The genre of funk was made to be played with. When James Brown wanted his musicians to play like drummers, it’s easy to assume he was just messing with everyone. George Clinton heard that groove and must’ve thought it would be funny to add spacey synthesizers to Parliament to make their music sound intergalactic. Hell, even Prince knew better than to just make slinky R&B and threw in rock guitar and jungle drums to make truly iconic music. The limits of funk are meant to be played with and meant to be something loose. In the last 20 years, funk has not only been something given more appreciation for its past but mixed more with the broth of modern music. There are songs by Tame Impala, Kendrick Lamar, Kacey Musgraves, Beyonce and even one of the Jonas Brothers that could be classified as “funky.” That’s the beauty of funk, it goes with everything.
One group who knows that very well is Chromeo. The Montreal-based, New York-bred duo have spent nearly 15 years synching funk with 80s electro, pop-rock and R&B. The self-proclaimed “Funklordz” have been cruising on New York nightclub cred for some time now, being one of the more commercially successful bands in the indie music scene but always coming inches short of becoming full-fledged pop stars. Which is honestly somewhat baffling because they make some of the most fun, catchy, instantly danceable music around. And it’s not that they’ve hit some kind of peak period yet, as there are significant sonic and stylistic improvements to be heard between “Needy Girl” in 2004 and “Jealous (I Ain’t With It)” a decade later. Perhaps it’s because Dave 1 and P-Thugg are as committed to their image of leather-clad, lip-pursing lover boys as they are to their music. Much like what happened to The Darkness 15 years ago, the goofy image and commitment to a niche genre might be too hard to take seriously on the pop chart.
That doesn’t mean Chromeo have stopped trying, though. For evidence we have Head Over Heels, the duo’s slickest and shiniest album to date. All 12 tracks glean like the chrome on their instruments with crisp production with the clearest vocals and the tightest rhythms of their discography. Whereas their last album (2014’s White Women) featured a few reaches into the EDM boom of the 2010s, Head Over Heels sounds like the duo’s 80s-tinged sound focused and heightened with their influences more present. Album opener “Must’ve Been High” is anchored by a Nile Rodgers-esque disco guitar riff, while “Count Me Out” has such a hard-hitting synth/bass combo that it would make Cameo jump back. “One Track Mind” and “Slumming It” are low-key grooves serving the fans of late-90s French house. Drums and bass practically lock into each other while the keyboards and guitars pop in and out of the songs like clockwork. Chromeo have never sounded more like a well-oiled machine on this and, while there is a sense of free-wheeling energy missing from this record, it’s a much stronger bid for Chromeo to become chart-topping heavyweights than White Women.
The pop crossover potential on Head Over Heels is also obvious from the guest list, which is also the most stacked of their career. “Don’t Sleep” is a double-rap feature with French Montana and newly-crowned XXL Freshman Stefflon Don. While Dave-1’s smooth croon carries most of the song, Stefflon comes out with the most confidence and swagger despite some phoned-in lyrics (“Life hand me lemons, I got lemonade now/Boy I’m getting paid, boy I’m getting paid now”). Still, her presence in better than Montana’s bored delivery and barely-rhyming lyrics (“Sleep on me might never wake up/I pull up, she lookin’ like Anita Baker”). DRAM kicks off the album on “Must’ve Been High” with a spirited hook and a smooth delivery on his verse that matches Dave-1, almost as if this should’ve been a DRAM track with Chromeo as the feature. That case happens again on “Bedroom Calling pt. 2” where The-Dream takes over the entire track after “pt. 1” had Dave-1 sway over a slow jam. With Chromeo taking a backseat, Dream gets the poppiest song he’s been on in quite some time with some excellent layered harmonies in the pre-chorus and a warm delivery that further sells the lyrics (“They not like you, you should be celebrated/Tonight it’s goin’ down, but it feels like we elevated”). Not to say Chromeo are outshined by their guests. Lead single “Juice” was the deep, groovy bass and synth combo that’s a mix of disco and modern dance pop despite a goofy chorus (“That you’ve got the juice, yeah, yeah/That’s why I keep pressin’ ya, pressin’ ya”).
If a listener can get past the outwardly-swagger of Chromeo, there’s a plethora of damn good pop to be had. Head Over Heels seems to be as serious as Chromeo are ever going to get, which is both a good and a bad thing. For one, it loses a bit of the personality that made them famous in the first place. On the other hand, it shows that they don’t need to hold onto schtick to show off that they’re talented. Chromeo never seemed bothered by their lack of pop success but after “Jealous” turned into their biggest hit, Head Over Heels seems like a slight course correction to see what making a full-on pop album. Or at least the closest to a pop album they’re likely to make. Head Over Heels still has the funk that Chromeo claim to their nickname with the best production they’ve ever had. For all the fun they’ve had with the funk, it sounds like they want a little more.