Dominic Fike: What Could Possibly Go Wrong review – playing in modern pop’s playground of ideas

He’s certainly got the look, but has he got the sound? Well, yes – all of them, it turns out. But that might be the problem, as experimental as it is erratic

★★★☆☆

It’s difficult to describe Dominic Fike to the average person. Here stands a bloke who looks like a Sacramento skater boy who’s recently dropped out of art college and a big fan of smoking weed and emo-rap – he’s friends with Brockhampton, who have themselves yet to go fully mainstream, and declines to necessarily name his pop songs after something in the chorus, a marker of off-centre artistic persuasions – but who, in reality, might not be: he’s lucky enough to have a model’s good looks and the kind of visual aesthetic that says i-D mag rather than DIY, while 3 Nights, which went platinum in the States and got to the Top 10 almost everywhere else, held a hook so strong, you wondered if its existence hinged not on Fike’s talents so much as a committee of 11 or so ace, top-flight songwriters for hire. For the time being, he’s merely anonymous – you might’ve correctly guessed who sang 3 Nights, but would you know their face? – a state of affairs that What Could Possibly Go Wrong presumably seeks to address.

Fortunately, he’s got contemporaneity on his side. Part of 3 Nights’s charm was that, whilst its hook landed any vacancy going in your brain, ensuring heavy rotation and exposure in the process, it did so without being obvious or pandering about it, feeling organically stitched into the fabric of the song. Add that to his general look and the mysterious, unannounced way he drops new material, he’s a quintessentially 2020 artist. But contemporaneity only gets you so far – you need to have the goods if you’re banking on the stuff of regular No 1s and sold-out shows at arenas. What Could Possibly Go Wrong could feasibly give Fike all that and more. There are songs that’ll effortlessly slot into the Top 40 or Radio 1’s A playlist. Hard to resist, Good Game’s breezy stride pairs boom-bap beats and John Mayer-ish guitar licks with the sort of youthful confidence that tells you it can smell an inarguable smash-hit in the offing. Politics & Violence’s chorus snags at your ear the second you hear it, an immediately catchy thing that worms its way into your brain despite being more slender and slippery than the usual fare.

Everything about Chicken Tenders, in particular, screams ultramodern and hyper-contemporary. There’s a lot to admire about it, sonically, juggling a melange of different styles: the synths sound bleary and dazed; the guitars arrive as fragments imbued with the Californian sun; the distorted beats switch from poppy kick-drums to defanged club thump; the nagging melody never sits still, everything swirly and bloated by echo. He’s audibly a student of Frank Ocean’s visionary R&B – more than a few times, he speeds up or pitches up his vocals, making him sound like one of Alvin and the Chipmunks in time-honoured, Ocean-patented style – and it’s easy to see why Billie Eilish likes him: like the latter, Fike sees pop music as a playground of ideas, unafraid of pushing the form to breaking point or experimenting liberally.

However, this novel method has some minor drawbacks. He’ll shrug off one idea in exchange for another at the drop of a hat, not altogether an unappealing tic. Politics & Violence quickly dispenses with its big, lead hook and launches into an equally lovely but completely different musical phrase, offering a chance for Fike to rap – something he does very capably and naturally across the record – over a soft, bassy, trap-adjacent thrust. Joe Blazey, which follows, lives in a world where bedroom-producer R&B mingles with leftfield lo-fi pop of an indie-rock bent – you can hear it in the jangly, laidback guitars, making an understated appearance, stolen perhaps from Mac DeMarco – then, by way of a recording of some unidentified person experiencing a panic attack, unspools gorgeously into a muffled ooze. When it doesn’t work, the results are so-so: the shifts on What’s for Dinner? are too slow to make their mark or properly thrill you.

Other songs might reach only as far as the changing rooms at H&M or Urban Outfitters, which isn’t the worst thing in the world that can happen, but it’s not something you’d want a recording artist to aspire to: after a while, particularly during Why, you wonder if the album’s brevity – nearly every track races to the finish line in under three minutes or much, much less – isn’t by design but default, the better to cram in Fike’s abundance of hooks and tunes for a world dominated by TikTok’s influence. Double Negative (Skeleton Milkshake) teeters as it jumps from Strokes-inspired pop-punk rush to uber-slick harmonies too efficiently to be anything other than technically accomplished. 10x Stronger’s semi-interlude is a tad pointless, meanwhile Vampire’s tired harangue about predatory, bored party-goers kills the slightly anaemic pop-R&B that supports it dead.

There’s not a lot of depth either, the lyrics suffering from a lightweight quality: just like his fellow Gen Z emo-rappers, Fike hasn’t exhausted the LA life of drugs, girls and parties with a severe attachment to his phone and social media profiles, and shaky mental health. What Could Possibly Go Wrong’s inability to nail him down to one sound can be simultaneously enchanting and frustrating, particularly if it happens in the space of one track. Is this a case of the enigmatic pop chameleon? You’re not so sure. Cancel Me – the clue’s in the title – paints Fike as the media-averse, anti-pop maverick, making chart-ready hits by accident, deeply surly and rude. “I hope they crucify me, I hope I never ever have to go on TV … Jimmy Kimmel does not wanna meet me,” he raps, mentioning doing cocaine and dumping his girlfriend after a tour so he can “fuck a bunch of bitches” in the familiar whine of a Soundcloud mumblerap star. It doesn’t match What Could Possibly Go Wrong’s impression. So, who is Dominic Fike? After hearing this, he remains difficult to describe.

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