“Praising the Radio Songs”, Part 4
Back in Time - Pitbull
A Pitbull video full of beautiful women, product placement, and black shades on his face in dimly lit rooms! I won’t list how many different Pitbull videos this could be, but at a certain point you have to just embrace how willing the dude is to jump on any pop song that needs so rapping (he’s a more motivated Flo Rida!). But, this one is a bit more unique than most of the EDM tracks that Pitbull has been on the last few years, and I’m not talking about the tacked-on dubstep breakdown at the end.
This song has been out for a little while, but I just heard it on the radio, and honestly thought it was a Fatboy Slim song (more specifically his hit “The Rockafellar Skank”). “Back in Time” samples Mickey & Slylvia 1950s hit “Love is Strange”, which is something of a lost art, as rap and electronic music moved away from big samples (the Kanye Wests of the world excluded) entering the 2000s. Pitbull’s rapping is probably even more boring than normal, and the dubstep breakdown at the end is bad enough I’m mentioning it again here. But, the ear-to-ear grin on my face, when I first heard the song was able to withstand those low points, as the song veers towards the “Electronica” end of the spectrum more than “EDM”. Because, as much as I love the 4/4 thump of 2010s pop radio, not all (blanket term of electronic music) needs to follow the same sonic blueprint, especially when the sound of Prodigy and Fatboy Slim didn’t get score a high number of hits in the United States at least (Electronica was no Guetta).
Lil Jon is not dominating the pop charts in the same way he used to in the early 2000s. No longer does every song you hear on the radio feature “YEAH”, “OKAY”, “WHAT”; songs now featured a lot more easy to dance to drum pounding, lackluster techno synths, and still plenty of auto-tune. That may sound like the influence of Lil Jon is lost on the pop world in 2011, but that would be selling Lil Jon’s reign on the pop charts far too short as the King of Crunk’s pop life has found an unexpected second act.
Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” the previous number one songs had been “Give Me Everything” and “Party Rock Anthem” with the main artists respectively being Pitbull and LMAFO. Both are typical early 10s Euro-Pop songs and while they have plenty of moments ripe for fist pumping, but Pitbull’s hit first song was with Lil Jon only seven years ago, and LMFAO’s previous biggest hit featured Lil Jon.
Lil Jon has been around a decade as a pop culture force, and maybe due to a perceived lack of quality (most artists who have dreams of a top hit would kill for “Get Low”), lack of a perceived positive influence on the music world, or maybe it is part of the gimmick/parody that started form around his yelling of “YEAH” and “OKAY”. Those qualities held back Lil Jon from getting the same amount of respect given to be not given to his rap producer turned pop producer superstar contemporaries, The Neptunes or Timbaland.
2002 through 2007, it was hard to not hear a Lil Jon song on either pop or rap stations across the nation. His brand of “Crunk” music ranged from the loud in your face fuck-shit-up style that made stars out of the Youngbloodz, Ying Yang Twins, and himself with this partners the Eastside Boyz to the more subdued hits of “Goodies” by Ciara, “Tell Me When To Go” by E-40, and “Lovers and Friends” from Usher. The loudest Crunk tracks with the synths turned to 11, recalled European Trance music without the need for there being a need for a constant 4/4 stomp. This signature style was Lil Jon’s calling card so much that even a person not too familiar with the entire behind the scenes names of pop songs could easily recognize this particular type of Lil Jon song.
Beyond the new sounds he was introducing to the pop landscape, a number of artist mainstream successes are owned entirely to Lil Jon. That few month span when Hyphy was being talked about all over MTV and started getting played on the radio, Hyphy music was being compared as the little brother of Crunk, which made sense, when the main songs that caught on from the Bay Area were “Tell Me When To Go” and “U and Dat” both minimalist production by Lil Jon that sounded great next his early hits of “Freek-A-Leek” and “Goodies” (yet this comparison as Andrew Noz pointed out when it was happening was very poor understanding of the Bay Area music scene). After that brief detour to West Coast ended and national rap stations stopped caring about Hyphy and “Goin dumb”, a song like “Blow the Whistle”, produced by Lil Jon, could be still heard in radio mixes without the reminder that most of the music that was supposedly from the Bay Area just continued Lil Jon’s control of rap playlists.
The strength of a Lil Jon could even raise a C level rapper like Lil Scrappy to multiple Hot 100 hits (“No Problem”, “Neva Eva”, and “I’m A King”). That would be why Lil Jon had produced for and produced the biggest hits for artists ranging from Ice Cube, Usher, T.I., Young Buck, Juvenile, and really any southern rapper who was looking for a modest hit. But, by 2008 Lil Jon’s production was no longer all over Pop stations or Rap station and he was struggling to release his album Crunk Rock, which wouldn’t get released till 2010.
Lil Jon hasn’t had a hit in years, so how exactly is he still relevant to the pop music today? Euro-Trance synths. Pop music love of this particular type of electronic dance music the last few years, probably has roots most recently in a combo a radio combo of “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga, “Disturbia” by Rihanna, “Forever” by Chris Brown, but the song that pushed this sound forward a few years before was “Yeah” by a little guy known as Usher. If there was a song that had to represent the last decade of pop, I’d vote for “Yeah”, it was the peak moment when Rap music actually had its way with pop radio stations, and the with a simple exchange of drums and you nearly have Usher half decade later hits “DJ Got Us Fallin In Love” and “More”. Those synths that are a stable of Lil Jon’s production repertoire still hasn’t left him (see the Gorilla Zoe single “Twisted”), so as pop music has shifted to its Guettafied Euro-Pop, Lil Jon’s old hits do not sound a bit out of place on a pop station (yet the Snap hit around the same time, “Lean Wit It Rock Wit It” sounds completely alien to a Rap or Pop station).
The quality of Lil Jon’s songs that are out of place in pop today is the amount of energy in his yells and production has been lost in the last couple years, as the overblown choruses of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, or Enrique Iglesias do not equal of the chanting of “From the Window to the Wall” from the Ying Yang Twins and Lil Jon. That energy is not heard on pop stations from Lil Jon himself, but in some unlikely successors of LMAFO and 3OH!3.
Before the number one hit “Party Rock Anthem”, LMFAO were best known for “Shots”, a song that has probably blacked out one too many high schoolers/college students. LMFAO maybe the main artist of “Shots”, but it is all about Lil Jon yelling at you to take shots, shots, and more shots and if you don’t he tells you to “Get the fuck out the club”. LMFAO’s sound is of a couple guys who probably enjoyed the output of the Ed Banger label a bit too much, but their own shtick of being obnoxious “Party Rockers” is not different than what Lil Jon was doing in going “crunk” and wild, yet he had been doing for years and might be why he has collaborated quite a few times with the duo.
An odd offshoot of Crunk came about when it got to suburbs kids and got their minds running wild with awful genre ideas and mash-ups (hardcore bands that’d have awful techno breakdowns full of auto-tune). The commercial peak of this trend occurred with 3OH!3, who were less “Crunkcore”, and more just awful techno, but their questionable mixing of rapping and maxed out eletro-beats has closer roots to the shouts of girls to “get low” than whatever generic techno song that was probably ripped off when they were making their music. The actual result of the two world colliding of Lil Jon and 3OH!3 is “Hey”, a song not as exciting as it really should be even if Lil Jon is ready for the party. The 4/4 stomp of Dr. Luke and Benny Blanco really undercuts what should be an absolutely crazy party song (I mean the video is also an ad for Jersey Shore and appeared on the Jersey Shore soundtrack, so this should have been the better effort on the part of the producers, as it does not even get any fist pumping).
One of the artists who you could always find on tracks with Lil Jon since the middle of the 00s has been Pitbull, but his pop ascent is something hard to have seen coming. The recent transformation of the pop landscape has pushed rap music away from the top of the billboard charts in favor of pure pop or pop-trance songs showing little of the influence of rap music has had on the music world. So, it is seems odd that one of the figures that would benefit from this shift would be a rapper, and who first tasted mainstream success on a Lil Jon produced track (“Culo”, which sampled a hit from the same year of “Move Your Body”).
The connection between Lil Jon, Pitbull, and Pop music is a fun one, because until Pitbull’s most recent album Planet Pit there has always been production from Lil Jon on his album (excluding his Spanish language from last year). And it was not like Lil Jon’s singles were lesser hits; the songs he produced were Pitbull’s biggest hits including “I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)”, which was his biggest song before “Give Me Everything” dominated this summer.
The funny thing is that by 2011, Lil Jon pop reign is seen as being restricted to 2003-2005, ignoring the fact the 4/4 stomp and Euro-synths are not too different than what Lil Jon was known for in a song like “Get Low” or “Yeah” except a songs like “Give Me Everything” or “Club Can’t Handle Me” lack a raw energy and abrasiveness that existed in Lil Jon’s biggest hits. So, Pitbull’s newest album (with no Lil Jon production) is called Planet Pit and has production form RedOne, Afrojack, Dr. Luke, and Benny Blanco, each of whom have plenty of hits across the world right now (with a similar style), but the music Lil Jon made was offensive, garish, yet still wildly popular. Lil Jon made music for being at a party wherever it could be, and never music exclusively about clubs, as Jason Derulo’s quotation of “From the Window to the Wall” misses something about “Get Low”, when it is just talking about a night out and not an obnoxious drunken call and response yell.
On the Floor - Jennifer Lopez (feat. Pitbull)
280,000,000 views—people have heard this song, I guess. There are numerous reasons one might listen to “On the Floor”: Pitbull’s guest verse, Jennifer it’s Lopez biggest hit in years, or maybe less likely (but I can hope) someone just enjoys keeping track of all songs that reference Keith Sweat. All of those noble reason aside, I’m in the song mostly for its buzzy bass wobble. Produced by RedOne, featuring Pitbull; the song is trying to appeal to all people across the globe, and in a year where Pop songs have only gotten bigger and bigger that arrogant goal is very necessary.
Hands are in the air, alcohol is consumed, and over-exaggerated 4/4 stomp, so that bass wobble is not going to increase the song’s global reach, but it adds a groove and wiggle that usually lacking in these Trance-Pop hits. Even though I love the bass wobble with its slightest hint of dubstep, I will not be seeking out any “Dubstep” remixes of the song. As the producers, who are behind most “Dubstep” remixes of popular songs have little concept of what makes a good pop song let alone a good dubstep song.
So, I guess it would be better leaving this type of genre mashing to the professionals. The professionals in this case, Dr. Luke and Max Martin whose remix of “Till the World Ends” includes: an increased bass, the original writer of the song Ke$ha, number one female rap star Nicki Minaj, and just for fun a dubstep breakdown at the end. To reduce another great pop song down to its bass and synths: the bass at certain point wraps and twists just like in “On the Floor”, slightly overblown never calling attention to itself letting it be a slight nod to other music trends happening across the musical world. The song may be overstuffed, but even the breakdown at the end does not push the song over the edge with it being only a slight extension of the increased bass and not a minute long excursion of aluminum foil crinkling. “On the Floor” and “Till the World Ends (Remix)” are not going to lead dubstep to being heard across US radio stations, but if the pop landscape morphs toward that direction, then these songs can be seen tangoing with new sounds while still being able to top charts 2011’s pop landscape.
Bits left out of my thoughts on “Give Me Everything,” not because I’m a judicious self-editor, but because I didn’t think of them until I hit Publish:
- Pitbull’s own position in modern pop is sort of unstable. He’s a bona fide hitmaker, but he’s not really a personality, a pop star who isn’t a star. Maybe that’s because the dichotomies of modern pop PR doesn’t allow for anything in between “white” and “black” — he’s a rapper, but he’s white, but he’s not recognized as white because he’s Hispanic — or maybe it’s because he’s intentionally signal-jamming, positioning himself as an outlaw in solidarity with “ilegales”while still being a cuddly, totally unthreatening party rapper in the mold of Flo Rida. You get the sense that he’s riding a wave rather than dominating a scene, even though “ft. Pitbull” has become synonymous with “Top Ten radio hit” over the past year. (Also, I listen to Spanish-language radio, so I maybe see another side of him than most of you? I don’t know.)
I wonder if this is also because he embraces his Hispanic-ness, and makes it a palpable part of his musical identity? Compare to Fat Joe, who has never reached the level of radio saturation Pitbull has, but has had a few hits in his time. Joe, unlike Pitbull, seems to reach for a Latino identity that is, I dunno, analogous to blackness? I’m thinking of his not-uncontroversial incorporation of “nigga” into his vocabulary, for instance. But maybe communicating Hispanic identity in this way is just a New York thing? Also compare to Christina Aguilera and Jennifer Lopez, whose Latina identity was, on the pop charts at least, almost subsumed into a generic whiteness, to the extent that some folks giggled awkwardly or suspected ill-intentions when either tried to head in a more overtly Spanish direction.
Also, I guess it’s worth acknowledging that if Pitbull is a blank with an unstable position in modern pop, it’s because he is a blank. He jumps on dance tracks and does his thing, but he’s not really fucking with hip-hop anymore, which rather puts him in man-without-a-country territory.
I was about to write thousands of words to describe this exact trend of Pitbull seemingly being a sign of a popular song, yet adding nothing notable to the songs themselves. I have to agree with the quote above, because the one thing that separates Pitbull from someone like Flo Rida (the perfect example of a modern day Robot Rapper) is that he actually is a unique voice in the world of Top 40 pop/rap. He plays the sleazy rapper pretty well, and when he starts to rap in Spanish I honestly wonder if he pulls in more people than he actually loses when he switches up his language? Also, I find it interesting that the dual languages of Pitbull is riding this wave of Euro-dance inspired pop so well, as these songs striving for as wide an audience as possible, and what better way to do that than have two languages in your generic pop song.