So Fresh, So Clean
Man-Children Sing Sweet Nothings to High-Schoolers, Exes, and Strippers
If you exclude songs by women, white people, or any other demographic group with a hand in the Pussycat Dolls’ sublime “Stickwitu,” the race for the best R&B single of 2006 is currently a three-way tie between Ne-Yo’s “So Sick,” T-Pain’s “I’m N Luv (Wit a Stripper),” and Chris Brown’s “Yo (Excuse Me Miss).” Each offers the pleasures the best R&B singles of any year always do: a catchy melody, a head-nodding beat, a lyrical conceit readily adaptable by high-school seniors in need of prom-night pillow talk.
But the tunes are also linked by a more unique quality: the way they communicate the artists’ youth. All three singers are young guys—Ne-Yo is 23, T-Pain 21, and Brown 16—and there’s a freshness to the music that’s not usually found these days in R&B, which (taking a cue from the hip-hop it increasingly resembles) often tends toward the cynical and oversexed. Now, make no mistake—this stuff is sexed. T-Pain’s song is called “I’m N Luv (Wit a Stripper).” Yet the singers don’t sound like they’re conforming to anyone else’s notion of what an R&B singer should sound like. Unlike, say, the finalists on American Idol, they’re not in a great hurry to sing songs that move beyond their current circumstances as young adults.
“Yo (Excuse Me Miss)” is the youngest-sounding of the three tracks. It’s the second single from Brown’s self-titled Jive debut, following “Run It!”, whose exclamation point says plenty. “Yo” finds the singer attempting to attract the attention of a chick—“the hottest chick,” in fact, “that a young’un ever seen before”—from across the room at what appears to be a school dance. He knows she’s trying to leave, but he’s saved the last dance for her: Couldn’t she just stick around for one more? “I was made to bounce like this,” he brags, making an offer no PYT could refuse. In a move sure to delight Laura Bush, the song actually ends before the action leaves the low-lit gymnasium.
Much of the song’s fresh-faced vibe comes from Brown’s performance. Self-consciously or not, he allows young-love jitters to crack his game face—a refreshing development after putting up with the deep-freeze cool of immovable grumps like Tyrese. But “Yo” is also the handiwork of songwriter-producers Andre Harris and Vidal Davis, understated craftsmen whose previous calling card was Michael Jackson’s gorgeous “Butterflies.” (Let’s not get into Jacko’s experience with young love.) The lush electric-piano riff and the crisp tick-tock beat that anchor the track conjure an air of lovely possibility. In the world of “Yo,” Brown will never mistreat his new lady.
In “So Sick” the protagonist has already done the mistreating, which is why Ne-Yo’s girlfriend has left him. The song finds him on his own, trapped in a feedback loop of self-perpetuating misery. He’s “so sick of love songs, so sad and slow,” yet he can’t bear to turn off the radio that keeps pumping them out. In reality, of course, the radio keeps pumping out “So Sick,” a neat trick that comes close to justifying payola. Not that the tune requires it. Produced by StarGate, a mysterious Norwegian duo who have previously worked with British teen-pop acts like Blue and Atomic Kitten, “So Sick” is maddeningly addictive, a tangle of plucked synthetic harp notes laid over a soul-clap beat that sounds like it might never end.
As in Brown’s single, there’s an air of dewy innocence to the song. Hype Williams’ sumptuous video takes place in a snowy ski lodge, which serves as an apt visual metaphor for Ne-Yo’s virtue. He’s obviously done something to deserve the breakup that continues to torture him, yet he sings so tenderly that we can’t imagine it was his fault. In a further meta-textual twist, in February Ne-Yo found himself the target of the Ohio emo band Hawthorne Heights. The band urged its fans to keep Ne-Yo’s Def Jam debut, In My Own Words, from debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard pop album chart by purchasing boatloads of HH’s own If Only You Were Lonely. The irony: Nobody’s better at the kind of psychological manipulation Ne-Yo deploys in “So Sick” than guys in emo bands.
T-Pain couldn’t be less manipulative in “I’m N Luv (Wit a Stripper)” if he tried. A former member of the low-profile Florida rap crew Nappy Headz, Pain spends the track (slightly) elaborating on the idea expressed with breathtaking concision in the title. “She can pop it, she can lock it,” he marvels atop a self-produced swirl of acoustic guitar and synthesizer chirp, before resolving to “get her over to my crib and do that night thing.” What’s great about “I’m N Luv”—beyond the production, which melts down Lil Jon’s Atlanta-bred strip-club minimalism into a warm, buttery broth—is the nature of Pain’s admiration for his G-stringed beauty. “Out of all the girls, she be the hottest,” he sings, utterly resisting any urge to embellish or complicate his feelings on the matter. He likes big butts and he can’t deny it, which is where this relatively explicit exploration of twentysomething sexuality taps into the same youthful energy Chris Brown and Ne-Yo channel in their hits.
Elsewhere on Rappa Ternt Sanga (Jive), T-Pain’s solo debut, he tries to convince his girl to “make love in the studio.” At first you think he’s setting up an analogy. Perhaps he intends to put on a D’Angelo CD and turn their bedroom into some sort of neo-soul love nest. But no—it’s just a postpubescent fascination with gadgetry. “I see you from the booth,” he sings, “and you remind me of a brand-new saxophone.”
“To be totally honest, I have no idea what’s making people connect [with ‘Stripper’],” T-Pain said by phone the other day. “I just make the music to be me. The music has my personality in it.” R&B needs more personalities like Pain’s, and Ne-Yo’s, and Chris Brown’s. So who’s got the inexperience to join them?
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