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This week’s Hot 100 debuts include big names and the viral video of the year—and, surprisingly, a nearly year-old track by Beyoncé. “Dance For You” was released on the deluxe version of 4 a little less than year ago and has been on the Hot R&B Songs chart since April; for a good but nowhere near great record, it’s showed remarkable staying power.
No. 16: Taylor Swift, “Ronan”
“Ronan” is so much better than most songs of its type—beautifully structured and thought out, deeply emotional without being sentimental—that it seems nit-picky, if not callous, to point out its flaws. But since those flaws are so obvious, and so central to Swift’s approach, they’re worth mentioning. First, though I would gladly get into a fist fight with anyone who says Swift can’t sing, she has a tendency toward overkill: the occasional sob or sigh are unnecessary in this context, and deflect attention to Swift from her subject. That may be a simple mistake, though; the second problem is more endemic. Swift has always had an eye for detail in her lyrics. But in this case, though the details may well be true, they don’t feel real, or lived in. I don’t doubt her empathy, but she’s writing beyond her experience. Many of the details sound like something she picked up from a movie or TV show, and the music is too generic to bring them to life. Borrowed imagery worked perfectly in Swift’s fairytale songs, but processed banalities fall flat in real-life scenarios. “Ronan” is a strong, affecting song, and it’s for a good cause. You should buy it. But it could have been far more.
No. 37: Alicia Keys featuring Nicki Minaj, “Girl On Fire (Inferno Version)”
I long ago stopped expecting anything interesting, or even enjoyable, from Keys, who ran out of ideas before she finished her second album. Her career has been one of steady decline, and with “Girl On Fire” she reaches a new low. The music is old hat (the beat comes from a Billy Squier record that’s been sampled many times before), and the lyrics, one cliché and banality after another, are even older. The only striking thing is Nicki Minaj’s rap on the intro, in which the ghost of Marilyn Monroe appears—with a gun—and urges Minaj to kill herself. A promising start, but Minaj is so low-key (and disappointing on the second verse) that it doesn’t quite come to fruition. Still, I suspect she’s the main reason people are buying the track.
No. 55: Kanye West, Jay-Z, Big Sean, “Clique”
The beat is great—moody, ominous, and energetic all at once; Jay-Z has apparently recovered from the shock of fatherhood; Big Sean works toward establishing a persona (try again); West brags about how rich he is over 32 brilliant bars. Now that I’ve gotten the obvious stuff out of the way, here’s the big question: what’s all this about West talking Maybachs with George Tenet? Of all the off-the-wall name dropping in West’s verses over the years, this may be the weirdest. Is Tenet, who was director of the CIA on 9/11 and led the agency during its waterboarding years, now a member of West’s clique? Oh, wait, he can’t be—turns out his Maybach is a rental. That’ll teach him to be a war criminal.
No. 64: PSY, “Gangnam Style”
“Gangnam Style” is imitative, but at such a high level—more sophisticated and tightly structured—that it comes close to topping its models. At the same time, I don’t buy the idea that its social commentary is in any way deep or revolutionary, even for South Korea. Mocking the rich is an ancient pastime in all parts of the world, and censorship in South Korea isn’t as draconian as some suggest it is. “Gangnam Style”‘s satire doesn’t go much deeper than, say, LMFAO’s (one of PSY’s more obvious models), and in many ways it’s gentler. The song is an inspired piece of silliness, but that’s almost all it has to be.
No. 96: Lil Wayne featuring Detail, “No Worries”
After lip-syncing what may be the worst verse of his career on the VMAs, even a record as inconsequential as “No Worries” is an improvement for Lil Wayne. That said, here he seems to be totally uninterested in creating continuity or following any thought for more than a bar; the result is an endless series of puns and one-liners, each more deadening than the one before. Even the line where he admits to once again enjoying cunnilingus sounds forced.
No. 100: Beyoncé, “Dance For You”
A slow grind so obviously dedicated to Jay-Z that listening to it is almost embarrassing. Sure, I wonder what their home life is like, but I’d prefer to stay out of their bedroom. This song’s mixture of romance and eroticism doesn’t always gel, but the coda, where Beyonce indulges in a slow-motion orgasm, whispering “Yes” over and over while the guitar player channels the spirit of Eddie Hazel, saves the record.