Singles Going Steady
his week in singles: Dave Matthews gets in touch with his inner creepy dude, Three Six Mafia peek their heads above ground for once, T’Pain dusts off the old vocoder, and now we know why they call Alicia Keys Mr. Glass. All this and the burgeoning solo career of that dude from the Neptunes who isn’t Chad Hugo, on today’s Singles Going Steady!
Alicia Keys - Unbreakable
Ian Mathers: Pre-”Superstition” “Karma” was, in retrospect, pretty awesome, but ballads are not generally what I want from Keys. Especially not ballads that constantly reference other, famous couples and “technical difficulties” and that for some reason keep reminding me of the Cosby Show theme or something similar. I think that keyboard is supposed to sound “warm” and “organic” or something, but it's just annoying. And it turns out Keys' voice is really undistinguished in the absence of better material – I never would have guessed this was her.
Erick Bieritz: Taking a page from Lil’ Flip, Keyes fills out some incredibly lazy verses with witless references to famous people. Her previous efforts were often bland and backward-gazing, but they were executed with a scientific ear for both her audience and MOR rock critics. This track, on the other hand, veers far off course and will leave even her fans with a deep-down twinge of panic in their guts when she uses “Technical Difficulties” as a simile for personal problems.
Anthony Miccio: You could fuck off like Joan Osbourne and Floetry.
Alfred Soto: “Unbreakable” is the track in which Alicia Keys finally earns those premature raves. The production’s a killer – vamping electric piano, icy muted trumpets, subterranean bass, and live (!) drums – but Ms Keys is the star. Reining in the melismatic affectations which had suggested she believed all those reviews comparing her to Dionne Warwick or something, Keys shows a relaxed command of the vernacular (dig how she sassily enunciates “technical difficulties” without technical difficulties) worthy of early ‘70s Aretha: the Aretha of “Rock Steady” and “Daydreaming.” Embodying a black middle-class dream that has room for Ike and Tina and Oprah and Steadman, she’s human enough to yield to temptation and wise enough to work it out.
John Cunningham: Anyone else think that if this song had been released fifteen years ago, it'd have been performed in a special guest appearance episode of The Cosby Show? And not just because it name-checks "Bill and Camille": it's the whole tastefully relaxed air about it. I'm picturing Cliff and Claire on the sofa, kicking back to those deliberate, clomping wurlitzer chords, and twinkling at all the tributes to respectable African-American couples (contrast with Missy's new paragon of love: "like Beyonce be wit' Jigga"). I still think Keys sometimes strains too much, but I'm feeling the affection here.
Matt Chesnut: More like “Unbearable,” am I right? Citation number 67 or so on the list of 2005’s Ike and Tina References.
Dave Matthews Band - Dreamgirl
Mike Powell: I must admit, there’s not a whole lot I can hate about this song. I mean, if you’re going to do adult contemporary Lion King pop influenced by moisturizer, lilacs, and walking barefoot on well-polished hardwood in springtime, it’s pretty cool that you can get away with sounding like a filthy letch doing so. The sax splashes during the bridge, while schlocky, are the closest thing to Talk Talk I could imagine hearing on the radio in 2005. The vocals at the end are atrocious, but I feel like they really cash in on the whole covert-masturbation-while-watching-you-sunbathe-in-the-park vibe. 
Erick Bieritz: There was some grudging quality in “American Baby,” a brooding groove undertow that dressed up the otherwise forgettable song and made it tolerable. No such luck for the doughy paunch of “Dream Girl,” a song which grabs anyone fooled by “Baby” and drags them back down into the pits of Mattiocrity.
Anthony Miccio: What's wrong with your voice? You really should get that checked out. DON'T RAISE YOUR VOICE, just calm down. Calm down. I'll get you an aspirin.
Alfred Soto: “Crash Into Me” meets “In Your Eyes.” Well, he wishes. The mild bits of exotica scattered throughout Dave Matthews’ pleasant, unremarkable catalogue reflect a suppressed hankering for Peter Gabriel’s world-music cred. Dave probably figures he’s almost there: lots of black guys in dreadful clothes in the band, vocals affecting Gabriel’s weary-millionaire grit, and extolling sexual positions he thinks are Third World and weird but are merely uncomfortable. Dave’s kind of tantric assplay also involves a bewildering amount of prepositional phrases (what girl would let Dave admire her “face down in the grass in the park in the middle of a hot afternoon”?).
John Cunningham: I think the thing that bugs me most about Matthews's mildly tempered growl on this song is that I suspect he thinks it comes off as awestruck and humble, when it's really more like fussy and vaguely lecherous. The limp soprano-sax coda only adds to the many layers of banality.
Matt Chesnut: It’s pretty much been established that Dave Matthews is one of the sacred punching bags of the “critical community” (whatever that means). So one almost feels obligated to say something nice about him. That little a capella part at the beginning is kinda decent. Too bad it’s not quite 20 seconds long.
P$C f/ T.I. & Lil' Scrappy - I'm a King (Remix)
Ian Mathers: “Goodies” synth stabs always work well for me, and the quiet little echoed piano progression hits a pretty sweet spot. But the drum machines aren't doing what they should for me – I want them either even more minimal or else completely thunderous. Maybe live drums would make this more interesting. Of course, if P$C and his friends were as compelling on the verses as they manage on that woozy chorus, I might not be speculating so much.
Mike Powell: Have you ever had a cat or a dog that, when scratched in the proper place, would crumple with pleasure no matter how little you were trying? Though most of this song is like an interminable feast of white rice and tapwater, I have this terrible fear that visits me at night that I will never be able to form a sound critical opinion on southern rappers singing off-key choruses.
Erick Bieritz: A slightly disappointing track considering the high caliber of rappers coming to the table. The prolific TI is an unsurprising highlight; one imagines he has spare rhymes stuffed in hatboxes in his closet and shoeboxes in his garage. He probably found these as he was leaving to drive to the studio, scrawled on the back of a Piggly Wiggly receipt under his car seat.
Anthony Miccio: Shouldn't they be debating which one is the king? Are they even listening to each other? I'm pretty sure their territories overlap! What's the point of royalty if don't clash? T.I. always acts like he's not totally generic. Doesn't he read Billboard?
John Cunningham: He might be a king, but I'm having trouble sensing much personality from the dude. It's a fluent production, though.
Matt Chesnut: Lil Jon has kept a pretty low profile this year, mostly because he is in dispute with his label and is not appearing as a performer. However, his production is still finding its way around. No ground being broken here, just the same fertile land on which he has grown a bevy of hits.
Skateboard P (a.k.a. Pharrell) f/ Gwen Stefani - Can I Have It Like That
Ian Mathers: Jeezus, you both should know better than this. I don't know who to be more disappointed in. Probably Pharrell.
Mike Powell: Pharrell, what could you possibly want with the world? I mean, you’re a talented, in-demand and unbelievably visible producer (your colleague Chad Hugo has definitely not made the cover of Esquire yet) who has contributed to some of the most well-loved and interesting pop records of the past decade. Do you really want us to start thinking you’re a half-assed rapper? INSX? Do you really want it like this, because this isn’t what we were hoping for. Do you really want us to call you Skateboard P? I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that.
Erick Bieritz: Pharrell deserves a lot of respect for both doing what he wants creatively even when it’s not a good idea and following it up with hits for other artists that shake off the critical vultures in a flurry of ink-stained feathers. Said scavengers were ready to put a fork in him after the bad (albeit slightly underrated) “Fly or Die” album, and he responded with a series of hot singles, including one of his finest achievements, “Drop It Like It’s Hot.” It’s too soon to say if Skateboard P, like the sophomore Neptunes album, will be a daring blunder, but “Can I Have It Like That” is certainly as bad as “She Wants to Move,” as Pharrell has trouble sticking to the rhyme and Stefani stretches the idea of “featuring.” But it’s a small price to pay if it means there’s another bunker buster production number in the works for release circa spring 2006.
Alfred Soto: Unexpected beats, startling rhythmic shifts, the best guests money can buy, lame raps. No, it’s not Kanye. Kanye can rap.
John Cunningham: The reason why "Drop It Like It's Hot" was hotter than most of its minimalist successors is that Pharrell wisely rotated his barren pop-and-click with that swank keyboard line. He pulls the same trick here, artfully shifting between a hypnotic upright-bass loop and the occasional swell of horns, all of which undergirds his own surprisingly fluid rap. Gwen's underused, but that's okay: this is Pharrell's show.
Matt Chesnut: Pharrell is giving his detractors more ammunition, but for those who generally find something to like about his goofiness, there is plenty of goof to be found. Like how he puts two parts of a song together that do not belong. What? Crazy! Also, Gwen Stefani appears for what had to take three seconds to record. This is the thanks Pharell gets for “Hollaback Girl”? Way to go the extra mile, bitch.
T-Pain - I'm Sprung
Ian Mathers: How serendipitous that I just played Lloyd on the Stycast last week and then this comes up. It uses the vocoder to, if anything, more ridiculous effect than “Southside” did, especially when he starts singing “doo doo doo doo”. It's like the guys from Daft Punk circa “One More Time” trying to be Usher, and whereas Lloyd grew on me slowly, this is instantly, ludicrously great, especially the chorus. I need someone to send me a screwed and chopped version of this, stat.
Mike Powell: Trying hard not to raise my voice, I’ll tell you that I really need auto-tuners to be excised from pop music. Forever. In 2035, I want my children to have to crib illegally trafficked mp3s of “Believe” by Cher from unsavory classmates. Until then, please get this the fuck away from me.
Erick Bieritz: Glissando! If Bobby Valentino was kicked twixt the legs by an angry prostitute, this would be the song he would record.
Anthony Miccio: Daft Punk feat. Shai, "Digital Fucking"
John Cunningham: There's no way I'm giving a song that uses vocoder so prominently a below-average score, but it's safe to say that the charmingly robotic effect does most of the heavy lifting here, apart from some nice choral-style harmonies here and there.
Matt Chesnut: Heavy on the vocodor, bass hits, and skittering hi-hats. Almost doo-wop in its layers of vocal harmonies, this calming little number is a sign that the halcyon party days of summer are over and the sweater-clad days of autumn are nigh.
Three 6 Mafia f/ Young Buck & 8Ball & MJG - Stay Fly
Ian Mathers: Now that's a drum machine. P$C needs to take note. The chorus is fucking incredible, the way they constantly ride on the whole “I've got to stay fly-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y” thing – more songs from robots like T'Pain, only this has Three 6 Mafia rapping. The choruses alone over that high pitched string sample are great – this song is so much more than the chorus gimmick, hell I get chills when everything drops out but the drum machine and one of the rappers. Nearly perfect.
Mike Powell: Memphis’ most known unknowns return to offer a bruised, infectious ballad concerned with precious little other than getting cripplingly fucked up and sounding nearly untouchable in doing so. Adapting Willie Hutch’s (R.I.P. September 19th) “Tell Me Why Our Love Has Turned Cold,” Juicy J and DJ Paul’s slow-locomotive beat gets splashed with soft focus guitars and gleaming string hits; the whole thing brings chills, sweats in purples and blues. Knotted rhythmic syncopations and a menacing sense of determination, this sends my eyes rolling into the back of my head, it’s that thrilling.
Erick Bieritz: Three 6 Mafia is cashing in on this single and the new album, and they’re leaving nothing to chance. Catchy stutters, speedy snares, soul samples, and prestigious guests. It lacks both the surgical precision and the apocalyptic doom of their very best tracks, but it’s otherwise untouchable, a thundering southern posse cut from the group that was doing it best before it even had a name. There’s no need for them to prove anything or even sell this song; they’re owed, and this track is the repo crew banging down the door and pulling out the listener’s gold teeth one by one.
Anthony Miccio: Treading a middle ground between southern stroll and 50 glam, confident rather than defensive about their vet status. If this doesn't take them past 'most known unknowns,' nothing will.
Alfred Soto: Cinematic production and drums-and-bass skitter-skitter pour just the right amount of balm over flow as irritating as a mosquito bite.
Matt Chesnut: It’s Triple 6’s mainstream coming out party and the radio edit pretty much cuts out half the song because it is about drugs. Whatever, the beat is inescapable and you can’t cut the strings out. Every Memphis rapper with a major deal is on this.
By: US Stylus Staff
Published on: 2005-09-30