The following is part of an imminently abandoned series in which I devote thousands of words to songs in my decade list.
Wife-beater with the denim.
I came to R&B as an active follower late, but, as Tom pointed out today, you didn't really have to be a "follower" to keep abreast of R&B's movers and shakers until relatively recently. All of the touchstones that went underappreciated by me in the first half of the decade were certainly appreciated, as in I had at least heard them, often endlessly, in the course of my day to day life. In fact, the only time I lost the basic thread of R&B was in the mid-00's when R&B was transitioning and combining more and more with hip-hop and I was in more of a cave, musically. (We're all in caves now, but the communication between caves seems to have gotten better, so it's OK!)
So when I think of the early 00's R&B hallmarks and landmarks and lovemarks, they're wrapped up in my social use of them at the time -- in cars, in malls, in restaurants, in friends' basements, on MTV, etc. etc. etc. There was a culture for it, and as much as I'd like to read esoterically or "get inside" into the trees, I still see the forest. Aaliyah, J-Lo, Blu Cantrell, "Peaches and Cream," Dream (not The-)...all names that have come up recently through Poptimists polling, and all that I can pin to a time and a place.
Not so with The-Dream, a presence who entered the game late and entered my critical lens even later -- and was better for it, removed (just slightly) from release date zeitgeist, regardless of how meaningful that even is these days, and just laid bare for appreciation, slightly out of time, and standing without proper context not because I don't know it but because I do know it; it's either a rarefied, music-geek-intensive context (specific genre etc. conversations, tracking his production history and that of his collaborators) or (more broadly) it's not much of a context. The-Dream's album didn't break down doors, and this single, when it was a single, was both cluttered up (with a totally unnecessary and detrimental Young Jeezy guest verse before the melody even starts) and completely neutered ("fuuuuuuck that niggaaaaaa," the strained falsetto melody more than the words, is a non-negotiable part of the song, even though that means it's kind of, er, difficult for me to sing it to myself).
So I've been sitting here, marinating in this perfect little song (and it is a little song -- a wispy, insubstantial low-flier) for about a year, beginning just after its commercial sell-by date. And the more I listen to it, the more I'm convinced that something important happens in it, but I can't really tie this into a This Is Important meta-post any more than I could say that any music is capable of being That Important these days.
And that's fitting for the song. Thoughts in no particular order:
Well, it's a story. And a specific one, a narrative -- not totally unlike the "Single Ladies" lyrics for the way it spotlights a trio in a club. This is a relatively recent phenom, I think, portraying what I'd call the "private club," as though there's an empty space, all the details intact, but with NO PEOPLE IN IT. Except for the protagonists. See it in your head: it's dark, there's a pool of spotlight, two characters dancing, one to the side, observing moodily. It's like experimental theater; they're dancing to a little microgroove that barely qualifies as having a beat -- the most memorable part of the beat itself is a delicate castanet "tick-tick" at the last possible moment in the loop.
The motion, and the beat, is all in the keyboards, two chords, spelled out backwards for you -- F minor, then a diminished E, the top half of the C7. Essentially, you could be getting a minor-key finale flourish -- i-V-i-V-i-V-i; played that way it might sound symphonic, majestic. Except Dream keeps it unresolved with the bass notes, D-flat, then C, then back to D-flat, then C. So what he's really playing is a Dbmaj7 to C7 -- VI-V-VI-V-VI. It's an anxious little chord pattern, fluttering around the fifth -- we want so badly to hit the root hard -- that F-minor chord -- but we never get there, it's just back and forth, back and forth; and he's even spelling out the chord that, with just a slightly different bass note, would give us all the resolution we want. "This is the chord you're waiting for."
The effect (to get away from some of the chord chart speak) is of him...well, kind of playing in your hair. Twisting his finger around it; you know where it's going but you'll never get there. And it's a song about anticipation and anxiety -- the moment before the decision's been made -- everyone knows what's happening but no one has really done anything about it yet. It's inevitable, so let's just dance around it for a while.
So what's happening? Easy -- The-Dream comes into the club and sees a woman there; she's wearing a wife-beater and jeans. Conceivably, everyone in this scenario might be wearing the same outfit. We start off in media res, Dream is on her, she's on "him," the boyfriend. So we open on the club, and there's a groove and a girl sandwich, everyone wearing wife-beaters and jeans -- or, perhaps, the boys are more stylish, and she's the one whose outfit codes the most masculine? Electrik Red: "Them jeans is a little too tight...that's cool, I get it, it's in fashion..." -- and the girl leaves. This means that Dream and boyfriend are alone for a sec, then she comes right back. Now it's just Dream and Girl grinding together, his thang's on her hip, and the boyfriend just watches, understanding well enough what's going on.
Thing is, this entire song is addressed to the boyfriend. There's some third-person-ish description to set the stage ("her man start muggin' he can see it in my eye") but when it counts, The-Dream looks over, and, probably disingenuously, apologizes with his eyes. Maybe a sarcastic shrug. But y'know, he's genuinely conflicted. Jeremih doesn't have an excuse for his ah-ah-ah-ing -- it's all ah-ah-ah-ah-affect -- but The-Dream does. He sees where it's going, it's getting hot, and he feels kinda bad about it but...ahh! Ah-ah-ahh! As good a verbal expression of self-induced blue-balling as I've heard in a song, really. Ah! Oh-ah! AH! What am I doing? AH! WANT! YOU! SO! BAD! In the background it becomes a kind of martial patter, ahh ah-ah-ah ah ahh ah-ah-ah. It becomes self-referential, "ah-ah eh eh eh."
The song's temporal displacement is interesting. It might be one moment, the ah(-ahh-ahh)-ha moment -- oh shit, this is actually going to happen -- or it might be the whole night, song after song, all the same song, the same beat, the same dance. When this dance is over, something will happen. We will leave the club together. Or maybe this is a tease (as is the song) and she's going right back to her boyfriend. Sure The-Dream is banking on the former, but we aren't around to see what happens. Do we trust that he's actually seducing her? He's not even addressing her. He's addressing her boyfriend. He's a passive actor -- the decision is all hers.
The "one moment" argument: "fuck...that nigga..." -- is it a fantasy or did she actually say it? He says, "Shawty you should go" and...did he hear that right? "Fuuuuck...that nigga..." His own voice approximates it, poorly, he can barely hit that high note. So many hooks, seemingly a hook for each melody line (admire the economy of the verse melody, a single note to set the scene, and then a perpetual cascade of hooks, none quite equaling a chorus) and what's arguably the most crucial one he can't quite get out without his voice cracking. And we know he really can do a pretty good falsetto -- cf. "Falsetto" -- so maybe he's projecting. Maybe she said "feelin' this song." Maybe she didn't say anything. But that phrase -- "fuck...that nigga..." -- if he heard her right, there's his invitation. Maybe. I mean, maybe she's just pissed at him tonight. Maybe he forgot it was her birthday. But this is her birthday present isn't it? Are they breaking up? "I pray that y'all ain't serious, 'cuz seriously she's on my dick." Well, yeah, you're dancing with her, Dream.
(I'll never forget the time in eighth grade when, in the center of the dance circle, in that slight silence between songs, everyone heard this from two people who'd just gone to the dance as friends:
"GET YOUR BONER OFF OF MY ASS."
Woops. I didn't venture into the inner circle myself.)
They're dancing, they're waiting. They're sort of talking, maybe, but even that's in the passive voice. "Just found out that it's her birthday." Did she tell him? The only thing we hear her say in the whole song is "fuuuck....that nigga...."
They're dancing. We hit the bridge, a bit more sumptuous, addition of strings and a slightly modified chord progression. "Walkin' out the club, shawty what's up, mmm, I want her in the worst way." Yeah, probably a fantasy, he even seems to snap out of it. How much of this is actually happening? "Part of me feels so bad but (ooh!) not that bad." Sly smile, there. He's winking at us, mocking the boyfriend. But what does she have to say about this? Did she just say what I think she said? When is this song going to be over, anyway?