I call it Phantom of the Opera
For some reason, I had a really tough time coming up with ten singles I really liked from the past ten months. Tempting as it is to extrapolate some grand narrative about the decline of the pop single, it probably just means I slept on a bunch of stuff. A few of these probably came out before October, but they all had their big impacts since then.
1. Justin Timberlake feat. T.I.: “My Love.” So there were about a million remixes of this song, authorized and not, the most recent of which is a Diplo mix that just mashes up the vocals with an unreleased LCD Soundsystem track. When I was home over Christmas, pop radio played this song every fifteen minutes, and half the time they were using some cheesed-out hi-NRG Euro-house mix that totally destroyed the song’s delicate layers of space. It’s been at or near the top of the charts now, and it’s a bona fide pop phenomenon, so it’s getting hard to remember that the song at the center of all this attention is a pretty weird piece of pop nonsense: two voices trapped in a lush forest of pinging synths and mouth-clicks and off-kilter drum-patterns. It’s a love song, a marriage proposal, but even the words are just sound effects. It doesn’t make me think of proposing marriage, even though that’s fresh in my mind. It makes me think of the first time I let a helium balloon go, watching it disappear into the sky and wondering what weird forces might be working on it, where it would end up.
2. Birdman & Lil Wayne: “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy.” As layered-up, in its own way, as “My Love,” but the effect is totally different: a declaration of supremacy rather than a lovestruck sigh. Wayne navigates the stomping horns and itchy synth-tics with an effortless calm, rattling off nonsensical boasts (he’s gotta eat even though he ate) and turning his voice into a flourish of choked gurgles. Birdman, who usually just takes up space and says dumb shit, finds an essential role, using the gravelly depth of his voice to anchor Wayne’s increasingly spaced-out rants, giving him a foil to play off of and another voice for his call-and-response hook. Enjoy tracks like this while you can. In the “Leather So Soft” video, Wayne plays halfassed first-week-of-lessons guitar, the sort of thing that rappers do when they start taking themselves too seriously to have any fun.
3. Prodigy: “Mac 10 Handle.” When I was working on my Just Blaze story earlier in the year, I met Alchemist at Baseline Studios. It was right before Blood Money came out, and I wish to God I could post the coversation that he and Just had about the album, but Just reached over and turned off my tape recorder. Suffice to say that, sometime in the last couple of months, someone sat Prodigy down and set him right, reminding him of everything that was ever great about him in the first place. Maybe it was Alchemist, the source of this track’s sharp, eerie beat. Maybe Alchemist was just there when Prodigy was ready to go. Alchemist is far from the first producer to use that Edwin Starr sample, but its shivery bongo-taps and and burbing bass fit Prodigy’s deadpan sneer perfectly. This is the scariest song I’ve heard in a good long minute.
4. T.I. feat. Young Jeezy, Young Dro, Big Kuntry & B.G.: “Top Back (Remix).” Almost the entire second half of King is given over to an impeccable series of hard, enormous bangers, the sort of track that makes me wish I had access to a decent car stereo. With its choppy house pianos and blaring horns, “Top Back” might’ve been the best of the bunch. T.I. could’ve released it as a single without playing with it, but instead he enlists the three best rappers on his label and Young Jeezy to stretch it out longer, and they all do whatever they can to sound bigger and heavier than everyone else. Even Kuntry sounds good, and B.G.’s sly, insinuating verse makes me wish his first Grand Hustle album would hurry up and come out. Nobody sounds bigger than T.I., who transforms into a snarling demon on the last verse. His facial expressions in the video are awesome.
5. Amerie: “Take Control.” After “1 Thing,” the entire world realizes how great Amerie’s joyous chirp sounds over sharp, percussive old-school funk tracks. Here, Cee-Lo laces her with spy-movie guitars and horn-stabs and a drum track that keeps building and building, adding on congas and handclaps and tambourines without ever disturbing the tense little groove at the song’s center. The track is basically what I thought Afrobeat would sound like before I actually heard Afrobeat, and Amerie finally finds room for a bit of grit in her voice.
6-10: Kleerup feat. Robyn: “With Every Heartbeat,” The Rapture: “Whoo! Alright-Yeah…Uh Huh,” Nelly Furtado: “Say It Right,” Hellogoodbye: “Here (In Your Arms),” Ciara: “Promise.”