Alicia Keys Ruins Everything
Screw you, Alicia Keys
This past January, when I was spending four hours waiting around at Ghostface's "Back Like That" video shoot for a chance to interview Ghost, I overheard a conversation between two guys, one of whom may have been Ne-Yo's manager or something, talking about how Ne-Yo was planning his career. They were discussing how Ne-Yo wanted to become a singer whose music men could feel OK about liking. One of them held up Akon as an example of what not to do, of an artist whose guest-appearances get respect but whose actual music doesn't. That was a while ago, though. Akon is quickly becoming 2006's version of Nate Dogg, and he has a good chance to become something more. A year and a half ago, Akon had a massive hit with "Lonely," a pretty good pop song with a goofy, cartoony chipmunk-sample, which may have actually hurt his career by making him look like just another pop singer after the hard-ass rigor of "Locked Up" established him. Since then, though, his airy, digitized falsetto has become one of the best things on the radio. An Akon hook has a way of worming its way through your brain and hanging around even as the rest of the song disappears around it. His contributions to Rick Ross's Port of Miami and DJ Khaled's Listennn are highlights of those albums. And he's partly responsible for my favorite single of the year, the remix of Cham's "Ghetto Story." Without Akon, the song would be maybe my third- or fourth-favorite song of the year, a bleak and dystopian march with an unforgiving bassline and absolutely searing lyrics. With him, though, it somehow becomes even better; his voice gives the song a sort of cinematic lift without compromising its central darkness, and he delivers intricate and detailed lyrics almost like a rapper, applying Cham's tense narrative style to a completely different story.
But then, Akon's not as big a star as Alicia Keys. Akon's "Ghetto Story" remix has been getting huge Hot 97 play, but something like this happens every year. New York radio seizes upon a reggae song or two and plays the hell out of them, and the rest of the country doesn't notice. Last summer, I Wayne's "Can't Satisfy Her" got huge airplay here but never became a big hit in the rest of the country. "Ghetto Story" is an undeniable song, but it's not exactly radio-friendly; it's too harsh and violent. So it's good news for Cham, who I guess just dropped the "Baby" from his name, that Alicia Keys has become the second R&B song to sing on a "Ghetto Story" remix. The presence of Keys is probably popular enough to get the song airplay around the country, and she and Cham have apparently filmed a new video for the song in Jamaica. There's already a video for the original version of "Ghetto Story," but it's a piece of crap, all muddy camcorder cinematography and utterly bored, listless performances from the extras. The song is going to need a real video to blow up, and now it'll have that. There's a good chance the song will get the attention it deserves now. But it's a different song.
Keys' "Ghetto Story" remix isn't all that different from Akon's, but the small differences absolutely change the song's tone. Both of them leave Cham's verses unmolested and add their own stories to the gaps in between, both deliver lyrics about hardship with a matter-of-fact clarity, and both of them ably ride the song's hard-as-fuck beat. But Akon sticks with the song's underlying pessimism; even when he gets out of prison, his brother gets shot. And he leaves the song's rugged instrumental alone. In Keys' hands, the song takes on subtle but deep changes. Melodic strings appear from time to time, and the evil ambient synths are just slightly higher in pitch. A pretty little oscillating keyboard favor turns up a little higher in the mix than it needs to be. Akon stepped aside to let Cham do the whole chorus, but Keys sings half of it herself, and her voice is obviously a lot softer than Cham's gravelly bark. (Mercifully, she doesn't attempt the "Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah!" bit.) Keys' verse is truly impressive, a wrenching portrait of a girl growing up in filth and wanting more for herself: "Remember those days when I went to bed hungry / All I ever ate was white rice and honey / Big dreams in my head, empty my tummy / Might crack a smile, but ain't nothing funny." It's powerful stuff, and Keys' vocal is impeccable. She knows her way around a reggae song; the reggae remix of her "You Don't Know My Name" is one of the best things she's ever been a part of. But the slight but perceptible changes she makes to "Ghetto Story" turn it from a dark, desolate, violent piece of work into a song about hope, about pulling yourself out of misery. Some stories don't need happy endings.
Voice review: Laura Sinagra on Alicia Keys' The Diary of Alicia Keys
Voice review: Christopher O'Connor on Akon's Trouble