Words by Stan Sy

Prior to last month, if you were asked which James Reid song you remember the most, chances are you’d say “Energy Gap.” Yes, that annoyingly catchy jingle that spawned all sorts of memes and even Telegram stickers.

That’s all changed with the release of Reid’s latest single, “Cool Down,” a stark stylistic departure from all of his previous singles. Whereas songs like “Alam Niya Ba,” “Huwag Ka Nang Humirit,” and “Hanap-Hanap” are targeted towards the masa market who are clearly the target demographic of JaDine (his love team with Nadine Lustre), “Cool Down”—and by extension, his latest album, “Palm Dreams,”—aims to transcend that.

Listen to his earlier singles and you’ll immediately realize that these songs were meant to sell instantly. From the bubblegum pop vibe to blatantly milking the JaDine cow, the agenda was simple: get James Reid over with the masses even more. You can see it in the songwriting—majority of Reid’s songs from his first two albums were written and composed by Thyro and Yumi, two artists who’ve mastered songwriting for Pinoy pop over the last half-decade. At the same time, it could just as well be read as Reid singing songs that were written to be interpreted by him, as opposed to his own original material.

That’s where “Palm Dreams” sets itself apart. Reid himself explains in a previous interview with the Philippine Star that the impetus to create a different sound was because “everyone feels the same.” In a world where pop music has become more homogenized than ever, Reid does have a point. When you listen to your favorite CHR (contemporary hit radio) stations today, an untrained ear will be unlikely to differentiate a Major Lazer track from one by the Chainsmokers, Kygo, or DJ Snake.

Look at the album’s songwriting credits and you’ll see James Reid’s stamp all over it, having written and co-produced all nine tracks. If the album’s goal was for Reid to establish his own musical identity outside the confines of the manufactured world of pop music, then he’s clearly succeeded. He trades in the pop vibe for R&B and EDM elements, both of which are very much present in “Cool Down.”

James Reid performs an original song called “Cool Down” for the first time at Fusion 2017

The single itself was something I couldn’t make heads or tails out of on the first listen. For starters, all I really liked from the get-go was that catchy hook and the amusing fact that that one line—“In the afternoon, not much that I wanna do except you”—doesn’t get as much flak as Nadine Lustre’s comments about living in with James Reid does.

But on the re-listen, something else emerges that explains why “Cool Down” has become a quick favorite among my social network: it doesn’t sound like your typical Pinoy-produced pop song. That doesn’t mean to disparage our local songwriters and composers. It’s just that when you listen to enough local music, you can just tell when a song is produced locally and when it isn’t, especially when it comes before or after a foreign single. “Cool Down” doesn’t feel that way because all of the elements just come together in a smooth and fluid manner, from Reid’s vocals to the beat, and even that infectious loop—which sounds less and less like the disorienting and disjointed loop in Cashmere Cat’s “After Coachella” the more you play it. Reid also benefits from the strategic placement of his beat, which bears a resemblance to Drake’s “One Dance,” one of the songs that had a solid claim to being last year’s Song of the Summer.

Make no mistake. Social media is noticing. People are openly asking if liking this James Reid song makes them lose street cred!

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.

What it does show is how “Cool Down” has been able to help James Reid penetrate a different market, one that doesn’t necessarily follow JaDine (and one that actually doesn’t care whether or not he and Nadine actually live together). If there’s one thing the single has done for James Reid in the month or so that it’s been released, it’s that the song has broken down a barrier for him in the AB market. These are folks who won’t necessarily follow JaDine or their telenovelas or movies. But give them a song that’s a drop of water in what’s perceived to be a barren wasteland of local pop music and they’ll appreciate it for what it is.

James Reid and Nadine Lustre in the “Cool Down” music video

Nowhere is this more evident than in the song being included in the playlists of local CHR stations, and charting in their respective countdowns as well. This past Friday, “Cool Down” debuted at #17 on 99.5 Play FM’s weekly top 30 chart, The Playlist, as the highest new entry. The very next day, “Cool Down” debuted on Magic 89.9’s Magic Pop 30 at #8, a rarity for any single, let alone a local one.

James Reid is no longer just the 17-year-old kid who won Pinoy Big Brother: Teen Clash 2010. And he’s not just the guy in all those commercials with Nadine Lustre. He’s gone way beyond “Energy Gap” and the cheesy pop singles intended for the masa market. He’s making local pop music cool by transcending the market that’s been given to him when he was originally packaged as a teen heartthrob. In the process, whether he is conscious of it or not, James Reid just kickstarted the legitimacy to his claim as a full-fledged Pinoy pop star. And he’s just getting started.