The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.
As sad as it’ll make fans and critics who worship at the gospel of grunge, there’s a golden age of pop music that has slowly become history’s shorthand for “’90s.” This was a decade bookended by The New Kids On The Block’s multi-platinum Step By Step and the Backstreet Boys 13-times platinum Millennium, and in between there was a pop-country lineage passed from Billy Ray Cyrus to LeAnn Rimes to Shania Twain.
There’s a ’90s greatest hits collection lurking within 1998 alone. The highest selling album that year was the soundtrack to Titanic, and the 1998 Billboard year-end Hot 100 is the decade’s de facto who’s who: Celine Dion, Savage Garden, Rimes, Twain, Usher, Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, Boyz II Men, Will Smith, Hanson, N’Sync, Puff Daddy, Mase, Brandy & Monica, K-Ci & JoJo, and so on. But the song that ultimately reigned supreme was Next’s “Too Close.”
Hindsight is 20/20 and all, but Next’s “Too Close” sticks out like an unrelenting, well, you know. Intros like this weren’t on Top 40 radio in 1998: “I wonder if she could tell I’m hard right now / Yeah, come on, dance for me, baby, yeah / You feel that? All right, come on, don’t stop now / You done did it, come on, yeah, all right, hold on.”
Technically speaking, though, that stanza wasn’t either. That dirty little turn of phrase is from the album version of “Too Close.” The radio version is the same song minus the initial wondering aloud from singer R.L. Huggar. For every scene where Freddie Prinze Jr.’s colleagues keep Jesus between them at the prom, real world teens and clubbers were shouting the back-and-forth bridge of “Too Close.” And, in all likelihood, most didn’t stop to consider what was being said.
“That was purposeful,” Huggar says. “I wanted to be able to say something so slick, you didn’t realize until later that it was about what it was about. How can I say something that they don’t even realize at first because of the melody? I’ve heard people sing it, ‘Baby no more crying.’ Those aren’t the lyrics, but the melody is so strong that if you got a thousand people singing that melody, it’ll sound like the right thing.”
The iconic tune almost wasn’t released. Next initially wanted “Stop, Drop & Roll” to be the second single from Rated Next. Huggar grew up on classic R&B (his cousin is actually Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire) and he always liked the ballads, or, as he puts it, “the sexy kind of music.” He didn’t see a lot of value in uptempo R&B and thought the only good stuff had a rapper featured.
Exec producers Clive Davis and Kay Gee (from Naughty By Nature) had other plans. According to Huggar, Kay Gee told the band he grew up on anthems and knew the difference between radio and the clubs. “It’s all about radio,” Huggar says. “You can always have album cuts that will be favorites in the crib, but radio was always the formula to a hit record.”
“Too Close” was the group’s attempt to blend these desires. The first sound—that uptempo beat—Kay Gee brought in from Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’.” The male-female back-and-forth (“Step back you’re dancing kind of close”) was Huggar’s sexy R&B and initially existed only in the verses. Eventually, the “I love when you shake it…” section was added so the song could end with another call and response. It was a radio-friendly recipe Next would return to in future singles like “Wifey.”
The subject matter itself is a little less complex. Yes, the lyrics may be just subtle enough to get lost in those hooks, but in a popular “Too Close” remix, the words jump out more. Last year, Next’s Terry Brown told Rolling Stone that the concept for the song came “from a conversation we had with several girls at a nightclub,” saying that “it’s talking about the club scene, with guys getting out of hand and the female telling him to back up, asking, ‘What are you doing?’”
It took a few listens to realize what was going on, of course. Years after the song’s release, the Internet is filled with comments and forum posts featuring the same revelation. Searching “Next Too Close” on Twitter is almost guaranteed to bring up someone else’s eureka moment. “That was the point back then, to creatively say things so that people had to really listen to the lyrics,” Huggar says. “Nowadays it’s so blatant, but back then, we wanted people to have to listen a few times before they understood what that’s about. It’s how we fooled radio. It was crazy, radio wasn’t supposed to be playing a lot of that stuff, but they did anyway.”
“Blatant” is an interesting word. Clearly, “Too Close” isn’t so blatant, given the radio play, the fan confusion, and its place in the charts beside modern day teenyboppers, but the song doesn’t hide its story about the laws of club attraction, and that direct approach helped it stand out among the fray. Those who were in on the joke loved it; those who weren’t loved it anyway and could gain an entirely new appreciation later on.
Next’s most suggestive mainstream peer in 1998 was probably Usher, with singles like “Nice & Slow,” “You Make Me Wanna…” and “My Way,” but his lyrics weren’t nearly as overt. Usher’s writing didn’t prompt Robert Christgau to call his album, “cute pop songs about—among less significant matters—their erections and her clitoris.”
In the years that followed, Next’s straight-up sexual approach to songwriting would catch on. Some of the filthiest music in recent memory arrived around the turn of the century—Peaches’ “Fuck The Pain Away” dropped in 2000, Khia’s “My Neck, My Back (Lick It)” hit the Billboard Top 50 in 2001 and the Ying Yang Twins’ “Wait (The Whisper Song)” reached Billboard’s Top 15 in 2005.
Ironically, right around this climax of explicitness, “Too Close” hit the charts again. This time—it came from a boy band. The English group Blue released its fairly loyal cover of “Too Close” in 2001. It was as if they studied the charts from a few years earlier and came to the cliché conclusion if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. The video shows the dichotomy pretty well. In certain scenes they’re recreating the grindtastic club scenes of Next (sans Stephon Marbury T-Wolves jerseys). Frames later, it’s textbook boy band, with coordinated dances happening in front of a visual representation of audio levels. Singers wear sleeveless vests and camouflage, and open shirts flow in the wind and fall off shoulders. When you ask Huggar about why “Too Close” was able to burst the pop bubble back in ’98, his answer unintentionally explains Blue pretty well, too. “The reality of it is music transcends,” he says. “If you put out a hit record and it’s a subject that every race, every gender can relate with to some extent, it should sell.”
Fifteen years ago, “Too Close” was number one on the Billboard’s Hot 100 year-end list. Rated Next eventually went double platinum. Blue—on the U.K. singles chart at least—hit number one in 2001. And even now, there are accounts of DJs like Flosstradamus still spinning Next’s biggest single. After all these years, babies are still grinding, still excited.