Earlier this month (Mar. 16), we kicked off the Should-Be-Bigger Bracket, our March Madness-style tournament between 32 artists who we feel have gone overlooked, to some degree, in the mainstream -- artists who, in our entirely subjective opinion, should have better sales, higher festival placement and radio play commiserate with their Internet adulation. We're going to use the next few weeks to determine which of them is the most underappreciated pop star of them all.
We narrowed our field of 32 to our Final Four last week, and today (Mar. 23), our edit team -- with a little help from sister brands Stereogum and Vibe -- determined which two artists will be advancing to our finals. Read on to see who made it, and then vote in our poll below for who should win the whole bracket!
(1) TINASHE VS. (1) CHARLI XCX
James Rettig (Stereogum): Charli XCX and Tinashe have had similarly sloppy rises, and both have had their share of highs and lows, but I have to give the edge to the more experimental of the two. Charli's recent Number 1 Angel mixtape and her Vroom Vroom EP are mixed bags -- I'm not sure I could classify either of them as good all the way through -- but they're certainly sonically interesting, and I'm invested in seeing how Charli's weird diversions could infect the upper tiers of pop. While Tinashe's Joyride (whenever it comes out) probably has a better chance at a sure-fire radio hit, it's because she's playing with a more established rulebook. I'm not sure that any of Charli's more out-there experiments with the PC Music crew could make it to the top of the charts, but they deserve the opportunity. VERDICT: CHARLI XCX
Richy Rosario (Vibe): Tinashe's dexterity with a pen is dangerous, and her ability to dance circles around you is enthralling. She possesses everything a pop-mega star must have, but somehow these qualities often get overlooked. Some dub her boring, while others simply aren't paying attention. Still, she has surpassed having potential, to proving having star status, with a proven versatility. You'll get a sunny "Superlove," a salacious "Sacrifices" and an introspective "Lucid Dreaming" followed by a new "Flame." Charli XCX, however, is seemingly stuck in a nightclub she can't get out of: her party anthems and rebel-girl sounds ("Break The Rules" and "After the Afterparty") -- but they are just that, fun. Not to mention, she hasn't released as much since 2014, unlike Tinashe, who is constantly making cameos with new singles and mixtapes until her sophomore effort, Joyride finally makes its debut. The choice is obvious here. VERDICT: TINASHE
Chris Payne (Billboard): This is a really appropriate (and tough) final four pairing: Tinashe's existed a while on the cool, new-school up-and-comer end of the R&B spectrum, where's Charli's been the same in the pop world. Both have come through the Billboard office lately, and I like what they're about. Man, I just gotta let my personal fandom decide this one and go with Charli; I remember loving her first single "Nuclear Seasons" off some blog back in the day and following her ever since. Also I'm listening to Tinashe's top Spotify songs on shuffle right now and just got blindsided by an Iggy Azalea verse. Sorry Tinashe. VERDICT: CHARLI XCX
Chris DeVille (Stereogum): Tinashe Kachingwe and Charlotte Aitchison have lived out weirdly parallel career paths. Both developed their own distinct, artful aesthetics and became critical darlings before breaking through at radio with one big hit (two for Charli if you count "Fancy," which you probably should). And both have struggled to build upon that moment in the spotlight, instead fumbling through an endless series of failed singles and album delays. Weirdly, both also have a song called "Superlove." And for both, I wish nothing but the best; but only one can move on in this tournament, and the one in this case is Ms. XCX. Whereas most of Tinashe's post-Aquarius tracks have felt like desperate stabs in the dark, Charli's sleek and confident new Number 1 Angel mixtape reminds me that she can create would-be chart-toppers in any pop subgenre she desires. Would that one of them will actually top the charts someday. VERDICT: CHARLI XCX
Andrew Unterberger (Billboard): The Final Four matchup of true top seeds that we'll be robbed of, for better or worse, in the NCAA's actual final weekend -- Tinashe and Charli XCX are two of the Should-Be-Bigger Bracket's truest raisons d'etre, and would both be more-than-worthy overall champions. Moreover, as has already been pointed out, they match up with eerie coherence. So let's do this as a mini best-of-five:
Better Critically Beloved Debut LP: Charli XCX (True Romance)
Better Undervalued Follow-Up: Tinashe (Nightride)
Better Sole Top 40 Hit as Lead Artist: Charli XCX ("Boom Clap")
Better Hit for Someone Else: Charli XCX ("I Love It" -- sorry, "I Luh Ya Papi" heads)
Better "Superlove": Charli XCX
Apologies, Tinashe. It's close, but.... VERDICT: CHARLI XCX
WINNER: CHARLI XCX
(2) VINCE STAPLES VS. (6) HEY VIOLET
James Rettig (Stereogum): While Hey Violet's mall-ready rock will always have its place on the commercial landscape, there's a limit to how successful they'll ever be. Vince Staples, on the other hand, has the universe in front of him. He hasn't been too concerned with mainstream radio play at this point in his career, but he's prime for a crossover if that's what he so desires. Last year's Prima Donna EP was a particularly dark discursion, but "BagBak" -- the first single from his upcoming new album Big Fish Theory -- suggests that he may try his hand at wielding his sharp tongue to craft some hooks sticky enough to propel him to the next level. And if he decides to stay in the lane he's currently in, that's all fine too, because he's doing great work. VERDICT: VINCE STAPLES
Richy Rosario (Vibe): With their angsty teenage love stories gone wrong, Hey Violet sounds like the soundtrack to your defunct 15-year-old adolescent romantic dreams. In its delivery, the alt-pop band's vocals are reminiscent of Lana Del Rey -- while flirting with the production soundscapes Grimes dominates over (See: "Guys My Age," "Break My Heart"). And while these vignettes of heartbreak are relatable to all -- our ears are a little over-saturated with the sound of them these days. Vince Staples on the other hand, details the darkness of West Coast gang life. Subsequently, that aesthetic feels like something that's missing in rap: Yes, there is YG -- but why not bring in another perspective? Essentially, Hey Violet feels like something we've heard while Vince Staples has the potential of unearthing the new genesis of a classic era in hip-hop, which deserves a comeback. VERDICT: VINCE STAPLES
Chris Payne (Billboard): Vince Staples is the truth, but there's no up-and-comer I'm pushing harder for some Top 40 love right now than pop-rockers Hey Violet. Top 40 is badly lacking any kind of guitar that isn't sappy sad guy acoustic balladry and these kids fortunately do no such thing. They got dance grooves, they got bass lines, they got weird bass drops that somehow work -- I'm kind of afraid the radio won't know what to do with them but I'm here to say Hey Violet is the low-seed, Final-Four sleeper of your dreams. Also, I may be influenced by the fact they were just on my podcast and were straight-up podcast superstars. VERDICT: HEY VIOLET
Chris DeVille (Stereogum): Bubbling-under single "Guys My Age" suggests Hey Violet moved past their initial Paramore worship and now have their own identity down pat: a look, a sound, a sentiment. The cheerfully dismissive 'Fuqboi" is even better, though good luck getting it on the radio. It's not that hard to imagine the L.A. pop-rockers becoming the No Doubt of the post-EDM era. And maybe they will, but honestly, this is no contest. Vince Staples is a national treasure. He should be ruling rap radio right now. He should be headlining festivals instead of routinely outclassing his small-font peers. His eye for details, his ear for beats, and his supernaturally quick wit mark him as one of the most promising artists of his generation - though the dark, funny, exhilarating Summertime '06 is the kind of debut that replaces talk of promise with talk of legacy. He deserves to be as big as he could possibly be. VERDICT: VINCE STAPLES
Andrew Unterberger (Billboard): Been loving this George Mason-like run that Hey Violet's been making to our Final Four. But just as nearly every Cinderella squad eventually does, they finally ran into a buzzsaw. No shame. VERDICT: VINCE STAPLES
WINNER: VINCE STAPLES
Now, it's up to you to help us decide who should be the overall winner in our Should-Be-Bigger Bracket: Charli XCX or Vince Staples? Vote here, and see who emerged as our own March Madness champion on Monday (April 3)!
Who should win our Should-Be-Bigger Bracket?