The formula for instant radio hit—pop song with one guest rap verse—may be at the end of its usefulness. At the very least, it’s hurting the quality of some songs, but maybe the artists just don’t care, since the brand name buzz of having X hip-hop artist on your track is worth the damage to the overall song.
I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while. It was on the Maroon 5 song “Payphone” that I first noticed it.
Maroon 5 – “Payphone” ft. Wiz Khalifa
Laugh if you want, and I’m not some huge Maroon 5 fan, but this is a solid radio single. It’s catchy, has some actual meaning to it (I appreciate the line “If ‘happy ever after’ did exist, I would still be holding you like this”), and there’s a good balance between the slower chorus and the faster verses.
But when Wiz Khalifa comes on for his turn—and I really like Wiz!—the words don’t make any sense. Sure, maybe I’m over-analyzing and no one else cares or needs the lyrics in a guest verse to have anything to do with the rest of the song, but I don’t know, it strikes me as ridiculous. In the music video (above) they at least create a role for him. But in terms of what he’s actually saying, it borders on bizarre: “Man, fuck that shit,” he begins (fuck what?), then comes in with the same old story of ‘you rejected me, now I’m hot shit, what up, don’t you regret it,’ which I suppose could sort of tenuously tie into the theme of the overall song (‘we’re over, but I miss you; if only I still had you…’) but not really. Whereas Adam Levine is delivering an elegy to a relationship he longs to have back, Wiz is just bragging to an old flame: “Switched the number to my phone so you never could call it / Don’t need my name on my shirt, you can tell that I’m ballin / Swish. What a shame, could have got picked / Had a really good game but you missed your last shot.” Okay, dude. We get it, she blew it. The kicker to his verse is the dumbest of all: “Now it’s me who they want / So you can go and take that little piece of shit with you.” I have no idea what he’s talking about, and when you hear it on the radio—which is where most people are hearing it, right?—it sounds especially silly considering that the whole verse ends on a bleep and is almost undecipherable. Was it still worth it to have Wiz on the track? Probably it was, for radio play. But occasionally stations play the song without his verse, and I think that’s the better version. (Besides, admit it, Levine is kind of cool as is—it’s a pop song, sure, but in the uncensored version of the track he sings “All those fairy tales are full of shit” and “One more fuckin’ love song, I’ll be sick”—so I’m not sure he or the band needed the apparent cred of having Wiz on the song anyway.)
Justin Bieber- “As Long As You Love Me” ft. Big Sean
Here’s another example of the same problem, though less egregious. (I didn’t say every song I’m including here is one I like; I’m happy to admit when a Bieber song is too catchy not to like, but this one doesn’t cut it for me; and with lines like “we could be starving, we could be homeless, we could be broke,” it borders on offensively dumb.)
The song has a certain rhythm until Sean (who, again, I really like, though in terms of flow, Wiz is smoother) comes in and starts doing the whole “we on top of the world” routine. More of Sean’s lyrics here make sense for the song than Wiz’s do in “Payphone” (like “I know we got issues baby, true, true, true, but I’d rather work on them with you then to go ahead and start with someone new”), but overall most of his verse is spent saying the same shit he’d say on any track with Kanye and the other G.O.O.D. Music guys.
I mean: “Now we on top of the world, ’cause that’s just how we do / Used to tell me “sky’s the limit,” now the sky’s our point of view / Man, we steppin out like whoa (oh god!) / Cameras point and shoot / Ask me what’s my best side, I stand back and point at you.” Perhaps you could make the argument that, well, he’s praising a girl, and so is Bieber in the main song, but get real, what’s really going on here is Sean talking about how he’s the shit, his girl looks good on his arm, and it has zero to do with the Bieber parts. It’s also weird and jarring when Sean has to yell, in a rush, at the very end of his verse, “AslongasyouLOVEME” before he gets cut off by the thumping bass.
Kid Cudi- “Erase Me” ft. Kanye West
This one’s a totally different example because it’s not a pop song at all, and it’s not something intended for radio play, either. (In fact, even though this is one of the best tracks on Cudi’s second album, I’ve never heard it on the radio.) But it’s the same phenomenon, in a way: get a big name in rap/hip-hop who you’d think adds instant fire to a track (and who’s bigger than Kanye?) but in this case it’s already a hip-hop track, and Kanye ruins it.
I love Kid Cudi, and I love this song without Kanye. The video, too, is fantastic, with Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad) and Clark Duke (lately an intern on The Office) playing bandmates of Cudi. The first 2:40 of the video is all fun, with McLovin drumming up gold glitter and Cudi grinning in a wig. Then Kanye shows up and ruins the video just like he ruins the song itself. First of all, his clothes don’t match the 70s theme; he’s just wearing the usual all-black with tons of gold chains. He’s got a ring on every finger and he’s wearing a fucking crown, for god’s sake. Talk about stealing the spotlight.
Naturally, his lyrics don’t match, either. Cudi’s song is about a flawed relationship, but Kanye’s just rapping about, what else, himself: “I got a show in Korea, they built a new arena / Why don’t you come and watch a nigga tear the whole scene up… A week later I’m in extra love / And everybody know she mine, so she extra plugged.” Kanye ends his verse saying, “The height of her shopping was writer’s blockin’ me / I couldn’t get my shit out anyway, I hope it’s diarrhea.” By the way: when the song first came out I remember that everyone I spoke to about it thought that particular Kanye line was hilarious and gross, but now, if you search for lyrics, Rap Genius and other sites claim the line is actually “I hope you die Aria,” referring to the girl that Kanye is supposedly rapping about (his verse starts “I’m Yeezy, she said ‘Hi, I’m Aria”). I don’t buy it; listen to the song really closely, with headphones on—sure sounds like “it’s diarrhea” to me. Even if that’s not what he’s actually saying, certainly the intention is for it to sound like that. Regardless, Kanye’s entire verse is basically meaningless, which is too bad and especially out of place in a Cudi song because Cudi’s stuff always has real meaning; that’s what most people like about him as an artist. Overall, not just in the song alone but when you check out the video, it almost feels like Cudi was forced to put ‘Ye in the video, almost like, ‘Oh, and uh, okay, look, here’s the real star, my boss…’ but the song would be perfect without the ego king dropping in.