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THE DECENCY DEBATE

Doo-wop hip-hop bops despite blips

She done him wrong. Now the airwaves are full of Eamon's anguished cries, minus the expletives.

March 28, 2004|Baz Dreisinger | Special to The Times

New York — What do you call a hit song that's oozing with expletives but more dulcet than doo-wop?

This isn't a droll riddle; it's the real-life quandary dealt to disc jockeys by an inimitably likable single that recently topped Billboard's sales chart for more than two months. The heavily edited cut by Eamon, a 20-year-old crooner from Staten Island who pairs the vocabulary of an Eminem with the vocals of a Frankie Lymon, has an edited, printable title: "I Don't Want You Back."

But the song also has an unedited, unprintable title, found on Eamon's website and on the "un-clean" version of his album, that contains a hot-button expletive.

That word -- think "f," for "forbidden" -- joins a plethora of like-minded obscenities in transforming Eamon's anti-ode to a cheating ex-girlfriend from just another "crying-over-you" ditty into a hate song that earned him attention from scores of adolescents, a record deal from Jive and a chance to raise his figurative middle finger at the FCC.

"I hate that they censor my song, but, hey -- what ... are you gonna do?" says Eamon. "It's the law, you know?"

Dominating airwaves just as broadcasting standards have become the subject du jour, "F**K It (I Don't Want You Back)" has become the right song for the right moment. Many songs contain edited-out obscenities, but Eamon's is unique in making style and subject matter a glaringly ill fit: The track's slow and sweet start -- "I liked you so much / I gave you all of my trust," Eamon croons -- yields to an equally sweet-sounding chorus brimming with more invectives than a locker room. Well-placed sighs and silences camouflage these lyrical unmentionables, but it's easy to discern that Eamon isn't wielding expletives as weapons; he seems less interested in shock value than the value of making us feel his pain.

The track quickly spawned the ultimate airplay booster: a scandalous answer song, "FU Right Back," by a singer who called herself Frankee and posed as the subject of Eamon's diatribe. Frankee's slur-for-slur response was delivered anonymously to New York's Z100 (WHTZ), which added it, post-edit, to the playlist.

"Frankee's answer is funny, but yo -- she's gotta stop saying she was my girl. I never met the chick in my life," Eamon declares.

Instead of toning down his blunt style of speech to write music, Eamon lets his verbal improprieties run free. His track is a triumph of literal-mindedness, a radical departure from the litany of classic songs that -- from rock to reggae -- cloak explicit or illicit messages in metaphor or code. The Beatles eschewed overt drug references in favor of covert ones ("Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"); Shaggy slyly suggested he was the "cheese" to his lady's "bun"; Eamon, however, replaces simile and symbol with straight-up speech.

It's all in the words

He may be a doo-wop fan, but Eamon has thus confronted the semantics-centered censorship that's de rigueur in hip-hop: Even as rappers boldly out-cuss one another, radio edits persistently remind them that some expressions for, say, "rear end" are more airwave-friendly than others. To artists and censors alike, hip-hop, above any other genre, is one in which diction is the thing.

"My friends were like, 'Yo, your girl's cheating,' and I was like, 'Whatever, no way,' " says Eamon, casually recounting the events that inspired "I Don't Want You Back." "Then her friends told me she was cheating, and I said 'OK, now it's war.' "

Eamon, then 16, wrote the track and played it for his parents. His mother balked. His father -- a small-name doo-wop singer for whom Eamon, as a boy, sang backup -- declared it a hit.

Jive Records didn't agree: It rejected the song, along with a dozen others Eamon had recorded with veteran hip-hop producer Milk Dee, who's worked with Mary J. Blige and MC Lyte. But after an influential DJ at New York's Hot 97 added "I Don't Want You Back" to his playlist last year, Jive had second thoughts.

Shortly after Valentine's Day, it released Eamon's debut album, titled -- what else? -- "I Don't Want You Back." It sold an impressive 106,000 units its first week. (Sales now total 353,000.)

Such figures are surprising, since Eamon's obscenity-laden single, the standout on an otherwise mediocre album, has all the makings of a one-hit wonder, with made-in-your-basement feel and noticeably nasal vocals that are perilously close to veering off key. Its singer, fresh-faced, has ethnically ambiguous looks that lend him an air of mystery (for the record, he's Irish and Italian).

Even the track's quirky edit job -- produced by Milk Dee, with help from Eamon himself -- has novel charm. Eamon, who favors full-on obscenity, dismisses the edited version of his song as "wack," but some might beg to differ: Like MTV's "The Osbournes," the radio-friendly "I Don't Want You Back" makes the most of its compulsory clean-up routine, transforming the sound of censorship into memorable features of an aesthetic package.

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