Keep an eye out for these guys. Or don’t.
It’s getting harder and harder to determine what exactly constitutes a single these days, so I’m putting some new rules in place for this quarterly report shit. If a song has a video, it’s obviously a single. But I’m also counting songs that were first on an artist’s MySpace page, intentionally leaked early, or posted on any of my favorite mp3 sources (Discobelle, Nah Right, Paperthin Walls, Spine). Even with those new rules, this was a weak-ass three months for singles, and I had a tough time coming up with ten certifiable bangers. But I found them, and here they are. Go Obama.
1. Born Wit It: “Stack Paper Up [feat. B.O.B.]”
The details behind this song are still pretty mysterious, and I can’t tell you too much about the group who made it beyond whatever vague details they posted on their MySpace page: They’re from just outside Atlanta, one of them wears glasses, they did a shitty song with Bohagon. And since the song’s entirely based around a sample that they’ll never be able to clear, it’ll almost certainly never see an actual commercial release. But that sample just works so beautifully: the lilting, elegiac strings from the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” now welded to big rattling drums that probably but not definitely came from DJ Toomp. And even though all the rappers involved say nothing new and don’t say it particularly eloquently, I love the fired-up sense of purpose in their voices; they’re all rapping as if their lives depended on it. My brother once told me that this song helped convince him to quit a shitty go-nowhere bike-messenger job, so there you go: motivational rap with actual results.
2. Cam’ron: “Just Us”
Secret’s out: I will rep for pretty much any vaguely inspirational rap song that features a prominent sample of a cheesed-out FM-staple power ballad; I even liked that Rick Ross song with the Heart sample. So yeah, my love for a mixtape track where Cam gets all sentimental and misty-eyed over a loop from Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” is basically pavlovian, but that doesn’t mean the track isn’t amazing. Cam’s delivery here is totally supple and conversational. He’s got a beautifully assured way of slipping back and forth between totally genuine and specific talk about an unexpected personal connection (“Sound horrific, ain’t a doctor, but your son, I wish him well”) and disgusting sex-talk punchlines (“Gave her a sanchez / Yes, a dirty one”). And I’ll always love that glimmering piano-riff in pretty much any context. This song probably would’ve made this list just on the mathematical equation of Cam rapping + Journey track, but he really does manage to find the perfect tone for this track. Oddly heartrending.
3. Alicia Keys: “No One”
When some rapper inevitably uses this bit of goopy mass-market sentiment for sample fodder, I’ll probably love it, too. “No One” is expertly rendered general-interest fluff, and I mean that as absolute praise. Keys’s voice has this searching vulnerable quality that just kills me dead every time, especially when her voice almost breaks on the chorus, and the chorus melody is so simple and immediate and gripping that I haven’t even gotten sick of hearing sixth graders wailing it while they’re buying lunch at the bodega on my corner. The cleanliness and precision of the track’s slow build doesn’t detract from its emotional punch at all; it’s like the song’s been mathematically calibrated for maximum pathos, like a really good holiday-blockbuster screenplay or something. And the song’s omnipresence during the holiday season turned it into a de facto Christmas jam, one I’ll still be happy to hear if program-directors keep it in heavy rotation for the next year.
Voice review: Gregory Stephen Tate on Alicia Keys’s As I Am
4. Ghostface Killah: “Barrell Brothers [feat. Styles P & Beanie Sigel]”
Just a harsh, grimy banger, every rapper going off hard over screeching trebly distorto-guitars and murky, falling-apart drums. Beanie’s endless bloodthirsty verse here is the real centerpiece; it takes up half the track and more than makes up for the mild disappointment of The Solution, an album that’s already started to sound better since I wrote this review. I love how harsh and specific Beanie’s verses are (“I’m all about that bullshit / The casket, the hearse, and the pastor in the pulpit”) and how excited he sounds to be on this track with two of his contemporaries. These guys are all great second-tier East Coast veterans, and their voices sound near-perfect together. They’ve been working with each other a whole lot lately, a trend I hope continues indefinitely. The only real questions here: Why isn’t this on Beanie’s album? And why would Ghostface allow Beans to so completely hijack the best song on Big Doe Rehab?
Voice feature: Rob Harvilla on Ghostface Killah
5. Tracey Thorn: “King’s Cross (Hot Chip Remix)”
I really liked the poised, chilly boutique-electro of the last couple of Everything But the Girl albums, but for some reason I never paid much attention to that Tracey Thorn solo album last year. I’m feeling like a real chump about that now; her voice still has the gorgeously lost emptiness that made “Walking Wounded” a 12th-grade mixtape go-to. The original “King’s Cross” was a B-side Pet Shop Boys cover, so it makes sense that Hot Chip, the closest thing we’ve got to peak-period Pet Shop Boys, would be doing remix honors here. And their plinking 8-bit synths have a depressed languor that wraps around Thorn’s voice perfectly without sacrificing propulsion. As the Fader noted a little while back, Hot Chip’s remixing has just been out of control for the past year; at this point, I’d probably rather get an album full of their freelance remixes than an actual new Hot Chip album, though I’m not going to sniff at Made for the Dark.
Voice review: James Hunter on Tracey Thorn’s Out of the Woods
6-10. Fuck Buttons: “Bright Tomorrow,” Hot Chip: “Ready for the Floor,” Jay-Z: “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is…),” Three 6 Mafia: “On Sum Chrome [feat. UGK],” Lil Wayne: “Gossip”