Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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HOT ONE(s): Chris Brown – “Forever” and Ne-Yo – “Closer”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 21, 2008

It’s like I waited my whole life

It was only a matter of time, I suppose. Do you realize how many different hits off of Thriller have been sampled or covered for hits within the last twelve months? Four. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” was snipped by Rihanna for the juggernaut of a main hook to “Don’t Stop the Music,” Kanye West pilfered a somewhat forgettable part of “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” for the hook to his future-classic “Good Life,” Tyra B. borrowed the synth-washes from “Human Nature” (via SWV’s “Right Here”) for her underrated “Givin’ Me a Rush, and of course, Fall Out Boy and John Mayer considered it a good idea to lay waste to “Beat It.” Oh, and there were those prisoners in the Phillipines dancing to the title track, Chris Cornell covering “Billie Jean,” and the album’s 25th anniversary hit deluxe re-issue. So yeah, I think it’s safe to say, that while Michael Jackson’s cultural capital might be at an all-time low–which gets more impressive every year–the pervasiveness of his musical influence is about as high as it’s ever been.

Enter “Forever” and “Closer.” Chris Brown and Ne-Yo will always be intertwined to me, by virtue of their  breakout singles coming within a few months of each other, their less memorable second-tier hits perpetually getting jumbled in my mind, and their prodigious talents reminding me more and more of different aspects of a young (in Chris Brown’s case, considerably younger) Michael Jackson. Ne-Yo is more of the thoughtful, concerned, songwriter side of of Michael, while Chris is the side who hears the music that just makes him wanna….OOOOHH! Their track records haven’t exactly been impeccable, but they had more good songs than bad, and they seemed like they just needed a little bit of direction to avoid doing lukewarm Stargate tracks to run out their careers.

And now I don’t know if we’ve had two hit R&B / dance hybrids this good since Michael ruled the Earth. Sure, we had a good run of Crunk N’ B about four years ago, when every fifth song on the pop charts was produced by either Lil’ Jon or Jazzy Pha, but even that lacked the sheer sense of unabashed disco unleashed by these two. Blame “Lean Back,” or a DJ Sammy backlash maybe, but it’s seemed recently that R&B singers have had to avoid anything resembling outright house music, since real gangstas don’t dance, and not even Fat Joe could get away with doing the rockaway to Black Strobe or Justice. Aside form the fluke DHT or Cascada hit, dance music didn’t really have a place in the US pop charts.

That’s why it’s such a relief to see these songs that not only integreate dance music, but don’t try to shy away from it either–Chris Brown even promising that tonight it’s going to be “[him], you and the dancefloor,” and Ne-Yo breaking out the choreographed routines in his video for the first time in recent memory. More importantly, neither sounds particularly retro while doing it–these songs don’t sound like a shout-out to the past, they sound like the next two or three years, the future of pop music. They’re catchy, romantic, kind of mysterious, and extremely danceable, and along with “Don’t Stop the Music,” they’ve got a chance of getting 2008 remembered as the year when America finally rediscovered the joys of the 4/4 thump.

If this really is the product of Michael Jackson’s influence–and I believe, through one way or another, it is–then that just makes it all the more unfortunate that we’ve had to completely divest the man from his music over the course of the last 15 years. But these two songs definitely go a small amount of the way to paying the debt for his weirdness. And they’re good enough for me not to get on Ne-Yo and Brown’s backs, Katy Perry-style, for using these titles and not providing KISS and Nine Inch Nails covers.

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