Larsson has clearly found one kind of pop music that she makes really, really well.
Sweden has had a major imprint on the past decade-plus of mainstream American pop thanks to producers like Max Martin and Shellback, and Stockholm singer Zara Larsson proves herself to be for the most part a worthy disciple on So Good, her second studio album but the first to receive a major global push. Larsson is still honing artistic identity, which as of now feels like an approximation of Ariana Grande with a lot less room to riff and freelance, but when given the right canvas she shines.
Larsson doesn’t have a powerhouse belter voice, but she feeds off of the percussive bounce in her instrumentals, dropping her vocals expertly into open pockets of space. She operates best atop the minimalist production of songs like “Lush Life,” “So Good,” and “TG4M.” She’s the rare pop vocalist whose strength truly lies not in her hooks but in her verses.
She’s both blunt and beguiling on the album’s title track, a steamy collaboration with Ty Dolla $ign built atop an earworm beat that doubles as the most vibrant piece of music that wet noodle Charlie Puth has ever crafted. That Dolla $ign doesn’t steal the show is a testament to Larsson’s appeal, as this is the kind of song that he usually holds such dominion over you forget who the main artist even is halfway through his verse.
“Lush Life” is equally fantastic, with a slinky ‘80s bent to it that echoes Carly Rae Jepsen. It’s such an effective, straight to the vein dose of sunshine that it truly makes you question how it hasn’t become a sleeper hit in the U.S. despite being out for nearly two years (it did make a major dent in Europe). It’s the perfect ‘Spring Break forever’ song for the 19-year-old Larsson.
Unfortunately, when Larsson deviates from this formula the results are far spottier. “Sundown,” her collaboration with Nigerian Afrobeat singer Wizkid, is a naked attempt to capitalize on the current dancehall trend, but the song’s elements feel disjointed, and there’s no real chemistry between the two vocalists. She sells the dramatic, operatic “Never Forget You” (a histrionic club song in the style of the Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down” or Major Lazer’s “Lean On”), but the track is dominated by British singer MNEK, and devolves into the two trying to out-riff each other on the outro to (likely) unintended comedic effect. Of So Good’s more emotional tracks, “Funeral” does the best job of showcasing Larsson’s three-dimensionality, and the synth and percussion heavy instrumental feels more akin to the production on the album’s best songs.
The sweet-turned-sour ballad “I Can’t Fall in Love Without You” is Larsson’s attempt at taking her synth pop somewhere more intimate than the dance floor, but it finds an awkward stasis in which it is both too earnest (“Don’t you think I give a fuck?/ Give a fuck about who you fuck/ But I hope you can’t get it up”) and too sappily emotional (the song’s cloying chorus and digital choir backup vocals). Larsson has enough charisma and vocal presence to carry more than prototypical pop bangers, but she’s still a ways from figuring out the best way to do so.
Right now Larsson is far better at playing a cocky, carefree teen than she is transcending genres or acting the part of the jilted lover. For her career longevity she may eventually need to develop a secondary niche, but right now she’s clearly found one kind of pop music that she makes really, really well.