Status Ain't Hood's Quarterly Report: The Year's Best Singles
His heart bleeded, girl
This year has yielded a whole lot of great mp3-blog material, songs that fly in from the margins but go straight for immediate-gratification stimulus-rush. I didn't really list any of those songs, though, since none of them have really become singles, at least not in the way I define the term. For me to list a song here, I have to feel that it's made its way into the air, that I'm as likely to hear it coming out of a passing car as I am to hear it coming out of my laptop speakers. Some of that has to do with the weird little cultural bubble I live in; LCD Soundsystem's "North American Scum" definitely isn't a hit single by any definition, but it's tunneled its way into a lot of conversations that I've had lately, so it counts. DJ Jazzy Jeff and Peedi Crack's "Brand New Funk 2K7," Glass Candy's "I Always Say Yes," Dizzee Rascal's "Pussyhole," and Kavinsky's "Testarossa Autodrive" are all songs I really like, but I don't feel like any of them has quite made their impact yet. The only time I've encountered any of them anywhere unexpected was when Diplo played "Pussyhole" last weekend, which sort of doesn't count. You should definitely Hypemachine all of them right now, though. Also, the video for DJ Khaled's "We Takin' Over" came out a couple of days too late for the song to qualify, but fucking fuck.
1. Justin Timberlake: "What Goes Around.../...Comes Around." It's been around for months now, and the video is straight dogshit, but I still haven't gotten over the song. As soft and soothing as the song itself may be, it's tough to overstate how brave and fully realized a move it was: a boy-band R&B guy and a Southern rap and R&B producer doing a swollen six-and-a-half-minute emo-heartbreak anthem, beating Lite-FM content-providers like Coldplay and Snow Patrol at their own game, keeping their chokehold on pop radio in the process. "Cry Me a River" was certainly a precedent, but Timbaland and Timberlake stayed in their own lane there, turning R&B and teenpop inside-out and finding endless room for play within those genres' borders but never really moving outside them. "What Goes Around..." is a startlingly successful leap into unmapped territory. Musically, "What Goes Around..." takes all the elements of first-rate waiting-room music and reorganizes and builds on them. It keeps all the original strengths of that stuff: the subdued and melancholy strings, the lightly cresting waves of guitar, the vulnerable-but-huge falsetto chorus. But it also adds its own sonic flourishes: the big bass hum, the swarming snares, the airy violins that dart in and out of the mix. And Justin's performance is, as Zach Baron wrote here, "some real can't-let-go shit," an unapologetic wallow in transcendent personal misery all the more satisfying and resonant for its pettiness. The story about this song is that it's really about Justin's friend getting dumped by the girl who played Kim on 24, but that's just a cover and everyone knows it; you don't get this destroyed when you're talking about someone else's problems. The best Coldplay song since "Clocks."
2. Bloc Party: "I Still Remember." Best Coldplay song since "What Goes Around..."; too bad the video is almost as bad. A lot of people aren't too thrilled that Bloc Party has moved away from the nervy, angular jitter-punk of its debut album toward a grander, darker, presumably more commercial Echo & the Bunnymen-type steez, but from where I'm sitting, A Weekend in the City is a powerful example of a band willing itself to break past its limitations and make something bigger than they'd ever allowed themselves to think possible. Other than maybe ?uestlove, Matt Tong is apparently the only drummer left alive who will allow a little bit of jungle influence to creep into his rhythms, and that off-kilter burnt-concrete paranoia just drips off almost every song on the album. But "I Still Remember" is the moment where the clouds break and a delirious warmth comes flooding in. It's also the moment where Kele Okereke's mostly-terrible lyrics suddenly congeal into into something tangible and real. Instead of going for big voice-of-a-generation pronouncements, he scales everything back, remembering a long-passed afternoon with someone he wishes was still in his life. The fact that that person was a boy is almost incidental, but it only serves to make the song's longing that much more poignant; it's hard not to sympathize with this guy who wouldn't allow himself to talk about his sexuality even as he was becoming a pop star remembering himself as a bottled-up kid afraid to let anything slip. The little disconnected images of gestures and facial expressions add up to a lot more than the melodramatic "North London is a vampire" shit he kicks on the rest of the album; the specificity is what makes them stick. When the liquid guitars soar outward and the wordless backing vocals flare up on the chorus, the pathos becomes damn near unbearable. Also, I heard this song in the Gap a couple of weeks ago and it made me want to buy a backpack or something, which is always a good sign.
3. Young Buck: "Get Buck." Not a Coldplay song at all. The beat for "Get Buck" is probably my favorite thing that Polow da Don had done yet, which is saying something. For the first eighteen seconds, it's epic spaceship-funk: terrified choral gasps, woozy guitar-plunks, a wibbly synth that phases back and forth between channels. And then that world-destroying tuba-thump comes in and pulls everything closer to the ground, making it bigger and harder and more devastating. There's an itchy bongo drum in the background; you can barely hear it underneath all that stomp, but it lends everything else this sort of nervous immediacy. And Polow keeps layering on new bits of music throughout the track, which I love; he doesn't just make a beat and let it keep playing unchanged throughout the song. When the song gets closer to the chorus, everything gets faster and more frantic, like fast-food employees scurrying around to clean up their restaurant before the chain's CEO walks in. Instruments drop in once and then disappear for the rest of the song, like the quick little trumpet-stab after Buck says "and body-rocking," which never comes back. The enormous trombone-riff that fills the last twenty seconds could anchor a track by itself, but here it's just another piece of the behemoth. Buck doesn't say much of anything, but he sounds exhilarated and overjoyed, like he's been waiting his entire life for a beat like this to come along. Most rappers wouldn't know what to do with something this huge and this cluttered, but Buck does: he uses his voice like a club, swinging and smashing and pushing it, fighting his way to the top of the mix and barking wildly just so he can stay there. Judging by what 50 Cent said on Hot 97 a couple of days ago, Buck could be on his way out of G-Unit, and that's good; Buck doesn't need 50's help to make bangers like this one.
4. Timbaland feat. Nelly Furtado & Justin Timberlake: "Give It to Me." I've barely been living with the thing for a week, but Shock Value's weaknesses are already starting to outweigh its charms. "Give It to Me," though, still sticks the way it first did when it leaked out late last year. Part of the charm is the whole low-key family-affair aspect of the thing. The starpower involved is ridiculous, and everyone involved other than maybe Furtado really lives for making these huge great-leap-forward statements, but that's not what they're doing here. Instead, it seems like this group of friends who just happen to be extremely talented and famous all getting together again to mess around and talk shit, sort of like Timbaland's version of Ocean's Twelve or a group blog or something. Timbaland disses Scott Storch, of course, but he doesn't do it in some big throwing-the-gauntlet publicity-stunt gesture; he's just issuing a quick warning in the middle of a verse about how great he is. Justin's target is a little more mysterious; depending on who you listen to, it's Janet Jackson or Kevin Federline or Prince or someone else. I sort of hope it's not Prince, but then could you imagine how funny that feud might get? Whoever he's talking about, it's fun to hear him put on that ill-fitting tough-talk rap voice, and his boasts have the same casual, tossed-off quality that Timbaland's do. As for Furtado, she has no target, and she can barely finish a sentence on-beat, but Tim warps and chops up her vocals into a weird dubby echo-effect to make up for it. The beat itself is, of course, the big draw here, and it's the sort of effortlessly elegant thing that could've been moldering on one of Tim's hard-drives for years, but that doesn't diminish the insistent brilliance of its mocking, otherworldly synth line or its ascending layers of drums. Part of the problem with Shock Value is that Tim tries too hard, thrashing around so he can incorporate as many ill-advised pop genres as possible. "Give It to Me" works because it throws all those tendencies out the window, giving us a chance to hear a master doing what he does best. That sort of thing never gets old.
5. UGK: "The Game Belongs to Me." If this and "International Players Anthem" and "Next Up" are any indication, I really shouldn't be worrying about the new UGK album. On those other two tracks, Pimp and Bun manage to pull their guests into their world rather than awkwardly attempting to adjust their styles to fit their guests. And that UGK style is one of the most enduring in rap, a humanely downcast combination of sweet, organic Southern soul and dense, banging old-school drum-programming. They might be outsourcing some of their production, but they're finding people whose strengths complement theirs. Still, neither of those tracks has quite the eternal warmth of "The Game Belongs to Me," where Bun and Pimp sink determinedly back into their comfort zones and do away with any outside help. Pimp's track is a thing of beauty: fluttering guitars piled into undulating layers and wrapped around slow Ant Banks drum-ticks. Pimp's nasal singsong honk sounds like a natural outgrowth of the track; he knows exactly how to use one of rap's thickest accents. Bun's gravelly boom is just as intuitive, but his syllables come in quicker clumps, pushing and poking the track around rather than just rising out of it. They know what they're doing. Now if Jive will just go ahead and release the fucking album, we'll be set.
6-10. 8Ball & MJG feat. Project Pat: "Relax and Take Notes"; LCD Soundsystem: "North American Scum"; Joss Stone: "Tell Me 'Bout It"; Beyonce feat. Shakira: "Beautiful Liar"; Silversun Pickups: "Lazy Eye."