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It’s All In the Details: Comments on Specific Parts of Radio Hits


One of the byproducts of radio’s refusal to play more than say, the same eight songs all day, every day, is that you get to really think about and focus on those few they do play a whole bunch of times. It makes the bad ones suddenly interesting and the already good ones really interesting.

-The Chillwaviness of “Un-Thinkable”
Alicia Keys, produced by Noah “40″ Shebib

This production by Noah “40″ Shebib (another Canadian child-star), is the first Alicia Keys song since “You Don’t Know My Name” that escapes the mannered, A-Student-ness of most of her work. There’s emotion here and desperation–you know, the stuff soul music’s supposed to contain. Weirdly though, “Un-Thinkable” gets to that point by stealing a whole bunch of moves from “In the Air Tonight”, throwing in some slivers of Eric Johnson guitar, Toto synth-flute, and just in general, getting itself mired in 80s action show score histrionics. Crockett could lose a lover to a drug-lord set to this song, you know?

But it’s oddly modern too, it lacks that cheez, even as it conjures up images of the beachy, chilled-out 80s grooves. It strolls along at almost the exact same depressed-but-dancing pace as Washed Out’s “Feel It All Around”. In one end of the 80s cornball vortex and out the other side as something that’ll make you tear-up. That’s chillwave, right?

-Nicki Minaj’s verse on “My Chick Bad”
Ludacris ft. Nicki Minaj, produced by The Legendary Traxster

When this unfortunate song comes on, it’s all about the build-up to Nicki Minaj’s verse. Those oboe sounds rumbling and rumbling, hinting that something big and worthwhile’s gonna appear and well, you get it: Minaj for 45 necessary seconds. It doesn’t even matter that she does the “name a [movie] and guess who’s playing [villain of that movie]” thing twice in a row, it’s a break from Luda’s coasting and there’s energy and fun injected into a song that only thinks it’s energetic and fun.

Her verse is also a clever flip on the female-verse-as-counterpoint thing that’s rap’s always employed. You expect her to give voice to the “bad chick” Luda’s talking about, verifying the stuff he’s said and throwing in some of her own perspective on it all. But Minaj doesn’t concede to anything, she just talks shit and does whatever the hell she wants. She redefines Luda’s use of the word “bad”. It’s a twist-ending–like some funky R. Crumb comic where the bad bitch shows up and chop’s everyone’s dick off.

-The Brassy Atmospherics of “Find Your Love”
Drake, produced by Kanye West

The benefit of being a producer, even a super-producer like Kanye West, is that your sound and style can evolve organically. Unlike a conventional recording artist, who dips away for a while and returns with a new album and dramatically shifted image, subtle shifts in beat construction, some newly discovered synth-preset, or a wonky drum pattern peak out of a few songs here and there before the “new” sound hits critical mass on the next album. Before Graduation we had his work on Press Play or Finding Forever to prepare us.

808s & Heartbreak though was that big, aggressive, capital-A “artist” seachange. But since then, many of the sounds on that album have found their way into his new production work and we’re all like, retroactively understanding that album as a classic. Recall “Love Lockdown” and “Amazing” where vocals or some electronic sound got so overloaded with effects and manipulation that it echoed out of the song like some prehistoric wail. Well, it’s here on “Find Your Love” but a bit more smoothed-out. Crystalline globs of synth, stretched and nearly screwed, spread out into the syrupy new-age soundscape. It’s something for your ears to focus on once the song’s cheap rewards (super-simple drums, a damn catchy but easy chorus) lose their charm.

-The Crowd Noise in “OMG”
Usher ft. Will.I.Am, produced by Will I.Am

Will.I.Am tries to recreate “I Gotta Feeling”–which he did not produce, people forget this–and it comes off goofier, more cloying, and well, better. Dance music is all about structure, knowing when to do this or that, and also knowing when not to do that and “OMG”’s secret weapon is the crowd chanting. If you listen closely, the crowd, which sounds like an army of Jersey Shore cast members with only date-rape on their mind, is almost always simmering below the other sounds of “OMG”.

At certain times, Will.I.Am either pushes it up in the mix or drops it completely out for a few moments. It’s always rewarding when it makes its way back up to the front of the song because it’s instructive–do what the people in the song are doing, it’s telling you–and because it’s a chunk of humanity, of actual human voice and energy in an otherwise obsessively “perfect” song. It’s also just “Kernkraft 400″ with Usher over top of it and well, how the hell could that go wrong?

further reading/viewing:
-”The Playlist: Washed Out – “Feel It All Around” by Mike Orme for Pitchfork
-Wikipedia entry for 40 (Producer)
-”In the Air Tonight” from the Miami Vice Pilot
-”Usher: Painting By Numbers” by Maura Johnston and Jay Smooth for NPR
-Zombie Nation “Kernkraft 400 (Sport Chant Stadium Remix)”
-Complete soundtrack to Commodore 64’s Lazy Jones

Written by Brandon

May 26th, 2010 at 8:53 pm

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