10 Years, 100 Songs: #74. “I’ma Play This Vandross, You Gon’ Take Yo’ Pants Off…”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 19, 2009
Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.
In my decades of deep field research, I’ve found that the ideal number when it comes to hip-hop is three. In rock it’s four, in dance it’s two, but in hip-hop, as in many things in life, three is the magic number. I doubt I could even begin to explain why, but for some reason, when you get three distinct personalities together in rap, the blend just works. And I don’t just mean in hip-hop groups–though certainly with Run-DMC, De La Soul, the Beastie Boys and countless other acts, there’s enough evidence there alone to support the theory–but for one-off single collaborations as well, where three artists with no specific connection come together to forge a tapestry far richer than the sum of its parts. It’s a concept you’ll see borne out throughout much of this list, and perhaps no place more definitively than Jamie Foxx, Kanye West and Twista mixing it up on our #73 song, “Slow Jamz.”
None of these guys could’ve done “Slow Jamz” on their own. Kanye was starting to enter his period of pop dominance, but we didn’t know him quite well enough beyond his “First nigga with a Benz and a backpack” routine for us to buy an entire song’s worth of his mildly condescending loverman (and frankly, it’d be something of a tough sell even today). Twista hadn’t been heard from in any prominent capacity in nearly a decade, and his rapid-fire smooth-talking (a strange sensation in itself) would have gotten exhausting over three verses. And thanks to hugely successful mediocrities like “Unpredictable” and “Blame It,” we know how depressingly unremarkable Jamie Foxx can be when left to his own devices. Get the three together, though, with each of them excelling in their clearly defined roles, and it’s the 2008 Boston Celtics.
Kanye’s contributions were probably the greatest, as he was on the line for both the song’s hook and its introductory verse. The hook was an absolute stunner–possibly the most impressive achievement in the sped-up soul sample catalogue that made for Mr. West’s early arsenal. Unless you’re a particularly devoted fan of lite R&B, chances are you’ll find Luther Vandross’s “A House is Not a Home” largely unlistenable–it’s slow, vaguely tuneless, strewn with histrionics, lacking a real chorus and basically interminable (six and a half minutes, Luther, honestly). But it does have that one section towards the end–the “Are you gonna be, gonna be, gonna be, gonna be” section–which is sort of the emotional climax of the song, and probably the most memorable part. So Kanye liberated it from the rest of the song, and built a beat out of it that was yearning, urgent, and…yeah, I’ll go with stunning again, because that’s the word for it. The first time I heard it, it stopped me in my tracks and made me say “wow, what the hell is that?” It’s a hook that’s every bit as worthy as the songs that “Slow Jamz” pays tribute to.
Kanye’s contributions to “Slow Jamz” in front of the mic were almost as crucial to the song’s success as well. For a song with such a heavy-sounding hook, it was actually a pretty light song, and Kanye established that tone early on with his pun-happy, catch phrase-spawning opening verse. “I told her to drive over in her new whip / Bring some friends you cool wit / I’ma bring the Cool Whip / Then I want you to strip.” Kanye’s wordplay at the time was still fairly novel–what other rapper would find a way to rhyme “whip” with “whip,” with neither meaning even being the conventional one–and hearing him romance/menace a fairly unimpressed-looking (and SIGNIFICANTLY taller) Aisha Tyler in the video was pretty funny in itself. He also gets in the song’s most-quoted couplet (“She got a light-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson / Got a dark-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson”) and namechecks a couple of the song’s tributed acts before getting out of the way.
Of course, he manages to give Twista a huge leg up on his verse first by giving him the perfect introduction, responding to Tyler’s pleas for him to “do it faster” with the now-classic “Damn, baby, I can’t do it that fast–but I know somebody who can!” Seven years after “Po Pimp,” it was just about the only way to reintroduce Twista’s limber-tongued antics to the pop world, and needless to say, he took the ball and ran with it. With Twista is when the old-school R&B references really come fast and furious, but he doesn’t let them dominate the flow, instead working them into fairly inspired rhymes like “And when I come over and bend yo’ ass / You be bumpin’ Teddy Pendergrass” and “With my earth and my wind smokin’ fire / Let me get your sheets wet / Listening to Keith Sweat.” And hey, let’s face it–there are few pleasures in this world quite like attempting to rap along with a guy once clocked by Guinness to be the fastest MC alive (11.2 syllables per second–not bad, not bad).
Foxx’s responsibilities were certainly the least of the three, since all he really had to do was show up and sing the hook. Still, he did it with a certain aplomb which must be appreciated, and he definitely added an infectious sort of enthusiasm to the video, showing up to the party with scores of wax containing the titular anthems, as if he was a sixteen-year-old showing up to the high school party with a crate full of Coors Light. It also helped that Foxx was the only genuinely feasible seductor of the bunch, as Kanye was too busy insulting his potential conquests, and Twista looked as overjoyed as a kid in a candy store just to be treated to a private dance from a stripper. If the three were actually out in a nightclub, Foxx would likely just saddle up to his future victims while Kanye and Twista fought over his leftovers like Turtle and Johnny Drama from Entourage. Really, it was nice of Jamie to lend them that cool-kid credibility.
In between OutKast and Usher’s reign at the top in the first half of 2004, “Slow Jamz” caught the nation by storm just enough to reach #1 on the charts for a solitary week, which seemed about right to me. Meanwhile, it did wonders for the careers of all three involved, solidifying Kanye’s hand as being the surest in the business, giving Foxx the training wheels he’d need for his own pop career (as well as his Oscar-winning turn in Ray later that year), and even allowing Twista a new lease on life, as his Kamikaze album debuted at #1, and spawned off another quality top ten hit with “Overnight Celebrity.” Still, with the possible exception of Kanye–and even he rarely got this good again over his highly-productive rest of the decade–none of the guys would reach the heights individually that they achieved together, in one of 00s hip-hop’s purest, most enjoyable executions of the triangle offense.
The List So Far:
100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia”
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)”
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly”
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar”
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)”
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious”
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space”
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below”
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)”
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”
90. Cassie – “Me & U”
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater”
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’”
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel”
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood”
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over”
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent”
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It”
81. 311 – “Amber”
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite”
79. Nas – “Made You Look”
78. Royksopp – “Eple”
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha”
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)”
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet”
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz”