Tag Archives: Jay-Z

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:

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.

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.

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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The Singles, Part 3 — John Responds

by John Kuroski

I’m glad we were pretty different, which feels a little weird to say, because, in ten whole years, five of our picks (and three of our top six) were the same. Aside from those five, I had never heard six of your picks (“Grass,” “Seventeen Years,” “Everything Hits At Once,” “Hoppipolla,” “Stay Cool” and “Crying”). Which of mine hadn’t you heard, and were you compelled to listen? If so, I’d love to hear your reactions. You’ll find my reactions to yours below. But big picture, I’m not terribly surprised by either one of our lists. If I can be glib and reductive, mine seems definitely more mainstream and slightly more black. Like I said, I’m not surprised by either of those things, nor am I sure what to make of them, if anything. You notice any other big picture trends?

Since psychedelia, indie and Pitchfork make me hesitant, these guys are near the top of my didn’t give them a chance even though they probably deserved it list of the last decade. After a few listens, Merriweather is starting to take shape in my head. This is good too. Melodic and accessible in a way I wasn’t expecting. I’m not sure if either of those adjectives would/should be read as compliments. Either way, this is enough to keep me exploring.

“Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”
Again, Pitchfork. So I didn’t listen to the album until December 2010, six years or so after it came out and plenty far removed from the hype. I literally couldn’t get past this song for at least a dozen listens. I would sit down to listen to the whole album and be so blown away by this song, that I had to stop and turn it off. I still can only barely recall the second half of the album. It’s all swallowed up by this song. Vomit of praise aside, they aren’t my thing, but still, it only barely missed my list.

Like I once told you, Eminem is very high on the list of people I respect but don’t enjoy listening to. I love his brand of asshole, but mostly I just can’t get past the voice. The only song on your list I just can’t embrace.

“99 Problems”
Twenty years from now (or has it already begun?), when hip hop gets the full canonization treatment, I’m glad that Jay will probably be at the top of the mountain. I love him, and it could be so much worse. That said, I’ve got plenty of problems with him. And that doesn’t surprise me. Like Elvis or Sinatra or Ray Charles or any other monument/ambassador, he’s just too big to not have some gripes with. This isn’t exactly the song to pin my Jay-Z hating on (although clearly I’m having trouble resisting the urge), but it does bring to mind two of his (for my money) dirty little secrets: 1.) for someone as good as he is, a little too much of his aesthetic identity hinges on his producers, 2.) although I have no idea what it was like to grow up the way he did, and although he has brilliantly used his autobiography as source material, and although forgetting those two things shows a fundamental misunderstanding of hip hop, I have, to put it glibly, gotten a little tired of hearing his life story, especially by the time this album rolled around, not just because he was more dollars removed from his upbringing, but because The Blueprint felt like the culmination of his past as source. Anyway, this beat is, though not exactly my type, very well done, as is the autobiography, so, like I said, this isn’t exactly the song to pin my Jay-Z rant to.

“All Falls Down”
Good choice and very eloquently analyzed. Kanye, more than anyone else, suffered on my list because of the singles stipulation. How about you (Kanye or otherwise)?

“Seventeen Years”
Not quite the up I was expecting, probably because it wasn’t quite the rhythm machine I was expecting, but pretty good. And guitar tones like that can make you forget about rhythm anyway.

“Stay Cool”
You’re absolutely right about Black Thought. It’s indisputable.

Not my thing at all, but I have a vague, totally uninformed sense that they do it well. Also, fuck Vanilla Sky.

“Everything Hits At Once”
Very close to the top of my all time list of bands I should have listened to more of, for every possible reason, except that I just didn’t get around to it. This one confirms that well. And has there ever been an ugly, white dork with a voice as sexy as Britt Daniel’s?

Up there with Animal Collective among bands to whom I unfairly gave no chance. Unfairly. Yeah, this is a great song.

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The Singles, Part 2

Jack emailed me with no introduction, only a prompt: favorite 15 singles released from 2000 to 2009. It’s an interesting proposition, because it limits the list in time, and because he stipulated that the songs had to have been released as singles. This isn’t the same as favorite songs. It requires overlooking favorite tunes and even artists. I immediately assumed Radiohead would make my list, but none of my favorites from their ’00s albums are singles, and Kid A yielded precisely zero singles (not even “Idioteque”). This is one of those lists that I’d revise if I remade it, as I’ll explain in a future post. For now though, here are my singles, along with some words about each.

15.) “99 Problems” – Jay-Z
The Black Album wasn’t the end, but it was a turn. A song so simultaneously funny and serious can’t help but be proud of how clever it is. As with his best (and his trunk…har, har), there’s more to unpack than meets the eye.

14.) “Seventeen Years” – Ratatat
Rock, hip-hop, and dance in equal measure. Hookier than most songs with words, too. If this doesn’t put a smile on your face, there’s something wrong with you.

13.) “Everything Hits At Once” – Spoon
So they’re the decade’s most consistent band. They’re so understated and modest in their growth and manner that few realized they’re also one of its best. Proof: this song’s mastery of rhythm, melody, and mood.

12.) “Stan” – Eminem
Other than his mom and Kim, nothing inflicts him with more pain than his own fame. Luckily for us, that pain is his inspiration.

11.) “Hoppipolla” – Sigur Ros
A hymn of such hope and beauty, it may just be my desert island song.

10.) “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” – Arcade Fire
The song that sold me. Devastating beauty: more than any other contemporary band, they capture it.

9.) “Crazy” – Gnarls Barkley
Infectiously danceable confusion and pain, for you and your grandmother.

8.) “Grass” – Animal Collective
The most concise and powerful example of everything that’s great about them: visceral, entirely unique, and damn catchy.

7.) “Stay Cool” – The Roots
Black Thought may be his generation’s most underrated emcee. But who cares? With ?uestlove’s Miles/J.B. horns, globalized keys, and strutting drums, it kinda doesn’t matter what the rapper says.

6.) “All Falls Down” – Kanye West
Shoulda been Lauryn on the hook, but no matter; unstoppable beat and maybe the best rhymes of his debut. It foresees his decade of triumph, angst, and lost humor.

5.) “Hey Ya!” – Outkast
There’s nothing like it. Catchy as fuck doesn’t even begin to describe it, though it is. Ask yourself this: how far is this from something you could write? Spoiler: pretty funking far.

4.) “Paper Planes” – M.I.A.
I know, I know. But the fact is its swiped Clash chords and gun blasts grab you by the collar, throw you to Mumbai, and then laugh in your face for buying its swag. When I first heard it, I thought it was crack; when I’m 90, it’ll still have me shaking my ass.

3.) “Crying” – TV on the Radio
Tunde Adebimpe’s voice could melt most pants off; his coo is this straight-up tune’s sturdy spine. While the beat incites us to dance, the mournful lyrics urge movement to stop the titular tears. If someone is crying as we steer toward the ends of the Earth, the outro’s horns and keys provide a lovely descent.

2.) “Someday” – The Strokes
Another song that marries bright chords with glum lyrics, with that drum and bass breakdown that perfectly reiterates their plea. Overhyped? No. This gem and its brethren slew nu-metal. If anything, underhyped in retrospect.

1.) “All My Friends” – LCD Soundsystem
The aging anthem. Perhaps, too, the decade’s most joyous melancholy. The real irony is that, ultimately, it’s timeless.

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The Singles, Part 1

by John Kuroski

Had non-singles been in consideration, about half of this list would most likely have been different.

15. “Shooter” – Lil Wayne
Lost among the slinky lope of the groove is some strange (though what isn’t with Wayne?), fractured, funhouse take on hip-hop, scat, and soul, with an “intro” that lasts 1:24, no hook, no chorus, a kinda jarring back and forth between a singer and a rapper that sound like two different kinds of six-year-olds, a completely groove-stopping monologue, and just 49 seconds of (extremely hot) rhymes on a 4 minute and 45 second (ostensibly hip-hop) song.

14. “Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me” – The Pipettes

Doing a postmodern, feminist girl group thing is easy. Doing it with such a small amount of apparent irony (especially on a B section this jarringly, earnestly pretty) isn’t.

13. “Since I Left You” – The Avalanches
“Welcome to paradise”

12. “In Transit” – Albert Hammond Jr.
Like Rosie did innocently on “Angel Baby” and Lennon did not as innocently on “Anna,” the key to the poetry and dramatic sweep of 50s/early 60s teen pop was its fragility—straining and, often, not quite making it; arrangements that sound like the heavens juxtaposed with voices that sound like they can’t quite reach that high yet. Maybe Albert Hammond Jr. knows this, or maybe he’s just not a great singer.

11. “Irreplaceable” – Beyonce
Close enough to a million others, just better. More nuanced (the way she trips and chews on her “n’s” and spits her “b’s”) and shrewd (the “to the lefts” that have nothing to do with dancing). And the way “So don’t you ever for a second get to thinking” doesn’t quite resolve melodically the way you want it to until the end.

10. “Crazy” – Gnarls Barkley
Don’t they say the endless fascination with the Mona Lisa is that you just can’t read her face?

Remember their shtick? Dressed up like Austin Powers characters or something, blank looks on their faces. Same with their name: a deadpan, ham-handed take on something neither culturally relevant nor obscure. What the hell was that? Neither lame, cool, nor so lame it’s cool. A voice whose natural strength suggests sincerity and sympathy, but was it? A beat whose bounce suggests ebullience and dance, but was it? Where exactly the hell were these guys coming from? Which is probably what’s scariest about those who are crazy.

9. “1 Thing” – Amerie
Take a drum break (and, crucially, just the break) from The Meters. Get a girl to sing her balls off for a few minutes. Seems so simple.

8. “All My Friends” – LCD Soundsystem
Almost makes you feel like elegy and exuberance belong together, which maybe they actually do, or maybe James Murphy just gave a seven and a half minute gift to all those who felt they were losing their edge, and everyone else.

7. “Gold Digger” – Kanye West
With easy (not a dig) humor – starting with the hook and ending, like the twelve bar blues it almost is, with a nice punchline – and groove, the perfect Kanye-lite to have made his mark on the Hot 100.

6. “Hey Ya!” – Outkast
In which the poetry of fourteen consecutive repetitions of the word “alright” is the apotheosis of pop art.

5. “Paper Planes” – M.I.A.
One thing that perhaps terrifies (white) people more than almost anything is (non-white) kids that just don’t give a fuck. With (other than a slight hop in the bass drum) an extremely straight beat like what a ten year old would play, a repeated verse structure tied to a see-saw nursery rhyme melody and a singer who knows exactly how cute she can be when the moment’s right, and, in case you didn’t get the point, actual kids brought in for the chorus, singing—worse than gleefully—indifferently about shooting you and taking your money, perhaps the decade’s foremost masterpiece of message and medium.

4. “Valerie” – Mark Ronson/Amy Winehouse

3. “Ignition (Remix)” – R. Kelly
If the defense of pop trifle as art is that you can fully enjoy the ride without the slightest exegesis, this is the height of the form. I can get lost in the raindrop synth, the hesitation of the snare, the roll of the piano, the unstoppable flow of the melody…or the eccentricities of a brilliantly multifarious persona that, in two of about 7,634 examples (no joke; like I said, probably the most simultaneously silly and dense song on this list), gets away with “freakin’ weekend” and “you must be a football coach, the way you got me playin’ the field” while still remaining sexy, and on and on…

2. “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” – Jay-Z
I subscribe to the oft repeated theory that we go to Jay to bask in his confidence. Start with the positively life-affirming “uh” in the intro and go from there. And the beat’s pretty good too.

1. “Someday” – The Strokes
There’s magic, some sort of pensivel glow, in the relationship between the add9 and the root (it’s A, Aadd9, Bmadd9, Bm, Bmadd9, Bm, Aadd9, A in the intro, and throughout, chugging by in something like brisk slow motion or a reflective boogie or some other stupid oxymoron). That sort of thing is probably the best distillation of why I listen to music.

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