Like The Ravyns once sang, I was raised on the radio. But I haven't been a regular listener for many years. By missing the radio for so long I feel like I've been missing an important piece of the present. So every month I download the Top 20 songs from the latest Billboard Hot 100, and grade them, A.V. Club style.
Unfortunately, the Hot 100 still is mostly unchanged from the last time I reviewed it in December, so I'm reviewing the Top 20 from the R&B;/Hip-Hop chart for March 1. On a related note, this is the first This Was Pop column written since the implementation of The Keys Act Of 2008. This new rule, passed by me with a unanimous vote, states that I don't have to write about a song more than twice. The rule is named after Alicia Keys, whose song "No One" has been amply covered in This Was Pop over the past several months. Rather than reach ever-deeper into the recesses of my backside for further critical analysis and/or jokey cheap shots, I'm skipping "No One" this month and other persistently-popular, covered-to-death hits to come. Cool? Too bad! Let's get to the rippity, rippity, rap!
20. Mariah Carey, "Touch My Body"
No. Grade: B-
19. Lupe Fiasco Featuring Matthew Santos, "Superstar"
Considering Lupe Fiasco still does better with music writers than music fans, I think Lupe Fiasco's The Cool would have benefited from an October or November (instead of December) release date to garner more best-of 2007 list love. I know The Cool would have made my list had I heard it two weeks sooner. So, here's some belated hype: The Cool is awesome. Buy it. Please. And don't pay attention to the funeral-paced "Superstar," one of the album's few duds, marred by an overbearing, annoying cameo by folk singer Matthew Santos and his meticulously enunciated, Joshua Tree-era Bono impression. Note to Lupe: Unleash the scintillating "Gold Watch" on the airwaves to clear this stench. Grade: C+
18. Kanye West Featuring Dwele, "Flashing Lights"
I haven't been crazy about the singles off of Graduation—after the heights of "Through The Wire" and "Gold Digger" great unfairly becomes a sworn enemy of merely good—but I really like this one. Maybe I just prefer the lonely and insecure Kanye to the insufferably megalomaniacal Kanye. Not that Kanye isn't ever at least a little megalomaniacal: In the video for "Flashing Lights" Kanye is beaten to death by a big-breasted, mostly-naked woman with a shovel while he's bound and gagged in the trunk of a car. This, of course, is hysterically inappropriate for a music video but actually pretty appropriate for the song, which is about realizing that the person you're in love with is completely wrong for you. Normally this is just sad (or possibly liberating), but for melodramatic types like Kanye it's plain deadly. I can only imagine how crazy the girl must have been to make Kanye feel sane. Grade: A
17. Alicia Keys, "No One"
Please see The Keys Act of 2008. Grade: N/A (previous grade: B+)
16. Rocko, "Umma Do Me"
Social conservatives accuse rappers of using music like a Kanye-smashing shovel to chip away at our precious American values, but Rocko is here repair the damage. "Umma Do Me" is an anthem promoting rugged, "U! S! A!"-style individualism. You wear Bally, I wear Reebok, and that's OK, because in this country we have freedom of choice when it comes to corporate allegiances, and umma do me some brazen product placements. Even Bill O'Reilly can bob his head to that. Grade: B-
15. Ray J & Yung Berg, "Sexy Can I"
Seeing someone naked—whether in person or in a sex tape that's been leaked online—creates a lifelong bond with that person, which must explain my affection for "Sexy Can I." I saw Ray J's cock penetrate celebrity ho-bag Kim Kardashian long before I heard one of his songs, and I'm pleased to report that his music is much more entertaining than his fucking. Of course, Ray J's music sounds like fucking, so maybe there's not much of a difference. Grade: B
14. Fat Joe Featuring J. Holiday, "I Won't Tell"
I love the title of Fat Joe's upcoming album—The Elephant In The Room—a lot more than its second single "I Won't Tell." It's not a bad song; I don't think I'd like "I Won't Tell" more if it included a clever, self-effacing joke referencing Fat Joe's fatness. It's just that this standard issue ballad has zippo personality, and its anonymity isn't helped by guest star J. Holiday, who's looking to become the T-Pain of '08. Grade: C
13. Jaheim, "Never"
I'm a sucker for slow and sultry '70s soul—who isn't?—so Jaheim's "Never" hits all my sweet spots. This is just a really solid, no-frills ballad in a Teddy Pendergrass vein that I could hear 100 times and probably never get sick of. (Not that I'm about to test that theory.) Grade: A-
12. Trey Songz, "Can't Help But Wait"
Trey Songz' "Can't Help But Wait" is from the Step Up 2 The Streets soundtrack. I'm not sure if this is the love theme from Step Up 2 The Streets but it should be. "Can't Help But Wait" is a one-sided love song, which is the best kind of love song because it's the one absolutely everyone can relate to. Trey's girl belongs to somebody else, and even if the guy is a jerk Trey loves the girl so much that he doesn't want to hurt her by pointing it out: "I don't want to come between you and your man, even though I know I'll treat you better than he can." If only Trey didn't bring skeezy stripper-songster Plies in on the remix; it's like doing a duet with the jerk he's singing about. Grade: B†
11. Shawty Lo, "Dey Know"
This chart needs another shawty like the modern rock chart needs another surly male with stupid facial hair. Grade: C
10. Webbie, Lil' Phat & Lil' Boosie, "Independent"
The last time Webbie and Lil' Boosie hooked up it was on Boosie's "Wipe Me Down," which included a memorable line about tossing a dick up in a bad bitch. In "Independent," the bad bitch is now a bad broad, and she'd rather go to work and pay the bills ("on schedule," no less) than act as a landing pad for Boosie's cock. Good lifestyle choice, nominally better song. Grade: B-††
9. Flo Rida Featuring T-Pain, "Low"
Sometimes I can't make heads or tails of the Billboard chart. Flo Rida's "Low" has been No. 1 on the Hot 100 chart for more than two months, but it's only at No. 9 on the R&B;/Hip-Hop chart. How does that work, exactly? "Low" might be lower on this chart, but it's risen for me since I last reviewed it in December, when I half-dismissed it (hastily, as it turns out) with a B-. I'm still not sure "Low" deserves to be such a huge hit—it just seems like another really popular booty-shaker, not a transcendent, all-encompassing anthem—but it's won me over with its guileless infectiousness. "Low" is my perfect summer cruising song for the middle of winter, exactly when upper Midwesterners like me need signs of life most of all. Grade: B+ (up from B-)
8. Snoop Dogg, "Sensual Seduction"
"If you don't know by now Doggy Dogg is a freak," says the artist formerly known as Calvin Broadus in "Sensual Seduction," the first single from the forthcoming Ego Trippin'. Snoop must have felt the need to point out the obvious because little else about this song sounds obviously Snoop. First off, Snoop does a credible job doing an auto-tune croon (though Snoop has always been a crooner, really). Then there's the backing track, which is the frothiest, most playful funk Snoop has ever fucked with. Like LL Cool J before him, Snoop Dogg is one of the few rappers to go the distance because of his smooth way with a lady-friendly single, and "Sensual Seduction" shows he not going the way of Nate Dogg anytime soon. Grade: A-
7. Chris Brown, "With You"
With some lush acoustic guitar strumming cushioning Chris Brown's fey trilling, "With You" sort of reminds me of Supertramp's 1977 No. 15 hit "Give A Little Bit". And since "Give A Little Bit" always reminds me of In Through The Out Door era Led Zeppelin, I really want to describe "With You" as Chris Brown's most Zeppelin-esque track. (I realize "Give A Little Bit" technically came out before In Through The Out Door, which tells me that along with everything else, Satan gave Jimmy Page the power to influence other bands with music he hadn't even written yet.) At any rate, I fear this description makes sense only to me, so I'll just stick with my grade from last time. Grade: C- (same as last time)
6. The-Dream, "Falsetto"
I was one of maybe six pop fans in the world that didn't like Rihanna's commercial and critical smash hit "Umbrella," written by R&B; mastermind du jour The-Dream. And I stand by that judgment: Rihanna's chilly sexbot persona doesn't do much for me, but I thought the song itself was shopworn diva stuff with laughably hackneyed lyrics. ("You can stand under my umber-rella"? I'll stick with the literate witticisms of Soulja Boy, thanks.) I also wasn't a fan of The-Dream's other big hit, the mind-numbingly repetitive "Bed," for J. Holiday. The echoes of those songs can be heard in "Falsetto," the second single from The-Dream's debut Love Hate. Only this time, he gets it right, at least as far as convincing me and the rest of the stubborn six that The-Dream might be a genius when it comes to crafting Grade-A ear candy. On "Bed" he was trying to be the Isley Brothers, and on "Falsetto" he is the Isley Brothers, right down to the smoking guitar solo and the, well, falsetto cooing. Grade: A-
5. Mario, "Crying Out For Me"
When R&B; singer Mario appears on Season 6 of Dancing With The Stars starting later this month, his dance partner will be Karina Smirnoff, who paired with Mario Lopez in Season 3, a coincidence Wikipedia calls "ironic." That's the most interesting thing I have to say about Mario, a forgettable former child star who stakes his claim as the poor man's Usher on "Crying Out For Me." He mostly succeeds thanks to a creamy chorus and some spooky, retro synths whistling in the outro. It sure don't move, though, which tells me A.C. Slater's Mario legacy is secure. Grade: B-
4. Mary J. Blige, "Just Fine"
I'm a big fan of Mary J.'s latest album Growing Pains, even if it is heavy on touchy feely self-help talk. I actually don't mind the record's Oprah-isms—no song is more self-consciously "life-affirming" than the title track, and it's probably the song that moves me the most. In contrast, "Just Fine" is just what it says it is, and nothing more. I like it, but it's only the record's second best Off The Wall-inspired track. (I know I'm playing armchair A&R; guy a lot here—did you hear me before, Lupe?—but I really hope the Pharrell-penned "Till The Morning" makes it to radio.) Grade: B
3. J. Holiday, "Suffocate"
J. Holiday gives me the creeps. On his first single "Bed" he was a little too aggressive about getting his girl on the bed, bed, bed, and now on "Suffocate" he talks about not being able to breathe when she touches him. (Physical illness is a symptom of codependence, J.) A love song should not make you pity the object of affection, but I feel obligated to sneak J. Holiday's shorty out of the house when he's not around and place her in an undisclosed location. Grade: C
2. Alicia Keys, "Like You'll Never See Me Again"
"Like You'll Never See Me Again" is very long and very slow. The tinkling piano hook just limps round in circles, endlessly, like square-dance day at the rest home. I let "Like You'll Never See Me Again" play in the background while I wrote the rest of this column. I'm still only on the second verse. Grade: C (down from B-)
1. Keyshia Cole, "I Remember"
Keyshia Cole can blow. Simon Cowell would call her old fashioned, because she his: "I Remember" sounds like barely updated Anita Baker. But Cole has the No. 1 R&B;/hip-hop song in the country, so what does Simon (or me) know? "I Remember" is the best of the three painfully slooooow jams at the top of the chart, though it's still a cookie-cutter ballad that's redeemed only by a terrific singer that deserves better. Grade: B-