The Singles, Part 4 — Response Response

The common picks were great ones, and perhaps a couple were predictable. But I was pleasantly surprised by the differences. Confession: I shared both of our lists with a couple folks in Minneapolis, and they elicited greater delight at yours. The picks of yours that I didn’t recognize by their names were actually more than half, an embarrassing 8 (“Shooter”, “Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me”, “Since I Left You”, “In Transit”, “Irreplaceable”, “1 Thing”, “Valerie”, and “Ignition (Remix)”) I say “by their names” because when T sang the chorus to “Ignition” for me, it became obvious that of course I know that song, but I’d still never really listened to it. Your list does seem blacker/more mainstream, and I sure seem whiter for not knowing a lot of these. This inevitably will sound defensive, but I’d add that three of the near misses on my list might have changed that, and that looking at it again, my list seems streaky (check out 4-7: all hip-hop). As for yours, I’ll have more on a couple trends below. For now, I’ve got some comments on two specific choices.

“Someday” : We clearly agree this song is fantastic, but to an outsider, it’s perhaps surprising that both of us regard it so highly. The trio of music-loving MPLS dudes I shared the lists with seemed to shrug and be more like, yeah, that’s a good one, rather than emphatic about it, and I think that sums up the view of most music lovers. Why do you think that is? My best guess is it’s some combination of this (and other Strokes songs’) being somewhat overplayed to a certain clientele; anti-hype backlash (still); and the Strokes’ ability to sound so familiar and thereby seem less special than I think they are. (I’d argue that their combination of influences is at the very least masterfully executed, if not wholly original.) Long story short: perhaps the level of our love for this song is rarer than it seems.

“Izzo” : Now it’s time for my Jay-Z rant. I sympathize with a lot of what you said. His calculated/tailor-made-for-cash identity is well-documented, and at times it tires me, too. More on that in a bit. Of all the picks on my list, “99 Problems” was perhaps the one I struggled with most. As you might guess, this is why I want to do a Jay-Z list next. More than Kanye even (although he certainly did too), Jay-Z suffered on my list from the singles stipulation. It was only in crafting this list that I realized how many of my very favorite songs by the man are not singles. In fact, not to spoil, but it’s highly possible that neither “Izzo” nor “99 Problems” will end up on my Jay-Z list. It also may surprise you just how close “Empire State of Mind” came to making my list. (If I could revise it, it would, possibly even ranking as high as #5.) It came closer to making it than “Izzo,” and here’s why:

“Izzo” has a better beat than “99 Problems”, one that is not only much more my style, but also much more fun and more enduring (The Jackson 5 never hurt). But as much as I love it, that song represents what I think a lot of people don’t get about Jay-Z: it’s a combination of what you said—that his producers have made much of his success—and that (in an irony not wholly unlike The Strokes’ overhype/underhype), as an actual rapper (as opposed to some kind of hit-maker or mogul), his skill seems frequently under-acknowledged.

I mentioned this at our friend’s recent bachelor party, but one thing I’ve come to particularly like about Jay-Z is that he seemingly tries very, very hard to cram as many rhymes, jokes, and wordplay into almost every line, a trend that has only strengthened with time. He is not a freestyler, he’s a laborer, and I think that’s part of the reason why he wrote Decoded (to explain, legitimize, and get credit for his process).

For Kanye, rap is catharsis. For Jay-Z, usually, it’s craft. That strikes many (justifiably) as cold, but I tend to find it satisfyingly disciplined, even admirable. I haven’t listened to Watch the Throne, but his “Monster” verse and the third verse on “Empire State of Mind” are prime examples of this.

This trend toward more labored rhyming became stark with The Black Album, which was a turn away from party rap and toward a more serious and polished rap (seriously, even with songs like “Change Clothes” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”), and yes, a more calculated identity. By contrast, maybe I’m missing something or not listening closely enough, but for much of his career, at least after Reasonable Doubt and through The Blueprint 2, Jay-Z seemed less concerned with making his rap poetically skilled. Instead he seemed more interested in making hits, and that’s not meant to be an insult, since he made some of the best of his time (“Hard Knock Life”, “Big Pimpin”, “Izzo”, “Empire State of Mind”…the list goes on). To me though, Jay-Z individually belongs on this list—and also at or near the top of the mountain—at least in part because he is one of the best rappers of all time. And broadly speaking, although I would place it among the best Blueprint songs, I think “Izzo” is more a triumph of production, rather than of rapping. Jay-Z has songs—not singles—from The Blueprint and elsewhere that display both masterful production and masterful rapping, and those will be what you see on my top 7. I don’t think Jay-Z had an 00’s hit that has a prime example of both (an argument can be made for “Empire State of Mind”, a slightly weaker one, too, for “Song Cry”). I might seem a little hypocritical, since “99 Problems” doesn’t have a whole lot of “wordplay,” but the lyrics in that song are a triumph; the second verse in particular is story-telling worthy of Ghostface, and perhaps most importantly, it rings true, is smart, and unlike a lot of his songs, says something more nuanced than “I used to be poor and now I’m rich; don’t that make me the shit?” What’s a better complete package, “Izzo” or “99 Problems”? It’s still hard for me to say. But as for which one features better work by Jay-Z, the man…for my money, it’s what’s on The Black Album.

Anyway, here’s my thoughts on the songs of yours I hadn’t yet heard before:

“Shooter”
Lil Wayne is one of those guys for me that so many people love that I’ve never given a chance because of his voice and my own laziness/cheapness. I’ve never heard any of his songs with beats like this, only more club-ready stuff like “Lollipop”. But this song makes me think it’s about time I really give—at the very least—The Carter II some listening time. Amazing beat; with more like this, he could truly be our generation’s Sly Stone.

“Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me”
Exactly what you expect a song by a modern-day band called The Pipettes to sound like, and that’s a good thing. Good times, with girl power, and a melody so sweet it almost masks the bitterness of the lyrics that could make any two-timing scumbag want to treat his squeeze better.

“Since I Left You”
Ronsonesque; a blend of genres so fun and head-boppable it should be picked for a Soderbergh or Guy Ritchie flick sooner or later. A soundtrack for youthful strolling and mopedding around France or Italy if I’ve ever heard one, with all the insouciance, glamor, aimlessness, and wistfulness that such meandering might entail. Endlessly re-listenable.

“In Transit”
For a second Strokeman, AHJ sure leads with all the best lessons from Room On Fire. Sounds like Track 3 off of the follow-up to that album that should have been. Great melody, great riffs; his echo-y, tenor voice gives puts some California in The Strokes that Casablancas’s N.Y. growl couldn’t capture if he wanted it to.

“Irreplaceable”
Clearly a pop hit I missed out on. Beyonce and Jay-Z share the confidence, vengeance, and discipline to make don’t-take-any-shit hits like this. Reminds me, too, of another popster I kind of forgot about on my list, J.T.. Freal.

“1 Thing”
Another pop/rap hit I’d criminally never heard. Those drums are sick and her voice is kinda magnetic. What immediately struck me about this song is that, for how rich it seems, for most of the song, it’s just a drum set, a guitar, a bass, and her voice. With a live band, this song would tear the fucking house down in a mid-sized club.

“Valerie”
The most fun I had going through your list. I should probably jump on the johnny-come-lately-Amy-Winehouse-bandwagon bandwagon. This and “Since I Left You” were the songs on your list that most excited those MPLS guys. Great tune; between this and “Just,” I need, at the very least, this Ronson album.

“Ignition (Remix)”
This has been in my head all week. I thought for sure I had heard some other club-version of this song that had a more abrasive beat and some kind of thump-thump-thump. Certainly, in my memory, the music was not as infectiously soulful as this. In any case, all those times this must have glided past my ears at parties or the mall now seem like crimes. The most deliciously sex-drenched song I’ve heard since “Spread“.

There are two broad trends on your list I noticed: a strong influence of Rock & Roll (see: Pipettes, “Gold Digger”, even “Someday” and “Since I Left You”), classic soul (“Shooter”, “Izzo”, “Valerie”), and the places where those two meet. The only definitively 21st Century songs I hear on it are (like on mine), “Paper Planes”, “Hey Ya”, and “All My Friends”. Of course, part of what makes those all so great is that they all pull from all of popular musical history to stake their claim in it. Broadly, it’s made for an incredibly fun playlist on my Grooveshark that I’ve come back to again and again this week, and will for some time. So thanks.

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