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COMMENTARY

Reality seeped into summer sounds

The turmoil of world events seemed to color pop music's top-selling seasonal anthems.

September 04, 2006|Rashod D. Ollison | Baltimore Sun

As the kids go back to school, memories of summer linger. The ubiquitous radio hits blaring from boomboxes, pumping in clubs and downloaded onto iPods helped define those months when we were on vacation -- chilling, grilling, having a grand ol' time.

But there was a starker, sometimes darker quality to the standout songs of summer 2006. This heaviness suggests that pop music, the window to that surreal, rainbow-colored place where our troubles go poof, may be subconsciously absorbing the weight of such worldly woes as high prices at the gas pumps, a new war in the Middle East and an old war in Iraq.

Granted, there were dance hits bordering on inanity that perfectly suited the blisteringly hot days and nights, namely "Hips Don't Lie" by Shakira, "Promiscuous" by Nelly Furtado and "Temperature" by Sean Paul. All were Top 10 hits on Billboard's Top 100 for most of the summer. But even the beats on those cuts boomed harder than the hits of last summer: Mariah Carey's melodramatic "We Belong Together" and Rihanna's dancehall-pop confection "Pon De Replay."

Two smashes especially stood out in the last three months: Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" and Rick Ross' "Hustlin' " were atypical summer hits. The former bounces on a rubbery bass line backed by detached strings and harmonies. The cut rocketed to No. 2 on Billboard's Top 100 charts, staying there for nearly two months. Ross' song -- which propelled his debut, "Port of Miami," to No. 1 on Billboard's pop album charts -- rolls on a beat that "has the force of a train," said Alex Wagner, executive editor of Fader magazine. "The song is like a vortex that sucks you in."

Lyrically, both songs seem to capture sentiments of today's turbulent socioeconomic climate. In his church-honed, classic-soul vocal style, Barkley's Cee-Lo takes an unconventional look at mental distress: "I remember when I lost my mind / There was something so pleasant about that place / Even your emotions have an echo in so much space / Yeah I was out of touch / But it wasn't because I didn't know enough / I just knew too much."

" 'Crazy' had a really sad undertone to it," Wagner said. "It sounds more like a winter song. But that soul hook resonated with many people. It's a weird, sad time in the world. The sonically sad elements registered with people's heartstrings."

Although Ross' hit extols a life in the drug trade, the chorus ("Everyday I'm hustlin' ") is repeated like a mantra, strangely articulating the feelings of those working in a shaky job market.

" 'Crazy' and especially 'Hustlin' ' are like reflections of the fact that things aren't that great," said spoken-word artist Amanda Diva, host of "Breakfast at Diva's," a hip-hop show on Sirius Satellite Radio. "Some moroseness is going to come through the music -- if not lyrically, then sonically."

Some consider such "heaviness" to be progressive for pop.

"We've seen a change in what the consumer wants to hear," said Jimmy Rosemond, chief executive of Czar Entertainment, a New York-based management company. "Every element of hip-hop was in the songs of this summer. Shakira had Wyclef Jean producing; Nelly Furtado had Timbaland, one of the best hip-hop producers out there; Gnarls Barkley has Cee-Lo, who was with ['90s Southern rap group] Goodie Mob. And half of Christina Aguilera's new album was produced by DJ Premier, another one of the best hip-hop producers out there. The basic element of all those hot songs of the summer was hip-hop, and that shows how much [the genre] has grown."

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Rashod D. Ollison is pop music critic at the Baltimore Sun, a Tribune company.

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