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Five on it: the Weeknd has us thinking about influence vs. imitation

The Weeknd's Super Bowl show, Rita Ora being accused of aping Rina Sawayama, and SOPHIE's tragic death all have us considering the lines between influence and imitation. Plus, our Five on it music round-up.

12 Feb 2021

Did we all see the Weeknd’s Superbowl performance last… weekend? I confess, I only watched it in retrospect to glean context for the Twitter meme – but it was worth it. Only in America could a sports interlude palette cleanse be so extra. 

The Weeknd’s half-time showcase brought to mind something I’d been passively musing over the past couple of weeks, as I considered how far he’s come from the start of his mainstream career. His expansive mixtape collection, Trilogy, was released in 2012 (that’s almost ten years ago, ouch) and his darkly nihilistic R&B was quickly mimicked by other artists who viewed him as a game-changer. Getting increasingly pop with every album, by the time last year’s After Hours dropped, his love of the 80s had shifted from Michael Jackson vocal stylings and Prince dramatics to the unabashed neon of ‘Blinding Lights’. 

While the 80s have been having A Moment since Stranger Things, ‘Blinding Lights’ felt more an organic progression as opposed to jumping on the bandwagon. Compare this to last week’s Ritagate, where pop star Rita Ora teased the visuals for Bang, her collaborative new EP with Imanbek. Many immediately noticed the resemblance to Rina Sawayama’s own retro aesthetic.

Rita Ora is a totally different kind of pop star to Rina, but the mimicry feels like a quicktime response to reinvigorate an artist who has struggled to differentiate herself from her peers by tapping into the Y2K nostalgia that Rina does so well. Given that Rina is a queer WOC, this also harks back to the history of the mainstream taking ingenuity from marginalised counter culture.

Like the Weeknd, Rina plucks her favourite bits from that time period – whether it be 90s R&B, big dance anthems or nu-metal – and weaves them together to create something inspired. So where is the line drawn between an artist taking influence as opposed to simply aping other’s art; is it in the basic intent or the final output? 

The sudden, tragic passing of innovative electronic producer SOPHIE two weeks ago has left me thinking about her definitive lasting influence in the modern pop that has filtered through to the mainstream. Her affiliation with PC Music and the rise of “hyperpop” over the past decade can be seen in Charli XCX’s shift around Vroom Vroom and the critical lauding of 100gecs, with SOPHIE even producing for Kim Petras, Rihanna and Lady Gaga. That SOPHIE’s own vision made such an impact in such a short space of time is to be celebrated; it’s not until an idea filters down that you can start to fully see its legacy.

Priya Ragu – ‘Chicken Lemon Rice’

Because Priya Ragu caused such a stir with her debut single ‘Good Love 2.0’, it’s wild to think that she’s only on her second release – but it’s true! Her distinct pride in her heritage is channelled through the irresistible South Indian-influenced rhythms of ‘Chicken Lemon Rice’, as she and her producer brother Japhna Gold celebrate unfettered joy. It’s a treat.

Syd – ‘Missing Out’

It’s been three whole years since Syd released her debut album Fin, and her return with ‘Missing Out’ comes as quite the surprise. Irrefutably chilled with a moody undertone, this new single is a meditation on a soured love with lost potential. The antithesis of Valentine’s Day, the track succinctly balances abandonment with her stoic pride.

Yas VW – ‘Be the One’

South London sensation Yas VW is set for great things, if her latest single ‘Be The One’ is anything to go by. The silky smooth R&B carries a sugary sweet kick with its chiming synths, 80s-meet-90s influence and pulsing rhythm. Describing her sound as ‘Jhené Aiko meets Janet Jackson’ feels pretty apt.

Victoria Monet – ‘F.U.C.K’

As sultry as you can imagine from the title alone, Victoria Monét’s latest sees her shuck off the reigns of relationship titles to embrace a far less serious moniker. A breezy outing with a root in personal liberation, ‘Friend U Can Keep’ is Monét’s mantra to “not [being] confined to traditional commitment ideals, and instead, embody the freedom when and with whom we mutually please”.

Syra – ‘Sandman’

A buzzy name in her Parisian hometown, French R&B talent Syra has been making waves as part of fashion and music collective Girls Do It Better (they’ve been in Vogue, FYI). Teaming up with filmmaker Manuel Obadia-Wills for an inspired stripper-themed visual, her soulfully husky tone and hypnotic beats give her concoction a contemporary twist.

You can listen to the full 2021 gal-dem Five on it playlist on Spotify: