On 2014’s joyless Motion, Calvin Harris appeared content to rest on his laurels, sticking to the EDM formula that made him into one of the world’s most famous DJs. As recently as last year, the Scottish artist was even rumored to be finished making albums altogether in order to focus exclusively on dropping star-studded singles like 2016’s clubby, Rihanna-featuring hit “This Is What You Came For.” But on his fifth album, Funk Wave Bounces Vol. 1, he veers away from the waning EDM genre and reinvigorates his music by shifting back toward the retro disco-funk production of his 2007 debut, while tempering that album’s synth-driven edge with buoyant island rhythms.
Collaborating with over 20 prominent hip-hop and R&B stars over 10 tracks, Harris’s greatest achievement here lies in fitting all the moving parts together without the project ever feeling overcrowded. This is perhaps most apparent on “Heatstroke,” which uses Pharrell Williams’s smooth falsetto to transition from Young Thug’s bombastic bars to Ariana Grande’s more measured chorus, and the equally talent-stacked “Feels,” where Pharrell largely takes the reins as Big Sean provides the swagger and Katy Perry the vocal hook. Elsewhere, Nicki Minaj has the dancehall-hued “Skrt on Me” all to herself, her lone rap verse vividly juxtaposed with her otherwise sweetly sung hooks.
Harris’s latest effort, though, fails to transcend binary pop tropes. The album’s male vocalists, from Frank Ocean to Miggos’s Quavo, mainly play the parts of tawdry braggarts. Snoop Dogg raps about his financial ability to pamper his woman with expensive trips to the salon on “Holiday,” while ScHoolboy Q boasts about his Rolexes and Mercedes on “Cash Out.” The female vocalists, meanwhile, are mostly concerned with the emotional politics of relationships. Though newcomer Jessie Reyez may posture herself as a cold heartbreaker on “Hard to Love,” she ultimately admits to doing so out of insecurity, taking solace in the notion that she’d “rather be hard to love than easy to leave.” Even Perry’s catchy chorus—“Don’t be afraid to catch feels”—plays into the cliché that all men hide from emotional vulnerability and commitment.
Such indifference toward offering thought-provoking lyrics throughout Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 is especially frustrating given that Harris pays such close attention to seamless production and dynamic vocal flow. By showing little interest in challenging the clichés of men fixated on conquest and status symbols and women focused on “feels,” Harris undermines what could have been an inspired creative reinvention.