Pop music has evolved in some amazing ways over the past decade. The start of the 2010s brought about a new wave of experimental attitudes, and subsequently, a litany of new influencers who could lead the genre in a new direction. Shifting away from the plasticized loop stylizations that led the 2000’s pop generation to crumble in-place, the latter half of the last decade produced artists like Ilyah, whose outside of the box-style thinking immediately clicked with millennial listeners who were interesting in the kind of harmonies his 2018 single “The Only One” had in spades.
Two years later, we find Ilyah as ripping as ever in his latest single and music video, “Habibi,” only he no longer plays the part of a wide-eyed rookie whose ambitions are as big as the California coastline. Combining old school songwriting tech and beat components found in minimalism with a visual grandiosity in the video for “Habibi” is something that I can’t picture any other artist pulling off as successfully as he did this past January, but not for lack of trying. This artist is an alternative to the mainstream mundane, and this spring, he’s making a case for being one of the best figures to emerge from his scene in the last few years.
The swing of the beats here colorizes every word Ilyah sings, and whether you can keep up with his bilinguals poeticisms are not, there’s never a moment where we’re put in a position to focus more on lyrics than musicianship when trying to understand the narrative in “Habibi.” The synth parts are surprisingly loud in the master mix – as much as the vocal is, if not more in a couple of instances outside of the chorus hook – but I suppose they had to be to achieve the scooped definition he was clearly trying to capture in this track.
The bassline is perhaps the most textured element in the big picture, but even its melodic thrust feels a bit tapered compared to the synthesizers. There’s nothing that qualifies as overdone in “Habibi;” it’s a relative snapshot of what efficient pop songcraft can produce when players are managing it the right way. I’m not saying this is a perfect song, but for what it was designed to accomplish for Ilyah, it’s certainly a ten out of ten.
There aren’t many songwriters around that are demonstrating the kind of moxie that Ilyah is this May, but then again, there aren’t too many that have the voice he does, either. All of the planets are lining up for this guy and his groove-happy harmonies, but if I were him, I would seriously look into finding some collaborative partners for his next trip to the recording studio. Nothing shows an audience how much an artist has to offer than when he/she is paired with another player who can counter their performance with something uniquely different (and, when it’s special, complementary in tone and style). No matter what he does next, Ilyah can bet that this critic will definitely be listening.