Justin Tranter Is the Superhero Pop Needs

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This one has been a long time coming. Justin Tranter deserves a profile as much as any of the pop stars I’ve written cover stories on for Billboard: Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, Fifth Harmony, Cardi B, Nick Jonas… in part because he’s cowritten hit songs for all of them, and also (mostly) because he is an incredible human and indefatigable activist who’s fought against some long odds to succeed on multiple fronts in a very massive way. You can read all about his exploits in this Playboy profile, but Tranter has been popping up in my work for years. I wrote a piece on his old band Semi Precious Weapons for SPIN in 2010, and have consulted him as a secondary on so many pieces since. He’s been a huge part of making pop palatable again, and is helping shape the future for LGBTQ acceptance in America. Plus, he’s building schools. Enjoy.

Billboard Cover: One Wild Night with Rae Sremmurd

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My journey with Rae Sremmurd began with a monkey meet-and-greet in Los Angeles and ended at a Las Vegas nightclub in a literal hail of cash. In between, I met the Kings of Woodland Hills, watched the sunset over the desert from a private jet, went on a wild goose chase in search of a huge sack of cash, drank Hip and Hen in a multi-level hotel suite, rode around in a Hulk-green stretch Hummer limo, sat awkwardly at a strip club while one of my subjects threw about $2,000 in roughly 20 minutes, and—best of all—got to spend some quality time (10 hours) with two hard-working sibling sweethearts. Despite all the flash, my biggest takeaway was that, as Jhene Aiko put it and Mike WiLL Made-It confirmed, Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi are “a bundle of joy.”

Billboard Profile: Cardi B Is the Striver of the Year

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Cardi B had a headache. I considered a Gay Talese tribute vis-à-vis Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, but Talese has been a completely wack presence in pop culture lately and besides, this was a rare opportunity to see who Cardi B is when she’s exhibiting that most un-Cardi B of characteristics: reserve. Still, there was color. Like in the cut scene where she was trying to eat a soppy pickle with heavily bejeweled, inch-and-a-half-long pink nails, maneuvering the spear so as to neither drip on her outfit nor fuck up her lipstick—a bit of patently Cardi B grotesquerie that seemed to underscore her innate ability to keep up appearances both high brow and low. Despite the pain between her temples, Cardi did her best to communicate what this moment’s like for her, having plunged into the mainstream after a couple years of dipping her red-bottoms in the water.

Rolling Stone Feature: 10 Manic Hours with BTS

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Remind me never to join a K-pop boy band. I barely had the stamina to follow BTS around for 10 hours, watching them dance and rap and sing and change clothes and get made up and dance and rap and sing and sweat and change clothes and get made up all over again with frequent breaks in between, not to rest, but to be painfully stretched out and kneaded and spinally adjusted by a very strong and very stern masseur. It was a little bit stressful and a lot bit awe-inspiring to watch these seven (!) young men do their thing, and an honor to work alongside photographer Brian Guido. That’s his shot of group leader RM brushing his teeth above, and you can view more over here. This piece is narrative-based so to say much more would be to give it away. Get over to Rolling Stone to spend a day with BTS and their wild, and very sweet, fans.

Billboard Interview: Willow Smith and Jhene Aiko

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Mushrooms! Magic! Overcoming industry misogyny! All three were ripe topics for discussion when I sat down with two sisters-from-different-intergalactic-misters, alt-R&B queen Jhené Aiko and future benevolent supreme world leader Willow Smith, who are touring together right now. We also talked about their provenance among the stars, and that’s not a reference to Willow’s famous parents—both artists believe (or like to believe) they hail from the Sirius star system. So yes, they are bona fide hippies, and like hippies, we three shared our plates of farm-to-table pasta and clinked our hand-pressed ginger beers while further contemplating Vietnamese poet-monks and the benefits of home-schooling. It was trippy and genuinely life-affirming good.

The Los Angeles Magazine Icon Interview: Beck

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READ IT AT LOS ANGELES MAGAZINE (in print too)

Beck is a delight. I interviewed him once or twice back in the oughts and it was kinda tough. If he didn’t have a guitar in his hand, he’d respond to my questions exclusively at a glacial pace. I suspected it was because he was a’feared of saying the wrong thing about Xenu for which he’d be forever exiled to a reprogramming camp in the California desert. I was probably wrong about that. In any case, the Beck of today is candid and thoughtful and has a fascinating long view on his mercurial career. Like, he said, with a straight face, that musically, “I’m always trying to do the same thing.” Beck Hansen said that. In fact, he said a lot of unintentionally provocative and utterly fascinating things in the full article, which appears both via the link above and in stores and mailboxes via the magazine’s November issue on the occasion of his new album, Colors.

BILLBOARD COVER: ZEDD IS EDM’S ANTI-BRO

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Want a true testament to the delightfulness of my subject this time around? Here’s the list of folks who went on the record to say nice things about Zedd: Kesha, Jared Leto, Liam Payne of One Direction, Hailee Steinfeld, Dillon Francis, Interscope CEO John Janick, songwriter/artist Julia Michaels, and DJ-producer Porter Robinson. As for the story, this one takes me into the Hollywood Hills home of the dance/pop genius not only for poker night (excerpted: his brother took me for $40), but for a hang sesh in which he plays piano, reveals his plans for Jeff Buckley’s legacy, and shows off a $13,000 side table that fills his living room with rainbows on sunny days. Also, as the headline suggests, there are the myriad ways in which he is not a basic bro.

PASTE COVER: GRIZZLY BEAR’S GOLDEN (STATE) REPUBLIC

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Did you know that Grizzly Bear moved to California, signed to a major label, and maybe kinda sorta unofficially broke up between their last album, 2012’s Shields, and their latest Painted Ruins, due in August? I didn’t either until I sat down with these indie rock titans for one-on-one convos at the various hip coffeehouses of Los Angeles’ east side. A lot of other stuff happened too: Chris Taylor staged at Noma, Ed Droste stumped for Bernie Sanders, Chris Bear got back to jazz, and Daniel Rossen disappeared way way Upstate. This is the story of how breaking up with Brooklyn, and each other, lured one of the millennium’s best bands out of hibernation. Not for nothing, we met up mid-April, making these their first interviews as a band since the Shields era.

Billboard Cover: When Fifth Harmony Become Four

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Barely a year after the Billboard cover feature in which Fifth Harmony broke down in tears over their brutal working conditions (for which we sought the salve of froyo), I reconvene with the girl group’s four remaining members to bake cookies and hash out the gory details behind their new better-than-ever status, which involves a lot of real talk about fixing their terrible contracts and moving forward in the wake of original member Camila Cabello’s exit. This is a special one not only because it’s our second cover together, but because I also profiled Cabello at the start of her solo career, plus wrote the mag’s first non-cover feature on 5H. So … they’re my beat now. Cameos from hitmakers Poo Bear and Dreamlab, fiery lawyer Dina LaPolt, Ginger Spice herself (hence the Spice Girls “2 Become 1” gag above), and, yes, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Fun fact: In addition to now finally owning the “Fifth Harmony” copyright (what this means is explained in the article), the ladies also own copyrights for Fourth Harmony and H4RMONY.