10 Years, 100 Songs: #62. “To Free His Mind in Search Of…”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 4, 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.
Pot has been an inextricable part of rap culture since the debut of NWA (despite certain spurious claims made on “Express Yourself”), and possibly even longer back than that. It’s easily a top five item in the hip-hop hierarchy, rivaled only by females and possibly alcohol as a subject of warmth and fondness across all the culture’s sub-genres (and Dr. Dre never titled an epoch-defining album The St. Ides, even). It’s an essential party ingredient, virtually synonymous with good times, and generally left out in favor of harder, dirtier drugs for narcotic associations with the genre’s dark side. Thus, it never really struck me that most of the genre’s leading lights never really addressed the other side of the stoner experience–the hazier, more introspective, almost isolating side, the kind that goes on when you hit the pipe because there’s no real party for you to go to. It took “Day n Nite” for me to realize how much of a disservice this omission was to the drug in general.
“Day and Nite” was a song that made you take notice, almost from the first second. It sounded like nothing else on the radio, to be sure, and really like nothing else I’d ever heard. Not that it was the first time that a rapper had ever slowed himself down to more of a singing pace–just ask Kanye and Lil’ Wayne–but whereas those guys were just doing it as part of the burgeoning AutoTune trend, Kid Cudi’s singing was raw and pointedly out of tune. It sounded foreign, maybe European in nature–rappers just weren’t supposed to abandon rapping like this, not for weird interplay with a hook and beat that ends up sounding almost like the hip-house of the Jungle Brothers from 20 years ago. But oh lord, did it work beautifully–it might not have been rap in the traditional sense, but it sounded fresher and more compelling than anything I’d heard in hip-hop for at least a few years.
The song is a complete coup from a production standpoint. I would never really think to call the song minimal, though when you listen to it, there’s not that actually all that much going on–a skeletal-sounding, pan-stereo keyboard part vaguely reminiscent of the hook to M.I.M.S.’s “This is Why I’m Hot,” a thumping drum beat in the back, and that utterly brilliant “wha, wha” interjection that appears to punctuate every line of the song. Cudi’s rap / not rap sort of weaves in between these musical elements like an obstacle course, until the vocals almost sound like just another instrumental hook. And aside from some spacier keyboards that come in on the chorus, and a growlier bunch in the last verse, that’s about all there is to it–really, the whole thing is closer musically to a Booka Shade or Chris Clark song than anything that even Cudi’s buddy Kanye West was up to at the time. But it still pumps like a hip-hop song, with all the glorious, intensely laid back head-nodding that would imply, and does a good enough job of it that rappers ranging from Pitbull to Jim Jones wanted to get on the action too, helping to propel the song and Cudi to national success.
Of course, the dancier, European impulses of the song ended up being ingeniously exploited by the Italian DJ duo Crookers, whose club remix of the song first catapulted the song to megahit status overseas. The remix basically maxes out on the dance potential of the original, adding both a thumping house beat and a more shuffling Baltimore-esque beat, turning the song’s subtle keyboards into an all-out disco throwdown, and adding a blaring warning siren on the chorus just to be on the safe side. Remarkably, it proved to be just as effective as the original, proving that loneliness is just as appropriate on the dancefloor as anywhere else, and demonstrating that the basic elements of “Day n Nite” were solid and original enough to be transmutable to any number of different musical forms–turn down the BPMs and turn it into a trip-hop song, and I bet it’s about just as stunning in that direction as well. (The video, on the other hand, featuring Cudi fantasizing about ladies getting down in a convenience store, did not translate quite so fluidly.)
When music critics, especially white, nerdy ones, talk about how they wish hip-hop was more relatable, usually they get called out for really wishing that rappers acted more like nerdy, white music critics. While that may or may not be a justifiable grievance, it does gloss over the fact that it can occasionally be difficult for people who don’t go to strip clubs, don’t have ridiculous amounts of money to throw around, have no experience with the drug trade and don’t often get into physical altercations of any sort–which, believe it or not, still does describe a healthy chunk of Americans–to relate to the majority of hip-hop out there, especially when these are the subjects that many of the most talented rappers gravitate towards. “Day n Nite” is not a “conscientious” rap song–a tag placed on hip-hop songs made by serious individuals, one which ensures it will basically get zero mainstream radio play–but it is that rare hip-hop song that can actually be relatable on an emotional level to non-lifestyle audiences, and not just a musical one.
And I don’t mean that just in a way that the lyrics talk about personal experiences in that “oh, we’ve all been there” sort of way. The mixture of heartbreak, loneliness, druggie fog and insomnia that Cudi describes is something that you may or may not have actually experienced in your life. But the song has a unified feel to it lyrically and musically, and a very particular one at that–the feeling of being adrift in the world, of not quite knowing your place, and of not quite knowing what, if anything, there is to do about it. Regardless of how strongly that feeling resonates with you–and I do find it somewhat hard to believe that anyone could have never felt that way at all at some point of their life–the fact that it nails that sensation to a T is what is important. Because really, when critics complain about hip-hop not being relatable enough, they’re not saying “why don’t more rappers write about how they can’t get laid, or about how much they hate their jobs, or about how awesome web comics are?” They’re just saying “why don’t more rappers write about something else?” And I’m sorry, my friends, but to me that’s a legitimate question, about hip-hop or any other genre–especially when doing so can result in a song as remarkable as this.
And getting back to the weed thing–you certainly don’t have to be a stoner to appreciate this song. It’s just that knowing the sensation of being high in such a manner–and stoner references do permeate the song–can put you in the “Day n Nite” mindset right away without even having to listen to what the rest of the song is about. But like all truly great stoner works of art, ranging from Dark Side of the Moon to Dude, Where’s My Car? to, uh, Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” “Day n Nite” is transfixing on its own merits, a marvel of production, songwriting and emotion that is probably most analogous to the Naughty Oughties as Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” was to the 90s–about as high a compliment as I can offer. Where Cudi goes from here is anybody’s guess (though hopefully it’s not too far in the direction of the groan-worthy “Make Her Say”), but as far as hip-hop debuts go, “Day n Nite” was as auspicious as it got, for this or just about any other decade.
(Have any thoughts or rememberances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at twitter.com/intensities. Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)
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”
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes”
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle”
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps”
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot”
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone”
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!”
67. Incubus – “Stellar”
66. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together”
65. Andrew W.K. – “Party Hard”
64. Jurgen Paape – “So Weit Wie Noch Nie”
63. Taking Back Sunday – “MakeDamnSure”
62. Kid Cudi – “Day n Nite”