The Summer-Jam Report: Fabolous and Ne-Yo's "Make Me Better"
Yesterday's entry, about the phenomenon of the summer jam, was a whole lot of fun to write, mostly because it's always fun to sit and wonder which song is going to be the one to call up memories of this summer in a few years. I already gave my answer of my pick for song of the summer, the Shop Boyz' "Party Like a Rock Star," a song I've probably already written about too much. And I wrote the entry in response to a Kelefa Sanneh article that named Rihanna's "Umbrella" as the song of the summer, choice that seems to be the closest thing we have to a consensus pick right now. But the great thing about this question, of wondering which song is the real pick, is that there's no real right answer. It's a completely subjective thing; a person's pick for the song of the summer says more about the person than it does about the song. All sorts of variables come into play: old preferences, regional proclivities, personal experiences. Virtually every song that finds its way onto the radio during these months is somebody's song of the summer, and a few that didn't make it on probably are as well. So I thought it might be fun on days when not too much else is going on to have a look at some of the other strong contenders for the title. I don't know if I'll turn this into a regular thing or what, but I can certainly think of a few completely inescapable songs that I haven't written about at all yet, songs that really demand some kind of response, especially since we're about halfway through the season now. And the song that sprang to mind first when I thought of this was Fabolous and Ne-Yo's "Make Me Better," a song so omnipresent in New York that it seems to rise up off the asphalt like waves of water-vapor.
What's interesting about "Make Me Better" is how it feels like nothing much on first listen but then gains power with repetition. Mike Clancy, the Voice's web news editor and someone I first met because he was covering the Irv Gotti trial for AM a couple of years ago, said today that there were two sorts of summer jams: the big anthems that you love and the sort of silly and dumb pop songs that you might not like that much the rest of the year but which always sound a lot better during the summer. I'm not sure that split totally works for me, since I tend to like silly and dumb pop songs way more than most people. But let's go with it for a minute: "Make Me Better" starts out as the latter and eventually becomes the former. Everything about the song seems unremarkable at first glance. Fabolous has been responsible for great things in the past ("Breathe," "Young'n," his guest verse on Clipse's "Comedy Central"), but none of those great things have ever prevented him from coming across as an off-brand Jay-Z. He's released so many boring rap&B love songs that that seems to have become his dominant form of expression. And when he deviates from that form these days, he's less likely to come up with a serious banger like "Breathe" and more likely to come up with something like "Diamonds on My Chain," his new album's devastatingly boring first single. ("Return of the Hustle," his other first single, is a pretty obvious attempt to recreate the success of "Breathe," but I don't think it has any of that song's iconic snarl.) His loverman lyrics on "Make Me Better" don't have any particular emotional impact, and they aren't especially seductive. A couple of them are real clunkers: the "Batman and Robin" thing, "I'm gon' need Coretta Scott if I'm gon' be king." More than anything, though, they're notable for how Fab describes a romantic relationship as something like a corporate merger, two movements with intersecting interests becoming one. Ne-Yo is a perfectly reliable and perfectly boring hook-machine with a versatile but indistinct voice. His hook for "Make Me Better" is fine, but it doesn't quite leap out of the speakers at first. As entities, they're both pretty boring, and the combination of the two of them feels like the kind of by-the-numbers single-by-committee that Def Jam's been doing a whole lot of lately. Timbaland, who is definitely not a boring entity, produced the track, but it sounds like he's reigned himself in, purposefully excising all his signature quirks, leaving only a slow-rotating figure (the same Egyptian strings, in fact, that RZA sampled on Raekwon's "Rainy Dayz"), a few breaths, and a basic drum-thump. It sounds matter-of-fact and professional, but it doesn't exactly scream inspiration.
But that string-figure stays throughout the song, never dropping out or varying, and it feels more elemental everytime it curls up. And Ne-Yo's chorus matches its constant cresting, finding its own place in its eddies. So Fabolous is really the perfect rapper for this track, since he sounds perfectly confident even when he's saying the dumbest shit in the world. And there's something really reassuring about that, about the song's tidal whump. The way it uses repetition isn't all that different than how, say, Lungfish does it: it establishes such a simple and basic pattern that any variations in that pattern gain power exponentially. So Ne-Yo's quick little half-verse, the "beside every great man you could find a woman" acapella thing, and the layered up aahs near the end feel momentous even though they're just quick little production-flourishes. And so that soothing repetition works its way into your brain and stays there. When Ne-Yo brought out Fab to do the song at Summer Jam, a bored and flat crowd suddenly woke up and then promptly went back to sleep as soon as Fab did "Diamonds on My Chain." It's a rare occasion: a group of corporate professionals catching lightning in a bottle. "Make Me Better" doesn't fade; it builds. In a few months, I might like it even more than I do now.