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10 Years, 100 Songs: #42. “And I Can’t Go on Without You…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 13, 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.

It’s my firm–well, semi-firm–belief that if you give a popular artist enough chances, no matter who they are, they’ll eventually make a song that’s half-decent. Generally speaking, popular musicians are at the least competent performers, and most of the time, they’re surrounded with people much smarter than they are who are doing their damnedest to make sure that they stay popular. Eventually, whether by accident or just by the law of averages, either someone’s going to give them a good song, someone’s going to do enough with their bad song to make it fairly listenable, or they’ll stumble on a song that doesn’t suck all on their own. This is why even many of the most abhorrent, least talented pop artists of the Naughty Oughties–Nickelback, Fabolous, Simple Plan–were still able to rank entries in the lower stretches of this list. And it’s also how, in some weird mathematical loophole, two of these artists–Ja Rule and Jennifer Lopez–combined for one of the best bubblegum pop singles of the decade.

In 2001, it’d be hard to come up with two pop stars less appealing than Ja Rule and Jennifer Lopez. In the late-90s, he had come up as a DMX soundalike who was almost as ridiculous but nowhere near as talented, and she had sucked all the fun out of the latin pop explosion with a couple singles that sounded more like boring Destiny’s Child songs. Nonetheless, both were undeniably huge, and both would be given far more second chances than either deserved on their own merits. Luckily for both, Ja had recently come across a winning formula with 2000’s “Between Me and You”–a relatively sweet, harmless collaboration with R&B singer Christina Milian that gave him his first big crossover hit. So when J. Lo’s people decided her “I’m Real” needed a remix for single release, she and Irv Gotti turned to the newly-sensitized Rule for a shot at pop duet gold.

It worked. Ja Rule…well, no one was ever really going to take the man seriously. Taking DMX seriously was hard enough to begin with, but at least he had that kind of crazy intensity that prohibited you from taking him too lightly, either. But if X was a snarling, teeth-bared pitbull (as he no doubt often wishes he was and supposedly actually imitates during sex), then Ja was an undersized pup who tried to run with the big dogs by putting on his best mean face and barging head-first into fights he couldn’t possibly win–all you could do was pat him on the head and laugh. This quintessential difference would later be writ large by the two rappers’ appearances in 00s Steven Segal-starring action classics Exit Wounds and Half Past Dead, respectively–X’s character was as overwrought as someone out of Closer, while Ja’s seemed unable get over how much fun he was having. But in the meantime, let’s just say that it certainly behooved young Jeffrey Atkins to sell out as early and as often as he possibly could.

And nothing exercised his potential better than these male/female duets that emphasized his singing over his rapping. Supposedly Ja was always somewhat hesitant to do the singing thing before Irv Gotti pointed out that even his rapping had a kind of musical quality to it, and really, his croon sounds far more comfortable and natural here than he ever did trying to spit. In fact, the verses to “I’m Real” are in general fairly pointless–Rule’s rhyming goes nowhere, and the song doesn’t have enough of a coherent story or theme to it for Lopez’s verses to mean much of anything (and Lopez isn’t interesting or distinctive enough for her to carry much of either anyway). Really, when it comes to “I’m Real,” you’re in it for the chorus, and that’s about it.

Luckily, that’s more than enough, especially because it comes in two parts, which make slogging through the verses a worthwhile experience. The pre-chorus, at the end of each verse, begins Rule and Lopez starting to trade off parts (“Tired of being alone?” “Yeah, yeah” “Sick of arguing on the phone?” “Yeah, yeah“). Then it goes into the actual chorus, with Lopez insisting the titular phrase, alternating with Rule listing everything about her that apparently validates the statement (“The way you walk, the way you move, the way you talk…”) Then at the end, the two come together in perfect unison for the simply concluded “And I…can’t go…on without you.”

It all makes for an impossibly adorable interplay. The power of the puppy-love male-female duet I feel is perpetually underestimated–songs that get genders talking to each other are always going to have a unique kind of energy to them, one almost guaranteed to make them hits among kids who aren’t smart or mature enough yet to flirt well on their own (listening to “I’m Real” makes me feel like I’m twelve years old at summer camp again, even though I was already fifteen when the song came out and never even liked summer camp all that much). Besides that, it makes both sound like approachable, likeable people that just happen to be gigantic pop stars. Jennifer Lopez spent so much of her career trying to establish her down-home credibility (most notably on the despicable “Jenny From the Block”), but she never sounded more humble and natural than she does here, just some love-smitten kid that wanted to pal around on the playground with her new beau.

The sweetness of the whole thing is made possible with the song’s lovely hook, a whistling number lifted (or at least interpolated) from Mary Jane Girls’ bouncy “All Night Long“–also responsible for the sugary goodness of LL Cool J’s “Around the Way Girl.” It’s just about the lightest, most unimposing hook imaginable, one for whom no rapper who planned on ever feuding with 50 Cent should even have stepped into the same electoral district. But it does wonders for the song here, as it breezes along at a sweet, sentimental clip, with a slight twinge of sadness to it, making Rule and Lopez sound like they were nostalgically relating memories of their most innocent, knock-kneed schoolboy/girl crushes. You might detest everything else these artists ever did, but if you can hear that fantastic “And I…can’t go…on without you” duet line and not get just the tiniest smile creeping from the corners of your mouth, you are certainly a personal of stonger internal constitution than myself.

“I’m Real” opened the floodgates for Ja Rule doing supercute male/female duets, most notably a couple of collaborations with Ashanti that were even more sickeningly heartwarming than “I’m Real” (I’ve always said that listening to “Mesmerize” is the musical equivalent of watching Homeward Bound). Eventually, others caught on to the rapper / R&B singer duet formula as well, with songs like Nelly and Kelly Rowland’s “Dilemma,” Fabolous and Tamia’s “Into You,” Bow Wow and Ciara’s “Like You” all catching a similar fire (Ja was even kind enough to lend Ashanti to Fat Joe for their blockbuster “What’s Luv?” collab). In the end, “I’m Real (Remix)” was a surprisingly imporant single to the identity of 00s chart pop, and one which neither artist could really equal again (though I maintain a soft spot for J. Lo and LL’s “All I Have”) as they continued on their deserved path to irrelevancy. They were exceptionally lucky to get their one moment of bubblegum bliss in the first place, anyway–and they probably have the cosmic forces of pop music to thank for that.

(Have any thoughts or remembrances 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 (Now With Links!):

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
61. Paramore – “That’s What You Get
60. System of a Down – “Toxicity
59. dNTEL f/ Ben Gibbard – “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan
58. Three 6 Mafia f/ 8Ball & MJG – “Stay Fly
57. Good Charlotte – “The Anthem
56. The Lonely Island – “Lazy Sunday
55. Darude – “Sandstorm
54. Yellowcard – “Ocean Avenue
53. The Killers – “Mr. Brightside
52. Luomo – “Tessio
51. Blink-182 – “Stay Together For the Kids
50. My Chemical Romance – “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)
49. Freelance Hellraiser – “A Stroke of Genius
48. Daft Punk – “Digital Love
47. Snow Patrol – “Chasing Cars
46. Sean Paul – “Like Glue
45. Ludacris – “Stand Up
44. Britney Spears – “Toxic
43. Kings of Leon – “Sex on Fire
42. Jennifer Lopez f/ Ja Rule – “I’m Real (Remix)”

2 Responses to “10 Years, 100 Songs: #42. “And I Can’t Go on Without You…””

  1. MBI said

    News Archive, July 30 2001

    Bad news for pop singer/actress Jennifer Lopez: Responding to the rise of her hit song “I’m Real” on the Billboard charts, reality has filed a defamation of character lawsuit against the rising superstar. This continues Lopez’s string of bad luck, after the controversy that followed her previous hit, “My Love Don’t Cost a Thing,” which was contradicted by several of Lopez’s previous significant others.

    No, seriously, I listened to this again and it’s still just as bad as it was back then. If you really had to have a J.Lo track on this list, I would have gone with “All I Have.” “I’m Real” is too fluffy and boring to have much impact on me.

  2. Dean said

    This song suffers too much from J’Lo and Ja having zero chemistry. I prefered the two on ‘Ain’t It Funny’. They looked a little more comfortable not pretending they were lovers.

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