When Kygo burst onto the scene in 2013-2014, tropical house was everything. Names like Thomas Jack, Robin Schulz, Felix Jaehn, Sam Feldt, Bakermat, and Matoma similarly rode the wave, but Kygo, with his brilliant melodies and ear for remix-worthy anthems, gained an early edge and has gone on to become a worldwide star with over 27 million monthly listeners on Spotify. He released his critically-acclaimed debut album, Cloud Nine, in 2016 with features from John Legend, James Vincent McMorrow, Maty Noyes, and Julia Michaels, among others.
He’s played some of the biggest venues in the world, including the Hollywood Bowl and SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, the Ullevaal Stadion in his native Norway, and of course Coachella. He was the fastest artist to reach one billion total plays on Spotify in 2015 — no one can deny his magnetism and talent.
All of this is to say, he has every right to put out literally anything he wants. But it’s been eight years and he has hardly evolved beyond that pretty melody and vocalist paradigm. And it’s getting kind of boring.
He has a new song out today with X Ambassadors, “Undeniable,” and it follows that exact formula. Some pretty melody, his little reverb vocal effects, some soft drums, that recognizable piano, and vocals from a pop star. That’s not to say that the song isn’t inherently good or well written, or even that it’s poorly produced.
Kygo says, “Sam and I had so much fun writing this one together in LA then performing it last month at Banc of California Stadium. It’s a special song to us and I hope everyone likes “Undeniable” as much as we do.”
X Ambassadors lead singer/songwriter Sam Nelson Harris says, “I’ve always had an affinity for big-ass love songs but don’t often end up writing them. This one came together so organically and quickly— it was such a treat to write it with Kash, Nick, Whethan and Kyrre. I honestly couldn’t be more excited to sing it at all my friends weddings.”
Clearly, both artists found joy in writing and creating the song together, and they’re proud of their work. As a listener, I would never deign to impose my own will on an artist’s creativity. We’ve seen the same arguments made for Skrillex, Zedd, Porter Robinson, and others who have changed their sound, sometimes, perhaps, to the chagrin of fans. (This is not a comparison of Kygo’s stagnation to the others’ evolvement, merely pointing out fan reactions to what an artist wants to make.)
The difference between those examples and Kygo is that those other artists have evolved through new sounds, but they still sound like themselves. A couple perfect example of artists evolving and retaining the same sound are Flume and RL Grime. Both have an “undeniable,” to usurp the title from Kygo’s latest single, sound but have evolved and grown over time.
Yet, Kygo has remained complacent, putting out the same melodic, vocal ballads for years. And look, they’re working for him. He has been able to “resurrect” Donna Summer and Whitney Houston, and cover a classic from Tina Turner (which brings into discussion the topic of capitalizing off the back of black women’s work, but that’s for another time), has a 1.1bn play song with Selena Gomez, and multiple other hundred-million play songs. So clearly, fans enjoy his work.
But isn’t there something more beyond the usual? The familiar? The tried and true?
Before I began writing this article, I wanted to challenge my own confirmation bias. I listened to his last two dozen or so singles. Some have variations in tempo, like “Think About You” with Valerie Broussard; “Kem Kan Eg Ringe” with Store P and Lars Vaular is a notable outlier. But even as he’s teamed up with the likes of Miguel, Imagine Dragons, U2, Ellie Goulding, and OneRepublic, names that on their own sell out arenas, the result remains a predictable brand of ballad that he’s become known for.
Of course, I’m not naïve enough to believe that reactions to this opinion couldn’t be boiled down to, “Well if you think he’s boring, then don’t listen to him.” And that’s valid. But I also believe that Kygo is incredibly talented, and after seven years of doing this job and cultivating talent, I can’t help but mourn when I feel talent is squandered.