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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 theirĀ  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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HOT ONE: Weezer – “Pork and Beans” (video)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 25, 2008

You’d hate for the net to think that you lost your cool

One of the theories I’ve been proffering recently to anyone that will listen is that the internet, as a collective entity, should be recognized as a state, or at least as some sort of republic, in the electoral process. When it got big in the 90s, you could argue that the net was little more than a bunch of amateurish individuals still recovering from the revelatory powers of emoticons, but as the world wide web came of age around the turn of the century (around the term “world wide web” stopped being used altogether, I suppose), it has evolved and congealed into a network powerful, influential and unified enough to certainly at least measure up against some of the jobberier states out there (I’m not going to name names, but suffice to say that if you have a directional in your name that isn’t “North,” your clout is probably somewhat comparable). As for who the delegates would be to represent this increasingly streamlined superpower–look no further than Weezer’s “Pork and Beans” video.

I think we all knew that we had something special to expect from this video. It’s no coincidence that this is my third time writing about the band in the space of a month or so–after a half-decade or so of relative non-committance, Weezer appear to be gearing up to once again be the Band of the Moment, and amidst their none-too-impressive amount of viable competition, they already seemed to be well on their way (“Pork & Beans” quickly jumped to #1 on the Modern Rock charts, and is currently in its third week on top). And as anyone with even a passing interest in Weezer knows, their musical success has always been inextricably tied to a series of creative, playful, and instantly iconic music videos, whether it be the Happy Days mash of “Buddy Holly,” the sumo “T&A” of “Hash Pipe” or the Playboy Mansion crashing of “Beverly Hills.” Clearly, if Weezer were really prepping for one last stab at Rock God status, the “Pork and Beans” video was going to have to have something to do with it.

Well, 2.3 million viewers within 48 hours of the “Pork and Beans” video debuting say that this vid indeed might have something to contribute to a Weezer power play. In case you haven’t watched the link yet and haven’t been linked to it a thousand times elsewhere, let me ‘splain: Weezer has congregated nearly all of the most esteemed internet representatives for a singalong, a love letter to the YouTube sensation, among whose ranks “Pork & Beans” will no doubt soon be able to count itself. Some of them I had never heard of before (Sex Advice Girl, Charlie the Unicorn, Will it Blend?), some of them I had heard of but never actually bothered to watch (Leave Britney Alone, Lightsaber Guys, Miss Teen South Carolina), some of them I had seen but not in years (Diet Coke and Mentos, It’s Peanut Butter Jelly Time!, All Your Base are Belong To Us) and some I had seen fairly recently and fairly frequently (Shoes, Chocolate Rain, Dramatic Chipmunk/Gopher). There are some big ones missing–you can read ten of ’em here, and that still doesn’t even mention Rick Astley, My New Haircut or 2 Girls 1 Cup–but this is probably as close to an internet meme canon as has ever been organized in popular culture.

That said, it’s not the first time such a thing has been attempted. South Park fans will no doubt note a coincidental similarity to something recently attempted in the show’s “Canada on Strike!” episode, in which the boys end up in the midst of a fight-to-the-death between many of the phenomena included here. And indeed, Canadian frat-rock torch-bearers Barenaked Ladies got there first even in the music video realm, with 2006’s little-seen “Sound of Your Voice,” also including appearances from the Numa Numa guy, the Diet Coke & Mentos scientists and the History of Dance dude. These precedents, however, do little to dull the impact of “Pork and Beans’–the South Park scene seems forced (surprise, surprise) and lazy, and the BNL vid, while perfectly nice and chuckle-worthy, feels slight and maybe a little pre-mature (though to be fair, I suppose the fact that I have no idea who the fuck Barats and Bereta are might have something to do with that).

Maybe it just took until 2008 for enough of these phenomena to properly materialize before they could be documented so brilliantly in music video form. And truly, Weezer were the perfect band to do it–the video functions, along with ’95’s classic “Buddy Holly” and ’02’s underrated Muppet melee “Keep Fishin’,” as a sort of third arm in a Weezer-inserted-in-Popular-Media trifecta. And like the other two, it’s not the clever references or subtle innovations that make the video so enthralling, it’s the sheer enthusiasm they display for the source material, a like-mindedness that when coupled with the generally good vibes of Weezer’s soundtracking, makes all of pop culture feel like one warm, fuzzy family. In real life, it’s possible that in five years no one will remember who Chris Crocker and Tay Zonday are, but in the world of “Pork and Beans,” they’ll always be rocking out with Daft Bodies, sipping experimental margaritas by the Will it Blend? guy. Nice to know.

Perhaps the greatest legacy of “Pork and Beans,” though, will be as the signifier of the moment that the internet officially replaced TV as the homeland of the music video. Back in the day, a video of the magnitude of “Pork and Beans” would have had a specific, much-hyped premiere on MTV, and its popularity would be measured by its ranking on shows like TRL or the weekly Top 20 video countdown or something of that ilk–now, the moment of its leaking to YouTube is its de facto premiere date, and the number of hits is the popularity indicator. But even more tellingly, you remember how there used to be music videos that specifically made fun of other music videos, like David Lee Roth’s “Just a Gigolo / I Ain’t Got Nobody” and Blink-182’s “All the Small Things“? Well, this is the 21st-century equivalent, in which music videos are no longer popular or iconic enough to justify such a mocking pastiche–people that aren’t home in the three hours a day when videos are shown on basic cable might not recognize references to the latest Rihanna or JT videos, but everyone can instantly recognize the Dramatic Chipmunk and the Sneezing Panda. Sad for a former MTV junkie such as myself, but possibly promising for the future of the medium at large.

As for Weezer, now with the entire state/republic of the internet on their side–if this doesn’t make them as popular as they ever were before, then absolutely nothing will. Until the “Greatest Man Who Ever Lived” video, at least.

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HOT ONE: Wiz Khalifa – “Say Yeah”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 4, 2008

Not scorching hot, maybe, but I’m glad that someone agrees with me on this one at least.

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HOT ONE: The Dream – “Falsetto”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 18, 2008

Ooh

If you haven’t been paying attention to the career of Terius “The Dream” Nash, now might not be a bad time to start. Since he started off writing album tracks for artists like Nivea and Brooke Valentine (lol 2005), as well as the ill-fated Britney/Madonna duet “Me Against the Music” (SUPER-LOL 2003), he’s grown to be one of the hottest writers and producers in R&B, scoring hits with Mary J. Blige (last year’s fairly underrated “Just Fine”), J. Holiday (the almost suffocatingly lush “Bed”) and, oh yeah, some minor hit about bad weather by Rihanna. Stepping out in front of the mic, he even had one of the better chart hits of last year, “Shawty is a 10” (or “Shawty is Da Shit,” if you’re less politely inclined)–proving once more that listing a bunch of random girls’ names in a row is a surefire recipe for success.

“Falsetto,” the follow up to “Shawty,” suggests that the best is yet to come. I’m technically a couple months behind on this one, I think–Wikipedia has it listed as a Sept. ’07 release, and I remember seeing the video for the first time on BET’s Top 100 Videos of the Year countdown (it was only #84 or so). But “Shawty” hung around for a long time, and I’m only now really starting to hear “Falsetto” on the radio and on TV and such, and since I think it’s still climbing the charts, I’m counting it as the first HOT ONE of ’08.

It might be a kind of pre-mature judgement on my part, I suppose, since so much of the song’s success relies on the novelty of what could be called a gimmick hook. If you’ve heard the song once, you should know what I’m talking about–the nearly wordless chorus, which imitates The Dream’s girl “talking to him in a falsetto.” Of course, not much talking is done, and the chorus mostly consists of TD moaning “oooh, oooh, baby, ahhh, ahh, ahhh” in the titularly high pitch. In an admittedly young ’08, it’s by far the best hook I’ve heard yet this year–the kind of hook that’s so catchy it instantly makes the verses irrelevant, a deadly sufferer of what I like to call GTTP Syndrome (“Get to That Part!”)

But the hook isn’t the whole deal. Though Nash’s roots and main strengths are to be found as a songwriter, he’s grown tremendously as a producer in his collaborations with Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, the man most responsible for the irresistible beat that propelled “Umbrella” into the pop stratosphere. Here, Stewart crafts a beat for Nash worthy of the trip-hop legend he most likely isn’t actually named after–molasses-slow and thick, nearly as hypnotic as the almost amorally seductive groove to “Bed.” And Stewart clearly knows how to use his frequent partner’s voice as a weapon, layering his vocal tracks over each other as the song progresses, building the song to a brilliant…well, I guess climax is the word here for any number of reasons.

The best part, though? The dirty guitar solo. I didn’t realize how much I missed the presence of dirty guitar in R&B until I watched that Justin Timberlake FutureSex/LoveShow special on HBO, which seemed to have an old-soul funk dude doing some of the seediest, grimiest guitar shredding I’ve ever heard on almost every song. The dirty guitar solo in “Falsetto” reminds of just how possible it is to coax the sound of fucking out of six strings and an amplifier, invoking no one more than the dirtiest of all them all–the P-man, whose name I’m almost afraid to invoke for fear of jinxing the guy.

In an R&B world all too littered with lukewarm Timbaland wannabes and frustratingly tame post-“Irreplaceable” Stargate productions, it’s more than a little refreshing to hear a song as sort of classically-minded as this one. Here’s hoping The Dream doesn’t end anytime soon.

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HOT ONEs Alert: The White Stripes’ “Icky Thump” and Queens of the Stone Age’s “Sick, Sick, Sick”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 29, 2007

“Dark, hard and electrical, sort of like a construction worker…”

I think there are more parallels between these guys than most people (including myself) ever really realized. Both groups come from culty, regionalized backgrounds traced through several other earlier groups, both tend to pal around with famous collaborators, both briefly courted mainstream success with a pair of high-profile, critically acclaimed albums with accompanying radio-ready hits with cool, MTV-ready videos, and both blew more or less blew their commercial prospects with the lead singles off their latest albums (even though I think both–“Blue Orchid” and “Little Sister,” respectively–were fucking awesome).

And now, both are back. A few years (relatively) out of the limelight appears to have done both groups some good–with expectations lower than they’ve been for about a half decade, both bands feel considerably more relaxed and confident. And with commercial prospects effectively out the window (and believe me, if they weren’t already, dudes are done on the pop charts after these bad boys), both groups are free to really let loose, and they sound harder, faster and louder than they have in ages.

Icky Thump” probably rates as the less conventional of the two. Without a chorus to speak of, Jack spends most of the song either in blues preacher mode ranting about God knows what (“You can’t be a pimp and a prostitute too” sure to end up the song’s most quoted line) or slamming on some mad old school-sounding organ (is there any other kind? Seriously though, think “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida”) while Meg does her rudimentary best, working that kick drum and riding the cymbals when necessary. To find a song in the Stripes catalogue this bluesy and gritty, you have to go way past 2005’s mostly neutered Get Behind Me Satan, all the way back to De Stijl or maybe even the s/t, fans of which Jack promises the new album (of the same name) will please greatly. Not something I thought I’d like to hear, but damned if it doesn’t work on this song at least.

Meanwhile, “Sick, Sick, Sick” sees the QOTSA sound more streamlined than ever, and considering how streamlined they were before, that’s sort of saying something. Supposedly Trent Reznor is a collaborator on album Era Vulgaris, and I feel like there’s something of a Nine Inch Nails influence on this track, too–it feels almost industrial in its slick, metallic grind. Josh Homme said he wanted the EV to sound “dark, hard and electrical, sort of like a construction worker,” and based on this track at least, that description’s basically right on. It’s by far the heaviest single I’ve heard from these guys yet, but it doesn’t desert the perverse, damnation-drenched sense of groove they acquired over the last few albums. This is what Avenged Sevenfold should sound like, or at least what their videos should be set to.

Between these two and Grinderman’s “No Pussy Blues” (which might’ve gotten the HOT ONE distinction itself had it not let me down by actually yelling “I’ve got the no pussy blues!” at the end of it, ruining a perfectly great song title), 2007 is gearing up to be a banner year for dirty, depraved, funky-ass garage rock singles.

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Hot One Alert: Avril Lavigne – “Girlfriend”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 17, 2007

Aw yeah

This is exactly the sort of song that Avril Lavigne needs right now. After unleashing a triptych of three of the best-crafted, most energetic youth-pop singles of the 00s (“Complicated,” “Sk8ter Boi” and “I’m With You,” in case you somehow managed to avoid 2001 and 2002), Avril’s follow-up efforts were lukewarm at best, and her latest single, “Keep Holding On” (from the Eragorn soundtrack) was about as cold as it gets.

Luckily, Avril has brought back the hotness. From the first few seconds of “Girlfriend,” it’s clearly that something has definitely changed–there’s none of the breezy piano and guitar intros that kicked off her Under My Skin singles, the songs that waited forever to kick in. Rather, Avril immediately goes straight for the kill–one clap and a guitar chord and we’re off, “HEY! (hey!) / YOU! (you!) / I DON’T LIKE YOUR GIRLFRIEND! / (NO WAY, NO WAY!) / I THINK YOU NEED A NEW ONE!”

The most obvious reference point here is, surprisingly, The Pipettes–the nu-girl group sensation from last year that rallied indie girls and set indie boys’ hearts aflame with their Spectorian cheerleader chants “Your Kisses are Wasted on Me” and “Pull Shapes.” The same cheerleading influence is undeniably apparent in “Girlfriend,” from the call & response chorus to the “Mickey” drumbeat that punctuates it, and detractors of this song will undoubtedly strike at it for being a pale imitation of the admitteldy fairly original sound The Pipettes cultivated.

And while it’s sort of hard to believe that either Avril or co-writer Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald have been listening to a group that it seems like no one outside the internet has ever even heard of, it still is definitely something of an imitation. However, something about those Pipettes singles never really clicked for me–they’re great, sure, but they feel too distant, and not quite obvious enough for what truly great, explosive pop should be. And explosive is really the only way to describe “Girlfriend,” which bursts out of the gates and maintains that feeling for 3:36. Blender already called it “the perfect pop-punk single,” and though “Girlfriend” is at least generations away from anything really resembling punk, the necessary attitude is at least there–find me a line half as good as “She’s, like, so whatever / you could do so much better” in either of those Pipettes songs, and I’ll show up with a skirt and pompoms to your next homecoming game.

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HOT ONE Alert: Gym Class Heroes – “Cupid’s Chokehold”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 12, 2007

Aw yeah

A bit late on this one, I’m aware, but it took me a long time to com to a decision on this one. Really, I’ve known about “Cupid’s Chokehold” for over a year now, since the video started getting played on MTVU last spring. Nothing about it really grabbed me the few times I saw it, though–that is, of course, except for the interpolation of the hook from Supertramp’s unwieldy classic rock staple “Breakfast in America.” A few months later, the song disappeared, and it was replaced in MTVU’s heavy rotation by the singificantly more awful “The Queen and I“.

If anyone ever needed proof of how effective a good video can be in the selling of a good song, the second video for “Cupid’s Chokehold” would be a pretty good Exhibit A. The original video was pretty cute–lead GCHer Travis McCoy gets a doll girlfriend who eventually turns homicidal on him, forcing him to try to get rid of her–but it wasn’t really the right tone for the song. The second video, however, featuring McCoy getting struck by a baby Cupid’s arrow when he meets a new girl at the start of each of the three verses (all of which go sour except the last, when the Cupid is distracted by an arrow he is shot with by a female Cupid), strikes exactly the right chord, one of the sweetest music videos I’ve seen in ages.

And it’s a song that really deserves it. One of the most sincere, touching and direct mainstream love songs of the decade thusfar, it’s no coincidence that the song is starting to peak on the charts just as Valentine’s Day is coming up. “Cupid’s Chokehold” is a fascinating blend of emo and hip-hop, not only in terms of the sound, but in terms of culture and methodology–it has the wit and obviousness of the best hip-hop love songs, with the unguarded feeling and sensitivity of the best emo love songs. Listen to how soft and dreamy McCoy’s voice suddenly gets when the chorus hits–“I mean she even cooks me pancakes / and alka-seltzer when my tummy aches / if that ain’t love, then I don’t know what love is“–he sounds legitimately touched, and the simple details conveyed, if not particularly mindblowing, are real enough to drive it home. There are some clunkers, sure–“If I had to choose between her and the sun / I’d be one nocturnal son of a gun” being perhaps the worst offender–but even those clumsy compliments are heartfelt enough to be entirely forgivable.

And then of course, there’s the Supertramp sample. It doesn’t quite work perfectly–by nature, it’s sort of antithetical to the song’s otherwise gushingly amorous nature (“Not much of a girlfriend / I never seem to get a lot”)–but even still, it gives the song the anchor it needs, isn’t used more than necessary (especially in the remix in the second vid, which drops out the pointless background “girlfriend!” exhortations from the verses). And fuck, it’s a great hook–the most memorable part of the original song, and a ridiuclously off-beat and inspired choice to provide the unforgettable chorus to this soon-to-be classic.

Possibly the best hit love song since “We Belong Together.”

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