Category Archives: Fore & Aft

Fore & Aft: Echoplex II

A few weeks ago, I wrote what might have been an overly academic piece about a musical dialogue between The-Dream and R. Kelly. Soon after, I went in search of tracks on which the two might have collaborated. The most pertinent of what I found is the first track on “The Demo”, from R. Kelly’s 2009 Gangsta Grillz mixtape, which may or may not be the first such mixtape by an R&B artist. The song? None other than “Kelly’s 12 Play Remix”. Perfect.

R. Kelly & The-Dream – Kelly’s 12 Play Remix

The backing track, in typical mixtape fashion, is quiet and lacking in the mastered sparkle of the album version. And R. Kelly’s verses are clearly louder than was intended in the original. Such heavy-handedness characterizes the entire affair. This is not a particularly endearing Kelly. He presents vulgar details with unimaginative lyrics (“screaming like I’ve got two in it” is revolting). But what piques my interest is the wealth of suggestive moments given the context of the song.

Kelly’s first verse is everything I could hope for: a confluence of the sexual act with professional stature. My previous analogy to R&B royalty is immediately apropos as Kelly soon reaches the line “I’ll be King until I die.” He is not giving up the crown without a fight. Moreover, he appears here unsatisfied with his critical success, claiming 12 Play “should have won a Grammy as big as ‘I Believe I Can Fly'”. Rephrasing the old-timer’s “I was doing such and such when you were just a stain in your Daddy’s pants” kind of bare-chested one-upsmanship, Kelly concludes his first verse with the claim “I believe that your Mama and your Daddy, they laid down and they did it to Kelly’s 12 Play.” It’s simple. It’s direct. But it goes a long way. We can’t help but imagine he’s suggesting The-Dream’s very conception was inspired by R. Kelly’s album, which is in fact what’s at stake here, at least metaphorically. The first line of the third verse again sums up the exercise: “I am the best at what I do.” And while we know he’s referring to sexual prowess, the statement reads as a warning when supported with his aim to “get your man fired up in here”. Better believe job security is on the plate in the world of pop music.

In comparison, The-Dream’s original second verse is his “appearance” on the remix (The-Dream clearly did not contribute anything new to this remix). But here it’s sparsely mixed, quiet, and without context, so that the whole section sounds thoroughly “blah”. And when R. Kelly riffs on the bridge’s “oh-oh-ohs”, he tromps all over The-Dream’s performance. It’s clear here who is intended to be the star. And for all that, R. Kelly’s playing the second fiddle here, which is the folly of the mixtape format. So it’s ultimately fitting that while The-Dream dubs himself “Radio Killa” and chimes in with this nickname throughout the whole Love vs Money album, R. Kelly drops a lonely “Killa” in the background leading up to his reappearance in the third verse. (DJ Skee told MTV “He was originally gonna call it The Remix Killa. He has a lot of what he calls his ‘remix killa sh–.’ That’s kinda his mantra.”)

I admit to not having fully researched this subject to get a better idea of the professional relationship R. Kelly might have with The-Dream. But it’s clear that he’s paying attention to his rival and I don’t see how he wouldn’t feel challenged on some level. While R. Kelly was busy with legal troubles, The-Dream was building a new R&B empire. Apparently, the intention in making this mixtape was to take “it all the way back to when I first started; all I had was my demo. It’s a way to start fresh, be humble. It’s like being a new artist. This is my demo tape for my fans.” Sure Kellz, but it’s hard to imagine you’re not also out for the new blood.

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P.S. In case you can’t help but slow down to look at accidents on the side of the road, you might be inclined to listen to this track:

R. Kelly feat. Tyrese, Robin Thicke, & The-Dream – Pregnant

This is what happens when you let singers write their own lyrics. Fortunately The-Dream sets himself apart with more nuance than nonsense. Whoever thought “Knock you up” could be such a catchy hook?

Fore & Aft: Echoplex

“Ella-ella-ella-ay-ay-ay”. Or so goes the biggest line of the biggest single of 2007. The deviously catchy delivery tactic of that echoing artifact sunk its hooks in so deeply that over the last few years, we’ve heard its success replicated far and wide by both the original songwriting team of The-Dream and Christopher “Tricky” Stewart and their imitators. The pair have clearly become a goldmine for record labels, the go-to team for big hits all over the pop world. And fortunately, we’ve been blessed to enjoy the real McCoy in their success and ingenuity. Not satisfied to settle for juicing every drop from a played-out gimmick, the duo dropped the heaviest, gnarliest, R&B hit of the decade in Beyonce‘s “Single Ladies”–a massive, transforming statement piece that will alone keep them in the history books, goofy Toy Story allusion bedamned–only to suffer an obvious aping with her follow-up single “Halo”, which they did not pen.

Though I’m no expert on their catalog, of what I’ve heard, their most successful ballad–their most earnest and honest and least corny–is the slow jam “Bed” by J. Holiday. As soft and sweet as it is sexy and seductive, and with The-Dream on backing vocals, we have an expertly crafted tune with memorable lines, inventive melodic cadence, and a compelling structure that builds verse hook upon pre-chorus hook upon chorus hook upon bridge and back again. It’s nowhere as explicitly game-changing as “Umbrella” or “Single Ladies” but it’s incredibly refined, well-conceived, and perfectly executed.

J. Holiday – Bed

In the digital age, it’s been light-memes since its 2007 release. It’s 2010 and who now should take up The-Dream’s cause but the one and only R. Kelly.

R. Kelly – Echo

The leadoff single from his newest album Untitled, “Echo” is perfectly R. Kelly, both amazing and hilarious. The background vocal chiming in with “sex in the morning, sex all day” and its converse is fabulous. And the real conversation piece of the track, the yodeling chorus, is yet another historical Kels vocal performance, expertly entwined with the bridge’s “got you sounding like you’re screaming from a mountain peak” line to round out the storyboard of a Ricola commercial for the ages.

Of course, the echoing “echo” is the obvious culprit of the indictment that R. Kelly is just the newest derivative of The-Dream’s trademark work. But when we revisit “Bed”, we start to see it as a kind of model for “Echo”. There’s the lingerie talk, the care-taking of the working-woman partner, the same building structure climaxing in the ecstatic bridge. Of course, these are all topics and cliches of modern R&B, but if “Bed” weren’t so distinctly crafted and well, so “bed-bed-bed”, it wouldn’t be as suspect.

Regardless of the level of influence here, R. Kelly nails it like a consummate professional. Moreover, we can just as easily look at the matter from the other direction. R. Kelly has contributed more to what we know about modern R&B than just about everyone else out there today. If you make R&B you are beholden to his innovations. Right off the bat, I doubt J. Holiday would have ever donned the first initial if R. Kelly hadn’t before him. And we have to remember that the central character in all of this is a writer and performer who clearly hasn’t come into R&B from a vacuum. Innovators succeed by knowing their genre so well as to capitalize on its needs. The-Dream is no different.

Take, for example, one of the standouts from The-Dream’s excellent sophomore album Love vs. Money, “Put It Down”.

The-Dream – Put It Down

This track, as great as it is on its own, would never exist if it weren’t for R. Kelly. The cadence and phrasing of his line “I see you running like a track meet / With your baton, saying ‘Catch me'” is a Kelly trademark (a perfect example is the moment in “Echo” when he stutter-sings “I left your next clue by the sink. It should be a box with your name, open it up, see what’s inside, whatever it is put it on and head to the bedroom”). This imitation runs throughout the entire second verse, in which The-Dream tells his lover how to respond should people ask her if he sings like Usher or dances like Chris Brown, all the while notably avoiding any comparison to R. Kelly. And seeing as no one takes full advantage of the possibilites of lyrical exploration so well as R. Kelly, what other touchstone can we cite for inspiring lines like “I’m all up on you like a monster truck”, “I’m all up on you like a whitey on a thug”, and the chorus’ query “Does he make that horn go beep?”.

The real kicker here is that by the time we’ve gotten to the end of The-Dream’s album, he’s ready to be explicit about the issue. Love vs. Money ends with the track “Kelly’s 12 Play”, the tale of an extended lovemaking sesh that employs as its soundtrack the early R. Kelly classic known for its hit single “Bump and Grind” (and maybe not so known for deep cut “I Like The Crotch On You”).

The-Dream – Kelly’s 12 Play

The song begins with The-Dream searching for his copy of 12 Play in his CD collection, scouring his shelves for the white cover with red letters. He carefully cleans the CD and checks the surface for scratches, pops it in the player, and commences to sexy time. Throughout the chorus, though, in between each lead line about doing, screwing, and brewing it “to Kelly’s 12 Play”, The-Dream utters a soft “oh Kel” that has enough sexual moan in it to get his listener fruitlessly hoping his partner’s name is a female Kelly. The song turns the more idolatrous in the second verse, when in the throws of passion, she thanks The-Dream for his prowess in the sack and, instead of returning the gratitude, he thanks Kel.

According to the bridge, over the course of the evening the couple apparently listen to the album up to five whole times before petering out. And here’s where The-Dream surpasses his inspiration and places himself in the lineage to take the baton from the aging crooner. With the lovemaking session in intermission, and with the last few seconds of Love vs. Money expiring, his partner leaves the bed, walks to the stereo, pops out the CD, and changes the disc in the CD player “to Dream’s Love/Hate“.

Listening to your own music while sexing your lady? I wouldn’t put it past Kanye. But in the context here, it’s less a literal suggestion than a bold move intended to state The-Dream’s claim to R&B sovereignty. The album ends with the self-determined inclusion of The-Dream’s debut album in the canon of R&B classics, the next great 12 Play. Let Beyonce have her crown or robo-gauntlet or what have you. Based on The-Dream’s ubiquitous success, I can’t think of anyone more worthy of inheriting the throne. That is, of course, whenever R. Kelly decides to step down. Someone may have to pry it out of his cold, dead, mannequin hands.

Fore & Aft: Drinking Songs

Fore & Aft is a new series dedicated to exploring the ways hit songs influence other hit songs, for better or for worse.

In my household, one of the more polarizing songs from last year was the Jamie Foxx/T-Pain collabo “Blame It On The Alcohol”, a little ditty celebrating drunkenness as an excuse to do something you might not normally do in the club when you’re hanging out with Jamie Foxx and T-Pain, namely, sex them. The first time I heard it was on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno during a commercial break from Late Night with David Letterman. I don’t even know why Jamie Foxx was on the program. He didn’t really have anything to promote and he didn’t perform. He just talked about this song they’ve been testing out in the clubs. You know, market research. At the end of the interview, the band and Jamie Foxx stumbled into an awkward, sputtering, impromptu performance that faded into a commercial. Not very compelling. It took several weeks for me to come upon the real recording. When I did, I was pleasantly surprised; my better half threatened me bodily harm if I did not stop playing it. First of all, the chord progression (1-7?) is somewhat unusual in R&B and the intro teaser is not something I think I’ve ever heard before. And the crisp production is very well-considered and arranged. But the charming goofiness of the top-shelf rhymes coupled with the catchy-as-hell “a-a-a-a-a-alcohol” hook is what makes this song. For all the auto-tuning ridiculousness T-Pain is responsible for, he made something here I can get behind.

Jamie Foxx and T-Pain – Blame It On The Alcohol

In recent weeks/months, we’ve been witnessing the rise of Trey Songz, second fiddle to occasional partner and insta-celebrity Drake. He’s shown plenty of promise with their song “Successful” which strikes a strong chord with me for its minimal, grave production and it’s earnest, yearning sentiment. It’s one of the most original R&B hits I’ve heard in a while. One the other hand, the most recent Trey Songz hit, “Say Ahh” takes from “Blame It On The Alcohol” a wee bit. From the gate, it’s copping the theme, which wasn’t exactly new to begin with. But notice how it instantly jumps to the chorus before the verse, something Foxx/Pain only previewed. The end goal is the same for both: skip straight to the hook. The most obvious borrowing in the vocals is the a-a-a-a-alliteration Trey uses as a background for the hook “Let me hear you say ahhh!”. While the title walks the thin line between medical/dental irony and sexual suggestion, there isn’t anything overtly turn-offish, as was also the case with “Blame It On The Alcohol”. And the track holds its own from a songwriting perspective, so “Say Ahh” doesn’t sound anything like the other musically, which is the fortunate break that saves this song and keeps it so listenable.

Trey Songz – Say Ahh

VERDICT: To be honest, there’s nothing explicitly “rip-off” about the track. And that’s great. That’s what this series is hopefully going to be about more often than not. There’s nothing wrong with being influenced, nothing wrong with building on developments. Between pioneers and epochs of change, we need people who can reliably stay the course and keep us entertained. And that’s as happily Trey Songz as anybody else.