In early 2010, A.V. Club writer Nathan Rabin decided to listen to and write about the bestselling, zeitgeist-friendly CD series NOW That’s What I Call Music! in chronological order. Each one of the 34 American NOW! collections compiles a cross-section of recent hits from across the musical spectrum. Beginning with the first entry from 1998, this column examines what the series says about the evolution and de-evolution of pop music.
- “03 Bonnie & Clyde,” Jay-Z featuring Beyoncé
- “Bump, Bump, Bump,” B2K featuring P.Diddy
- “Jenny From The Block,” Jennifer Lopez
- “Don’t Mess With My Man,” Nivea featuring Brian & Brandon Casey of Jagged Edge
- “Luv U Better,” LL Cool J
- “Air Force Ones,” Nelly featuring Kyjuan, Ali & Murphy Lee
- “Made You Look,” Nas
- “Beautiful,” Snoop Dogg featuring Pharrell & Charlie Wilson
- “Blowin’ Me Up (With Her Love),” JC Chasez
- “Like I Love You,” Justin Timberlake
- “Breathe,” Télépopmusik
- “I Should Be,” Dru Hill
- “Stole,” Kelly Rowland
- “Miss You,” Aaliyah
- “Angel,” Amanda Perez
- “Pretty Baby,” Vanessa Carlton
- “Somebody Like You,” Keith Urban
- “The Red,” Chevelle
- “Always,” Saliva
- “When I’m Gone,” 3 Doors Down
Jennifer Lopez’s “Jenny From the Block” may be the single most misguided act of pop self-mythologizing in the history of the universe. Its miscalculation and hypocrisy are breathtaking: It’s an arrogant song about being humble and a gratingly artificial faux-celebration of keeping it real. It’s a would-be manifesto so rife with untenable contradictions, I’m surprised Lopez’s brain didn’t explode halfway through recording it.
So let’s get all academic and treat this fascinating cultural artifact to a close reading. Over an infectious beat “borrowed” from Beatnuts’ “Watch Out Now,” Lopez crows on the chorus that in spite of her vast wealth and the giant blood-diamonds she now sports, she has not forgotten where she comes from. This, apparently, was something she feels needs to be said, over and over again, in pretty much each of her singles. Lopez wants fans and potential haters to know that despite her incredible success, she does not, in fact, labor under the delusion that she’s the Archduchess Of The Netherlands and was born on a sprawling estate sometime in the late 19th century, rather than the South Bronx in 1970.
After the first chorus, Lopez articulates the three main themes of the song:
- She’s incredibly successful, rich, and famous.
- She is not the kind of insecure phony who feels the need to trumpet the fact that she appeared on In Living Color, in many films, and on Oprah.
- She would like everyone to know that she appeared on In Living Color, in many films, and on Oprah.
“Jenny From The Block” is consequently a song divided against itself. It’s full of sentiments that instantly negate one another. To cite an example, at one point, Lopez boasts, “I stay grounded as the amounts roll in.” Gee, if Lopez really were grounded, would she feel the need to brag about her vast wealth? Have you ever heard anyone say, “That Bob sure is grounded. He just loves to talk about all his sports cars and his almost unconscionably huge salary”?
The next few lines somehow manage to be even more transparently paradoxical. Referencing one of her own songs, Lopez brays, “I’m real, I thought I told you / I’ve really been on Oprah.” Is Lopez implying a cause-and-effect relationship between these two statements? Does appearing on Oprah to discuss her glamorous life, famous boyfriend, and unimaginable riches make her authentic and down to earth, or does the fact that she apparently did not lie about appearing on Oprah render her a paragon of authenticity? During times like these, I wish the single came with a study guide and solution sheet. We demand answers now, J.Lo!
The train wreck continues, alternating incredibly arrogant statements and assertions that she’s the furthest thing from arrogant. “I’m in control and loving it / rumors got me laughing, kid / love my life and my public / put God first / then can’t forget to stay real / to me, it’s like breathing.” There are so many things wrong with the above lyrics that I put them in numerical order.
- The incredibly fake laugh Lopez lets out when she pretends that rumors got her laughing, kid.
- The notion that Lopez has her own private public.
- Though she needs to consciously remember to stay real, staying real is also apparently a reflex she never has to think about, like breathing.
It is nice of Lopez to put God above even her incredible career and amazing life, though even that reeks of hubris, as she reminds us that she’s all spiritual and deep, and not just gorgeous and more successful than anyone ever.
I’m a little reluctant to go further, since I discuss this professional-suicidal phase of Lopez’s career extensively in the Gigli entry in the upcoming My Year Of Flops book (available for pre-order now!) but it’s incredible that the video for “Jenny From The Block” manages to magnify the song’s glaring weaknesses and contradictions while adding a few of its own.
It consists entirely of faux-surveillance footage of Lopez making out with her equally rich-and-famous boyfriend at the time, Ben Affleck, and doing the kind of real, grounded things most down-to-earth folks enjoy: sunbathing topless on a yacht, being stalked by the paparazzi and having her ass fondled by a movie star, posing for a high-fashion shoot, and of course, singing in nothing but a bikini bottom, high heels, and a fur coat. It’s like watching a documentary about my life! And to think, there were still some folks who doubted Lopez’s realness and hated on her, even though she specifically asserted her realness countless times and admonished folks not to hate her! Clearly she shares Mary J. Blige’s strong anti-hateration views.
I hope Lopez continues her campaign of realness, rigorous self-examination, and brutal honesty via a new version of “Jenny From The Block” reflecting the current state of her life with lyrics like “My career is really in a freefall / I haven’t had a hit in forever / My label, they just dropped me / my best days really are over.”
Speaking of rich, famous people rubbing listeners’ faces in their vast wealth, Jay-Z pops up alongside future wife Beyoncé for the kickoff track, “03 Bonnie & Clyde.” I find Jay-Z terribly overrated, but I like him. Still, this is one of his worst singles. For starters, the beat and chorus are borrowed from 2Pac’s “Me And My Girlfriend,” and the title from Eminem’s “’97 Bonnie & Clyde.” To make matters worse, Jay-Z borrows limply from 2Pac, an icon who peppered his lyrics with statements like “I’m a Bad Boy killa, Jay-Z die too” (from “Bomb First”).
There’s something inherently creepy about exploiting a dead rapper who hated you, but the borrowing wouldn’t be as egregious if the song were any good. Instead, it’s a tacky knock-off about a luxury-obsessed young girlfriend who “gets Carrie fever” when she and Jay-Z watch Sex And The City together, and receives such Carrie Bradshaw-approved gifts as Hermes, Manolo Blahnik Timbs, aviator-lens sunglasses, and Burberry bikinis in exchange for being such a loyal rider. Is this is a hip-hop song, or brand-name luxury porn à la Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho? Somehow, I can’t imagine 2Pac looking down from heaven (where he’s likely already learned whether it has a ghetto) approvingly at one of his songs being used to herald the virtues of watching Sex And The City in rapt silence with a girlfriend so both parties can give it their undivided attention.
Jay-Z’s “03 Bonnie & Clyde” pales in comparison to the version with a freestyle from its producer, Kanye West. West’s version isn’t merely preferable to Jay-Z’s mindless celebration of crass consumption, it’s the antidote. Where “03 Bonnie & Clyde” said nothing about life at the top of the socioeconomic food chain, Kanye’s freestyle is a funny, insightful exploration of mating rituals between the broke and ambitious, a bittersweet remembrance of a time when West’s “credit was so pathetic” he couldn’t get a credit card, and he was “broke as fuck.”
I’ve found that the further you get from poverty, the rosier it becomes, and West’s freestyle is filled with a bittersweet nostalgia for the bad old days when he and a girlfriend he knew he’d leave behind en route to superstardom would go dutch. Back then, he could only dream about the day they’d be able to smoke proper Phillys instead of splitting the last roach. West’s melancholy account of a distant age when he and an ex-girlfriend were “V.I.P.—Very Imaginary Playaz” is real, honest, and truthful, so you sure as shit aren’t going to see it on any NOW! compilations.
From “I Need Love” onward, LL Cool J has been synonymous with hip-hop love songs. He was the original rap heartthrob, a swaggering badass with alternately tough and tender sides. He wasn’t afraid to expose his vulnerability. But in 2003, he was desperately in need of a comeback, so like everyone and their mother, he hooked up with The Neptunes, who lent a dreamy, string-laden beat to the refreshingly mature love song “Luv U Better.”
Like West’s freestyle (or faux-freestyle, since he clearly wrote it), LL Cool J offers a refreshingly realistic look at a relationship where the giddy infatuation and butterflies of young love have given way to resentment, boredom, and meaningless confrontations. “I used to tell you that your hair looked fly / kiss you slow and stare in your eyes / now I talk real foul and slick / every other sentence is ‘You make me sick,’” he reflects, though I hope he’s exaggerating. I know I’d feel pretty fed up if every time LL Cool J left for work in the morning, his goodbye sounded like this:
LL Cool J: So I’m going to be at the studio until about 5. You make me sick. Then I’ll probably hit the gym. You make me sick. Then I might have dinner with my parrot sidekick from Deep Blue Sea, and afterward, I’ll come back home so we can re-watch Toys. I love you, and you make me sick.
I could see where that would get a little oppressive. Thankfully, Cool J spends the rest of the song articulating how and why he will, in the future, luv u better. It’s a disarmingly sweet, sincere song with fantastic production. The same is true of another standout track, “Beautiful.” Here, Snoop Dogg, who advised us not to trust that ho, and stated unequivocally that it would be silly of him to fall in love with a bitch, knowing damn well that he was caught up in his grip on “Ain’t No Fun,” stops the tough-guy posturing and opines on the simple pleasures of watching Clueless with your best gal. What is it with gangsta rappers and girly television shows on NOW! 12? When oh when will M.O.P. finally come out of the closet and profess their love for One Tree Hill?
Nelly and some other guys’ “Air Force Ones” and Nas’ “Made You Look” are love songs, albeit not of the traditional variety. On the infectious single “Made You Look,” Nas oozes self-love as he swaggers over a monster beat derived from the Incredible Bongo Band’s much-sampled classic “Apache,” while “Air Force Ones” is an insipid valentine to new footwear, courtesy of Nelly and the St. Lunatics.
LL Cool J wasn’t the only artist looking to reinvent himself in 2003. ’N Sync’s J.C. Chasez attempted to pull a Justin Timberlake and be reborn as a blue-eyed soulman, with much less success. The silly, moderately fun “Blowin’ Me Up (With Her Love)” sounds unmistakably like a Neptunes production—think a New Orleans marching band running into a brick wall—but it was actually produced by the venerable, successful Dallas Austin, who also pops in for a cameo in a video that features all of the following:
- An attractive, successful man trying and failing to seduce a hair-extensions-crazed Tara Reid
- Monster trucks
- A cameo from Mariah Carey’s future husband.
Does it need anything more? No, it does not.
The Neptunes came close to having a monopoly on hit production in the ’00s, but R. Kelly wasn’t far behind. In the next entry, Kelly turns Ginuwine and B2K into R. Kelly mini-mes. On NOW! 12, Kelly wrote and produced the guilty-pleasure B2K single “Bump, Bump, Bump,” which I find fascinating primarily as a vehicle for the hype-man antics of the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy.
Now, you might think being a hype man is easy. You just show up at a recording session for a friend or someone you’re contractually obligated to collaborate with, and babble enthusiastic nonsense over the track. If only it were that simple. At every moment, Diddy is faced with a maddening, almost overwhelming number of options. Does a specific lyric call for a “Yeah, yeah, I like that,” or a “Can’t stop, won’t stop”? Should Diddy simply repeat what a singer or rapper said, but with a slightly different inflection? Or should he throw in a “Bad Boy, baby!” or “Uh huh, uh huh?” Maybe a “C’mon, c’mon!” would be more appropriate. How many times should Diddy shout out the name of the artist whose tracks he’s babbling on? Should Diddy dedicate the song to “sexy ladies,” or “pretty mamacitas?” How many times should he grunt “They call me Diddy!”? It’s nowhere near as easy as it seems, which is why Diddy is arguably the greatest artist in the world. C’mon, c’mon!
Let’s end this unusually strong NOW! volume with a high and a down note: Aaliyah’s “Miss You.” Like Gram Parsons’ “In My Hour Of Darkness,” it’s a heartbreaking tribute to a lost friend that sounds unmistakably like an artist writing and delivering her own eulogy. Over a minimalist Timbaland concoction and the sound of birds twittering, Aaliyah mourns a departed lover in a way that would be tender and touching under any circumstances, but becomes almost unbearably sad in light of Aaliyah’s early death. It’s the heart and soul of a superior entry in a franchise that often lacks both qualities.
Up next on THEN! Justin Timberlake will have you naked by the end of the song, Lisa Marie Presley tries her hand at the family business, a pre-Slaughterhouse Joe Budden scores a semi-hit, and Counting Crows team up with lesbian-orgy enthusiast Vanessa Carlton for “Big Yellow Taxi.”
Outside the bubble: What else was happening in music circa March 2003:
Killer Mike unleashes a Monster.
The White Stripes drop Elephant, world swoons in delight.
Pretty guitar-playing lady Kaki King releases her debut, Everybody Loves You.