Benny Blanco & Gracie Abrams's "Unlearn" is A Song and Video Made For When You Need the Whole Pint of Ice Cream
This is a collaboration I can get behind. Gracie Abrams is an artist that is slowly, quietly cementing her place among songwriting greats and finding her place as an understated, indie pop girl after getting into the world as the daughter of director JJ Abrams. With nearly 450,000 Instagram followers and a debut EP, Minor, that is nearly so understated it becomes hard to chart its magnitude, Gracie is slowly creeping into the mainstream. Though her fanbase is on the smaller side, it's quite devoted, as I discovered when I made a video reacting to Minor a few months ago. That reaction still gets consistent views and has some of the most heartfelt comments from fans I've ever recieved. She's already cultivating a fanbase that will take her far, and her soft, intimate bedroom pop style speaks directly to this isolated moment.
That makes her an interesting, unexpected, and nearly perfect collaborator for illustrious producer and songwriter Benny Blanco. Benny has been in the industry since he was a teen making his way into the NYC scene from Virginia. Famously afraid of planes, Benny eventually made his way to LA where he helped define the sound of the 2010s working with artists like Katy Perry and Ke$ha at the peak of their fame. While many of his prominent collaborators from the time have faded or fallen in infamy, Benny's profile has only grown. He's still shaping the sound ten years later, taking on a more central roll. He regularly works with artists like Finneas and Halsey, and he was a central collaborator on Ed Sheeran's album Divide and heavily featured in Ed's Apple Music documentary. Lately, he's worked on a series of artist projects where Benny plays co-writer, producer, and curator on his own albums where his singing voice is conspicuously absent. The first major single from that project in 2018 was "East Side" with Halsey and Khalid. Most recently, he's featured on Justin Bieber's track about child stardom, "Lonely".
"Unlearn" is the final single before Friends Keep Secrets 2 drops from Benny's label under Interscope, also aptly named Friends Keep Secrets.
The track manages to become the perfect blend of the two artist's styles. Gracie is developing a strong voice and style singing vulnerable lyrics over sparse synths. Often, her voice floats, breakable and unsupported, in the silence of the song. Benny maintains this style throughout the song making it any easy addition on any Gracie fan's playlist. But he also manages to infuse some of his production trademarks in the chorus too without intruding on the delicate nature of the song. In the chorus, he introduces a hyper stacked vocal and effects on her voice. By opening with such a stripped back presentation, it proves that the alternations aim to add texture rather than mask any kind of perceived imperfections. Benny uses this robotic scratch sparingly in a way that accents the mental struggle in the lyrics. It's very reminiscent of "I HATE EVERYBODY", a song off Halsey's Manic that also uses computerized sound to create a dystopian, crumbling universe inside of an emotional earthquake.
Lyrically, the song details the struggle of moving on from past trauma. Gracie sings about the complications of breaking old fears and mental habits formed during a toxic relationship and how hard it is to trust a new person,-even when they've done nothing to make you doubt them. It's a subject tackled in a much more upbeat fashion on Maisie Peter's recent duet with JP Saxe, "Maybe Don't".
I love how Benny stays true to Gracie's progression as an artist production-wise but also in the story they're telling together. Minor detailed the heartbreaking reality of being stuck in an abusive relationship and how difficult it is to break the cycle. Her most recent single "Brush Fire" treaded over a similar subject. The topic of "Unlearn" feels like starting a new chapter of healing that stays in conversation with her past works. I really applaud Benny and his direction for his artist project for serving the artists and friends he chooses to collaborate with in respect to their larger narratives.
As we get into the song itself, the lyrics are so honest, conversational, and standout because the team behind them has all of the pop world's most talented all stars. Beyond Gracie and Benny, they've brought in Julia Michaels, prolific songwriter and a dazzling artist in her own right, along with Michael Pollack, one of Lauv's closest collaborators and also behind Ashe's "Save Myself". Other writers on the track include Jack Karaszewski and Henry Kwapis.
But every time you turn your phone around/I'm gonna lose my, lose my shit/Thinkin' it's another me, hangin' on the other line". I love the blend of poetry and clarity in these lyrics. The reference she makes to "another me", another girl hopelessly hanging on the line. This pattern is mirrored in the second verse as she admits, "Excuse my mouth/But every time you run a little late/Hanging with your friends, I/Freak the fuck out/Then you come home and your kiss tastes like wine/I'm fine". The quiet signal of their mouth not tasting like someone else but just like wine is such a subtle nod at the quality of this relationship.