Music

How Maroon 5’s ‘Red Pill Blues’ Trojan-Horse’d Its Way To 2018 Pop Dominance

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It’s hard to tell if there is a more savvy pop entity in 2018 than Maroon 5 — well, namely, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine. As the frontman of a 17-year-old (!), Grammy award-winning and multi-platinum selling pop group, a seven-year founding judge on the wildly successful singing competition show The Voice (which began in 2011, an eternity ago), and the founder of his own label, 222 Records, Levine is as firmly entrenched as a defining force in pop music over the last couple of decades as a synth or a backbeat.

And now that they’re such a pop fixture, it’s easy to forget that Maroon 5’s breakout album, 2002’s Songs About Jane, definitely leaned more rock than anything they do now. Jane is a stone-cold classic (fight me) and recognized as an indelible commercial force — it spawned five ultra successful singles, including “This Love” which won a Grammy and arguably helped the group win the Best New Artist Grammy and VMA. While plenty of bands have a huge, successful breakout like that, most end up spending the rest of their careers trying to achieve that initial impact without much luck.

Instead, over the course of the next two decades Maroon 5 have gone on to surpass their original momentum, hitting the top of the Billboard charts three separate times (“Makes Me Wonder,” 2007, “Moves Like Jagger,” 2010, “One More Night,” 2012) and skillfully pivoting with each stylistic wave. The staying power the group maintained as a traditional pop-rock band in an increasingly rap-focused world is pretty astonishing. Their early ability to use their established sound to usher other artists into the spotlight is fascinating as a mutually beneficial move for both the band and their collaborators.

Currently, the band is hovering around that No. 1 spot once again as their Cardi B collaboration “Girls Like You” climbed up to No. 2 spot last week and stayed there. In case you’re questioning the way rap has come to dominate the charts, when/if “Girls” hits No. 1, it will only be the band’s fourth time doing so — and it will already be Cardi’s third. (Lately she is truly competing with herself, as her other hit “I Like It” was recently at the No. 1 slot and is now sitting at No. 3) Of course, Cardi is practically unstoppable in 2018, and if you take a look at Maroon 5’s career, this isn’t the first time the band have utilized high-profile cameos to their advantage. On their most recent album, Red Pill Blues, however, they leaned into current stars more than ever before.

The result of that strategy was a well-received pop album that’s still resonating almost a year later. Amid their staple, sparkling pop production and Levine’s signature voice, this album cuts that saccharine with a rougher dose of hip-hop braggadocio from guests and more rap-leaning production. Aside from their latest collab with Cardi, the band’s radio hits in the last year are rounded out by Kendrick Lamar, Future, and SZA (A$AP Rocky, Lunchmoney Lewis and Julia Michaels are also guests on the album). “Don’t Wanna Know,” featuring Kendrick Lamar, peaked at No. 6 in February last year during the album’s early roll-out, and the independent single “Cold” featuring Future (and Gucci Mane on the remix) came in April, hitting No. 16 on the Billboard chart, and earning a slot on the deluxe version of the album.

Perhaps most telling, though, is their SZA collab, “What Lovers Do,” which went to No. 9 last November just a few weeks after the album dropped, earning Solana her highest-charting song to date in the process. Despite the massive, unprecedented success of SZA’s CTRL last summer, she struggled a bit to break into the Billboard top 20 as such a new artist, and it wasn’t until her collab with Maroon 5 that the Top Dawg star scored a coveted top 10 hit, a high-water mark that set the table for her Kendrick Lamar Black Panther collab “All The Stars” to hit No. 7 this March.

So, while pop haters may dismiss the band outright due to their sound, or commercial success, their ability to Trojan horse artists like SZA and Future to chart success makes them an essential fixture in the radio world. For their part, Levine and his crew have sustained their success over the years by tapping into what’s fresh and current, and perhaps, most importantly, collaborating with women and rappers who are at the top of their game; plenty of their momentum since their initial era can be credited to a strategic collaborator.

Look no further than one the moves they made a decade ago. Following up the success of that first No. 1 single in 2008, they reissued their second album It Won’t Be Soon Before Long and re-recorded the lead single “If I Never See Your Face Again” with then-rising pop star, Rihanna. Though the song didn’t fare particularly well on the charts, it was nominated for a Grammy in 2009, and Rihanna also included it on the reissue of her own album, Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded, effectively introducing the band to a whole new audience.

What’s more, she also praised the band and helped put them on the map as a pop force, making them cool to her young fanbase; instead of a ten-year old rock group, they were suddenly seen as pop stars on her level. “They’re one of my favorite bands,”she said at the time. “When they called me to do this record with them, I was so honored.” You can count on one hand the number of bands Rihanna has publicly praised in this way.

The trend continued on the deluxe version of their next album, Hands All Over, in 2011 that included an additional version of the track “Moves Like Jagger” featuring Christina Aguilera, Levine’s fellow Voice judge. It was this version that became only their second No. 1 on the Billboard chart, and one of the biggest songs of their career period, as it emerged as one of the best-selling songs of that year at 7 million copies. In one fell swoop, Levine and co. connected themselves to the rockstar legacy of The Rolling Stones, Latin pop icon Christina Aguilera, and the dance-pop sound that was everywhere in late 2000s. And for Aguilera, it was her first No. 1 hit in a decade, rescuing her from the flop of Bionic in 2010.

These collaborative successes clearly had an impact on the band, who began to routinely incorporate cameos from other artists at big moments in their career to catapult themselves back into the public eye. Consider their next move a year later on their 2012 album Overexposed. The lead single for the record, “Payphone,” included a Wiz Khalifa cameo, and marked their first real foray into hip-hop collaborations. It dropped one month after Khalifa and Amber Rose got engaged, during the height of his popularity. After debuting the song on The Voice, it quickly hit No. 2 on the Billboard chart and set the table for “One More Night,” the band’s third No. 1 single which stayed at the top of the chart for nine weeks, and gave way to two more top 10 hits, “Daylight,” and “Love Somebody.”

They rode this success right into the release of V in 2014, another mostly collaborator-free album with several hits in “Maps,” “Animals,” and “Sugar.” V did include one cameo from Gwen Stefani (on a Sia co-write, “My Heart Is Open”) as Stefani filled Aguilera’s spot on The Voice. Though the song didn’t fare well on the charts, the duo did perform it at the 2015 Grammys and continued Levine’s trend of spotlighting his female peers.

Over the next couple years, as the radio and charts morphed to favor hip-hop and rap sounds more than ever before, it’s hard to imagine songs like “One More Night” or “Animals” achieving chart success in 2018, even though both were wildly successful four or five years ago. Still, as Billboard recently noted, no one else who was making chart-topping, zeitgeisty hits back in 2002 is still around now, and that’s in many ways due to their choice in collaborators.

As his peers refused to change the old formulas of the early 2000s that used to work to fill stadiums and snag hits, Levine was more than happy to shift gears for the group’s subsequent releases, cementing their dominance in a time where most of their rivals have dropped off the edge of relevance and faded into obscurity. Plenty of other successful white, male entertainers have griped about the passage of their own heyday and condemned the heralding of diverse voices, or an increased focus on the historically marginalized as a threat to their own status. But Maroon 5 constantly embrace this sea change, using their own massive platform to springboard other artists to the top.

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