be there. If you never lived there, and especially if you get there and you've got a little money in the pocket, it is so exhilarating.

It was me just kind of witnessing her brilliant, fast-paced, lyrical wizardry. [Co-producer] Max [Martin] and I had a conversation nine months later at the GRAMMYs, when we had literally just won for 1989. He kind of laughed, he pointed to all the other producers on the album, and he's like, "If she had, like, three more hours in the day, she would just figure out what we do and she would do it. And she wouldn't need any of us." 

And I still think that's true. Some people are just forces of nature in and among themselves, and she's one of them. She just blew me away. She's the most talented top liner I've ever been in a room with, bar none. If you're talking lyric and melody, I've never been in a room with anyone faster, more adept, knows more what they want to say, focused, efficient, and just talented.

Jonas Brothers — "Sucker," 'Happiness Begins' (2019)

I had gone through a pretty dry spell mentally, emotionally. I had just burned it at both ends and tapped out, call it end of 2016. So, really, all of 2017 for me was a blur and a wash. I did a bunch of sessions in the first three months of the year, and then I just couldn't get a song out. I kept having, song after song, artists telling me it's the first single, [then] the song was not even on the album. I had never experienced that in my career.

I went six to nine months without finishing a song, which for me is unheard of. Andrew Watt kind of roped me back into working with him. We did "Easier" for 5 Seconds of Summer, and we did some Sam Smith and some Miley Cyrus, and right in that same window, I did this song "Sucker." Two [or] three months later, Wendy Goldstein from Republic [Records] heard the record, I had sent it to her. She'd said, very quietly, "We're relaunching the Jonas Brothers. They want you to be involved in a major way. Do you have anything?" 

She calls me, she goes, "Ryan, do not play this for anybody else. This is their comeback single. It's a No. 1 record. Watch what we're gonna do." And she delivered.

OneRepublic — "I Ain't Worried," 'Top Gun: Maverick' Soundtrack (2022)

My memory is, being in lockdown in COVID, and just being like, Who knows when this is going to end, working out of my Airstream at my house. I had done a lot of songs for movies over the years, and [for] that particular [song] Randy Spendlove, who runs [music at] Paramount, called me.

I end up Zooming with Tom Cruise [and Top Gun: Maverick director] Jerry Bruckheimer — everybody's in lockdown during post-production. The overarching memory was, Holy cow, I'm doing the scene, I'm doing the song for Top Gun. I can't believe this is happening. But the only way I knew how to approach it, rather than to, like, overreact and s— the bed, was, It's just another day.

I do prescription songs for movies, TV, film all the time. I love a brief. It's so antithetical to most writers. I'm either uncontrollably lazy or the most productive person you've ever met. And the dividing line between the two is, if I'm chasing some directive, some motivation, some endpoint, then I can be wildly productive.

I just thought, I'm going to do the absolute best thing I can do for this scene and serve the film. OneRepublic being the performing artist was not on the menu in my mind. I just told them, "I think you need a cool indie band sounding, like, breakbeat." I used adjectives to describe what I heard when I saw the scene, and Tom got really ramped and excited. 

You could argue [it's the biggest song] since the band started. The thing about it is, it's kind of become one of those every summer [hits]. And when it blew up, that's what Tom said. He said, "Mark my words, dude. You're gonna have a hit with this every summer for, like, the next 20 years or more." 

And that's what happened. The moment Memorial Day happened, "I Ain't Worried" got defrosted and marched itself back into the top 100.

Tate McRae — "Greedy," 'THINK LATER' (2023)

We had "10:35" [with Tiësto] the previous year that had been, like, a No. 1 in the UK and across Europe and Australia. So we were coming off the back of that, and the one thing she was clear about was, "That is not the direction of what I want to do."

If my memory serves me correct, "greedy" was the next to last session we had. Everything we had done up to that point was kind of dark, midtempo, emotional. So "greedy" was the weirdo outlier. I kept pushing her to do a dance record. I was like, "Tate, there's a lot of people that have great voices, and there's a lot of people who can write, but none of those people are professional dancers like you are. Your secret weapon is the thing you're not using. In this game and this career, you've got to use every asset that you have and exploit it."

There was a lot of cajoling. On that day, we did it, and I thought it was badass, and loved it. And she was like, "Ugh, what do we just do? What is this?"

So then it was just, like, months, months and months of me constantly bringing that song back up, and playing it for her, and annoying the s— out of her. And she came around on it. 

She has very specific taste. So much of the music with Tate, it really is her steering. I'll do what I think is like a finished version of a song, and then she will push everyone for weeks, if not months, to extract every ounce of everything out of them, to push the song harder, further, edgier — 19 versions of a song, until finally she goes, "Okay, this is the one." She's a perfectionist.

OneRepublic — "Last Holiday," 'Artificial Paradise' (2024)

I love [our latest single] "Hurt," but my favorite song on the album is called "Last Holiday." I probably started the beginning of that lyric, I'm not joking, seven, eight years ago. But I didn't finish it 'til this past year.

The verses are little maxims and words of advice that I've been given throughout the years. It's almost cynical in a way, the song. When I wrote the chorus, I was definitely in kind of a down place. So the opening line is, "So I don't believe in the stars anymore/ They never gave me what I wished for." And it's, obviously, a very not-so-slight reference to "Counting Stars." But it's also hopeful — "We've got some problems, okay, but this isn't our last holiday." 

It's very simple sentiments. Press pause. Take some moments. Find God before it all ends. All these things with this big, soaring chorus. Musically and emotionally and sonically, that song — and "Hurt," for sure — but "Last Holiday" is extremely us-sounding. 

The biggest enemy that we've had over the course of 18 years, I'll be the first to volunteer, is, this ever-evolving, undulating sound. No one's gonna accuse me of making these super complex concept albums, because that's just not how my brain's wired. I grew up listening to the radio. I didn't grow up hanging out in the Bowery in CBGBs listening to Nick Cave. So for us, the downside to that, and for me doing all these songs for all these other people, is the constant push and pull of "What is their sound? What genre is it?" 

I couldn't put a pin in exactly what the sound is, but what I would say is, if you look at the last 18 years, a song like "Last Holiday" really encompasses, sonically, what this band is about. It's very moving, and emotional, and dynamic. It takes me to a place — that's the best way for me to put it. And hopefully the listener finds the same.

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NCT 127 Essential Songs
NCT 127

Photo courtesy of SM Entertainment

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NCT 127 Essential Songs: 15 Tracks You Need To Know From The K-Pop Juggernauts

Eight years after their debut, NCT 127 have released their sixth studio album, 'WALK.' Before you dive in, press play on this chronological list of NCT 127 hits and deep cuts that show their musical ingenuity — from "Highway to Heaven" to "Pricey."

GRAMMYs/Jul 15, 2024 - 02:55 pm

In the K-pop industry, the Neo Culture Technology juggernaut stands out as a cosmopolitan universe. The project is characterized by its highly experimental approach, where each of NCT's subgroups contribute a unique twist.

This is especially true of NCT 127. Comprised of Taeyong, Taeil, Jaehyun, Johnny, Yuta, Doyoung, Jungwoo, Mark, and Haechan, NCT 127's identity was forged via innovative arrangements that defy convention.

During their rookie days, this ahead-of-its-time strategy felt polarizing and raised a few eyebrows. However, after some years of ambivalence (and with some lineup changes in between), they exploded in popularity during the early pandemic with their second studio album, NCT #127: Neo Zone. This record gave them their first title as million sellers, significantly increasing their listeners globally — many of whom embraced the group's music as an escape during quarantine.

Read more: Breaking Down The NCT System, From The Rotational NCT U To The Upcoming NCT Tokyo

Today, they are more influential than ever and their sound is more accepted in the ever-expanidng scope of K-pop. Nonetheless, some K-pop listeners tend to pigeonhole the group as "noise," despite having a diverse catalog and some of the best vocalists of their generation.

Nearly coinciding with their eighth anniversary, NCT 127 released their sixth studio album, WALK on July 15. To mark this occasion, GRAMMY.com presents a song list — in chronological order — demonstrating their musical geniality, which extends far beyond the public's usual perception. 

"Switch"

The group's first mini-album, NCT #127, laid the foundations of their audacious sound and paired it with vocal finesse. To wit, the lead single "Fire Truck" arrived as an unapologetic disruptor shaking up the K-pop industry.

But the bookends of the EP are uniquely contrasting. Whereas "Fire Truck" opens with bold posturing, the outlier "Switch" concludes the ride with a more lighthearted and youthful production. In a way, this song could also be considered a prelude to the NCT universe, as it was recorded a year before NCT 127's debut, and it features members of other NCT iterations — like WayV and Dream — when they were still trainees. 

"Limitless"

The name of this track is a statement of the group's boundary-pushing ethos. True to form, the song is built over a hammering backbone and lengthy synths that bite. The chorus is the highlight; its dynamic explosion of vocals only intensifies the momentum. And while the Korean version is strong, it could be argued that the Japanese rendition imbues the song with new layers of depth that truly elevate it.

It’s worth mentioning that, during the Limitless era, Doyoung and Johnny were added to the lineup, marking NCT 127’s first release with nine members — a move consistent with the original (now-defunct) concept of the NCT system.

"Sun & Moon"

Some songs are crafted for faraway souls and to offer solace to the aching heart. That's why "Sun and Moon," an evocative B-side from NCT 127's third extended play, exists as an unmissable gem.

It's a lyrical tale of longing, where Taeil, Doyoung, Johnny, Taeyong, Jaehyun, and Yuta serenade a distant love, hoping the gap will shrink and a reunion will come. The arrangement is understated but dream-like, and when the pre-chorus arrives, the most beautiful lines are unveiled: "When my moon rises/ Your sun rises as well/ Under the same sky/ In this different time/ Our hearts are connected/ Under the same sky."

"Come Back"

Co-created by GRAMMY-nominated producer Mike Daley and multi-instrumentalist Mitchell Owens, "Come Back" exemplifies maximalism, undulating between intensity and elegance.

"One of the standout aspects of this song is the creative use of chops throughout the track," Daley tells GRAMMY.com. "Even though the arrangement follows a pretty standard structure for us, these chops add a unique flavor that sets 'Come Back' apart. We got to be more experimental [for this track] and bring in some unusual elements."

The voices of Taeil and Doyoung prominently take center stage, infusing potency that ensures smooth progressions throughout the production.

"Lips"

Featured on the group's first Japanese studio album, Awaken, "Lips" is an unjustly overlooked cut that blends sensuality with hypnotizing Latin rhythms. The deeper you are immersed in it, the more enchanting it becomes, casting a spell over your mind.

Its minimalist formula is effective, and the lyrics hint at a compelling journey: "Your lips come and take me to the place to go/ The place you would know where you should go." Sometimes, less is more, and the impact can be equally powerful.

"Highway to Heaven"

"Highway to Heaven" shines as one of the crown jewels in NCT 127's discography, praised not only for its cathartic production but also for marking a turnaround in their artistry. It sees them delving into more subdued and ethereal soundworlds.

A pre-release single from their fourth mini album, We Are Superhuman, the instrumental is woven with buzzy percussion and silken guitar strings. The group's vocal prowess truly exhilarates, crescendoing a declaration of freedom during the chorus: "We'll take the highway to heaven/ Any time, anywhere I feel you/ You and I, highway to heaven/ This place where we're together is heaven." 

The track reaches its pinnacle with an interlude guided by Jungwoo's velvety delivery, eventually setting the stage for Haechan's soaring voice.

"Superhuman"

"Superhuman," the lead single from We Are Superhuman, is a timeless masterpiece. The avant garde song showcases the group's expansive adaptability, exchanging their usual edge for intricate sophistication.

American singer/songwriter Adrian Mckinnon — a frequent collaborator of SM Entertainment, home of the NCT project — teamed up with South Korean producers TAK and 1Take to bring the song to life, and he recalls being "blown away" when he listened to the instrumental. "All the glitches and stutters immediately gave nostalgia," Mckinnon tells GRAMMY.com, noting the sound choices reminded him of old school video games. "[The song] kind of sits in its own lane, maybe somewhere between glitch funk and glitch hop. Maybe a little Daft Punky too?"

Mckinnon says he sat with the instrumental track for half an hour before recording his vocal ideas. "I wanted to absorb it in its entirety before trying anything."

He also explains that they created the song without a specific group in mind, so he was excited to discover the song was placed with NCT 127. "I think this speaks to the versatile nature of the group because they executed the track very well and were able to make it their own. It's easily one of my favorite songs I've been a part of."

"Love Me Now"

Another piece from Daley and Owens, "Love Me Now" pulses with gentleness and heartwarming nostalgia. It's a song made for those days when everything feels right in place. 

Daley recalled working on "Love Me Now" during a K-pop songwriting camp in Seoul, and says he refined an existing track. "Most of our stuff is tailor-made for artists in Korea, but this track was very much a U.S. pop/dance radio-sounding track," he says. "It doesn't feature a ton of sections, switch-ups, or the musically intricate bridge that a lot of our K-pop songs normally have. It's very minimalistic, bright, and centered, and sometimes that's all you need."

He observes the creation process of "Love Me Now" was more straightforward than "Come Back," as the latter contains the usual elaborateness of K-pop productions. "That simplicity in ['Love Me Now'] lent itself to making a very catchy, memorable record that was easy to digest."

"NonStop"

By NCT standards, "NonStop" — from the repackaged album NCT #127 Neo Zone: The Final Round — is a B-side that overflows with the potential of a lead single. It's an amalgam of unburdened rap verses and cohesive vocals that glide effortlessly across a cutting-edge production.

Adrian Mckinnon explains that he and Kenzie chose the track from a selection created by the British production duo LDN Noise due to the magnetic pull of the intro. "The arpeggiated tones and the crazy melody of the lead synth immediately took us to the future," he says. "The chord progression and the rising energy out of the pre-chorus — it all felt like some high-speed race through some futuristic city."

The development of the structure proved quite challenging, but the end result encapsulated the intended concept. "Listening to it in its final form, you would think the sections were obvious, but each of the melody and topline — including others that didn't make the song — all felt quite hooky," McKinnon shares. "But since you only have so much 'song,' you must pick your favorite bits and massage the ideas together. That's how we arrived at what 'NonStop' came to be."

"First Love"

A burgeoning romance transforms into the dulcet melodies that define "First Love," a B-side from NCT 127's second Japanese EP, Loveholic, released in February 2021. Excitement beams throughout the lines of the song, capturing the world of possibilities that come with finding the person you've always dreamed of.

When the group leans towards professing love in all its shapes, they do so with a rawness that percolates through their voices, easily perceptible to all. And here, they opt for a playful and tender side.

"Breakfast"

Off of their third full-length album, Sticker, "Breakfast" is distinguished by its harmonic richness and stunning vocal arrangements.\

The track emerged from a collaboration in which Swedish producer Simon Petrén devised the sonic framework, complemented by GRAMMY-winning songwriter Ninos Hanna and songwriter/producer Andreas Öberg. "As the melody ideas evolved, the song was also developed and built up to match the topline," Öberg tells GRAMMY.com. "The original demo was called 'Breakfast' and tailor-made for [the group]. SM Entertainment decided to release this song with them shortly after we submitted it." 

Öberg describes the composition as "an interesting hybrid," with the original demo molded to be "a modern dance/house record while still using advanced chord progressions not only with influences from jazz and fusion."

He also cites Michael Jackson as an inspiration, drawing from "his unique style of switching between minor and major tonalities." 

"Favorite (Vampire)"

After releasing Sticker, NCT 127 wasted no time and quickly followed up with a repackaged album centered around the hauntingly resonant "Favorite." A brainchild of Kenzie, American producer Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins, and singer/songwriter Rodnae "Chikk" Bell, this record is the most tempered of all the NCT 127's title tracks.

A whistling sample introduces a thumping trap beat that rapidly unfolds into piercing lines — courtesy of Taeyong and Mark — that slice through the song. But as we hit the road toward the chorus, "Favorite" veers into a more vocally-driven approach, a splendid transition that balances its core. In classic SM style, the bridge is a triumph, with Doyoung, Taeil, and Haechan pouring their hearts out as if they've been shattered into a hundred pieces.

"Angel Eyes"

Listening to "Angel Eyes," a cut nestled in the middle of their most recent release, Fact Check, is akin to a healing escape. From the first seconds, pure bliss fills the air and quickly transforms into an open invitation to lose ourselves in the music.

"Paradise, like an angel fly/ With your wings, make me fly through the brilliant world/ My delight in all the days and nights/ Even in darkness, make me dream the greatest dream," they sing in the last chorus, prescribing optimism atop a layering reminiscent of the '80s.

"Pricey"

One of WALK's B-sides, "Pricey" boasts a delightful instrumental with thick basslines and a fusion of piano and guitar chords. Although the rapped chorus momentarily threatens to stall the pace, vibrant ad-libs — growing more captivating as the song progresses — quickly pick it back up, perfectly aligning the overall effort with their unique sound.


"Pricey"
was originally intended for the American market, which makes it all the more inexplicable that it was tucked away in the NCT 127 vault for so long. Thankfully, it's now receiving the spotlight it deserves – it's simply too remarkable to remain unearthed.

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Blxst press photo
Blxst

Photo: Amy Lee

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5 Rising L.A. Rappers To Know: Jayson Cash, 310babii & More

From San Diego to the Bay Area, Seattle and beyond, the West Coast bursts with talent. Los Angeles is at the heart of this expanse, and these five rappers are just a few who are showcasing the vibrant sounds of West Coast hip-hop.

GRAMMYs/Jul 15, 2024 - 01:36 pm

GRAMMY winners Kendrick Lamar and Mustard have long repped their California roots. Earlier this summer, their powerhouse anthem "Not Like Us"  brought West Coast rap back to its roots and shone a global spotlight on the scene. 

Lamar and Mustard are at the forefront of a renaissance in West Coast rap. Their shared roots in Southern California cities — Mustard from Los Angeles and Kendrick from Compton — adds authenticity and resonance to their partnership. Their undeniable chemistry was on display in the video for "Not Like Us," which received a million views less than an hour after its release.

Mustard's signature beats and Lamar's profound lyricism has resurfaced the sound and culture that makes West Coast rap so unique and paved the way for a new generation of artists. All signs suggest that another impactful collaboration may appear on Mustard's upcoming album, Faith of A Mustard Seed.

Learn more: A Guide To Southern California Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Subgenres From L.A. & Beyond

Kendrick Lamar headlined the electrifying Pop Out concert on Juneteenth, which also featured sets from Mustard and DJ Hed. The event saw a handful of L.A. rappers, opening for Lamar in a showcase of  the vibrant talent that defines the region's rap scene.

The West Coast is a vast reservoir of talent, stretching from the Bay Area to Seattle. At the heart of this creative expanse is Los Angeles, which brings fresh perspectives, innovative styles, and renewed energy to hip-hop, ensuring the genre thrives. With the stage set for these newcomers to shine, it's the perfect time to take a closer look at some of the rising talents poised to impact the rap scene. While this list only scratches the surface, it offers a glimpse into the diverse and exciting talent from SoCal, the epicenter of the West.

Blxst

Arising from Los Angeles, Blxst initially played the background as a producer but soon demonstrated his ability to excel across all facets of music creation. Blxst's breakout moment came with his platinum-certified single "Chosen," which solidified his place in the music industry. His collaboration on Kendrick Lamar's "Die Hard" from Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers further showcased his skill for crafting hooks that elevate tracks, resulting in two GRAMMY nominations.

As he prepares to release his debut album, I'll Always Come Find You on July 19, Blxst stands at a pivotal point in his career. With a great resume already to his name, his forthcoming album promises to showcase his undeniable talent and leave a lasting impact on the West Coast music scene.

Bino Rideaux

Bino Rideaux is a South Central native and frequent collaborator with the GRAMMY-winning rapper Nipsey Hussle. He is the only artist to have a joint project with Hussle, No Pressure, released before the prolific rapper's untimely death. Rideaux has hinted at having a treasure of unreleased music with Hussle, saved for the perfect moment and album.

Rideaux  is known for creating tracks that get the city outside and dancing. He has made three beloved projects with Blxst, titled Sixtape, Sixtape 2, and Sixtape 3 resulting in sold-out shows and a special place in West Coast Rap fans' hearts. Endorsed by industry heavyweights like Young Thug, Rideaux continues to carve his path at his own pace. His journey is nothing short of a marathon, echoing the enduring legacy of his mentor.

Read more: Nipsey Hussle's Entrepreneurial Legacy: How The Rapper Supported His Community & Inspired Rap's Next Generation

Kalan.FrFr

Kalan.FrFr, whose name stands for "For Real For Real," is an artist whose music is as genuine as his name suggests. Growing up in Compton and Carson, Kalan.FrFr has always stayed true to his roots, and exudes the unyielding confidence essential to making it in the City of Angels.

His breakthrough mixtape, TwoFr, showcased his ability to shine without major features, delivering verses with catchy hooks and melodic rap. He's shown he's not confined to one sound, delivering vulnerable tracks like "Going Through Things'' and "Never Lose You." His EP Make the West Great Again, Kalan.FrFr both proves his loyalty to his origins and highlights his versatility. Kalan.FrFr's signature punch-in, no-writing-lyrics-down style keeps his fans on their toes, ensuring that whatever comes next is unpredictable but authentic.

Jayson Cash

Jayson Cash, a rapper hailing from Carson — the same city as TDE artist Ab-Soul — stays true to West Coast rap, from his lyrics to his beat selection. Listening to Jayson Cash's music is like diving into a vivid life narrative. His prowess as a lyricist and storyteller shines through in every verse. He gives his fans an insight into his journey, making it a relatable music experience.

Cash made waves with his debut mixtape, Read The Room, and scored a Mustard beat on the song "Top Down." Two years later, their collaboration continues, with Cash writing on Mustard's upcoming album. Though often seen as an underdog, Cash is not to be underestimated, earning cosigns from West Coast legends like Suga Free and Snoop Dogg. His latest project, Alright Bet, includes a notable feature from Dom Kennedy.

310babii

310babii has achieved platinum-selling status at just 18 years old, while successfully graduating high school.  Yet 310babii's career began in seventh grade, when he recording songs on his phone showing early signs of motivation and creativity. His 2023 breakout hit "Soak City (Do It)" quickly gained traction on TikTok — and caught the ears of Travis Scott and NFL player CJ Stroud.

As the song grew in popularity, it led to a remix produced by Mustard, who invited the Inglewood native to join him onstage during his set at The Pop Out. 310babii's innovative spirit shines through in his distinctive visuals, exemplified by the captivating video for his song "Back It Up." His recent debut album, Nights and Weekends, released in February, underscores his evolving talent and promise within the music industry.

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