This summer was officially “won” by Iggy Azalea and Charli XCX’s bouncing-ball brag “Fancy,” but the pop-radio staple that probably best epitomized the expansive, possibility-filled sentiments that typically define summer was “Am I Wrong,” an airy dance hit marked by pleading vocals and a chiming Afropop-inspired guitar riff. The track was the work of the Norwegian duo Nico & Vinz, made up of the Ivorian Nico Sereba and the Ghanian Vincent Dery, and it always brought me simple pleasure when it crackled through speakers, serving as a hopeful respite from the tenement chaos of DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What” and the synergistic yelling of Jessie J’s “Bang Bang.”
Despite being classified as EDM, “Am I Wrong” thankfully lacked that genre’s frequent manic compression. Instead the song turned on sparkling guitar lines and questioning lyrics, expressing longing in a way that could just as easily be about overcoming oppression as it was about love. The pivotal line — “So am I wrong/ For thinking that we could be something for real?” — reads as besotted, but other couplets seem to have a greater goal on their mind. (Ex. “Fight for yours and don’t let go, don’t let them compare you, no/ Don’t worry, you’re not alone, that’s just how we feel.”) The revolutionary aims come into even sharper focus after listening to Black Star Elephant, the duo’s meandering, yet satisfying debut.
There’s something very ’90s-revival about the success of “Am I Wrong”; the first time I heard it, I was reminded of Londonbeat’s soaring 1990 hit “I’ve Been Thinking About You,” which similarly rode a snatch of guitars and a wrenching vocal to a brief moment of pop success (not to mention a longer shelf-life than most of its radio compatriots at the time). Black Star Elephant doesn’t just double down on its lead single’s wide-eyed sentiments; it’s full of welcome attempts to make 2014′s version of dance music bend to the sounds of Sereba and Dery’s homelands, subjecting their individual elements to enough Scandopop alchemy to make them friendly to a radio landscape dominated by demanding chords and pummeling four-four beats.
Sereba and Dery’s voices play off each other nicely, with Sereba’s lilting tenor sounding easily transferable to teen-idol work and Dery’s raspy bellow adding gravitas to the simple lyrical statements. Black Star Elephant was slated to come out at the end of the summer but was pushed back a month to add “In Your Arms,” an older track that tacks more toward pop-radio clutter, onto the track listing; it has a grander sweep and a “Rosalita“-like sentiment about feeling superhuman because of another’s love. “When the Day Comes” doubles down on the sparkling guitars and sweeping choruses, and it has a mini-epic about life and death (complete with horse-riding explorer!) as its video. But “Know What I’m Not” is probably the track most ready to become a follow-up hit, its sweet resolve shining through when the two singers’ voices intermingle.
Black Star Elephant comes with big ambitions: “It is important for us to inspire,” Dery said in the release announcing the album’s revamp. “We sing about things we’ve been going through and about finding ourselves. To us it’s important to have a message, and the goal for us is to inspire people to find happiness.” A noble goal, although sometimes the messaging can get a bit too earnest and feel like one of Benetton’s less designed-for-shock ad campaigns; certain moments are so bright, they could possibly be used to combat the Seasonal Affective Disorder that creeps in as October’s nights grow longer. This could be because Nico & Vinz’s lyrics, marked by hope on even the more bittersweet songs, sound so out of step with a pop-music culture dominated by sometimes-nasty boasts of sexual and monetary prowess, and they stick out even more because of Sereba and particularly Dery’s vocals, which retain their real-person grain amid the beats and loops. Still: “If I had no work I would enjoy life, I would put my family first/ I would spend some time with my baby/ I would love her more and more,” go the lyrics on “People,” a loping track with a simple, rolling guitar line and a spoken-word break. It’s not quite the opposite of “YOLO,” but it does question some fundamental ideas of capitalist-forward culture as it stands circa 2014 — and it’s easy to sing along with to boot.