The Best Thing About Year-End Top Ten Lists
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Around this time of year, we music critics get extra weird. The creation of the year-end top-ten list is the sort of thing that keeps critics up at night, and right around now is when we need to obsessively chart our iTunes listens and make impossible decisions: "Can't Tell Me Nothing" or "Stronger"? "Boy Looka Here" or "Let's Get This Paper"? "Innocence" or "Innocence (Simian Mobile Disco Remix)"? Since most of us labor under the delusion that people actually care about what we think, that people will painstakingly scrutinize our top-ten lists and judge us accordingly, these become serious questions. And never mind that we've still got a good month and a half left in the year; if the critic in question happens to write for an outlet that wants his or her top fifty tracks of the year (say, a website like Pitchfork), that stress increases exponentially. This is the time of year where enjoying music starts to become something other than enjoyable. The upside: looking back on the year, we almost always come up with a song or two that we'd totally neglected, songs that snuck up on us and burrowed their way into our frontal lobes, songs whose greatness we're now compelled to acknowledge. A couple of months ago, I podcasted a song called "Stack Paper Up," from the Georgia rap group Born Wit It. I'd downloaded it from Discobelle, a Scandinavian mp3 blog and a surprisingly reliable source of synthetic bangers and hilarious mutations of American slang. I don't know a whole lot about Born Wit It "Stack Paper Up" (which I now realize I've been mistakenly calling "Stack My Paper Up" since I first heard it). Born Wit It's MySpace page offers that he's from the Ellenwood/Decatur area and that he wants to make "everlasting music." There's a non-functional link to an indie label called Riva Road Records and a few thoroughly nondescript songs and virtually zero further information about "Stack Paper Up" or the guys who made it. According to Discobelle, "Stack Paper Up" is a DJ Toomp production, and it features B.O.B., a young Atlanta rapper who's been accumulating some buzz lately. And I'm going to have to go by what Discobelle says, since I haven't seen a word written about this song anywhere else.
The first thing you notice about "Stack Paper Up" is probably the main reason Discobelle posted it in the first place: it makes heavy use of the sampled string-section from the Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony," a song I love. Back in 1997, when "Bittersweet Symphony" was inescapable, I can remember feeling profoundly moved just about every time I heard it, even when it was playing in a Nike ad during the closing montage or Cruel Intentions or whatever. When the Verve cancelled their appearance at the 1998 Tibetan Freedom Concert in DC, I was seriously pissed even though I didn't particularly like any of their other songs; I knew I'd be missing out on a peerlessly huge stadium singalong. And when Justin Timberlake's Madison Square Garden show ended with the song blaring over the arena speakers while Timberlake and his band took their bows, it almost felt like a long-deferred promise fulfilled."Bittersweet Symphony" should be a piece of shit, but those surging, straining strings save it, turning a bloated, meaningless dad-rock monstrosity into something devastating. Those strings were, of course, the reason the Verve never made any money from the song. They'd sampled the string section from the Andrew Oldham Orchestra's version of the Rolling Stones' "The Last Time," and through some massive lawsuit clusterfuck that I don't quite understand, they had to give up the song's rights and royalties. And so those strings are probably going to insure that "Stack Paper Up" will never see legitimate release. Born Wit It is, after all, a completely unproven rap group, and no sane label is going to shell out the bajillions that the sample would probably cost just so "Stack Paper Up" can hit record-store shelves.
Too bad. I liked "Stack Paper Up" when I first heard it, but it only really became a top-ten contender for me when my brother got ahold of it. He's looking for a job right now, and he told me that the song made him want to find work that would actually pay, convinced him that the shitty bike-messenger job he'd just landed wouldn't be good enough. I can see what he's saying. "Stack Paper Up" is basically nothing more than the "Bittersweet Symphony" strings with big drums and heavily-accented rapping, but those strings give a sort of world-weary dignity to the hunger and pride in the rappers' voices, and the rappers' voices lend the strings a sense of all-consuming urgency. When rap producers use gallingly obvious samples, especially samples of white pop rather than black soul (think Kanye with Daft Punk), there's an element of stunt-casting; part of the thrill is just in the recognition. Occasionally, though, that thrill of recognition blows out into something bigger. Last week, I wrote about Cam'ron's "Just Us," another song that'll make my year-end top ten. "Just Us" uses a sample of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," and it's about the billionth time Cam'ron has rapped over some instantly recognizable pop detritus; elsewhere on his new mixtape, he also raps over Journey's "Separate Ways" and some Foreigner (I think it's Foreigner) song that I should probably recognize but don't. But "Just Us" is that rare example of a stunt-sample that becomes something else because the new song finds powerful new ways to connect with the sentiment already there in the sample-material. "Stack Paper Up" works the same way. Maybe it'll probably never see proper release, but at least it'll end up on at least one critic's year-end top-ten list.