PinkPantheress’s Slivers of Dance-Pop Play With Memory Like a Toy

Some of the most striking music suffusing TikTok this year has come from PinkPantheress, a British singer and producer who sounds like she’s flirting and aching all at once. Snippets of her songs “Break It Off” and, especially, “Just for Me” have been an optimal melancholic soundtrack for the perpetual tug of war between romanticization and mopiness that dominates a certain corner of online teenage life.

Part of main-character sadness is hearing yourself in the culture you’re surrounding yourself with — and sometimes, meshing what’s in your heart with what’s in your ear. That’s how PinkPantheress works: She sounds as if she’s listening and performing all at once, like you are hearing her singing along to whatever’s bumping out of her speakers. Plenty of her songs are based on deeply familiar source material. “Break It Off” functions as an extension of Adam F’s “Circles,” a foundational drum-and-bass song from the mid-’90s. “Pain” rides a bed lifted from a karaoke version of Sweet Female Attitude’s “Flowers,” a pop U.K. garage anthem from 2000.

At what point does an experience become a memory? And at what point does a memory become history, fixed in place? We often think of sampling as a choice emanating from a steady, long-in-the-rearview position, but it can function in liminal spaces, too.

“Break It Off” and “Just for Me” are both elegant in their own right, and also encapsulate the enthusiasm and thrill of listening to someone else’s elegant song, one that rousts you from your shell and thrusts you into your own joy or sadness, or both at the same time.

This layered approach makes PinkPantheress’s debut album, the warmly ecstatic and cheekily gloomy “To Hell With It,” so striking. It’s short, controlled and lived-in.

The press materials refer to “To Hell With It,” which includes 10 songs and totals less than 19 minutes, as a mixtape — often, that’s a head fake designed to avoid the pressure and scrutiny still associated with the term “album,” which is an increasingly outmoded concept anyway. But in PinkPantheress’s case, using the term mixtape invokes one of the classic uses of the phrase, a collection of rapping over other people’s beats. In other words, a way of testing yourself against the context of the recent past. The brevity of the songs underscores that — they are immediate and flexible.

But unlike, say, the sometimes bombastic sample choices that appear in mainstream pop, hip-hop and reggaeton, which are so grand and smoothly polished that they become obstacles to creativity, PinkPantheress’s relationship to her source material is at the level of hazy tribute. “I Must Apologise” reimagines the woozy jangle of Crystal Waters’s “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless).” “Passion” opens with a light acoustic guitar that recalls the intro of Craig David’s pop-garage smash “7 Days.” “Last Valentines” incorporates bits from Linkin Park’s “Forgotten.” They’re suggestive, but not delineative.

Which leaves plenty of room for PinkPantheress, a pop singer with light R&B contours, to hone her vocal approach. Lost in the conversation around her relationship to yesteryear is the way even her singing encapsulates the tension of memory.

Her writing is diaristic in the sense that it doesn’t always hew to a clean syllabic structure — sometimes she’s cramming words to make them fit, and sometimes she’s lingering over them as if humbled. The key juxtaposition in her music is how the lightly detached sweetness in her tone masks the sweaty anxiety of her words. Take “Just for Me,” which verges on saccharine while spooky obsession hovers just beneath the surface:

I followed you today I was in my car
I wanted to come and see you from afar
If you turned around and saw me I would die
I’d pretend I was a person driving by

On “All My Friends Know,” she sings about what happens after a relationship ends, but you can’t quite tell everyone yet, especially your mother: “She knows that I’m so fond of you/So she can’t ignore how everyday/She knocks but I don’t answer my door.”

Most of “To Hell With It” is about this sort of romantic anxiety, the sort that often exists in your head to fill the space left behind by a failed love. But PinkPantheress also applies the same clarity to her family on “Passion,” a song about a broken-down family: “I called my dad, he told me, ‘There’s no room for me’/Down at the house that we had when we were living as a three.”

PinkPantheress self-produced her earlier songs, which were teased as snippets on TikTok and released on SoundCloud. Those older tracks have been mixed and mastered for this release and sound crisper. On some new songs, though, like “Reason” and “All My Friends Know,” the balance is slightly off: She sounds more firmly embedded in the music, not quite riding atop it. It’s a light disruption of her mode of simultaneous performance and listening.

But in the same way that TikTok provided an optimal milieu for PinkPantheress to try out this style, the app, which accelerates all culture consumption, has begun to reabsorb her, too. She herself has become source material of recent nostalgia for others — recently, “Just for Me” was sampled by the melodic drill rapper Central Cee, first on TikTok, and later on a full song, “Obsessed With You.” She’s someone else’s memory now.

PinkPantheress
“To Hell With It”
(Elektra/Parlophone)

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