Sassy but at the same time raspy
Impossible to overstate the seismic effect that actually having a car with a radio in it had on this list. A certain breed of pop song, after all, just wasn’t built to be heard coming out of headphones or dinky computer speakers. Something like, say, “With Love” only sounds right when winter is slowly turning into spring and the sun is finally making occasional cameo appearances and one near-transcendent pop song song comes on pretty much every time you turn on the damn radio. At least half the songs on this list are total heavy-rotation fodder, though I’m not sure whether that means that this has been a particularly strong three months for chartpop or whether I’m just now finally paying attention again.
1. Big Boi: “Royal Flush [feat. Raekwon & Andre 3000]
I’m not sure quite when this happened, but now a rap song with no hook suddenly feels like a cause for celebration, at least when it has rappers as great as these three on it. “Skew It on the Bar-B,” the 1998 OutKast single where these three last got together, had a earworm hook that still gets lodged in my brain when I so much as think about it. On this one, though, the only thing separating the three verses is a ghostly little Isley Brothers sample that disappears after like two seconds. But at least right now I prefer “Royal Flush,” possibly because it’s become so rare to hear any rappers go as nuts as all three of these guys do. Over a hard-rattling walking bassline, Big Boi resurrects his first-album flow, his syllables a crazy syncopated blur that tumble over each other so quickly I’m still not exactly sure what all he’s saying, though I know it’s something about the president being dumb. Just like he did on “Skew It,” Rae winnows his delivery down to a series of hammering couplets, all popped plosives and inscrutable old NY slang. And Andre 3000 puts on an absolute clinic, veering all over the place for I don’t even know how many bars and finding tricky internal rhythms in his quest to deliver a humanist message that doesn’t quite let anyone off the hook. These guys, one assumes, can put together a track like this one anytime they feel like it, and I wish they’d feel like it more often.
2. Mary J. Blige: “Just Fine (Treat Em Right Remix) [feat. Lil Wayne, Precise & Swizz Beatz]”
Swizz Beatz is a smart guy. It takes a smart guy to realize when a decent-enough precision-tooled self-help dance-jam would benefit immeasurably if someone swapped its expensive synthed-up glide out for a hard-thumping club-rap beat from a seventeen-year-old Chubb Rock track. The original “Just Fine” didn’t quite work for me because it was too antiseptic and paint-by-numbers. Mary loves singing about rising up above the chaos in her life, but her tracks work best when you can actually hear something like that chaos, either in her voice or in the track she’s singing over. Over that great charged-up 1991 running-man shit, all that talk about self-reliance and resilience suddenly sounds like an honest-to-God celebration of those qualities. Swizz, of course, clutters the track up even further with berserk ad-libs and chants and panting noises, all of which somehow make the track even more frantic and urgent. And Wayne’s verse at the end is the best thing he’s done in forever, a giddily sputtering free-associative victory-lap from someone very, very happy to be there. The only thing that would make this thing better would be if we got a new Chubb Rock verse out of it, especially if he replaced that Precise chick.
Voice review: Alfred Soto on Mary J. Blige’s Growing Pains
3. Vampire Weekend: “A-Punk”
A nervy, wiry two-minute new-wave sugar-rush about throwing half of a silver wedding ring to the bottom of the sea, or something. Actually, I have no idea what “A-Punk” is about, but the track’s tone manages to pretty much perfectly encapsulate the sort of tense, liberating uncertainty that comes with those first couple of months out of college, the feeling that you shouldn’t be standing still but you don’t know where you’re supposed to be running. I love the quizzical woundedness in Ezra Koenig’s voice and the fizzily dreamy organ bit. And the “hey-hey-hey” part reminds me of Operation Ivy. I am always happy to be reminded of Operation Ivy.
Voice review: Mike Powell on Vampire Weekend’s Vampire Weekend
Voice review: Julianne Shepherd on Vampire Weekend’s Vampire Weekend
4. Jordin Sparks: “No Air [feat. Chris Brown]”
Teenpop tends to work best when it’s done by actual teenagers who sound totally lost in whatever mush they’re singing. Lyrically, “No Air” is overblown soap-opera breakup fluff, and conceptually it’s a totally calculated attempt to make Sparks into a viable pop star by pairing her with a proven success-story counterpart. But Sparks and Brown really do sound like their entire worlds are falling to pieces without each other, especially on that firebreathing climax where Sparks sounds like she’s screaming to Brown from miles away. And as for the track, big-budget pop-music doesn’t get better than this, its shivering keyboards and rippling guitars and effervescent strings all swelling up into a glassy power-ballad beast of a chorus.
5. Gary Allan: “Watching Airplanes”
Even leaving aside the biographical stuff that’ll turn every Gary Allan breakup song into an instant tearjerker from now until infinity (the guy’s wife committed suicide), this one is the sort of weary, relatable, string-drenched throat-lump grown-man power-ballad that only Nashville gets right anymore. The lyrical conceit is simple but elegantly rendered and resonant as hell: a guy parks his truck outside the airport and stares up at planes taking off and trying to figure out which one you might be on and why you don’t love him anymore. And Allan’s big, craggy white-soul voice is pretty much the perfect vehicle for this sort of blatant, unashamed sentimentality. With someone like Allan, nakedly manipulative hamminess like this this doesn’t sound cheap. It sounds earned.
6-10. Usher: “Love in This Club [feat. Young Jeezy]”; B.O.B.: “Fuck You [feat. Lil Boosie & DG Yola]”; Roots: “Get Busy [feat. Dice Raw, Peedi Crack & DJ Jazzy Jeff]”; Chris Brown: “With You”; Webbie: “Independent [feat. Lil Phat & Lil Boosie]”