When was the last time you heard a pop crossover song that made you go ‘damn!?’. Actually, when was the last time you heard a mainstream rap song crossover into pop that made you go ‘damn!?’. In my case, and for both, it’s been a while, and just to show how long it’s probably a song from Jay-Z’s ‘Black Album’, or actually thinking of it more probably one of Timbaland’s beats for JT (but that’s a standard, and it’s not so much ‘damn!?’ as just ‘f*ck me that’s a heavy beat’). I don’t particularly follow mainstream rap anymore, apart from the odd track here and there, and one person I haven’t really followed is Lil’ Wayne. But in the last week, I’ve been obsessed by the song ‘A Milli’ taken from his latest album, ‘Tha Carter III’.
It all started with a post on Pampelmoose‘s blog, which in turn linked to a post on Sasha Frere-Jones’ blog. The subject of both was Wayne’s ‘A Milli’ song, an apparent surprise pop crossover that has something going for it which most mainstream rap crossovers don’t: it sounds unlike any pop song you’ve heard ever, and it’s incredibly raw, figuratively and realistically.
As Frere-Jones points out in his post:
“A Milli” is not a crossover song sweetened for the radio with borrowed hooks or easy melodies. The beat, by the producer Bangladesh, is both heavy and barely there, built from a sub-bass kick, a thin snare, and synthetic handclaps, none of which play at the same time. The song stops and starts, and never really builds up a head of steam. There is no chorus, and no melodic information beyond a loop that shouldn’t work but does: a vocal sample from a 1990 single by a A Tribe Called Quest that never, ever stops.
After reading that part I immediatly hunted for a version of the song, which I found on youtube. His description of the beat, its sparsity and the way it never builds up to anything, unlike 99% of pop songs and rap crossovers, made me think straightaway of recent and older tracks by Kode 9 and other electronic producers which have that same element of teasing you with the prospect of a drop, but never delivering. And that anticipation, the way you get lost in the simplicity of the rhythm and melodies without having a release for it, is what makes this kind of production so appealing to me.
In the case of ‘A Milli’, it works in very similar ways. The beat is just hypnotic, it sucks you in but it never delivers anything else, even if it hints at a possibility, which it sort of does with the snare arrangement. I also love the way in which the different drum elements play separately, a really simple but neat trick. In its simplicity the beat is also reminiscent to me of classic scratch beats, from the likes of D-Styles or even Henshaw: simple loops built with hypnotic elements that suck you in and lend themselves to constant rotation over which to practice scratching. That’s another reason why the song’s success is so fascinating to me, because the production employs techniques that have been around on the ‘underground’ for a while, mainly as the preserve of various niches of hip hop or electronic music.
Again as Frere-Jones points out later in his post, the simplicity of the beat and its sparse elements are also what makes it such a great beat to rhyme to – the vocals fill the track. And while I could easily listen to the beat on repeat, it’s with the vocals that it becomes full. And the touch is that the vocals are also out of the ordinary, with no chorus and apparent coherence to them, just bars after bars recited in the manner of a freestyle. And again as pointed out in the post, the simplicity of the beat, and how it lends itself perfectly to being vocaled is the most obvious reason as to why there are now a million remixes of the track doing rounds on the internet and in radio, with everyone in hip hop seemingly laying verses over the original.
What interested me most though once I’d got my fix of the original was Frere-Jones’ mention of remixes by people who he’d referred to in his lazer bass article. Googling ‘A Milli’ remixes will throw up countless hits of various remixes, but I was after those ones particularly so I decided to try my luck by looking up for specific artist names and the internet came good.
I came up with three remixes in particular which instead of providing new vocals over the beat take Lil Wayne’s vocals and put them on a new beat. There is one by Flying Lotus, whose name has continued to spread in recent weeks further and further afield, with everyone seemingly putting in a mention of his recent Warp album and unique approach to instrumental hip hop and beats. Funnily enough, once I’d hunted it down I realised that I’d heard it a few weeks ago when I was in London. My friend 2tall played it for me but at the time I hadn’t heard the Lil Wayne original, so it didn’t strike me that much, though now with the original firmly lodged in my head it’s taken on a whole new dimension with the sped up vocal and Fly Lo’s trademark loose rhythmical interpretation.
Another one is the Megasoid remix. When I read Frere-Jones’ comment about producers from his lazer bass article having remixed the track, Megasoid was the first one I thought of. He doesn’t dissapoint, with a more upbeat remix and an interesting lead to compliment the chorus-less bars. The last remix I found is titled the Chewy Chocolate Cookies remix. I’m not quite sure who it’s by, but it keeps the orignal’s slow pace and swaps the heavy thumping sub-bass kick for a more rhythmically engaging wobbling bassline and a fair amount of edits and other little touches.
To save you having to do the same hunting I did, I’ll post the 3 remixes in question below for you to download (you can also stream them if you can’t download). All 3 of them are available on various file hosting sites, but if anyone, the artists or other involved parties, have any issue with these files being hosted by me and posted here, just drop me a line or leave a comment and I’ll remove them.
I was listening to a recent Benji B radio show last night, and he mentioned Kanye’s recent video for the song ‘Goog Morning’, and how the quality of the video, directed by famed Japanese anime director Takashi Murakami, made a difference to how the song impacted on the listener. In his case he was saying that he didn’t like the song much at first, but that since seeing the video it had really grown on him and taken on a new dimension. Thinking about my short fascination with ‘A Milli’ and its remixes, I came to the realisation that it had a similar effect on me: the song is so good, so simple and attractive in its execution, that it’s making me pay attention to Lil Wayne in a way I never did before.
Whether or not you like Lil Wayne, or even this song, it’s hard to deny the fact that ‘A Milli’ is a very unique crossover pop hit, one that we’ve never really seen before. And I sure as hell hope it’s not the last one we see either, because pop music could do with more surprise hits like this.
PS: I won’t be posting any direct links to the original album version, but it’s not that difficult to find if you’re really interested and the youtube version doesn’t quite cut it.