A Twist in the Calvin Harris Plot

Calvin Harris could have kept right on doing the same successful shtick. But the three singles from his upcoming album 'Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1' show that he’s a lot more flexible than expected

Calvin Harris.
DANNY MOLOSHOK/REUTERS

There’s a question that’s been bothering me for some years now: Is Calvin Harris a douche? On paper, all signs point to yes. Blonde and slick look? Check. Pompous, soulless dance hits? Check and check. Annoying relationship with Taylor Swift, which ended in a loud fury because he supposedly was insanely jealous? You bet. But despite it all, this Scottish producer and deejay has that elusive something that makes it hard to really hate him.

Things get more complicated when you start to dig into his YouTube account and come upon poignant clips from the “I Created Disco” days, his unusual 2007 debut album. In these videos, Harris – lanky, pale and much cuter – does all kinds of strange things while shyly crooning groove and disco bits. One can easily picture the Harris of today watching the Harris of that era and cringing with shame at the sight of that sweet nerd gazing back at him from the screen.

A lot of dance floors have been conquered since then. Harris established himself as the guru of electronic music, the one the big stars go to when they need a huge summer hit. Douche or not, Harris was able to create a specific, distinctive sound that set the tone for a good number of years and was replicated over and over again. He elegantly combined electronic elements with pop so that the pairing, which until then was cruder and less accessible, became an industry standard.

Now Harris is ready to show that he’s not just a gifted producer, he’s also a very flexible fellow. Instead of just milking the same shtick, which was still doing fantastically well (as in last year’s “This Is What You Came For” with Rihanna, and “My Way”), lately he has begun to flirt with other styles, which aren’t necessarily all that foreign to him.

On the three singles from his upcoming album, Harris has lowered the volume and upped the groove. The list of guest artists includes top names from hip-hop and R&B, the visuals imply a Caribbean vacation, and even the name of the album, “Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1,” projects a lack of effort.

The debut single, released in February, “Slide” (with the brilliant choice of guest artists Frank Ocean and Migos), is everything you wouldn’t expect from a Calvin Harris song: melodic, pleasant, soothing, the sort of thing that makes you feel like sipping a cocktail on a yacht and gently dancing. The guest artists’ infectious charisma turn the whole thing into an anti-hit that you can’t stop listening to.

A month later, the disco continued with “Heat Stroke,” on which Harris hosts the brilliant Young Thug, Ariana Grande and Pharrell Williams – just so no one should miss the unsubtle references to Daft Punk (and more indirectly, to The Weeknd).

Two weeks ago, we got another gem, this time featuring Future and rising star Khalid. “Rollin” nonchalantly combines DM-Funk-type new disco with the lazy, flat rap of Future. Whether it’s musical opportunism or a return to roots, this latest twist in the plot means that Harris is likely to draw new listeners who barely noticed him before. Who knows – maybe the summer’s big hit will sound different than we thought it would.