A.V. Club writers Genevieve Koski and Steven Hyden have decided to explore the Billboard charts every month in search of the good, the bad, and the ugly of contemporary pop music in all its forms. This week, they take a look at the Hot 100 chart for Jan. 7, 2012.
Flo Rida, “Good Feeling” (No. 6)
Steven: According to my friend and A.V. Club contributor Evan Rytlewski, listening to a new single from mercenary pop-rapper Flo Rida tells you everything you need to know about the current state of lowest-common-denominator Hot 100 trends. So it makes sense for us to open the first This Was Pop column of 2012 with Flo Rida’s latest hit, “Good Feeling,” which came out in late summer 2011 and continues to hang around the upper reaches of the chart. If this song is any indication of what’s in store for pop this year, we can expect more of the airheaded hedonism that defined 2011. “Good Feeling” is a blatant and simpleminded retread of Pretty Lights’ “Finally Moving,” with Flo Rida taking the melody and prominent Etta James sample and pumping up the tempo (à la Avicii’s “Levels”). The result is yet another example of the Europop-biting chirpiness that’s become the boilerplate sound of the Hot 100. “Good Feeling” is less annoying than many contemporary hits—and that Pretty Lights song is undeniably catchy source material—but this is still disposable pap with quickly dissolving flavor.
Genevieve: Is Flo Rida the most anonymous hitmaker in the Hot 100? I’d bet that pretty much everyone with even a passing knowledge of pop music could hum at least a few bars of “Low” or “Right Round” or “Club Can’t Handle Me,” yet would have trouble picking Flo out of a lineup, much less quoting one of his lyrics. He’s content to sit back and let his producers do the work, as epitomized by “Good Feeling,” which is a virtual Matryoshka doll of samples: It basically lifts wholesale “Levels” by Sweden’s answer to David Guetta, Avicii, which itself heavily references Pretty Lights, which samples Etta James. Throw on the inevitable dubstep breakdown, as is mandated by the 2012 Pop Music Stylebook, and you have an undeniably catchy yet vaguely infuriating top 10 hit completely devoid of personality—just the way Flo Rida likes it.
Steven’s grade: C-
Genevieve’s grade: C
Steven: We’re far enough removed from T-Pain’s late-’00s dominance of the pop charts that younger listeners might mistake him for a character created for Lonely Island sketches. The comic quality of T-Pain’s heavily Auto-Tuned vocals has long given his records an inhuman, larger-than-life quality, even as his popularity has been significantly scaled back in recent years. “5 O’Clock” is a reminder that T-Pain’s initial appeal on early hits like “Buy U A Drank” was that of an unassuming, even sweet balladeer, though most of the emotional load is carried by the affecting sample taken from Lily Allen’s “Who’d Have Known.” T-Pain is too much of a caricature at this point to be taken seriously, but Allen makes “5 O’Clock” as good of a comeback single as could be expected from the previous decade’s defining robo-rapper.
Genevieve: I don’t believe that sampling necessarily indicates an inherent lack of creativity or effort—see the entire history of hip-hop for examples to the contrary—but the first two songs on this month’s list bite other songs to such a degree that they’re less samples than mash-ups. Of course, a mash-up implies that both sides of the song are bringing something to the party, and in the case of both “Good Feeling” and “5 O’Clock,” the sample is doing all of the heavy lifting. This is T-Pain singing over a Lily Allen song, not Lily Allen contributing to a T-Pain song; whatever charm it has is due almost entirely to her chorus. To his credit, T-Pain Auto-Tunes himself into a roughly complementary melody that keeps the whole thing from seeming too disparate—something Wiz Khalifa apparently didn’t get the memo on before stumbling in to tack on his throwaway verse—but it’s not enough to keep him from seeming like a guest on his own song.
Steven’s grade: B-
Genevieve’s grade: C
Genevieve: It’s a little weird that the third single from Drake’s much-hyped and almost-as-much-loved Take Care is this digital bonus track, whose Lil Wayne-assisted bumping braggadocio is unlike almost everything else on the moody, downbeat album. Then again, considering Drake’s next single with Rihanna, “Take Care,” is almost sure to be a massive hit, it’s easy to view this one as a bit of a stopgap, an unchallenging bit of programmer bait between “Make Me Proud” and “Take Care” that pays lip service to the Young Money ethos of easy fame and easier women that Drake spends most of Take Care bucking up against. But that album isn’t exactly bursting with radio-ready singles, and “The Motto” is most decidedly radio-ready, with a simple bass-and-handclaps beat and easily digestible “you only live once” credo that are as easy to like as they are to forget.
Steven: If Take Care is Drake working in artist mode—even Drake detractors have to acknowledge that the album is one of 2011’s most musically and thematically ambitious hip-hop records—then “The Motto” is all about paying the bills. As you said, it has nothing to do with the tortured introspection of Take Care, but it’s only because of Drake’s willingness to turn out songs like “The Motto” that he’s able to make albums of long, contemplative tracks riddled with guilt and self-recrimination. The funny thing about “The Motto” is that it doesn’t really have a strong hook, or any kind of hook at all, really—it’s just three guys exchanging verses. While it’s a minor song, it’s not exactly the autopilot radio single it could’ve been, which makes me appreciate it more.
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Steven’s grade: B
Tyga, “Rack City” (No. 44)
Genevieve: With Drake, Lil Wayne, and Nicki Minaj all representing, Young Money has pretty much taken over this month’s This Was Pop, and now here’s another assist from the label’s next big hope, Tyga. It’s easy enough to see how Tyga’s unusual voice and debauched outlook fit in the roster, but his froggy flow and the song’s deep bass isn’t enough to elevate this strip-club-ready track above the level of “boring”—I can’t even muster up the enthusiasm to find this song’s laundry list of money-and-hos clichés offensive. Thankfully, Tyga’s deep croak—which I actually like quite a bit—combined with the wubby bass does create a slightly hypnotic, narcotized effect that makes it easy to tune out what he’s actually saying and just melt into the song’s syrupy haze.
Steven: The best thing about “Rack City” is the title; the worst thing is this YouTube video titled simply “Me And My Grandma Dancing To ‘Rack City.’” (Watching this video, I feel like how Rick Santorum must feel all the time while surveying pop culture.) “Rack City” is a pretty skeevy song to say the least, but it is brutally effective—I defy you to not have “rack city, bitch, rack, rack city, bitch” echoing through your poor dome for hours after hearing it. Also, what’s the over/under on the number of lap dances this song has already scored?
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Steven’s grade: C+
Breathe Carolina, “Blackout” (No. 47)
Genevieve: According to Google, Breathe Carolina is apparently a different band from Cobra Starship, but you couldn’t really tell from this generic slice of ’80s-gazing electro-pop that’s seemingly tailored to soundtrack MTV bumpers. I’m going to stifle my kids-these-days insta-hate for this song—which is really hard after watching the video, which needs to get off my lawn grumblegrumble—and admit that “Blackout” almost wins me over at the chant-along bridge, which has a pretty satisfying build-up to… another infuriating reiteration of that really generic chorus. Oh well, I tried.
Steven: Based on the band name, I assumed Breathe Carolina was a throwback to the post-Counting Crows roots-pop acts of the late ’90s, like Sister Hazel or Eagle-Eye Cherry. But, no, it’s an entirely different type of nondescript pop: CWave. “Blackout” is the sort of harmlessly well-scrubbed fashion-boutique music that you frequently hear while beautiful young people drive expensive cars down impossibly sunny streets (or make out with vampires) in CW shows. It’s a song that practically screams “Youth!” so I can’t really hate it—though I don’t want these kids on my lawn either.
Genevieve’s grade: D
Steven’s grade: C-
Steven: Old-timers day for rappers continues in this month’s installment of This Was Pop with this single from Young Jeezy’s long-in-the-works TM:103 Hustlerz Ambition. While Jeezy released a couple of mix-tapes in the years since 2008’s The Recession, he still sounds like a guy who’s been out of the rap game for a fatally long time. “I Do” is an ode to marriage (with some appropriately filthy, sex-minded lyrical detours); it’s not a bad topic for a rap song, though Jeezy doesn’t really have a good voice for putting across lovey-dovey sweetness convincingly. Jay-Z and Andre 3000 offer dependable assistance, especially the latter, who needs to put out a damn album of his own already instead of guesting on other people’s (mediocre) records.
Genevieve: I think you forgot an important fact about Young Jeezy while listening to this song, Steven: He’s married to the game, which means the matrimony the snowman is rapping about in “I Do” is his undying love for a personified version of sweet lady cocaine and/or “the game.” Jay-Z follows suit—“I, Jay-Z, take this unlawful lady to have and to hold / Until the task force roll”—though Andre 3000’s verse is more literally love-y, lending credence to the claim that “I Do” is an Andre 3000 leftover repurposed for Jeezy. The song’s production is as muddled as its metaphor, with a tinny, anemic soul sample that sounds… well, like an Andre 3000 leftover. There’s a reason Andre 3000 is the best part of “I Do”: It should have been his song.
Steven’s grade: C
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Skrillex, “Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites” (No. 69)
Steven: 2011 was the year that Skrillex officially became too popular for oldsters to ignore. You’re the young’un out of the two of us, GK, but I suspect you’re not quite young enough to understand the hold the freakishly diminutive king of festival-friendly aggro-dance music has on his predominantly teen and college-aged fanbase. If you don’t already get Skrillex, I’m afraid “Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites” probably won’t be a “Eureka!” moment of enlightenment. But it’s not the sonic scourge that Skrillex haters claim it to be, either. To my rapidly aging ears, Skrillex sounds like the revenge of the late ’90s, mashing up the least fashionable aspects of the post-alternative era—Korn’s overdriven noise blasts, Limp Bizkit’s Dumpster funk, and Fat Boy Slim cheeseball beats—for an unholy stew that’s as disreputably earworm-y now as it was then.
Genevieve: Here is a minute-by-minute breakdown of me listening to “Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites”:
0:00-0:26: Well, this isn’t so bad. It reminds me of that two-month period where I was really into Skins.
0:27-0:38: Hey, that’s kind of a pretty transition, I like the way this is building. Maybe you aren’t so bad, Skrillex.
0:39-0:40: Wait, why is there a kid screaming, do I have another YouTube video open in a different tab?
0:41-0:50: AHHHHH, WHY IS THE SONG ATTACKING ME?
0:51-end: Oh, fuck you, Skrillex.
Okay, I get it: The synths and pretty vocals are the “Nice Sprites,” the crazy distortion and wobble bass are the “Scary Monsters.” Very cute, Skrillex. Maybe the reason it’s become a trend in the past year for pop songs to drop 16 bars of dubstep noise into otherwise non-dubstep tracks is because the genre—or at least Skrillex’s interpretation of it—is so inherently fragmented, crashing its aggressive basslines into incongruous melodies for a lurching, deliberately unsettling effect designed to piss off parents. Skrillex’s “brostep” variation is about as appropriate an ambassador for dubstep as Limp Bizkit was for rap, calibrated to give the youngsters something to piss off the oldsters with. Once you realize that, its hyper-aggressiveness becomes kind of cute, like an unfortunately coiffed puppy barking angrily at a bored housecat. I wouldn’t call this cacophony “earworm-y” by any means, Steven, though I’ll agree with you that it’s not the scourge haters make it out to be. Let the kids have their fun.
Steven’s grade: C+
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Nicki Minaj, “Stupid Hoe” (No. 81)
Genevieve: “Stupid Hoe” seems to be Nicki Minaj trying to out-Nicki-Minaj herself, and if you’re not already a fan, this song is not only unlikely to change your mind, but also calcify your ambivalence or dislike into pure hatred. Hell, I consider myself a fan—with reservations—of Minaj, and I find this song exhausting, from the seizure-inducing production (Whistles! Handclaps! Sirens!) to her non-stop vocal mugging. (If anyone can somehow pull faces using only her voice, it’s Minaj.) That said, I find “Stupid Hoe” kind of fascinating in its balls-out-ness, which culminates in Minaj babbling “fuck a stupid ho” over and over with decreasing coherence. Minaj’s career seems to be predicated on the idea that there’s a very thin line between being innovative and being obnoxious, and “Stupid Hoe” does a sort of manic double-dutch on top of that line. It’s not easy to like, but unlike most of the songs on this week’s list, it is definitely not boring.
Steven: I like it when Nicki Minaj is in maniacal, mile-a-minute mode, but for all her nimble rhyming (and gratuitous bitch-slapping of the chorus), the most arresting part of “Stupid Hoe” is that 11-second “ehhh” that leaves the song dangling like a lingering dial tone. I’m not sure that Minaj walks the line between innovation and obnoxiousness as much as ignore it entirely; I imagine her picking out the most grating sounds she can find, and figuring out a way to turn them into a pop song, just to challenge herself. “Stupid Hoe” is another success in that regard.
Genevieve’s grade: B
Steven’s grade: B+