It’s clear that MNEK knows his place in the music world. High-profile collabs be damned, the singer is aware that casual fans still don’t know how to say his name. He hilariously corrects them with a brilliant skit on Language: two party girls sing along to “Never Forget You,” his 2015 team-up with Zara Larsson before one of the ladies professes her love for “Em-Neck.” “It’s ‘M-N-E-K’,” her friend corrects her. “Sounds like an STD.”
This playfulness shines throughout Language. On “Correct,” he flexes his resume as a triple threat: “You hear the bass through the speakers/ Now you wanna hear the rest/ Who wrote this song?/ Who made this beat?/ Well take a guess,” he brags, likely smirking the entire time he was in the studio. And on album highlight “Girlfriend,” he reads a closet-case fuckboi to fiflth: “Neither you nor your story’s straight.”
On top of MNEK’s smart wordplay, Language is a masterclass in production. The singer doesn’t hide his turn-of-the-century inspirations; in fact, he shared a playlist of pop and R&B tracks that influenced the record, including early P!nk (“There You Go”), a Spice Girls deep cut (“Denying”) and two tracks from Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope (“Empty” and “Go Deep”). The era’s sound is present throughout the skittering beats and multiplex harmonies of Language, perhaps most apparent in “Paradise,” which features the iconic guitar riff from Ultra Naté’s 1997 club staple “Free” undulating throughout the track.
So why didn’t audiences pay attention? The most obvious explanation: his identity. MNEK is a feminine, gay, black man making pop music. Sadly, that is still revolutionary. "Queer artists have been celebrated across major media outlets all year (it’s #20GAYTEEN after all!), but are hardly catching on the charts. Even Troye Sivan, the chosen poster child of the the queer pop movement, is struggling to catch a break on the charts. His lead single off last month’s Bloom capped at No. 80 on the Hot 100, while subsequent singles -- including a duet with Top 40’s it girl Ariana Grande -- missed the chart completely. With the notable exception of Halsey, LGBTQ artists are everywhere -- except on the charts.
But MNEK’s sexuality isn’t the only thing working against his crossover popularity. A quick skimming through the top of this week’s Hot 100 and it’s easy to see that dance-rooted pop music doesn’t have the presence it used to. There are outliers, but trap-infused hip-hop rules the charts, making it difficult to break new pop acts. Even Dua Lipa, arguably the biggest pop star to break out in the past year, took a minute to catch traction. Her self-titled debut landed at No. 86 on the Billboard 200 upon its June 2017 release. Eight months later, the album hit a peak of No. 27. (It’s worth noting that MNEK also co-wrote Lipa’s global smash “IDGAF,” which noted a No. 49 peak on the Hot 100.)
That said, MNEK’s could look at his fellow Brit’s trajectory for a bit of optimism. She is proof that first-week numbers aren't indicative of an album’s potential, especially for a newcomer in today’s pop music landscape. Charli XCX, too, is proof that a pop artist can maintain a steady amount of interest while being all but absent across the US charts.
With a proper stateside push -- complete with television appearances where he can showcase his sassy charm -- this album campaign is salvageable. A major opening slot for a tour or a co-sign from one of his superstar collaborators could also do wonders to increase his profile.
Another ray of hope: music trends don’t last long. As the pendulum swings away from more simplistic sounds, we will inevitably end up hearing music with more sonic complexity. While there’s no predicting what that will sound like, recent buzzworthy singles by Rina Sawayama and Nina Nesbitt (“Cherry” and “Loyal To Me,” respectively) wouldn’t sound out of place on a playlist among turn-of-the-millennium fare like Destiny’s Child, Aaliyah and Jennifer Lopez. Given his similar admiration for the intricate melodies and syncopated, layered rhythms from the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, if there’s any justice, the future will sound like MNEK.