Just as I suspected, the pummeling torrent of equally emphasized beats that infiltrated R&B and hip-hop in a big way last year shows no signs of breaking. We're only a quarter of the way done with '08, and I've already collected eight tracks of 4/4 bumpin'. I considered assembling these into a mini-mix, but I think I'll wait and just do another year-end mix a la The House of R&B. In the meantime, here are some tracks keeping the trend alive:
Mariah Carey - "I'm That Chick"
Out of all of the tracks that are part of this mini-retro-movement, this is my favorite. It’s already one of my favorite Mariah tracks of all time, and I can’t believe that it wasn’t the first single from E=MC² (rumor has it that L.A. Reid was pushing for it to be the lead-off, and Mariah pushed back, wanting either “Migrate,” or what it actually turned out to be, “Touch My Body”). More than any other R&B track to jump on the 4/4 trend, this is unabashed disco and for that, it feels like a sly sort of retribution (now that she's back on top, she can boogie again like Glitter never happened). Lyrically, it’s braggadocios enough to sound like Mariah wishes she could rap it (“I’m like that oowee ya fiendin’ / To blaze up and taste me / Got flavor like ice cream / ‘Cause I’m that chick you like,” Mariah accurately boasts).
She performed this at the party for The Hills’ premiere, and I’m not sure if it was her band or the mixing, or what, but the low-end of the track ended up being turned way down in the version that hit MTV.com. I corrected that in the video above using a loop from the intro to Ne-Yo’s “Because of You” (Stargate produced both tracks, and I’m pretty sure that the scratchily textured 4/4 used for that track has been recycled for this one, it’s just a bit faster on “Chick”). My re-pump, if you will, is much more akin to the song’s sound on the album (which I’ve heard and like and will obviously go into in much greater detail, come release week), and it really lifts the song, I think. I decided to upload not an MP3, as I originally intended, because, after all, L.A. Reid has blogs by the balls, and I don’t want to jeopardize all of this for something as dumb as that. I can’t blame him for being so protective – this shit’s a gem.
Danity Kane's second album, Welcome to the Dollhouse, breezes by too quickly to let a little thing like personality get in its way. Its heightened pulse allows it to compete in the ever-dancier realm of R&B, and makes the album a less important and impacting incarnation of Britney’s Blackout. Call it Brownout. The set’s most exhilarating offering and first single, “Damaged,” sports a 4/4 stomp that sounds less like the descendant of a sweaty dancing box in Chicago, and more like the product of a marching-band tantrum. “Sucka for Love” is more conventional, and despite its decently catchy hook, it’s more track than song. That's probably the point: the hotter the production percolates, the easier it is for the DK girls to evaporate into it.
I miss the days when you didn’t have to watch a TV show to have to distinguish between vocalists (why do all roads of nostalgia lead back to En Vogue?). Danity Kane's four or five or six or however many members are nobodies by design (what, you expected personality from something the steadfastly vapid Diddy engineered?). That’s underscored by the fact that the group’s collective name is the most individualistic thing about it.
Estelle - "American Boy"
will.i.am rarely gets the respect he deserves as a producer, but as long as he keeps on turning out addictive, genre-busting tracks like “American Boy,” that’s bound to change. Originally a mostly instrumental track from his own Songs About Girls (there it was called “Impatient" and slightly faster), “American Boy” offers the breezy beach house vibe that Janet served with “Rock With You,” but this one actually has a chance to be a hit (it’s No. 1 in the U.K., as of last week). Estelle, an otherwise unexciting Brit R&B singer (imagine!) turns in a cute and flirty performance, but it’s Kanye doing his best Fast Eddie that makes this track. Finally, he makes good on those Chi-town roots!
And speaking of Kanye, how amazing is “Flashing Lights”? I sort of wrote off Graduation immediately, perhaps out of self-preservation -- my life could only benefit from never again having to hear the obsequious “The Good Life” (after all, the only sign of hit-desperation more pronounced than including T-Pain on your track is interpolating a Michael Jackson song – “The Good Life” does both). However, there are some good tracks, including the pummeling “Flashing Lights,” which in instrumental form sounds almost like a Southern-fried cosmic disco track (dig the strings!). When the beat ceases in the middle of the track, the silence becomes the loudest thing track has to offer – it’s a concept even simpler than the addictive nature of the 4/4 stomp, but just as beautiful.
Kylie Minogue featuring Mims - All I See
And speaking of Kanye, again, how much does Mims sound like him on this re-purposed track from Kylie’s X? Even worse, he takes Kanye’s biggest flaw as an MC (the tendency to repeat the meter that goes duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-daaah…duh) and pummels it even further to the ground. Has it reached hell yet? The good news is that thanks to the rapper’s guest spot, the R&B essence of this track is fully noticeable. I listened to X once and it didn’t stick out (frankly, nothing did), but with Mims driving things home, Kylie sounds like some pretty young anonymous thing on R&B radio who has a minor hit or two in her (paging Cheri Dennis?). So maybe not being fully noticed is the point. But whatever, this track is lovely, and if nothing else it makes sense for Kyle to be implicitly pointing out the bridge between dance music and today’s R&B, as she never gave up 4/4 even when so many others (even Madonna) did. Her disco needs her, and she's finding clever ways to provide.
This track isn’t always 4/4 (only half the time: every four bars it switches from pounding to a broken up, typically Southern stroll, which makes it, I don’t know, 4/4 ½?), but when the pounding ceases, it just makes you want it more. Trina’s delivery is like the faces of so many people that I have to look at repeatedly for work and otherwise: when someone who previously didn’t starts looking attractive to you, you wonder if you just didn’t notice before, or if you’ve become so acclimated to their face that you can now only judge that person against him or herself. You wonder if the standard of beauty has somehow become irrelevant or so lopsided that it might as well be irrelevant. So yeah, I can’t tell when Trina is rapping well or just rapping well for Trina. With Missy running this the track mostly just makes me excited for her upcoming album, which, if Timbaland’s ongoing obsession with 4/4 continues, should sound like Studio 54 painted in Glo-Stick fluid, with any luck.
O'Neal McKnight featuring Greg Nice - "Check Your Coat"
Originally released last year to little fanfare, “Check Your Coat” was recently revamped with a few energizing verses from Nice & Smooth’s Greg Nice, who sounds like he hasn’t aged a day. He’s the perfect compliment for the smooth McKnight, whose self-assuredness suggests that he knows he’s destined for stardom – I hope so, too. I hope this track ends up with a slow-burn popularity akin to Cassie’s “Me & You,” because I love it, bass-line to bass drum. Sure, it’s a little silly, a meta banger that’s named after one of the least essential parts of a good night out, but shit, even if O’Neal was singing about “Hit the Urinal,” or “Pick Gum Off Your Shoe,” he’d have me sold as long as the accompanying track were this electric.
For the first four bars, you wonder if you’re headed into a riff-heavy uptempo like Destiny Child’s “Bootylicious.” Then the 4/4 drops in and, for the next four bars, you’re in hands-in-the-air house territory. And then the verse starts and all gives way to a guitar, plucked to power-balladry. The separated elements eventually come back together, braiding and untangling on this, the most complicated track of Ne-Yo’s career thus far. Who could have predicted that the man responsible for the so-adult-it’s-tired treacle of “So Sick” just two years ago, could turn out some of the most sophisticated, marketable pop of his time. This track doesn’t top “Because of You” for me in terms of unadulterated love, but I’ve never admired Ne-Yo’s balls more. This being the lead single from his third album in two-and-a-half years, Year of the Gentleman, it’s as though Ne-Yo’s bent on evolving as rapidly as possible. Advancement is becoming his aesthetic. If he’s come so far in two years, expect him to be virtually superhuman in two more. (Thanks to my boy Reed for the heads-up on this one.)